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Sermon: Being Present with Peace

Pastor Jenna Bergeson + December 3, 2023

Pastor Jenna brings in the voices from a recent webinar from the ELCA's "Peace, Not Walls" campaign, which is working for peace with justice in Palestine and Israel. She challenges the conventional, passive notion of peace, advocating for a more active and engaged approach to addressing systemic injustice. Pastor Jenna encourages the church to embrace prophetic peacemaking, aligning with the calls for truth-telling, activism, and a reevaluation of language and action toward achieving genuine justice and peace in the world.



Lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac

Here in the West Bank, it's in a state of anxiety, preparing for war. People are panicking; they bought goods, expecting long extended periods of closure. We're completely cut off, every block. Bethlehem is completely isolated now from everything. It's hard; you need to use back roads again, like the days of the second intifada, to go from place to place. The bishop today took one of those back roads to join us in Bethlehem for a prayer for peace, and I hope he's back now to Jerusalem.

You look at the streets, they're empty, and really, people are very, very concerned. The whole atmosphere of anxiety is so sad. Continue to pray for us; these are very, very difficult days. Continue to pray for the people in Gaza as they need everything from our support. I know the heads of churches are trying to get support to the community in Gaza, especially to the Christian community. They're talking all the time; the bishop told me there's a meeting on Monday to try to get some support to these families. One of my best friend's mothers is trapped in the church there in Gaza, and he sent me a text saying they have no food, no bread, but this morning they were able to get wheat so that they can bake. This is how much of a difficult situation they are in.

Pastor Jenna

Reverend Dr. Munther Isaac is one of our partners in ministry. He is a pastor at Christmas Evangelical Lutheran Church today in Bethlehem, which is in Palestine. This is one of four videos that we are going to watch this morning, which are from a webinar that took place when this was filmed on October 14th. This was with partners from our church, the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America), as well as people from the ELCJHL (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land).

To help give a little more context and to fill you in about this webinar, we are now going to listen to a three-minute clip from Reverend Dr. Meghan Aelabouni, who is an ELCA missionary in the Holy Land. If you're already familiar with the complex history and some of what is going on in the Holy Land right now and throughout history, you might have an easier time admittedly following along. But even if you're not, I encourage you to listen now and just take in what you can. Let's listen now to Pastor Megan.

Dr. Meghan Aelabouni

Welcome to what has been a hard and diligent and faithful process for those of us on the "Peace, Not Walls" review team. Just to start with a little background, I know many of you know that "Peace, Not Walls" is based on the 2005 ELCA strategy for engagement in Israel and Palestine. "Peace, Not Walls" is a campaign organized around three A's: accompaniment, awareness-raising, and advocacy. It's a program administered by the Middle East North Africa desk of what is now ELCA Service and Justice and includes a grassroots network of concerned ELCA members, which we know includes many of you.

I know one of the questions that's been raised is why a review, why now? And we want to say that at the beginning, we were very clear as a team that the primary reason to have a review was not to look so much at the past, to try to evaluate or measure or focus on the past of peace, not walls. In fact, we want to celebrate more than 20 years that so many of you have been involved with for accompaniment, advocacy, and awareness-raising. But what we really felt we were called to do was to focus on the present: what are the current realities? What has changed since 2005? And what does that mean for how God is calling us, how our Palestinian partners are asking us as a US Church to move forward into the future?

Just to remind us, to refresh our memories about what that change looks like from 2005, a snapshot of 2005: it was the end of the second with some hope for political solutions. The Sharm El Sheikh summit with its roadmap for peace happened in February of 2005; the wall building was in its early stages. There was this hope that advocacy could stop the walls from going up, and the two-state solution was still considered viable and ideal by many. Fast-forwarding to 2023, in this horrific week here, we know that there are no imminent prospects for large-scale political solutions, particularly now. We see the infrastructure for a permanent occupation; we know that the two-state solution is now largely defunct, practically because of the Swiss cheese effect of 20 years of settlement building and land confiscation, also politically because of the right-wing trend in Israeli government, and now Hamas attacks and the Israel war on Gaza this week have seen an intense escalation of violence towards civilians. We don't know the scope or the duration, but we absolutely know, because it has already happened, that it will intensify humanitarian crises for Palestinians, especially in Gaza but not limited to Gaza.

Pastor Jenna

Church, I felt moved to lift this up today as we center and reflect on the lighting of the second candle of Advent, on the Presence of Peace. I felt moved to lift up this webinar for "Peace, Not Walls," this message from our Lutheran partners, and this conflict that's happening in the world at this very moment. Not because it is the thing that we need to pay attention to because, honestly, it is one of many things that we could be paying attention to. There are acts of violence and oppression, antagonists of peace happening all over the world, throughout our nation, and in each and every one of our neighborhoods.

