Preached on September 11, 2016 at United Church of Christ Congregational, Idaho, Wallace
I wonder how many of you have been introduced to Sadako, a young Japanese girl whose story has been turned into an award winning book for young people, and attached to the paper crane tradition that has traveled around the world countless times. Sadako was born in 1943 and was two years old when the atomic bomb fell on her hometown of Hiroshima in 1945. The moment of impact tossed her outside the house and landed her in a box, her clothes burned and torn, but she survived, and her family did what they could to put the horror behind them. Nearly ten years later, however, swollen lymph nodes led to a diagnosis of leukemia stemming from the after effects of the radiation the bomb had carried. As Sadako wrestled with her untreatable illness, her father shared an ancient Japanese legend with her: if she folded 1,000 paper cranes, her wish would be granted. As her health failed and her hospital stay lengthened, Sadako folded and folded. She worked feverishly but was only able to fold 644 cranes before her death nearly a year after her diagnosis. Her classmates continued the folding, and created another 356. Sadako was buried surrounded by 1,000 paper cranes.
Sadako’s story and spirit caught the imagination of her country and the world, and cranes quickly became a symbol for peace and hope. Three years after her death, in 1958, a statue of Sadako holding a paper crane was erected in Hiroshima Peace Park. A plaque on the statue reads, “This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world.” Her brother Masahiro has said, “Her death gave us a big goal. Small peace is so important; with compassion and delicacy it will become big like a ripple effect. She showed us how to do it … I believe if you don’t create a small peace, you can’t create a bigger peace”.
I have no idea how far the ripples have traveled, but I’ve heard of cranes adorning wedding celebrations as a prayer for long years of deep joy. I’ve strung them into a mobile to hang over a baby’s crib. I still feel the tears that burned my eyes five months after 9/11, as Ben and I walked around the neighborhood of what used to be the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Countless fire houses were adorned with strands of cranes, as school children, faith communities, families and friends sent their heartbroken prayers and deeply held gratitude to first responders who had seen too much and suffered beyond our imaginings. On the tenth anniversary of that nightmare, the community where I was serving folded, strung, displayed and distributed thousands of cranes, sending our prayer and longing into every ear and heart open to hearing: this is our cry, this is our prayer, peace in the world.
Since today is the fifteenth anniversary of that bombing, and once again it falls on a Sunday, I’ve folded some more cranes, not as many as I’d hoped but hopefully almost enough for all of us to take one home. I share them with you as a way of sharing my prayer for peace and hope. I start most of my days listening to the news on the radio, and Ben and I sit together most evenings and watch a recap of the day’s events, and I have to tell you that I waver between a deep seated conviction that prayers for peace have never been more desperately needed – and a temptation to throw in the towel and wipe my hands of the whole enterprise. Whether it’s the news out of Syria, Turkey or North Korea, from the streets of Chicago, Coeur d’Alene or Spokane, or the rhetoric swirling at the heart of this year’s presidential election, I find little reason to hope. Yeah, I know, they just announced a cease fire agreement in Syria, and while that sounds major and promising, I’ll admit that I’m also battling a growing case of cynicism. Maybe this one will work. I hope so, but it’s hard to get very excited. I’m in a kind of wait and see holding pattern.
And then I hear again Sadako’s brother’s words, that if we don’t create a small peace, we can’t create a bigger peace, and I’m pulled back into the game. And I’m reminded again that not only is peace NOT a fairy tale fantasy but a deep and passionate longing that comes from the very heart of God, but that I have a role to play and small tasks to do and deep, searching prayers to offer. I do believe, along with Masahiro, that compassion and delicacy have a ripple effect, and there simply is no such thing as an act of kindness that is too small to make a difference. I don’t know if I can do anything that will reach Afghanistan or Baltimore, but even if my actions ripple a fraction of the way there, they might at least make a dent. I’ll let God take it from there. Or other players and pray-ers.
It’s been striking as I’ve listened to reflections and stories related to 9/11 fifteen hears later. We’re painfully familiar with the stories of the hatred and terror that lay behind it all, but I was especially moved by the story of an airport worker who stood at a gate and let the bombers onto a plane. It wasn’t until the next day, as authorities began to piece together what had happened, that he accepted an impossible sense of responsibility for not having stopped them, a burden that continues to haunt him even as he now works to support those who have suffered from such attacks. As we live in the aftermath of it all, and in the company of the terrorism that continues to grow and spiral out of control, it’s tempting to let it’s tentacles into our hearts, lives and communities as if there will never be an end, but only more and uglier hatred and evil.
