a sermon on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 for World Communion Sunday
preached on October 7, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Back when I was in college, I was attending a conference when a minister I knew pulled me aside. We had met in person earlier in the week, but we also knew each other from online conversations. I had been working on the website for the conference, and she was wondering if I might help with the website for another conference that she was helping to organize. Rather than just signing me up to work, she invited me to be on the conference planning team, working with a bunch of far more experienced people to plan an event in an area where I had little or no experience. Still, she felt like the conference would benefit from my presence and work by taking a different approach to promotion. We would have a vibrant website well in advance of the conference that would not only tell people about how to register and attend but would also be updated in real time during the event so that people could follow along rather than just waiting until it was all over to read an article about it. So that’s how I came to be a part of the planning teams for the 2000 and 2001 Presbyterian Peacemaking Conferences and had my first exposure to the work of peacemaking in the church.
Those experiences were formative for me. Through the planning process and the event, I met several of the people I now consider mentors and friends in ministry, including two colleagues who later became moderator and vice-moderator of the General Assembly, several of my colleagues here in New York City Presbytery, including Krystin Granberg, our guest preacher last week, and several others who are nothing short of legendary in many circles in the Presbyterian church. The people were great, but we had some fun times together as well, beginning with a memorable afternoon in a 15-passenger van circling the LAX airport to pick up members of the planning team and continuing through three years of work together to pull off two years of Peacemaking conferences.
But the most memorable and most important part of that formative time for me was learning more about what it means to be a peacemaker in the church. As I, a college student from a pretty conservative background in Mississippi, sat with these women and men who had marched for civil rights and campaigned against the Vietnam War, among other things, I learned so much about our call to be peacemakers. Every year on World Communion Sunday, the first Sunday in October, I think about these experiences, for this is the day when we collect the Peacemaking Offering to continue this work that I was a part of and the time when we celebrate and reaffirm our call to be peacemakers in the world.
The most difficult lesson of those days for me was one that I hear repeated in our reading from Proverbs this morning: there can be no peace without justice. These words from Proverbs talk about the responsibility of those who have—the “rich”—toward those who do not have—the “poor,” and ultimately that responsibility shows us that justice is required for there to be peace in our world. The first saying here calls us to take a first step in this direction:
A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.
Money and power and wealth don’t matter as much as doing what is right, whether you are rich or poor, because in the end, God makes everyone and everything and will call everyone to account for their use of what has been given to them. But the second saying here makes the link between justice and peace very clear:
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.
Where there is injustice, there will be strife and pain and sorrow, and justice is required to set things right and make the way clear for peace. The proverb continues by reminding us what is required of us to make justice real:
Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.
The way of peace does not come from others taking care of those in need, but instead it requires that we reach out to those who have been left behind by the ways of the world, whether they live around the corner or around the world. The third saying, then, pulls all this together into the great challenge for us:
Do not rob the poor because they are poor or crush the afflicted at the gate;
for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils the life of those who despoil them.
We are certainly not to take advantage of anyone, but here God goes beyond this to challenge us to join in God’s preferential treatment of those who are in greatest need, for God does not help those who help themselves but rather shows favor to those who have no way out other than God.
So on this Sunday when we remember our call to be peacemakers and gather around this table to remember how we share this feast with Christians all around the world, these warnings seem to be a good reminder to us that the way of peace requires us to work and act for justice in the world. This table of celebration is an empty promise for our sisters and brothers who long for something more if we are not working and acting and speaking up on their behalf, standing up for their humanity and insisting that all people are not only welcome at the table but should enjoy the fullness of life that is ours. Our prayers for peace in the world are empty if they are not accompanied by real and concrete action, not by putting the preferences of one nation or people above another, but by calling for justice to prevail for all so that peace can flourish. And even our action for justice is incomplete if our attempts to ease the immediate pain of our sisters and brothers in need are not accompanied by faithful challenges to the systems that allow injustice to prevail.
In 1984 and 1985, a terrible famine in Ethiopia brought a worldwide response, highlighted most by the prominent song “We Are the World” that brought together a number of famous artists to sing one song. While there was a tremendous outpouring of food aid and immediate support, those same areas in Africa have been faced with similar crises several times since because all we really offered in that moment was a band-aid rather than actually addressing the problematic systems that perpetuate violence, hunger, and injustice. A real and true response to injustice does not just fill in the temporary gap but steps up to demand change in the system so that justice might be made real and peace might take hold.
So on this day when we remember our connection to our sisters and brothers in faith around the world and offer extra gifts to support the work of peacemaking in our world and in our own backyard, may we remember God’s call to be peacemakers, not just papering over conflict or pretending that it doesn’t exist but confronting it honestly and recognizing what really separates us from God and one another, not just offering a tiny band-aid to cover up the gaping wounds of our world but working to join in God’s work of pouring out justice like mighty waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, and not just trying to bring about peace for ourselves and in ourselves but stepping up to seek and offer peace to our community, our city, our nation, and our world so that all might be made whole and complete.
So may God strengthen us for this work of peace and justice each and every day until God’s new way of peace, justice, love, and freedom is real for every human being and for all creation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.