This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 4th Sunday in Lent, 30 March 2003. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Numbers 21: 4 – 9, Ephesians 2: 1 – 10, and John 3: 14 – 21.
Whenever I write a sermon, I hope it is based on the Gospel. I also hope that what I write and what I say makes you think. But today I fear that some of you will become angry before you think.
In part that is something that amazes me. As a society, we are quick to get angry before we think. We allow our emotions to guide our actions rather than allowing our actions to guide our emotions. It appears, at least to me, that the society that we have today is one in which intellect and rational thought have given way to emotion and quick action.
I am amazed that while we have stated that this war is about bringing freedom and democracy to the people of Iraq, we have forgotten what we fought for in our own Revolution. I may not agree with what is being said by either side on the debate of war or no war but I would say that our own Revolution was fought to insure that people have the right to express their own thoughts. Our Constitution would not have been ratified had the Bill of Rights not been included. Yet there are those who would deny us the rights given to us at birth simply because our opinions differ from theirs.
You must know by know that I am opposed to war. My opposition is not limited to just the present conflict but to all the wars that have been a part of my life. To some who know of my family background, my being a second-generation military brat, the grandson of an Army Colonel and the son of an Air Force Major, this may come as a shock. The horrors of war are often far removed from our view and we often see wars from only heroic standpoint. It was Robert E. Lee who said, “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” But it is in part the experiences of my grandfather and father in war that has led me to my opposition.
We speak today of the possibility of chemical warfare in Iraq. In the diary he kept during World War I, my grandfather wrote, almost casually that “Gas is no stranger to us now”. (Diary of Walter L. Mitchell, Sr.; entry for October 15, 1918) Later, he commented on the number of causalities his unit suffered because of the German gas attacks. Both as an historian and as a chemist, I understood what that comment meant.
He was to have commanded one of the regiments that landed on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 but medical problems forced an early retirement and he did not have to encounter the horrors that section of sand in France brought.
It was a similar casual comment that brought the horrors of World War II close to home. My dad mentioned that he was to have been part of the third wave of troops that were to invade Honshu, the main island of Japan. His, he commented, would have been the first to have the troops come ashore alive as the planners for the invasion felt the first two waves would be literally slaughtered on the beaches as the Japanese began the defense of their homeland. It was, in part, the thought of such massive casualties that lead President Truman to decide that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was necessary.
Some will say that there can be just wars or wars that are justified. I cannot. As long as there is death and destruction, it seems to me that no war can be justified, no matter what the reasons. One historian, Victor David Hanson, has concluded that war is the natural state of mankind. Unfortunately, there are members of the present administration who agree with this assessment. (Newsweek, 31 March 2003)
But wars bring nothing but death and destruction to combatants and non-combatants alike. For no matter how hard we try, someone is going to die and one death by unnatural causes is one death too many. The ancient Greek philosopher Herodotus once said, “Nobody is stupid enough to prefer war to peace. Because in times of peace children bury their parents, whereas, on the contrary, in times of war parents bury their children.”
And just the roots for my own ministry were unknowingly linked to my family tradition, so too is my opposition to war unknowingly linked to my own Methodist heritage. We need to be reminded that the United Methodist Church has a long heritage of opposition to war going back to John Wesley in the 18th century.
“War”, John Wesley said, “is a ‘monster’ that cannot be reconciled to ‘any degree of reason or common sense’ — a monster bringing miseries to the warriors and to all those in the warriors’ path. Wesley also said that, “war is too often caused by national leaders, who in disregard to their people, fail to find more creative ways of settling disagreements.”
In our own Revolution, many Methodist preachers were pacifists who declined to take up arms for either side. And because these preachers refused to sign the loyalty oaths required by many of the American colonies, they were viewed as disloyal American citizens and persecuted.
But, at the same time, the church has a strong commitment to minister spiritually to the troops both home and abroad and a spiritual duty to minister to the victims of war. Both the opposition to war and the ministry to the participants and victims of war are direct consequences of the Gospel. You cannot, if you accept the Gospel, stand by idly and watch the world destroy itself; rather, you must use every means within your power to use peace and good to insure that wars do not happen.
And we are a nation that professes to be one nation under God. Yet we quickly forget or don’t understand that the God we worship today is the same God that Jews and Muslims around the world also worship. If ours is a God of peace, how can the God that Muslims worship be a God of war and hatred? Yet, that is how many people see the Islamic faith, forgetting that those who attacked us on September 11, 2001 are not representative of their professed faith. And it is that emotional side of our thoughts, our desire to avenge the deaths of 9/11 that cause us to treat American citizens who have chosen to follow Islam as if they were traitors to this country.
And I am further amazed and perhaps even more bothered by the fact that many Christian ministers profess and preach this message of intolerance and hatred. And it is not just the extreme fundamentalist preachers, who hate just about everything, that are doing so. The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church suspended one of their pastors for participating in an ecumenical service following September 11th that included Muslim and Jewish representatives. And last week, one of the Christian networks found on cable TV devoted most of their broadcast to re-broadcasting their coverage of the 9/11 tragedy. I missed the reason for doing so but I can only image that it was to somehow justify our war in Iraq and inflame the passions of their viewers. That is not what the Gospel is about.
