This Sermon was delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, March 23, 2003, Lent III, dedicated to all the men and women engaged in war in Iraq, to Christina Renee Kuruhongsa on her baptismal day, to Jen Keefer engaged in her fight for life and always to the glory of God!

"Just Love"

(IV of VIII in the Lenten Sermon Series, "For the Love of Christ")

Deuteronomy 6:1-5, 18:15-19 and John 2:13-22

The pin I am wearing was given to me by my daughter, Sarah. It was given to her when we were in Shanksville, PA, one month after Flight 93 was wrestled from terrorists only to end up in vacant strip-mined field outside Shanksville. It was painted by the children of the Shanksville schools. I wear it proudly. It has the colors of red, white, and blue, painted on a heart. As I wear this today, I lift up in prayer, the men and women engaged in war in Iraq and all those innocents afflicted in the path of war.

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.

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In the book, Holy Lands: One Place, Three Faiths, (page 10), Thomas Cahill begins with this vision:

And a great sign appeared in the heavens,

bearing the symbols of the three Abrahamic religions:

a shining star that streamed six points,

an upright pole of timber crossed by a horizontal beam,

and a glowing crescent moon.

And the three symbols were linked together

by nearly invisible bands of gold

To form one sign.

And a voice rang out:

These are my children, linked together by bands they cannot see,

all children of the one Father.

And though they call me by different names,

I have one name common to all.

For Peace is the name of God.

Whether the idea comes to us in a vision or a series of rational thoughts on the subject of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in this world of the 21st Century, or whether in prayer or meditation, in discourse or dialogue, or interfaith worship - as we experienced here, once again this past Thursday night - Jews, Christians, and Muslims must find fresh ways to bridge ancient and now ever-growing divisions and hatreds and link our three religions together, while each remains itself, losing nothing of its essence, but gaining strength from the links with the others. (Ibid,p. 10).

I cannot begin to express in words, how broken my heart is this morning, knowing that in the face of this war on Iraq - however you wish to spin it - the divide between the masses of Christians, Jews, and Muslims has experienced a major fracture.

We see the fracture growing and opposition mounting not just on the Arab street today. The World street is filled with opposition as we see burgeoning expressions of "us" vs. "them"; varying political viewpoints expressed with religious language facing off against other viewpoints expressed with an opposite, but similar sounding vitriolic spirit. While diplomacy has failed, you and I cannot allow theological dialogue and Hope to fail. Dialogue cannot fail for it is our only solution to the growing chasms quaking the world scene.

Three days ago, The New York Times correspondent, Thomas L. Friedman, wrote a piece that appeared in the Forum section of The Columbus Dispatch. In his piece, "When the smoke clears, U.S. must live up to promise of a better Iraq," Friedman speaks to the future - after the war has ended. Friedman, a long time resident and correspondent in the Middle East says that, while rebuilding a nation from a standing start has been done before, it is indeed a mammoth task - one complicated in this case by a lack of allies up front. The Bush administration has not put the framework for rebuilding in place - with the exception of giving contracts to certain oil companies to rebuild the nation prior to the outbreak of war.

The prewar obstacles for postwar rebuilding seem rather imposing. But, nevertheless, how do you make lemonade from the lemons we now have? An answer must be found, for our children's future depends on it! To maximize our chances of doing this, we need to patch things up with the world community, because having more allies will increase the odds of rebuilding Iraq in the right way. If the breach between our traditional friends hardens into hostility, we will find it increasingly hard to manage Iraq and all the threats on down the road. The first and most important key to rebuilding is a major attitudinal shift in the current administration. Listening to the people on the world street, to hear what is bothering them, and to communicate what is bothering us must replace the ignoring of their voices which has happened thus far.

Thomas Friedman uses two examples of postwar settlements. About 35 years ago, Israel won a war in six days. It proclaimed its victory as self-legitimizing. Its neighbors saw it otherwise and Israel has been trapped in the seventh day of the Six Day War ever since, never quite able to transform its dramatic victory into a peace that would make Israelis feel more secure.

