By Fr. Josh Thomas, Executive Director
At St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC
May I speak to you in the name of God, who was and is and will be forever. Amen.
Good morning St. Mark’s and thank you for welcoming me, and our community of Kids4Peace, into this community of love and justice. You’ve heard me talk about Kids4Peace a lot in my time here – an unusual, seemingly-impossible group of friends – Palestinians, Israelis and Americans; Christians, Jews and Muslims; on a mission to end conflict and inspire hope in Jerusalem and other deeply divided societies around the world. Societies like ours here at home, where violence, discrimination, hatred, and fear are just as alive as they are in the so-called Holy Land, thousands of miles away.
I will confess that this is a sleep-deprived sermon, on the tail end of 12 extraordinarily full days of camp – first in the gorgeous mountains of North Carolina, and – over this last weekend, here in DC.
We’ve gone canoeing and climbed a rock wall. We’ve toured museums and rode the Metro. We piled into the new Kids4Peace office on capitol hill for a giant group selfie. We prayed at Sixth and I, and at the jummah prayer in the Capitol. And we sat with top-level diplomats at the State Department to address about the challenges of our day.
It has been fun. But it has been a struggle, too. A struggle of disappointment when our White House tour fell through. When the food was not quite as good as home. When long days made for tired bodies, and long sessions made for tired minds. A struggle to live together with people who are so different from us – day in and day out.
When youth join Kids4Peace, they are in sixth grade. Mostly short and cute — children still. Everything is new. They discover other religions and cultures for the very first time, come to camp for the very first time, make new friends and sing silly songs. They learn to chant, with the one thousand other Kids4Peace from the last thirteen years: “Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them, We are Kids4Peace, Mighty Mighty Kids4Peace, Tired of the Fighting, Time to Do the Right Thing. We can do it Better. We can Live together. Salaam. Shalom. Kids4Peace!”
It is hopeful and powerful and inspiring and good and holy. But these youth here today are in seventh grade — older and wiser, one year on into this journey of peace. It’s not so easy anymore. Not so easy to do what the adults tell them. Not so easy to go with the flow. Not so easy to be happy all the time. Not so easy to just sing the songs.
Kids4Peace – though you drive your advisors crazy with your persistent quest to get your way; when you won’t take no for an answer. This is exactly what will make you good peacemakers, when you face the real struggles ahead.
Yes, you need to compromise, but also to stand your ground.
Yes, you need to listen, but also to make your voice heard.
Let your frustration, your anger, your pain, your disappointment; your desires and your longings, let them all be the energy that drives you to make peace.
You have faced struggles already – war in Gaza, attacks in Jerusalem week after week that have everyone on edge. You have seen Ferguson and Baltimore unfold on TV.
And just in the last week, while we were here at camp, the stabbings at the Jerusalem gay pride parade, a Palestinian baby killed in a price tag attack, and just this morning, a Muslim man beaten outside his home on his way home from prayers.
Last weekend, some of our Jewish campers marked the fast of Tisha B’Av, which remembers the destruction of the first and second Jewish temples.
According to tradition, the second temple was destroyed because of Sin’at chinam – senseless hatred. We see a lot of what seems like senseless hatred in this world. I’ll let you make your own list. As we talked together at camp, about Sin’at chinam – why it happens – our very smart peacemakers had a lot to say. It happens because one group wants to show power over another, one person suggested. And another, that Sin’at chinam suffers from a kind of bandwagon effect — once it starts, others join in, piling on, without even knowing why. There is a momentum to hate, an energy, a power, which grows and grows and sucks us into a disastrous vortex of death and destruction.
Senseless hate, like so many problems in this world, can seem insurmountable.
Racism, poverty, hunger, famine, and disease. Even gun violence – if you heard the story this week on NPR – a leading epidemiologist found that gun violence spreads exactly like an infectious disease, from one person to another, in a chain of events, a series of interactions, hurt to hurt, anger to anger, fear to fear, hate to hate, frustration to frustration.
