The Blessings of a Peace Village

A sermon based on Mark 10:13-16
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 9, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott

This morning I thought I’d share some of the happenings at Peace Village, the four-day-long summer day camp our church sponored and led this past week. Because Jesus modeled a ministry that both embraced children and taught peace this is a theologically sound thing to do in worship. We can all learn from and experience a bit of the Divine in the telling.

The idea of the day camp was to bring God’s message of peace to children in a format that differs from a typical vacation Bible school. The primary difference was we went out of our way to make it an interfaith friendly camp, not only could non-Christians be involved, but we actively sought and encouraged other faiths, and took a respectful and revered approach to them.

Peace Village is not about one religious tradition over another it’s about all faiths and all peoples having the common unified hope and desire for peace. It’s about spreading and developing and embracing that hope and desire and taking and showing children how to be peace-full– and in the process learn from them too!

Each day we heard peace stories from different faiths by people who practice the faith. We heard peace stories by a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Jew and a Christian. A couple of days we also wove in Native American peace stories told by one of our college counselors who is studying that tradition at Kenyon. Plus, of course, I played the didgeridoo which may have a funny name and sound but it is a sacred instrument of prayer and peace from the aborigines of Australia.

It is fair to ask why a Christian church would put together a children’s summer camp with time spent considering and holding up multiple faith stories. The short answer is because Peace Village is about peace – and actually so is Christianity! And we cannot have peace, we cannot get to peace, if we do not include other faiths and ways to experience God.

The word peace in the Bible is “shalom” it’s derived form the word for well being. There can be no well being if there is no respect for other faiths. Indeed Peace Villages are set up with an underlying notion that there can be no well being if there is no respect for creation, each other and ourselves. And given the nature of the world we must also understand and be willing to think critically about cultural influences that lead us to, and away, from peace.

Many years ago Rev. Charles Busch, the founder of Peace Village, told me that he let the words of Jesus from John 14:27 be his guide in forming the first Peace Village. Those words of Jesus are: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” Charles told me those words kept speaking to him as he considered how to address violence and bullying among our children.
Last week our beautiful day camp was about taking the peace that Jesus left us and gave to us and leaving and giving it to children in the community.

So our Peace Village of roughly two dozen children and two dozen adults and teen helpers learned about what we called “Peace and the Planet;” “Peace and our Culture;” “Peace with Others;” and “Peace within Self. We had classes on these topics each morning. We bookend-ed these classes with a morning and afternoon “peace circle” a gathering time with singing, centering and prayer. The prayer we prayed at least twice a day was the one we read earlier: LET THERE BE PEACE ON THE PLANET, PEACE IN OUR WAY OF LIFE, PEACE WITH EACH OTHER AND PEACE WITHIN MYSELF. AMEN, SO BE IT!

And of course during the day we also had art projects, nature walks and lots of fun outdoor games. This beautiful banner is one of the projects that we will hang in the church, along with the mobile that you saw coming in the front of the church. They will remind us of this awesome summer and the glorious children and wonderful adults and this church’s involvement in this mighty effort for peace–and they will remind us of God’s presence.

The idea of the camp might sound kinda complicated but what’s cool about Peace Village is it’s a multi-course meal with the fixin’s already in the curriculum. The non-profit organization Peace Village, Inc., provided the recipe book, if you will. And we started working on preparing the peace feast months ago, it’s been a labor of love . . . this peace work.

And everyone who’s been involved pretty quickly became enthusiastic right away. Basically the idea of bringing peace to children resonates deep down with us. I do not know a soul in the congregation that does not want peace, most especially for children. Peace Village provides and provided for us a very real and tangible way to do this . . . to bring peace to children.

So far I’ve only spoken to some abstract ideas and ideals with some general descriptions. But I want to detail some of the week for you. It was such a beautiful thing and truly much of it is hard to put into words, a “you had to be there soaking in the experience” kinda thing. So what I am describing is an echo, a snapshot of our experience. But even the re-telling has the wonderful vibrations of love and peace in them.

And I have to say that there is a part we can all still go out and fully experience. We held Peace Village at Ariel Foundation Park. We chose the park because even back last fall when we started planning we could tell it was being made into very Holy ground. Ted and the town’s leaders and all the donors and planners had a vision that created a place where the Divine can be experienced in the visual and tactile splendor in places created by humans and naturally made by God. It’s a wonderland of hills and rocks and grasses and trees, lakes and streams and places to play and climb and to sit and have fun and to think and pray and contemplate the Divine.

You can witness in the vast acres of that “world class park” pockets of peace, of well being, and they can bring a sort of openness to exploring those bits of shalom and God. At Ariel Foundation Park God not only resides but is still speaking. And so we pitched our camp there to expose us all to a place like that.

