This is thrilling and exciting. Is it representitive of the real walk of these people? I pray that it is:
3/22/2007No Pollyanna He: Following Jesus in a Time of Fear
Below is the sermon delivered by Rick Ufford-Chase following the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, given at New York Ave. Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C., on March 18th, 2007.
Isaiah 58: 6-9
Luke 6: 27-31
Everything I am going to share with you this morning is true, except for the part that hasn’t happened yet . . .
Once upon a time, not so very long ago,
The people of our churches across the United States were afraid. No one knew exactly where the fear had come from, for they knew that their churches had not always been held captive by their fear, but somehow they had grown more and more comfortable, and from comfort it had been a short jump to the sin of worshiping false gods - mostly the false gods of wealth and materialism and the capitulation to the seductions of over-consumption. As they grew increasingly attached to their belongings and to the illusion that they themselves had created their own good fortune, their comfort led them surely and inexorably down the slippery path to fear, for when we believe that our good fortune has been the result of our own efforts, when we slowly lose the certain knowledge that our help and our hope comes only in the Lord, the pressure to maintain our good fortune becomes almost unbearable, and we eventually dig ourselves into a pit of fear so deep that it is impossible to see God any longer.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that our people intentionally turned away from God. It’s more that the foundation of our faith changed in subtle and largely unnoticed ways. We still, many of us, anyway, went to church each week, but our services of worship in too many places became empty platitudes about our dependence on God that few of us actually believed.
As our worship and our preaching and our prayers became more and more disconnected from the growing reality that our lives were now dedicated to false gods and to the security offered by other gods, it became harder and harder to convince our children and our grandchildren that there was any need to go to church at all. “Of what use is a community of believers that lives in denial,” the next generations asked?
No one smells hypocrisy faster than a teenager or young adult, and in our most honest moments, most of us had to admit that our sanctuary had become havens of hypocrisy. Whatever the message about the foundations of our faith that we espoused from our pulpits, it had become clear that we were a people living far from the gospel values we espoused and that we had little intention of questioning our growing independence from God or challenging our obsession with securing our own safety.
Then, on September 11, 2001, the narcissism of our individual races to the illusion of security, and the empty promises of churches that no longer were filled with a people who needed God, were transformed into a national obsession with security for a people who lived in fear. Almost overnight, our fear as a people became our defining characteristic, and as it did so, we lost all sense of reason. Though our nation was, by any reasonable measure, the most powerful of power brokers in the world, our entire country fell captive to the most potent and frightening of combinations - we became a superpower that understood itself to be the victim.
Though I’m not trained as an historian, it does seem to me that such a combination has inevitably marked the beginning of the end for the great nations of the world throughout history. In the same way that a playground bully inevitably finds himself isolated, alone and spiraling into a life of self-destruction, a nation whose churches have lost the ability to correct the bullying characteristics of their own people also will eventually fall.
But then, one bitterly cold, rainy and snowy day in Washington, D.C. in the late winter of 2007, something happened that suggested to a few careful observers that things were beginning to change. It wasn’t a lone event, and those who had the good fortune to participate were not particularly special. It was more like a tipping point that U.S. Christians of future generations would look back on as a moment that marked a new day - a Boston Tea Party kind of moment whose very inevitableness gave it a special, maybe even an overblown kind of deeper meaning. Individual Christians had already been experiencing similar epiphanies for some time. What made this moment special was that it was such a powerful sign to the participants and to the world that this was a collective “gathering up” of the vision of the people of God.
That night - March 16th, 2007, in defiance of a valiant attempt by the weather to keep it from happening (some reflected that perhaps it was God’s way of trying to test the resolve of God’s people), almost four thousand Christians from across the United States gathered at the National Cathedral and New York Ave. Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. Simultaneously, thousands of others gathered at more than two hundred churches in communities across the country.
They heard the voice of a mother who had lost her son, a fallen soldier who was a member of the National Guard, and many wept as she expressed the anguish of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of mothers who have wept for the sons they have lost throughout the foolish course of the countless wars of human history.
Rev. Raphael Warnock rose that night to beg his church and his nation to give up their meaningless arguments about winning or losing the war on terror and instead to embrace the far more critical challenge of avoiding the loss of our nation’s soul.
Many other wonderful words were spoken that night as the National Cathedral was filled with candles and the congregation sang as if they genuinely believed that their song had the power to move the entire country to reclaim its foundational values.
