On 20th September 2015, the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8, Mark 9:30-37.
Tomorrow will be the International Day of Peace. This day was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 1981 as an annual day of non-violence and cease-fire and has been fixed as 21st September since 2002. It is a day “devoted to commemorating and strengthening the ideals of peace both within and among all nations and people.” This year the theme is “Partnerships for Peace – Dignity for All”, highlighting the partnerships which operate around the world between governments, civil society, NGOs and faith communities. It is only through these partnerships that the United Nations can achieve its goals.
As the United Nations celebrates its 70th anniversary, the notion of a peaceful world seems frustratingly out of reach. As Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General, says in his message: “This year’s International Day of Peace comes at a time of deadly violence and destabilizing conflicts around the world. Rather than succumbing to despair, we have a collective responsibility to demand an end to the brutality and impunity that prevail.
I call on all warring parties to lay down their weapons and observe a global ceasefire. To them I say: stop the killings and the destruction, and create space for lasting peace.
Although it may seem hopelessly distant, the dream of peace pulses in the lives of people everywhere.”
I’ve found myself wondering in recent days: what if I could see all the prayers ascending to God? How many of those would be prayers for peace and for the victims of conflict? I suspect quite a large proportion would be of that sort. Certainly in our chapel and cathedral here, prayers are said morning and evening for the many refugees who are making perilous journeys in a bid to reach safety away from areas of conflict, particularly Syria. When we see their plight daily on the news, it’s hard not to have them on our hearts. We watch tiny babies, disabled people and the old making their way as part of this flood of humanity. We cannot turn away when we remember that our Lord himself was a refugee before he reached the age of two.
The letter of James is pertinent to the problem of war. He looks at the cause of conflict and points to the cravings within human beings which lead to it. Having bitter envy and selfish ambition, wanting something, coveting it, and not being able to get it, leads to murder or disputes. Wars have been fought over ownership of land, over the craving for power and influence, over a wish to impose an ideology on others. Soon the right to water will be another cause of disagreement and perhaps of war. Family disputes have arisen over inheritances, child-rearing, religion, choice of spouse, and so many other issues. If the person or nation (which is, of course, composed of people) cannot get their own way, force is resorted to. Violence between nations and between family members is far too common in our world. If not physical conflict, there can be a war of words. Words can be very damaging, as I said last week.
In the Gospel passage for today, Jesus points out the same problem which James highlights in his letter. He had spent a period of time preparing his disciples for the road to the cross, for the fact that following him would involve suffering and serving others. After all that input he found that the disciples, far from taking the opportunity to consider how to serve, were arguing. He asked them what it was about and they were silent and ashamed. How could they so quickly forget what Jesus had been teaching them? They had seen Jesus, God incarnate, living a humble life. They had heard him anticipating a violent death at the hands of the religious authorities but the message had not hit home.
So Jesus began again, not purely with words, but with a visual aid. He brought a child and stood the child before them and hugged him or her. A child was of no consequence in society at that time, a mouth to feed, someone who worked as soon as possible, much like a servant or slave. Jesus said that the disciples needed to welcome a child in order to welcome him. They needed to turn their attention from themselves and their status to those who were nobodies, nothing, almost unseen as servants or slaves in a household might be. Forget being the greatest, set aside ambition, and be prepared to be the last of all and servant of all.
What Jesus was asking of his disciples, and of us, is not an easy thing. However, we are not left without help. James explains the kind of wisdom that is available from God: pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. If we ask God, not to give us the good things in life, but to help us transform our characters, he will honour that request. The way to benefit from what God can give us is to submit to him. Submission is the opposite of striving to be the top of the pile, the important one, the influential one. Submission is a living under the authority of another, as a child or a slave does. That is the way of life advocated by Jesus and James. That is the way to draw near to God and to distance ourselves from the evil that is so near to us.
When we observe the wars in the world we can feel impotent. Few of us are able to influence the course that world leaders take. However, we have a powerful tool which we believe makes a difference: we can pray, knowing God listens and God wants to bring about peace. Something to bear in mind is that all conflict has its source in individuals and their attitude to others. If we ask God to deal with the problem people who are bringing conflict to the world, we have to accept that we too are part of the problem. Each of us needs to change and grow if the world is to know peace.
Peace Day is also called a Day of Ceasefire. This refers to nations and to individuals. I invite you to consider any of your relationships that are not experiencing peace at the moment. Jesus said: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ I challenge you to forget your pride, your conviction that you are right, and declare a ceasefire with anyone with whom you are not currently at peace. That way we can each bring world peace a little closer.
Let us each do as the United Nations urges us and reaffirm our commitment to living in harmony as members of a single human family.