Ceasefire Now

Which side am I on? The side of people whose bodies are on the line but never at the table.

Ceasefire Now
Photo by Brett Wharton / Unsplash
This post was originally presented as a sermon to the congregation of East End United Regional Ministry on Sunday, May 5, 2024. The focus texts are Psalm 98 and John 15:9-17. Like all sermons, these words were intended to be spoken — an audio first experience.

Six months ago, I decided to do something that I never, ever thought I would do outside following a government mandate — I canceled in-person worship. COVID had swept through the choir, was moving quickly through the congregation, and it felt like the safest most responsible thing we could do was to keep everybody apart. Physically. Just for a little while.  We would stay apart so that we could all be together again as quickly as possible.  

And so, gathered at our screens, me in the basement of my house, we worshipped. We sang.  We prayed.  It was very shortly after the October 7th attacks by Hamas. Israel was retaliating. We knew where things were heading.

There were hostages. Captives. And the body counts were starting. Again. I had struggled to find the words: The pastoral words. The prophetic words. I struggled to find the right words to say.  Because in a world intent on forcing us into binaries of black and white, light and dark, good and evil — a world intent on picking a side — I had nothing.

Nothing, except naming that those with their bodies on the line are so rarely those whose bodies are sitting at the table where decisions are being made.

Six months later, I’m not sure if much has changed.

I still find myself standing here, and not knowing what to say.  Not having the words — pastoral or prophetic — to adequately, justly, and with all the nuance and sensitivity required, share the words of grief, hope, and call I feel like I should be saying right now. 

I’m also very aware that there are many within my congregation who have wished I would say more words. Different words. 

I find myself sad and angry, because so much of what I said six months ago still holds true:

I am angry at the Israeli government for enacting policies that actually provide Hamas more power. I am also angry at the Israeli government for engaging in violent oppressive measures for decades. I am angry at Hamas for killing and raping Israeli civilians. I am angry at the world for the anti-semitism that's part of creating this situation in the first place. I’m angry at British colonialism. I’m angry at terrorist organizations that target civilians. I’m angry that there isn’t a simple solution. I’m angry that it’s also not as complicated as I want it to be…because if it’s all just too complicated for me to possibly understand, then I don’t really have any responsibility or obligation to sit with it, wrestle with it, and wonder what my part is in it.  
I’m angry that it feels like I’m supposed to be taking some kind of side in all of this.  
And I can’t, except I must. I won’t, except I will.

Those whose bodies are on the line are rarely those whose bodies are sitting at the table where decisions are being made.

It has ever been thus. 

So, I wonder about the “joyful noise” God wants me to make here.

What song of praise is worth singing? Images of trumpets and lyres. The very ocean roaring! Floods clapping! Praise as to a king!

It’s uncomfortable. I don’t like it. It sounds like the celebration of a military victory.  The word “victory” appears three times in the first three verses of this psalm.  How can we sing songs of joy when victory seems to only ever come at the expense of somebody else?

How can the hills sing with joy when there is so much blood in the soil?

And then…Jesus.  Oh, Jesus.

We start exactly where we left off last week, although there is a lot less terrible gardening going on. No dead vines. No burning.  Today it’s all about the love. Love, love, love. All you need is love. Love one another as I have loved you. As I have loved you, so too should you love one another.

Jesus sounds so saccharine and naive.  He makes everything sound so simple. So easy. Just love one another. Abide with God in love and you abide with me in love and we will love each other and be friends. We’ll meet in the garden and walk and talk and I’ll tell you that you are mine and I am yours like a low budget, made for TV movie.  The earnestness is almost sickening.

It is not love I'm seeing every time I turn on the television or pick up the paper. Gaza is not being flattened in love.  Hospitals are not being bombed in love.

What songs of joy and praise am I to sing about that?

O sing to the LORD a new song, for they have done marvellous things. Their right hand and their holy arm have gotten them victory.
The LORD has made known their victory; they have revealed their vindication in the sight of the nations.
They have remembered their steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

The word “victory” appears three times in the first three verses of this psalm. It’s uncomfortable. I don’t like it. 

But "victory"…it kind of says more about us and what we value, rather than the intent of the psalmist — or I will also boldly suggest, God.

What the the New Revised Standard Version has translated as “victory” comes from the Hebrew root yasha’ — to deliver, or to free.

How does that change things?

O sing to the LORD a new song, for they have done marvelous things. Their right hand and their holy arm have gotten them freedom.
The LORD has made known their deliverance; they have revealed their vindication in the sight of the nations.

God’s movement is towards life and freedom. Deliverance and love.

But not a saccharine, false love.

Love as an action word.

Many of you hear me quote American philosopher and civil rights activist Cornel West. I do it all the time. "Justice is what love looks like in public."

Sometimes there is a cost to that.  There certainly was for Jesus and the disciples.  Remember where we are here in the story. Jesus has just washed the disciples’ feet. He knows what’s coming.  The disciples probably have a pretty good idea too. Jesus has asked them to love one another as he has loved them.  How deeply does he love them?  So much that when faced with violence and death, he will not strike back. He will not retaliate.  He will not call others to vengeance. He will willfully and willingly lay down his life in an act of non-violent defiance — deliverance and freedom offered not in the ways we expect.  Because meeting violence with violence never works. It never has. It never will.

Love is an action word.

Next Saturday, May 11th, there will be a 41km Peace Pilgrimage representing the length of Gaza, from Bloordale to Scarborough. 

On Sunday,  June 9th, there will be an panel discussion, hosted by the Danforth Interfaith Circle, about the roots of anti-semitism and Islamophobia. 

Walking in solidarity. Committing to learning more. And then more again. These are important actions we can take that demonstrate our rejection of death and violence, name our solidarity with those whose bodies and spirits are on the line, while also educating ourselves about how we got here in the first place.  

It is also a reminder that this is not only a conflict taking place thousands of miles away in a distant land.  There are very real implications here in this city for our Jewish and Muslim friends in a very hostile and uncertain present; real threats to the safety or our multifaith partners that we are confronted with, at the Eastminster campus, every day when the police do a walk through the building, when a bloody Star of David is painted on the utility box, when we put the church into lockdown every Thursday while the Danforth Jewish School gathers.

We need to reject death and violence, far away and close to home.

Because any love that lasts is not false and saccharine.  When Jesus names the disciples as his friends, he is also making a statement about power.

Caesar had no friends, only subordinates.

By Jesus — God — calling us into friendship through love, they are also calling us into rejecting the very order of hierarchy and binary thinking that leads to death over and over again.  

And in that deliverance from death, in that freedom from the violence that seems to consume, we sing songs of defiant joy.

We sing, so that we might all sing together.


Rev. Bri-anne Swan is lead minister to East End United Regional Ministry in Toronto, Canada.