Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, November 17 2013
Thank you for your prayers and support while I attended the 10th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Korea. It was exhausting in body, but exhilarating in spirit. The theme of this assembly was God of Life, Lead us to Justice and Peace. It was a lofty goal with theme plenaries that gave us a vision of further unity amongst all the churches around the globe, if you can imagine that, and a vision of how churches could contribute to peace and justice in this world.
This is the same vision that Isaiah gives us from our lectionary reading today. This passage was written during a very difficult time. It was after the time of exile, when the Babylonians had invaded Judah and their leaders were carried away. In this passage, those exiled have returned to their land and are beginning to rebuild the temple and their homes. It’s a time of hope, but the conditions are still very harsh. As they try to rebuild their lives, the prophet gives them these words of hope: God is about to create new heavens and a new earth…no more shall the sound of weeping be heard…nor the cry of distress…those who build homes shall be the ones who live in them; those who plant vineyards will be the ones who eat from them. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together. No one shall hurt or destroy on all of God’s holy land.
What a vision of justice and peace! We need this vision today as we ever have. During the WCC Assembly, we heard from people in various countries that there is a growing fear throughout the world of losing one’s culture, religion, language, ethnic group and financial stability. This fear is leading to protectionist laws, in the name of national security, which are sometimes used to condone violence against minorities.
Arabic Christians spoke of their fear of the Arab Spring and the resulting violence against their own churches, as well as against mosques. A Greek Orthodox professor told us that the economic crisis in Greece is leading to a significant increase in suicides, along with a growing neo-Nazism. Canadians spoke of their fear of the Quebec Charter of Values, which is oppressing visible minorities. A Romanian Orthodox bishop suggested that the greatest challenge to churches today does not come from outside the church, but from those within the church who fear that their traditions will be watered down by change and external influence. This fear, he said, leads to fundamentalism and intolerance. That is why we are seeing an increase in religions, including Christianity, building walls of protectionism that occasionally lead to violence.
That’s the bad news. The good news is those moments when faith communities are able to catch a glimpse of the new heaven and new earth; when they’re able to find one small way in which they can help usher in this peaceable reign of God on earth. Right now, Coptic Christians in Egypt are scared. But the Orthodox Coptic bishop is insisting that his church not respond to violence with violence. One Coptic professor of theology told me that, after many of their churches had recently been burned down, the congregations went back into the ruins to pray and they spray-painted on the remains of their walls: “We love our Muslim brothers.” This professor described to me how, during Christmas, Muslims surrounded the churches to protect them so that the Christians could safely pray and celebrate Christmas inside. She told me that most Muslims are moderates and that Islam is a religion of peace, not violence. It is not Islam that we need fear—it is a fundamentalism of any religion or secular philosophy that breeds hatred and intolerance.
The World Council of Churches’ new approach to mission also gives us a glimpse of a new heaven and a new earth. Together Towards Life dares to suggest that the mission of God is bigger than the church; that the Holy Spirit is at work within other faith traditions and even secular NGO’s as they work for the wellbeing of all of creation. This is a radical departure from earlier mission beliefs that Christianity is the only way to God. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, was quoted as saying, “Mission is finding out where the Spirit is at work, and joining in.” Working together with others of various beliefs is our only hope to make a significant advance in bringing justice and peace to our earth.
The Executive Director of the United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS told us some astounding stories of what happens when people can unite across beliefs and cultures with a common task. Ten years ago the cost of medicine for people who were HIV positive was $15,000 per person per year—impossible for most African countries. After churches, other faith groups and secular NGO’s worked tirelessly on this, it now costs $80 per person per year and the ED said that by the end of 2015, he believes we will be able to say to the world that there are no longer babies being born with HIV. Ten years ago, people thought this would be impossible.
Another world is possible. Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth can be a reality, but only if churches can join together with others in the work of the Holy Spirit. Leymah Gbowee is an incredibly courageous woman who led a nonviolent movement of Christian and Muslim women. In 2003, they staged a sit-in in the government buildings of Liberia when the notorious Charles Taylor was in power. They refused to leave until the warring sides negotiated a peace agreement. When the men tried to remove them from the building, they threatened to disrobe, which was considered a serious curse. The men then returned to the table and signed a peace accord shortly after.
The women risked their lives, but their persistence played a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s horrendous civil war. She said to us that she believes churches today are being co-opted by governments. She sees churches being less willing to take public stands against injustice and this deeply troubles her.
Not everyone thinks that the church should be involved in political issues of peace and justice. Not everyone is pleased with interfaith dialogue and acceptance of diversity. There were outside protestors at our Assembly and their primary concern was our openness to other faith traditions. During our closing worship, some protestors came into the building and rushed the stage, throwing raw eggs. One was tackled by police and dragged off stage. Many of us were shaken. Fr. Michael Lapsley had just finished preaching a powerful sermon, challenging the churches to take bold stands for peace and justice. You might recall his name. He is the Anglican priest who worked against the apartheid system in South Africa. In 1990 he opened a letter bomb and lost both hands and an eye. I spoke with him after the service, worried that the protestors’ attack would have been frightening for him. He replied, “No—it simply shows that we’re doing something right.”
Well—I was frightened, but I do take heart in his words and his courage. Within Isaiah’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth no one shall hurt or destroy in all of God’s holy land. This vision impels the church not only to pray but also to act for peace and justice. Speaking out against intolerance and injustice can be offensive—even dangerous—but if the church is to make any impact on this world, it needs to take risks. Somecall that the cost of Christian discipleship.