The threat of violence is a reality of living in the Middle East. It’s always present. I had just moved into my apartment in Jerusalem. I had just come back from a long walk on a blustery, as far as Jerusalem goes, afternoon and it was getting dark. My lights were on and I heard a knock on my door. I thought it was unusual since I knew all of three people in Jerusalem. So I carefully opened the door, just a crack. A young man dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans with a very official looking clip board looked at me and said “Shalom.”
The he rattled something off to me in Hebrew, “וֹטּמּמּסעתף, שרּצּגּאָלּלּלּבֿ, בֿסּהּ”. “Uhh, Englit, English??” I asked. “Ahh, OK.” he said. We both looked at one another. Then he said, “I’ve come to take your gas mask.” Now, I heard him as plain as could be but transcribed it very quickly in my mind to, I’ve come to read your gas meter. Then I realized, rega (wait a minute), my apartment is electric, not gas and there was no meter for him to read. I thought he was mistaken and asked him again what he said.
“Your gas mask,” he repeated, “from the war.” I just looked at him. Then I said that I had only lived in the apartment for a week. I’m not sure what that had to do with the situation but it was the only thing that I could think of…in English! He then asked me how long I had been in Israel to which I replied, “only a month.” We surmised together that I didn’t have a gas mask to turn over to him. I shut the door and then realized, this is ISRAEL and this is the reality of living in the Middle East.
I wasn’t sure if I should laugh or cry, feel comfort or fear. I was alarmed to realize that a government needed to give out gas masks to its residents in case of nuclear or chemical attacks. Then, I was comforted that, if in fact there was a war, I’d have a gas mask. Then, I was panicked that, the gas mask, which I didn’t possess, had to be given back. What if I needed it, what if another war breaks out tomorrow or while I was there? Will they bring me a gas mask in time? How do you work those things anyway? Do they have instructions?...in English?
I am not making light of having a gas mask for each person because as we have seen this past week a gas mask for each citizen in Syria would have prevented many unwarranted, unethical deaths. But it goes much deeper than that. These inhumane acts and the impending decision of Obama, in the name of the United States (read-your name) brings up the question what does this all mean for us as a nation, for the Syrians, and for us as Christians.
Unless there is a good reason to stray from the lectionary, I usually don’t do so. And while the scriptures that we just heard are lectionary readings for this week my sermon is no longer based on them. It’s time to stray. Not since I stood on line at Peoples Bank and watched, with horror, the footage of chemically scarred bodies of adults and children that were being brought to make shift triage centers and morgues, can I ignore our current situation.
A child gasping for air, screaming with fear, writhing in pain is not an image that I want to keep in my mind. But there it is, the absolute worst of human behavior sits at our doorstep. And while we might be tempted just to turn off the television sets or some electronic device thereof because we would rather not see those images, we cannot. Or at least, I cannot. To do so would be to turn a blind eye towards my fellow humans in the struggle that we call life and to deny my own feelings of fear, anger, and extreme sadness. And so this sermon is about Syria and beating our swords into plowshares.
It was Martin Niemoller, a German Protestant Pastor who had quite an inner journey himself through another tyrannical force, Nazism, who once said,
"In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up."
We are called to speak out where injustice is happening, we are called by Jesus out of our complacency and silence to strive for a better world. I heard on one CNN news clip a man cry out “Only God can bring justice”. While I believe that that is true there is much that we can do and it can begin with acknowledging our own discomfort, discontent, and perhaps confusion of what is the right course of action, the moral thing to do. We all probably agree that there should be consequences for such heinous acts, but what and at what cost? And can there be another way?
As a people of faith we need to ask ourselves what are the ethical and moral dimensions of the use of force? Will it bring a lasting peace or and emboldened government? Will it embody the gospel of peacemaking that we called to embrace?
As a people who are commanded to love God and one another are we diligently and collaboratively searching for solutions to Syria’s disregard and destruction of life? I think there is more that we can do as a nation. We cannot ‘go rouge’ at this critical juncture but seek out those partners once again who also want peace and this violence to end.
It is the prophet Isaiah who said, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares. And their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war any more.”
Beating our swords, implements of destruction into plowshares, the equipment that sows the seeds of life giving energy is hard, and time consuming, but worth every stroke on the anvil. Wouldn’t it be a staggering sound for peace if each nation beat together, at once, our swords into plowshares?
And what can you do in the here and now? How can you find hope when you might be feeling helpless? How can you think boldly while being scared on the inside? You can continue to be a people of prayer. The God of love, of justice and of mercy will receive your prayer. And you can be a people with a voice that begs to be heard in this world because the world, and most especially the Syrian people need a visible witness to God’s incredible love, forgiveness, mercy and peace. You can, in your own life, seek relationship with people who also search for peace and in doing so you will be comforted and not alone.
May the God of life sustaining grace guide us, protect us, and awaken our most imaginative brains for solution finding in this time of uncertainty and may we create plowshares, not swords, so that we can spread the seeds of long awaited for peace.