In the midst of all of that, I was glad to be reminded of another story, one I had heard 14 and 15 years ago but had forgotten; and that was about the number of planes that were grounded in Newfoundland on the morning of 9/11. After the planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and crashed in a Pennsylvania field, airspace was taken over by the US military and all planes were ordered onto the ground. As a result of that order, 38 jumbo jets landed in Gander, Newfoundland – a town of 10,000 people. The person I heard telling the story observed that they were in an international airport but it really isn’t very big; Ben and I were there the following summer, and ask one of us to tell you our story of just how small an airport it is. Suddenly, fifteen years ago today, that small airport and the towns and villages in the vicinity were overwhelmed by thousands of stranded people that they referred to as the “plane people.” They let folks sit on the planes for a little while, as they scrambled to devise some kind of plan. But it didn’t take long before the mayors and ministers of the area showed up to say, we can take x number of people. They spread them throughout the area and welcomed them like they’d known them forever. Schools and nonessential businesses closed, and young children as well as old people and everybody in between carried in towels, wash clothes and sheets and made them available to folks who didn’t even have their luggage. Satellite televisions were set up so they could see what was unfolding at home; banks of telephones were made available with no restrictions about where in the world people could call or how long they could talk – and there were no charges when it was over. They were in Newfoundland for 3 days, and cried when it came time to leave because of the generous ways they’d been cared for. They tried to leave money but no one would take any of it, so as their planes finally took off, the passengers joined together to create a scholarship. They had learned that many students had dropped out of school because there were no jobs. They’ve now established an endowed scholarship fund that is nearing a million dollars and has already granted 228 scholarships. Some of the recipients have become medical doctors, others have received advanced degrees. The woman telling this story on public radio wrapped it up by saying that they had been blessed to have participated in the very best of humanity, as they were cared for by people who didn’t have to do anything for them. Small acts of peace, sending ripples of compassion into the world, moving toward a larger, more lasting peace.
Fifteen years later, and that continues to be the task in front of us: finding small acts of peace that we can perform, with the hope and the prayer that they will meet up with small acts from others to form a greater peace; doing what we can to keep acts of compassion and delicacy alive in the world, sending them out to ripple into places we can’t see or imagine. I’m not sure what to do about the biggest, ugliest places of violence, but that’s where prayer comes in, the wisdom and will of God and the imagination of a handful of people.
One news piece that continues to travel with me is the story of Kayla Mueller who was killed by ISIS about 18 months ago. There was much about her story that seemed at best naive, if not just plain foolhardy: a young woman out to do good and save the world, who wandered across a border for reasons nobody could be sure of later – and she ended up getting herself killed. One piece of the story that caught my attention and put my ears on full alert was the report that she tried to teach crafts to her captors. Personally I don’t believe it for a minute. For a person like Kayla, who was dedicated to standing in solidarity with the Syrian people and committed to not letting human suffering become normal, the origami folding of paper cranes was definitely not a craft project. As I’ve thought about it since then, I’ve wondered if maybe Kayla cloaked the folding of paper and the making of cranes as a craft project, while also praying and working for peace. For the Syrian people, whose suffering had compelled her to put herself in harm’s way in the first place. For her family and friends, whose days and nights were undoubtedly tortured with fevered cries for her release. For herself, her desire to live, her vision of the difference she wanted to make in the world. And yes, for her captors, whose hearts and souls are tormented by hate and twisted by evil. Praying for them is a shocking notion. This is ISIS we’re talking about, ravagers of villages, beheaders of journalists and aid workers. But before they were that or anything else, they were people with human hearts, made in the image and by the hands of God. Maybe she wanted their help in accumulating those thousand cranes, believing in the promise of peace. Maybe she dreamed of planting seeds that would gradually soften the rigid diatribe of war and silence the battle cries of hostility. Maybe she was infiltrating the dungeons of death with a message of love and the possibility of tolerance, praying that the ripples of her efforts would encourage a small increase of peace.
I was struck to hear that this year’s high school freshmen will be the first to study 9/11 as a history lesson, because they are the first high school freshmen to have been born after that ghastly Tuesday morning. What do want to teach them? About the atrocities of terrorists, of course. And the sacrifical service of first responders, absolutely. I pray we will also teach them about the glimpses those days offered us into the very best of humanity. And that we will encourage them to fold cranes, practice random acts of kindness, do what we can to create small acts of peace, triggering ripples that will carry the compassion and spread the delicacy, moving toward a day when we will join our voices and our prayers as one: This is our prayer. This is our cry. Peace in the world.
Let’s sing together:
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be
With God our Creator, children all are we
Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony.
Let peace begin with me, let this be the moment now
With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow
to take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.