Year A, Epiphany 7 February 19, 2017 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing…”
First off, I want to thank you all for the opportunity to be on retreat this past week. I spent three nights at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey up near McMinnville. It is a beautiful place in the midst of the abundance of Oregon wine country. It is a place cloaked in silence. Signs hung on walls that read: “Silence is as deep as eternity.” “Silence is the language of God.” Trappists always post messages like this around their monasteries, little notes to self. I walked the trails in the rain. Read a lot. Spent some time in the Bethany House of Prayer, the quietest meditation hall I have ever sat in. That was awesome. And I got to go to church five times a day! The Daily Office beings there with Vigils at 4:15 and ends with Compline at 7:30. There is so much space in between and time just turns with the prayer wheel in very digestible increments.
In the silence, things can fall away. The clutter of our minds and hearts, some of it at least, can be sort of swept up in a kind of interior tidying. When I come home to a messy house, I don’t know about you, but I just can’t think straight some times. Maybe it is too much stimulation, all the stuff! Maybe you can’t tell where to start in cleaning up. Or maybe you are simply tired, and all of the stuff is just exhausting. Our minds, our hearts are troubled like the waters with all of the stuff going on around us out there and so much of it roosts in here, in our hearts and minds. A couple of days of silence is like turning off the flood. Turning the phone off, not reading the paper or email or hearing the radio… Very quickly it just quiets down. Waking up the first morning and hearing the brothers sing “Lord, open our lips and our mouth shall proclaim your praise,” I took a deeper breath than I have at least since the election. In very short order, the particulates in the swirl started settling out a bit, and the waters were at least a little bit less murky. And four days in relative silence is nothing, well it won’t be lasting at least! Just watching how the brothers move in chapel, some of them having prayed right there for years and years… (in the older days when a monk entered the monastery, they never left, like never left the property. What a firm foundation)! It might not make a lot of logical sense, but as we hear from Paul today, quoting the Psalmist, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” Do not underestimate the very real, concrete power of stillness in the midst of chaos. And the more chaotic it is, the more powerful is the stillness.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evil doer… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
If we did nothing else besides these two things, not resisting evil doers and loving our enemies, the Kingdom, the Commonwealth of God would be instantly upon us. Arrived. Leo Tolstoy wrote a little book called The Kingdom of God is Within You, about that from his reading of these verses. When Gandhi read that in the midst of his own awakening, he found satyagraha, his term meaning “clinging to truth,” or “soul-force,” the incredible power in doing what is right, in following the actual God given truth to its final conclusion. It is from these verses and Tolstoy’s wise commentary that that little vegan attorney overthrew the British Empire, ruined it, the greatest empire the world had ever seen, without a shot being fired, but let it crumble under the weight of its own dishonesty, corruption and violence. Praise the Lord!
“Do not resist an evil doer…” That is the heart of it and we must not misunderstand this. Gandhi resisted. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. resisted. Jesus Christ resisted. All of them. Unto death, even death on a Cross. And so many, many more, anonymous saints across the ages have resisted, are resisting evil. We must resist evil. That is the moral heart of the Sermon on the Mount, that and the follow up command that that resistance must be done in love. We must resist evil, but not at all costs. We must not resist the person doing the evil. Not as a fellow son or daughter of God. We don’t resist them, we resist the evil they are doing; love the sinner hate the sin is the often misused shorthand (as love is often in short supply when these words are used). So this all means what exactly? It means we must not answer evil with evil. If someone hits, hitting back is answering evil with evil, and not only is it wrong, but it doesn’t work. Like spanking your child to teach them that hitting someone is wrong. That’s ludicrous. Executing someone to teach that killing is wrong. No, we are to resist evil with love.
Jesus was nailed to the Cross. Did He try to escape or plead his way out? Did He tell his friends to fight back and kill Romans? No. He healed the ear of the Chief Priest’s slave when they arrested Him. As they tormented Him to death, He begged, “Forgive them for they know no what they do.” Jesus saved. He would not deny what He knew to be True with a capital “T”, that God is present always and everywhere to everyone, in love. Where love is, God is, for God is love. So if we answer evil with anything but love, we are welcoming forces other than God into our hearts and we are denying the reality of God in the other.
