“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” (NRSV)
Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear a peacemaker named Father Greg Boyle speak at the Presbytery of Santa Barbara’s Mission conference. Father Boyle, a Roman Catholic Priest of the Jesuit order, is the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, the world’s largest gang intervention and rehabilitation program. Father Greg witnessed the devastating impact of gang violence on his community during the so-called “decade of death” that began in the late 1980’s and peaked at 1000 gang related killings in 1992.
In the very center of that violence and sorrow in LA God brought a dawn of new hope in the determination and faith of a priest named Father Greg lovingly known by his “homies” as “G”. Where others saw no point in making an effort to save the lives of the young men and women dying of gang violence and drug addiction in the streets of South Central LA, for they viewed these young people as having no value, Father Greg viewed things differently. Much differently. His quote on the front of our bulletin this morning sums up his perspective: “The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives.”
Friends, that’s what the voice and vision of a peacemaker sounds like. They see the value of every human being. Peacemakers offer the view that no one, whether a gang member, a drug addict, a homeless person or a refugee fleeing violence, is a throw-away human being.
That’s because a peacemaker’s God is love. Their mission, is to embody that healing love for all.
On the Homeboy Industry website is a statement that describes Father Boyle’s “Human Approach.” The statement reads: “In the face of law enforcement tactics and criminal justice policies of suppression and mass incarceration as the means to end gang violence, [Father Boyle] and parish, [Dolores Mission] and community members adopted what was a radical approach at the time: End gang violence by treating gang members as human beings.
“[Thus] in 1988 they started what would eventually become Homeboy Industries, which employs and trains former gang members in a range of social enterprises, as well as provides critical services to thousands of men and women who walk through its doors every year seeking a better life.
“Father Greg is the author of the 2010 New York Times-bestseller Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion. In 2014, President Barack Obama’s White House named Father Boyle a Champion of Change.” And so he is. A champion. A person of action and compassion. A peacemaker. One who has the courage to be where God is—among the poor, the forgotten, the oppressed.
Friends, when Jesus sat down 2000 years ago to give his most famous address to his disciples (sitting the posture of Rabbis who are teaching) the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus made it abundantly clear that God is aware, and cares, about this world and about the lives of every single person.
When God considers the earth God sees no boundaries—only in need of God’s healing love. With his words and actions, Jesus turned upside down the cultural understanding of his day of who was blessed. For Jesus was born into a world, much like ours, where the blessed were understood to be the rich, the powerful, the comfortable, the economically shrewd, the victors in battle. A world where wealth and comfort was a sign of a person or family’s blessedness--their divine approval.
You could say that in Jesus’ day a wrong idea had taken root in the world. “The idea that there just might be lives that matter less than other lives.” To a people who had started to believe that their lives did not matter to anyone, not even to God, Jesus said on the mountain that day, to their amazement, that they were not cursed but blessed.
Father Boyle said yesterday that being blessed means in part that you are where God is—and that God is actively at work in your life and will lead you from darkness to light, from despair to hope, from sorrow to joy—whether you live in South Central LA or South Central Jerusalem. Being blessed means less about being happy or honored—but about being, as Father Boyle said in the presence of God.
Jesus said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. That’s Matthew’s version of Jesus’ words. Luke’s gospel says simply: “Blessed are the poor.” Jesus said “blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Those who mourn are in the presence of God who never leaves us alone in our sorrow.
The culture in the First Century AD said: “Blessed are the powerful who use violence and threats of violence to get their way. Jesus said: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Friends, the meek are not weak. Rather, they are courageous. They believe in change through nonviolence. The meek listen with the ears and think with the minds God gave them and they use love to achieve good for themselves and for others.
In his sermon on the mount, Jesus said the blessed are relentless in their pursuit of righteousness. That is, in finding, and in doing, the will of God. The blessed, said Jesus, are like God: merciful, forgiving, and pure in heart. The blessed, said Jesus, are Peacemakers.Their words and deeds help bring people together. Help bring people “Shalom”: the peace of God.
Now imagine the moments just after Jesus shared these beatitudes—this new vision of who the blessed of God are in the world—imagine the looks on the disciple’s faces as they sat on that mountain with Jesus. They weren’t in a big fancy church or temple—they were on a hillside. Jesus was sitting in their midst. Surely those faces expressed awe, wonder, confusion (i.e. Did he just say what I think he said?) We are blessed? Surely there were a few tears in the eyes on those faces and something else which had, for many of them, which rarely, if ever, had appeared before: hope.
