Monday, September 12, 2016

Wrath Versus Peacemakers

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The texts were Matthew 5:1-12 and 5:38-48:

Most of us probably remember where we were and what we were doing 15 years ago today. We remember the moment when we first heard about a plane, or planes hitting the world trade center, we remember seeing people fleeing from the buildings, and seeing the fire department running towards the buildings. We remember the buildings collapsing and our tears and our sorrow and our questions and maybe our fears. Some watched from a distance not knowing anyone involved, and others had their lives ripped apart that day.  When we lived in Boston, Linda and I were friends with a woman who had a plane ticket for one of those flights, but her meeting in LA got cancelled, and so she never got on board, and in both churches we served there, literally right around the corner from both of them was a memorial to the people in those towns who had lost their lives on that day. and yet in the devastation of that moment we experienced something special, something unique. We witnessed bravery and heroism most of us had only heard about. We witnessed sacrifice and selflessness. We witnessed a nation, and to a large degree a world, coming together, not based on national or tribal affinities, but based on a shared and common humanity.

Jesus said that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And so, someone said that in witnessing the firefighters and the police officers running into a burning building while everyone else was running out, laying down their lives for their friends in the greatest sense of that word, we glimpsed the kingdom of God. Of course that glimpse did not last long, and we soon turned away from the things that brought us together, and instead started building up barriers and walls, shouting tribal chants and seeking revenge and war. A war that continues to this day, so that this year’s entering college freshmen can never remember a time in which we as a nation were not at war. But for a moment, in the midst of the chaos and violence and tragedy, we witnessed the kingdom of God.

One of the responses I received about what people would like me to preach on was to talk about the election and how we as Christians should be thinking about and responding to what is happening. With disgust might be one response, but probably not the appropriate one. I do think it’s appropriate that we talk about the election, but how I was going to do that was the issue. I do know that there are some people who get upset and think that politics should never be talked about it in church, but that’s actually an impossibility. Because to proclaim Jesus as Lord and King, is to make a political statement; it’s to claim where our allegiance belongs, to God, and also where it doesn’t belong, to the things of the world. In addition, Jesus had a lot to say about things that are impacted by what we would call the political realm. So if we are to proclaim ourselves as Christians, as followers of Christ, that is political.

Now that is very different from what we think of when we talk about politics and religion, because there is certainly a belief amongst some that when we accept the scriptures as true we simultaneously have to accept everything that Rush Limbaugh says as true as well. But those two things do not go together. And while churches on the left also can stress that you have to be voting for the “right” person and believing the right things in order to be a “true” Christian, they don’t get nearly as much publicity for those positions. But what these churches seem to have gotten confused about is in trying to equate being right with being righteous. Those are two different things. And the truth is, which both sides too often forget, is that no political party, or side, has a monopoly on truth, nor can either of them encompass the entirety of who God is, or of Jesus’ message, and the more blatant truth is that neither of them even come close to proclaiming the heart of the Gospel message and that is the Kingdom of God. None of them. Jesus is King, and when we are lured by the power and prestige of politics and the state then the church not only loses its prophetic voice for the world, but we get captured in worrying more about power and keeping it then we do in working for the Kingdom of God here and now. To paraphrase Tony Campolo, combining the church and the state is like mixing manure and ice cream. It won’t do much damage to the manure, but it really messes up the ice cream.

So that leads me back to our new sermon series and that someone else asked that I preach on the Beatitudes, and as I thought about the election and that idea I was reminded of a book I saw entitled Seven, but Jeff Cook, in which he contrasted the Beatitudes with the Seven Deadly Sins, an idea I found intriguing, and I thought this could be a way to try and tackle how we as Christians should be thinking about the election and we can use the Beatitudes, and more importantly the entire Sermon on the Mount as a way to look at the candidates and the positions we have before us, and as reminder of what we are called to do and to be. And last week I said if a preacher is not making you upset or made at least once a year they are not doing their job, this is the series where I am going to be doing my job.  While we don’t really all too often hear about the Kingdom of God, that is at the heart of Jesus’ message. Indeed, in the gospel according to Luke, he records Jesus as saying that his very purpose in being sent was “to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 4:43) and what does that Kingdom look like? While there are lots of ways to approach that from the gospels, I think the easiest and best is to look at the Sermon on Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes. If Jesus has come to proclaim the Kingdom of God, or to put it into election language, to campaign not only about the Kingdom but for our participation in it and our allegiance to it, then the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ campaign speech of not only laying out the platform, the Beatitudes, but of giving us specific policy guidelines as well. And so we are going to work our way comparing the ways of the Kingdom, the Beatitudes, with the ways of the world, the Seven Deadly Sins, and we begin with wrath and peacemakers because of the enormity of 9/11 in our minds and our response to that event, and perhaps what a response might have been, if we had used the Beatitudes and the sermon on the mount as our guiding principles.

