2008 Peace Sermon Of The Year

PS 104

“Down By the Riverside”

Revelation 21:22 – 22:5

August 26, 2007

 

As Labor Day draws closer, we are moving closer to the end of our summer

sermon series that we’ve called “A River Runs Through Us.” Even though we knew the

river image was a good one, both Pastor Gary and I have been surprised (and pleased?) to

discover just how rich it is. At the beginning of the summer we looked at the texts that

spoke of the Jordan River and the many biblical characters that encountered God near, or

in, the muddy Jordan: General Naaman was healed in it, Joshua led the people across it,

Jesus was baptized in it. Then we examined some of the other biblical rivers along with

the rivers of more contemporary literature.

What struck me was how often a river was connected to the idea of peace. Rivers

everywhere, not just the Jordan, are where we go to find the peace that only God can

give. They’re the source of timeless, wordless wisdom for humanity. When we stand at

a river’s edge, we stand next to something at once ancient but new, something passionate

but calming, that speaks to us of mystery and simplicity, that refreshes and inspires – no

wonder God’s Spirit has been imagined, for thousands of years, as a river running

through us.

Rivers flow from the first book of the Bible, with the rivers that define the Garden

of Eden through to the very end of the Bible in the Revelation of John of Patmos that we

heard in this morning’s text. This is the vision of a political and religious prisoner, living

in exile many decades after Christ. The river itself is part of a larger picture of John’s

ultimate hope of peace and freedom.

He writes about the New Jerusalem, a city that does

not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the

Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by this city’s light, and the kings of the earth will

bring their splendor into it. It is a city whose gates are open and never closed as they

would be for war. It is a vision of opening doors to peoples and nations beyond

ourselves. And through it all runs the river of the water of Life, bright as crystal, flowing

from the throne of God and of the Lamb: not from the restored Temple of Jerusalem, as it

did in Ezekiel’s vision, but from God and the lamb, who now replace the temple. It is the

life of God flowing like a river – a wonderful image.

Beside this river is a tree with all kinds of fruit. And the leaves of this tree are for

the healing of nations: for the healing of nations: no HMOs; no Cost Containment; no

Co-pay; no troop deployments; no carpet bombing; no coercion by violence, no threats of

domination. Just pluck the leaves of the tree and be healed. It is a new kind of healing. It

is a new kind of reconciliation. It is a new kind of health care delivery system. It is a new

kind of Peace. It is God’s own Shalom.

This vision of joy, well-being, harmony and prosperity can’t be captured by a

single word of idea. We might call it love, loyalty, truth, grace, salvation, justice,

blessing, righteousness. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann calls it “Shalom.”

“Shalom” carries “the freight of the dream of God,” he says, God’s intention that all of

creation will be one, every creature in community with every other, living in harmony

and security toward the joy and well-being of every other creature.

Shalom is deliberately corporate. If there is to be well-being, it will not be just for

isolated, insulated individuals; it is rather security and prosperity granted to a whole

community – young and old, rich and poor, powerful and dependent. Always we are all

in it together. Shalom comes only to the inclusive, embracing community that excludes

none.

When Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” he was

commissioning us to be those who bring this vision of God’s Shalom to all people and to

all the nations. In giving us that parting gift, Jesus invited us to bathe in this river that

flows through the New Jerusalem.

Do we come here today to bathe in this river bright as crystal, flowing from the

throne of God and of the Lamb? What stops us from living in a shalom world? What

stops us from being a shalom church? What stops you from being a shalom person?

What keeps us from coming to the riverside, laying down our swords and shields? Why

do we continue to study war?

Life in the New Jerusalem, in the City of God, is not just a utopian dream, a piein-

the-sky wish concocted by a prisoner with a vivid imagination. Life as it would be if

we actually followed God’s leading is, in fact, exactly what Jesus came to show us – how

to live only by light of God, how to live a shalom life, how to be a shalom person. Just as

there are many words that describe “shalom,” there are many ways to describe this life

that Jesus lived and taught. One way is to say that Jesus teaches us how to lay down our

swords and shields; how to live without causing violence; how to respond to violence

without creating more of it

Prof. Walter Wink is the man who has for many years now, brought a new

understanding of Jesus’ teachings on violence to the world. He says that we’ve been

hearing Jesus’ words all wrong. You probably know the passages we’re talking about.

From Matthew 5: 38-41: “You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,

but I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. But if someone strikes you on the right

cheek, turn the other one also.”

Wink says it’s obvious that almost all of us think that this is very bad advice,

since almost none of us obey it. Look at what happens if you follow Jesus on this one:

You’re taken advantage of. You become a doormat for Jesus. You get beat up. It hurts.

It’s humiliating. It’s just foolish; if you let them get away with it one time, they’ll do it

again.

Wink argues that we’ve been mistranslating the key word in the passage, “do not

resist one who is evil.” The word “resist” is incorrect, he says. Jesus is not saying “Do

not resist the evil people.” Of course you resist those who are evil. Jesus always resisted

evil. Can anyone name a single time Jesus doesn’t resist evil? But he’s saying don’t resist

evil violently. Don’t mirror the evil that you’re attacking. Don’t become the very thing you

hate. The correct translation is really “Do not react violently against the one who is evil.”

One version, The Scholar’s Bible, has it that way. “Do not react violently against the one

who is evil.” Write it down on your bulletin somewhere and then write that in the margin

of the Bible you use at home. Mt 5:38 “Do not react violently against the one who is

evil.” Think of what a difference it would have made in Christian history if we had had

that translation earlier.