More than 50 years ago, America, along with allied forces, won a war against European and Japanese fascism. We followed with the George Marshall Plan in Europe and General Douglas MacArthur's five year reign in Japan to build democratic societies. These were nation-building models which offered both a hand out and hand-up. The question is, will we follow a model of self-legitimizing conquest or will we follow the wisdom of our predecessors in the Greatest Generation and rebuild lives - not just oil wells and oil refineries?

In addition to this question, many others remain to be answered. Have we unleashed a "one-time attack" on a heinous dictator, or have we unleashed a new US doctrine of first-strike, pre-emptive war which will guide our actions in coming years? Have we unveiled a new crusader attitude in the United Nations through this action against Iraq, or have we stepped out to lead in ways that few outside our nation's immediate sphere of influence will follow? Power and self-righteousness as a model for leadership on the world scene will prove to be fruitless in the long run, though seemingly successful in the short-run. On Friday, the U.S. Senate voted to sacrifice the Bush administration's tax cut to pay for this war which will cost well over $100 billion. How many times can that happen to the American people in a floundering economy in which the poor and middle class are losing out daily and the stock market is witnessing its' worst bear market run since the heart of the depression in 1931?

To some of you, these questions may seem like those I should not raise from the pulpit today, or any day. But, I tell you, if we, as people of faith, with a tradition of Justice and Love do not ask these questions, who will?

In Deuteronomy 18:19, the Lord God says, "I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable." It is crucial that we heed God's word to speak justice with love, because, ultimately we are accountable to God for our failure to do so.

The prophets and their words to us ring out justice. The prophets seek the welfare of the poor, the orphan, the widow, the forsaken. They call to us to be compassionate to our enemies and the ones we would rather turn our eyes from seeing. Prophets are, by their nature, inconvenient, party-poopers. But they also call us out of ourselves. Contemporary society leaves many of us locked-up inside ourselves, often connectionless, isolated in many ways. Our call of faith is to be connected with and thus to love, not only to those who we call our sisters and brothers in faith, but, even more significantly, to be connected with and love those who are our enemies.

Just love is the theme for today's sermon in the series, "For the Love of Christ." The Gospel of John places Jesus' cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of the Gospel story. John does this, because unlike the other gospel writers, he believes that Jesus came to lay down his life for justice and love. He didn't lose his life, but laid it down and took it up again in his resurrection. In this act of cleansing the temple, Jesus challenges the religious authorities out of his prophetic belief that they have abandoned truth in the name of profit. They have sold their souls in the face of human suffering. Jesus cannot abide in this failure to live the way of love and justice.

We have a long way to go in recognizing the way of God's truth and justice. In the face of war and hatreds that may emerge, God will work for peace and justice. Thursday night, as we were gathering to come into worship with representatives of eight faith communities - and many people from both Protestant and Catholic communions as well - one of the leaders of the Islamic community stopped and embraced me. He said, `thank you, my friend, for the help you offered my people after the Islamic Center was destroyed." He was referring to my offering our church for the Islamic school in January of 2002. I smiled and said, "You are welcome. But, remember, you only met here for one Sunday, then found a home elsewhere. We did so little for you." He responded, "you offered us your home when we had no home. In the Koran, a man who offers his home to the lost and wandering sojourner is a blessed son of Allah. You are that man."

I realize that to make lemonade out of lemons, you and I must keep offering our home, our house, the way of love and justice we have come to know in Christ Jesus to all we encounter on life's journey. If only for a day, it is our offering of shelter, of home, that will transform relationships, when that offering comes from the heart. It is in that place, that God's peace will come to reign.

Years ago, when hidden in an attic in the Netherlands, with her diary as a friend, a 13-year-old girl named Anne Frank penned these words:

I can feel the suffering of millions,

and yet, if I look up into the heavens,

I think that it will all come out right,

that this cruelty too will end,

and that peace and tranquility will return again.

In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals,

for perhaps the time will come, when I shall be able to carry them out.

Shortly after this diary entry, Ann died of typhus. Her time never came. But, our time is now at hand. We must lead now, to see that the just love of God comes to reign. Amen.

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