First, does anyone know in which book of the Bible we find the seven deadly sins? It’s a trick question, because they are not found in the Bible. Instead they are a list that has been compiled over time from many different sources, but began to be codified by the church in the third and fourth centuries. The sins, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath are seen as abuses of excesses of our natural inclinations, so wrath is an extension of anger. Anger can have both positive and negative connotations, but wrath is the negative extension of the passion running out of control.  The Hebrew word most often translated as wrath in the Hebrew scriptures derives from the verb “to snort,” so imagine and angry bull pawing at the ground and snorting in preparing to charge, and we begin to get a picture of the meaning. It can also fury or burning anger. It’s anger running out of control, and that is what makes wrath so dangerous, so deadly, although Jesus would say it’s what makes anger dangerous, is the actions that come with wrath, which are usually destructive not just for others, but also for the person who is acting wrathfully, and one of the most destructive elements is the fact that when we act out in wrath against someone, or something, that has harmed us we feel justified in our response. And because we feel justified, we say that immoral actions are actually moral, then we are unwilling to repent for our actions, and that too can lead to destruction. Indeed, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near.” So Kingdom ideas, are related to being able to repent.

But the second problem is that when we feel morally justified and strike out at others, and are unwilling to repent, then when we harm others they too feel justified in striking back, and the cycle of violence and retribution continues, and that’s why Jesus tells us “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’” which is him quoting three different places in the Hebrew scriptures, and which was itself instituted in order to stop outright retaliation in order to control and constrain it, and then he says “But I day to you do not resist an evildoer.” That changes things radically. In fact, it serves to turn the world on its head; in fact, the entirety of the sermon on the mount seeks to turn the world on its head, because that’s what the Kingdom of God does. It doesn’t accept the world as it is, but instead calls for the world as God wants it to be. According to historians Will and Ariel Durant, in the last 3,421 years of recorded history there have only been 268 years in which there has not been a war taking place somewhere.  That’s just 8%. That has led some people to conclude that war and violence are therefore a natural part of who we are, of our existence. But that’s the trap we find ourselves in is that we think that the way things are is how they are supposed to be or how they have to be. But God says that’s not the case.

The Beatitudes are not about how we should be. They’re not commandments. Jesus does not say be a peacemaker, or be merciful, or be meek. Instead he says blessed are the peacemakers, those who are already doing the work. While some have said that the Beatitudes are about our attitudes, it’s not about the attitude of doing these things, but actually doing them.  The Greek word used for peacemaker literally means those who do peace. And this is also more than being a pacifist, which often has the connotation of being passive. This is an active, engaged, maybe even, for lack of a better word, an aggressive peacemaking, it’s seeing the world and reacting to the world through God’s eyes. Because when we act as peacemakers, we are acting the way that God acts, that’s why Jesus says “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” As Jesus says in the gospel of John, the Son of God, does what the father does; if we are going to be called children of God then we need to be doing what God does, and that is to be peacemakers.

Now contrary to popular opinion, when Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek, he is not telling us to be a doormat to be walked all over. In fact, it’s a very different story, because what he says is “if someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other also.” Now since the majority of people are right handed, if we are to strike someone on the cheek, what cheek is going to be hit? It’s the left cheek. So to be hit on the right cheek means that the person striking you has backhanded you. In the ancient world that was a sign of disrespect, an act done either to someone who was lower on the social scale, or an act to say that they were lower on the social scale. So to turn and offer them the left cheek, if the person is going to strike them they are going to have to do it as an equal, or more likely not strike again at all. Continuing in the passage, if you are sued and they ask for your coat, which was the inner garment, give them your cloak as well. Now the cloak, the outer garment could not be taken by the courts, but what Jesus is saying in giving them the outer garment when they have taken the inner garment, you will be left standing before them, and everyone else in court, in the nude. When someone exerts their power over you so to embarrass you and you take it to the logical extension, who ends up looking foolish? The person trying to take your inner garment. Turn the tables on them. When you cannot force people to treat you justly, you can expose the injustice of the situation.  By roman law, soldiers could require citizens to carry items, like a cross, thinking of Simon of Cyrene at the crucifixion, or the soldier’s equipment for one mile. But if you take it beyond that, then they will be running after you to get you to stop because now they risk prosecution. Jesus is saying, expose the system for what it is, expose people for who they are, expose the injustices that are taking place and when you do that, when you do it without violence, then those who are trying to do violence to you will lose.  That’s why Gandhi and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were successful; the civil rights movement turned in America when the majority white population saw unarmed people being attacked by police dogs and beaten with clubs and moved with fire hoses and not fighting back, but instead staying there, and even moving towards the fight. This form of peacemaking is active and engaged not to allow the violence to continue, but to call out the violence for what it truly is and to shame those who are perpetrating it.

