The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 10/12/08
Text: Matthew 5:1-12; Psalm 34:11-14
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Take yourself back in time, if you would, back to the first century. You are a Jew living in Palestine. Life has not been all that terrible for you. There are certain inconveniences associated with the fact that your country is under the rule of the Roman empire, but then most of the world is under the rule of the Roman empire, so that is not such a big deal.

Or is it? There might not be any concern about how much Rome controls, but there is about it's control of this one little spot of land called the nation of Israel. A good Jew knows that there can be no real ruler in Israel except Yahweh, so this upstart Roman emperor is an affront to the Almighty. There will come a day, a day when the hand of that upstart will be cut off, and God's people will be truly GOD'S people once again, in name as well as in fact.

Word has been circulating around your village that a very special man is nearby, special because of the wonderful works he has been doing - healing the sick, making the lame to walk, giving sight to the blind, even raising the dead, so they say. Powers like that could only come from Yahweh, so obviously, this one is very special. The neighborhood gossip would have you believe that this man might be the one who will be Israel's deliverer, the Messiah, the one who will lead the armies of the Hebrew people (such as they are) in the final battle to throw off foreign domination.

Now, the news is that this special man, this one called Jesus of Nazareth, is right nearby. He is just outside your town teaching some friends on a quiet hillside. Your neighbors have heard about it and decide they would like to get a glimpse of him, perhaps to hear a little of what he has to say. You decide to go along.

Sure enough, there he is. Quite a crowd has gathered. They are hearing some strange things, things like "to be happy, you have to be humble before God - poor in spirit." That doesn't make sense; everybody knows that you have to let God know how good you are so your little sins will be ignored. Or things like "it is possible to have true happiness as you mourn!" Anybody with any sense realizes the difficulties with that one. The stranger goes through a whole list of these things, each one a little tougher to understand than the previous.

Now he says, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God." Now wait a minute! That really does not make sense. If we are all to be peacemakers, how will we ever get rid of the Roman legions? We might not be big enough or powerful enough right now to make a frontal assault on them, but at least we can harass them a bit: steal supplies, ambush patrols, things like that. We cannot be peacemakers if we would be true to our national heritage as God's chosen people. We cannot be peacemakers on any level unless we are willing to just roll over and let anyone who will take advantage of us. This Jesus is talking through his holy hat, if he has a hat.

Peace. It is a word with which you are very familiar. You greet your neighbors with it everyday. Shalom! Peace! It is one of the most sought-after of all human conditions, supposedly. The last words of the priestly benediction say, "The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace!" (1) The Psalmist says, "I will lay me down in peace...for you, Lord, only make me dwell in safety." (2) The prophet Isaiah talked about the day when swords would be beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. (3) But peace is an elusive commodity. Jeremiah complained about those who proclaimed, "Peace, peace, when there is no peace." (4) What would Jeremiah say about "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." Ah well, perhaps this Nazarene is not the one you had been looking for after all.

Centuries pass now, and you are back in 21st century America. No longer is your nation under foreign domination. No longer is there an oppressor who must be overthrown. No longer are we looking for someone to lead us in battle. Things are totally different, but yet, the peacemakers are still looked upon as pie-in-the-sky crackpots, especially in our post-9/11 world. Sadly, our leaders responded to that monstrous crime by declaring a "War on Terror," a metaphor that has been used in other contexts when we have faced difficult scenarios - the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, come to mind. It might be good to notice, though, that every time we declare war on a noun, we lose. We could choose our terms with better hope for success.

There are a number of ways to approach these words of Jesus about peacemaking. We are made to be at peace with God because our eternal destiny demands it. We need to have peace within ourselves if we are to deal with "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune." We need to have peace within our families if we are to live lives that are truly fulfilled. We need to make peace with neighbors and co-workers because our society demands it. All of those should be dealt with in depth if we are to get a true picture of this concept we call peacemaking, but time would fail us in the process, so we must limit our investigation to one that is of continuing concern in our nation as our young men and women are in Iraq and Afghanistan with no end in sight to those conflicts, plus the continuing issue of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the real concern that they could fall into the hands of terrorists. How do we approach such things as Christians?

Perhaps we might listen to some of our military leaders. Here is the late Gen. Omar Bradley, in an Armistice Day speech in 1948: "We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living." (5) An unusual statement, perhaps, from one who made a very successful career in the military. But then, perhaps too, only one who has seen things through military eyes could legitimately say something like that without the pie-in-the-sky label being attached to him.

Listen to the words of President Eisenhower, another brilliant military mind before going into politics. "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed...This is not a way of life in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron." (6) President Eisenhower.

