Sermons That Work

Veterans’ Day Selected Sermon

November 11, 1997

Blessed Are The Peacemakers
On the day we went to Bosnia, the Air Force did not have the required clearances to fly in Austrian air space. The flight down from Germany was not the usual easy hour and a half trip across the Alps. We went by way of southern Italy and the flight lasted more than four hours. After two hours of preparation on the tarmac at Ramstein Air Force Base, the big blue-green C-141, the work horse of the Air Force fleet, slowly rolled onto the runway. Loaded with six pallets of supplies, a hundred troops in full battle gear, the Bishop for the Armed Forces, Charles L. Keyser, and me, it took off and began to push its way with an unrelenting drone through the thick, dark European skies of late November toward Tuzla. The Bishop and I were on our way to Bosnia to visit the troops…to come to know this war-torn land first hand…and to participate with Bishop Savva, the Russian Orthodox Bishop for the Armed Forces, in an historic “Pilgrimage for Peacemakers.” Never before had a Russian and an American bishop had a common mission – to support peacemakers – American and Russian.

Suddenly we were instructed to put on our flak jackets and helmets, to tighten our seat belts and harness, and to prepare ourselves for the landing in Tuzla. The plane seemed to go straight down. Throwning out chaff to divert possible enemy missiles, the plane dropped into a tiny valley between the mountains where just months before Serb gun emplacements were hidden, and onto the tiny black-ribbon landing strip. After ten minutes of waiting, the huge door at the back of the aircraft swung up and before us were the two grey make-shift buildings already labeled with a new sign – – The Tuzla Airport Welcomes You.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Jesus

Who are they and what do they look like? As we stepped out of the C-141, we met several of them: the Division Chaplain, the Deputy Division Chaplain, several chaplain assistants, all soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division, modern day peacemakers. The next day, with the Russian Orthodox bishop and his assistants, we saw others. We met the commander and the soldiers of the Russian brigade…Russian soldiers monitoring the cease-fire and keeping the fragile peace in this war-scarred land.

What is Bosnia like? It is burned out churches and burned-out mosques. It is homes to be rebuilt and lives to be rebuilt. Where peace is destroyed, everyone is damaged — the winners as well as the losers.

Writing in the September issue of the “Expository Times,” S. Birchmore tells the story of three villages in Bosnia.

“One used to be mainly Croats, one Serbs, and one Muslims. They’re all in an area designed Muslim, so the Croats and Serbs were forced to leave. Traveling along the main road from Zenica to Zepce, I notice the hillside gouged out by a landslide which had destroyed a village. The local staff traveling with me told me the story behind it. The village which had been destroyed was Muslim. On the top of the hill above it was the Croat village. The Croats had a number of wells, and while they were living there the water they pumped out kept the groundwater at a safe level; after they were driven out and the village was deserted, the ground became waterlogged, and the hillside crumbled down on the Muslim village. The lesson was not lost on the Muslims. `If we had not driven out the Croats,’ they admitted, `we could both have lived in peace. Now both our villages are destroyed.’

Where peace is destroyed, everyone is damaged — the winners as well as the losers.

“The third village had been put to the torch by the Serbs when they were forced out, to stop anyone else from having it. Nevertheless, with help from some outside agencies, Muslims who had been expelled from Zepce — which is not a Croat enclave — have moved in and repaired most of the houses. Talking to an elderly man I met in the street there, I asked him about his story. He and his wife had been born there, but had to flee when the war started. `When I was young I fought with the partisans against the Nazis. Now that I am old, I’m in the middle of a war again!”
“He showed me the scorch marks on the walls of his house where it had been burned. The basic repairs had been done, but it still needs more work to make it comfortable; and the village still doesn’t have regular water and electricity. But his biggest worry is his wife’s health; she is diabetic and it’s next to impossible to get hold of insulin or diabetic foods. `Sometimes I just want to cry,’ he said, `because I want to help her, and I can’t.”

At the end of our first full day in Bosnia, in a visit to a second Russian site, we had a short worship service in a tent — in Russian and in English. We began the service with a confession. To be a peace with our neighbors is to be at peace first with ourselves. When we feel angry or dissatisfied with ourselves, often our first reaction is to blame and hurt someone else.
If we wish to be peacemakers, then we begin by taking a good, long look at our selves and saying, “I’m sorry.”

At the end of the second day in Bosnia, when we had visited three American sites, talked with lots of American soldiers, taken dozens of photos, and eaten MREs (Meals Ready To Eat) in the chow hall with the troops, the two bishops embraced with the Kiss of Peace and parted for the last time. One bishop to return to Moscow and the other to New York.

If we are to be peacemakers, then we must work with those who are nearest to us. In a world that is so small, the one nearest us may live at a great distance.

On the morning of the fourth day, we caught another flight back to Ramstein; this time with the required clearances we crossed the snowy peaks of the Alps under the clearest blue sky. When we left the airport in Tuzla, we left peacemakers. The soldiers of our nation and others standing between warring parties and trying to bring them together. I’ve heard some people say, “We should have just left them to fight it out between themselves — then there would be peace by now.” The peace which is kept by force is not God’s peace — it doesn’t last. Real peace is achieved the hard way — by troops and aid workers standing in the gap, risking their lives to deliver urgent relief supplies, by the slow process of negotiation, and by the prayers of men and women of faith all over the world.

Real peace is achieved the hard way — by troops and aid workers standing in the gap, risking their lives to deliver urgent relief supplies, by the slow process of negotiation, and by the prayers of men and women of faith all over the world.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” says Jesus.

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Christopher Sikkema


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