Sunday, November 11, 2012

Treat with Respect

Treat with Respect
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 11, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:18
Matthew 5:21-26
Deuteronomy 20:10-20

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

People say that preaching to the lectionary keeps your feet to the fire because it forces you to preach the difficult passages, not just the easy ones, not only the ones in your wheel house but those passages that make you pause, make you think, and challenge your initial assumptions. It probably does, and I expect to give it a try at some point in my ministry, but I cannot think that it can be as challenging week to week as this journey we have been on since June, looking at the Marks of a True Christian. Just when I think it can't get any more challenging you get this morning's passage, Romans 12:18 "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all," which seems easy enough, I mean peace is one of those easier topics, you would think, and for the first time in these "Marks of a Christian," there also are caveats and mitigating circumstances, like if it is possible, and so far as it depends. We haven't had those neutralizers before, look at where we've been, you won't hear any circumstances, just straightforward descriptions of saint like difficulty: Romans 12:9-18  

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  

But now we have "If it is possible, and so far as it depends," so you'd think easy, walk in the park, peace it is, I can talk about peace, speak out against war, talk about how simple it would be if everyone in the world could just get along, and stop fighting, but not so fast my friend. It's November 11th, Happy Veteran's Day! A day were we don't necessarily celebrate war, but we do celebrate those who have fought, and rightly so, but it gave me pause, it made me question just how simple it all is, which I think is good. God continually reminds us that he has a sense of humor doesn't he. Just when I thought I could give this great anti war sermon, he throws this little curveball as if to say, remember now even peace isn't so simple, and I'm reminded of Jesus Christ, prince of Peace, saying things like do not think I've come to bring peace on earth but a sword.
So I decided I'd jump on in. So I picked the troubling Old Testament Lesson that Erick read so well for us, and decided I'd pair it with this gospel lesson, Matthew 5:21-26:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult  a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. [1]  

It's hard for someone like myself to stand up here and talk about the horrors of war because I have never been in one. I've been lucky enough to have lived in a time and in a country where others have sacrificed of their comfort, their time, their family and their lives in many cases fighting on my behalf in the world and I haven't had to experience that type of reality first hand. I know that some of the men in this sanctuary today have been those men, who have made that choice, or have lived in a time when the choice was made for them. I stand in awe of them because I know for a fact, as a student of history, that war has been throughout time one of the single largest destroyers of human life that this planet knows. In wars we kill each other, we destroy what each other has made, and life on this earth is forever altered by the wars we fight. So much is lost each time wars are fought we ask ourselves is it ever worth it, can war be ever justified, or is peace always an option?
Throughout history the church and Christianity has been on both sides of the war argument. Passages like the one Erick read from the Old Testament have been used by proponents of war to convince people that the violence of war was not only ok with God, but sanctioned and justified. Many of us today hear words like Jihad, and are quick to condemn Muslim extremists for the violence that they have done in the world, and the Koran as a book that advocates the evils of war, but many could certainly apply the same claims against Deuteronomy 20. In my Study Bible it subtitles the chapter as the "Rules for War" but within it sanctions the slaughter of all the enemy men, the taking of booty, women, children, and livestock, plundering, spoils." It seems to sound more like some kind of Pirate Code than what you'd expect to find in a Christian Bible, but then again how many wars were fought in the name of Christianity in the last 2000 years?
The claim made most often, as is made in Deuteronomy 20 is that it is ok to fight a war as long as God is on your side. This has been used forever as a distinction. If God is with us who can stand against us, and there may be something to this, but how would you know if God was on your side or not. Especially because both sides in wars usually feel that God is on their side. In ancient times wars usually were thought to be fought by the gods, in that different countries or city states had different patron gods, and it wasn't a question of who had god on their side, but instead which god was more powerful, but then in the 20th century World War I challenged that idea about war because on a global scale you have two sides of a conflict, and it's not between different God's, it's not even Protestant against Catholic, it is now protestant against protestant, the same God being on both sides. Is it possible? If so it again ain't that simple. I remember when I was in Confirmation class our Pastor introduced us to Bob Dylan's song, "With God on Our Side." Dylan goes through all of the wars that the United States has been in, claiming in each one that God is on our side, but with each verse the wars seem to become more and more futile, and the "God on our Side" claim seems to get weaker and weaker, culminating in these last three verses:

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we're forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God's on your side.

In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.

Much of Dylan's point is looking at the ways that technology has increased the capability of mankind to destroy all of human existence that war and the avoidance of war takes on new meaning entirely, and he says you never ask questions when God's on your side, but I think we do need to ask questions especially if questions, questions like is what we are doing a part of God's will, not just with whether or not to fight the war, but how? With the threat of nuclear holocaust, can war ever be worth it, worth complete destruction?
If we look at our Mark of a Christian, we see "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Paul seems to know that it is not at all simple. He seems to know that non peace comes even to the most peaceable of people. So could you translate this to "don't start wars"? Do what you can, but don't start wars, that maybe God's on the side of the retaliation but not the instigator. It reminds me of part of Polonius' advice to Laertes in Hamlet when he says,  

Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.    

