Thursday, September 02, 2010

Sermon for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Let There Be Peace on Earth"

Sermon 8/29/10
Luke 14:1, 7-14, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16


Let There Be Peace on Earth


"Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me; let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be/ With God our creator, children all are we. Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony. Let peace begin with me; let this be the moment now. With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow: to take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." This short and simple hymn takes seventh place in our congregation's top-ten hymn list.
According to their company, Jan-Lee Music, “Sy Miller and Jill Jackson were a husband and wife songwriting team, who, in 1955, wrote a song about their dream of peace for the world and how they believed each one of us could help create it.” Jill was a former actress, having starred in many Westerns in the 1930s, and Sy was a composer for Warner Brothers. Jill wrote lyrics. Sy composed music. “They first introduced [Let There Be Peace on Earth] to a group of teenagers selected from their high schools to attend a weeklong retreat in California. The young people were purposefully from different religious, racial, cultural and economic backgrounds, brought together to experiment with creating understanding and friendship through education, discussion groups, and living and working together in a camp situation.” Sy Miller describes how it happened:
He said, “One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment – 'Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,' helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding. When they came down from the mountain, these inspired young people brought the song with them and started sharing it. And, as though on wings, 'Let There Be Peace on Earth' began an amazing journey around the globe. It traveled first, of course, with the young campers back to their homes and schools, churches and clubs. Soon the circle started by the teenagers began to grow. Before long the song was being shared in all fifty states – at school graduations and at PTA meetings, at Christmas and Easter gatherings and as part of the celebration of Brotherhood Week. It was a theme for Veteran’s Day, Human Rights Day and United Nations Day. 4H Clubs and the United Auto Workers began singing it . . . It was taped, recorded, copied, printed in songbooks, and passed by word of mouth. The song spread overseas [and around the world.]” (2)
For Jill Jackson, the song had a more personal meaning. According to peacehistory.org, Jackson spoke of her early life—how she became an orphan as a young girl, and her difficult journey through foster care, that led her into despair and attempted suicide. She describes that it was then that she realized the presence of a higher power in her life and how she eventually came to [develop] the song. She said, “When I attempted suicide and I didn't succeed, I knew for the first time unconditional love—which God is. God is unconditional love. You are totally loved, totally accepted, just the way you are. In that moment I was not allowed to die, and something happened to me which is very difficult to explain. I had an eternal moment of truth, in which I knew I was loved, and knew I was here for a purpose." (2)
Let There Be Peace on Earth was awarded the George Washington Honor Medal by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge for “Outstanding achievement in helping to bring about a better understanding of the American Way of Life.” It also received a Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews.” In Sy Miller’s words again: ‘This simple thought, 'Let There Be Peace on Earth, and Let It Begin With Me' first born on a mountain top in the voices of youth, continues to travel heart to heart – gathering in people everywhere who wish to become a note in a song of understanding and peace—peace for all [human]kind." (1)
So today we have this peace song, and we also have our gospel lesson from Luke. Jesus is giving something of an etiquette lesson, with, of course, his own unique spin. He’s at the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, eating a Sabbath meal, and we read that he’s being closely observed by those who are there. No doubt, some of the religious leaders are just looking for Jesus to do or say something that they can criticize. But Jesus is also closely observing the guests. We frequently see Jesus at meals in the gospels, and he often uses mealtime as a teaching time. He watches how the social hierarchy plays out at meals. He sees people wanting the seats of highest honor. People sit according to status, and everyone seems eager to show off how important they are by where they’re sitting.
But Jesus tells people to do just the opposite of what they would normally: When you're invited over to a wedding banquet - don't choose the best place - choose the worst. Why? Well, you don't want to be embarrassed and asked to move to a lower place so a more important guest can take a seat! Those who exalt themselves are humbled, but those who humble themselves are exalted. In the next example, Jesus advises that those who host a dinner should not invite relatives, friends, and rich neighbors, but should instead invited the poor, crippled, lame, and blind, those unable to return an invitation. Don't look for repayment from humans, Jesus urges, but from God, whose rewards much more valuable.
Jesus' advice, as usual, goes against some traditional understandings his dinner guests would have had. His suggestions might sound to us just like savvy suggestions for maintaining a good public image. But actually, behaving as Jesus suggested - choosing the lowest seat at a meal, missing an opportunity for recognition by inviting less-than-classy people to a meal - these actions would have made a person seem quite odd if not altogether offensive. It's hard to find something to compare this to today - our culture and customs are so different. But actually, maybe we can relate. At today’s wedding receptions, guests are often seated at numbered tables in assigned groups. The wedding party sits at the front table. The other guests are seated usually based on relationship to the bridge and groom. Family and close friends are at tables close to the front table. Those who are acquaintances are likely to be farther away from the action of the reception. Perhaps we can connect to Jesus' words after all.
But what does this parable have to do with peace? Well, what I like about Jesus’ teachings is that what he teaches is something you can do. Conversely, we should also note that Jesus never instructs you to tell someone else how to do it to do it right. Jesus tells you to go sit at the lowest place, you to humble yourself, you to invite the poor and the lame and the blind to your meals. He doesn’t tell you to tell others to do it. He tells you how to do it, live it. Now, I don’t mean that what he teaches isn’t challenging, that it doesn’t require us to change our lives. But what I mean is: what Jesus teaches is always within our grasp to do. It doesn’t require committee meetings or organizations or institutions. If we actually just did what Jesus said to do – well, the world would very quickly be a different place. But what Jesus says to do doesn’t require some special skill set. It doesn’t require a certain degree or level of education. You don’t need training to follow Jesus’ instructions. You don’t need to be a certain age – you won’t be too young or too old to follow Jesus’ instructions here. You just have to listen to what he says, and do it. And here’s the thing: if everybody did it – well, imagine what might happen, what might be possible.
For me, the key to our hymn this week about peace on earth – well, it’s the second part of the first line that’s so important. “Let it begin with me.” When my brothers and I would get into arguments growing up, (which we never do anymore, of course) my mother would often say, “How can we expect there to be peace in the world, if we can’t have peace in our home?” Of course, this would induce some secret eye-rolling in us – at least we agreed on that – but I’ve always remembered it. How can we have peace in the world, if we can’t have peace in our home? In other words, why would we expect the whole world to do something that we’re not willing to do ourselves? When Sy Miller and Jill Jackson worked on this hymn, they did it with a group of teenagers who were ready let peace begin with them. And so they were able to transcend all the differences in their group – different religions, genders, races, classes – and together, because each person was committed to the task – they made a space of peace, and shared a song of peace that truly has spread around the globe.
I’m generally not a fan of saying that something is “between me and God.” What’s between me and God, according to Jesus, is all of our neighbors. But here’s one way we can be self-centered: Let it begin with you. It is to you that Jesus is talking when he teaches. It is only you that you can change. It is only you who can make you follow Jesus’ teaches. Let there be peace on earth. Let there be disciples who follow Jesus. Let there be people who humble themselves so that others might finally be exalted. Let there be those who reach beyond all that boundaries and barriers we create between ourselves. And let it begin with you, with me. Amen.

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