Pastor Megan preaches the final in our Just Peace series, reflecting on Jesus’ teaching to pray for and love our enemies, and telling a story of the prayerful communing of tea-drinking in Israel-Palestine.
Seattle Mennonite Church
30 October 2016
Sermon – Just Peace among the Peoples: So that human lives are protected
© Megan M. Ramer
For 118 days I prayed for 4 men by name—men I had never met.
But I didn’t miss a single day of those 118 days.
Tom Fox, Harmeet Singh Sooden, Norman Kember, and Jim Loney.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget their names.
In 2005, these four men were taken hostage in Baghdad, Iraq.
Two were Canadian, one was U.S. American, and one was English.
All were part of Christian Peacemaker Teams.
Each had responded to Jesus’ prophetic call
to live out a nonviolent alternative to cycles of violence and revenge in our world.
For 118 days, I prayed for these four men—by name—every single day.
During those 118 days, my congregation lit 4 candles for them every Sunday,
and prayed for them—again, by name—every single Sunday.
Tom, Harmeet, Norman, and Jim.
After the 104th day, we began lighting only 3 candles,
leaving the 4th unlit candle as a remembrance for Tom Fox,
whose murdered body had been found.
And on the 118th day—the day of their release—
we celebrated and gave thanks to God,
even as everyone experienced ambivalence at the means of their release,
achieved, as it was, by a unit of British Special Forces,
smashing through the door of their captivity in full battle gear.
For 118 days, I was faithful in intercessory prayer for those four men
in a way that I don’t think I ever had been before, or have been since.
I no longer recall the precise date of the party when I first met Jim Loney.
But it was at least 118 days after his 118 days of captivity…
and my 118 days of prayer for him.
I can still see him in my mind’s eye,
as clear as if it were yesterday,
walking through the back door of the Dyrst family kitchen.
I recognized him immediately, of course.
His image had been all over the church and media.
“Jim,” I said, “it’s so good to see you. I prayed for you every day.”
What my body did in this moment of greeting is a bit of blur.
I may have walked toward him;
I may have cried…or even wept;
I may have hugged him;
I may have put my hands on his face…I hope I didn’t put my hands on his face!
I honestly don’t recall what my body did.
What I do recall is the deer-in-headlights look on Jim’s face…
…in response to me and my effusive greeting.
I know that whatever I did,
or at least the manner in which I said it,
or even just the look on my face,
was completely inappropriate for two people who were meeting for the very first time.
I spoke and behaved in an overly familiar way
and got pretty immediate feedback that it wasn’t okay.
To be clear: this is in NO way criticizing Jim for his reaction to me.
His response was a completely appropriate response
to my completely inappropriate behavior.
I can be socially gregarious and effusive, and I know that.
But I don’t often make social gaffes; at least not of this magnitude.
So: as I reflected on this experience in the next days and weeks,
and wondered what had happened and why,
I came to understand that I experienced an intimacy with those four men
over those 118 days.
That, praying for them on my own and with my church;
That, lighting candles for them every week;
That, showing up for public actions and prayer vigils;
That, being in community with folks who did know them personally;
That, being intimately connected with the Christian Peacemaker Teams office in Chicago and those who were responding to media requests, communicating with their family members, and interfacing with government officials—
at that time I even had a good seminary friend staying with me who was answering the phones at the CPT office that were, as you might imagine, ringing off the hook—
That, somehow, all of that led to this feeling of familiarity and intimacy—
and: even love—
with four men who had been strangers to me.
And that love, that feeling of familiarity and intimacy was completely one-sided.
BUT: no less real.
And then I began to wonder if this is why Jesus said what he did about enemies
in the Sermon on the Mount.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
so that you may be children of your Abba in heaven.”
Love your enemies.
And pray for those who persecute you.
I began to wonder if we might run out of enemies
if we really prayed for them every day…
if we might pray ourselves out of enemies?
Would we find ourselves growing in a sense of familiarity and intimacy
with those we find it hardest to love,
if we only prayed for them day in and day out,
lighting candles for them with our community?
Would we find ourselves growing in love?
All because of prayer?
Our Just Peace focus this week is
Just Peace among the peoples: so that human lives are protected.
The challenge set before the church
in the World Council of Churches’ ecumenical call to Just Peace
is a stiff challenge,
not for the faint of heart.
It calls for no less than the church engaging in global politics.
Two magnificent crises threaten our world in this era, according to the call:
1) nuclear holocaust and the proliferation of weapons, especially WMDs.
2) climate change (which links us to our Just Peace with the earth 2 weeks ago),
and the “proliferation of lifestyles of mass extinction.”
I’m not about to suggest that,
in the face of these two global crises,
all we need to do is pray.
And everything will get better.
But neither am I willing to dismiss prayer as irrelevant or ineffectual.
Perhaps Jesus knew exactly what he was saying
when he taught us to pray for and love our enemies.
Just imagine disarming an enemy with an effusive, genuine, loving greeting;
completely inappropriate given the actual nature of your relationship…
Some of you may know and others may not that I participated in a two-week delegation to Israel-Palestine with Christian Peacemaker Teams in 2003.