The old, hey try not to get into fights, but if you ever find yourself in one, you better win. I think we take this stance often. I know my students do, and kids in general. I know that any time there is a fight the first words out of the mouth of the participants is "he started it." Our football team played St. Anne's in Charlottesville last week, and their team was 0-8 going into our game and we were headed to the playoffs. We kept telling our kids not to get into any extra-curricular activities, to not fall for the bate, to walk away, etc., but on one play one of their guys held on extra long to our running back, and threw him down after the whistle, a little scuffle ensued and one of our players threw a punch at someone's face mask and was ejected. He was the only one ejected because he was the only one who threw a punch that the referee could see, automatic ejection. So we the coaches flip out on him because talk about not worth it, and the worst part was being ejected meant that he could not play in the playoff game yesterday, due to the state rule that all ejections equal one game suspensions as well. So he comes over to the sideline and we are about to yell at him pretty bad, and without fail he comes over to say, "It's not my fault, he started it, I was just protecting my teammate!" Do you ever wonder if God is waiting around up in heaven ready to throw a flag on the retaliators in the conflict, that not just the starters of the war are to blame. Again it doesn't even seem to be that simple either.
Is there more that we can do to be peaceable than just not starting conflicts? I think so, we can work to end them. This is where our gospel passage comes in this morning, and why I chose it. This section of the Sermon on the Mount states that the ancients said not to kill, but Jesus takes it one step further, not to be angry, that the feelings behind the action are as important as the act itself. If we think of this on a micro level it means that our feelings of bitterness, our desire for revenge, the grudges we hold, are all just as bad as acting out against the other person in a violent way. Oh how truly indicting this is. And if we think about it on a macro level, how does it change the way we see wars in general, and our parts in them? How does it change the way we look at "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." It seems to really challenge us on the "possible and the depends on us" part of it because there is much we can do, especially when even our feelings are on the line, but still even then there is potential that peace will not be.
And so I know that I really haven't gotten anywhere with this sermon. I haven't come up with a really profound understanding about peace and war. I haven't really brought to light any new insight, but I think that is my insight. War and Peace are difficult, and anyone who tells you different is lying to you. So I come to the conclusion that war is something to be treated with respect, because of the tremendous cost, even the choices made within. History is filled with Officer's in war who have los t track about the cost as they are consumed with the perfect strategy for victory. My mind goes to Lee at Gettysburg, and the tragedy of Pickett's charge, thhe Prayer of Preparation comes from the Charge of the Light Brigade by Tennyson, where respect for the cost of war was overcome by thoughts of the glories of war.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd ?
Not tho' the soldier knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do & die,
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley'd & thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash'd all their sabres bare,
Flash'd as they turn'd in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder'd:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro' the line they broke;
Cossack & Russian
Reel'd from the sabre-stroke,
Shatter'd & sunder'd.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;
Storm'd at with shot and shell,
While horse & hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro' the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder'd.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred! 

The price for not respecting war can be great, but it's so easy to get caught up. I on a smaller scale made this mistake yesterday. I've shared with you some of the tragic injuries that have occurred in our games, that in football the boys put their health and wholeness on the line every play, and I need to respect that as their coach, and keep them safe without unnecessary risk.  We had the ball up 7 with 22 seconds on the clock 3 and goal on the four. If we kneel the ball down the game is over, but we all got caught up in the moment, but the call was mine, I wanted to score the touchdown, so we called a play and scored, great right, we sure showed them, but the problem was we left 14 seconds on the clock, so we scored, but the game isn't over. There was a kickoff and three more plays where someone could get hurt, with the other team desperate, discouraged, with nothing to lose. The game got chippy, bad things could have happened, and it all could have been avoided if I ended the game without scoring. We would have won, and winning is the goal right? But in the moment our goals changed and the risk was great. Luckily it turned out well, but it doesn't always.
            And maybe in today's world respect for war is an important thing to remember, especially as to many of us war has become painless. It happens in another part of the world, all of us know soldiers, but the majority can go through their lives day to day and not be impacted by the wars we fight. We also have unmanned drones that can do our fighting for us, so there is none of our own blood being on the line. It is too easy to say that technology like that is positive because though it saves American lives, it can further blind us to the tremendous cost of war, which is something it is quite dangerous to forget. We have to treat war with respect, making sure that we weigh the cost not just at the beginning but at each step, making sure that we are not getting caught up in it all,  and with that same respect we have to remember our veterans who make the sacrifice, because what they do is sacrifice their own peace to give peace to others, giving so many the gift of peace, giving us the gift of peace. And on this veterans day we especially take time to recognize the service that on too many days we take for granted.
Father God we pray

"For those who gave for peace with courage
That our families may be free
So children could grow strong
And safe for ever be.

In giving for the sake of peace
They may have suffered loss
Their bodies may still show wounds
From taking up the cause.

May remembrance of their time away
Their sacrifice for peace
Spur us on to strive more strongly
For freedom, that there'll be release.

From causes that sent some away
To fight that we may freely live
With gratefulness we thank you, veterans
For all you gave and give!"[2]








[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 5:21-26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2] Prayer by Susan Helene Kramer