A Sermon for Covenant
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
February 23, 2013
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
At one of our retreats here at Covenant, we gathered around in a circle, and sort of pretended to be Quakers, the way we sort of pretend to be Franciscans at some of our other ones. In this instance, we were gathering for a full hour of silence, which is the way Quakers gather every week. Before we began, Gordon and Jeanene explained the way it was going to work. How you were only to speak if the Spirit of God prompted you to speak. How you should not go into the hour thinking you would speak, nor should you go into it thinking you would not speak. You entered it wide open, no preset predictions. When someone else spoke, you listened. You did not interrupt; you did not react. You only listened. You did not look directly at the person who was speaking. You looked elsewhere as a symbol of the fact that you believe the words they were speaking came from Elsewhere, from Spirit, from On High.
I spend a lot of time in silence by myself, but I anxiously wondered if it would feel strange, if it would feel like forever, to be so quiet with a group of people. It ended up being a profound experience for me. That was about a year and a half ago, I believe. I can still tell you which handful people spoke for a minute into the silence, and in some cases I could even tell you what they said.
I did not speak, but I did have a couple of thoughts that came to me unbidden during that time.
One thought was: Wow, if I were Quaker, Sunday mornings would be so much easier. No planning, no preaching. I wonder if I can talk the church into becoming Quaker.
But the second thought, which took me by surprise, but came to me clear as day was: Only a Quaker could become a pacifist.
Now I knew that this statement didn’t actually mean Quakers are the only people in the world who are pacifists. But sitting there Quaker-style receiving openly in silence whatever people offered made me realize that only someone who practices acceptance and open reception with intentionality and regularity could ever grow a pacifist heart.
Conceptually, I’ve long been a wannabe pacifist. My heart wishes pacifism was the answer, but my head can always come up with an exception where an act of violence seems called for. I think we would all agree we live in a world with way, way too much violence. But nearly all of us could think of at least one example where a violent act could be an appropriate response or a necessary evil in preventing further violence: stopping Hitler, for example, or protecting a child whose safety is being threatened.
But I’m not so sure anymore that pacifism is about the rationale for what we would do in a hypothetical situation so much as it is a condition of the heart to which we aspire. I recently read Parker Palmer describe himself as a would-be pacifist, and I thought, yes, me too! (And wouldn’t you know, Parker Palmer is a Quaker?) It seems pacifism, or, the capacity to respond nonviolently, is less of an intellectual position than it is a state of being to which one aspires but likely fails. It isn’t a stance you take or don’t take in your mind, weighing it rationally against just war theory or other theories.
For one thing, Jesus’ choices weren’t always rational, were there? He chose children and lepers and outcasts for companions; he picked a cross over a throne. It wasn’t the best logic, but it was the best of love the world had ever known.
Pacifism is a startling God-given aptitude for kindness in the face of horror that one can only grow authentically over the course of a lifetime. It is creativity in response to desperate times that only something Holy can evoke.
Jesus says love your enemies, turn the other cheek, if someone sues you for your shirt, give them your coat too, and I don’t think this is mere hyperbole. I think its Gospel truth, but truth that comes in the form of a pill too big to swallow the first time around. It is not the sort of thing a spoon full of sugar will help go down. It is something that gets down past your defenses one little jolt at a time, like a long elevator ride that stops at every floor, letting more bitterness out, letting more messengers of mercy in. This is not the kind of thing you can explain in an essay. It is the kind of advice you only begin to unwrap as you live a life of radical grace-giving.
Now, something I care deeply about is battered women and children, and I know you care too, so I think that whatever interpretation of a Scripture we arrive at, it has to be something we could say to a battered woman. Whatever definition you give to “turn the other cheek,” could you say it to a child with a bruised eye or a woman with a broken arm?
I am not talking about twisting Scripture to make it accommodate our sensibilities. I am saying, looking in the eye of an oppressed person when you read the Bible is a good, solid exegetical tool that is as Jesusy as interpretation gets. Jesus was always putting people ahead of the rules, ahead of the Sabbath, ahead of religious taboos. Healing and deliverance were his trump cards; love over law, every time.
