NEED NOT WAIT TO SEE WHAT OTHERS DO

RAMI ELHANAN

Rami Elhanan is an Israeli who grew up in Jerusalem.  While serving in the army, during one battle in the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, his unit set out with 11 tanks and returned with only 3.  He lost friends and, even worse, lost his innocence.  He was broken, angry, bitter – and filled with hatred.  In time, he got married, started a career and a family.  On the evening of Yom Kippur 1983, he held in his hands his beautiful baby daughter, Smadar.  But on the afternoon of September 4, 1997, Smadar was killed by two Palestinian suicide bombers who took the lives of five innocent people in browing the shelves in a Jerusalem bookstore — one of them Rami’s beautiful 14 year old daughter.

Bassam Aramin grew up in the West Bank city of Hebron.  At the age of 12, Bassam saw one of his friends fatally shot by an Israeli soldier.  For him, revenge was a palpable, dark force.  He joined a group who called themselves freedom fighters, but those in power called them terrorists.  They threw stones, at first, and empty bottles but one day in 1985 he found several discarded hand-grenades in a cave.  With his friends, they threw them at Israeli jeeps.  Two went off; no one was injured.  Bassam was sentenced to seven years in prison.

BASSAM ARAMIN

After his release, Bassam began to build a life for himself, which included a family.  Sadly, however, on January 16, 2007, Bassam’s 10-year-old daughter, Abir, was shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an Israel soldier.  She was standing outside her school.  She died two days later.

Following such unspeakable tragedy, both men chose to do remarkable things.  Both men chose to stop the strife and warfare and anger and bitterness.  Both chose peace.

For Rami, Smadar’s death brought back his old, unprocessed anger.  But he couldn’t stir up enough even to reignite revenge.  A group called the ‘Parent’s Circle’ invited him to a session.  ‘Parent’s Circle’ brings together families who’ve lost children and loved ones in the conflict and yet still want peace.  From that session on, Rami’s world, he says, was turned upside down.  Those whom he once hated embraced him and loved him.  Former enemies were the source of his greatest consolation.

In 2005, Bassam founded ‘Combatants for Peace’ – an organization which brings together those who fought on opposite sides.  ‘Combatants for Peace’ evolved into a movement of individuals who yearned to simply talk with those whom their states told them were enemies.  As Bassam once remarked, “Abir’s murder could have led me down the easy path of hatred and vengeance, but for me there was no return from dialogue and non-violence. After all, it was one Israeli soldier who shot my daughter, but one hundred former Israeli soldiers who built a garden in her name at the school where she was murdered.”

We don’t do so very well in resolving conflict and finding peace with our enemies.  Even our best attempts fall flat.  Oscar Wilde famously instructed: “Always forgive your enemies – nothing annoys them so much.”  Godfather Michael Corleone gave what is, to many, sound advice:  “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”  Abraham Lincoln once offered a poignant line about making friends out of enemies but it, still, carries notes and scars of battle: “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends,” Lincoln remarked.  Even when we try to make nice, we are often our own worst enemy.

That’s why Rami’s and Bassam’s stories are so unique.  It didn’t take decades and increasing maturity. It didn’t require the passing of years to realize that what once tore apart their souls with bitterness and revenge is now just water under the bridge.  Within moments – moments not years – of unspeakable tragedy, they responded with peace, dialogue, empathy and understanding.  Immediately: peace.

That’s what’s truly remarkable about the earliest Christian movement, as well.  In Acts chapter 10, there’s a famous story about Peter and a Gentile named Cornelius.  God tells Cornelius his prayers have been heard and that he should send for Peter, who’s staying in Joppa, a nearby village.  In Joppa, meanwhile, God presents a rather strange vision to Peter – a large sheet comes down from the sky with all kinds of animals.  In the vision, a voice says “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”  But Peter’s a good law-abiding Jew.  Understandably, he says, “By no means, Lord!  I’ve never eaten anything profane in all my life.”  “What God has made clean,” the voice says, “you must not call profane.”  Peter comes to just as a knock comes on the door.  It’s the men whom Cornelius sent.  Peter goes with them to Cornelius, they have a wonderful heart-to-heart and the Holy Spirit immediately descends upon the room.  Peter feels it and baptizes the whole household, right then and there.

What happened in that moment for Peter and Cornelius, like that which followed Rami’s and Bassam’s tragic losses, was immediate.  No study period, no checking with the elders, no consulting scripture or thinking about what’s been done before.  God swept in and peace happened.  And it happened immediately.

But that’s not exactly our situation.  Flip to Acts chapter 11 and you see the after-effects, the angry backlash.  The leaders of the Christian movement – a still Jewish movement – heard that a Gentile was baptized without first having to become circumcised.  They’re angry.  They call Peter to headquarters.  There, he tells the whole story: the sheet, the animals, the voice, the trip to Caesarea, the presence of the Holy Spirit.  What else could I do? Peter says.  It was so very clear, so very immediate, and I responded.

