Years ago, several Israeli contractors overseeing the construction of a wall between themselves and the Palestinians were prosecuted for stealing Palestinian olive trees. You see, they’d been uprooting these thousand-year-old trees and selling them to Israeli settlers to create new gardens and parks. And the trees they couldn’t sell they destroyed. To their owners, these trees represented their economic lifeblood. To the thieves and buyers, they were merely ornamental details.[I]
It seems to me that peace cannot happen without reconciliation. I know that sounds obvious, but I think we sometimes forget that unless we find common ground with our neighbor, propagating peace is nearly impossible. The contractors, and the buyers of the stolen trees, never considered what the trees meant to their neighbors. Why? Because their neighbors were Palestinian, and Palestinians were considered the “other.” And making someone “the other” is the easiest way to justify stealing from them, persecuting them, or even killing them. But making someone the other is the opposite of what Jesus taught; of why he died.
Paul affirms this for us once again this week. He says that Jesus “…canceled the detailed rules of the Law so that he could create one new person out of the two groups, making peace. He reconciled them both as one body.”[ii] Let that sink in for a second. How often has society, and by extension the Church, sought to separate or divide? How has the Church been guilty of creating “the other”?
I once had a conversation with a woman who was estranged from the church I was serving at the time. We’ll call her Mary. And although it had been many years since the incident, Mary was still hurt by what had happened. The incident? A dispute over potato salad. Yes, I said potato salad. It seems that Mary was famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) for her potato salad. Apparently, it wasn’t very tasty, but no ever had the courage to confront her directly about her less-than-pleasing side dish. Instead, one day at a funeral lunch, Mary came into the kitchen only to discover her potato salad hadn’t been served but was in the garbage. She left without a word and never darkened the door of the church again.
Now, those trying to justify their action might say, “Well, Mary was too sensitive, she should have had a thicker skin” or “What will people think of our church if we serve bad potato salad.” But, of course, these excuses miss the point. Mary was cast as the “other” and as a result, the body of Christ was wounded. And until reconciliation and forgiveness take place, the wound will continue to weep.
I sometimes wish I could go back to that day and share with that church the words of William Slone Coffin. “Of God’s love we can say two things,” he said, “it is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the lowliest wino on the planet; and secondly, God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value.”[iii]
Mary has value whether or not her potato salad tastes good. The Palestinian people have value. The Israeli contractors and the buyers of the olive trees all have value. Paul says that Jew and Gentile alike have value in the eyes of God. Maybe that’s why Ephesians has been called one the Bible’s great hymns to God’s reconciliation of all things and this passage in particular, as God’s call for us to participate in the good works of reconciliation.[iv]
And I think Paul’s declaration that “Christ is our peace” lies at the very heart of what it means to be a community of faith. So, what might a community that affirms the love of God for all people and espouses reconciliation as the beginning of peace, look like? Well, I think it would be a church that looks beyond itself and embraces “the other.” It would be open and affirming and welcoming to all people. It would advocate for good schools for the young and loving care for the elderly, nourishing food, clean water, and affordable health care for all and not just some. It would promote steps to combat global climate change, providing breathable air and unpolluted land not just for us but for those far away and for the generations who will follow us.
My friends, God’s vision of peace means that we as people of faith must promise to save lives rather than destroy them. It means understanding that God’s house is all of creation and all of it is sacred. And finally, being the church means recognizing that God’s breath dwells within each and every person on this planet.[v]
One final thought. In this epistle, Paul emphasizes the unity brought about between Jew and Gentile through the brokenness of Christ’s body. If we were to view this text through a spiritual or a devotional lens: How might we as a faith community be “broken” for the sake of peace in our world today? I don’t know. There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people in this room today. But let me leave you with one example of reconciliation.
I read somewhere this week that a group of Israeli rabbis have started a tree-planting movement. Through their efforts, hundreds of new olive trees are taking root in those Palestinian villages where the old trees were stolen. Now, it’s a fragile gesture, a sapling is not the same as a thousand-year olive tree. It can’t bring back all that was stolen.
But tree by tree, a little optimism returns. Tree by tree, you see it, something new.[vi] Tree by tree, reconciliation is being planted. Tree by tree God is building all of us, all people and all creation, into one household. And tree by tree, hopefully, peace is becoming a reality. This is my dream. This is my prayer.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Mary Luti Under Trees (firstname.lastname@example.org) 2018
[ii] Ephesians 2: 15-16a Common English Bible (CEB)
[iii] William Sloane Coffin Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) pg. 6
[iv] George W. Stroup Feasting on the Word David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006)
[v] Katheryn Matthews, Household of God (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018
[vi] Ibid. Luti.