I had the good fortune to be there that night. As I participated in that worship to reverse the Church’s obsession with fear - as I listened to the Rev. Jim Wallis shake the very walls of the Cathedral with his insistence that this worship would mark the beginning of the end of the war in Iraq - I had an overwhelming sense that we were reclaiming our very souls.
Later that night as the worship came to an end, three thousand people spilled out into the snow and the bitter wind to carry their candles - the light of the nonviolent Jesus - to the White House. And then, there was a small miracle - the sort of little miracle that has always appeared at critical moments to give hope to the people of God. Almost in a single instant, the wind ceased and the snow stopped falling and there was a dead calm. It reminded me of the story of the stormy sea crossing in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark.
Together, the three thousand people walked through the cold with their candles. They sang and they prayed and they held hands and the children ran on ahead and they lifted their candles high and they continued to reclaim their souls. When they arrived at the White House, they were met by more than six hundred sisters and brothers who had walked from New York Ave. Presbyterian Church and whose candles welcomed them to Lafeyette Park.
A short time later, most of those assembled carried their candles around the White House to encircle our President with light and to pray for a new kind of courage - the courage to stand against fear. Two hundred and twenty-two people crossed a police line that night and were arrested as they closed the circle of light around the White House, praying on the sidewalk in front of the White House until the last of them was arrested and taken away at about 2:30 in the morning on that bitterly cold night.
What took place that night as our people stood against our obsession with fear and reclaimed our souls reminded me of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., forty years and three weeks earlier, as he stood against the fear and the violence of war of his own time. Dr. King said that:
The past is prophetic in that it asserts loudly that wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows. One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. How much longer must we play at deadly war games before we heed the plaintive pleas of the unnumbered dead and maimed of past wars? Why can’t we at long last grow up, and take off our blindfolds, chart new courses, put our hands to the rudder, and set sail for the distant destination, the port of peace?”
Dr. King went on to say:
We will not build a peaceful world by following a negative path. It is not enough to say ‘we must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not only on the negative expulsion of war, but on the positive affirmation of peace.
My friends, what took place on that night was critically important as a collective sign that the participants made that things were beginning to change, but what mattered far, far more was what happened next . . .
As those Christians left that night and returned to their communities, they discovered many others like them who were on fire with the possibility of reclaiming their own biblical traditions and the words of the earliest prophets of the Old Testament, who called their people to account in similar moments of fear in their own time. They recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah, recorded in the 58th chapter of the book of Isaiah, in which he said:
Is not this the fast (the kind of sacrifice) I choose:
To loose the bonds of injustice,
To undo the thongs of the yoke,
To let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover them,
And not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your healing shall spring up quickly;
Your vindicator shall go before you,
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call and the Lord will answer;
You shall cry for help, and God will say, Here I am.
Together, Christians across the United States began opening their eyes to Isaiah’s call for justice for the poorest among us, and little by little, their churches and their communities were transformed as they recognized the fundamental truth of Isaiah’s words - that all people - all over the world - are in fact our family, and that any attempt to hide from them, or to abuse that core conviction, is deeply displeasing to our God.
They began re-reading the stories and the words of Jesus, among them those we read from the 6th chapter of the book of Luke this morning:
But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Together, in small groups at first - and then in larger and larger communities - they reclaimed the gospel and committed to stand against fear, to eschew the glittering illusions of security promised by the war on terror, to end the war in Iraq, and to stand firmly once again as communities of faith that functioned as resistance to the empty promises of the powers and the principalities of their time. Instead, they opted for the harder work - but surer bet - of safety that is built on community, on reaching out to those of whom we are most afraid, of following Jesus’ clear command to love our enemies and of building the real safety that is found only in the Isaiah notion of justice and in Jesus consistent insistence that our security is found only in right relationship.
You see, many in the church of that time still believed that Jesus was kind of a little bit Pollyanna - that he didn’t really mean what he said, or that his words were no longer really relevant. But let me share what took place because of that wonderful witness on a cold March night in Washington:
A reporter from Al Jazeera was present in the Cathedral that night, and the following day, a newspaper in Tehran picked up his story and ran a picture on the front page of the Tehran paper that showed Christians who were willing to risk arrest to stand against the war. A seed was planted among some Muslims in the Middle East who began to believe that there might be potential Christian partners with whom they could build relationships. Together, in the months that followed, Muslim and Christian moderates committed to stand together against the extremists in their own traditions who cloaked their violence in religious language. Their efforts eventually led to a global, interfaith movement to create a world of genuine security - a global community that would overcome the vagaries and abuses experienced by so many who were on the underside of the global economy.
