Monday, June 7, 2010

Playing the Cello

This is the adapted sermon I preached at St. Paul, Norrisville, and Ayres' Chapel United Methodist Churches on Peace with Justice Sunday on May 30th. It was my first sermon at my home churches, and the best one I have done so far, but it still needs work. What follows has been edited.

Romans 5:1-5: Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

...I hoped one of the passages for this week would be a verse like Micah 4:3:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares...nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall they lean war any more.

I have always found this verse to be beautiful. It is engraved in the wall of the Church Center to the United Nations in New York. But this is not the verse that the lectionary brings to us today. Instead, we have Romans 5:1-5, whose message is haunting in a much different way.

These verses point us away from defining peace in opposition to war and points instead to defining peace as a lifestyle. While war is absolutely critical for Christians to confront, Romans 5:1-5 point us to a larger picture of peace, one that focuses on our own community way of life, not limiting itself to a discussion of the military. I am talking about, as we read in Romans 5:1, what having the
peace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ

means, what it looks like.

This peace of God is peace with justice. For me, that means hope. I don't mean a hope in which we wait around twiddling our thumbs waiting for the Apocalypse. That to me is a hope that disappoints because it violates a huge part of my faith that is based on James chapter two when we read that faith without works is dead as the body without the spirit is dead. This morning, we are reminded instead that
hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

But still, we are left wondering what this hope looks like. As many of you know, I have been to Bosnia six times and I often read about Bosnia, so the story that immediately comes to my mind is from John Paul Lederach's The Moral Imagination. It is the story of an internationally renowned cellist who had refused to leave Sarajevo during the genocide in Bosnia named Vedran Smailovic.

His story for us begins on May 27, 1992, the day of the infamous Bread Square Massacre, a day that haunts the memories of Sarajevans. During the war, bread was scarce, so when a store got a hold of it, everyone rushed to wait in line for bread, not knowing when next they could find it. On this day, May 27, snipers locked in on those waiting in line and murdered 22 people. The shooting made it difficult for anyone to go help the injured.

Smailovic said, "Filled with sorrow, I eventually fell asleep at dawn, and was awakened by new explosions and [the] shouts of my neighbors, who were carrying children and blankets to shelters. I went to the shelter myself and returned home after the shelling was over. I washed my face and hands, shaved, and without thinking, put on my white shirt, black evening suit and white bow tie, took my cello and left home.

"Looking at the new ruins, I arrived at the place of the massacre. It was adorned with flowers, wreaths and peace messages; there were posters on local shops saying who had been killed. On a nearby table was a solemn book of condolences, which people were signing. I opened my cello case and sat down, not knowing what I would play. Full of sadness and grief, I lifted my bow and began to make music."

Smailovic's action was so small in that he only did what he knew how to do: play the cello. And this action stirred the hearts of his friends, who begged him later that night to play more. "I understood then," he wrote, "...that music heals, and that this was no longer a purely personal issue." So for twenty-two days after the massacre, one day for each person killed in the Bread Massacre, he played his cello, despite the unceasing shelling.

Now, I don't know if the cellist of Sarajevo is a Christian or not, but his actions here define for me what peace with God through Christ looks like. This is not peace in the sense that we're all supposed to hold hands and sing Kumbaya. This is peace deep within the soul, still standing in the face of the horrible senselessness of violence. Peace is the movement of the Holy Spirit within the cellist as he played to strengthen those around him, to give the people in his city a vision of hope.

Lederach continues the story, writing, "On one occasion, during a lull in the shelling, a TV news reporter approached the cellist seated in the square and asked, 'Aren't you crazy for playing music while they are shelling Sarajevo?' Smailovic responded, 'Playing music is not crazy. Why don't you go ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello.'"1

Here is ministry happening. Sure, it looks crazy. Really crazy. But isn't that what Christianity is about? My systematic theology professor last semester frequently referred to Jesus as "that crazy bird Jesus," and for good reason. Jesus did all sorts of things in the name of justice through simple actions like eating a meal with sinners that people thought were crazy. Yet if someone asked Jesus, "Are you not crazy for modeling the kingdom of heaven in a world that is anything but?" He would say, "The kingdom of heaven is not crazy. Why do you not ask those against me if they are not crazy, preaching violence and hate while I'm just loving people?"

But Jesus is more than just crazy. His message of peace, his peaceful actions are like the cellist of Sarajevo's: they are dangerous. The cellist was dangerous because he stood up to the Yugoslav army laying siege to Sarajevo and showed them that he could not be defeated. He was dangerous because his message was one of hope that got caught in the imaginations of the suffering around him. Jesus too stood up to the Romans and the Jews content with Roman rule. He was dangerous because his message was one of a different life, a different world, as he describes in Luke 6:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you...

