As best as I understand the custom among the Ojibwa Indians, for a full year before a young man goes to war for the first time, in addition to preparing physically, he fasts and meditates because war is regarded among the greatest crises in human experience. For the young man, if he survives, he will be changed for the rest of his life. For the tribe, war changes the whole community, its self-image, its history, forever. And for people more spiritually attuned than contemporary Western, white culture, there is also the belief that war is somehow a blood-letting on a cosmic level, too.
This Cathedral calls our nation to a period of reflection, not for a year, but for the days and weeks ahead, as efforts for peace and preparations for war with Iraq intensify.
We have set aside Resurrection Chapel, on the crypt level, as a place designated for private reflection and prayer all the time the Cathedral is open. In the chapel, there is also a book where individuals can write their hopes and fears and prayers if they wish. All liturgies will include petitions to express our needs to God. In these and other ways that might be useful in the days and weeks ahead, we will attempt to help our nation pause and reflect and pray, keeping alive the hope for peace and never forgetting the burdens of war.
In other places the debate about political and military strategies can and should take place. And all of us, as citizens, should inform ourselves and participate in these debates, which in our great nation can and must be vigorous.
But the church of Christ has its unique contribution to make. I am going to suggest that the Church can—and if we follow our Lord fully—must be completely engaged in the crisis we face.
I commence the discussion by recalling an ancient Jewish story. In the second century, Rabbi Akiba, son of Joseph, was asked what was the greatest teaching in Scripture. He said it was the commandment in Leviticus, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” His friend Rabbi Simeon, son of Azzai, disagreed. He said that the greatest teaching in Scripture is from Genesis: “On the day that God created humankind he created us in his own likeness, therefore all persons, regardless of race or even religion, share the sacred image of God.”
The church pleads with us to remember that ultimately every aspect of our current dilemma effects individuals, those who make the decisions as well as those effected by their decisions, all of whom carry the image of God.
Perhaps it is only natural that our thoughts first turn to the young men and women in our own armed forces, some already in the Gulf, others in preparation. Whatever their individual role, their lives will be changed forever. Every war leaves us women and men who carry the scars with them for life. Pray for them. The words of the Prayer Book seem most helpful: “strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be.”
St. Paul also teaches Christians to pray for those in authority. I bid your prayers for our President and his advisors as well as for the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. These individuals are making critical decisions, even this day, that will effect so many.
But can we also find it in our hearts to pray for the Iraqi people, especially the women and children? If the published reports yesterday are true, a conservative estimate by our own government is that 1,500 people would be killed in Iraq in just four days of bombing.
War is not abstract. Its most perplexing dilemmas for us are not resolved when we think we have solved questions about which diplomatic or military strategy we endorse. Decisions about war and peace engage flawed women and men who must make life or death decisions that lead to the deaths of many on all sides, all of whom are made in the image of God.
The church of Christ has inherited from the Hebrew Scriptures a belief about the dignity of every human being as a reflection of God himself that, in the teachings, and in the life, death and resurrection of Christ, is only intensified. Before, during and after every other debate, the human dimension of war must never be forgotten. This is the moral truth that must always inform all other decisions.
This leads me directly to my text, which stands behind this sermon. It comes from the middle of our Gospel this morning. Three of Jesus’ closest followers have just had an experience of him that puts him and their relationship to him in a totally new light. Right in the middle of this glorious, spiritual, other-worldly experience, Luke inserts this jolting phrase: this incident happened, Luke says, just before Jesus left on his final journey to Jerusalem, where he would meet his fate. Jesus then sets off for the capital city, which is occupied by violent and ruthless representatives of the Roman empire and ruled with an alliance of self-serving religious leaders. All the evidence is that Jesus knowingly walked into the danger of twisted human affairs. He did not avoid allowing his life to be fully entangled in the chaos of human moral confusion. He went directly into the crisis. And when he came out on the other side of the crisis in victory, his followers, the church, were convinced that God is deeply involved in human affairs, and no matter how daunting evil may be, evil will never ultimately prevail.
The church should not be afraid to follow her Lord right into the middle of the most complex human problems. She must declare her message: all people are created in the image of God, a belief we hold with even greater certainty because of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. And we must never, never lose the hope that even the most discouraging dilemmas we face cannot be redeemed. Our Lord never promised us that we could avoid pain or even death, which he himself did not avoid. He even warned us that sometimes there may be a cost to pay, a precious price. He did promise, and Easter proves it, that we must never surrender in chaos and confusion to the power of evil. It will not prevail.