Posts Tagged ‘peace’



Genesis 33:1-17

Daniel J. Ott


Does anyone really want reconciliation today?  Do we want to be reconciled?  Several scenes from this week made me wonder.

The debt ceiling debate drove me nuts.  Teri had to tell me to put down my mobile devices, I was so obsessed with the stupid thing.  I’ve been disaffected with American politics for sometime, but even I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  First there were seemingly fruitful bipartisan talks:  Simpson-Bowles and then the ‘gang of six.’  Then Coburn walked out on the gang.  And then he was back.  And then the president started having his talks.  Those seemed to be making progress.  Then Cantor waived the Tea Party flag and those talks came to halt.  Then Boehner and the president were going to work things out.  One had a press conference, the other walked out.  Then the House was going to solve everything.  The vote was scheduled… and then delayed.  New deals were made.  The House passed it the Senate rejected it.  The Senate had their plan, even though everybody knew it wouldn’t fly.  McConnell swooped in and met with the president, a deal was struck, and finally… finally on Tuesday, they passed a law that would raise the debt ceiling in the short run and lower the overall deficit in the long run.

This was a completely aggravating drama to watch, but what perhaps infuriated me the most were the headlines that I awoke to on Tuesday morning.  “Who won?,” they asked.  But they didn’t mean, “Who won?” as in “Did retirees win or lose?” or  “Did the economy win or lose?” or “Did poor people win or lose?”  or “Did entitlements or defense budgets win or lose?”  They were asking, “Did Boehner lose power or gain power on the Hill?”  “Was this a small loss for Obama that he could turn into a larger win when it comes election time?”  “Was Mitch McConnell now the most powerful man in Washington?”  “Was this a victory or a defeat for the Tea Party?’  No wonder the process was so aggravating.  Our leaders are playing a zero sum game that at best reflects their own narrow ideological interests and at worst has only to do with reelection.  Where are the leaders ready to humble themselves and make compromises with the best interests of our nation and our planet in mind?  When will we elect some folks who are ready to put party politics a side and seek justice and reconciliation?

On a more personal level and perhaps more tragic, I witnessed a family in deep need of reconciliation when I took Isaac to his swimming lesson this week.  I guess you could call them a family.  They were at least all related to this cute little boy who has the brightest eyes and a Mohawk for his summer cut.  Most of the parents retreat to the air-conditioned lobby during the lessons.  I like to stay in the pool area so that I can root Isaac on a little.  This night it was me and this family left by the pool.  Dad sat at one end of the bench.  Mom and Grand-mom sat at the other, me in the middle.  Mom and Dad spent most of their time trying to make sure that their gazes never met.  Grand-mom tried to keep the focus on the boy.  The tension was palpable.  At one point the Dad got up to go to the poolside and happened to walk past Mom.  I thought her head might pop off she got so tense.  They were leaving as we were.  Mom and Grand-mom gave the boy a hug and a kiss while Dad very purposefully stood ten feet away gazing in the other direction.  Eventually, the boy came up behind Dad and grabbed his hand and they walked quietly to his truck.  My heart broke for them.  I wished I was like Jesus.  I wished I could tell them everything they’d ever done.  I wished I could tell them that there was hope, that we can be reconciled.

One final scene made me wonder about the possibility of reconciliation:  Tanks rolling through the streets of Hama, Syria.  The news was that all telecommunications had been cut off along with electricity and water supplies.  President Assad’s troops pushed into what had become the center of a non-violent protest for change in Syria.  Snipers took to the rooftops, initially shooting at whatever moved, according to reports.  News was also trickling out that Assad’s troops were carrying out executions in the streets.  We’re hearing that at least 200 have been killed this week and around 2000 since the uprising began in June.   We can only hope that these numbers won’t climb to the proportions of the massacre of 1982 when President Assad’s father gave the orders and his uncle conducted a scorched-earth campaign that killed as many as 40,000.  The events have certainly reminded us of an ongoing history of violence and tyranny in Syria.  There are no sings of any immanent reconciliation.

