Sermon: Led Forth in Peace

Fr. Josh Thomas —  July 1, 2008

Sermon preached at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta
July, 2008 by Fr. Josh Thomas

For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

I greet you this morning on behalf of Dr. Henry Carse, director of Kids4Peace, who would normally be standing here on this Sunday morning, to bring you words of gratitude and hope from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim kids and families of Jerusalem and from our peace pals and peace parents here in the Diocese of Atlanta.

It is an honor to be here at St. Anne’s, and to offer to you, on behalf of Kids4Peace, our gratitude for allowing us to make your home – our home, for a while–– a place of refuge, safety, and welcome on our difficult journey of building peace. It has been an honor for me to serve as a counselor and dialogue facilitator with Kids4Peace over these last three years, to share with 72 Jewish, Christian and Muslim young people from Jerusalem and Atlanta their lives, their struggles and joys.

And there are many struggles and many joys here at Kids4Peace, as a new group of twenty-four children of Abraham from Palestine, Israel and America come together each summer to spend two weeks at Camp Mikell and here in Atlanta learning about each other’s religions, cultures, and ways of life, in order to develop friendships strong enough to last in the face of conflict, division and pain. In these last two weeks, we have shared the struggles of living in close quarters, sometimes too close for comfort.

We have struggled to understand each other’s languages, to stay focused through long days, to respect stories different from our own, and to become friends with those we have been taught were enemies. These holy struggles are the stuff of peacebuilding, and the Kids4Peace always inspire me with their compassion, openness and love. They have done what many said was impossible, and I honor them for that.

But when we think about making peace, we often think only of struggle, only of the hard work of overcoming violence and hurt. When we think about Israel and Palestine, we often think only of checkpoints and rocket attacks, only of separation walls
and bus bombings, only of suicide bombers or politicians, or soldiers.

For most of us, most of the time, these images of war fill our imaginations, and they can trick us into believing that peace will never come.

At Kids4Peace, we do not ignore the reality of this violence that inspired a few adults, seven years ago, to dream of a summer camp where Israeli and Palestinian children could leave the fighting, for a while, and learn new ways to live together.

But here at Kids4Peace, we do more than this. When I ask groups of Kids4Peace alumni what they have learned about making peace and what they most want to share with adults, it’s almost always the message that making peace can be fun. There is so
much joy here at Kids4Peace. The joy of learning that what unites is always more than what divides. The joy of creating a beautiful mosaic picture frame. The joy of learning anew word in another language. The joy of singing, very loudly, for the millionth time “give me your unconditional love.” The joyful, holy curiosity in each other’s mosques, synagogues and churches, a desire to learn so strong that there is seldom enough time for all their questions. The joy of silly songs, of swimming and soccer games, of foursquare and vollis; the joy of delighting in God’s creation at the Georgia aquarium, and of conversations that touch the soul. Here is where peace comes, hand in hand, side by side, day by day – weaving together the stories and hopes and dreams that lead to peace.

Last night, downstairs in the St. Anne’s library, the Kids4Peace shared their dreams. Inspired by a visit from civil rights leader John Lewis, and with faces whose smiles radiated so much joy that we advisors were in tears, they shared these dreams:
I have a dream of equality between poor people and rich people. I have a dream that I will make wise choices in my life. I have a dream to save the environment. I have a dream to see world peace. I have a dream to be a field surgeon in the army. I have a
dream to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I have a dream that wars will be a thing of the past and not the present. I have a dream to protect nations from war. I have a dream to stop the wall so I can see my cousins. I have a dream to be a famous musician. I have a dream to be a WNBA player. I have a dream to be the peacemaker who will bring peace to Israel and Palestine.
In the face of these dreams, I want to take off my shoes, like Moses, for this is holy ground. At Kids4Peace, I sense the reign of God is very near, so close I can feel it in my bones. At Kids4Peace, I see the signs of the redemption that Isaiah speaks of in his
prophecy today, about what will happen when the Exiles finally are able to return from Babylon to their long-awaited home. Thorns and briers turn to beautiful trees, the powerful Word of God finally accomplishes God’s purposes, and all of Creation,
mountains and hills and trees of the field burst into song at the joy that is coming to lead us to peace.

But as deep as this joy is, as strong as these dreams are, as holy as the struggles may be, they are fragile, too. Fragile joys, fragile hopes, fragile struggles, and there are still many thorns and briers in our path toward peace. Thorns of awkwardness and fear, of suspicion and hate, briers of hurt and separation and ignorance that ensnare us, trap us,and keep us from each other.In the face of these dreams, joys, and struggles, there is more we need to do thansimply marvel in the face of the holy, or offer pious congratulations.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us in the parable of the sower that what mattersfor whether the seed will grow is the kind of soil on which it falls. The seed on the path is eaten by birds, snatched away by evil. The seed on the rocky ground has no depth andwithers in the hot sun, as initial excitement without deep roots dries up under pressure.The seed among thorns is choked and prevented from growing, by the enticements ofselfishness and superiority.

And while the work of making peace belongs most strongly to these amazing young people as they shape a future for themselves and the whole world, we all can prepare some good soil for them. Turning it over, watering it with love, softening theground, tending it gently and carefully, allowing the seeds their best chance to grow. We can model what it means to have a faith so deeply rooted in God that nothing can drive usaway. We can join them in solidarity as fellow peacemakers, supporting one another in the face of ridicule, indifference and greed. We can uproot the thorns of anger, prejudiceand separation that threaten to choke the life out of all of us and become with them acommunity of peacemakers, a garden of joy.

We know what we need to do. The Kids4Peace yesterday reminded us that wecan’t make peace unless we understand each other, love each other, listen to each other,talk things out, stop fighting, know our religious customs, use nonviolence, speak ourrights so that all will have freedom. We can’t make peace unless we WANT it and TRY.And this week we have wanted it, and tried really hard. In our struggles and ourjoys, we have lived Gandhi’s timeless counsel to become the change we want to see inthe world. We have lived together, Jews, Christians and Muslims; Palestinians, Israelisand Americans. We have made peace … not an easy peace where everything seemsperfect, but a real peace forged through honesty and challenge, through a commitment toeach other strong enough to stay connected through whatever frustrations come our way.

There are still many thorns and briers in our path, still many challenges that await us when we leave this place of safety and closeness and return to our communities where division and suspicion are the norm. There is still much to do before one kid’s dream of seeing peace will come true. But I can see here today at least twenty-four young cypressand myrtle trees, signs of hope and healing, and perhaps if you join us again in our journey of peace, we might even begin to hear the mountains singing and the hills clapping for joy.

Salaam. Shalom. Amen

Fr. Josh Thomas

Posts

Executive Director (USA) of Kids4Peace International. Presbyter, The Episcopal Church.