This has been a weekend full of opportunities to focus on Peace. Yesterday was the United Nations sponsored International Day of Peace which strives to strengthen the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples – some folks from this congregation marked the occasion by participating in a gun violence awareness program sponsored by the Washington Chapter of Heading God’s Call. Today we join in with many of our sisters and brothers across the Mennonite community on what has been designated Peace Sunday by Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite World Conference. And all of this focus on peace comes after a week in which our local community experienced the unexpected violence of the Navy Yard shootings on Monday and after weeks of uncertainty about what sort of action our nation might take in response to ongoing violence in Syria to mention just two of an uncountable multitude of complex situations in our world today – as always the need to set aside time to focus on peace is great.
While our world and cultures show us each day that there are many paths of conflict our faith can show us that there are at least as many types of peace as there are conflicts and so it exciting to explore peace because there is so much to discover. With each discovery we make about peace comes a chance of reconciliation, hope, and healing and an opportunity for us to grow in relationship with ourselves, each other, and God.
We see in scripture that seeking peace is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And those same scriptures teach us that seeking peace means letting go of our own ideas and instincts about what vengeance or justice might look like and instead teaches us to build relationship first. In Matthew 5:43-44 we hear Jesus breaking the accepted pattern of retaliation:
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.
This is counter cultural Jesus at it again trying to get us to understand that cultural expectations are not always God’s priorities. As people of faith we are called to challenge the teachings of our times and act as God would have us act. In Paul’s letter to the Romans we also find encouragement to live counter culturally in Romans 12:2:
Don’t conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so that you can judge what God’s will is – what is good, pleasing and perfect.
Mennonites have long liked this verse and its support of non-conformation to the things of the world and have over time acted on it in diverse ways including intentional choices about dress, transportation, acceptable forms of entertainment. Probably none of these things were quite what Paul was getting at in his message of non-conformation, but they have certainly made a name for Mennonites in broader culture as a group of people who choose their own path, even if it is outside of cultural norms, in honor of our faith. One of the biggest ways Mennonites have made a name for themselves while walking this unique path is our focus on peace.
This past week I met a woman who wasn’t very familiar with Mennonites, but she immediately started racking her brain because she knew something about them and was trying to place what it was. “Aren’t the Mennonites interested in peace she said? Aren’t they the ones who sent bags of rice to President Eisenhower to keep him from bombing China?” I had no idea what she was referring to but was able to assure her that Mennonites are indeed interested in peace and that sending bags of rice to the president sounded like something we might do. Turns out after further research that the story about Eisenhower that she was thinking of most likely did not happen, but there was a related initiative called the “Rice for Peace” campaign supported by the Boulder Mennonite Church to send bags of rice to President Bush to encourage him to send food, not war to Iraq.
This act of sending rice to the President was an act of peace, it was simple and it was creative. Over the past several weeks while reading different viewpoints on how the US should respond to events in Syria, specifically from people of faith trying to figure out how we might respond to violent situations without resorting to additional violence, one theme kept coming up – creativity. Creativity is about newness – it is about generating ideas, making connections and imagining possibilities. Creativity is about not being tied to what is or what always has been but instead thinking about what might be. In an article called The Art of Creativity Daniel Goleman and Paul Kaufman suggest that creativity is all around us – “Our lives can be filled with creative moments, whatever we do, as long as we’re flexible and open to new possibilities—willing to push beyond routine.” Pushing beyond the routine is also what it takes to work for peace. To work for peace is to believe that there is a response to a moment or a conflict that is life affirming even if it is unexpected.
Roman’s 12 challenges us to step willingly into a life of the unexpected that pushes us beyond the routine and actively seeks out the way of God:
Sisters and brothers, I beg you through the mercy of God to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Don’t conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so that you can judge what God’s will is – what is good, pleasing and perfect.
This is a call to creative living – affirmation that when we commit to seeking God, God is with us, renewing our minds, transforming us and allowing us to see new connections and possibilities so that we can actively live out God’s peace in the world. A peace that can be lived out every day in creative ways.
Creativity, can seem daunting to those not in the habit of making use of it. It is attainable but it takes practice. Goleman and Kaufman’s article explores the art of learning to make use of creativity: “The everyday expression of creativity often takes the form of trying out a new approach to a familiar dilemma…The more you can experience your own originality, the more confidence you get, the greater the probability that you’ll be creative in the future. The idea is to develop the habit of paying attention to your own creativity. Eventually, you will come to place greater trust in it and instinctively turn to it when you are confronted with problems.” This realization about creativity translates to peacemaking. When we practice peace, even in everyday ways, we can become more comfortable and confident in what it feels like and are more likely to naturally turn to a peaceful approach to a situation when it arises.
Romans 12:9-21 provides insight into how Paul was calling the Roman church to live out God’s peace in the world in everyday ways and it works for us today. Picking up at verse 9 we find a whole list of ways to actively live in community. Love authentically, cling to what is good, show respect, rejoice in hope, be patient in the midst of trials, pray, and be generous in offering hospitality. In all of this we are striving to do what we can, to the extent that others will allow us, to be at peace with everyone. Also included are instructions for walking with others – we are to meet others where they are and join in their journeys – rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. This is standing in solidarity with each other, the power of which was reinforced this week for us here at Hyattsville in a message from Ricardo Esquivia, a peace worker in Colombia who is currently facing threats of political persecution for his peacemaking actions. He wrote his thanks to the community here at Hyattsville for continuing to stand with the communities there and said that “solidarity is the weapon of the people.” God willing, Ricardo will be here with us next week to talk, in person, more about his work for peace in conflict-affected communities in Colombia, until then we get to practice peace through solidarity of spirit and prayer. When we get in the practice of living out peace in these everyday ways we will be naturally empowered to seek peaceful responses in larger conflicts and to encourage those in positions of power to think creatively about possibilities.
Rachel Lyndaker Schlabach of the Mennonite Peace and Justice Support Network wrote in a recent blog post about a meeting between a group of Syrian civil society leaders a Senate staffer; an experience which reinforced the message that it is imperative for people of faith to speak up with ideas and support leaders in thinking about new ways of response. She writes:
“Rather than seeing the only two options as standing idly by or sending arms, as followers of Jesus we can help policymakers think more creatively…The Senate staffer expressed skepticism that the courageous work for peace being doing by activist in communities across Syria could somehow bring about an end to the war. “It is good work,” [the staffer] said. “But how does it have any relevance to what political and military leaders are doing?” Policy makers need to hear from people of faith that [courageous work] is, in fact, the way peace is realized – it cannot come from the barrel of a gun.”
Our culture has become all too familiar with the power of violence as we live surrounded by displays and the ramifications of it every day. It is easy to be overwhelmed. As followers of Jesus, we are called to challenge the norm of violence and to instead be bearers of blessings and peace. When I was a kid we had a record called “I Can Make Peace.” It was full of stories and songs about choosing to be a peacemaker and encouraging ideas of how to respond with peace in moments of conflict. This week I kept singing one phrase of a song on that album that still sticks with me in moments of feeling overwhelmed and helpless when surrounded by conflict: “There’s something I can do, and it’s real important too, I can make peace, it’s true.” I don’t share this as a way to make acts of peace sound simplistic and easy, but instead I see this as encouragement to keep seeking peace creatively in those moments when we may initially feel that our options are limited to being idle or feeding the conflict. There is something we can do, we can make peace. Do not be overcome by evil, Paul says, but overcome evil by doing good. May we ground ourselves in God who will renew our minds and transform us into living vessels of creative peace.