Paths to Peace November 11, 2018
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
Romans 12: 9-21 Pastor Susan
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In May of 1938, an Act of Congress declared November 11th as a national holiday, known as “Armistice Day” commemorating the end of WWI. It called on churches and other institutions to ring their bells 11 times, and for this to be a day dedicated to the cause of world peace. Today is the 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day. We can’t get the bell in the bell tower to ring, but we will stop and ring a bell at 11:00 this morning.
The most memorable story I’ve read about WWI is actually a Christmas story, but it speaks to me of the scriptures we’ve read this morning. It happened on Christmas eve in 1914, on the front lines, in the early months of WWI. No one knows for certain where or how it began, but on a bitterly cold night, in the middle of what must have seemed like hell on earth, men on both sides of the lines, who only a short time before had been killing each other, laid down their arms and joined in a spontaneous celebration.
Germans love their candle lit Christmas trees. To light a candle at night while on the front lines was one of the most dangerous things you could do. It was an invitation to be shot at. But out of the darkness, the British soldiers started noticing lights on the other side of ‘no man’s land.” At first they didn’t know what it was. But soon one light turned into hundreds and they recognized the Christmas trees up and down the trenches.
Toward midnight, firing ceased. Soldiers from both sides started shouting Christmas greetings to each other. They came from both sides meeting halfway between their positions. One remembered that “Never was I as keenly aware of the insanity of war.”
Despite orders to continue shooting, the unofficial truce spread across the front lines. Even the participants found what they were doing was incredible. Another soldier remembered that everywhere Christmas rituals - “especially song, eased the anxiety and fear of the initial contact with the other side. From all directions came the sound of rough men’s voices singing our exquisite old Christmas songs.”
They climbed from the trenches to meet in ‘no man’s land’ where they buried the dead, shared food parcels from home and exchanged gifts. They ate and drank together, and even played soccer. A French soldier wrote to his mother that after they first met the enemy, they chorused, each in his own language, “A bas la guerre!” Down with the war! No more war! That’s what God wants.”
That’s what Isaiah wanted when he described the wolf laying down with the lamb, and the calf and the bear grazing together. It’s what Paul instructed the early Christians to do in his letter to the Romans: “Do not repay evil for evil. Live peaceably with all. If your enemies are hungry, feed them, if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
That is what happened that sacred night as both sides awaited the birth of one who came to bring peace to the world, not by the sword, but through non-violence - peace achieved through justice and love.
I can’t help but think that those men hated going back to the trenches the next morning. They weren’t born into this world to kill one another. We must ask ourselves: Do guns and bombs ever bring about peace? - or just a lull before violence breaks out again? I fear the latter. We’ve had so, so many wars since November 11, 1918.
Sitting down to write this sermon I had to face how conflicted I am when it comes to the reality of war. I would like to be able to declare that I am a pacifist - that’s what I believe Jesus was calling us to be, but I’m not. I do believe there are ‘just wars’. WWII may have been one - although, looking back at history, maybe if we had treated Germany with a little more compassion after WWI, WWII would not have happened. No one will ever know for sure.
But I’m not foolish or blind enough to deny the existence of evil in this world. There are times when innocent lives must be defended - when genocide and terrorists must be stopped. Unfortunately, many wars are fought for the wrong reasons, and should never have started in the first place, while other times the world sits back in silence while helpless populations are left with no resources to defend themselves.
I wish there were no need for armies or weapons. In a perfect world that would be the case, but in our world that’s unrealistic. There are times when taking up arms is necessary.
But can I imagine myself fighting in a war - even a just one? No. Then what right do I have to ask others to do the fighting for me? Would I be willing to put myself in harm’s way, or in jail, while peacefully protesting injustice, as Martin Luther King Jr. and those who marched with him did? Yes, I believe so. These are difficult questions, but ones we need to ask ourselves. What are we willing to do to stand up for justice and create the Kin-dom of God, a world of peaceful co-existence described by the writer of Isaiah - a world Jesus spoke of and tried to usher in. How far are we willing to go? What path will we take to peace?
Jesus tells us in Matthew, there is another way to deal with our enemies: “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5: 44-45) This message is reiterated by Paul in his letter to the Romans I read this morning.
This does not come naturally. It is difficult to do. We all have a dark side, whether we want to admit it or not. We’ve all felt anger, revenge towards someone who has wronged us, or even towards a group of people. When I heard our president’s tweet about the fires in California yesterday (that they were caused by poor forest management, then threatening to withhold future Fed payments if it’s not remedied) I was so angry, if he had been standing nearby, I might have done something to get me arrested.
Jesus requires us to recognize and root out any violence in our own souls. Ghandi insisted “My first fight is with the demons inside of me, my second fight is with the demons in my people, and only my third fight is with the British.” We must start with ourselves. We cannot have political peace without first finding our spiritual peace.
Mark Nepo eloquently speaks of that place of inner peace that resides within each of us:
Each person is born with an unencumbered spot - free of expectation and regret, free of ambition and embarrassment, free of fear and worry - an umbilical spot of grace where we were first touched by God.
To know this spot of Inwardness is to know who we are, not by where we work or what we wear or how we like to be addressed, but by feeling our place in relation to the Infinite and by inhabiting it.
This is easier said than done for most of us. As we age, we seem to grow farther away from that spot of Inwardness - caught up in the frantic pace of our lives: responsibilities, traumas, pain, conflicts, distractions, entertainment, societal expectations. It’s as though we’ve covered ourselves with layers of otherness, which have to be peeled away to rediscover the core of our being once more, that pure innocence untouched by the world that we were born with - that connection to God. Peace is within all of us. It’s always there, even in the most traumatic moments of our lives. We can access it at any time.
Once we do, we must recognize that our enemies too are children of God - that they have a part of God within them that allows for their transformation.
How easy it is for us to forget that the enemy too believes he or she is right; that they too may fear us because we represent a threat to their values or lifestyle. How difficult it is to recognize the good, and so often, the pain and fear within them. Those soldiers, if only for a Christmas Eve, recognized each other as children of God, and for a moment they found peace in the midst of war.
We have soldiers stationed around the world today, trying to bring peace to other lands. But here at home, in this angry, divided country, we need desperately to find peace, tolerance and compassion in our own hearts. We are at war with each other. We hear it in hate filled language, bullying, intolerance of opposing views, fear of those who are different than us. And those voices increasingly lead to violence, as we see in the rise of mass shootings, 307 of them this year so far, 307 with 4 or more victims.
The world needs brave souls willing to put their lives on the line in the face of evil. The world needs brave souls willing to stand and march peacefully in the name of justice and peace. They are not mutually exclusive. There are many paths to peace.
So on this 100th Anniversary of Armistice Day, we pray for those who have served our country honorably, for the injured and fallen, for those whose lives are in danger each day, for those innocents who suffer the ravages of war, for our real and perceived enemies, and for our leaders, that they might find wisdom, for it is only in praying for all of them that we can truly pray for peace.