A Sermon for Seekers Church
October 28, 2001
by Deborah Sokolove
As we just heard in the passage from Luke, Jesus tells of two people praying. One says, “I thank you God, that I’m not like everybody else-those thieving, unjust, adulterous sinners. Moreover, I am especially grateful that I am not like that fool over there. Unlike that greedy, no-good jerk, I fast every week, and I give tithes of everything I get.” A little way off, Jesus relates, the greedy, no-good jerk says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Then Jesus says, “The second one will go home in peace.“
It is easy to laugh at the self-righteous Pharisee, but often I catch myself acting just like that. Every Sunday morning here in church, we have the opportunity to confess our sins. Some of us confess aloud, letting God and everybody know that we were judgmental, that we failed to be kind, that we do not have enough faith in God’s goodness. Others sit silently, confessing to God alone our darkest secrets. I take a kind of comfort in the prayers that I hear, knowing that I am not alone in my failures and my fears. Nevertheless, sometimes my comfort is more like the Pharisee’s, and I catch myself thinking, “Well, at least I don’t have to confess that!”
One of the things I do have to confess is my struggle to live out our common commitment, which we renewed last week, to “work for the end of all war, public and private.” The very public war on terrorism that our country is waging sometimes seems to me to be a righteous cause, a reasonable and even ethical response to the attacks against us. Like other Christians of good faith, sometimes I find myself believing something along the lines of the time-honored “just war” theory, in which the evil of war is necessary in order to stop a greater evil. Political and military leaders have taken pains to make distinctions between the practitioners of terror and ordinary Afghan citizens, who are, like us, innocent victims of our enemies. This sometimes salves my conscience when I, like all of you, remember the plight of the starving Afghani people, fleeing from death raining out of the sky. I have no ambivalence about that-I want their terror to end.
I want our own terror to end, too. As I said a few weeks ago from this pulpit, I have already had some practice in living an ordinary life while constantly on alert for terrorist attacks and enemy bombs, but that doesn’t make it any easier. With rubble still being cleared at the Pentagon, downtown New York still filled with smoke and ash, and daily reports on new cases of anthrax, we are all trying-and failing-to live our ordinary lives amid the waving flags and drumbeat of war. However, peace-real peace-seems far away. As I read about death and destruction in Afghanistan, I know that warring against the Taliban will only bring more of the same for us and for the Afghan people. It is easy to want to work for the end of public war.
What about our private wars? In the Covenant Discipleship group that has formed to assist Jerry fulfill the terms of his internship with us, we are in the process of defining the disciplines for which each of will be held accountable. After much discussion, one of the disciplines we have decided on is “I will pray for my enemies.”
Several years ago, I remember Ron Arms preaching on the subject of loving our enemies, and mentally arguing with him-“I don’t have any enemies,” I said to myself, “I just don’t think in those terms.” I wanted to think of myself as kind and loving to all; always willing to be transparent, caring, and non-combative. I thought of “enemies” as a guy kind of word, the kind of word that, simply by using it, led eventually and inevitably to war.
When the Covenant Discipleship group discussed the idea of enemies recently, I heard myself say that enemies are those who want to hurt us, and those against whom we feel the need to defend ourselves, even if they do not really want to hurt us. Our enemies, I have come to understand, are those with whom we find ourselves in a private, often undeclared, state of war. When I think of it that way, there are enemies all around me. There are, to be sure, the thieves and muggers against whom every city-dweller must always be on alert. More immediately, there is the person who cuts me off on the highway, the grocery checker who is rude to me, the boss who takes credit for my best ideas. Too often, I mutter and grumble about all of these and more, automatically assuming the other person is a jerk, and I, of course, am blameless. Even if these people intend me no harm, I turn them into enemies, at least in my own mind.
In the last couple of weeks, I have begun to realize that even before September 11 I had been living for a long time habitually on edge, wary, defensive, unwilling to let down my guard lest I be overcome with the hurt that was all around me. I was carrying around a certain level of anger and pain, and feeling misunderstood by people with whom I had previously been on good terms. Meanwhile, however, I was telling myself that I was a good person, undeserving of the hard words that had been hurled in my direction. After all, I thought, I help other people when I see that they are in need of something that I can do or give, I work in my small way for social justice, I give to causes and projects I believe in. Like the Pharisee in the story, I felt grateful for my ability to do these things, and was thankful not to be as needy or unloving as the beneficiaries of my intended largess were. Blinded by my own good fortune, it has been hard for me to confess that I am a sinner, in need of the forgiveness of others, and of God’s mercy.
