Sermon: Praying for Peace

We will not be hearing Galatians 5 this morning. Instead, we will be in Psalm 55. The schedule that Pastor Olga and I put together with the creative team is written in pencil for a reason. We will hold off on Galatians 5 until next week, because Pastor Olga and I believe that we as a church must face what has happened this last week in this country. We must pray. We must act. But how? How do we pray amidst the chaos, death, and horror we saw every morning when we turned on the television screen? What words can we use? We believe that when our words fail, we are invited into God’s word — to pray it back to him — into the psalms. As we struggle to find a voice, to pray in the wake of this violence, please join me in hearing Psalm 55 as our prayer. Psalm 55, but before we hear it this morning, please pray with me.

Father, dig out our ears that we might hear your Word, soften our hearts that we might love you more deeply, strengthen our hands that we might serve our neighbor more diligently. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Hear the Word of the Lord from Psalm 55:

For the director of music. With stringed instruments. A maskil of David.

Listen to my prayer, O God,

do not ignore my plea;

hear me and answer me.

My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught

because of what my enemy is saying,

because of the threats of the wicked;

for they bring down suffering on me

and assail me in their anger.

My heart is in anguish within me;

the terrors of death have fallen on me.

Fear and trembling have beset me;

horror has overwhelmed me.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!

I would fly away and be at rest.

I would flee far away

and stay in the desert;

I would hurry to my place of shelter,

far from the tempest and storm.”

Lord, confuse the wicked, confound their words,

for I see violence and strife in the city.

Day and night they prowl about on its walls;

malice and abuse are within it.

Destructive forces are at work in the city;

threats and lies never leave its streets.

If an enemy were insulting me,

I could endure it;

if a foe were rising against me,

I could hide.

But it is you, a man like myself,

my companion, my close friend,

with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship

at the house of God,

as we walked about

among the worshippers.

Let death take my enemies by surprise;

let them go down alive to the realm of the dead,

for evil finds lodging among them.

As for me, I call to God,

and the Lord saves me.

Evening, morning and noon

I cry out in distress,

and he hears my voice.

He rescues me unharmed

from the battle waged against me,

even though many oppose me.

God, who is enthroned from of old,

who does not change –

he will hear them and humble them,

because they have no fear of God.

My companion attacks his friends;

he violates his covenant.

His talk is smooth as butter,

yet war is in his heart;

his words are more soothing than oil,

yet they are drawn swords.

Cast your cares on the Lord

and he will sustain you;

he will never let

the righteous be shaken.

But you, God, will bring down the wicked

into the pit of decay;

the bloodthirsty and deceitful

will not live out half their days.

But as for me, I trust in you.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

We awoke to a different world on Friday than we did on Monday. On Monday, we turned on the grill and set off fireworks. On Monday, we went to parades and stood for the Star Spangled Banner. On Monday, we remembered that this nation was founded on freedom and justice for all.

We awoke to a different world on Friday than we did on Monday. We awoke to a world where Alton Sterling was dead. We awoke to a world where a man could be tazed, tackled to the ground, and then shot by police on camera and the officers claim they were justified in using lethal force. We awoke to a world where Philando Castile was dead, shot to death at a traffic stop, bleeding in his car as it is all caught on camera. We awoke to a world where over 500 people had been fatally shot by police this year so far – white, black, hispanic, asian, innocent, guilty – over 500. We awoke to a world where the video of a man’s death and the strangled cries of a 15 year old boy who just wants his father back were being exploited by media outlets for hours on end in order to gain ratings.

We awoke to a different world on Friday than we did on Monday. We awoke to a world where a sniper had turned a peaceful protest into a targeted killing of police officers. We awoke to a world where Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarippa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens were dead. We awoke to a world where wicked men hijacked a movement of justified frustration with police brutality and used it to carry out a vendetta against any and everyone who wears the uniform.

We awoke to a world where two more men were dead because of the color of their skin and five men were dead simply because of the uniform they wore.

