Here's the text of the sermon I preached this morning at the United Church of Tallahassee. Their service was very much geared toward a Memorial Day theme.
Let There Be Peace on Earth, and Let it Begin with Me
Texts: an Islamic Prayer for Peace; Micah 4:1, 3-4; Matthew 5:43-48
Happy Memorial Day weekend! We’ve had an opportunity this morning to honor those who have served the country, and we appreciate the sacrifices they’ve made on behalf of all of us who live in the United States. I hope that our country does a better job of serving you in the future.
Memorial Day has come to be a celebration of all of our veterans, but its original intent was to remember those who died in the Civil War. Several cities and towns have claimed the title of being the birthplace of this holiday. The Veterans Administration cites the first Memorial Day as May 30, 18-68. Then called, “Decoration Day,” General John Logan, the national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, ordered that flowers should be placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. By 18-90, Memorial Day had become a holiday in the northern states. Southern states chose other days to honor those who died in the Civil War. Eventually, the whole nation came to adopt the holiday, but only after World War I, when it became a time commemorating more than just those who died in the Civil War.
The fighting that took place in this country pitting north against south, citizen against citizen, brother against brother, has been called one of the bloodiest and deadliest conflicts in our history. The wounds of slavery from that period are still with us, and continue to haunt our various institutions. The animosity between North and South is still there. Now, we just call them “Red States” vs. “Blue States.” A perpetual “Us” vs. “Them” mentality always seems to crop up in how we humans relate to one another.
And yet, today, we have heard sentiments from our Abrahamic traditions which seem to point us in a direction of discovering that we are more alike than we are different. The words from the Islamic Prayer for Peace calls on us “to know each other and not despise each other” even though we are from many tribes and nations. This sentiment is then followed with by the words of the prophet Micah that nations will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor ever again shall they train for war.” We would hope this is true. We would hope this is where we’re all headed, but one need only look at the on-going conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis, the strife that is tearing apart people in Sudan and Nigeria, to say nothing of the divisions in this country to know that even those who come from faith traditions that profess peace between nations will dissolve into combat and conflict.
Which brings us to the words from Matthew’s Gospel in our triad of readings from these three major religions. Jesus is addressing those who have gathered to hear his Sermon on the Mount, and he is telling them to rethink the teaching, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ and instructs them instead to ‘Love your enemy,’ noting that anybody can love the person who is just like themselves; it’s a bigger deal to love the one whom you can’t stand. Not just a bigger deal; it’s a huge challenge! Think about the times when you’ve been in conflict with someone, whether at work or school, or even someone in your family. It’s a whole lot easier to despise a person who hurts us than it is to love them.
There is a prayer in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (yes, we do pray out of a book) which is simply called, “For our enemies.” It goes:
“O God, the Father of all whose Son taught us to love our enemies, lead them and us from prejudice to truth. Deliver them and us from cruelty, hatred and revenge. And in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ Our Lord. Amen.”
The thing I love about that particular prayer is how it recognizes that this idea of “loving the enemy” isn’t just an outward action, but an inward change of heart that leads to compassion. I can’t pray for the person or persons I’m in conflict with by saying, “O God, make them see things my way. Make them quit being cruel to me and hateful toward me.” The power of this prayer comes in recognizing that I, too, am a participant in the conflict, and perhaps it’s time for me to beat my sword into a plowshare. That’s not to say that when someone is doing harm to me, I just lie there and take it. But I have a choice in how I respond: do I respond likewise in doing harm to them, or do I refuse to participate in their negativity. I remember when the Leon County Commission was debating the adoption of adding “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the Human Rights Ordinance. There were those who identified themselves alternately as “small business owners” or “Christian” or both who rose to speak against the proposal. Some of them were out-right rude to the transgender population; others were threatening to leave the county if the commission extended protection against discrimination to “those people.” I was furious as I listened to this on-going debate. And as I felt my blood boiling, I would lower my gaze and I would say the prayer for my enemies. As I did this, I could sense a change in the core of my being. Instead of remaining enraged, I could feel myself letting go of my anger. One of the T-V stations grabbed me and wanted to do an interview. Now, having once been a reporter, you’d think that I would have been OK with this, but I really was not because it’s a whole lot easier being the one asking the questions than being the one answering them. Still, I consented to going on camera and doing an interview about the ordinance. When I later saw the footage, I was stunned. They had interviewed me and one of the opponents. And, despite my fears of sounding like a bumbling idiot, not only had I articulated the case clearly for why we should have these additions to the Human Rights Ordinance; I appeared calm in contrast to my counterpart who was clearly still so invested in her anger and opposition that it showed in her demeanor. Her fear was palpable; my love was visible.
If we want to achieve a goal of being a people of many nations and tribes who know each other, who beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks and no longer train for war, our first step needs to be to work on our own hearts. With God’s help, we have to come to a place of compassion for others so that we learn to love and respect the dignity of all people, and not just the ones who are like us. The only person we can control is ourselves. If our desire is for peace on earth and the end to conflict, then it begins with us, grounding through prayer in the love that is from our creator, redeemer and sustainer. This will fuel that fire of love that we carry out to change our world for the better. Amen.