Wednesday, November 22, 2006


A Sermon: "The Things That Make for Peace"

Israel Palestinian Trip Group Reflection

“The Things that Make for Peace”

“If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!”
—Luke 19:42

A Sermon by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Vamos
Psalm 122
Luke 19:37-44
The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville
November 19, 2006

This sermon is number four in a five part series entitled “The Gospel and Real Life”, and is addressed to the topic, “The Gospel and peace in the Middle East.” The sermon speaks to the experience of 15 Presbyterians, 13 from this Presbytery and 2 from the Phoenix area, who traveled to Israel and the Palestinian Territories for two weeks, from October 29 – November 12. Five persons from The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville were part of the delegation: Barb Hallows, Jan Everett, Linda Sung, Rev. William McQuoid, and this Pastor. This sermon is really just an introduction toward telling the story of that journey.

The story began on the side of a mountain—the mountain they called The Mount of Olives. It began on a Sunday we now call Palm Sunday, with Jesus of Nazareth, the peasant prophet, riding on a donkey down the Mount of Olives toward the Kidron Valley, the city of Jerusalem above in the distance, throbbing with pilgrims going to festival; he looked up and saw it there, Jerusalem, gleaming on the mountain ahead of them. It began on that mountain.
Our story, the story of 15 Presbyterians foggy with jet lag, began on that same mountain. The hotel where we stayed for the first several days of our journey was located on that same Mount of Olives. And on our first day in Jerusalem, we walked that same path that Jesus walked, or one very close to it, as he walked with his Disciples that Sunday, riding into Jerusalem as the crowds cheered, and the hopeful raised their strain. And we too paused, like Jesus paused that day, as he stopped for a moment, looking out at the city of Jerusalem, and wept. And these are the words he said: “If you only knew the things that makes for Peace!” Earlier in Luke (in chapter 13) as he thinks about this moment, as he thinks about the moment he will enter Jerusalem, he says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those sent to you. How often would I have gathered your children like a mother hen gathers her chicks, but you would not.” He goes to Jerusalem, knowing that he too will be killed, like all the prophets before him who spoke the truth to people who were using religion to oppress one another; using religion to kill one another with a holy zeal.
We too would come to weep over Jerusalem, as we began to see how her children, the Children of Abraham—Jews, Christians and Muslims—are killing each other. One member of our group literally wept in seeing the violence we encountered there. “I had no idea it was so bad,” that person said.
I know why Jesus wept over Jerusalem.
But how can we tell you this story, our story? Our group heard and saw things that are difficult to see and hear—as we felt first-hand the deep suffering of the Palestinian people, we saw with our own eyes things that we never see or hear on our news media. How can we tell how we felt the very real fear of our Jewish brothers and sisters who are so afraid for their own security, since they spend each day with the threat of suicide bombers and Qassam rockets hitting them; each day with the sense that all the nations at their borders are enemies?
How can we tell you the story of our journey?
We come back not as experts in the politics of the Middle East, but as humble pilgrims having heard and seen what is happening in Jerusalem—what is happening in the place we call “The Holy Land”. How can we tell you this story, and wade out into a minefield littered with the volatile pain that exploded in the middle of the 20th century through the murder of over 6 million Jews in the holocaust? How can we account for the nuclear shock of that pain, and the fallout of fear it has created in our Jewish brothers and sisters? How can we account for the grapes of wrath that are filling among our Palestinian brothers and sisters and how we saw with our own eyes how terribly they are suffering under occupation by their own brothers and sisters in the Covenant—how the Jewish people are inflicting on them some of the same wounds as they themselves suffered some half a century ago in Germany, in Poland, in Eastern Europe? How can we tell you of both anti-Semitism, and anti-Arab racism? How can we tell you that story, of a journey that certainly changed my life, and I suspect the lives of those with us?
How can we tell the story when we can so easily offend people who have such different perspectives on this—who have lived with it so much longer than we have? How can we be both humble and truthful? I know that I have already offended some in telling this story. And yet, we come back full of the responsibility to tell it—to tell the story that’s not being told; to say to you, we must do something, and we can do something. We must do something because lack of peace in Jerusalem means we cannot have peace in the Middle East—and without peace in Jerusalem, we cannot have peace here. If we were to somehow solve this conflict, we would all be more secure—Jews, Arabs, Americans.
How can we tell you this story?
