Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ambassadors of Peace

A Meditation on Ephesians 2:11-22 ~ How it is that Christ dismantles dividing walls and mentors believers in the art of making peace.


Two years ago, I told you about my first visit to Israel and Palestine, and my first encounter with the massive security wall slicing its way through the Holy Land itself. I told you about a day I spent in the little Palestinian village of Bil’in, and the cruel way that barrier splits off a village from its orchards, from its ancestral lands, from its livelihood. It was maddening. I met young mothers and young fathers whose kids don’t get enough to eat, whose ancient agricultural traditions are eviscerated. And I watched dozens, that day, gathering where the barrier was to be extended. Waving Palestinian flags. Singing songs of protest.

They were then – and still are today – a broken-hearted people. A people with a history, but without a chance. Still they seemed proud to me, and generous. Determined to make a point. When the Israeli army arrived at last, young soldiers stood beyond the barbed wire and laughed at the crude and powerless protest. At the simple-minded villagers. I have to tell you: it made my blood boil. When they’d had enough, those same soldiers shot canisters of American-made tear gas into the fields, dispersing the Palestinian villagers and reminding one and all what real power looks like and smells like.

On a tour through the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, just a couple of days later, I was reminded that at least one of the companies contracted to build that huge concrete security wall in Palestine has also been contracted here, in this country, to build our own massive wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. As if all we need, all our children need, is a few more walls. As if all we need is a few hundred miles of barbed wire and armed lookouts. Again, this reminder made me angry. And I remember taking a pen from my pocket, stepping over to the wall itself and penning my own little protest: “FCC Against Walls.” Maybe you’ve seen the picture on my office door. “FCC Against Walls.” This angry little bit of graffiti right there on the wall in East Jerusalem. Often in the morning, I’d look at that picture as I arrived at church to begin a new day. I’d think about the folks in Bil’in, the mothers and fathers and grandparents and kids. I’d think about them gathering – as they do every Friday – to protest. “FCC Against Walls.” Just a picture.

This last summer, though, I followed the path of that same dividing wall with several of you. And I looked at the deepening despair in the faces of some of the same folks I’d met two years before. That wall has not made their lives any better. Or their economy. Or their schools. And, coming home to Santa Cruz, seeing that little picture on my door downstairs, it struck me that I’m no longer satisfied with protest. It’s not enough anymore to pen a little graffiti or even howl in disgust. I want to be part of a movement, a church, a ministry that actively works to dismantle walls. I’m proud to say we have some friends right here in this congregation who are aggressively boycotting businesses making a profit off of that wall in Palestine and the mayhem it creates. It’s not enough anymore to howl in disgust. I want to join them: I want to be part of a movement, a church that actively works to dismantle the walls built to divide and demoralize.


It’s easy to get all tripped up by the jargon in this Letter to the Ephesians. All this about the ‘circumcised’ and the ‘uncircumcised,’ ‘covenants of promise,’ ‘aliens from the commonwealth.’ But the interpretive key, I think, is hidden in plain view; and it’s right here in the 13th and 14th verses. It’s about distance and division, it’s about hostility and walls. And it’s about Christ breaking, busting, dissolving, dismantling those walls. Not in some abstract, theoretical way. But in the flesh. In the here and now. In the church.

Two verses: “Now,” says the apostle. “Now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off – you who were adversaries, strangers, living on opposing sides of walls and barriers and phobias – you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Something happens in this faith – and in this faith community – to bridge the distance, to reconcile and heal. It’s the essential happening in the Christian church. And then this 14th verse: “For Christ is our peace. For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one – he has made adversaries into collaborators; he has made strangers into friends; he has made folks on opposing sides of history into neighbors – he has made us one and broken down the dividing walls, that is, the hostility between us.”

So here’s the thing. When we talk about peace, we’re not talking about some endpoint when everything’s groovy at last and everybody’s singing ‘kum ba yah’ around the campfire. When we talk about peace, we’re not talking about a spiritual destination, we’re talking about a spiritual path, a process, a vigorous way of life. Archbishop Oscar Romero had it exactly right: “Peace is the generous, tranquil contribution of all to the good of all. Peace is dynamism. Peace is generosity. It is our right and our duty.” Jesus, then, is this force for peace, this energy for peace, this movement toward the common good; and in his body, in Jesus’ church, we become one people, breaking down dividing walls, dismantling hostilities and phobias, reconciling broken pieces of the human family. Peace is dynamism.

And obviously we’re not just talking about the security wall in Palestine. We’re talking about that terrible wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and the xenophobic, racist politics it inspires. We’re talking about homophobia as a wall that leads kids to bully other kids and too many churches to look the other way. And we’re talking about economic walls, class walls that build into the American experience an unholy tolerance for poverty, an unholy tolerance for homelessness, an unholy tolerance for hungry children in a land so rich and so blessed. These are the walls we want to break to pieces, the barriers we’re called to dismantle. Peace is our right and our duty.

