For thousands of years families, communities, and nations have been torn apart by differences of belief. These same conflicts exist today – Christian vs. Muslim, Christian vs. Jew, Muslim vs. Jew, Muslim vs. Muslim, Christian vs. Christian, and on and on. The time has come for us to put aside our differences and Unite for Peace.
“Toward no crime have men shown themselves so cold-bloodedly cruel as in punishing differences of belief.”
~James Russell Lowell
As I was preparing for today’s message, I came across a sermon by Mark Braverman. Mr. Braverman is a Jewish scholar who had been invited to give the sermon at the First Presbyterian Church of St. Anselmo on the 3rd Sunday of Lent in 2010. I enjoyed his message very much, particularly the way he draws out the spiritual meaning behind the Scriptures from a Jewish perspective.
In his sermon, he recaps his thoughts on the messages of weeks 1 and 2 of Lent. I was amazed at how, though delivered four years ago, the messages tied extremely well to our own discussions over the previous two weeks, also weeks 1 and 2 of Lent.
Lent – Week 1 Recap
Their week 1 included a reading from Deuteronomy discussing making an offering in the temple of the First Fruits of the harvest. Here, the land and all it yields are symbols of the covenant between God and His people. The offering is an act of devotion, of thanksgiving, for all that God has provided. After making the offering, Deuteronomy 26:3 tells us the people were to say, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the country which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.”
Tying to our messages over the last two weeks, the people were thankful for the blessings they had received, and were acting as Faithful Stewards – responsibly tending to the land and the crops, and making the physical offering commanded of them at the time. This was how the ancient Jews kept themselves separate, demonstrated their faith, and identified as God’s chosen.
To illustrate the impact of Jesus’ teaching and ministry we can turn to Paul. In Romans 10:10, Paul tells us, “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. For “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.””
Just as conflict exists today, at the time of Paul’s writing there was a lot of conflict, based largely on belief; conflict between Jews and Jewish Christians, Jews and Gentiles, Jews and Romans, etc., etc. Paul shows how Jesus’ teaching changed the belief from a separate, inheritance and possession, offering-based belief to a belief based on faith, confession, and inclusiveness. In the midst of conflict, Paul was trying to bring about unity.
Lent – Week 2 Recap
Week 2 of their Lenten season went on to further explore conflict and unity. In Mr. Braverman’s words:
“…we are again in the Pentateuch, in Genesis, chapter 15, God’s promise to Abram. First, God promises progeny – count the stars, he says to Abram! And then: “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.” (Genesis 15:18)
And alongside this, we have this account in Luke, chapter13. Jesus is on his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem: Some Pharisees came and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. (Luke 13:31-32)
Again, there is this tension: The Genesis reading is about promise: I give you this land, this legacy of prosperity, security, and place — a place to build families, communities, a society based on my code of justice, compassion, and fairness. God comes to man and says: I am he, this is my name, and this is what we will create together.
When we arrive in Luke, we have fast forwarded to first century Judea, and we have what has happened in history: Occupation. Oppression. The project of empire to destroy family, community, and compassion for our fellow human beings. And we have a prophet – in Christian belief, God’s gift of his only son — again, God coming to man, indeed in the form of man, and he is involved in history, sending a message to the temporal ruler, Rome’s client king:
“tell that fox that I have work to do. Casting out demons is metaphor for confronting the ills that had afflicted the people of Judea. I am casting out the evil of empire, I am healing the sicknesses brought by poverty and oppression. I am repairing what has been damaged.”
The covenant is in conversation with history. For what is theology if not our attempt to understand our purpose in being here, and our very human effort to spell out what it is we must do in relationship with our fellow human beings and with the earth that has been given over to our stewardship? It is an effort that must be renewed in every generation, every historical period. Such is the nature of repentance. In Genesis God comes to man, and thus begins the covenant. Be in covenant with me, God says to Abram, and I will give you progeny, sustenance, land. In Genesis we have the vision, the metaphor for which is the good and broad land, a land which nurtures its people. The fierce poetry of the Old Testament prophets tells the story of what happens when that vision meets history. And in Luke we have the continuation of that tension between the vision and the reality: Kings. Client governments. The attempt to stamp out and silence resistance.
In this tension between Genesis and Luke, the space between the promise and the reality, the vision of wholeness and the work required to bring us closer to it — in this space is my personal journey.”
Again, we have a tie-back to our previous two weeks – remaining Faithful Stewards of all that we have been given. And, we have conflict. Most of all, we have Jesus’ teaching to bring about unity.
Lent – Week 3
So, now come to week 3 of Lent. To begin, we’ll go to Exodus 3:1-2: “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the Mountain of God. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed.”
