“When Elephants Fight, the Grass Suffers” ~ A Reflection for Remembrance Sunday
Luke 21:5-19 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ November 8, 2020
As you were listening to Candie offer this morning’s reading, your thoughts and prayers may have shifted to our neighbours’ situation following Tuesday’s Presidential vote. It seems that these unprecedented times in which we live continue to be even more unprecedented. In anticipation of these events, a friend’s church in New York, decided to change their sign. It read: “Jesus is coming. Hopefully before the election.”
But what does that mean? ‘Jesus is coming’. We don’t talk about this theological concept as ‘head on’ as perhaps *we should* in our progressive liberal denominations. And when we do talk about it, it is inevitably accompanied with some levity, like my friend’s sign. Yet Jesus’ arrival is an important part of our faith story. The arrival of Jesus…what will the arrival of his full presence bring? This morning’s text is about this very concept. It is an apocalyptic text. It is about endings and about beginnings. The conclusion of one order and the birthing of a new one…the Kingdom, not of Rome, but the Kingdom of God birthing forth into the world. And, if you have ever been present for a birth, you know that there is a lot pain, and suffering and uncertainty that occurs prior to the arrival of new life and joy.
For the community which this text first was offered, they were dealing with the ruins of their beloved temple. The temple, for them, represented all that was holy and sacred. God’s tangible presence desecrated! The temple was the central place in communal life…their faith…their imagination…their hope…their future…all torn down to rubble in 70 AD. I’m trying to think of some modern-day parallels. For our neighbours to the South, it is found in the battle for the White House. Yet, imagine, that their White House was reduced to rubble! For us, consider the pain we would feel at the destruction of our buildings that occupy such a deep place for us: Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings, Vancouver’s Canada Place, Toronto’s CN Tower or Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica. Or, we might consider the impact of the destruction of Stanley Park or the many other parks that hold our nation’s collective story. For our ancestor’s in faith, the destruction of their temple was heartbreaking, terrifying, and removed any sense of hope in the future with God being ‘with them’.
I think this is what makes Remembrance Sunday so truly difficult because it pulls at the core of what we value. It turns things upside down. We want to come to church and hear stories of loving neighbour, stories of God triumphing amidst the challenges. Yet today, we are struck with the harsh reality of war. Have you ever looked up the definition of ‘war’? I once was asked what war was by one of our children in the church. I felt my answer was lacking, so I began doing a bit of research after that. War is defined as “the use of maximum deadly force between large groups of people”. War is never good; it is terrifying; and it leaves huge, permanent scars upon the generations that follow. We lift up the bravery and sacrifices during a war that are made; however, war, as we know is never good. War is evil and our Christian values of gentleness, generosity, forgiveness and love of enemy are thrown aside when we send our soldiers into the battlefield. And when war does end, it almost never ends in peace: at least not in the kind of peace where two former enemies embrace one another and wish each other well. Show me a war where all sides win. The faith vision we have of “the lion and the lamb lying together in peace” rarely ever is the result of the wars we wage.
There is an African Proverb that offers us some wisdom for this day: ‘When elephants fight, the grass suffers.” Too often when fighting occurs, it is the common people of the land that suffer the most. History records that those who make the difficult decisions to wage wars (the military, the legislators, the leaders) often have the least to lose. Certainly prestige, power and position have been lost, yet the essential well being and access to basic necessities continue. Sadly, the same has not occurred for those who have served as the instruments of war. Statistics report that compared to those who did not serve, veterans are disproportionately homeless, disproportionately unemployed and underemployed, and disproportionately suffer with mental illness. When the elephants fight, the grass suffers.
If we were to look at the reading immediately prior to this morning’s text, we would find that Jesus is commending the sacrificial offering of the poor widow at the temple. Her meagre offering; her tremendous gift; her deep sacrifice was of even MORE value than the opulent temple that stood before them. While the temple will be destroyed as a result of the socio-political crisis between Rome and Judea, the poor Widow’s sacrifice is lifted up as deep, enduring one to be honoured! We follow the one who taught that suffering is an essential part of life; suffering is not optional; suffering is a part of a deep and well lived life. Jesus goes to the cross for us, so that we do not need to. Yet we still walk in the way of the One who suffered, as we ourselves offer our lives sacrificially. There is that horrible concept of “collateral damage” that is encountered as the result of war. The unintended painful results of war that inflict further suffering and death upon a larger population than that originally intended. The bystanders, the innocents, the widows and their family, and the generations that follow. As we gather on Remembrance Sunday, we are reminded of the collateral damage that continues to this day. The pain, the suffering, the loss and the sadness that continue as we remember war and deeply pray for peace.
So how shall we live in this legacy? I was struck in this text on Jesus’ instruction of clarifying what we choose to see. “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another.” What do we choose to see that leads to peace? The disciples were overcome with the temple adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. Jesus shifts their vision to see their call to a way of service, a way of sacrifice, a way of suffering. He warns them of their coming challenges ~ they will be betrayed, arrested, persecuted, imprisoned. He calls them to live out their faith under these adverse conditions ~ to testify as he calls it. And he promises them that “not one hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
I think that the Christian faith response to this day is to continue living into the practice of peace. We know that peace begins with in each of us. It is what the greeting we share as Christians truly means: ‘May the peace of Christ be with you.’ It is acknowledging, and celebrating, and encouraging this peace of Christ that is more glorious than any temple, or structure, or creation…it is Christ’s gift of peace placed inside you. Mother Teresa observed that “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” We have forgotten that we are sisters and brothers, children of God. In battle, we bleed the same colour; in the aftermath, we shed the same salty tears…and we must hold peace in our hearts, if that peace is ever to extend into the world. Martin Luther King preached that “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” I think that is what makes Remembrance day so truly challenging because we have suffered deeply as a result of war. When the elephants fight, the grass suffers. And we gather together this day as ones who have, and who continue, to be called to suffer in order that peace might be birthed. And as Buddha once observed: “to conquer oneself is a greater task than conquering others.”
There is a deep pain and longing that will continue in us until the Kingdom breaks in. The memories, the loss, the pain, the yearning for a day of peace. I often find that this visceral feeling we hold inside is echoed when I hear that bagpipes. There is something about the pipes that touch us inside, unlike any other. While they were first invented, they were used as a call to war; however, today we hear them as a call to seek peace. If we were gathered in the Northwood sanctuary, we would be touched with Daniel Uren’s piping for our Remembrance service. So, as a second best, I asked Daniel to send me this piece of music for our time of reflection.
May we long inside for peace; may we live in ways seeking peace; may we continue to remember.