A sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
In the days following the tragic killings at Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, something remarkable happened that you may not have heard about.
Dylan Roof, the young man who shot nine church members during their Bible study, said he did so hoping to start a race war. During his arraignment, the judge granted the family members of his victims a time to speak to him face to face.
One young woman, Nadine Collier, daughter of victim Ethel Lance, said to Roof, “I will never talk to my mother ever again, never be able to hold her again. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you. I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.”
Alana Simmons, granddaughter of victim Daniel Simmons, said to Roof, “Hate won’t win. My grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate. Everyone’s plea for your soul is proof that they lived in love and their legacies live in love.”
Whenever a tragedy like that in Charleston happens, we are confronted with two options – love or hate. Will we allow circumstances to drive us apart into warring factions or will we seek unity in love?
In response to the arms negotiations going on between the U.S., Iran, and other countries, many religious leaders and politicians denounced any peace-making efforts, while stating their unwavering support of the State of Israel. They will often quote Genesis, “God will bless those who bless Israel.”
The subtext and motivation for such speech making, however, is something that the fundamentalist Right rarely admits in front of news cameras – they are hoping and waiting and even working for Armageddon – the climactic battle some verses in the book of Revelation suggest will come before the return of Christ.
I remember clearly in the days after 9/11 those who turned up the temperature in an already volatile climate, hoping that the events on that terrible day would spark a world war. The rapture index was on red-alert. The rapture could happen at any minute – the chess pieces in their Armageddon scenario were falling into place. If we can only start a big war, Jesus will HAVE to come back!
When the horrible news came this week of another mass shooting, this time on a Chattanooga marine base, there were those who hoped it would start a new round of retaliation against Muslim Americans. In response the Muslim community of Chattanooga broke with the tradition of their celebration of the end of Ramadan by canceling their public celebration, choosing instead to attend a prayer vigil at a local Baptist church in honor of the victims of that shooting.
Do you see the difference? Whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist, or none of the above, we are each confronted with a choice in the face of evil acts. We can hope things will get worse, even trying to escalate the hate, or we can once again seek the path of peace and forgiveness.
You see, many churches can’t wait for the return of Jesus, but the Jesus they are waiting for is a vengeful, violent Jesus. Have you noticed the Armageddon boosters quote almost exclusively from the prophetic books of the Bible – scenes of carnage from Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation?
Tim LaHaye, author of the wildly successful “Left Behind” series which sold over 30 million copies, scolds Christians who have created what he calls, “Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild.” Now, granted, it would be hard to write a multi-part thriller based on a peace-making Jesus. He prefers the militant, angry, action-hero kind of Jesus, instead. Warrior Jesus sells books!
But is this the Jesus we encounter in today’s lesson from Ephesians? Jesus is our peace. He has broken down the wall of hostility between us.
Unlike warrior Jesus, peace-maker Jesus, who comes requiring compromise, sacrifice, and vulnerability, isn’t nearly as exciting.
Paul’s reflection on the divisions that were tearing the Ephesian church apart presents us with this kind of Jesus. Paul describes a wonderful vision: a new humanity being forged in the person of Jesus Christ. Unity replaces antagonism. Peace replaces hostility.
The early Christian church was deeply divided. They debated whether new followers of Jesus who were not already Jews would have to become Jews first and then Christians. This would involve things such as keeping kosher with your meals and men being circumcised. Not the best strategy for Church growth, let me tell you!
Deep hostility had formed on both sides, and the church was dividing. Jesus is our peace, but that peace will not come automatically. Peace takes work.
Which is easier – cultivating divisions or striving for unity and peace? We need look no further than our own diocese for an example of peace taking work. There were those who rejoiced to see our parishes divided and torn asunder for the sake of tradition or their reading of scripture. There are others who longed for court battles over property and lawsuits over diocesan leadership. Lines were drawn, dividing people into groups of good and evil, right and wrong, winners and losers. It would seem that the tendency of the church to divide has survived since the day Paul first wrote this Epistle.
Peace is the harder choice. Working for unity is riskier.
For St. Brendan’s, I believe we renew our commitment to work for peace every time we come to the Lord’s Table. Here we encounter a risen Christ who invites us to new life and new hope. When we confess the mystery of faith, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again,” this is not in expectation of warrior Jesus coming to start Armageddon or a world war. This hope is one of the restoration of God’s kingdom of peace where lions lay down with lambs.
We have an opportunity every time we gather for Eucharist to practice this peace-making. After the confession and absolution, we practice what is called, “Passing the peace”. This is not a time to greet your neighbor or to meet the newcomer across the aisle. The intention of exchanging the peace is to make things right with someone in the parish or in your life with whom you have a problem, or are holding a grudge. It’s a time to make things right before we approach the Lord’s Table. I wish we had the opportunity to exchange peace with those who left the Episcopal Diocese so many years ago. Perhaps real reconciliation could begin.
So we are left with the decision – what face of Jesus should we as the church show to the world?
In a world that often encourages divisions, makes money off of hostility, breeds antagonism, should we show them the vengeful, warrior Jesus, returning to destroy the wicked with violence? Should we jump with joyful anticipation when bullets start flying and people start dying?
Or, should we present something radically counter-cultural –a vision of Jesus that calls us to humility? Should we model the kind of forgiveness the families of the victims in Charleston showed the man who killed their loved ones? Should we show the world a glimpse of our messiah who does not desire death or destruction, but rather unity and an end to hostility?
Tim LaHaye and other preachers may think me foolish, heretical, or even cowardly for persisting in my hope and my belief in this kind of Jesus, but when tempers flare and people start dying, I see in Jesus’ risen body peace, not revenge. Amen.