And it’s not enough to shake our fists. I hope you agree that it’s not enough simply to lament how ugly and destructive these walls are. I want to be part of a church that steps into the middle of it all and begins to take the damn walls down. So I’ve taken down that little picture on my door. “FCC Against Walls” just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s not enough. I’m looking for inspiration for a replacement. Something like “MY CHURCH TAKES THE DAMN WALLS DOWN.”


Undoubtedly, you see where this is going. PEACE UNITED CHURCH. I confess that, to me, it has a dynamic ring, a compelling ring. PEACE UNITED CHURCH. And I think it’s worth thinking about, praying about. It may be a way, a new way, for us to communicate the edgy, progressive message of our gospel to a community hungry for edgy good news, and for peace. But this is about more than a name change. I’m laying out this suggestion today and then I’ll sit back as you wonder about the implications. And this whole thing could go all kinds of ways – every one of which will be OK. I just want to make that so clear: I’m OK with however this goes for us.

What’s most exciting – to me – is that we recognize what Christ is doing in us: healing homophobia and hostilities between straight folks and queer folks; insisting on community bridges linking homeless friends with neighborhood resources; dismantling xenophobic walls in America and dividing walls in Palestine; encouraging Christians to make common cause with Jews and Muslims, and Buddhists and pagans, and all kinds of believers and dreamers. This is what Christ does – nothing less than this. And this is who Christ is – I’d even say it’s the essence of who Christ is. Christ is our peace – the kind of peace that makes the many one and breaks down dividing walls, all kinds of walls. When we pass the peace in the first moments of these services, it’s more than a nod to an ancient ritual. It’s a commitment: it’s the recognition that something happens here, something is possible here. Christ is our peace.

What I want us to appreciate today is that peace means discipline, peace means practice, peace means commitment. It’s so much more than a name change. We aim to become God’s partners in peacemaking, Christ’s ambassadors of peace. And that kind of becoming is a rigorous, vigorous, disciplined, delightful thing. It doesn’t happen by accident; and it doesn’t happen without mindfulness and dedication. PEACE UNITED CHURCH is a place where children are learning to make peace in their classrooms and neighborhoods. It’s a place where spouses and partners are learning to create peace in their homes and families. It’s a place where Christians are learning to generate peace in relationships with Jewish and Muslim friends. And it’s a place where all of us are celebrating peace, as the walls, all the walls, come tumbling down. PEACE UNITED CHURCH is a place where peace partners are made and peace ambassadors are trained and peacemakers are inspired. Christ is our peace; and peace is our practice.


I know that many of you have read Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller, “Eat, Pray, Love.” She tells a story, in the book, about learning how to pray, and thinking it should be easy, and realizing that it’s not. It turns out that peace is a journey, even a demanding journey; and it involves all kinds of training and all kinds of practice. You don’t just download peace off the internet. Ask practitioners of Contemplative Christianity, or Zen Buddhism, or Sufi Mysticism, or Gandhian Nonviolence. So Elizabeth Gilbert tells this story about that journey, about training and practice.

So she’s meditating one morning, in this ashram, in India; and this particular morning, she catches herself thinking. About stuff. She starts thinking about where she should live when her year of traveling is over. She starts thinking that maybe a change would be good: move away from New York, Austin’s supposed to be nice, Chicago has all that architecture. Or maybe she should move overseas, heard good things about Sydney, maybe get an extra bedroom, paint it gold, make it into a meditation room. Maybe a rich blue. No, it’s gotta be gold.

And she catches herself here, and she thinks: “Here you are in India, in an ashram in one of the holiest places on earth. And instead of communing with the divine, you’re trying to plan where you’ll be meditating a year from now, in a home that doesn’t yet exist, in a city yet to be determined. Is this really,” she asks herself, “is this really the best you can do?”

So that night, Elizabeth Gilbert tries something new. She’d met a woman in the ashram who’d been studying Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is an ultra-orthodox, stripped-down Buddhist meditation technique. Basically, she says, it’s the Extreme Sports version of transcendence. Spiritually humbling. Physically demanding. Because, in Vipassana meditation, you’re not allowed to shift your body at all once you’ve been seated, no matter how uncomfortable you get. You just sit there and tell yourself, “There’s no reason I need to move at all during the next two hours.” If you’re feeling discomfort, you’re supposed to meditate upon that discomfort, watching the effect that physical pain has on you. Observing. Exploring.