God has ways of opening our eyes. For the past six weeks, David and I have been teaching a New Testament class in the School of Christian Living. Actually, to call it “teaching” is somewhat of a stretch, because mostly what we do is give a little historical background, pose questions about class members’ reactions to the text, and listen in awe to deep, thoughtful engagement with issues in ways that I, at least, have never considered.
We have been doing a close reading of the Gospel according to Mark. It is a short, terse and uncomfortable book, in which Jesus sometimes gets cranky because the disciples-let alone everyone else-never seem to get what he means. It is hard to understand this Jesus, the one who tells a Syro-Pheonician woman that she is no better than a dog; gives sarcastic answers to those who question his authority; and blasts a fig tree because it does not have ripe fruit in early spring. Nevertheless, this is also the Jesus who compassionately provides food for 5000 people who have followed him out into the wilderness; who heals all who reach out to him; and who finally allows the authorities to kill him, rather than defend himself against an unjust charge.
As Mike keeps pointing out in amazement, Jesus’ actions at the end of his life teaches us the radical refusal of violence, even the justifiable violence of self-defense. Here is Jesus, a man in the prime of his life, who comes from a rough-and-tumble part of society-presumably with all the natural human tendencies towards self defense-and, when threatened with death, he neither puts up a fight nor tries to run away. Instead, he simply submits in silence to insults and physical abuse, and dies with the name of God on his lips.
All along, Jesus has been teaching his followers about trust and compassion. Now, faced with pain, death and betrayal by his friends, he continues to trust the compassion of the one he addresses as “Father.” He submits to unjust execution as an unforgettable lesson that the only way to break the cycle of vengeance is to stop it, right here, right now. No matter who is right and who is wrong there must be no violence; no rage against others; no retaliation; instead, radical love.
Now, I am fully aware that this notion of submission has been used as a weapon by the powerful to keep others in control. I am not advocating that anyone stay in an abusive relationship in order to be more like Jesus. Nor am I suggesting that we should accept some romantic notion of the redemptive power of suffering. But in the light of Jesus’ radical refusal of violence, I have begun to question my own need to defend myself against what I perceive as unjust accusations; my impulse to fight with those who disagree with me; my insistence that my vision is clearer than that of others with whom I am covenanted in love. I have begun to understand what I seem to have to learn repeatedly-that Jesus was right when he told us to love our enemies, and to pray for them.
Therefore, the word of God came to me as I sat with my journal one day, and the word was “Seek peace.” I found myself writing as follows:
The mistake I have been making, these last too many months, has been in rising to the bait, in feeling offended and wanting to answer back in kind. I have wanted to defend myself, and to point out the wrongness of others’ ideas and positions. I have forgotten my own best self. I have been lured in by the spirit of dissension, by my arrogance, and by my self-righteous ego.
I still do not know, really, how to hold my own truth while honoring that of others. At least, I do not always know. Therefore, I cause others to be afraid of me, whether I am silent or whether I speak in anger, because either way they sense the judgmental thoughts and the hardness of my heart.
What does it mean in practice to seek peace? How do we live out our commitment to work for the end of private war? How can we learn to love our enemies?
We can begin by recognizing those moments when we turn both our closest friends and the most distant strangers into enemies. Do you bristle in anger when your spouse forgets something you mentioned not five minutes ago? Do you get irritated when a friend is late for an appointment with you, and allow that irritation to spoil the time you have with them when they finally arrive? When you disagree with someone over some issue at Seekers, do you assume that he or she does not have the welfare of the community at heart?
I know I have done all of these, and more. Therefore, I have begun a moment-to-moment practice of turning private war into peace. It is a practice I learned many years ago, and somehow manage to forget repeatedly, despite the overwhelming evidence that it works.
The practice is this: each time I think of the person with whom I am at odds, even if the thought begins in anger or self-justification, I turn that thought into a prayer for their welfare, their happiness, their peace. I intentionally hold the person in the light, and open my heart to become a channel of God’s love.
It is so simple.
It is so hard.
It is the only way.
God, have mercy on me, a sinner.