To men and women who had already suffered persecution under Rome and other unjust leaders, Jew and Gentile—and, who, if they followed Jesus into the new future he invited them to embrace—would face even more persecution and suffering still—To these people, Jesus, with an as comforting tone of voice as he could said:
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Friends, it’s clear from Jesus words this is no cheap and shallow prosperity gospel Jesus has called his followers to embrace—he doesn’t offer them riches in life—but rather meaning and purpose. They heard that day a call to be part of a prophetic ministry that will help Christ transform the world with his love. Blessed are the peacemakers—yesterday, today, and forever, the ones who will be devoted to planting seeds of peace all over the earth—in South Central LA, ala Father Greg Boyle, as well as in the Middle East Africa, Asia, and indeed everywhere in between.
Before I close this morning I want to tell you about another peacemaker who is making a huge difference in this world, John Wallach. Like Father Boyle, John Wallach felt a call to help bring peace where there was no peace, hope where there was no hope, love where there was only hate. Journalist, Susannah Abbey writes: As a foreign correspondent in the Middle East for two decades, John Wallach had already witnessed numerous instances of violent conflict. But it was the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center that made Wallach give up journalism and change the course of his life. Where the [bombers] had instilled fear, Wallach decided, he would inspire its best antidote - hope.
At a dinner party in honor of Shimon Peres, Wallach made a toast to the Israeli Foreign Minister in the presence of envoys from Egypt and Palestine. During this toast, he proposed his idea for a summer camp in the United States where young people from each of the three nations would have the chance to meet one another. Said Wallach: "To be nice, they all accepted, probably not thinking I was serious.” Wallach called their bluff. The next day he held a news conference, announcing that all three - the Israeli Government, the Egyptian Government and the PLO - had agreed to his plan.
With the help of partners…Wallach planned the first Seeds of Peace camp www.seedsofpeace.org. “[Said Wallach:] "That first summer we had 46 kids: Egyptians, Israelis and Palestinians… By December 1999, 10,000 Americans had sent individual donations to [Seeds of Peace]. In 2000, Seeds of Peace, launched the "Balkans Initiative" to involve young people from Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, as well as a program for Turkish and Greek kids who were caught in the battle over the divided island of Cyprus.
The Seeds of Peace camps go on today—and 7,300 alumni of those camps work in 27 countries. How is this peace camp unique—how does it work? “[A Seeds of Peace] camp strives in every way to offer what the kids have never experienced: a neutral environment. On the first day, staff and campers stand outside the camp gates to raise the flag and sing the anthem of every member nation. Campers eat together, share cabins, attend each other's religious ceremonies and participate in the same social activities. They also attend coexistence sessions at camp where Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, and Egyptians talk about Jerusalem, sovereignty issues, terrorism, and the settlement of disputed territories.
"We teach listening skills," says Wallach. "When you actually hear what your enemy is saying, you can begin to develop understanding and empathy for them. You need to get beyond the sense that you are the exclusive victim of the other side; no one has a monopoly on suffering. “[Said Wallach] When both sides grasp that both are victims, a breakthrough becomes possible. You can actually break the cycles of violence."
In a radio interview, several years ago, two Seeds of Peace members (identified only by their first names, Avigail and Bushra) talked about the ways camp had changed their lives. Avigail, an Israeli, said that "arriving at the camp was a very intense shock...no one knew how to treat each other. We came from home with a lot of prejudices that were hard to let go of."
Bushra, who had grown up in a Palestinian refugee camp, recalled that her experience with Israelis was limited to seeing soldiers carrying guns around with them. Her initial experience was one of fear.
"[Said Bushra] At first it was frightening. My heart was beating, I was looking around, didn't know what to do...I went [to the Seeds of Peace camp] because my father encouraged me to go and meet the other side, hear what they want to say, and what they feel about us.
“It was very hard to discuss [coexistence] issues with Israelis because each side has its own historical facts...[but] I think it was important for me to hear that Israelis want to coexist with us. I couldn't have believed that my best friend [at the Seeds of Peace camp] would be an Israeli.”
Journalist, Susannah Abbey concludes: “The post-camp experience presents a new set of challenges for Seeds of Peace campers. They return to the world in which loyalties remain unchanged, opinions unchallenged.
In order to visit her new Israeli best friend from camp, Bushra found that she needed to get special permission from the government of Israel allowing her to cross the "border."
“She also found that her new alliances made her old friends and neighbors suspicious.”
Said Bushra: "It was very hard explaining to my friends what I did in camp…for the refugees it's hard for them to believe in peace with the Israelis."
“What [is important says] Wallach is how much the rest of us can learn from these kids. All of them are capable of leading the rest of us…We don't spend enough time listening to [youth] and allowing them to lead." Seeds of Peace Camper, Avigail says: “Once you go through [the Seeds of Peace camp experience] you can't let it go, because you have seen a reality that could be the reality back home. We come back from camp with so much motivation, and so much belief [in] peace."
Friends, with words as vital today, as they were 2000 years ago, Jesus said: “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”
May we, individually, and as a church, in 2020, find ways to share the seeds of peace God has put into our own hearts. Trusting always in the harvest of peace those seeds can produce in the fertile soil of the grace of God.