That brings us to a further word, this one from another military man, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He said, "The great question is whether global war can be outlawed from the world. If so it would mark the greatest advance in civilization since the Sermon on the Mount. It would not only remove fear and bring security. It would not only create new moral and spiritual values. But it would also produce an economic wave of prosperity that would raise the world's standard of living beyond anything any of us ever dreamed of." General MacArthur.

"Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God." A fascinating book has been on the best-seller lists in recent months: Three cups of tea: one man's mission to fight terrorism and build nations--one school at a time. (7) Perhaps you have read it.

Greg Mortenson grew up in Tanganyika, now Tanzania, the son of Lutheran missionaries. When Greg was just 11, he and his father hiked to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest mountain, and though he battled altitude sickness on his way to the top, that first expedition gave him a hankering for more mountain climbing. As an adult living back in the United States, in 1993 he joined an expedition to a Himalayan mountain known as K2. It is the second-highest mountain in the world after Mt. Everest and has a reputation for being even more difficult and dangerous to climb. Greg never made it to the top. In fact, coming back down, he got separated from his porter, became lost and ended up in a small, isolated mountain village in northern Pakistan called Korphe. The people there took him in and showed him typical central Asian hospitality, part of which involves drinking tea together. As the village chief explained to him, "Here, we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything - even die."

As he spent time in Korphe, Mortenson discovered that the children there had only a part-time teacher whom they had to share with a neighboring village. For that matter, they had no school building either, so the 84 youngsters met out in the open for classes and scratched out their lessons with sticks, writing in the dirt. He promised to come back again and build them a school. And he kept his promise.

Once the school in Korphe was built, word spread to other villages whose people asked Greg if he would do the same thing for them. How could he say no? Eventually he formed a not-for-profit organization, the Central Asia Institute, to oversee the work. Word continued to spread, and villages in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan implored him to do the same for them. At significant risk to his own safety, he took on that challenge as well. His big breakthrough came in April 2003, at the outset of the Iraq war, when a cover story about his work appeared in Parade magazine. After this national exposure, money, which had always been in short supply, started pouring in.

Of course, underlying this remarkable story is the question of how best to deal with the challenge of Islamic-inspired terrorism. Mortenson does not have his head in the sand. All around where he is building his own schools, madrassas (schools that teach a militant form of Islam) are being built with Saudi Arabian money.

Speaking to members of Congress, Mortenson said that he is building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan not in order to fight terrorism but because he cares about kids. "But working over there, I've learned a few things," he said. "I've learned that terror doesn't happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren't being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death." And when he had a chance to speak to military planners at the Pentagon, he pointed out that the cost of one missile being used in Afghanistan could build dozens of schools that would provide a non-extremist education to tens of thousands of students over a generation. Which do you suppose is making us more secure, he asked, the missiles or the schools?

Mortenson's web site (8) reports that Central Asia Institute has successfully established over 60 schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan so far, which will provide an education to over 24,000 students this year. Good job, Greg.

"Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God." Just like all the rest of the Beatitudes, these WILL-BE- attitudes for God's people, it is an upside-down, inside-out, counter-intuitive state of mind. We are generally much less comfortable in spoiling a fight than in spoiling FOR a fight. But that is what Jesus says living in the Kingdom of God is all about.

Jump back through history to the first century again. You are on that hillside, listening to this traveling preacher. You have no idea that years down the road your descendants would have developed the capacity to destroy all life on earth with the push of a few buttons. You think that this idea of being a peacemaker leaves a lot to be desired, but then you hear that peacemakers will be called "sons of God." That phrase means something special. It has nothing to do with family relationships, nothing to do with any advanced state of spirituality; it simply means that you are doing "God-like" work. Since Aramaic, the language in which Jesus is speaking, does not have many adjectives, he is using the accepted means of descriptive expression. Had he wanted to call someone a "peaceful man," he would have called him a "son of peace." You understand that. But what a pity that your children who stand over the nuclear buttons seem to miss it entirely. For them, God-like work seems to stop at the nation's border. What a shame.

Perhaps, if you could, you who live in the 1st century might pray for your children who are to come along in 2000 years, that they might have the wisdom necessary to avoid global disaster. But then, we are just pretending anyway, aren't we? The prayer should really be for ourselves and the children who have already come, a prayer that we who have had our lives changed by the cross of the 1st century might have the strength and determination to do the God-like work so utterly crucial in this button-dominated 21st century.

The prayer of St. Francis comes to mind:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not seek so much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God."


1. Numbers 6:26

2. Psalm 4:8

3. Isaiah 2:4

4. Jeremiah 6:14

5. The collected writings of General Omar N. Bradley, (Washington, 1967)

6. Address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower "The Chance for Peace" delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Washington, DC, April 16,1953

7. Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, (New York : Viking, 2006)


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