We do get glimmers of hope for reconciliation from time to time.  One of these was the work of Bishop Desmond Tutu and his colleagues who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the fall of Apartheid.  When the structures of racial supremacy that enforced a system of segregation and caste finally came down and black leaders took charge of the government, nobody was exactly sure what would happen.  But soon those leaders showed that it was their intention to restore civility and community in South Africa and they would do so by actively seeking reconciliation.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided a forum for victims of civil and human rights atrocities to give voice to their suffering and even provided for perpetrators to receive amnesty under certain conditions, which included the public acknowledgement of their wrong.

Bishop Tutu was and is a man of peace and wisdom and a great model for reconciliation in our time.  This week, I reviewed an article that he wrote wherein he talks about the necessary steps in true reconciliation.  First, there needs to be a desire for reconciliation.  Reconciliation is of course a two-way street.  If either party is not willing to seek reconciliation, then there can be no reconciliation.  Both parties have to humble themselves, face their fears and come together.

The first formal step in the reconciliation process, then, is confession.  This of course is not easy.  Most of us have a hard time admitting our wrongs.  We want to justify ourselves and so we try to convince ourselves and others that we are right – that we have done no wrong.  But if we want reconciliation, confession is necessary.  Tutu uses the example of a marital dispute.  He asks us to imagine a husband and wife who have quarreled.  The quarrel comes to an end, but there is no admission of any wrong.  They have not discussed the cause of their rift.  The husband brings home a bunch of flowers “and the couple pretend all is in order.”   Tutu insists that “they will be in for a rude shock.  They have not dealt with their immediate past adequately.  They have glossed over their differences, for they have failed to stare truth in the face for fear of a possible bruising confrontation.”  “Forgiving and being reconciled are not about pretending that things are other than they are.  It is not patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong.  True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the pain, the degradation, the truth.”[1]

Once this truth is acknowledge than there is the chance for forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not easy and it is not a mere sentiment.  Nor does forgiveness condone or forget the offense.  Forgiveness “means taking what happened seriously and not minimizing it; drawing out the sting in the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence.  It involves trying to understand the perpetrators and to have empathy…”[2]  “Forgiving [also] means abandoning your right to pay back the perpetrator in his own coin, but it is a loss that liberates the victim.”  Tutu uses the example of three ex-servicemen standing at the Vietnam Memorial in DC.  “One asks, “Have you forgiven those who held you prisoner of war?”  “I will never forgive them,” replies the other.  His mate says, “Then it seems they still have you in prison, don’t they.”[3]  “True forgiveness deals with the past… to make the future possible.”  If we live in the past and allow grudges and resentments to poison our relationships then we will never have reconciliation and we will never have peace in the present or in the future.

The final stage of reconciliation is reparation.  We cannot merely apologize and move on if injustice persists.  Tutu cites the ongoing economic disparity between blacks and whites in South Africa as a continuing challenge for the reconciliation process.  In as much as these disparities were caused my Apartheid they must be addressed as part of reconciliation.  In as much as we can address any lasting damage that has been done, reconciliation demands that we do make reparation.  This is not a condition for forgiveness, but it is a necessary final step in reconciliation.

Well, how did old Jacob and Esau do in their effort to be reconciled?  First, they do both show humility and seek reconciliation.  Jacob’s humility is rather formal.  He and his retinue make a procession and pass before Esau bowing as one would before a prince.  Jacob refers to himself as Eau’s servant and addresses him as “My Lord.”  Esau, on the other hand, is much more emotional and follows his gut, as we might expect.  He runs to his brother, embraces him, hugs his neck and weeps.  Both brothers show their readiness to begin the reconciliation process.