A group of students had traveled by car from Whitworth College in Spokane, WA. When their car slid on the icy roads of the Pennsylvania turnpike and they collided with a tractor trailer and ended up unscathed but in a totaled car in the median, they left the car behind and hitchhiked the rest of the way to Washington to be at the Cathedral. Later that night they were arrested as they prayed and witnessed to their faith in front of the White House. Deeply moved by their experience, the students returned to their campus committed to creating a new definition of family - an “Isaiah 58″ notion of family. The students created alternative housing at Whitworth called an Isaiah 58 house in which the students committed to simple living and to specific peace and justice projects. When other students heard about it, they copied the model and the movement began to spread like wildfire to campuses all across the country. By March of 2012, there were tens of thousands of students on campuses across the United States and they were transforming the neighborhoods in which they lived. Few people realized that it had all started on that night in Washington with the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq, but God knew.
There was a chaplain there that night who was deeply moved and inspired by Rev. Warnock’s call for a surge in God’s nonviolent army, and by the deep pastoral concern that the participants lifted up for U.S. soldiers and their families. On that night, he committed to work with groups like Christian Peacemaker Teams, Nonviolent Peaceforce, and the Presbyterian Church’s Colombia Accompaniment program to build what eventually became, by the year 2025, an international movement of more than 250,000 Christians deployed as nonviolent peacemakers in situations of conflict all over the world. Though it is clear in looking back that the movement took off as a direct result of that chaplain’s experience on the cold night, no one at that time would have guessed that God could make such a think happen.
In the months that followed the witness, a group of seminary students and faculty created a new religious order in an effort to hold themselves accountable to the transformation they experienced at that worship at the National Cathedral. They took vows to live lives of simplicity and to devote themselves in their ministry to the end of war, the creation of a just global community, and the deepest care for all of God’s creation. Eventually, that religious order, which crossed all denominational boundaries, grew to include more than 50,000 pastors, nuns, priests and lay people across the country and around the world, and it all started on March 16th, 2007.
The people of New York Ave. Presbyterian Church, having been inspired as they played host to thousands of Christians who came from across the country to witness to their faith, rededicated themselves to recovering their long history of being the voice for the voiceless, the strong prophetic voice calling for justice two blocks from the White House. Coming out of that weekend, a small group of members of the church dubbed themselves the “no more business as usual” committee and vowed that they would dedicate themselves to leading the way among historic, inner city churches were transformed to the work of peacemaking and justice across the country.
And what happened to the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and some thirty other partners who had come together to plan the Christian Peace Witness for Iraq during that amazing weekend in March of ‘07? They were transformed also, by the power of what had happened to them when they committed together to boldly and unapologetically proclaim the gospel of the Prince of Peace. They became the primary protagonists - the “outside agitators” - in a faith-based peace movement that swept across the country. Historians later looked back on that time as the next great awakening - a revival and renewal of faith that opened the path to genuine security that defined the global community by the end of the twenty-first century.
My friends, everything in this story is true, except for the part that hasn’t happened yet.
We have a choice. We can opt - on this morning - to continue to live into the bland and uninspiring work of institutional maintenance that characterizes so many of our churches today. We can choose to continue our commitment to place a theological veneer over a culture of emptiness, unfulfilled promises, and fear. We can choose, if we wish, to continue to create churches that bless our affluence and our power based on a corrupted reading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Or . . .
We can choose on this day to dedicate all of our lives to the creation of a new movement of followers of Jesus Christ who know that we are called to transform the world. Someday, this weekend could be understood to have been the tipping point. The choice is ours.
I am indebted to peacemaker and storyteller John Paul Lederach for the central idea of the power of imagination in this sermon. All of the conjecture is entirely my own. I expect that God is capable of far more creative imagination than I am able to fathom.
Biblical references are from the New Revised Standard Version.
Dr. King’s words are taken from his speech against the War in Vietnam on February 25th, 1967. I encourage you to read the entire speech, which can easily be found by typing his name and the date into an internet search engine.