Well, to tell our story, I encourage you to become familiar with the main story—this modern story, which is the story of the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and how these children of Abraham—the Jews and the Arabs (who include both Christians and Muslims), came to live on and dispute the same land. And it is a different story, depending on whether you are a Jew or an Arab, depending upon which world you inhabit—because we discovered, they are two different worlds; two different realities. The 1948 war that was fought to create Israel, for example, is called “The War of Independence,” by the Jewish people of Israel, while it is called The Nakhbah, the catastrophe, by the Arab people, since hundreds of thousands became refugees in their own land because of it. You need to know something of the territories called the West Bank, and Gaza and the Golan Heights, part of the Holy Land recognized by the international community as territory that will be necessary to create a future Palestinian state, but which is now under military occupation, and is being colonized by Israel, jeopardizing a peaceful future for both peoples.
I urge you to read about that story—what we found to be the hugely complex and challenging narrative of modern Israel and the Palestinian people.
But, again, how do we begin to tell our story, the story of our experience there? And, as we came to know a story so full of pain and hopelessness, how can we find hope? As Jesus wept over Jerusalem, as we wept over Jerusalem—we kept asking: where is the hope? How can the gospel have any bearing…on such a situation full of seeming hopelessness?
Perhaps the best way to begin to tell the story is to tell stories—and there are so many stories to tell, but here are just two stories among many we encountered that do, I think, point us to the hope of the gospel.
First, here is the story of a young man named Avram. It is a story about conscience and how God can penetrate the conscience of human beings. Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, spoke of how nations cannot have consciences; a mob cannot have a conscience. Only individual people have moral consciences, but it is individual people who can change a mob, can change a nation. In that is hope. So this is a story about an individual conscience.
Avram met with us to tell us about the Israeli human rights organization he was working for. He told of many facts and figures about Israeli human rights violations, the wall that’s been built to separate Israelis from Palestinians—he told us many interesting things about all the issues we were studying, but at one point, a member of our group asked him the question: “how did you come to do what you’re doing? What is your personal story?” And so he told the story of his service in the army, the Israeli Defense Forces, the IDF. He spoke about how he served in a tank battalion defending a Jewish settlement in the Gaza Strip. Now you need to know that the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world; it’s a narrow strip of land near the Mediterranean where Arabs have lived historically, and have been forced to live as refugees. But some of the very nationalist Jewish people asserted their right to live there, amidst them, and created settlements, which were a great source of pain and anger for the Palestinian people—to take Palestinian land and live there, claiming the land for themselves. And by law, the Israeli Army has to protect these people who illegally create settlements on Palestinian land. And so what they would do is make a security perimeter around the settlement, uprooting the olive trees and destroying the buildings around it, in order to create such a security barrier. And the job of Avram and his tank battalion was to patrol this perimeter.
He told of one night having to shoot a man who was approaching with a gun. They killed him. Then he told of another night in which they saw a man go into the security perimeter; they saw him through night vision goggles. And he didn’t look armed. They fired warning shots to warn him away, but he kept stumbling through the perimeter toward the settlement. They fired again, and he didn’t turn back. So they tried to shoot him in the legs. You can imagine that it’s very difficult to shoot someone in the legs. They ended up killing him. They needed to investigate, because such people might be wired with bombs. And so they went over to where the man was, and discovered that he was a man with Downs Syndrome, a retarded man.
Several weeks later, his girlfriend called. She heard in the background that they were firing off guns, and she asked what they were doing. He told her they were firing on children—all the time the children would come into the perimeter, and throw rocks at the tanks. They would shoot at them, around them—warning shots to shoo them away. It was routine, he said; nobody thought about it. But later, when he was back home visiting his girlfriend, she asked him about it, about what he was doing in his army service. “What are you doing there?” she asked him. “What are you doing?” Somehow the question penetrated his conscience, and he realized what he was doing was wrong; after a time of discernment, he refused to go back to serving with the IDF in the Occupied Territories. And that was the beginning of his journey, to work for human rights in the Occupied Territories.

