Sunday, August 12, 2012

11 Pentecost

August 12, 2012

Ephesians 4.25-5.2

+ This past week I talked a bit on two occasions about literature. I met some writers friends earlier in the week and, on Thursday, I had a wonderful opportunity to talk about my book, Fargo, 1957, to a great book club, which included our own Jan Stewart and Cammy Wilson.

In the earlier of those discussions, I surprised people by saying that one of my favorite forms of literature is the whaling literature of the 1800s. Namely, literature like Moby Dick by Herman Melville. As much of a fan of Melville’s classic as I am, two fairly recent books that I have greatly enjoyed are Philip Hoare’s very excellent book, The Whale and In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, which is the actual true account of the whaleship The Essex which was destroyed by a whale, and on which Melville based Moby Dick.

What I found most interesting about the whaling industry of the 1840s is that the heads of most of the whaling companies and many of the whalers themselves were Quakers. Now, I have a deep love of the Society of Friends, better known as the Quakers. If they were only more liturgical—I correct, if only they were liturgical at all—I could see myself in many ways as a Quaker. I have read Quaker theology for many years and I often find myself agreeing with so much of what they believe.

Of course, the Quakers are best known for their pacifism. And maybe this is why I really enjoy the Quakers.

As many of you know, I am a pacifist. I am very fortunate to serve at a congregation that prides itself on its commitment to the cause of peace. And, as we all know, St. Stephen’s is known at the sort of token, “Peace and Justice” Episcopal congregation in Fargo. That Peace Pole outside is not just for show.

In my own life as a pacifist, I have learned much. Back when I turning 18, when I had register, as all 18 year old males did for the draft, I tried to apply for Conscientious Objector status. Everyone I talked to at the time about it laughed at me.

“We’re not at war,” they would tell me. “Don’t worry about it.”

But, I did. I wanted to make that statement and I wanted it officially marked. But it never came to pass.

Now, I know that many of us here this morning are pacifist. And I know that many of us are not. And I actually empathize with those who are not. I think there is a valid argument for “just war.”

My reasons for being a pacifist are personal—I simply feel morally apprehensive about killing anyone, even in self-defense. For me, being a pacifist is a fine thing to be when nations rage and are at war with each other. Being a pacifist for me is easy when it means standing up against what I view as unfair wars. However, I have discovered, being a pacifist means more than just striving for peace in the world. Being a pacifist, means striving for peace in my own life and in my own relationships.

And here’s where I find the difficulty. As you know—I know this is a surprise—I am a headstrong person. And being a headstrong person means I also carry around a certain level of frustration sometimes. I will even go so far as to say that I carry around a fair share of anger inside me. And I have had to deal in my life with many, many people who have been antagonized by me personally.

There are people out there who do not like me or do not accept me for who I am and what I am and what I represent to them.

Many people here this morning have felt that same way—whether it be because they are GLBT, liberal, conservative, agnostic, catholic, or whatever…. What I have learned for myself it is in those situations, that I am called on the most profoundly to be a pacifist. Being a pacifist for me means being a pacifist in all aspects of my life. Being a pacifist means seeking and striving for peace in every area of my existence. Which, let me tell you, is harder than it sounds or one can even imagine.

It is difficult for any of us to admit that there are people out there who do not like us, who hate us, who want the worse to happen to us. And it’s even more difficult when we realize they hate us either for who we are or for who they perceive we are. But that’s just a fact of life. More likely than not, there will always be people out there who simply don’t like us.

What matters most is how we—as individuals, as Christians, as followers of Jesus—deal with those situations. Do we deal with them with peace in our hearts? Probably not. We most likely deal with them in anger. And I can tell you, countering anger and hatred with anger and hatred never works. It simply involves two walls going up against one another. And nothing gets resolved.

In my own life, I have found that sometimes peace and kindness and legitimate caring for that person who hates me does make all the difference. Peace and kindness and legitimate caring. Not acceptance, mind you. Not acceptance of their hatred or small mindedness. Not acceptance of their prejudices. But love of them, as a fellow human being, a fallible human being, a broken human being, just like me, just like all of us. And, more often than not in my life, that counter offense of love and kindness does more to break down barriers than anything else.

Of course, it doesn’t happen in an instant. Sometimes it takes years and years. But it does, more often than not, win out. Peace always wins out in the end. And peace is our prerogative as Christians.

We, as followers of Jesus, don’t have a choice in this matter. As followers of Jesus, we are agents of peace in this world. We are agents of love and kindness to our enemies—to those who hate us, to those who refuse to love us or show kindness to us. We are called by Jesus to love, and when we love, there can be no room in our hearts for anger or hatred.

In our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul lays it on the line. He does not hold back on this issue:

“Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” Paul writes, “and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

But, then, as though to drive home his point, he puts before us a challenge like few other challenges.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

“Be imitators of God,” Paul says to us. Be imitators of the God of love we worship. Be imitators of the God of love who loves each of us fully and completely. Be imitators of the God of love who loves us for who we are, just as we are.

For me, this has to be the most difficult thing about being a follower of Jesus. There are days when I want to be angry at those people who have wronged me and hurt me. There are days when I want to get revenge on them and “show them.” There are days when it feels almost pleasurable to think about “getting even” with those people and “putting them in their place.” That is certainly the easier thing to do—at least for me. But driving that anger and hatred and frustration from me is so much harder.

Being an imitator of God—a God of radical acceptance—is much harder, much more difficult. To be an imitator of the God of love takes much work. But, in the end, it’s better. Life is just so much better when the darkness of anger is gone from it. Life seems so much less dangerous when we realize everyone is not our enemy. Life is so much sweeter when we refuse to see a person as an enemy who sees us as their enemy. Life is just always so much better when peace and love reign.

Yes, I know. It seems so Pollyannaish. It seems so naïve. It seems as though we are deceiving ourselves. But, the fact is, it takes a much stronger person to love. It takes a very strong person to act in peace and love and not in anger and fear. It takes a person of radical strength to be an imitator of a God of radical love. The strength it takes to maintain peace in a time of strife is more incredible than anyone can even imagine.

I have had more than one former enemy become my friend, or at least my acquaintance, because of the effort to maintain peace rather than to antagonize. Not always. But a few times, peace has changed people’s hearts.

Peace can do that. It can change people. But it has to change us first. We, as followers of Jesus, as imitators of God, need to rid ourselves of the thorns and brambles of hatred and anger to let the flowers of peace blossom in our lives. But it begins with us. It begins with us seeing ourselves for who are—loved children of God attempting to imitate that God.

So, let us be true followers of Jesus in all aspects of our lives. Let us strive to imitate our God of peace and love in everything we do. Let us let peace and love reign in our hearts and in our lives. Let that peace and love overcome all that anger, the hatred, the frustrated that seems to reign in most of the world. And when we let peace and love reign, we will find that it permeates through us. Everything we do is an act of peace, is an act of love to others.

And that is what being a follower of Jesus in this world is. That is the sermon we preach to others. That is the message of Christ’s love that we proclaim in our very lives. That is evangelism. And that is what each of is not only called to do by Jesus, but commanded to do by him.

“Live in love as Christ loved us,” Paul says to each of us.

When we do, that love will change the world.

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