So, next comes the confession right?  Jacob has quite a bit to confess.  He needs to tell his brother that he was wrong to take advantage of him and barter with him for his birthright.  He needs to confess to his brother that he stole his blessing.  Perhaps he could tell his brother about his seemingly insatiable desire to be on top at just about any cost.  But, do we get such a confession?  Do we get any admission by Jacob of any wrong?  No.  Jacob has already moved straight to the reparations.  Like a husband trying to smooth things over with gifts, Jacob has sent ahead cattle and servants.

Esau does not want to receive these gifts.  Amazingly, he seems ready to forgive without either confession or reparation.  But Jacob insists, “Pray take my blessing that has been brought you, for God has favored me and I have everything.”  “And he pressed him, and he took it.”

As further evidence of his forgiveness, Esau invites Jacob to journey with him.  Really, Esau is not only inviting Jacob to travel with him, but he is inviting him to be reconciled.  He’s inviting him to reunite their two households.  He’s inviting him to be his brother again and live with him.  But Jacob demurs and even adds one last deceit.  He tells his brother that he will come to him at Seir, which is Esau’s new home and the future home of the Edomites. But Jacob has no such intention of joining his brother at Seir.  When he parts with his brother, he heads in exactly the opposite direction to Shechem, in Canaan.  And this passage, thereby, establishes the everlasting division between the Edomites, the people of Esau and the Israelites, the people of Jacob.  This is a story of two brothers divided, of two nations divided, and a story of a reconciliation that never was.

Merciful God, although Christ is among us as our peace, we are a people divided against ourselves as we cling to the values of a broken world. The fears and jealousies that we harbor set brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor and nation against nation.  Lord, have mercy upon us; heal and forgive us.  Amen.

[1] Desmond Tutu, “No Future without Forgiveness,” in Approaches to Peace:  A Reader in Peace Studies, David P. Barash, ed. (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 278.

[2] Ibid., pp. 278-279.

[3] Ibid., p. 279.

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Come!–Isaiah 2:1-5

Grace and Peace, everyone.  What follows is the sermon from the first Sunday in Advent.


Isaiah 2: 1-5

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

November 28th, 2010 – 1st Sunday of Advent

We aren’t surprised anymore when the Christmas catalogs start arriving in our mailboxes pre-Halloween.  I read recently that retailers count on the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas for something like 90% of the year’s profits.  So they begin earlier each year.  “By Labor Day a few store window displays include holiday items.  By Halloween more reds and greens, golds and silvers—and by mid November the Christmas holiday is in full swing.”[1]

Christmas is in full swing…out there…but in here we are just beginning to prepare.  Advent is our time to prepare, to slow down, to pay attention, and get ourselves ready for the big event that will come….but in here it won’t come early.  We’ve got some work to do first.

I think the reason why the retailers are successful in selling Christmas so early, though, is because we are ready.  We are ready for something big.  We are ready for something magical.  We are ready for something beautiful.  And Christmas is all of this wrapped up in shiny paper with a big red bow.  We yearn to escape the mundane, everyday routines of our lives.  We yearn for a holiday moment that will sweep us off of our feet so we can forget…so we can forget the stress….so we can forget how exhausted we are…so we can forget our disillusionment and cynicism and despair…so we can forget the darkness and believe in the light, even if it is just for a little while.

Escaping reality every once in a while is a healthy practice, I believe.  I like to escape reality by diving into a really good book.  Reading really takes me away…sometimes so much so that I have to force myself to put the book down because unbeknownst to me the dirty dishes have piled up and the kids don’t have any more clean clothes to wear. Dan likes to escape (or turn his brain off…as he says) at the end of the day by watching his favorite sports teams on television.  I know some of you escape to your gardens, or your sewing, or on your motorcycle, or working on that old car you’ve got in the garage out back.  We all need to escape the realities of life every once and a while.  We all need to take a break in order to recharge our batteries.

