One bright morning moment, one day within the great and everlasting day of divine love, one pause to remember and hope in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom, as the Apostle pronounced, it is not ‘yes and no’, but in him it is always Yes (2 Cor. 1). We might summarize Matthew 5: 39 in words from 150 years ago:
If the roads are clear this cold season is a fine time to travel in the mountains, north and west, and into Lake Placid NY. Near there you find a most exotically named preaching assignment, a four point charge: Owls Head, Chasm Falls, Mountainview, and Wolf Pond. You might pass through the strangely frightening prison town of Dannemora. I remember visiting near there the hunting lodge of a friend. He stood snow splattered in his meadow watching and listening to Nature in her farthest reach and said, “It’s so wild up here”.
Lake Placid itself seems like the top of the world, especially in the winter. Winter is our most visually beautiful season here in the north. We are in fact ice people, no bad thing. The world needs both fire and ice. Here is Mirror Lake. Here is the Olympic Pavilion. Here is the ski lift from which to view the grandeur of the mountains, the poverty of the north country, the stark serenity of Old Man Winter, a colossus striding upon the earth. You are on top of the world, or at least as far up as we get around here.
Before you go off to dinner or the hot tub, I propose a further little visit. Out behind the ski lift, a long way from the road and not overly well marked, there is a gravesite. Trudge a few paces into the snow and take a look. There, if you brush back the powder, you can make out the name and dates. Under mountain shadows, hidden in the ice box of the north, covered at least half the year with a beautiful white blanket of snow, there lies the body of John Brown, 1800-1859, whose flint like personality, bent to violence, and fiery rhetoric helped ignite the civil war, which began 150 years ago. His is a fitting rough grave lost in the outback of the Empire State. He lies just about as far from the Mason Dixon line as one go, and still stay within the country.
Gardner Taylor once said that we have not allowed the greatest tragedy of our history as a people, the Civil War, to teach us as much as it might. 600,000 men lost their lives in four years, 150 years ago.
150 years is not that long ago. I can remember very sharply the events and remembrances of the 100th anniversary of the Civil War in the early and middle1960’s, a third of the way back. We have a shared history, from well before and after 1861. It is out of that long history that we pause for a moment this morning to listen to the Gospel of Matthew 5:39. While there are easier sentences which might tempt us here in this reading, we shall listen to the hardest for interpreters, ‘Do not resist one who is evil’.
As today’s reading reminds us, we are from a deep, though intricately varied ethical tradition that enshrines selfless love, christocentric love, cruciform love as the cherished ideal of human behavior. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies’.
We have here over some years tried to hear the beautiful chorus, the four part harmony of the Scripture in the Gospels. So today. The flickering soprano melody, the voice of Jesus of Nazareth, teaching us to love, to love others, to love all, to love with malice toward none, yes, to love our enemies. The contralto struggles of the primitive church, waiting and waiting for the promised, expected, proximate return of the Lord, and developing a missionary tract, found here and in Luke 6, for use in teaching. The tenor, Matthew, our gospel writer, who has collected and composed, and waits too, waits long, substituting ‘you must be perfect (whole, complete, true)’ for Luke’s ‘be ye merciful’. And the bass, stretching from the Mediterranean community of the first century, to the Charles River gathering of Marsh Chapel. Jesus. Church. Writer. Legacy. Soprano. Alto. Tenor. Bass.
If anyone smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Coat, cloak. One mile, two. If you love those who love you, what reward have you?
Again, we might with these verses stay with the heavy emphasis they clearly have on personal relationships, where the ice is thicker and we are safer. For an individual, alone and with no responsibilities to others, there are many options for self less self sacrifice. But the hard question, and the spot on the pond where the ice gets thin, or at least thinner, is ‘how far the principle can be applied to groups, and especially political life’ (IB loc cit). Our recognition that the dominant alto\tenor voices of the early church and evangelist, expecting the very soon return of Christ, and hence shading this ethic as an interim ethic, helps but does not mute the soprano melody, ‘resist not’. Hear is a ringing question placed against the ethic of retaliation that dates to Hammurabi, to Roman Law, to Aeschylus, and is epitomized in the lex talionis, eye and tooth. Resist not., says 5: 39.
So how shall hear this verse?
Especially, how shall we hear this verse in relation to the brief span of human history given to our keeping?
Over 20 centuries, and speaking with unforgivable conciseness as one must in a twenty two minute sermon, two basic understandings of war and peace have emerged in Christian thought. As you know, these roughly can be called the so-called pacifist and just war understandings.
Pacifism preceded its sibling, and infinitely extends to all times the interim ethic of the New Testament (which even here in Matthew, a late writing, expects that the coming of Christ will soon make moot our ethical dilemmas, and so tends to err on the side of quietism, or, in the case of arms, pacifism): “to him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also”. Many utterly saintly Christian women and men have and do honor this understanding with their selfless commitment, including many in this congregation today. My own pulpit hero, Ernest Fremont Tittle, the best Methodist preacher of the 20th century, did so from his Chicago pulpit through the whole Second World War. Think about that for a minute. I did for more than a minute when I preached from that very pulpit last June. While personally I have not been able, to this date anyway, to agree with him, I never compose a sermon on this topic without wondering, and to some degree fearing, what his judgment might be.