Answering evil with love, what we can call Christian non-resistance, changed the world. In Jesus Christ, it changed the world. It changed our ability to have a true and right relationship with God the creator of heaven and earth by welcoming love into situations marred by hatred and violence. Nothing passive about the non-resistance Jesus is teaching us here. It is not passive, it is just non-violent.
Thomas Merton writes: “After all, the basic principle of non-violence is respect for the personal conscience of the opponent. Non-violent action is a way of insisting on one’s just rights without violating the rights of anyone else… The whole strength of non-violence depends on this absolute respect for the rights even of an otherwise unjust oppressor: his legal rights and his moral rights as a person.” We truly are called to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute you. Yes, truly. Geo-politically as well as in our day to day lives. Makes me just want to sigh so very deeply because I don’t know about you, but I am not there. Not yet. Far from it.
Right after 9-11, I preached in my parent’s church a sermon on non-violence. It was not received uniformly well, and during coffee hour an older gentleman came up to me in a huff, saying, “What about Hitler?” Non-violence and Just War arguments always stop at “What about Hitler?” And truly, by 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, it probably was too late for non-violent resistance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer churned in his soul over this question before he helped plan an attempt on Hitler’s life. But what if the SA had been met with the full force of Christ’s love in 1922? If people, encased in the armor of light didn’t cooperate, didn’t collaborate, didn’t just go long to get along anywhere in the 17 years it took for National Socialism to make the hell they longed for real on Earth? That is an entirely different question. We need to resist evil before it becomes tremendous evil.
That’s all pretty grand. Pretty heroic sounding. Resisting the horrendous evil of Nazism, bringing down the British empire. You might think I am implying that we need to get on this in our nation right now, before it gets out of hand and you would be right. Read Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here or William Allen’s remarkable history The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of A Single German Town 1922-1945, it is a detailed history of Northeim, Germany and how the Nazi’s gradually, incrementally changed public sentiment and hijacked the nation. Some of the parallels to right now are stunning. Terrifying, actually. But we are not ready for that fight, against the principalities and powers that are organizing themselves right now. I fear that we’re not ready for that fight, not to resist in a way that is going to do much more than add more evil and violence to the world. No, our fight, our struggle begins much, much closer to home.
I read a lot on retreat. Gandhi’s autobiography, with the subtitle “The Story of my experiments with truth.” Thomas Merton’s Faith and Violence. Gotta read Merton when you stay with the Trappists. And I finished Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s horrifying The Gulag Archipelago, a wrenching account of the horrendous evil we can heap upon each other. And I read them all through the hermeneutic, the lens of the text for this week, the heart of the moral teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, “Resist not an evil doer!” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” And I realized, that this teaching, this lesson from Jesus Christ is impossible! Impossible! For myself, impossible, I can’t do that. Not in my condition. And I am guessing the same is for most of us afflicted with the human condition. And that is pretty deflating. Pretty disheartening.
There I was, in the midst of my annual foray into real silence, reading these books of deep heart and spirit, written by men who have faced adversities of the ages and I’m chewing on it, it is fermenting in my heart, trying to link what I was taking in to our world right now, and what we are supposed to be doing and a community and what I am supposed to be doing as a priest, as your priest. I am scared. Truthfully. The remarks about the press being “the enemy of the people???” The President can’t talk that way, not as President, but there we have it. I hadn’t heard that statement yet, (no phone, remember), but I was feeling pretty deflated and then I walked into the refectory, the monastic term for dining room. There is a bulletin board there on which each day one of the monks sticks a New Yorker cartoon and a page from a daily calendar of inspirational quotes. I’m not a big fan of those, the great moral giants of the world can be sentimentalized with their words pasted over a sunset scene and put in a calendar or Facebook post. Treacle. But the one Friday morning just grabbed me and put together Gandhi and Merton and King (I’ve been reading him for the conference I am headed to this afternoon), and even Solzhenitsyn. It was a familiar line from Rumi: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
I’ve referenced a cartoon before, the preacher asking the congregation, “Who wants change?” and there is unanimous affirmation, the people say, “AMEN!” Frame 2: “Who wants to change?” Crickets.
