Lamentations 3: 19-26 Luke 17: 1-5
I think most of you know by now that I’m a third career pastor. I spent my 20s in banking, my 30s in marketing and my 40s (plus) in ministry. While I was in business school after my years in banking, I was offered the amazing opportunity to work at General Mills – one of the proving grounds in consumer packaged goods marketing and promotions. When you’re working on brands that are recognized worldwide, lots of people have a stake in making sure that things are done well and by the book. – Not only so the brands and their parent companies would strengthen and be profitable, but so the brand and parent company would secure the enduring trust of consumers.
Going back 20 years or so before I started at General Mills, controls began to really tighten on marketing to kids. What we could put in a package or on a package and even what we could say in ads was not only a matter for our own integrity, but also a matter for government regulators and further, a matter for peer review. Companies kept each other in check to make sure that kids weren’t being inappropriately lured by ads and promotions or, more importantly, put in harm’s way. For example: all of those cheesy toys in packages? There’s a whole industry made on insuring that little parts and toxic paint aren’t getting into little hands and little mouths. This was a huge focus for our work back then. Heaven forbid some toddler eats a broken off part from a tiny plastic robot or a child is blinded by the ball that blasts out from an air pop game. Surveying the cereal aisle recently, I’m pretty sure that safety continues to be the paramount concern for kid marketers these days, too.
So when I heard about the gun show in Chantilly a few months ago and learned that it was being promoted as an all-family event, it was a challenge to my sensibilities. How is it even directionally possible for gun show promoters to create an all-family venue? Really, isn’t that a contradiction in terms: gun show and all-family?
Yet, that’s what we get. Holsters and bullets and targets peddled alongside blouses and beef jerky and candy and toys and jewelry that makes little girls happy. “Gun shows are a social event,” said the author of a book on our gun culture, “They’ve become a real scene. (They’re) not just a place to just go buy a gun anymore.”[i] One woman interviewed for an article in the Post said, “This is a family Sunday outing. It’s fun.” The same reporter interviewed a plastic surgeon from Arlington who was at this Chantilly show with his 10 year old daughter. He said that his wife had wanted him to take one of the kids with him for the day – a bonding experience, I guess. So, he bundled up his 10 year old little girl, gave her $25 in what they called “walking around money” and set her loose to enjoy the show. Goodness!
So, let’s get this straight. It’s industry-wide-unacceptable – trending toward illegal – to lure a kid to beg his mom at the cereal aisle for some Honey Nut Cheerios but it’s perfectly appropriate to lure a kid into a gun show with the prospect of toys and candy and jewelry-perfect-for-her. I say it is better to hang a millstone around your neck and be dropped into the sea than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
In the verses we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke, we heard a couple of Jesus’ more pithy thoughts all preceding an important verse on forgiveness. Practical theologians say that these sorts of Jesus’ teachings “are more like proverbs because they carry their meaning intrinsically rather than contextually. In this way, they are quite portable.”[ii] This tells us that yes, we are to remember verses like these to help us get a handle on our responsibility to support one another in the strengthening of our faith – the context of the scripture lesson – but we are also expected to use verses like this one to help each other practice outward expressions of our faith that reflect the values that Christ taught. I’m pretty sure that Christ didn’t teach us to expose our kids to the attractions of weapons as a pathway for filling the family memory book or coffee hour conversation.
While you are I are to be vitally concerned with the spiritual well-being of our members at all stages of faith development, we need to remember that another one of our vital responsibilities is to insure that one whose faith is less developed isn’t put in a compromising position that will make it easier to stumble down a path toward violence.
Child safety is ingrained in our culture. Government systems and societal safety nets are in place to insure that kids are protected from hunger and disease and aggression – especially at the hand of those who are entrusted with their care. If you sell drugs and get caught, you get thrown in jail. If you sell drugs and get caught in a school zone, you get thrown in jail for a very long time. We get this. Child safety is ingrained in our culture, even though we sadly stumble, as in the case of an all-family gun show or its aftermath. And too often, when we stumble children get hurt. And when a child gets hurt, we are outraged.
That’s why I believe that it’s a challenge to all of our sensibilities to learn about children in local communities and around the world who are lured into deeply violent situations and are killed. I think about young kids in our own urban environments being recruited for gun wielding gangs and drug running. I think of little children in Afghanistan who are as young as five when they’re plied with candy and coins to leave their play yards and learn to fight. And what about older kids in drug-producing countries who are offered a few hundred bucks and the promise of a new home for eating pellets of uncut drugs and boarding a plane to the United States? Of course, we can’t help but think about reports of children in far off places who are enticed by religious extremists to wear suicide vests and detonate them at checkpoints in the misappropriated name of their god. Such tragedies of extremism violate the landscape of our world today. These are the failings of men and women who attempt to violate the integrity of the most impressionable little ones of God’s creation to profit a cause they somehow believe it right.