Then there is the story of Rami, a Jewish man living in Jerusalem, and Waggeh, a Muslim man living in Bethlehem. They came to visit us and tell their story. Rami told us, in a way that seemed so calm and peaceful, how his world changed on Thursday, June 5, 1997, at 3pm. That was when his daughter was killed on a bus on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem when a suicide bomber blew himself up. She was 14 years old. He told us how, at the wake, at the time when people come together to sit Shiva with the bereaved, there was a man from an organization called Parents’ Circle who asked him if he might someday be able to forgive the people who did this, if he might be willing to meet with other people, Arab people, who had also lost loved ones. He was enraged and offended by the question; it was outrageous to him that someone could possibly ask that question at that time. But he explained how, after months of grief and anger, a voice emerged inside of him that spoke clearly to him: the way of anger and violence is not the way. He attended a meeting with other people, Arabs and Jews, who had lost loved ones in the fighting, who embraced one another, and found a way to forgive those who had killed. He looked over to Waggeh, who had lost a brother, at 15 years old. His brother had thrown a rock at an Israeli soldier, who shot him. 10 years later, he lost 2 other family members, one of them a week-old baby, killed by Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
“We are not doomed,” Rami said. “We can break the cycle. And the only way to do that is the way of forgiveness, the way of dialogue.”
I watched them, those two men—a Jewish man and a Muslim man—and I felt I was watching Jesus. These two were, for me, Jesus in that moment. “This is the gospel,” I thought. “This is the gospel. What these people have found is the gospel—and they are not even Christians.” And we who so glibly call ourselves Christian, all the Bible-believing Christians who so easily talk Jesus, who say “Lord, Lord”—have they paid this price? Can they say that they know the gospel in this way—to forgive their enemies in such a way? To have lost a loved one and not sunk into anger and vengeance and despair? Can we say we know this kind of love? This is what it means to be a Christian. The Amish people who forgave the killer of their children, who sat and mourned with the wife of their children’s killer—that is what it means to live the gospel, to know the cost of discipleship, to know that kind of love that does not come from our human will, but from God.
What are the things that make for peace?
You know, what burned in me…. No, before I get into that, I need to offer a little exhortation here: if you ever get a chance to go on a journey like this—leave your every day monkey mindedness, to get out and see the reality of the world, whether here or on the Gulf Coast or in Haiti—I would tell you to do it: sell your stock, take all your vacation time; do it. It will transform you. And you will know your Christian faith in a way you have never known it.
Because what burned in me throughout this experience is that what we take for granted as Christians, what we pay such easy lip service to, what we mumble in our prayers every week about the way of Christ, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation—that is the way. It’s such a simple lesson; it really isn’t complicated. It doesn’t require complex theological gymnastics. Forgive. Love your enemies. It’s what Jesus really did mean.
Jesus looks over at Jerusalem, and says, “If you only knew the things that make for peace.” And the point here is, Jesus showed us what makes for peace. It’s this: a cross. The symbol that shows us the self-giving, the forgiving and transforming love of God. I’m convinced it is the only way.
Charles Bartow, the person who preached at Presbytery on Tuesday said that God’s pre-emptive strike against terrorism is this: a cross. The symbol of God’s ultimate forgiveness of humans for the ultimate crime: killing God. Is it possible then for us to forgive terrorists? Even those terrorists who committed 9/11? It seems laughable almost, in our current culture, in our current political climate. But it’s the gospel; it’s what we believe.
I came to think that the answer is so simple. And I am convinced that the weapon we know through the gospel is more powerful than any Apache helicopter, or Qassam rocket. It is the power of forgiveness, the reconciling love we know through this cross.
So hard to believe! So foolish! So naïve! But, we must ask ourselves the question, as we see the downward spiral of violence spill out on our television screens each night: is all that violence working? Is it making us a safer place? Will our war on terrorism be won with violence?
“IF only you knew the things that make for peace.” The truth is, we do.
And if we are to survive as a human species—we must invest heavily in this weapon: the sword of love, the shield of forgiveness. We must invest ourselves in making peace without violence.
It is, I am convinced, the only way.

WOW!!! Thanks Jeff.
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