But the escape promised by retailers at Christmas seems to take a different tone.  Subtly and (perhaps) subconsciously the retailers tap into our yearnings and our desire to escape and sell us their version of that which is big, and magical, and beautiful in the form of baubles and bows, sugar and spice, toys and trinkets, and anything else that could be marketed toward this end.  And for a little while the retailers version of Christmas works.  When we eat that eggnog frozen yogurt available for a limited time only, we enjoy it.  When the balance on our credit card exceeds its rational limit, we brush it off saying to ourselves, well it is Christmas after all.  When Martha Stewart or Rachel Ray or Oprah Winfrey wave their magic domestic wands and give you all sorts of new ideas of things to cook and decorate and make merry this year, you dive in to all the holiday preparations with enthusiasm and gusto.  But eventually…after indulging yourself on all that this retail Christmas has to offer…you come up for air and realize life isn’t any different, you aren’t any different, and that Christmas didn’t take you where you really yearned to go after all.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas as much as you do.  I love how we make this season special with our gifts and our decorations and our yummy treats.  But I also know that if we expect anything deep, or lasting, or soul-satisfying to come out of this retail Christmas, then we are kidding ourselves.

But Isaiah….Isaiah offers us something altogether different.  First of all, Isaiah doesn’t offer us the chance to escape.  Instead, he confronts us with the reality of our world head on.   Before we get the chance to duck out to our garden, or bury our head in a book, or mesmerize ourselves with all the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree, Isaiah paints a picture for us of what is not, by revealing what is to be. Isaiah paints a picture for us, a futuristic picture, of the Lord’s House as the highest of all houses; a house to which all the nations stream, a house to which all people stream in order to learn God’s ways.   The people learn God’s ways in Isaiah’s vision and so they beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation no longer lifts up sword against nation.  Violence has come to an end.  The people are at peace.  And the yearning for something big, something magical, something beautiful has been satisfied….deeply satisfied.

But by revealing such a picture, by presenting such a beautiful vision, Isaiah makes us take a good hard look at ourselves and our world and confront the reality that we are far from what God intends for us.  We are not a people at peace.  We have yet to beat our weapons of destruction into tools of construction.  We have yet to learn God’s holy ways.  We have yet to place God’s House at the top, at the highest of all places.

On September 9th, 1997 a giant crane cut through the Washington, D.C. skyline and lowered a four-ton sculpture onto a permanent cement base.  The title of this sculpture was “Guns into Plowshares.”  The sculpture consisted of 3,000 handguns welded together to form the distinctive shape of a steel plow blade.  The artist, Esther Augsburger and her son, worked for two and a half years with the Metro Police Department of D.C. molding together handguns that had been surrendered by local residents.  Augsburger’s intention was to persuade people through art to stop killing each other.  So has it worked?  Well, gang members did gather around the plow to discuss making peace on D.C. city streets.  But they soon walked away from the effort, unable to let go of certain grudges.[2]

Isaiah confronts us with this reality, with this failure, with this thwarting of God’s ways. And by doing so Isaiah taps into our yearning for that which is big, and magical, and beautiful and he makes us yearn all the more.  He makes us yearn for God’s vision to become our new reality.  He makes us yearn for the miracle that might bring God’s vision about.  He makes us yearn for all our yearnings to be satisfied.  And he does this because he wants us to want this vision so bad that we are willing to work for it.  He wants us to want this vision so bad that we are willing to change for it.  He wants us to want this vision so bad that we are willing to walk in the light of the Lord in order to bring it about.

“The late Joseph Sittler, who taught theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, once wrote, ‘I do not believe we are in a very good situation historically.  I do not believe our relationship to the earth is liable to change for the better until it gets catastrophically worse.  Our record indicates that we can walk with our eyes wide open straight into sheer destructiveness if there is a profit on the way…But (Sittler says) I [still] go around planting trees on campus.”[3]

Isaiah confronts us with our own reality in order to build a fire under us and motivate us to do something about it; to work for God’s future; to plant some trees; to sow some seeds of peace; to feed some hungry children; to love our enemies and our strangers.  Walking in the light of the Lord is hard work. To hope for God’s new reality is to throw our whole selves into the struggle to realize it.