We walked the paths and in the river and we sat and listened and looked and we also stood and rolled and jumped and played and canoed and we heard the still voice of God calling us to peace with all that is – our self, others, creation and community.

And I am so happy to report we heard God’s voice! We experienced God not only in the setting but in the songs sang, the stories shared, the lessons taught, the games, the fun we experienced. But for all our work and effort and outdoor splendor we especially experienced God in the children, we saw God our honored guests’ presence from the very moment they began to arrive on Monday morning to their last leap for joy during our closing group photo op.

I have worked with children in various capacities since I was in middle school. And the truth is I have yet to encounter a child that did not project the voice of God singing out from her or his very being. Children are perhaps the easiest portal to God for most of us. Love, wanting a child’s well being is very strong in most adults. If God is love then it makes sense that in Children we find a natural flowing conduit to Godliness.

If God is also the Creator who resides in creation, we can sense God in our natural call as adults to be endeared to children. Skeptics might call it innate for us to be endeared by young ones, but it feels less like science to me, and more like a Divine loving force at work.

All during Peace Village children radiated the presence of God in their smiles and questions, their hand holding and hugs, their laughter and singing, even in their tears there was God. Best of all God was there in children’s easy way of quickly bonding and caring for instant new friends. When peace is the aim and the message of a camp, making others a part of community comes with ease. Would that human adults could so quickly deem the “others” we encounter as our dear friends and show kindness and care that the children showed one another last week. It was such a beautiful thing!

Mahatma Gandhi said “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.” I would add to that, that by teaching children peace, we adults can also teach ourselves peace, because in each child the radiant beam of God is present in their being and in much of their natural actions with one another. We adults can learn from that presence and those actions, as well as from the words we instruct and the actions we take to bring peace to the children.

Gandhi’s Twentieth Century observation that “If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children,” can be heard to echo Jesus’ teaching in our text today. We are told that

People were bringing little children to [Jesus] in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” and he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mar 10:13-16)

If we consider that what Jesus meant by “Kingdom of God” is heaven here on earth, then Jesus can be heard to profoundly be advising adults who would sternly shoo children away from being touched by Christ, that it is children– and those who are like them – that bring about heaven.

So while Peace Village was created to bring peace to children, the result is that they bring peace to us, just as they bring the presence of God . . . or better yet, because they bring the presence of God. And from a progressive Christian standpoint, the presence of God in humans is what we call the very incarnation of God or Christ. And it really ought not to upset any Christians, if that incarnation of God is facilitated by respectful work with other religious traditions and religious peoples in a quest for peace.

The only negative of the week was ironic and there’s funny visual to go with it. A conservative Christian came into the camp while we were in session badgering the staff who sent him to me. He tried to lecture me about our “mixing Christianity with the pagan” and tell me about what he called “Truth.” As I sort of let the fellow hear in no uncertain terms a longer version of “love means love and that’s a Truth we seem to disagree on,” one of the church members out of hearing said to another staff member “I know Pastor has a habit of talking with his hands, but boy look at him go with this guy.” . . . As we taught at Peace Village sometimes peace, sometimes love, requires us to stand up to meanness.

And as I noted on Facebook, I THANK GOD this church loves to love love . . . and puts up with my gesturing.

Despite the conservative Christians concerns our Peace Village nestled for four days in that glorious park along the Kokosing River proved, if we just let the children come to God incarnate, if we facilitate their access to God through love and peace in nature, and stories and song and play and in our actions and teaching then God incarnate will embrace them, take them up in his arms and lay her hands on them and bless them– to sort of quote Jesus.

And Peace Village proves as well that we adults too can be swept up in those arms and hands and be blessed while being respectful and thoughtful of other faiths. Peace is not only a Christian thing and we do not have a monopoly of access to God.

Today’s bulletin endeavors to list the names of the adults involved in Peace Village. You can see it really did take a village to put Peace Village on. We had over forty-five adults who volunteered to sponsor, support, play, teach, provide first-aid, plan, lead, and/or put it all together. We had two dozen children learning and teaching us peace. This church, all of you, sponsored the camp for months and provided the way and wherewithal to pull it off.

All of those peace angels I’ve just eluded to made a difference last week. They and you– this church– helped to transform lives, helped to transform community, helped to bring about the very incarnation of God in a park in Mount Vernon Ohio. What a blessing!

Jesus said

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” and he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

That happened 2,000 years ago in our Bible lesson. And it happened again last week in our community at Peace Village. And it was awesome to witness. Thank you for making it happen!
As we said all week at Peace Village . . .“Peace.”