I felt the Spirit move me to lift up these voices of our partners today because, truth be told, their message really troubled me today. I could have given a feel-good, gentle-mannered message of peace; I would have loved to do that, and I'm sure you would have loved to hear that. But after hearing from our siblings in the Holy Land, I think it's important that we hear their message of peace. And so now, let's listen again to a second video from Pastor Munther from Bethlehem.

Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac

And so, really, the talk about "Peace, Not Walls" is so timely, and to me, when I share my thoughts about the process, let me begin by saying that we're talking to friends, siblings who stood with us, and we're so, so grateful. And I want to emphasize that from the ELCJHL perspective, this is the context in which we're talking. You've walked with us, and you continue to be in solidarity with us, and to that, we say, thank you. Having said that, it's important to emphasize that a lot has changed since the first strategy was drafted many years ago. Things are different now.

You know, when "Peace, Not Walls" was originally started, we were still hoping for a two-state solution. To be honest, we're not anymore. Israel has built a strong system of apartheid, and I'm not just saying these words; this is proof, and it's in many, many reports. Please study the reports to understand the discrimination and the two systems we live in and the many, many restrictions we are facing as Palestinians. Everything is different now, and then who knows what things will look like after the war on Gaza. So, things have changed, and for that, it's imperative that as we seek to talk about peace, we analyze the context. And the question, to be honest right now, is: Can we still talk about peace given everything that is happening? Can we still talk about peace?

And this is what I mean by that: Peace is appropriate when we're talking about two people fighting, two groups fighting, maybe with equal power, and maybe with not necessarily that much if you've been following and if you've been hearing the reports from here and listening to us. What we've been saying is that this is not a conflict. This is not two groups of people fighting over the same piece of land. We have a system of oppression, systematic injustice, and oppression. It's not two men fighting or two people fighting; it's one person literally stepping on the throat of the other.

And so, from the perspective of the people under oppression, sometimes the language of peace comes across as apathetic, as if you're not actually listening and seeing our oppression because what we need right now is protection. We need someone to lift the oppressor from us, those persons stepping on our throat, as I said in my metaphor. To a certain degree, when you're being beaten, and someone comes and tells you you need to reconcile, it's as if, you know, you're adding insult to the injury to the pit. And so, prophetic peacemaking right now compels us to speak through power, to stand with the oppressed, and to do our best to stop the aggression.

Um, and so for that, we need new activism, new methods. I mean, friends, let's be honest. What we've been doing as churches did not work. And to be more precise, the language of peace and justice and, let's pray for peace and hope for a two-state solution, that did not work. That just enabled the status quo to become worse and continue. That's why we need to call things by their name. We need to hold people accountable, those who are building this system of discrimination and supremacy. We need to hold them accountable. This is what has led to where we are right now, to be honest. And my fear is that if the church continues to speak the soft and diplomatic language of 'we listen to both sides, we pray for both sides,' you're not actually understanding what's happening on the ground. And in times of utmost despair like the ones we're facing now, I feel that the only thing we can do, beginning with prayer, is to empower whatever small lights or pieces of hope we have. You know, everything is dark; what we can do is light small candles in the midst of this darkness.

Pastor Jenna

For nearly two months now, since I first heard this message, it has agitated me. And when things agitate us, we pay attention to them, don't we? I want to lift up again some of these words from Pastor Munther. He says "sometimes the language of peace comes across as apathetic." He says "if the church continues to speak the soft and diplomatic language of 'we listen to both sides and we pray for both sides,' you are not actually understanding what's happening on the ground." And he says "prophetic peacemaking right now compels us to speak truth to power, and for that, we need your activism."

Once again, Church, I know this is merely one story of many where I am, and we are living into this apathetic peace. But prophetic peacemaking has led to some community efforts just in the United States alone that have made a difference: the Me Too movement, Black Lives Matter, the ELCA's Truth and Healing movement. Prophetic peacemaking with traction, that is fighting for justice, speaking truth to power to the ones who put their foot on the throat of the oppressed to lift up the metaphor from Dr. Munther in the ELCA's review of "Peace, Not Walls."

Pastor Munther wasn't the only one who struggled with their name "Peace, Not Walls," and in this final video that we're going to watch today, Pastor Meghan shares a little bit more about that.