This so-called epidemic, like this so-called intractable conflict in the Holy Land, is not so senseless – it is nothing more or less than the powerful product of a series of decisions. Decisions which have gained momentum and energy, for sure, but decisions which can be interrupted, which can be changed.
At the State Department on Friday, I saw again one of my all-time favorite quotes, by George Mitchell, who helped broker the peace in Northern Ireland. He said this:
“I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. They’re created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail.”
This is the message we need for today. A message of our own power, our own strength.
In our text today, we get a remix of the feeding of the 5,000 – a turning of the story into a sign about the person of Jesus. But while we often focus on Jesus, Bread of Life, or on the miracle of the feeding, there’s one part of the story that I (at least) have overlooked until now: the 5,000 themselves.
The fact that there were 5,000 people gathered on the hillside in the first place is, itself, a miracle.
Five thousand women and children (and probably some men, too), walking, struggling, coming to hear this prophet Jesus teach about the Good News for the poor, about a new Kingdom, a new reality coming into existence before their very eyes.
Five thousand gathered in hope. Five thousand gathered in faith. Five thousand gathered in love and justice. Five thousand gathered believing that something new is possible.
Five thousand people who made a choice, a series of choices, to set their hearts and minds and bodies on the struggle for equality and peace and compassion in this world.
This week, after the stabbings at the pride parade, and after the Palestinian baby was burned, there were some protests, some marches, some people standing up to say – as we do in Kids4Peace – that “violence stops with me.”
But there were not 5,000. There were 3,000 in Tel Aviv. 1,000 in Jerusalem. And millions who stayed home.
In Kids4Peace, we are working to build a movement for change, a new momentum to counteract the spread of hatred and violence and fear and injustice. We face an uphill battle, against cynicism and despair, against social norms in Jerusalem and here at home, that sustain and excuse injustice. That numb our minds and harden our hearts to the scandalous, offensive, evil suffering that tears our world apart. This must end. This can end.
Decision by decision, choice by choice.
Here, among these 29 Kids4Peace and their counselors and staff, is a community who have chosen to step into this struggle, with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength.
It is not easy. They face rejection by their peers. They are called traitors and spies. They struggle to be here, in this place of struggle, when it would be easier, maybe even more fun, just to be playing soccer, or piano, or playstation. It is not easy. But it is the right thing to do.
And it’s the right thing for us, as Christians, too. Our mission in this world is to reconcile all people with God and one another. Check it out, in the catechism at the back of the prayerbook. That is our job on this planet — to break down the walls that divide our world, and to bring good news of a new creation coming to life among us. It is what our new Presiding Bishop Elect Michael Curry calls the Jesus Movement — powerful, passionate, on the move for justice and change.
Our world is so broken, so torn, so filled with suffering that there is a lifetime of holy work for each of us to do. Wherever the Spirit calls us, we are inited to put the power of our lives toward the good and holy path, to energize the decisions that will lead to justice and peace and love.
And when we do – choice by choice, decision by decision – the tide can and will turn. Martin Luther King famously said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. And it bends more and more toward justice as we have the courage to struggle, the courage to add our voice, our hands, our feet. And to invite others to do the same.
We can shift the momentum. We can turn the tide. We can build a movement for lasting change.
But we will need 5,000 on the hilltop again. Ten thousand in the streets of Jerusalem. Millions across this globe. A Jesus movement turned out into this world, standing shoulder to shoulder with Muslims and Jews and people of goodwill from every tribe and language and people and nation.
A visible sign, a sacrament of peace.
Like all signs of the reign of God, begins in small and fragile ways – a mustard seed, a few pieces of bread and fish, a couple dozen teenagers who have the audacity to be friends, the courage to listen and to speak their truth, to compromise and to stand their ground.
What one choice will you make today, to help build a new 5,000 – to add your power to the path of peace.
With hard work and persistence, across months and years, change will come, change does come. As Christians, we do not have the luxury of despair. We have set our feet on the path of Jesus, a path along the way of the Cross, confident that resurrection is coming to meet us on the way. Amen.
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