+ This past week there were two very important historical anniversaries. On Thursday, of course, was the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. We commemorated that event as part of the Eve of the Transfiguration Mass here at St. Stephen’s on Wednesday evening. And today, of course, is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki.
Not very people know this, but I actually wrote a book about the bombing of Hiroshima. As in, it was actually published. The book, Cloud, was actually a two act, full-length play, based on the Japanese dramatic style called Noh, and was published in 1997. I think two people read it. I don’t think it’s in print, though I did see that copies of it are being offered for sale for a couple of hundred dollars. (I don’t get to see any of that money, since someone already bought the book at some point.)
But my book came out of the fact that I have been a life-long pacifist. Now, I’m always careful to say that. In some places, my saying I am a pacifist does not win me many friends. But, luckily, 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 as the sort of token, “Peace and Justice” congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of North Dakota. That Peace Pole outside is not just for show.
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—they are very similar to the reasons I am vegan. 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 we 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 larger world—the world “out there.” Being a pacifist, means striving for peace in my own life and in my own relationships.
And here is the area in which I will confess I have failed as a pacifist at times. As you know—I know this is a surprise—I am a headstrong person. And one of the things I have had to work hard not to do is to curb what my tongue says. I have a “gift” at being able to strike hard with my words. And I can say that, again and again in my life, every single time I have gotten in trouble with church authorities or parishioners or fellow priests, it has been as a result of my tongue.
It is the words I have said that have consistently gotten my in trouble. The fact is 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. And I have not always been kind to those people. 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 is that 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 much 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 worst 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. And let’s not even get started on those friends or family who we feel have betrayed us or turned their backs on us, or now ignore us. Sadly, that’s just a fact of life.
More likely than not, there will always be people out there who simply don’t like us. There will always be friends who just don’t want to be friends with us anymore. 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, ever 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. Not acceptance of the fact that they have turned away the gift of friendship.
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.
It certainly does much more than a counter offense of anger and hatred and negativeness. 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, do not 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.
Now, I will say this, our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, is one of the most difficult scriptures I have ever had to deal with in my life as a Christian. Every time I heard or read it, I feel myself convicted. In the mirror of this scripture, I feel inadequate. I see my own guilt staring back at me. St. Paul lays it on the line:
“Be angry,” he says. “But do not sin.”
OK. Yes, I can do that.
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouth...”
Shoot! I was doing so well. This is hard.
“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit…”
We grieve the Holy Spirit when we let those negative, war-like words out of our mouths. When we backbite and complain. When we bash others when others aren’t there. What harm can it do? we wonder. They can’t hear it. But the Holy Spirit hears it. And those negative words do make a difference. Those words make war.
“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, even when we lash out with our angry words at others.
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.” It’s so easy and it feels so good. And it makes the pain of betrayal less. 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 work. Hard, concentrated 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 anything we 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 so we can 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 of love.
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 frustration 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 true 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.