Like Peter, we don’t live in communities which quickly and altogether respond to immediacy of any kind, let alone an immediate turn from revenge to love, from being enemies to friends, from separation to unity.  In fact, I learned of the story of Rami Elhanan and Bassam Aramin from a 2012 documentary entitled, Within the Eye of the Storm.  It tells the story I told you, about their lives and the processes they both undertook to find peace.  They became friends.  But the film is also about the experience of introducing one another to their communities – communities which were not prepared and did not necessarily, automatically, immediately respond with the same kind of love and forgiveness and peace.  Imagine it.  An Israeli sitting with Arabs who quite literally – and, you might say, for good reason – hated him simply because of who he was.  An Arab sitting with Israelis who literally and, again, you might say, for good reason, saw him as a terrorist.  Forgiveness doesn’t come easily in this world.  Peace is not won swiftly.  None of this is ever immediate.

REINHOLD NEIBUHR
“Men must strive to realize their individual ideals in their common life but they will learn in the end that society remains man’s great fulfillment and his great frustration.”

The world in which we live is not geared towards wholeness and healing; it’s not designed for love and forgiveness.  American theologian Reinhold Neibuhr outlined in his now-classic 1932 book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, what’s called “Christian realism.”  Power and positioning and pride lurks everywhere in this world, at least this side of heaven, Neibuhr argued: sin is at the bedrock of the foundation of this world.  That’s why even our attempts to play nice sometimes turn out so rotten.

Being a person of faith, in general, and a Chrisian, specifically, involves the hard work of scrutinizing that which comes from within.  It may be of God; Jesus said the kingdom is near you.  It may not be of God.  Israelis and Palestinians are trained to hate.  That’s their base reaction.  A good law-abiding Jew like Peter was formed to avoid, at least, and by no means accept a Gentile like Cornelius.  That’s Peter’s gut reaction, in spite of the fact that he lived with Jesus all those years.  Even the apostles and elders of the Christian movement had a resistant gut reaction, a frankly reactive, bitter resistance.  What kind of person do you dislike, and for what reason?  What do you abhor and on what scriptural or political reasons do you base your opinion?  In it may be God, and it may very well be not of God.

It’s a certain truth that when God shows up he keeps shattering the boxes we make, blurring the lines we draw.  But when we take the risk to love and live as God so clearly does, the world says you’re unrealistic, naïve, and at the very least that you’ve gone about it all too immediately.

And yet ours is a faith that makes us try, still. No doubt you’ve seen a bumper sticker with a quote from Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Problem is, he didn’t say that.  Not exactly.  It sounds like a self-help magazine, and awfully, well, like a bumper sticker.  What Gandhi actually wrote was this:  “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in this world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature so does the attitude of the world change towards him.  We need not wait to see what others do.”

We need not see what others do.  Rami and Bassam, early in their lives, did what others did and they paid for it.  In time, they chose to live differently.  When tragedy struck, again, they did not wait to see what others did.  Peter didn’t wait to see what others did, either.  And that community, the church, which called him to task – they, too, were a little bit odd, a little bit strange, a whole lot spontaneous. The moment in that room was hardly silent after Peter recounted his story, for the Holy Spirit was moving and sweeping in her delightfully spunky and, you might say, radically upsetting way.  Immediately, they praised the God who shattered their prejudices and destroyed their small-mindedness.  Immediately, they rejoiced that theirs was a kingdom not of this world.  Immediately, they did a bold thing and were given the grace of God to do it with courage.  They may have looked back, they may have been afraid, but immediately they were also transformed.

……….

From a sermon preached at St. George’s Church on Sunday, 28 April 2013.

PRAISES SING TO GOD THE KING, AND PEACE TO MEN ON EARTH

On Sunday morning, April 23, 1865, the Rev’d Phillips Brooks set aside the sermon he was otherwise planning to preach at his church in Philadelphia and made note of a different, a more somber event.  On that very day, the Pullman car funeral procession carrying the body of Abraham Lincoln – assassinated in Washington, DC eight days earlier – had stopped and the President’s body was laid in state in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, on its way to where he would be laid to rest in his hometown of Springfield, IL.  Thousands of Philadelphians came out to view the body, and just a few blocks away that morning, in Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Phillips Brooks – then regarded as one of the finest preachers in America – told his congregation that he wished to, instead, pay attention to what he called “that sacred presence in our midst.”

THE REV’D PHILLIPS BROOKS
Born 1835 – Died 1893
Rector of Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, 1862 – 1869
Rector of Trinity Church (Copley Square), Boston, 1869 – 1891
Bishop of Massachusetts, 1891 – 1893

Reading the sermon, even nearly a century-and-a-half later, one still feels the sadness, the shock, the gut-wrenching despair which overcame the nation.  Beginning slowly, almost fearfully wading into his subject, Phillips Brooks told the congregation he was going to talk about the “character of Abraham Lincoln, the impulses of his life, the causes of his death.”  And because that surely struck a chord in the audience, Brooks in the next breath mentioned:  “I can only promise to speak calmly, conscientiously, affectionately…”  “It is the great boon of such characters as Mr. Lincoln’s,” Brooks preached, “that they reunite what God has joined together and man has put asunder.  In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness.”