Outside of the United Nations building in New York City, there is another sculpture entitled, “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares.”  It was a gift from the then Soviet Union in 1959.  The bronze statue depicts Isaiah’s vision with a figure of a man holding a hammer in one hand and, in the other, a sword which he is making into a plowshare.

In the shadow of this sculpture’s image, people gather within the United Nations building to work for peace.  Just this past week people have gathered within this building to discuss and work for peace in the Middle East, to discuss and work for peace in Africa, to discuss and work for the end of violence against women, to discuss and work for peace all across the globe.  Isaiah’s vision inspires them each and every day.  And this Advent, Isaiah’s hope is that it will inspire us as well as he bids us to, “Come!  Come!  Let us walk in the light of the Lord!  Come!  Let us walk one step at a time, one foot in front of the other towards this vision of hope.  Come!  Let us plant some seeds of peace.  Come let us sow some seeds of love.  Come let us feed some hungry children.  Come let us satisfy our deepest of yearnings by doing God’s holy work. Come!  Let us walk in the light of the Lord until God’s vision is our vision, God’s hope our hope, God’s reality our reality. Come!  Come!

Christmas is in full swing…out there…but in here we are just beginning to prepare.  In here the season of Advent and the prophet Isaiah point us toward our future and inspire us to the work that will get us there.

Now to the God who motivates us to work toward this new reality, be all honor, and glory, thanksgiving, and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] John Buchanan, “Preaching the Advent Texts: Hope, Peace, Courage,” in Journal for Preachers, Advent, 2010, pg.8.

[2] Peter W. Marty, Wake-up Call (Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44), The Christian Century, November 16, pg. 21.

[3] John Buchanan, “Preaching the Advent Texts: Hope, Peace, Courage,” in Journal for Preachers, Advent, 2010, pg.9.

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What Religion Is and What It Is Not

Mark 2:23 – 3:6

Daniel J. Ott

One of the things that I like about living in the South is that there are lots of little churches with big signs.  Sometimes these signs are used as bulletin boards that announce upcoming events.  Sometimes they let us know what the sermon title is for Sunday.  Often, though, they become the bearer of slogans – they are the church’s bumper and folks come up with some interesting stickers to slap on that bumper.  You’ve probably seen some of the funny ones on the internet.  They range from the quite clever,  “Walmart Is Not the Only Saving Place” to the rather unfortunate, “Don’t Let Worries Kill You – Let the Church Help,” to the down right outrageous “Staying in Bed / Shouting, Oh God / Does Not Constitute Going to Church.”

But the one that I’ve seen a lot that really haunts me is “It’s Not a Religion / It’s a Relationship.”  On the one hand, I guess I know what this motto is supposed to mean.  Christian faith is not about reporting to church, going through the motions, and saying empty prayers.  Christian faith entails some sort of encounter with Christ. OK – I get it.  But on the other hand, I wonder what the implications of such a statement really are.  Does this slogan imply that religion is a bad thing?  Is it possible to have the ‘relationship’ that this slogan recommends without ‘religion?’  Should we bother coming here and involving ourselves with this religion – these symbols and rites and songs and this building – or could we just stay at home and foster a relationship with God?  These are the kinds of things that Religious Studies professors waste their time thinking about.

I guess the important thing would be to figure out what Jesus thought about religion.  In fact, the Gospels depict Jesus contending with folks over the matter of religion quite a bit.  Jesus seems to have a clear vision about what religion is and what it is not.

And the first thing that I think we can say is that Jesus concerned himself with religion.  He performed the rituals of the Jewish religion.  He observed the Sabbath, though he may have contended over what proper observance is.  He participated in the great feasts and festivals.  He made pilgrimage to the temple.  He knew the scriptures and the stories of the tradition.  He employed the symbols of the faith.  Jesus was religious.