But no mother in this land or the next looks into the eyes of her newborn and sees a future terrorist.
Yet, you and I cause these little ones to stumble along their life’s journey each time we turn a blind eye to any threats of peace. Between the shifting sensibilities of what is right in the midst of aggression and threats of war, you and I allow ourselves to become complicit to the violence that unfolds in many different forms. Specifically, we delude ourselves if we ignore the fact that luring kids to a gun show is tantamount to luring kids to becoming extremist fighters and suicide bombers. And we delude ourselves if we don’t accept that when we disregard or discount this nefarious practice in our culture that we are complicit in perpetuating violence in our world. Jesus says that it is better to hang a millstone around our neck and be dropped into the sea than to cause one of these little ones to stumble in the practices of their faith. In the downward spiraling sensibilities of what is right in our nation, this means that they are too often caused to stumble toward violence – even murder. Yet, it’s easier to look at the spec in another’s eye than to notice the log in our own, especially when our culture accepts that another culture’s more direct acts of violence and aggression plastered all over the news should be allowed to drown out our more complicit acts of ignoring the problems in our midst.
I came across a DC-based, inter-religious organization a few years ago that has as its mission a desire to close the gap of understanding between people of different cultures so that we stop believing that an entire people is defined by the practices of extremists. It’s called Peace x Peace. Recognizing that the catalyst for divisions within communities and nations is often cultural misunderstanding, Peace x Peace ultimately believes that bridging cultural differences will ultimately pave a path for peace.
Peace x Peace is a worldwide effort that matches small groups of women in Afghanistan with small groups of women in the United States, or groups of women in Columbia with groups of women in Lebanon, or women in Ethiopia with women in Israel and so on around the world. These women get together every a week or maybe every month for e-mail conversations or letter exchanges that enable them look into the households of other cultures. Through bonds that are created by simple sharings of self, these women can commiserate over children in trouble and husbands who drive them nuts. They can share stories about their sons who bring them joy and community projects that were effective in raising educational standards or even bringing water into their homes.
Women can’t block every gunshot or barb hurled against another religious practice. And most women aren’t in a position to stand before the world’s warring factions and affect a ceasefire. But Peace x Peace recognizes that when women become friends with other women across sometimes great divides, they’ll be reminded that people around the world suffer from weight gain, cranky kids, joblessness, inadequate housing, drug addiction and street violence just like people around the world like good books, a summer concert, and interesting flavors in their foods.
One by one, these intercultural conversations between women filter into dinnertime conversation with family members and friends. Home by home, these conversations become a form of peaceful demonstration. One by one, home by home, Peace x Peace helps people to embrace the richness of our cultural differences that could otherwise drive us apart. Through a simple idea that elevates the fact that we’re all just people, Peace x Peace has found that when any of us becomes involved in some small way with another culture on the other side of the world, the collective result can be an eventual increase in peace around the world. Day-by-day, our misunderstandings our eased. One day, our ignorance will stop fueling our beliefs about human beings in other cultures. Eventually, our misguided understandings toward people in different circumstances will stop driving our thinly masked desire for violent responses to tragic crises in the world and lead us around the table to discern a path for peace.
In 2010, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) affirmed the words of the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans and vowed to “pursue what makes for peace” (Romans 14:19). In 2012, the denomination’s Peace Discernment Steering Team wrote an interim report to General Assembly called, “Encountering the Gospel of Peace Anew: An Invitation to Discernment and Witness.” In this report, our churches denomination-wide are called upon to engage in conversation to (quote) “seek clarity as to God’s call to the church to embrace nonviolence as its fundamental response to the challenges of violence, terror and war; to identify, explore and nurture new approaches to active peacemaking and nonviolence.”
For five weeks beginning next Sunday in our Free Inquiry Class and again during lunchtime on Tuesday afternoons through November 12th, we will discern what peace means to us at Western Presbyterian Church using the Peace Discernment process that was launched at General Assembly. I’m sure that these classes will be a catalyst for deep and enlightening conversations about what peace means to each one of us and as a body of Christians gathered in service and glory to God.
In our culture that affirms binary thinking, it can be difficult to consider a process of cross-cultural conversation and believe that it will lead to a word called peace. Yet maybe it’s possible. Amidst the tensions of the day, Jesus asks that we shift our sensibilities and work in easier ways and harder to bring about this reality today. Let the work begin.
[i] Rosenwald, Michael S., “For Sale at Gun Shows: Stuff that has nothing to do with guns,” The Washington Post, 05/02/13, page A1.
[ii] Craddock, Fred. Interpretation: Luke. (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990.) p 198.