The Task at Hand

 

Throughout the years of my involvement in pastoral ministry, I was generally reluctant to give too much focus to Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day celebrations in worship. I wasn’t quite an Ebenezer Scrooge, shouting, “Bah, humbug,” but perhaps somewhat close. In my experience, traditional celebrations of Fathers’ or Mothers’ day in worship all too often overlook the folks in our midst who find such celebrations painful or angst-producing—those who have been victims of abuse at the hand of a parent; those who have long yearned to find themselves in a parenting role, but for a variety of reasons, that hope has not come to fruition; those who are experiencing painful brokenness in family relationships; those for whom grief is raw. The list could go on, and yet, I must confess, I was touched several Sundays ago by the Children’s Sunday/Mothers’ Day worship service planned by Pastor Dawna, which included three generations of one of our families sharing so beautifully what they had learned about kindness from one another. During that worship service I found myself pondering my relationship with my 96-year-old father who is struggling with dementia and living at one of the Church of the Brethren retirement homes in Pennsylvania.

One of the things I learned from my dad was a fierce loyalty to the Church of the Brethren, and particularly to the church’s peace tradition.  These are troubled days for the church, and many of us find ourselves more at odds with the decisions and directions and trends of our denomination than we ever anticipated we would be! In the midst of the turmoil, how healing it can be to find a faith community that upholds those values that give witness to the “best” of the Brethren. So let me reiterate this morning what I wrote in the June issue of Intercom: this experience of serving as interim pastor during Pastor Susan’s sabbatical has been something of a “shot-in-the-arm” for me. In a host of ways this congregation reflects what I believe to be the genius of Church of the Brethren: a deep commitment to inclusivity, peacemaking, and care for those who are most vulnerable; a hearty embrace of compassionate service, care for creation, and a willingness to listen to and learn from persons of varying traditions and life experiences; an intent to be a community of faith infused by prayer and committed to spiritual formation, holding personal needs and care for the world before a God of extravagant grace; the courage to give voice to Christ’s way of grace and peace, justice and inclusion, integrity and simplicity, compassion and generosity.

Floyd Mallott, professor at Bethany Seminary a number of generations ago, in his book Studies in Brethren History affirms how central in our tradition has been this call to embody the challenging spirit and the hard teachings of Jesus, with special focus upon the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7, the largest single collection in the Gospels of Jesus’ instruction about life in God’s upside-down, revolutionary kin-dom. Wrote Mallott, “The Brethren are truly characterized as a company of people who seek to exemplify the type of life expounded by the Sermon on the Mount . . . Insofar as we are Brethren, we seek to live by the Sermon on the Mount” (p. 16).

Central to the lifestyle described in the Sermon on the Mount is a commitment to do the things that make for peace—going the extra mile in relationships, turning the other cheek in conflict situations, loving one’s enemies, praying for those who would persecute us, embodying the way of compassion. Jesus is doing nothing less than redefining the world as we know it. It is a passionate commitment to this alternative perspective of peacemaking that I learned from my father, and it is this very quality, I would contend, that remains the heart, the essence, of Brethren life. Yet it’s a quality we stand in danger of losing as fewer and fewer of our congregations place priority upon the peace witness of the Brethren.

I am a graduate of Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, and one of the things I do in retirement is edit the twice-yearly newsletter of the E-town College Peace Fellowship. Our editorial team, considering a theme for the upcoming issue, had a number of conversations this past winter about the challenges of peacemaking in the current social and political climate.  Opting for “Peacemaking over the Long Haul” as our theme, we asked several writers to consider questions such as these:

In the midst of the turmoil and conflict that characterize our times, how do those of us committed to the way of peace and nonviolence continue to give voice to our convictions over the long haul, and do so with urgency and determination? What should an “edgy” and aggressive peacemaking look like in our day—peacemaking that is firmly connected with the pursuit of a more just society and world, peacemaking that is prepared to challenge and resist injustice, racism, misogyny and exclusion while working for deepening understanding and greater reconciliation? How do we hold fast to our calling as peacemakers in the face of intensifying opposition?

 

 

I wonder if Jesus did not have something similar in mind when reminding the disciples in this morning’s Gospel lesson, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In The Message Eugene Peterson paraphrases verse 16 this way: “Stay alert! This is hazardous work I’m assigning you. You’re going to be like sheep running through a wolf pack . . . Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.”  Matthew 10, from which this verse is drawn, pictures Jesus offering a series of instructions to the disciples as he sends them forth to teach and preach the good news of God’s gracious love and offer the gift of healing and new life. The Gospel of Matthew is organized around five discourses of Jesus’ teaching, with the first being the Sermon on the Mount, and the second being this chapter providing direction to the disciples as they venture forth preaching and teaching.

The Gospel writer provides an intriguing twist in today’s lesson, which begins with the assertion that Jesus, looking upon the crowds, is filled with compassion because the people are “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). It’s a frequent image used in the Scriptures, this likening of the Israelites to a flock of sheep, often lost. But verses later, when Jesus speaks of the disciples as “sheep running through a wolf pack,” note the shift. Jewish tradition spoke of the Hebrew people as sheep among hostile Gentile neighbors, but Jesus now suggests that his followers—the fledgling Christian community—are the sheep, and those Jewish leaders who resist Jesus’ message, who persecute the proclaimers of God’s peace and love and nonviolence—they are now wolf-like in character.