And I should hurry to add that it seems that it was not necessary for Jesus to do these things.  He could have stayed in the countryside and preached and healed.  He did plenty of that to great effect.  He could have secluded himself in a garden and devoted himself to prayer.  There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  He could have avoided the matter of religion altogether and devoted himself completely to addressing the economic and political factors that caused the human suffering that he sought to relieve.

But Jesus was concerned with religion.  Jesus knew that if things were really going to change, then God would have to be involved in changing them.  And he knew that the way that we speak of God – the only way we can speak of the holy, the ultimate, the ineffable, the all-loving, most high, God is to engage in rituals, and symbols and traditions – the stuff of religion.  The only way to say anything true about God is to sing and dance, to light candles and whisper poems, to gather here and with stammering tongues and humble hearts try to name toward the un-namable together.  Yes – Christianity is about a relationship.  It is about an encounter with Christ, but the only way to encounter Christ, the only means we have to relate to God is religion.

So religion is what we use to have a relationship with God.  But we should hasten to add that while religion is a tool for our USE, we need to guard that religion does not become a tool for ABUSE.  Now we’re penetrating to the source of Jesus’ intense anger in our passage this morning.

The first half of this passage might seem at first blush to be a rather esoteric debate about keeping the Sabbath.  Those pesky Pharisees seem to be at it again, nitpicking about the ins and outs of Jewish law.  They find Jesus and his disciples making their way through some grain fields and picking some grain to eat as they go.  Now there are probably at least two violations of the prohibition against work on the Sabbath here.  The first problem is the traveling itself.  Jesus and his disciples should have been resting at home.  The second problem is the picking of grain.  While the implication of the passage only seems to be that the disciples are picking and eating a little as they go, the Pharisees could well interpret this as a violation of the injunction against harvesting and preparing food.

Now in order to understand what is really at stake here, we’ll need to shake off the well-worn caricatures that are too often passed on in Bible Studies and sermons.  They go as follows:  In this corner are the Pharisees – shallow hypocrites who prance about with their noses in the air pointing out various minor infractions of the Jewish holiness code.  In the other corner are Jesus and his disciples, heavenly minded, free spirited men who have no need of the trappings of religion because they always and everywhere penetrate beyond worldly concerns to the truly spiritual.  Unfortunately, armed with these caricatures we would be headed for a completely meaningless interpretation of the passage.

Let me recast the contenders:  In this corner are the Pharisees, representatives of the religious elite from Jerusalem.  The Pharisees together with the scribes and the priests have cornered the market on religion and are concerned with pressing their influence on the masses.  They do this not only because this elite status gives them prominence within the Jewish community, but also because the ability to control the masses is a valuable commodity to their Roman overlords.  In fact, this ability can and is sold to the Romans for cash.  The religious elite keep the masses in check and the Roman occupiers pay them for the service.

In the other corner is a band of poor Galileans.  They are fishermen and carpenters.  But they have given up even these humble professions in order to travel about and minister to the poor, the sick and the oppressed.  They bring with them a message of hope and renewal.  They encourage the masses that if they renew their faith in God, God will deliver them from the evil powers – both spiritual and political – that bind them.  These itinerant ministers of God’s kingdom have no means.  They are always traveling from village to village, often through grain fields and they grow hungry.  So they are accustomed to employing the Jewish practice of gleaning – plucking a little grain to eat as they pass through the edges of a local farmer’s field.

