Peaceful Tomorrows – preaching on Matthew 18:21-35

islamophobia_pdf_imgOn Monday the world will mark the sixteenth anniversary of 911. Much has happened since that day that changed our world. Sadly, much has stayed the same. This Sunday the Gospel reading for those congregations following the Revised Standard Lectionary comes from Matthew 18:21-35 and is all about forgiveness. Looking back on the sermons that I have preached on this particular text, I discovered that on the first anniversary of 911 the same reading came around to challenge preachers and their listeners. Reading that old sermon, I was struck by how very little we have learned over the years. My theology has changed considerably over the years and so the way in which I speak about the work of the Divine in the world has also change. But, replace some the names like Sadam Husain, Taliban, and El Queada with ISIS or ISEL, or Hamas, or Assad, or Kim Jong Un, and the world’s willingness to use violence seems almost inevitable. What has not changed for those of us who seek to follow the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth is the challenge to change our ways and seek peace. So, I post this old sermon here, in the hope that some of the echoes of our past might enlighten our present with a desire to work for peace. 

I seriously considered quitting my job this week. It’s been a tough week and I’ve gotta tell you, that by the time Friday rolled around, I felt like handing in my notice. I was sick and tired of my boss’s holy than thou attitude and I didn’t want to work for Jesus any more. You see all week long I’ve had this gospel lesson rolling around in my head. This is a lousy week to try and write a sermon on mercy and forgiveness. Images of towers crumbling, family members weeping and American politicians calling for an escalation of the war against terrorism, aren’t exactly conducive to thoughts about mercy and forgiveness. On any other week, I could write a sermon proclaiming the goodness of God’s grace and reminding you how much we owe God. On any other week, I could come up with a story about the colossal debt we owe our God and how dramatically God has wiped the slate clean. On any other week, I could write a sermon urging you to look with compassion and mercy on those who are in your debt. On any other week, I could proclaim the good news of God’s mercy and point to the many ways that we have sinned and count up the many times God has forgiven us and urge you to be just as forgiving to those who have sinned against you. On any other week, I could do my job. But this week Jesus’ words about forgiving not once, not twice, not three times, not even seven times but forgiving those who have sinned against us seventy-seven times is more than I can bare.

This week I don’t want to preach about mercy and forgiveness. This week I’ve seen too many vivid reminders about the cost of being soft when it comes to dealing with terrorists. This week I discovered that I’m probably nothing more than a fair-weather Christian. I can preach about peace. But when the going gets tough, I too want a strong ally on my side to take out my enemies. All too often, lately, the possibility of living according to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth has seemed impossible. All my life I have believed that war is wrong. All my life I have believed that Jesus calls us to live lives that emulate God’s grace and mercy. I have devoted my life to teaching Jesus’ radical way of peace, justice and mercy.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, I stood in this very pulpit and in the face of our horrible grief, I cried out for peace, for mercy and for justice to prevail over those who see violence as the only possible response to terrorism. But over the course of this past year, I have been inundated by the media’s presentation of the arguments for swift and decisive action to violently oppose those who wish us ill.

I have a confession to make. The truth is that, if I’m really honest with myself, with God and with you, the truth is that I’m not really sure that I believe that forgiveness, mercy or peace can solve the problem of terrorists who are willing to use whatever means necessary to destroy our way of life. In my heart of hearts, I would like nothing better than to see special forces deployed to take out, what’s left of the Taliban, and El Queada and then slip into Iraq and once and for all eliminate Sadam Husian, and while we’re at it, they might as well cross over to Iran and take out the repressive government there. I’m not talking about excessive force mind you, but just enough force to win the battle against evil.

After all Jesus’ words about mercy, justice and peace are all well and good, but this is the real world and you can’t wave the gospel at evil and expect that to be enough to achieve justice in the world. If Sadam Husain really does have weapons of mass destruction, then you can bet you boots he won’t hesitate to use them on innocent people. We’ve got to do something!

So this week, I read Jesus’ parable over and over again. And over and over again, I realized just who I am. I am afraid. I think the war is going to escalate very soon. I think that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get any better and I’m not sure that there is much I can do about it. Except maybe save myself. So, despite my desire to be a peacemaker, I have become the ungrateful servant in Jesus’ parable. I am the wicked slave. Over and over again I have cringed as Jesus’ words ring in my ear: “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” I don’t have the courage to believe. I don’t have the compassion to show mercy.