If there was a day where we could pretend that the racial violence, the police violence, the retaliatory violence was not a problem in this country, we can do so no longer. We awoke to a world on Friday that we had been living in long before Monday, but now we can no longer ignore. Night clubs are being shot up, markets are being blown up, boys are being killed for wearing white hoodies and men for wearing blue uniforms.

So how do we pray? How do we pray and be truly pro-life, which means pro-black, pro-cop, and anti-killing all at the same time? This has been the struggle in our household all week, as we have ached and tried to pray. I believe Psalm 55 provides us a way to pray today.

WE PRAY OUR ANGUISH

The psalm opens with the invitation to pray our anguish:

Listen to my prayer, O God,

do not ignore my plea;

hear me and answer me.

My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught

because of what my enemy is saying,

because of the threats of the wicked;

for they bring down suffering on me

and assail me in their anger.

My heart is in anguish within me;

the terrors of death have fallen on me.

Fear and trembling have beset me;

horror has overwhelmed me.

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!

I would fly away and be at rest.

I would flee far away

and stay in the desert;

I would hurry to my place of shelter,

far from the tempest and storm.”

On weeks like this, we grieve. We grieve for the men who won’t return home to their families. We are deeply troubled by the violence and wickedness we see, and rightly so. We are invited to bring our anguished hearts, to bring our troubled minds, to bring our fear and trembling before the Lord, just as Jesus did. For when Jesus faced death in the Garden he brought even his troubled heart to the Lord. We who pray along with Jesus and find Jesus praying along with us, are called also to bring all the pain, all the worry, all our feelings of powerlessness and horror to the Lord. And in Psalm 55, we are invited to bring even our desires to run away to the Lord: I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest.” Who of us has not seen this and wished we could go somewhere where there is peace and not violence.

Whether we are praying for the victims, their families, or even for ourselves, we can bring our confusion, frustration, and even anger to God in prayer. He can handle it. In fact, since Psalm 55 is the Word of God, we are being told that before the throne of God is the proper place to put all these jumbled emotions and pain.

We are invited to pray our anguish before the Lord.

WE PRAY OUR AMBIGUITY

But we are also invited to pray our ambiguity before God. I confess that praying this ambiguity is the hardest part of praying this psalm for me right now and the most difficult for me to talk about with you. The Psalms, including Psalm 55, frequently pray for the destruction, the debilitation, the downfall of our enemies. Frequently when we pray the psalms, we pray that God would “break the teeth of the wicked”

Lord, confuse the wicked, confound their words,

for I see violence and strife in the city.

Let death take my enemies by surprise;

let them go down alive to the realm of the dead,

for evil finds lodging among them.

But you, God, will bring down the wicked

into the pit of decay;

the bloodthirsty and deceitful

will not live out half their days.

Part of praying the psalms, praying as a Christian, is praying that God would set things right, that wickedness would not continue, and that those who practice violence and evil would not be given free reign over the lives of others. There is something absolutely right about praying these words from the psalms, because they are prayers of justice, prayers that God would do what is right for the weak and vulnerable, prayers that there would be freedom and justice for all, not just the few — that those who protect justice and those who seek it would both live and live justly.

But who are the wicked, though? Who are we praying to be confused and confounded? Who are we praying that God would bring down? Is it the police force, because a few cops decided to shoot first and ask questions later, because some of those who wear the uniform perpetuate a system that uses excessive force against minorities? However, the vast majority of those in the police service do their jobs with dignity and respect. The vast majority take the oath ‘to serve and protect’ seriously and do so admirably.

Is it the poor of the inner cities who are the enemies? Is it the Black Lives Matter movement, because a few men decided that because a few cops have done wrong that all deserve to die? Is it those who speak out against police profiling and excessive force who stand under the condemnation in this passage, because they dare to name the reality that in a country that says that every life is equal and every life should matter, that somehow our world is such that some lives are considered cheaper than others?