Jesus' vision here is threatening to those with power. He lifts up the suffering, the excluded, as the ones who are truly blessed. He is giving the suffering around him a vision of hope such that they will not be destroyed by those in power.

When Jesus speaks of suffering it is to point out the injustice of the government and of the religious establishment, and to point out that God favors those who suffer. But the passage in Romans seems to have a different understanding:
we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope

Boasting of our suffering does not seem to me to fit into this vision of Peace and Justice that Jesus is describing with the blessings in Luke. As Christians we too often glorify suffering because of this understanding that it leads to endurance to character to hope, as we read in Romans. Thus, we rationalize that is suffering leads to hope, it must be a good thing, right?

This is so dangerous. I took a class in seminary this semester called religion and the social process, and we had a woman come talk to us about domestic violence and the church. She said that religious women who are victims of intimate partner violence often stay because they feel that their suffering is a trial that God wants them to go through to make them stronger. This is not true, but it comes from a theology that we take right from passages like this one. But let's start to read it in a different way.

If we go back to the story of the cellist of Sarajevo, the suffering that he and those around him underwent surely was not God's way of making them stronger. Why would Jesus preach against the tyranny of Empire and the religious establishment as definers of culture if he was describing a tyrant God who enjoys watching us suffer? I understand God as the God of justice, so when we read the story of the cellist, we see that he, after enduring suffering long enough, has the strength of character to rebel against his oppressors. It is his action that produces hope.

So what does that mean for us? This isn't Bosnia in the 90's, we aren't running from snipers when we go out for a loaf of bread. But I think that this peace with God thing that we see in Romans shows us that peace is more than talk restricted to USAmerican foreign policy. I think that our foreign policy is our concern, of course; however we need to look within ourselves and our local communities to understand concretely what this peace with justice, peace with God thing looks like, crazy as it is.

For example, this summer I took a class in community organizing and met Sarah Plowden, an older woman who is an organizer with a church who is part of East Brooklyn Congregations, a group who transformed Brooklyn from the murder capital it was in the 80's to a coveted--- well maybe not for us country folk, but for many people--- place to live. Sarah was from a family of sharecroppers in the south during segregation, lived through the horror of lynching that was rampant in the south, moved to Brooklyn only to find that she had to step over drug addicts to get home. She said there were two stairways in her apartment building but they couldn't use one because it was controlled by drug dealers. She suffered in these living conditions until she had the boldness of character to say that she could not live in those conditions anymore.

She and some other women in her community got their churches involved in campaigns that started small at first, like demanding the city give them road signs. When they had tried to meet to discuss issues, they found it difficult because there were no road signs by which to determine where they would meet. But from this first action, they were able to engage in progressively bigger actions until the police department began responding and getting rid of drug dealers in their buildings. Finally, they were able to get land from the city to build thousands of homes called Nehemiah homes. These are not like government-funded affordable housing, rather they are opportunities for people to become first time home owners. These homes have completely transformed the landscape of East Brooklyn. Sarah Plowden reminds us that one has to "forget not to take risks," as she said. This is a woman who had a vision of a better community and instead of working to save money to move far away, she worked to stay and create a better life for herself, her children, and her neighbors. May we all have that boldness as she did to do for herself what she could even when it looked "impossible."

What is it that drives us, impassions us? Do we want to build better schools for our kids who may be suffering from bullying or who may not be learning as much because they don't have enough books or calculators? Do we want our families and our neighbors' families to live without fear of violence from loved ones? Do we want our families to eat good food produced ethically? This is an issue that I am passionate about after learning about the horrors of factory farming and after seeing a huge change in my energy and mood after changing my diet to reflect my ethical concerns. Now I am just one person, but I am committed to educating others about food justice and raising my children to eat ethically, so this one action of where and how I choose to spend my money is catching.

And so we come to progressively bigger questions too. Do we want everyone in our community to be drinking clean water and breathing clean air? Do we want county and state politicians who care more about us than the interests of multi-national corporations? The answers to these questions, whatever they look like, are all actions like Sarah Plowden's and the cellist of Sarajevo's, actions of hope that start out small, actions that come from God's love poured into our hearts. They are little actions, but ones that make up what it is that peace with God looks like.

These little actions are about turning the tables to make first our community and then our world be one of peace with justice, even though it seems crazy in a world where injustice seems to be the natural law. But we can take these issues that we care about and transform first our homes, then our communities, and then, who knows?, so that we are turning the tables as Jesus does to present our vision of God's peace, saying as the cellist did, "Playing music is not crazy. Why don't you go ask those people if they are not crazy, shelling Sarajevo while I sit here playing my cello."


1 John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (Oxford University Press, 2005), 155-156.

Biblical quotations are from The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006.

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