We can invite the love of Jesus Christ to shine forth from our hearts and change the world. We can be invincible! Impervious to the assaults of the evil one and his servants. We could be able to suffer without hatred. To take on the pain of others so that the whole world might be saved, or at least them. The divine indwelling, the presence of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit that resides in every bit of everyone’s hearts and minds and bodies can strengthen us to resist, with fear and trembling perhaps, but resist the most horrendous evil, but we have got to be ready for it. We need to be prepared. We need to change ourselves if we have any hope of changing anything or anyone else, or even surviving with any of our integrity and dignity intact.
Gandhi changed the world by changing himself. He knew that his passions, his lust and attachment to world things got in the way of love. They distracted. They cluttered his soul and obstructed his vision. He knew that the kind of love Jesus was asking us to show is something that a distracted person with a cluttered field of view just cannot do. Cannot. He needed to purify himself, like Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So he practiced celibacy and strict vegetarianism (he was vegan before there was a word for it), and fasting of all sorts. And that work, knowing himself, disciplining himself, rigorously following vows that he made throughout his life, allowed him to see where he was weak, where he could be tempted, where he was not true to the truth as he knew it and got in the way of the love of God. God very naturally resides in every heart. Clear out the excess and all you will have left is love. God.
“The fierce urgency of now” taught King that peace, peaceful change will be impossible if we (you and me specifically, white liberals) continue “refusing to give up the privileges and pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments.” He was speaking of Viet Nam, we have plenty of analogous conflicts right now. That we as a nation must undergo a “radical revolution of values” and “rapidly begin to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society…”
The gulag, on the other end of it, taught Solzhenitsyn that if you entered with nothing, they could take nothing from you. If, entering prison, you accepted that your life was over, you had nothing to lose and they had nothing to use against you and you might survive.
But all of that is out there. And we can’t do much about that until we come to terms with the fact that it all begins here; that pithy calendar quote about the clever one wanting to change the world, the wise themselves. And Merton, in good monastic fashion, makes it ungrammatically real, and therefore accessible, saying, “The genuine saving event, the encounter of man with Christ in his encounter of love and reconciliation with his fellow man, is generally not newsworthy.”
We don’t need to save the world. (Well, we do, but we always have, so don’t dwell on that). What we need to do is save ourselves. That’s where we start. That is where we have to start. We are the culture that gave us our situation; non-resistance begins with non-blaming, non-judging. All we have done and failed to do. We all have logs in our own eyes, forests! Start there. Put your mask on first.
I’m not suggesting that you consider celibacy or veganism, I am not considering them, but I am suggesting that we take the gift of Lent that is upon us to begin, to dip our toe in the river of self-denial, in intentional simplicity, in reducing the sensory, emotional, mental, informational clutter that is contemporary American life. Fast this Lent, in some way. Start small, baby-steps to the Kingdom. Just experiment and see if in fact you will not die from lack of chocolate. You probably won’t, but I’m not that kind of doctor. But let something go and your soul will shine, just a little more into the world, with one less bit of clutter getting in the way of your true self and the God within you arising and shining on everyone, like the sun that shines on the evil and on the good. That’s the point, we need more love shining everywhere.
It is not about tearing the whole system down, not necessarily. (Some folks don’t appreciate some of my rhetoric, though I believe the Gospel supports it). The first step right now is about building up yourself, grounding yourself in God’s love that we might be the people Jesus Christ knows us to be, and that is a formidable thing that can save yourself, our community and everything else. And we will practice this together as we pray for President Trump by name in the Prayers of the People because Jesus tells us to. AMEN.