So as we engage the painstaking, life-long task of interpreting Scripture and following Jesus, we keep the suffering children in our hearts and know that discernment is required. That allowing the innocent to be slaughtered isn’t what pacifism or Jesus is about. Rather, we ask ourselves, what in our lives deserves protecting? Is there a nonviolent way to protect it? Can I keep love in my heart even towards those to whom I must stand against? None of the questions gets answered easily, but the asking of them is the first step.
And finally, it is often said that we are our own worst enemies. We are always sabotaging ourselves, are we not? Inhibiting our best work, blocking our joy, holding back our vibrancy, either from laziness or selfishness or poor stewardship of our time? So, what would it mean to love the enemy inside of you? Instead of shaming yourself for what you do not like about you, what if you took a long, compassionate look at all your grotesque parts and whispered gently over them, “I love you. I see you. I hear you. We’re going to figure this out together, okay?” Maybe there is so much war in the world because we are all at war in our souls. Maybe pacifism is first and foremost an inside job. Maybe it is in solitude where we first begin to learn peace-making. Maybe the contemplative journey of harmonizing the inner life is where we start the outward journey towards a peaceful earth, befriending what you used to be ashamed of in here is the gateway to relating better to the strangers you meet out there. Instead of shouting at your insecurities and fears to go away, try holding hands with them, and see if they grow friendlier towards you. Wouldn’t it be simpler to love your neighbor if there were less hostility and competition waging war within your own person?
I don’t know about you, but if I close my eyes, I can picture the faces of people I know who are a challenge to my capacity for mercy. There are a few people in my life that I don’t know how to love, and I can tell you I’m not going to have it figured out by tomorrow, and certainly not by the end of this sermon. But I can also tell you that I’m going to walk down the path of love and not the path of hate. If it takes me my whole life and then some to figure out how to love the people who wound me, well then, I guess we know one of the ways I’ll be spending a life, and that’s learning how to love.
One of the things I’ve learned so far is that you don’t have to let people hurt you; that sometimes love is tough and sometimes love says no. Turning the other cheek doesn’t mean you take abuse; it means you don’t hit back. The typical reaction is to take an eye for an eye, but the Jesus way is not to retaliate. The typical reaction is to demonize the one who struck you; the Jesus way is to turn your head and look them in the eye and remember they are human.
It gets a little confusing to watch Jesus die, because sometimes it seems like we are meant to be martyrs, allowing ourselves be slaughtered and our best selves to be sabotaged. But we must remember the resurrection. Jesus didn’t stay dead. The Christian message isn’t one of defeat or death or doormats. The Christian message is one of victory, life, and power, though you come to it in counterintuitive ways, through grace and mercy, acceptance and rest, rather than battle and competition, striving and perfection. Jesus did not, for so much as a second, give up in the face of evil; he was only ever giving in to the power of love.
I think, for the most part, the church is a group of wannabe pacifists who still spend their days swinging their fists at their enemies, at their neighbors, and at their own imperfections. For you and I, peace is still just a tiny seed we’ve planted and continue to water. The hour of worship is where we come to look for its budding and fertilize its soil. I just can’t imagine how it is that I’m ever going to look anything like Jesus, but sometimes when I am here, I watch your kindness and am reminded, by golly, we are on our way to holiness after all.
May we dare to try it: loving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, going the second mile. May we be about these wild and radical Jesusy things: The refusal to retaliate. The gumption to look a madman in the eye and look for the remnant of his soul that remains. The audacity to be generous. The courage to let our fear of the other drain away. The capacity to get creative instead of mean when things get ugly. The miracle of holding hands with people we have a hard time believing belong in our circle.
As for embodying the radical, unrealistic but made-real-in-Jesus-Christ love of God: I don’t think we are ever going to get there, ever going to replicate it with precision, but we are going to forge a way towards it, and we are going to make many, many friends along the way, and we are going to die grateful that we brushed up against a thing so beautiful as love even in this war-torn lifetime. Amen.