But then Jesus, as he is always prone to do, takes it a step further, and makes it even harder, and he says don’t just love those who love you because anyone can do that. That’s not hard, it takes no cost to do that, but instead love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Why? So that you may be called children of God. And Jesus does not say to pray that they will see the errors of their ways, or realize that they are wrong and we are right, but simply to pray for them and to see them as others created by God, and then Jesus says be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect. That is Jesus telling us, this is really, really hard; if it was easy everyone would be doing it, but the path that is easy, as we’ll hear next week, leads to destruction, but the path that leads to righteousness, the path that leads to salvation, the path that leads us to be known as Christians is hard and narrow, and that’s why people will know we are Christians is because we truly live differently. We will pray for our enemies, and what’s the best way to pray for someone else? It’s to ask them what they need to be lifted up in prayer, which means engaging with them, talking with them, getting to know them, it’s about building bridges with them, listening to their hurts and concerns and dreams, and when that happens they no longer are enemies, but instead become friends.

We are to be peacemakers, and I do believe that we should take that literally. If we are going to say that we worship the Prince of Peace then we should be seeking to bring peace, which means we cannot be acting or seeking violence or retaliation. We are called to something higher. In the first 300 years or so of the church, Christians were pacifists who refused to fight in the Roman military. Indeed, in Edward Gibbon’s monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, one of the reasons he gives for its fall was the refusal of Christians to fight for the empire precipitating their need for mercenary soldiers which weakened the state. Now after the emperor Constantine came to power he sought the power of the church to give his rule legitimacy, and the church sought the power of the state to give them greater power, and the church and the state and war became intertwined.  The state used the church to provide moral justification for their actions. But just because the state may need to do something does not mean that we are the church have to justify that action, we do not have to provide the moral backing for events which go against who and what we are, and that is peacemakers and when we lose that we lose the heart of who we are, we cannot be called children of God when we are not seeking peace, not peace at the end of a bayonet or a missile, but actual genuine peace.  And let us never make excuses, and certainly not fear to justify another position, for as the great Jewish theologian Jon Stewart said “If you don't stick to your values when they're being tested, they're not values: they're hobbies.”  Let us also remember that our veterans who have seen combat are rarely saber rattlers, because they know the reality of war. As General William Tecumseh Sherman said, “War is hell.  It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation.”

We are to be peacemakers, doers of peace, not just in the easy times, not just with those who know and like, but most importantly in the hard times and most importantly with those we consider our enemies. It means seeing the world as God sees it, not as it is, but as it should be. It means seeing other people as God sees them and loving the world as God loves, with all that we are and all that we have, with everything that God gives us. And when we think it’s impossible, that the chances of success are too small, or we just want to give in to our desire to strike back, let’s remember the words of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who said “God well knew how ready our unbelief would be to cry out ‘This is impossible!’ and therefore stakes upon it all the power, truth and faithfulness of God, to whom all things are possible.” We are not called to be peacemakers, what Jesus says is that those who follow God, those who are children of God, those who work for the kingdom of God already are peacemakers. That is what distinguishes us from the world, it is what makes us who we are, as hard and as difficult as it might be, that is who we are. Hate and retaliation do not bring peace, all they bring is more hate and retaliation, we see it every day. No politician is ever going to stake their candidacy, to make their platform, peace and forgiveness, but that is exactly what Jesus did and said, and he was willing to lay down his life for it, because without forgiveness there cannot be genuine peace. So I say to you, turn the other cheek, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, for blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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