How we all long for “the greatness of real goodness, and the goodness of real greatness.”  How hungry we are for genuine, random acts of kindness, and how we love to hear about them – love for loveliness’ sake, kindness from the heart.  And how our hearts are broken, as they have been too often and too recently, by violence, senseless cruelty, and suffering.  We long to be at a wedding feast, hearing of that which and those whom God has joined together, but all too often in the events of this world it feels as though we’re at a funeral vigil, bearing witness with tearful eyes to that which we have put asunder, bitterly.

We’re not alone in these conflicts and, sadly, the brokenness of creation has all too often pitted real darkness against any hope of the Light of this world.  This was true for Phillips Brooks and the nation that mourned their President.  In fact, his sermon about Lincoln went the nineteenth century version of “viral” and led to even greater popularity and fame for the young preacher.  But his heart was heavy, very heavy, along with countless of his countrymen who experienced the destruction and brutal violence of the American Civil War, witnessing how it literally tore apart communities and families, culminating in the death of their President.  Not long after his famous sermon about Lincoln, Brooks left on a one-year sabbatical, seeking peace and some measure of healing.

In December 1865, Brooks travelled to Jerusalem, and ventured on Christmas Eve to Bethlehem.  In a letter home to his father, he wrote that “after an early dinner, [we] took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens.”  “It is a good-looking town,” he wrote.  “Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. … Somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been, and in the same fields the story of Ruth and Boaz must belong. As we passed,” he wrote, “shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks,’ leading them home to fold. We returned and waited for the service. The most interesting part was the crowd of pilgrims, with their simple faith and eagerness to share in the ceremonial. We went to bed very tired.”

In another letter to the Sunday school at his Philadelphia parish, he wrote about the feeling, the peace, the renewal he experienced “when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God.”  That time in Bethlehem, especially, was a healing experience for Brooks, and three years later the memory was still, as he wrote, “singing in my soul.” Singing so much that, in the fall of 1868, Phillips Brooks put pen to paper and wrote a poem, which his organist set to a tune in time for their Christmas service that year, and which we now know as the notable Christmas carol “O Little town of Bethlehem.”

Oddly (and not without controversy in its own time) “O Little Town of Bethlehem” is not a carol to God but a song sung to a city – a humble, insignificant-if-not-for-one-event Judean hill town.  Tonight and in Phillips Brooks own time, Bethlehem is also a city which knows violence, hatred, and strife: the poem mentions in its first stanza the town’s “dark streets”, but even amidst that brokenness shines “the everlasting light / the hopes and fears of all the years” which, profoundly, “are met in thee tonight.”

The poem widens its gaze and tells a larger, more universal story.  The stars and galaxies, the universe’s created order itself, in the second stanza, coalesce “to proclaim the holy birth” – “and praises sing to God the King / and peace to men on earth.”  Peace, that which Phillips Brooks went around the world in search of.  Peace, that which Christians proclaim and seek on Christmas.

Know this, then: The peace you seek is real; the peace, which scripture says, passes all understanding; the peace which Christ himself breathed on his disciples, not some passing relief, not a pain reliever, but God’s own: “My peace I give you, my own peace I leave with you,” Jesus said.  The peace you seek is established upon the truth, in Christmas, that the creation is not marred, not permanently at least, by our brokenness.  Like a resurrection story in itself, these places – Bethlehem or Jerusalem; Civil War battlefields or Ford’s Theatre; Newtown, CT, among too many others – do not bear for ever the mark of the slain, do not encase the suffering of this cruel world.  No, the prayers we lift up are still true – that God would “cast out our sin and enter in,” that God, Emmanuel, will “be born in us, come to us, abide with us.”

And yet I’d be remiss if I didn’t share with you one other truth about God’s peace.  So know this, too: Hard times will come, and come again, and that’s why we return, week after week.  The life of Christian faith is not an elixir from the hurt of this world.  Another hymn kept creeping into my heart as I was pondering these words for tonight, a hymn about Jesus’ disciples.  It ends with a particularly haunting line: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod.”  I won’t pretend to know what that means – strife closed in the sod – but I know that it’s a true sentiment that peace, true peace, doesn’t mean the end of strife but, rather, a different way of relating to it.  That’s why we keep coming back, week after week.  I’m reminded that Gandhi once said, “I believe in peace, but I do not want the peace that you find in stone; I do not want the peace that you find in the grave.  I want the peace which you find embedded in the human breast, which is exposed to the arrows of the whole world, but which is protected from harm by the power of the Almighty God.”  Which is a theme the fourteenth century Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, also expressed with her words: “I never said that you would not be tempest tossed, work-weary or discomforted, only that you shall not be overcome.”

The end of the story is not relief, then, but peace, and peace built by God who is redeeming and renewing and loving and rebuilding this world, brick by brick, community by community, heart by heart.  The end of the story, then, is that love wins, that “the hopes and fears of all the years are met” … not in a city faraway, not in a distant time, not in a bygone era, but in you:  “born in us, come to us, abide with us, our Lord, Emmanuel.”  Merry Christmas.