Keawala’i Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
“How are we to live?”
We have been a nation at war for over two centuries. The human cost has been tremendous. Over 3.3 million men fought in the American Civil War. During World War I 4.7 million men were in uniform. In World War II 16.1 million fought in combat. The Korean War involved 5.7 million soldiers and the Vietnam War affected the lives of 8.7 million men and women in uniform.
Over 214,000 men died in the American Civil War. Over 53,000 died during World War I and another 291,000 died during World War II. The Korean War resulted in the deaths of over 33,000 soldiers and the war in Vietnam saw the loss of over 47,000 lives. To date almost 6,000 American men and women have died in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The cost of the wars in 2011 dollars range from $334 billion for World War I; $4.1 trillion for World War II; $341 billion for the Korean War; $738 billion for Vietnam and $1 trillion for Iraq and Afghanistan. (Christian Century, Chicago, Illinois, February 8, 2011, page 9) It would seem that we are a nation that has grown accustomed to war.
The cost in human lives and in dollars and cents is staggering. We have convinced ourselves that such sacrifices are necessary. We speak in clichés insisting that “we must protect our way of life; that that is the cost for preserving our freedom and democracy; and that those who threaten our sense of well-being are our enemies.”
Vengeance is ours.
Our reading from The Gospel According to Matthew is laughable in light of what we know of ourselves. Is Jesus kidding? Turn the other check, give more than the required in a lawsuit, go the extra mile, give to all who beg, lend without limits, pray for persecutors, greet strangers, love your enemies. (Matthew 5:39-42, 44, 47)
No way. Does Jesus take us to be fools?
Jesus’ teaching raises questions about how we are to live. For those living in Jesus’ day, the Torah or what we know as the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – contained instruction about how the people were to live in relation to God and to one another.
The writer of The Gospel According to Matthew uses the term law to refer to the whole content of this teaching. In our reading this morning Jesus uses a form of teaching that was familiar to the rabbis or teachers of his day – “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . . ” – as a way of examining the law and expanding the boundaries of understanding.
Where some may seek vengeance, Jesus teaches non-retaliation. Where some may see themselves as generous, Jesus calls for more. Where some may love their neighbor and hate their enemy, Jesus says “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Where some may point to the way of war, Jesus points to the way of peace.
We may balk at Jesus’ teachings but think how much more difficult it was for those to whom he was speaking. Those who were listening to him lived in a hostile society and suffered under the weight of Roman oppression.
It would seem that they had every reason to seek vengeance – “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (Matthew 5:38) Jesus’ words must have shocked some of his hearers. (Seasons of the Spirit, Congregational Life/Advent/Christmas/Epiphany, Wood Lake Publishing Inc., Kelowna, BC, Canada, 2010, page 126) Love of enemy was a revolutionary idea, especially in a country occupied by a foreign power.
But what Jesus does for his hearers and for us is provide us with a deeper understanding of God’s ways. He reminds all of us that God’s nature is to love without discrimination.
In our reading from The Book of Leviticus Moses reminds us that if we are to be God’s people then we must behave in God’s ways – we must act justly, deal honestly with others, care for those in need and love others. That is how we are to live.
We are to be holy as God is holy. We are to be perfect as God is perfect. Such a call may seem like a tremendous burden. But the Greek word that is used does not mean to without fault or to never make a mistake. Instead the word perfect means to be “complete” or to be “mature.”
Such maturity means that we show compassion to all, as God does.
I may have shared this story with you before and if I have I ask that you bear with me. Some will be hearing the story for the first time. Every now and then I must travel to Oʻahu for a meeting. I usually catch a shuttle bus to one of the facilities for a car rental. The shuttle buses make frequent stops at the domestic and international terminals at the Honolulu airport.
When I boarded the shuttle on one particular morning, I noticed a young couple sitting across from me. A year of study in a German language class in college helped me immediately recognize that they were speaking to each other in German.
To my right sat another young couple and an older woman who appeared to be their grandmother. They spoke among themselves in Japanese.
As the bus pulled out into traffic and drove past the various concourses I found myself wondering how amazing it was that within our lifetime our countries were once enemies embroiled in a catastrophic war. Now here we were seated before one another.
I thought about the young German couple and wondered about their hopes and dreams for the future. I thought about the young Japanese couple and appreciated the care they showed for their grandmother.
Ironically it took the tragedy of a world war to bring us into one another’s lives. I thought about the tremendous loss of life, the pain, the anger . . . the bitterness. Jesus points to a better way.
Some will argue that there are byproducts to war that are beneficial. Military research and development often finds its way into use in civil society – whether it is in communications, medical technologies or other areas of development. But the cost is so enormous.
Last Sunday, Janet Andrews was with us from Sunrise United Methodist Church. Before our time of worship began she asked if there was time for to present a “peace candle” to the church. I said it would make sense for her to do that during our time with the children.
Janet shared with me what was printed on a card that she had brought with her. “The Peace Candle is the small votive candle, which burns on the altar each time we worship. Here is a brief history of the candle.
In 1986 a group of American Christians from York, Pennsylvania visited a number of churches in the Soviet Union. Following a service in a Russian Orthodox Church, an elderly woman in the congregation placed three rubles in the hand of an American pastor and asked him to buy a candle for the church he serve; to be lighted as symbol of Peace during each service. For more than fourteen years, the Peace Candle has burned each Sunday at the First Presbyterian Church in York.
In the fall of 1986, the York congregation decided to pass the light of their candle on to 100 other churches and since that time, its light has gone out in ever-widening circles to hundreds, probably even thousands, of congregations all over the world. There is no way to know all the places it has gone, but we can treace our candle directly back to York, Pennsylvania.”
When Janet presented the candle to us, she read a prayer that include the following: “ . . . may the glow from this candle’s light bring peace to our community and our world – resolving conflicts both at home and abroad.”
Centuries ago it is said that God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak
to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: ʻYou
shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’”
To be a holy people we are to do justice, love kindness and walk in humility with God. (Micah 6:8) We find echoes of his words in the teachings of Jesus who calls us to be a perfect people; to grow in our compassion for others so that peace may come to our lives and to our world.
May it be so.
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