Dr. Meghan Aelabouni

Finally, as Pastor Mther alluded to, our last key learning leading into our recommendations is about rethinking "Peace, Not Walls" as a name and an organizing principle. We discovered that while a number of ELCA respondents advocated keeping the name "Peace, Not Walls," not a single Palestinian we interviewed agreed. The walls are built, and the language of peace has become another tool of the occupation.

What do we mean by that? The use of peace language and related terminology - conflict, reconciliation, peace process, etc., especially when it comes from us churches, is interpreted by many Palestinians as normalizing the occupation by portraying the issue as one of interpersonal conflict between two parties of roughly equal power and agency. As Pastor Munther said, who need to simply come to the table to make peace, rather than identifying the issue as one of systemic injustice of occupier and occupied. The power imbalance between Palestine and Israel must be clearly stated and understood. Israel receives international recognition as a nation, possesses far greater military and political power, and is illegally occupying Palestinian people and lands. Again, only Israel can end the occupation.

So, this peace focus often places the onus on occupied Palestinians to be peaceful, meaning to stop resisting occupation, which falls into the trap identified by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of promoting negative peace or the absence of tension at the expense of creating positive peace, which is the presence of justice. So, such appeals to peace can justify the widespread violence and oppression of the occupation by claiming that Palestinians have brought it on themselves - the idea that, "Well, the walls can come down when Palestinians stop using violence," versus, "The walls create a system of injustice that elicits violence as one response."

Further, what is needed from the ELCA is not only advocacy for the political policy solutions of the future, but also vision for how we are called to be present now with communities on the ground. Many Palestinians today place their hope not in a future tense peace, but in their own present tense efforts to build conditions for human flourishing in spite of a lack of political peace. As Reverend Dr. Mitri Raheb says, hope is what we do today.

Pastor Jenna

The Gospel reading for today lifts up the mystery of, John the Baptizer, and in his message throughout scripture, not just what we heard today, he is constantly telling people: "Yes, I am here, but Jesus is coming; he's the guy. Prepare the way for Jesus, for he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

And do you know, Church, we are not baptized with the power of the Holy Spirit so that we can just sit back and let the peace wash over us? We are baptized for a commissioning. It is a commissioning, it is a blessing, and it is a cloak for us to wear so that we may work for peace—in our hearts, in our neighborhoods, and throughout the world. Hope is what we do today for a world of Peace.

Today is the first Sunday of the month, and so we lift up living water, as is our practice here at Trinity. We will also hear a message for our generosity moment from Liz Gimmestad, who is part of the ministry, All for Peace. That is just one way for you to learn more and to get involved in doing this work of peace. And if you would like to learn more, you can watch for an email from me tomorrow, or you can come and find me for a handout that will share more about how Lutheran Disaster Response is working for peace through the ministry of the church.

I want to invite us to share together a prayer that was written by Reverend Dr. Megan Aelabouni. So, I invite you to follow along now on the screens as we pray together, and you can join for the words that are in bold.


Let us pray: God of Hope, in the midst of hopelessness, we pray for the people of Palestine and Israel, who are your beloved ones. Through your Prophet Jeremiah, you spoke the truth to oppressive powers: "They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying peace, peace when there is no peace."

In your son Jesus, you wept over Jerusalem and the failure of the world to know the things that make for peace. Truly, In This Moment, all the people of the Holy Land know this lack of peace, which is rooted in a lack of Justice.

We pray for those in southern Israel and in Gaza who are mourning the loss of life, those who are injured and traumatized, and those who are working to provide care in these devastated communities.

We pray for all hostages—Israeli hostages in Gaza and Palestinian prisoners held without charges—to be freed and returned to their families.

We pray for an end to this present war and its violence

And we pray for a resolution that addresses the root cause of conflict, including an end to 75 plus years of an occupation that deprives whole Palestinian communities of human rights, freedom, and dignity.

For the peace that is not the absence of tension but the presence of justice, we pray for the peace Jesus gives to us that is not as the world gives. We pray for a new day in which all of your beloved children are treated as precious and worthy of care. We pray in the name of the one who died in solidarity with the suffering and rose to defeat the powers of death, Jesus Christ our Lord. We say together, Amen.

Pastor Jenna

And I don't want to end with these words because while prayer is powerful, it is not enough to merely pray for peace. We are a people who are called, commanded, and commissioned by the waters of baptism to work for peace and justice. And so, whatever you may be holding in your heart, whatever you may be seeing in your neighborhood, whenever you may be mindful of, to some degree, from Jerusalem to Judea to the ends of the Earth, let us be a church that works for peace—a peace that will grow and flourish, a peace that will bring the kingdom of God here on Earth for each and every beloved child of God.

Peace be with you, Church. Be the Peace of today. Amen.

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