Or is it us, who flip on the news, feel bad for a little while, and then go back outside to weed the garden, thinking all that has happened is just sad, but unavoidable. Or is it us, who by our actions (or rather, inaction) believe that the current state of affairs in this country, where those who wear blue by choice and those who are black by no choice are being gunned down in the street is somehow an acceptable or unavoidable reality?

We pray our ambiguity before God because for all the ways that the wickedness of others is clear, it is also unclear. We want to find a category of people to blame, to demonize, to rail against in our Facebook memes and video sharing, but the reality is more complicated. There are police officers on both sides of this psalm, there are civilians on both sides of this psalm, and we ourselves are on both sides of this psalm.

And then Jesus comes and makes it even more complicated. He tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? How can we pray this? How can we pray for our enemies when people lie dead in the street? How can we pray for our enemies when the violence keeps getting greater in the world, not less?

We pray in the midst of ambiguities. We pray for our enemies and against their actions. We pray that God would break the strength of their hands that allows them to do violence and break their hearts that lead them there. We pray knowing that no matter who our society decides to blame, men are dead and nothing can undo that. What we struggle against is not flesh and blood, but principalities and powers of this dark world, as Paul says. We pray knowing that these problems that plague this country are not easily solved, but that is worth our sweat and tears to seek the things that make for peace.

We should be grieved and outraged at what has happened in Dallas and what has happened in Baton Rouge and Minnesota. We should be equally outraged, equally torn up that people are dead, there is violence in our cities, and instead of getting better it is only getting worse. We should proudly be able to say that we are pro-black, pro-cop, and anti-killing without people thinking it is some kind of contradiction.

WE PRAY “ENOUGH”

This leads us to the next way Psalm 55 invites us to pray. We are invited to pray “Enough.”

“Enough”

No more. No more injustice. No more killing. No more dead cops. No more police shootings. We pray Psalm 55 because it speaks the truth:

for I see violence and strife in the city.

Day and night they prowl about on its walls;

malice and abuse are within it.

Destructive forces are at work in the city;

threats and lies never leave its streets.

Enough! Enough! No more violence! no more blood spilled on the streets! No more men bleeding out on scene, no more people rushed to ER with gun shot wounds! No more to all of it.

To pray the psalms is to pray “Enough!” over all the wickedness and injustice in this world, in our neighbor, in our enemy, and within us. It is to pray that the status quo is no longer acceptable, that we cannot continue with things going in this direction.

I don’t want to wake up tomorrow and find more violence on the screen. I don’t want my son to grow up fearful. I don’t want to look back and wonder what I was doing while others died.

So I pray. I pray Psalm 55. I pray all my confusion, all my feelings of powerlessness, and even all my guilt to God. I pray against those who use violence so quickly, so viciously, and so finally. I pray for myself, that I would know how to be part of the solution, part of charting a better and more peaceful way for this country and our world. I pray that my own prayers would be launching point for action.

And I find that when I pray like this, I find my heart turned toward Jesus. Toward Jesus, who tore down the dividing walls of hostility through his death and resurrection. Toward Jesus, who vanquished sin and Satan and by death destroyed our foes. Toward Jesus, who gave us this table of peace.

We awoke to a different world on Friday than we did on Monday. A world where violence is so much closer to the surface. A world where we struggle to know how to pray and are invited in the psalms to pray our grief, our ambiguity, and our desire for the end of violence against the innocent.

But Sunday is Resurrection day. Today, we remember that through Jesus Christ a new world is dawning. A world of peace, reconciliation, joy, honor, and dignity. Today, we come to the table to awake to a new world — a new reality — that in Jesus Christ all things are being made new, that in Jesus Christ there is peace, that through Jesus Christ God made peace where there was no peace. Today, we awake to a new world which proclaims that the violence and hatred and anger will not have the last word.

So come to this table. Come to the table of peace and leave as peacemakers. Come to receive the gifts of God for the people of God and leave eager to share those gifts with a lost and broken world so loved by God.

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