I’m not sure that I even believe that peace is the answer. I want the madness to end, and if American military might it the only way to end the madness, then let it be swift and decisive. On Friday, I realized that I don’t believe in Jesus any more. On Friday, I decided that I no longer believed that Jesus’ teachings held the answers that the world needs to find its way out of the current crisis. On Friday my faith evaporated. So what does a pastor do when they just don’t believe in Jesus any more?

Well this pastor retreated into her study. You see, I figured that if I couldn’t believe anymore than maybe I could reason my way out of my dilemma. So, I dove into my books and started looking for an answer. I avoided the Bible because the last person I wanted to argue with was Jesus. Instead, I wallowed in literature about peace and non-violence, hoping that some of my old enthusiasm would return. Surely, there was an answer somewhere. I fell asleep halfway through a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr., not even King’s rhetoric could convince me that terrorists could be defeated by non-violent means. And when I woke-up, it wasn’t Martin Luther King’s words that were ringing in my ears but Martin Luther’s words. The same words that got me into the Lutheran church in the first place. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Christ. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with Christ’s gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in true faith.”

“I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ.” I’d been trying to figure everything out. I’d been trying to find a reasonable answer to the problem of sin in the world. But, I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that makes my faith possible not my powers of reason. It is the Holy Spirit that makes Jesus’ teachings about compassion, mercy, justice and peace believable.

It was also the Holy Spirit that reminded me that it was Friday. Friday, the same day that Jesus hung from the cross for teaching the very things he believed about compassion, mercy, justice and peace. It was on Friday that Jesus hung dying from the cross and cried out to God in heaven and it was on this last Friday that I heard those words like I’ve never heard them before. Hanging there bruised battered and bleeding, and about to die for his beliefs, Jesus cried out: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do?”

I’ve heard these words over and over again, but I’ve never really understood before. I wasn’t sure that I was hearing them correctly on Friday, so I grabbed my Greek Bible just to make sure that Jesus said what I thought he said. I carefully wrote out each verb in Greek, and then I consulted my dictionary and there it was, the way I’ve never heard it before. Jesus doesn’t ask God to forgive them. Jesus commands God to forgive. In Greek, the verb in question is what is called an aorist imperative, a direct and definite command. I’ve always heard these words as the dying Jesus’ last wish. It never occurred to me that Jesus was ordering God to forgive them.

Now as remarkable as this command is, it is nowhere near as unusual as the fact that Jesus didn’t just forgive them himself. Why didn’t Jesus just say, “I forgive you, for you don’t know what it is that you are doing?” Jesus is willing to die for what he believes in and one of the things that Jesus believes in is forgiveness, so why doesn’t he forgive his murderers? From the cross Jesus does not offer forgiveness, but Jesus knows all too well that forgiveness is essential to all of creation.

Jesus remembers “who” above all and in all and through all can forgive, and so Jesus tells God to forgive them. With his spinal column anchored fast, his limbs secure against the wood, Jesus marshals the last bit of incarnate flesh that he can move. With his last breath, Jesus prays in the imperative mood, flinging the force of forgiveness across heaven and earth. Jesus knows that forgiveness is God’s will, and unable to forgive himself, Jesus tells God to forgive them for they know not what they do. Forgiveness and mercy is a force, an energy, as energy forgiveness and mercy has power and is power; the force of God’s power to forgive echoes through the gospel.

Somehow, Jesus inability to forgive makes Jesus all the more human. Hearing Jesus’ words from the cross helped me to realize that Jesus is more than just some holier than thou, pie in the sky, unrealistic peace-loving, out of touch, radical. Knowing that even Jesus had to call out to God in order to accomplish mercy gives me strength.

I cannot by my own reason or strength believe. I need the force of God’s power, the gift of the Holy Spirit to live and breath in me so that I too can call out to God in order to accomplish mercy. So, yesterday, mindful that I too am an unforgiving servant, I sat down to write a sermon that proclaimed God’s grace, mercy, compassion and peace in the face of the week that we have all had. That’s when I discovered the story of two brothers.

Barry, Craig grew up in Iowa. Barry and Craig were alike in many ways. They were both interested in art and in drawing. They loved music and both of them worked as DJ’s during college and they shared a wry sense of humor. After college the brothers were both married. Barry and his wife moved to San Francisco and started their own computer company. Craig and his wife wanted to start a family and so Craig opted for a more safe and secure job, with health benefits and a guarantee of a pension. Every morning for two years Craig drove to work in a car with a bumper sticker that read: “visualize world peace”.

Some people thought that Craig’s bumper sticker was a little odd considering the fact that Craig was in the military. But Craig believed his role in the Army could further the cause of peace throughout the world. Craig’s “Visualize world peace” bumper sticker was proudly displayed on his car, the morning he reported for work at the Pentagon on September 11th 2001. Craig wasn’t able to drive his car home. Like thousands of others, Craig was murdered by evil men who sought the destruction of life as we know it.