I know just enough about the historical and contemporary struggles over that land
to refrain from suggesting that all we need to do is pray
and suddenly there will be a just peace among the peoples of that land.
During our adult Sunday School today,
we are honored to welcome two guests,
Eitan Isaacson and Lubna Alzaroo.
Both identify as activists—Eitan is Jewish Israeli and Lubna is Palestinian.
They will help us to explore what Just Peace in Israel-Palestine might look like.
And though I haven’t checked with them explicitly,
I suspect they will also not proscribe a simple prayer regimen
to address the realities of the occupation and divided peoples and cycles of violence.
Neither, however, am I prepared to dismiss prayer altogether.
I know just enough to know how very much I don’t know.
As we turn our gaze and focus toward this one particularly fraught region of the world,
I know that I don’t have the time or expertise to analyze the political situation
and offer a neat and tidy action list for responding.
Instead I want to tell a story.
It may, in fact, be a story of prayer…for and with supposed enemies.
We sat in a circle in a living room, sipping tea.
Rami Elhanen had invited us to his home.
Rami is a Jewish-Israeli whose 14yo daughter, Smedar, was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber.
Our co-host was Adel Misk, a Palestinian man whose father was murdered by Jewish settlers.
Together they’d formed the Bereaved Parents Circle in Jerusalem.
Together, in just one year, they had lectured at 1400 schools throughout the region.
Together they’d begun a summer school for children who have experienced death in their immediate families due to the conflict and occupation.
Together they’d sponsored a telephone hotline that connects Israelis and Palestinians and is called “Hello Salaam.”
Together they’d organized blood drive exchanges
between Jews from Jerusalem and Palestinians from Ramallah.
Donating blood across lines that had caused so much blood to be shed;
infusing themselves – literally – with the blood of the “other”, the supposed enemy.
We sat in a circle in a living room, sipping tea.
With Rami and Adel, an unlikely pair.
Now very close friends, they believe that if they who have paid the highest price can talk with each other and work together for a just and peaceful resolution, anyone can.
I’m not about to suggest that Israelis and Palestinians all just need to drink tea and get along.
But neither am I willing to dismiss this prayerful communing as irrelevant and ineffectual.
Especially when it leads to working together at systemic change,
as Rami and Adel and the Bereaved Parents Circles in Jerusalem have.
There’s something fundamentally off about casting my and our gaze
to some other corner of the world,
without at least mentioning the giant plank in our own eye.
What moral authority or respectability do we – as U.S. Americans – have
in our peacemaking efforts with others somewhere out there?
“None” would be my first response.
Our own house is in shambles.
And yet, this isn’t just out there somewhere.
Our tax dollars are a major player in Israel-Palestine.
So are our consumer dollars.
So are our invested dollars.
Stewardship Council has already engage in some good, discerning work
in thinking about this as part of our proposed new investment policy
(that you’ll soon receive for our November congregational meeting).
Which companies do we want to steer our dollars away from?
And where do we want to be invested… with our dollars and our support?
Many of you know that I spent the past week with my in-laws.
They’ve been leading cross cultural groups in the Middle East for many years.
They spend nearly half the year there, year in and year out.
On the way to the airport yesterday, I asked my mother-in-law about Just Peace in that region.
A sort of peace may be possible, she responded, but justice is getting harder and harder.
But, she clarified, they do have some friends –
an Israeli family and Palestinian family –
who report being able to sit in a mixed circle,
put the hottest button issues on the table
refugees and the right of return
and agree together on a possible just path forward.
Ready for the twist?
Turns out she was referring to Rami and Adel and their families.
Rami, whose daughter was killed by a suicide bomber.
Adel, whose father was killed by settlers.
Maybe there really is something to the communal prayer of drinking tea together…
Turns out that my in-laws have been friends with these two families for a long time.
They’ve even hosted them in their home in Harrisonburg Virginia.
They’ve had the honor of accompanying them to Nickel Mines
where they sat around a table illuminated by oil lamp
with Amish families whose children had been killed by the mass shooting at the school there
sharing stories of the most intense grief, the most unimaginable sorrow
and the the choice to not lash out in vengeance
but to interrupt the cycles of violence that will steamroll us all if we let them.
Come, let us go up to the mountain of our God.
Jesus taught, “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
so that you may be children of your Abba in heaven.”
And so we pray…
Muslim, Jewish, Christian Prayer for Peace
from Pax Christi USA
O God, you are the source of life and peace.
Praised be your name forever.
We know it is you who turns our minds to thoughts of peace.
Hear our prayer in this time of war.
Your power changes hearts.
Muslims, Christians, and Jews remember, and profoundly affirm,
that they are followers of the one God,
children of Abraham, brothers and sisters;
enemies begin to speak to one another;
those who were estranged join hands in friendship;
nations seek the way of peace together.
Strengthen our resolve to give witness
to these truths by the way we live.
Give to us:
Understanding that puts an end to strife;
Mercy that quenches hatred, and
Forgiveness that overcomes vengeance.
Empower all people to live in your law of love. Amen.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Matthew 5.43-48 – ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But 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 he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
 World Council of Churches, “An Ecumenical Call to Just Peace” (2001), 15.