Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
This week I was standing in Anna’s office bemoaning the need to preach after yet another week of violence. In fact, I was complaining out loud about it! And then, in the midst of my complaint I stopped. And I looked over at Anna and admitted with some embarrassment that perhaps Jesus was pretty sick of it all too! After all, the world in which he lived was not overflowing with love and peace for all. The world in which he lived, in which he taught and prayed and healed and preached was a world not too unlike our own. And that is precisely the world God chose to enter, precisely the world God came to heal.
Today’s Gospel reading could not make it clearer that Jesus entered a politically, religiously, socially, and economically divided world – “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius.”[i] According to PBS’ The Roman Empire in the First Century, Tiberius’ “political inability, poor judgment and jealousy led Rome into a dark age of political purges, murder and terror.”[ii] Tiberius was not trusted and, in fact, was outright resented by the Roman Senate and throughout his career his “position was weak.”[iii]
“. . .When Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.”[iv] Pontius Pilate finds his way into our creed. But who was he? As Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate “commanded Roman military units, authorized construction projects, arranged for the collection of imperial taxes, and decided civil and criminal cases . . . [He] had numerous confrontations with his Jewish subjects.”[v] When the Jews protested his actions, “Pilate threatened [them] with death.” According to Philo who wrote in the early first century, “Pilate’s lack of concern for Jewish sensibilities was accompanied . . . by corruption and brutality.”[vi] In fact, complaints of excessive cruelty may have resulted ultimately in his removal from office and his exile in France.[vii]
“Herod was ruler of Galilee . . . his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene.”[viii] These related men ruled in a turbulent period of history. Little is known about them individually, with the exception, of course, of Herod himself whom history has described as “a madman who murdered his own family” and one “prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition.”[ix]
The point the gospel writer seems to take pains to point out in this single verse is that the world into which Jesus would enter was a world filled with chaos, uncertainty and great violence. So while I may selfishly prefer to stand here and preach sermon after a week of peace and justice throughout the world, that is not the world God came to save. God came to save a world exactly like the one you and I are living in. A world filled with fear and violence, vitriolic rhetoric on all sides, and great uncertainty about the path forward. This is exactly where we find God with us. In the midst of this turmoil.
And into this world, God sent John the Baptist to “Prepare the way of the Lord” by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”[x] And every one of us is challenged to hear this proclamation of repentance. The news, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts have all been filled with hate and finger pointing this week. Blame the Muslims, blame the NRA, blame the legislature, blame the lack of care for the mentally ill, blame ISIS, blame, blame, blame. My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a perfect setup. “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”[xi] We are called to repent. All of us. We are called to forgive. All of us. We are called to prepare the way for Christ to enter our lives again.
I picked up a copy of the autumn issue of Plough Quarterly, a relatively new publication. What caught my attention was an article called, “Learning to Love Boko Haram.” Love Boko Haram? Love this group of militants who kidnap young girls, who murder Christians and non-cooperating Muslims, who in March of this year pledged allegiance to ISIS? Love? Really?
Really. Prepare the way for Christ to enter. Repent. All of us. Forgive. All of us. In her article “Learning to Love Boko Haram,” Peggy Gish states that of the 276 girls who were abducted in April 2014 by Boko Haram, 178 belong to EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria. This is significant because the Church of the Brethren, like other Anabaptist churches is rooted in “pacifism – a conviction for which Anabaptist churches have often paid dearly, targeted repeatedly for refusing to perform military service or to take up arms in self-defense during times of unrest.”[xii] According to Gish, as of June of this year, “over ten thousand EYN members have been killed, and more than 170,000 members . . . have been displaced within Nigeria or in neighboring countries.”[xiii] And yet, true to their commitment to pacifism, members have continued “to witness to the peace and forgiveness of Christ’s way, even toward their enemies.”[xiv]
In our own tradition of Anglicanism, pacifism has generally been rejected except as “vocational witness” which we describe as “the renunciation of violence . . . not as a universal obligation but [as] a specific calling that bears witness to the larger ends of God”[xv] - such is the nature of the work of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, for example. So, while we do not renounce violence across the board, we do, like the Anabaptists, take repentance and forgiveness seriously. And, there are times when the juxtaposition of violence, repentance and forgiveness come together in ways that are uncomfortable – actually, downright painful.
For me, it is when I learn of 14 more people killed violently in the United States and my immediate reaction is to seek out the vitriolic speech of the right wing, to point my finger of blame, to feel self-righteous while, at the same time, ignoring my own tendency to vitriolic speech for “my side” of the argument. And so I am challenged on a daily basis to find a way to live out my baptism – to live out my calling to “prepare the way of the Lord” – by ensuring that even when faced with those who do not share my solution to a problem, my version of justice and peace among all people, that I, nonetheless, treat all people – perhaps especially those with whom I disagree - with the dignity and respect that I have promised them in my baptism. That I continue to seek and serve the Christ within them, loving my neighbor as myself. That is, at least in part, what repentance, reconciliation and forgiveness are about.
Peggy Gish shares this exchange with a group of militants from Boko Haram with an EYN member named Rebeccah:
“Twenty militants surrounded her, and one told, her ‘OK, we’re going to kill you. Aren’t you scared?’
‘No,’ she answered. ‘I’m not scared. Even if I die, I know where I am going – to heaven.’
‘Where are the Boko Haram going,’ he asked her in return, ‘to heaven, or to hell?’
‘I don’t know, but I’m praying for you to go the right way. You always have a second chance. In one second, you can change your life and go to heaven.’
He responded, ‘You’re a good person. We will not touch you.’ Acknowledging that she was giving food and supplies to Muslims he added, ‘Go and do your work!’ As she left, Rebecca told them she would pray for them.”[xvi]
So this morning I continue to grieve the loss of the 14 lives that were taken this week in southern California and to pray for their souls – for Robert Adams, Isaac Amanios, Bennetta Betbadal, Harry Bowman, Sierra Clayborn, Juan Espinoza, Aurora Godoy, Shannon Johnson, Larry Daniel Kaufman, Damian Meins, Tin Nguyen, Nicholas Thalasinos, Yvette Velasco, and Michael Raymond Wetzel. And, while admittedly more difficult for me, I pray for the souls of the two who committed this act of violence – Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik.
And this morning I pray for those who hold vastly different views from mine on how these atrocities can be prevented in the future. And my prayer is that God might touch their hearts and mine so that we might together find a path forward that will help us, especially in this season of Advent, to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight . . .[so that] all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” If so, answer, “I will, with God’s help.” And “will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” If so, answer, “I will, with God’s help.”[xvii]
“Grant, O Lord, that we who have been baptized into the death of Jesus Christ your Son may live in the power of his resurrection and look for him to come again in glory; who lives and reigns now and forever. Amen.”[xviii]
[i] Luke 3:1.
[iv] Luke 3:1.
[viii] Luke 3:1.
[x] Luke 3:3-4.
[xi] Mark 3:24.
[xii] Peggy Gish, “Learning to Love Boko Haram: A Nigerian Peace Church Responds,” Plough Quarterly (Autumn 2015, No. 6), 13.
[xiii] Ibid., 13-14.
[xiv] Ibid., 14.
[xvi] Gish, 19.
[xvii] “The Baptismal Covenant,” The Book of Common Prayer, 305.
[xviii] Adapted from “Prayers for the Candidates,” The Book of Common Prayer, 306.