Now some will say to me that war can be justified because it is a part of the Bible. And wars are mentioned in the Bible. In fact, in the verses just prior to the Old Testament reading for today, the Israelites fought a war with people living in the Promised Land. War and invasion of land was the means the Israelites used to take control of the Promised Land and God sanctioned it. But every time the Israelites went into war by themselves, feeling that they knew what God wanted them to do, they lost the battle and they lost it big. In many of the battles the Israelites fought, they were outnumbered. But they prevailed because of the presence of God. But many times they outnumbered their enemies but they failed to take God with them and they lost.
To me, many of those who use the name of God to justify this war or any war are presuming that they speak for God and not only speak for Him but are telling Him what to do. The Old Testament reading for today is a reminder that we cannot take God for granted nor can we presume to speak for Him.
It has always amazed me that the Israelites would grumble, complain, and question God in light of the fact that they had been enslaved and oppressed for so many years prior to the Exodus.
The entry into the Promised Land as outlined at this point in the Bible story is not the first. The people of Israel first stood outside the Promised Land some forty years before. But instead of trusting in the Lord and His ability to provide for them, they sent spies into the land to find out what lie ahead. Twelve spies went into the country. Ten returned and told stories designed to discourage the Israelites. They doubted the ability of God to fulfill his promise so they returned lying about what the Israelites would face. Only two of the spies with true information about the land they had been promised was their once and future homeland. Thus, the Israelites were barred from entering the Promised Land until those who had lied had died, adding another forty years of wandering. Now, after another forty years, the Israelites are still complaining. The people were again protesting the manna that God provided for them on a daily basis, calling it this worthless bread. In the contempt that they showed for the bread that sustained them, they were actually spurning God.
God does not take kindly to criticism such as this and that is why the fiery serpents came. The venom of these serpents had no antidote and caused those who were bitten to die or suffer in extreme pain. It was this pain and death that caused the people to beg Moses to intervene on their behalf. God had Moses create an image of one of the serpents and set it on a pole. Anyone bitten by one of the serpents only had to look at the image Moses has placed on the pole in order to live. The raising of such a contemptible symbol ordinarily would have caused the people to shrink away in revulsion.
It was this image that Jesus referred to in his discussions with Nicodemus in John (see John 3: 14 and 15) as an analogy to his own execution by crucifixion. For Jews, crucifixion was a sign of a curse. Therefore, just as the Israelites had to look on the repugnant, uplifted image of a serpent in order to be saves, so too do we have to look at an uplifted image of Jesus on the cross in order to be saved from our sins.
And that amazes me as well. That even though we as a people then and now have done so much to forget who God is and what God has done, God has never forgotten us. And even though we often times show no love in our hearts for anyone but ourselves, God loves us enough that He sent his only son to be our Lord and Savior, to die on the cross for our sins so that we may gain eternal life.
Wars are a part of the Old Testament but we are a part of the New Testament. That means that we must realize and seek new responses to the problems of the world, not just the same old ones countless generations before us have tried.
The Gospel is a message of peace, of peace between individuals as well as between nations. But it requires a commitment, an acknowledgement that the way we were is not going to be the way we will be. I hope that we can stop and look around us, look at how we react to one another. It is not just something that our leaders must do, for they react in the way they see us reacting or in a way that they feel we want them to; it is something we must do ourselves, each day as we interact with others.
On the night that He was betrayed, Jesus stopped Peter from taking violent action. Because the price of our freedom was His death on the cross; any other action would have made our freedom impossible. The freedom of others from sin and from evil, from oppression and persecution will only come when we fully accept the Gospel message and take it with in our daily lives.
Today we are faced with a struggle between nations, a struggle that may seem to be beyond our capabilities to resolve. And it may be that tomorrow we are faced with a minor struggle, one between someone else and ourselves.
Those who say that wars are just or that wars are part of nature will say that that freedom can only come by the sword or other harsh and violent means.
But that does not have to be the case. That is perhaps the most amazing thing of all. Paul’s words to the Ephesians today evoke a new answer, a new response to the evil in this world. Paul pointed out that the Ephesians formerly walked according to the world’s way, a way walked before Christ’s presence in their lives. A way characterized by lust or strong desire. And Paul meant more that just the most obvious connotation; he included a desire for fame, power, and riches as part of this path.
Whether it was a path of moral carelessness or the dark alley of evil, it was a path that we no longer and could no longer walk. Believers are saved so that they can have a lifestyle characterized by good works. We, as believers in Christ, are called to walk in a way worthy of our calling, which means to walk in love, in light, and in wisdom.
No matter the size of the conflict, no matter if it is a conflict between two individuals or two countries, the fact that we have chosen a way to walk that differs from the past tells us that there is a solution other than hatred and violence. God has given to each one of us the ability to be a force for good in this world, perhaps in ways that perhaps we do not know.
The amazing thing is that we have a choice as to how we will react, of how we will live. With one choice, we can walk back into the darkness, back into the slavery of sin or death. But with the other choice, we walk in the light, the wisdom, and the Glory of God. Which choice shall it be?