Craig’s widow Amber, his brother Barry and his sister-in-law Kelly have been very busy this past year. In the face of their loss, and in the face of terror, they have taken Craig’s bumper sticker to heart and they have been busy visualizing world peace. Craig’s family believes that Craig would be appalled by the vengeful response many people had after the terrorist attacks. Barry remembers that, “people were holding up the concept of revenge as something good.” Barry recalls seeing politicians and pundits talking on TV, and whenever anyone would bring up that there might another way to deal with terrorism other than bombing entire countries, the pundits would always say, righteously, ‘Tell that to the victims’ families.’

Barry says, that he felt like he was being exploited, sitting there at the one-month memorial ceremony, that turned out not to be a memorial. He said that, it felt more like a war rally, with the president and the secretary of state pledging that they were going to extend the war to other countries. To Barry, that meant killing more innocent people. Barry said that the memorial service dishonored his brother’s name.    Barry says that his family spent the first few weeks after the attack in shock and feeling helpless. Until finally the rabid pro-war public sentiment spurred them into action. That’s when they began to visualize world peace by creating a coalition from among the victims’ families called Peaceful Tomorrows.

For the members of Peaceful Tomorrows, September 11th was a day of unimaginable personal loss. Each of them lost a family member at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, or in the crash of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. Loosing loved ones to these extreme acts of violence has effected each of them deeply. It is something from which they will never recover, not in a year, not in a lifetime. But in the days, weeks and months following that terrible day of loss, Barry insists that the members of Peaceful Tomorrows have also received incredible gifts. Barry says that somehow they gained each other—because they spoke out publicly about their opposition to war and violence as a response to their personal and national tragedies.

They gained the love and compassion of new friends all over the United States and all over the world and they gained the knowledge that there are thousands of Americans and millions around the globe who share their view that war is not the answer to the crimes of September 11.”

They have also gained critics. Barry views their criticism as another gift. Barry says, “it has made them consider what it means to be an American citizen. It has made them aware of their responsibilities and it has made them realize that now, more than ever, the battle to defend their freedoms begins at home.

Barry insists that he too is a patriotic American and that if Americans cannot support each other, especially in their differences, then they have already lost this battle to the terrorists. Barry goes on to say, that the victims for Peaceful Tomorrows have also come to recognize their kinship with other innocent victims of terrorism and war, a kinship that goes beyond their own borders. Barry insists that, since Sept 11th, “it has become clear to many of the victims’ families that America must fully participate in the global community: by honoring international treaties, endorsing and participating in the international criminal court, following the United Nations charter and agreeing in word and action to the precepts of international law. Barry insists that: “This is vital, if peace and justice are to prevail everywhere on earth.”

The organization of Peaceful Tomorrows believes that it is time to stop the violence and in the names of their lost loved ones they are daring to speak out for peace at a time when war seems to be the order of the day.

Martin Luther King Jr. insisted that peace is not a far off distant goal but a way of life. I confess that my own fears, my own reasoned response to the leaders of nations and my own reluctance to forgive have caused me to loose sight of my own commitment to peace. I confess my doubt. The call to arms is a strong one.

The arguments for war are convincing. The temptation to resign ourselves to war is powerful. But if these families who have lost so much, can gather together and speak out for peace in the face of their grief, then surely we can honour their commitment by responding in kind.

We owe God more than we can ever repay. God has forgiven so much of our sin and while we like the unforgiving servant remain unwilling to forgive those who have sinned against us, we can as Jesus did, call upon our God to forgive on our behalf, so that we can be about the work to which God is calling us. Peace-making is not pacifism. Pacifism is remaining still, giving in or doing nothing in the face of evil. Peace-making is the work of seeking and implementing non-violent opposition to evil. Peace-making like compassion and mercy are not the ways of the world, but they are the ways of the one to whom we owe our very lives.

Jesus of Nazareth, is calling on us to be compassionate and usher in God’s reign of mercy, justice and forgiveness, so that all of God’s children can live in peace. I believe that we cannot by our own reason or strength respond to Christ’s call, but the Holy Spirit, through the gospel calls us and empowers us to follow Christ in the ways of compassion, justice, mercy and peace. In the words of Luther, “I believe, help my unbelief.”

I give thanks to God for the gift of faith and trust that the Holy Spirit will give us all the strength we need to be the peace-makers that Christ is calling us to be.

The work of Peaceful Tomorrows continues. You can find out more here


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