This is a one of two sermons preached on September 8, 2013 at Littlefield Presbyterian Church, in Dearborn, Michigan. It was part of an Interfaith Service of Prayer for Peace and Unity held during our regular Sunday morning worship time. We had most of the elements of a traditional Presbyterian worship service, in addition to liturgy from the Jewish and Islamic traditions. We began with both the Islamic Call to Prayer and a Christian Call to Worship. A cantor from the downtown synagogue sang scriptures and prayers. A young man recited a passage from the Qur'an, and an imam preached. At the end, I gave the charge, and the cantor sang the Aaronic blessing. Then we all sang, "Let there be peace on earth."
"Blessed are the peacemakers"
Jesus said: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."For those of us who long for a better, more peaceful world, this is a painful, distressing time, a time of mourning, as we watch the violence that has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Syrians… driven over 3 million Syrians over the borders into refugee camps, and displaced an additional 6 or 7 million Syrians from their homes.
The human toll in Syria — in deaths, displacement and refugees— is staggering. Above all, I think it’s the images of the children that haunt us.
And yet—as Charles Blow reminded us recently in the New York Times—there are millions of other children who die each year on this planet with little notice of malnutrition and of illnesses that could be prevented or treated if the world cared enough.
Here in the United States, the Department of Agriculture released a report this week that found for the fifth year in a row that 1 in 6 Americans are “food insecure”-- many of them children. Most of them receive assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, yet Congress is considering cutting back on that aid.
Furthermore, a recent report by the Children’s Defense Fund pointed out: “The number of children and teens killed by guns in 2010 was nearly five times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in action that year in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I find myself mourning all this violence and need… longing to do something.
So-- what can we do? In the midst of the violence and hatred and apathy in our society, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and despairing.
What can we do? We can begin by praying together and forging bonds of friendship and solidarity… getting to know one another better… opening our hearts and minds to one another… and finding ways to work together to change the world.
There’s hard work to be done. But we can work together to make a difference. There are values our faith traditions hold in common—that have to do with love and justice and peace.
Jesus came to embody God’s love in the world. When people came to Jesus and asked him which commandment in the scriptures was the most important Jesus answered, “’You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
In Luke’s version of this, he tells how someone said, “Who is my neighbor?” and Jesus went on to make it clear in the Parable of the Good Samaritan that our neighbor is anyone God puts in our path-- even someone we might have considered to be an enemy.
One of the books I’ve read recently is The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan story in Iraq, by Greg Barrett.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu—one of my heroes—wrote the forward to the book, in which he talks about the animated film, “How to Train Your Dragon.”
The moral of the movie’s story has to do with taming our deepest fears in order to slay the prejudices we inherit. Fear and prejudice, Tutu says, those are our dragons.
When the protagonist of the film, a Viking boy named Hiccup, stares into the soulful eyes of his flying, fire-breathing nemesis, he sees something vastly different from what the other villagers see.
“Three hundred years and I’m the first Viking who wouldn’t kill a dragon. I wouldn’t kill him because he looked as frightened as I was,” Hiccup confides to a friend. “I looked at him and saw myself.”
Hiccup and the dragon soon forgive each other’s misunderstandings. They bond in delightful acts of cooperation and compassion. By the end, Hiccup teaches his warrior elders a lesson that is far more critical in the real world than in a fictional film.
As Archbishop Tutu says, these universal truths endure despite history’s aggressive denial of them. If we will gaze into the soulful eyes of those we think are our enemies, we will find a child of God, and we will see that that new friend is, in fact, family. Look deeper still, and a reflection will stop you. Because it’s yourself you will see reflected.
I love what Archbishop Tutu wrote in that forward: “At our deepest best we are all rooted in a love that grows steadfast—generation to generation. Like perennial flowers opening to spring’s first caress, so too humanity grows toward light. Less graceful, and always groaning, but we are forever drawn to the peace of truth and reconciliation. Agape, and our love for our own children, demands that we provide a better inheritance for them.”
After worship, we invite you to stay for a time, to enjoy refreshments and conversation. I hope you’ll make a new friend today. Talk with one another about your families—especially your children or grandchildren and what kind of a world you want to leave for them.
U2 sings a song that begins like this:
“Every generation gets a chance to change the world….”
Let’s renew our commitment to change the world, beginning today.