Now here’s where it gets interesting for me. Here’s the part about spiritual discipline and peacemaking. Day to day, Elizabeth Gilbert says, we’re constantly hopping around to adjust ourselves around discomfort – physical, emotional, psychological – in order to avoid the reality of grief and nuisance. Am I the only one that feels implicated in this? Vipassana teaches that grief and nuisance are inevitable in this life, in every life; but if you can plant yourself in stillness long enough, you’ll eventually experience the truth that everything – both uncomfortable and lovely – everything does eventually pass. Here’s an epiphany, a kernel of wisdom worth repeating: If you can plant yourself in stillness long enough, you’ll eventually experience the truth that everything does eventually pass. Everything.

So Elizabeth Gilbert finds a quiet garden bench one evening, and decides to sit in meditation for an hour – Vipassana-style. No movement, no agitation, not even a mantra – just sitting and watching, sitting and watching. To see what comes up. And unfortunately, what ‘comes up’ at dusk in India is this menacing hoard of mosquitoes. As soon as she sits, she hears them coming at her, brushing her face and landing like an air force on her head, her ankles, her arms. And she thinks to herself: “Maybe this is not a good time to practice Vipassana meditation.”

On the other hand – when IS it a good time of day, or life, to sit in detached stillness? When ISN’T there something buzzing about, trying to distract you and get a rise out of you? It’s especially true for those of us called to be ambassadors of peace, those of us drawn to the world’s heartbreaking conflicts and menacing walls. Distractions are legion. Mosquitoes are everywhere. So Elizabeth Gilbert makes a decision: “What if I just sat through this for once? Instead of slapping and griping, what if I sat through the discomfort, for just one hour of my long life?”

And this is what she does. In the stillness, she watches herself getting eaten by all those mosquitoes. Part of her is wondering what this little macho experiment is meant to prove; but another part knows – it’s a beginner’s attempt, just a beginner’s attempt, at self-mastery. If she can sit through this, what other discomforts might she someday sit through? What about emotional distress? What about jealousy, anger, fear, disappointment?

Now all the itching is maddening at first, but merges eventually into a low-grade burning. Elizabeth Gilbert allows all this to become pure sensation – neither good nor bad, just remarkably intense; and this intensity lifts her out of herself and into some kind of meditation. For two hours. She sits there perfectly still for two hours.

There’s something mildly thrilling, she writes, about realizing that in 34 years on earth she’s never NOT slapped at a mosquito when it was biting her. She’s been a puppet, she says, to this and millions of other small signals of pain and pleasure in her life. Whenever something happens, she reacts. But now she’s doing something she’s never done before. She’s letting it go. A small thing, granted, but how often do you get to say that? And what becomes possible – what kind of peace, what kind of balance, what kind of serenity – when you don’t slap at all those mosquitoes, when you don’t gripe about every nuisance? Maybe this is the beginning. Of peace.

So after two hours, Elizabeth Gilbert stands, walks to her room and assesses the damage. She counts about twenty mosquito bites. But the thing is, within a half an hour, all the bites have ebbed and settled. It all goes away, she says. Eventually, everything goes away.


If we’re going to be the ambassadors of peace God needs in the world, we’ve got to learn how NOT to slap and NOT to gripe. We’ve got to learn to sit still and watch, how to find peace inside, how to translate that peace into relationships, politics and everything else. There are some walls inside of you and me that need to come down too, some walls in our hearts that need dismantling. And only practice, only discipline, only grace can show us how.

So - PEACE UNITED CHURCH. Don’t you have a sense that there’s a kind of pervasive cynicism at the root of so many cultural crises these days. We just don’t believe that peace is possible anymore – peace between nations, peace between political parties, peace between humankind and the big blue earth, even peace in families and homes. That kind of cynicism makes folks tired and anxious; and it wears at the fabric of so many relationships and neighborhoods and institutions.

But what if? What if PEACE UNITED CHURCH was a place where training was available – for visionaries and peacemakers, for families and couples and activists? What if PEACE UNITED CHURCH was a community in which seekers caught a glimpse of what’s possible in their own lives – stillness and prayer, resilient faith and dynamic hope? What if this church was that place – in Santa Cruz – that place where the walls come tumbling down and the peace of Christ brings strangers and immigrants into one holy body, artists and dreamers into one holy body, battle-weary believers and mosquito-bitten mystics into one holy body? What if PEACE UNITED CHURCH captured the imagination of a generation of college students and young adults and set them free to change the world?

This is so much more than a name change. This is about the gospel. This is about taking that gospel to heart. This is about trusting in the power of that gospel to change the world. This is about riding out the distractions and the discomfort and the mosquitoes that arrive at the most inconvenient times. This is about dismantling walls and breaking down barriers. This is about you and me choosing every morning, and with every breath, to become ambassadors of peace.