Once again, God has come to man – Moses; and Moses came to the mountain of God, Horeb, which is also known as Mt. Sinai. The land is, again, part of the central theme of the covenant between God and the people. In Exodus 3:12, God tells Moses, “…when you have brought the people out of Egypt you shall serve God on this mountain.”
The burning bush is, still today, a symbol to the Jews of survival and restoration, of God’s promise and His covenant with the people. It is a symbol of “something miraculous, unexpected, (and) new.”
Fast forward now to the time of Jesus. Conflict is alive and well. Luke 12:1-3 tells us, “There were present at that season some who told Him (Jesus) about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the sacrifices. And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
So, what’s Jesus saying? in Mr. Braverman’s words:
“Here, Jesus is teaching that an essential, perhaps necessary component of repentance is simply this: don’t think you’re special. And surely, this story is about repentance, in a very important, profound way. Because repentance is often mistaken for its pale, easy substitute – a guilt offering, for example, or a facile apology or empty resolution to do better next time or sin no more. But true repentance is about self-knowledge, intense self examination. And – and here we truly are in the preparation and build-up for Easter — it’s about hope, and it is about finding a new thing, and about knowing where to find it.”
Jesus goes on to tell the parable about a fig tree. In Luke 13:6-9, He says, “…A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. Then he said to the keeper of his vineyard, “Look, for three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why does it use up the ground?” “But he answered and said to him, “Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and fertilize it. And if it bears fruit, well. But if not, after that you can cut it down.””
Tending the tree and the earth – being a faithful steward of what God has given, will eventually bear fruit – even if that means we have to change what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. And, Jesus is teaching that to find the “new thing,” one must know where to look. We must examine if what we are doing, our work, is bearing fruit. If not, we must decide what we must leave behind so that we can move on to what is new and fruitful.
Returning again to Mr. Braverman’s words:
“These are prophetic times. As Walter Brueggemann tells us, the prophetic calls on us to acknowledge what has been broken, mourn for what has been lost, and yield ourselves up to the new thing that is being brought forth.
And that new thing is all humankind united in the fight for justice. The image of the fig tree – the promise of the burning bush – is of that unexpected unity. It is of a new thing shining forth, new growth growing out of what was barren. Bear fruit worthy of repentance! Says John the Baptist in the account recorded in Matthew chapter 3 – do you presume you are special because you can claim lineage from Abraham? For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
This is the fruit we must nurture – LOVE.
This is the prophetic that must unite us — Christian, Jew or Muslim is not important. It’s whether you are for triumphalism or community, for exploiting the poor or freeing them from poverty, for despoiling the earth or honoring and preserving it.
The churches in the U.S. are poised to fulfill this historic calling, as it has done before in recent history.
The words of Martin Luther King, writing from the Birmingham jail speak to us with an uncanny resonance today:
There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. The judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
As do the words of that Jewish teacher and prophet of long ago, entering a Jerusalem that bears an uncanny resemblance to the troubled city of today:
As Jesus was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:37-40)
I find how Jesus expresses himself at that moment so powerful – whether praise or protest, you cannot suppress the cry of strong feeling. And what was the praise about, after all? It was the spontaneous response of an oppressed, occupied people – a cry of love, adoration, and sheer joy for the miracle of Jesus’ ministry – his power to heal, to inspire, to lead. It’s a wonderful moment, and so captures Jesus in his idiom, his unstoppable response to the stifling, spirit-killing, life-denying voice of established authority. “You can’t stop this!” he is saying. “Nature itself, even these seeming inert stones, resonate with the joy and life force emanating from these people.”
It is time for us to do this shouting. God loves this shouting. This is the spirit that waters the tree of true repentance. This is the life force, the patient, unstoppable spirit that strengthens our communities, our places of worship and our families, that nourishes our very souls.
Let us shout…Let us allow God’s Holy Spirit to so change us that, through Him, our own lives, our families, our places of worship, indeed, our communities are strengthened and united to His Glory.”
There is no doubt that we live in a time of conflict. This is nothing new. As we have seen, conflict has been around since the dawn of man. And much of our conflict is rooted in differences in belief.
If we are to survive, and thrive, and live the lives that God intends – lives of Love and Peace – we must learn to put our differences aside. We must embrace Paul’s statement, “…there is no distinction between Jew and Greek…” People of all nations and of all faiths must Unite For Peace. As we who identify as Christians prepare to celebrate the cornerstone of our faith – Easter – we would do well to remember, embrace, and truly live the principles taught us by He whose life, teaching, death, and resurrection we are celebrating – our Lord, Jesus Christ. May the Spirit of God give us the wisdom, patience, and courage necessary to Unite For Peace; in Jesus’ name. Amen.
- Deuteronomy 26:3
- Romans 10:11-13
- Genesis 15:18
- Luke 13:31-32
- Exodus 3:1-2
- Luke 13:1-3
- Luke 13:6-8
- Luke 19:37-40
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