Monday, August 11, 2014

Peace is the Church's Business

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on August 10, 2014.  The texts were Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Romans 10:5-15; and Matthew 14:22-23

It’s a sad reality that from the comfort of our homes, on our flat screen televisions, we watch stories about men and women, children even, killed by missile strikes and machete blades.  The turmoil between Palestine and Israel, rooted in both ethnic hatred and outdated European boundary lines, has thus far produced more civilian casualties than actual combatant deaths.  A power vacuum created in Iraq by an American war and a consistently unstable government has produced a kind of religious barbarism, with ancient Christian villages and churches being destroyed.  We see these images on TV, and we scroll through them on our iPhones along with news stories about Parisian fashion shows and football coaches spending time with women half their age.  We consume these news stories together, all at once, almost as if fashion trends and football coaches are as important as the human crises playing out in the Middle East.  Setting aside the bloodshed and the slaughter, one of the great tragedies for me in this violence-saturated world is how “normal” violence and warfare have become.  Around the television and the dinner table, we sit with the evening news telling stories of desperation while we eat…while we eat with our families as if these crises are as normal and ordinary as football matches.

In these current tales of violence, and in many others, twisted human emotions often drive the aggression: fear, of the Other that is different; enmity, a division between cultures and religions that in fact have a shared history; hatred, of that which is deemed inferior, lower, worthless, blasphemous.  We see a type of this jealousy and hatred at play in this story from Genesis.  A son, Joseph, favored by the old man Jacob, receives special treatment and love.  His own dreams testify to his privileged status.  Rather unwisely, he shares these dreams of conquest with his older brothers.  I imagine that there must be a jealousy-filled backstory in place, for the reaction of the brothers is extreme: “Here comes this dreamer.  Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him.” The resentment is abundantly clear: “Here comes this dreamer.” And though they don’t actually kill him, what they do after they strip and abuse him reveals their own acceptance of brutality as the acceptable, unavoidable, and commonplace norm: “They stripped him of his robe, the long robe with sleeves that he wore; and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. Then they sat down to eat.”

Then they sat down to eat. Violence, hatred, division and enmity seem to have been an inextricable part of humanity then as today.  Perhaps they were tired from their murderous plotting, or the ensuing struggle with Joseph as they stripped him and left him for dead in a waterless pit.  Whatever the reason, after having abandoned their brother to a pit of death, they sat down to eat, as if it was business as usual.  Joseph’s story is ultimately one that focuses more on God’s providence in the midst of tragedy, but with all the tragedy unfolding in our own world, I can’t help but see parallels.  A conflict birthed in hatred and jealousy, resulting in violence, with a small detail that betrays a culture’s familiarity and acceptance of violence and barbarism.  In the face of violence, whether our own or the violence of another, it has become so easy just to “sit down and eat”, giving in to its reign of terror.  We, as an entire human family, see and know of so much barbarism, and we have become accustomed to a world where peace is seen as a fool’s errand.  A hopeless hope, an impossible possibility.

But I believe in this impossible possibility, because I have come to know God in Christ, who has burst forth from the tomb…his resurrected body itself an impossible possibility made actual, tangible, and visible.  A testimony to the way our God takes something impossible and makes it become not just possible, but real.  And because of this, of Jesus’ resurrection, I can’t help but wonder why the Church worldwide doesn’t do more to be a unifying community of peace.  Who, among Christians worldwide, will sing a song of fearless peace?

In Romans, Paul writes about the way Christ’s life, death, and resurrection have done away with the old distinction between Jew and Gentile: “The same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” This letter was written in the context of discerning how God’s grace is made real in one’s life: through the law, or through faith.  But there is another deep truth at play here…one that shapes and informs any Christian response to violent conflict and human danger: everyone, everyone, every body with flesh, blood, and bone belongs to God.  All bear a spark of divine life within themselves.  Nobody is beyond the redemptive love of Christ.  Therefore, anything in the world, regardless of American political interests or geo-political realities…anything that results in human division, death, and destruction stands opposed to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, including actions done with honorable intentions.  The Church is called to be a real and tangible witness to the way division is cast away by Christ.  We may not always embody this reality perfectly, but as soon as we give up this hope for peace and unity, we will have ceased to be the Church.

Maybe it is an insidious fear of the violence, war, and conflict we bear witness to that has so crippled our imagination that we cannot even conceive of another way…a way that doesn’t lead to piled bodies and empty bullet casings.  But fear, being overcome by fear in the face of an impossible possibility is a refusal to accept and internalize the words of Jesus to Peter: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” For Peter, there was nothing more impossible than walking on water.  Yet this was Jesus command of him: “Come”…come out to me in spite of the limitations you know and accept to be binding. “Come.” And for a brief moment, he makes possible the impossible.  But then he sees a raging storm, gives too much stock to what is a very real threat of death.  His fear, his lack of imagination, caused him to fall.  He is saved, but not with a question asked by Jesus without any apparent sense of irony: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” To us, then, the question is asked whenever we stand still or falter in being ministers of reconciliation to a broken world: “Why did you doubt?”

Why do we accept, with fear-saturated despair, that there is nothing we can do to bring peace to this world? We may not be in a position to engage in peacemaking on the ground in Iraq, Gaza, Guatemala, or even within the gun-flooded cities of our own country.  But, we can remember the dead, and even those who do the violence, and we can pray.  We can names the names of those who are dead, especially the children, learning their stories, seeing their faces, lifting up those who have died on account of their faith.  We can ask for their intercessions, for surely their red martyrdom has given them pride of place in the communion of saints.  We can pray every single day that war would cease in all the world and hearts would be healed.  We can pray with the conviction that peace is the Church’s work, and peace is possible.

Thomas Merton once said “Prayers and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and against war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it.” May we invest our prayers for an end to violence and bloodshed with such conviction. May we stand fearlessly on the promise of peace even when the ground shakes, is wavy, unstable, and dangerous.

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