“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Yesterday was Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to fulfill Jesus’ promise to empower his followers to spread the gospel around the world. This promise came upon the people of the Jewish diaspora gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Weeks, or Shavuot.
Whenever I think of this promise, though, I remember the second sermon I ever preached, which was on this text. That preaching experience was an exceedingly difficult one; actually, it was my worst nightmare, but not unexpected. You see, when I entered seminary, I never expected to get ordained, because I had such paralyzing stage fright that I didn’t want to have to preach the one sermon you must preach in order to be certified ready for ordination. My fear of preaching was realized in this second sermon. Now, God being God, my FIRST sermon was a miracle, and proved that it wasn’t up to me to preach, except to the extent that I had to be willing to show up in the pulpit and open my mouth. Because of that first wondrous experience, the second horrible experience just gave me opportunity to appreciate God yet again having the last laugh on me.
So how could the sermon be so difficult? I was asked to preach for a Japanese church by their pastor, a family friend of mine. She told me how the church was known for their stubbornness that caused a traumatic split in the church, because the younger generation wanted them to broaden their ministry, but the leaders insisted that they stay very exclusively Japanese.
This was also a time when the Korean churches were growing very fast, so they were often asked to share their faith in just about every venue in the PCUSA. Back then, they would begin every testimonial with a recounting of the atrocities they suffered at the hands of the Japanese. For Japanese-Americans, this caused some awkwardness. Some would feel shame for the real atrocities that the Japanese military inflicted on the Korean people. Some would resist the shame, saying something like “we didn’t do that to the Koreans; we were in internment camps in the United States when this was happening.” This, to me, was our parallel to White people objecting to the thought of reparations on the part of their racist ancestors. My response is that while my parents or I did not commit the atrocities, we hold within us the same kind of pride that enabled us to succeed and, if left unchecked, can lead to dehumanizing brutality against those deemed inferior. Just as I have benefited from this cultural self-confidence, I grieve the imperialistic extremes that flared during World War II, and this always humbles me in relationships with my Korean siblings.
Back to the sermon. My friend and I talked about this church’s troubles with their own members and neighbors, so I thought I could speak to our sin of rejecting the people closest to us. When I consider Jesus’ promise, I notice how the promise started small, with their own people, then moved to the Samaritans, who I consider to be the estranged cousins of the Judeans, before moving out to everyone else: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I thought how the most painful breaks occur with those closest to us; I don’t believe it’s coincidence that the most painful, bloody, and schismatic war in US history was the war within our borders. So I boldly (foolishly?) pointed out to this church how they could be looking to reconcile with their members (who were their young adult children, mostly), and with their local Korean neighbors, before attempting to reach out to international missions.
During the sermon, I had the distinct feeling that I was preaching to concrete blocks. But regardless, I still believe that we find reconciling with those closest to us to be the hardest. Many churches prefer a mission focus with a different country rather than connecting with their impoverished neighbors. Divisions within families, churches, and denominations cause more distress and continued hard feelings than disagreements with strangers. (Former Fuller president Richard Mouw pointed out how the PCUSA will form close relationships with Lutherans and Episcopalians far more easily than with members of other Presbyterian denominations like the EPC or ECO.)
But to me, the deepest, oldest, most intransigent conflict of all is that between the children of Abraham, the children of Sarah and Hagar, God’s own people—the people of the Holy Land. We Presbyterians have long and profound relationships with the people of Israel, Palestine, and Egypt, among other nations. I am grateful for Egypt’s role in facilitating the ceasefire in Gaza. But it is particularly painful to see the continued conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the impact it has throughout the world, so much so that we tremble at the thought of saying anything that may be perceived as hurting Israel, even while we cry at the sight of walled-in communities, kindergarten- age bombing victims, and an entire people who have no citizenship in any country. I continue to be grieved and paralyzed by this; just as I believe Japanese lost any credibility in holding Koreans to account, Christians have no moral right to critique the Jewish people who have suffered so much by people claiming Christ in their hateful attacks.
So what do we do? For now, I can only pray, and I found a prayer from Christian Aid UK, who is asking that we all pray on the 24th of each month (that’s today) for peace in Gaza, and throughout the Middle East:
Let us pray not for Arab or Jew, for Palestinian or Israeli,
but pray rather for ourselves, that we might not
divide them in our prayers but keep them both together in our hearts.
When races fight, peace be amongst us. When neighbors argue peace be amongst us. When nations disagree peace be amongst us.
Where people struggle for justice let justice prevail.
Where Christ’s disciples follow let peace be our way. Amen.
Let our prayers have the power of the Holy Spirit to do what we cannot do for ourselves. Praying for Peace,