January 12, 2014
This week we are starting a worship series based on the “Peace Parts” resources from Mennonite Central Committee. We will be learning a little bit more about the work of MCC and exploring various aspects of peace–shalom–in our lives and in our world. This morning’s scripture reading from Isaiah tells us that justice and righteousness lead to peace. Secure homes, safety and rest come, ultimately, as a result of just structures and right relationships.
This concept of righteousness–of right relationships–is our focus this morning. And it seems to me that this is a very good place to start. Because relationships are central–theologically central and practically central–to our lives.
Theologically, relationship is at the core of an understanding of God in Trinitarian terms. Those of us who are Trinitarian–who believe in the Creator, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit–hold Divine relationship is the foundation of our theology. At its heart, the Trinity is a relationship; to believe in the Trinity is to believe that the Divine power of the world is somehow dependent upon interconnectedness, mutuality–relationship. Jesus spoke often about his relationship with the Father–and the ways that we could be in relationship with the Father through him.
Relationship is also an important concept for our theological understandings of sin and human nature. The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective identifies one of the key aspects of sin as “destroying right relationships.” And in its discussion of humanity it says that “Human beings have been made for relationship with God, to live in peace with each other, and to take care of the rest of creation.” Who we are–as people created in the Divine image–has everything to do with how we relate to God, other people, and the natural world.
I’ll stop myself now with the theological stuff. I realize that, as much fun as it would be, this is not a theology class. And even if it were, we don’t have time to really get into the role of relationship in Trinity and humanity. Just trust me on this one. Relationship is a theological centerpiece for Christians–particularly, I think, for Anabaptist Christians.
And it’s not just about theology. Relationship is central to the lives we live every day. You do not need seminary training to figure that out. Our interpersonal relationships affect our lives in big and small ways. Personal peace can take root when we have healthy relationships with others. And broader peace within our institutions, our geographical areas, our country, and even our world can grow from peace between individual people.
Isaiah presents this vision of how the world will be when people are in right relationship with God and with each other:
The fruit of righteousness will be peace,
and the outcome of righteousness,
calm and security forever.
Then my people will live in a peaceful dwelling,
in secure homes, in carefree resting places.
This vision, of course, is far from the reality for many people–people in our communities and people around the world.
As I was reading this week about the work of MCC, I came across the story of Issa Ebombolo. He experienced a great deal of violence in his life. He was born in Burundi, where his parents were refugees from war in the Congo. He and his family returned to Congo when he was 7, and soon after his parents got divorced. He experienced disrupted relationships within his countries and within his own family. Further conflict emerged when, as a young man, he became a Christian. His Muslim family disowned him at first, but his pastor encouraged him to continue showing love to them. Issa purchased items for his family’s Muslim celebrations and continued to seek relationship with them. Eventually he was invited back into the family.
While relationships within his family were at peace, the country devolved into war. When Issa was 27, he was in danger from the violence that erupted in Congo and fled south to Zambia. He struggled through his time at a refugee camp and eventually became a teacher at a government school. Issa’s connection with the school led him to receive peace education and training through Mennonite Central Committee.
Issa believes that “Peace is about healing the wounds of the brokenhearted, and it is about restoring broken relationships.” And he has given much of his time and energy to healing wounds and restoring broken relationships. He developed a program to help refugees who had been soldiers in Angola to heal from their trauma and return home.
He has also been instrumental in establishing Peace Clubs in urban areas of Zambia to help teach people about non-violent ways to solve problems. These clubs emerged from surveys that Issa and others conducted in the schools that showed that the children were facing many problems including over-work at home and high rates of sexual and physical abuse. Issa and his colleagues concluded that the children were not safe–at school or at home–and sought to address this problem through the Peace Clubs.
One of the Peace Clubs is in Mancilla Open Community School in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. During Peace Club meetings, students discuss problems and are given tools for peaceful ways to address them. During one meeting, a boy mentioned that his parents, along with others, were upset that the school administrators had misused the school fees that had been paid–which meant that the students could not take the test to advance to the next grade. Despite this boy urging his father to try to settle the matter with words, a group of parents planned to confront administrators with weapons. When the parents showed up at the school with pipes and knives, however, the Peace Club leader was there to meet them. The leader was able to convince the parents to put down their weapons and send a few people with him to talk with the administrators. The delegation was able to agree upon a resolution, and violence was avoided.
Issa says, “when I joined peace education, I learned that forgiveness can lead to restoration and healing whereas revenge can lead to a cycle of violence.” In the programs he has established, he seeks to lead people to restoration and healing in their relationships. He also came to realize that he had one relationship in particular that needed healing–his relationship with his father. Issa had not been in touch with his father since his father left the family. So after 37 years, Issa contacted him and said that he would like to be in relationship again. The two men met and agreed to walk the path of forgiveness.
Isaiah’s vision is not fully realized in Zambia. There are still many people who do not feel secure, many who do not have peaceful homes or carefree resting places. But as relationships are healed, the presence of peace grows and the fullness of God’s shalom is glimpsed–even in the midst of fear and violence.
Issa’s world of refugees and armed parents and child labor may seem about as distant from our daily reality as Isaiah’s world of kings and deserts and donkeys running free beside streams. The details are not familiar. But the reality of relationships holds true across time and culture:
The need to remain kind and connected despite differences–or even hostility.
The need to hold a safe space for people who have experienced trauma.
The need to sit down and talk out our disagreements.
The need to reach out in forgiveness to those who have hurt us.
The need to cling to God’s promise of a peaceful dwelling; to work with God towards the shalom God desires for all people. Amen.