Now perhaps we see what’s at stake.  Perhaps Jesus’ ire is raised because it is rather easy for these Pharisees to point out the speck in the disciples eyes.  After all, the Pharisees are probably right to say that the disciples have violated the rules about the Sabbath.  But is it just for a rich religious elite on a mission of self-aggrandizement to critique these poor, hungry traveling ministers on a mission to ease human suffering?  Now we can see just how incisive Jesus’ memorable saying is, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

We might say, “Religion was made for humankind, and not humankind for Religion.”  All too often in our history religion has ceased to be a liberating tool used by the masses and become an abusive tool used by the elite.  Even in the brief history of our own nation we can give a humiliating litany.  Religion became a tool of the elite to prop up the practice of chattel slavery.  Millions of Africans were stripped of their humanity, while the elite perverted religion to justify the unjustifiable.  Religion was and is used to abuse women.  Elite and not-so-elite men have used religion to say that women are less than fully human, that they are rightly a subservient class, that they should keep their mouths shut and that they are too weak and unpredictable to be trusted with any power – in politics and even more in religion.  Today gay and lesbian men and women are abused by religion.  Even if we grant that monogamously devoted persons of the same sex commit a sin by any sex act they might share – a conviction that I think is wrongheaded and not scripturally justifiable – but even if we grant that gay and lesbian men and women sin, does this justify the use of religion to deny a person benefits and healthcare?  Can we justify the continued use of religion to relegate gay and lesbian men and women to an inferior class?  Can we stand by while religion is used to prop up a culture of intolerance that leads directly to gross and senseless violence against gay and lesbian men and women?   Will we continue to allow religion to be used for abuse?  When will we realize that true religion is for the flourishing of all humankind, not for stripping some of their humanity?

In the second story, Jesus really begins to press his case. Jesus goes to a public meeting that he knows the Pharisees will attend.  The Pharisees are strangely silent, but Jesus does enough talking for everybody.  Obviously planning to heal him, Jesus calls a man with a withered hand forward and he asks a direct and penetrating question of his opponents.  “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  With these words Jesus has raised the stakes and acknowledged the harsh truth that religion is a matter of life and death.  There is a decision to be made – is religion to be used to do good or harm, to save life or to kill?

This is a pressing question for us today as it was for Jesus in his time and as it has been throughout history.  In Jesus’ time his peaceful stand against abusive religion led to his own cruel torture and execution.  Jesus knew well that religion was a matter of life and death.  In the time that the Gospel According to Mark was written, Jewish revolutionaries were taking up arms to defend their homeland and their religious freedoms only to be put down viciously by the Roman general Titus – their homeland scorched – their Temple razed.  Soon the Christian religion would need to decide whether to follow in Jesus’ peaceful wake or to marry herself to the power politics of Rome and the violence that Empire necessarily entails.  Unfortunately, she chose power over peace.  This set the course for a Christian history riddled with power brokering, crusading, empire building and all the killing that these require.

Today, we, too, know that religion is a matter of life and death.  We have a choice to use religion to do good or to do harm – to save life or to kill.  All you need to do is to take a look at the news to know that many are choosing to do harm.  The Taliban and al-Qaeda are still wreaking havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are stuck in a cycle of violence as they vie for control of the country.  Of course, Israel continues to struggle with its neighbors and the Palestinian people – a struggle with a long and complex history that is often exacerbated by religion.  In each of these cases and many more around the globe, religion has become a source of and tool for power and violence.  Religion does harm and kills.  I can only imagine how hot Jesus’ anger might burn if he were witness to these perversions of religion.

I believe or text for today speaks to us about what religion is and what it is not.  Religion was made for humankind, not humankind for religion. Religion is about engaging deep mystery, not holding tight to cold doctrine.  Religion is for our use, not for abuse.  Religion is to do good, not to do harm.  Religion is a soft thing, not hard.  Religion is for peace; it is not for violence.  Religion is about beauty, not malice.  Religion is creativity, not destruction.  Religion is hope, not despair.  Religion mediates God, not evil.  Religion strives to save life, not to kill.

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Pacifists Will Die

Just a quick quote from Dan Dombrowski’s Christian Pacifism: “Pacifists are well aware of the fact that we will die, a fact that is tragic if we die too early or in a gruesome way, but they gain some small solace in knowing that they will not kill.  This solace makes all the moral difference in the word, however.”[1]

[1] Daniel A. Dombrowski, Christian Pacifism, p. 124.

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