The multiple theories of just war, or war as the least of all evil alternatives, have developed since the Fourth Century and the writing of St. Augustine. Here the command to “be merciful, even as God is merciful” is understood tragically to include times when mercy for the lamb means armed opposition to the wolf. The New Testament apocalyptic frame and its interim ethic are honored, to be sure, but supplemented with the historic experience of the church through the ages. Many utterly saintly Christian men and women have honored this understanding with their selfless commitment, including some present here today
, and some who are not present because they gave their lives that others might live. Just war thought includes several serious caveats. We together need to know and recall these, in five forms: a just cause in response to serious evil, a just intention for restoration of peace with justice, an absence of self-enrichment or desire for devastation, a use as an utterly last resort, a claim of legitimate authority, and a reasonable hope of success, given the constraints of “discrimination” and “proportionality” (usually understood as protection of non-combatants). Response. Restoration. Restraint. Last resort. Common authority.
Prayerfully, we each and we all will want to consider our own understanding, our own ethic, our own choice and choices between these two basic alternatives. But the careful listener this February of 2011 will want a thought or two about how, together, how as those who influence culture together, we might positively and proactively sing the four part chorus of love, and live out Matthew 5:38ff. We could use some help here. At least I could…
We will pause now to welcome a visitor to our service. Welcome. You will find him to my right, and down the west aisle of the chapel. He is standing alone, and has been with us before. Actually, his worship attendance has been perfect for 60 years, a far better record than he had in life. For he is enshrined in one of our Connick stained glass windows, one of the many novel choices the fourth President of Boston University, Daniel Marsh, made in designing our chapel. Lincoln may be able to offer us some assistance today, on President’s weekend.
A year before John Brown entered his post retirement home in Lake Placid, in the fall of 1858, two men as different as life and death stood beside each other on debate platforms in Illinois. To the right was the carefully groomed, smooth speaking, dapperly dressed Senator Stephen Douglas. To his left, looking like a bumpkin, stood a gangly, homely man, overly tall and saddled with a high pitched, irritating voice. They debated for the heart of the country, and Lincoln lost. In his career he lost and lost and lost. In 1858 he lost, even though virtually every point he made in his speeches proved true. A house divided against itself cannot stand. Accustomed to trample on the rights of others you have lost the genius of your own independence. Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves. True, true, true. He won in 1860, but in 1862 his party was thrashed (he said, ‘I am too big to cry and too badly hurt to laugh’), in 1863 the horror of Gettysburg quickened his finest address, in 1864, challenged by his own subordinate, he barely won, and in 1865, on Good Friday, he too was dead. Lincoln spoke of his country in soaring phrase, ‘the last, best hope’.
I believe that we as a people can, in some measure, live out Lincoln’s majestic hope, of this land as a ‘last, best hope’. I offer, I believe in continuity with the Scripture as read today, two promissory notes. Our culture languishes in the doldrums of a pervasive malaise. But a quickened excitement for the power of forbearance and the peace of a discipline against resentment can help us live out a faith engaged with culture, and help us build a culture amenable to faith. Forbearance. A spiritual discipline against resentment.
We may be entering an Epoch of Forbearance. You will remember something of forbearance, patient restraint, a great power for doing good. Sometimes it is better to have patience than brains. If we can restrain ourselves, in the future, from making scapegoats of some in order furiously to retaliate against other hidden foes, that is, if we can forbear, we shall find that the community of peoples will see in us a last best hope. We may model, as a people, a path forward into a time of freedom, pluralism, toleration, compromise, and peace. Here Lincoln holds a key for us, a dream and hope of ‘malice toward none’.
We may also be entering an Epoch of Spiritual Discipline Against Resentment. Here I simply refer to a great American and a greater historian, Christopher Lasch:
Again, in the confines of a sermon, I can only sketch. Lasch’s essay distilled this theme, a spiritual discipline against resentment, from the lives and writings of Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, the Boston Personalists, and many others. He saw, as we too may see in the Matthean passage earlier read, the necessity of holding at bay those deeply human sentiments that easily, and tragically, attach themselves to us when we are fearful, attacked, and violated. For a future to emerge that is more than simply a repetition of the patterns of the past, a people must develop a ‘spiritual discipline against resentment’. If we can model as a people this discipline, others around the globe will find cause to agree with Lincoln’s assessment of this land as a last, best hope. Here Lincoln holds a key for us, a dream and a hope of ‘malice toward none’.
What is this discipline? What does it look like? How is one to find its power? Truly I see no other source than a confessional reliance on the Christ of Calvary, and no better reading than the one we heard a moment ago.
An Epoch of Forbearance. A Spiritual Discipline against Resentment. I am not at all sure that I can define these for you, but I can give you an example, in life and speech. It was the genius of Lincoln, which best bespoke this twin hope, especially in his second inaugural. Within two months of writing and offering these words, he was dead. Yet listen to his wise admonition to forbearance and discipline against resentment:
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it…Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came…
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat o f other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
Dean of Marsh Chapel