Yet today, proclaimers of the gospel of peace may well feel as if they are sheep among wolves, attacked—even by other people of faith—as betrayers of God and country, as subverters of a flag-enfolded faith. John Dear, Jesuit priest and outspoken peace advocate, spoke at last year’s Brethren Ministers’ Conference prior to Annual Conference. He had been given a copy of a Brethren-authored book describing our beliefs and traditions, and started his time with the ministers reading sections of that description, much of it about the peacemaking heritage of the Brethren. Then, laying the book aside, John Dear essentially said to us, “You already know what it is to be peacemakers. It’s a part of your tradition; it’s at the core of who you are. You just need to go and do it!”

Dear has written a number of books about peacemaking and the gospel; one is entitled Put Down Your Sword, built upon Dear’s observation that Jesus’ final words of instructions to the disciples, as the Temple guard and the chief priests and elders came to arrest him in the garden, were “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). “This is the moment,” writes Dear,

when the disciples finally understood Jesus and his teachings. They suddenly realize that he is deadly serious about peace, love, and nonviolence. He’s so committed to nonviolence that he’s not even going to defend himself with violence . . . . Jesus [is] the incarnation of nonviolence, the embodiment of the God of love and peace. His nonviolence is the key to understanding Christian discipleship today. He teaches us everything—how to live, how to pray, how to suffer, how to die—everything but how to kill (p. 4).

 

Central to discipleship is this call to be peacemakers over the long haul, to make it our passion to speak peace, announce peace, live peace, embody peace, even in the face of intensifying opposition. We find the courage to do this as we acknowledge the peaceful and nonviolent character of our God. I am always shocked by those who imagine God to be bloodthirsty, demanding a sacrifice of blood from Jesus on the cross in order for persons to be saved from the fires of hell. But as we examine Scripture carefully, we discover a very different picture of God—a grace-filled God ever yearning for deeper relationship with humankind; a God who sends Jesus into the world, not out of revenge, but as an act of deep and abiding love; a God whose passion it is that humanity learn the ways of peace, compassion, and overflowing mercy; a God who, in the words of the prophet Hosea, may have every reason to demand retribution from his people but instead cries out, “How can I give you up, O Israel? How can I hand you over?  . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger . . . for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:8-9).

Writes John Dear,

The Gospel portrays Jesus’ nonviolence as the ultimate scandal. Even the [first] disciples recoil. The scandal and recoiling go on. Today Christians support war, cheer the executions of the condemned, build nuclear weapons at Los Alamos. One concludes that the notion of a nonviolent God is just too much to bear. We rarely take a moment to ponder it. And to some degree we, all of us, pursue a false image of God. One that wishes to banish to hell, that prefers us to suffer, that blesses injustice and war—a god, so to speak, made in our own violent image. And thus we walk through life undisturbed by revenge, punishment, executions, and war (Put Down Your Sword, p. 12).

 

But when we recognize God as nonviolent, when we begin to see a consistent theme of peace undergirding God’s deep thirst for full and abundant relationship with humanity, everything changes. I have a friend, a fellow pastor, who happened into the Church of the Brethren. Baptist in background, he was asked to preach at a Brethren congregation in the Chicago suburbs, and in short order, was called to pastor that faith community. As he studied the peace heritage of the Brethren, this pastor found his perspective radically altered, so much so that he said something to this effect: “I used to study Scripture and never think about the possibility of peace. Now I find the message of peace all throughout Scripture. I don’t know how I didn’t see it before.”

To speak peace, to announce peace, to live peace, to embody peace is to let go of the culture of war and violence that is so deeply embedded in our society and world, and embrace instead Jesus’ upside-down—or, more accurately, right-side-up—way of living and relating in the world. It is to adopt Jesus’ vision of an alternative peaceable kin-dom in which enemies are embraced, justice is embodied, compassion is embedded, and nations no longer lift up sword against each other, no longer teach the ways of violence and warfare.

“Thus the task at hand,” asserts John Dear, is “to envision the God of peace. For our souls and for the world. The more we envision and grasp the image of the God of peace, the more we’ll fathom Jesus’ teachings, comprehend how to be human, become a peacemaking church of all-inclusive love, and come upon a way or two to help disarm a world armed to the teeth” (Put Down Your Sword, p. 13).

Not only did my father encourage in me a commitment to peace, but at key junctures in my life, other significant mentors have helped me look critically at the culture of war and embrace instead the task of peacemaking, and to that list of mentors I now add this congregation. Thank you for being a people who take hold of the decisive task of envisioning a God of nonviolence and peace, who model a lifestyle of reconciliation and service, who invite others to join in living and proclaiming Christ’s way of courageous justice, gracious compassion, welcoming inclusivity, and bold peacemaking. You are indeed making a difference in our denomination—and in our world. Thanks be to God. Amen.