So when Jesus says “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other

also” he is not recommending that you become a helpless victim. In Jesus’ place and

time one always used the right hand to exact punishment. The left hand was used only

for going to the toilet. (That’s the source of all those anti-left handed statements we read

in the Bible.) Hitting someone on the left cheek, the “other cheek,” forced the perpetrator

to use his right hand; it forced him to use a fist, not a slap. A slap was what a superior

used to keep the subordinate in place. It’s how a master punished a slave, or a husband

punished a wife, or a parent a child. Forcing the violent one to use a fist meant you were

demanding to be treated as an equal. You’re saying to the one who’s slapped you once

and now is threatening you again, “You didn’t succeed. You can have me flogged within

an inch of my life, but I’ve had it. I’m not going to take this kind of thing anymore. I’m

your equal. I’m a child of God, and I expect to be treated like that.”

Jesus is saying you can find power in each situation, but you’ve got to start

thinking about power in a whole new way. This is a whole new concept of “fighting

back,” a whole new concept of power. Power without violence. With Jesus’ teachings,

we begin to see a whole new world emerging. And one of the things that we see is that

we don’t have to wait for the kingdom of God to come at the end of history to start living

a kingdom-life. We can begin living in the kingdom of God now. We can begin being

shalom people now.

It may seem far-fetched to think that people would take that kind of a risk, but in

fact, people do it and change the world because of what they do. In South Africa, during

the end of the apartheid era, children and kids began to take that kind of risk. They stood

out in front of the military vehicles and yelled, “Freedom, freedom!” and dared them to

run over them. It was like they had decided they had suffered enough.

We can put down our swords and shields. We can live as shalom people, God’s

people.

In December of 1996, on the third night of Hanukkah, someone threw a rock

through the Markovitz family’s front window, grabbed the electric menorah inside and

smashed it to the ground, breaking all nine bulbs. Mrs. Judy Markovitz had immigrated

from the Ukraine as a child to escape persecution. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor.

Margie Alexander, a Christian neighbor who was with the Markovitzes after the incident,

said “Have you ever seen real fear and devastation? You don’t see something like that

and not do something.” So she did, and so did her neighbors in that predominantly

Christian community. Four days later, on the 7th day of Hanukkah, 25 Christian homes in

the neighborhood had menorahs burning in their windows.

We can put down our swords and shields. We can live as shalom people, God’s

people.

Dr. George Ellis, a cosmologist and a Quaker, won the Templeton Prize for

Progress in Religion in 2004. After he received the prize for his work on balancing

science with faith and hope, Ellis received a letter for a Scottish soldier who told a story

that supported Ellis’s theory about the human willingness to make sacrifices for the sake

of a greater good.

In 1967 I was a young officer in a Scottish battalion engaged in peacekeeping

duties in what is now Yemen. The situation was similar to Iraq, with people being killed

every day. As always, those who suffered the most were the innocent local people. Not

only were we tough, but we had the power to pretty well destroy the whole town had we

wished.

But we had a commanding officer who understood how to make peace, and he led

us to do something very unusual: not to react when we were attacked. Only if we were

100% certain that a particular person had thrown a grenade or fired a shot at us were we

allowed to fire. During our tour of duty we had 102 grenades thrown at us, and in

response the battalion fired the grad total of two shots, killing one grenade-thrower. The

cost to us was over 100 of our own men wounded, and surely by the grace of God only

one killed. When they threw rocks at us, we stood fast. When they threw grenades, we

hit the deck and after the explosions we got to our feet and stood fast. We did not react in

anger or indiscriminately. Slowly, very slowly, the local people began to trust us and

made it clear to the local terrorists that they were not welcome in their area.

At one stage, neighboring battalions were have a torrid time with attacks. We

were playing soccer with the locals. We had, in fact brought peace to the area at the cost

of our own blood. Principally because we were led by a man whom every soldier in the

battalion knew would die for him if required. Each soldier in turn came to be prepared to

sacrifice himself for such a man. Gradually the heart of the peacemaker began to grow in

[each] man, and the determination to succeed whatever the cost. Probably most of the

soldiers, like myself, only realized years afterwards what had been achieved.

There is a better way, and we can live it. There is a better place, and we are its

citizens. It is the way of God, the city of God, and through the middle of the street of the

city flows the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God

and of the Lamb.

Gonna lay down my sword and shield,

Down by the riverside,

Down by the riverside,

Down by the riverside.

Gonna lay down my sword and shield,

Down by the riverside,

Down by the riverside.

 

References

William Loader, “Easter 6” http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/CEpEaster6.htm

Laura Smit, “The Image of Home” http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/oct1988/v45-3-

article4.htm

Walter Brueggemann, Living Toward A Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom, rev. ed.

(New York: United Church Press, 1982).

Kirk Alan Kubicek, May 16, 2004 – Sixth Sunday of Easter – Year C – Revised Common

Lectionary. http://www.dfms.org/sermons_that_work_6889_ENG_HTM.htm

Walter Wink, “Nonviolence for the Violent,” talk was given at the Presbyterian Peace

Fellowship GA Peace Breakfast, Louisville, Kentucky, June 13, 2001.

http://www.witherspoonsociety.org/walter_wink.htm

“Letter from David Christie to George Ellis” from Speaking of Faith, radio program

produced by American Public Media.

http://speaking offaith.publicradio.org/programs/scienceandhope/scottishsoldier.shtml

Michael Raphael, “Lights of Hope vs. Hate’s Darkness,” Grand Rapids Press, December

15 (?), 1996.