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In the Face of Escalating Violence, Escalate Love

Sermon for Sunday, October 7, 2001 by Dr. James McGinnis



         As we sing “God Bless America” these days, there are five words that I pray we hear and pray with conviction – “… stand beside her and guide her through the night WITH THE LIGHT FROM ABOVE…”  During this long “night” of suffering and searching, it is God’s light from above that we desperately need as individuals and as a nation.  And how does God give us this light?  Historically for Christians, God’s light has come primarily through the Hebrew prophets culminating in the person of Jesus, and then through those who are empowered to help us interpret the message of Jesus.  It behooves us, then, to read these prophetic books and the Gospels carefully and prayerfully.  It is no “coincidence” that today’s Scriptures should speak to our situation as a nation in such a “prophetic” way.


         Recalling God’s chilling words through the prophet Ezekiel, I have to speak these Scriptures to you today.  For in Ezekiel 33: 1-6, we read that God appoints sentries or sentinels to keep watch in case the enemy comes.  “If the sentry sees the sword coming and sounds the trumpet and warns the people, but the people pay no attention and the sword overtakes and kills them, I will hold them responsible for their own death.  But if the sentry sees the sword coming and does not sound the trumpet and thus the people are not warned and the sword overtakes and kills them, I will hold the sentry responsible for their death.  Behold, I appoint you sentry for my people.”


“Behold, I appoint you sentry for my people”


         Since I do sense that a “sword” is coming, I am compelled to read and reflect with you on today’s Word of God.  For as we heard in Paul’s Letter to Timothy, “God did not send us a Spirit of timidity but a Spirit of power and love and self-control, so don’t be afraid to speak for our Lord” (2 Timothy 1: 7-8).  In the Psalm for this morning, we also heard: “Bow down and worship the Lord our Creator!  The Lord is our God… And if today you should hear God’s voice, harden not your heart” (Psalm 95: 1-2, 6-9).


         The voice or word of God that we are asked to meditate on this morning is especially from the prophet Habakkuk.  When I opened this three-chapter book earlier this week in preparation for these reflections, I was touched deeply by its entirety, much of which I would like to read to you now:


         “I am Habakkuk the prophet.  And this is the message that the Lord gave me.  Our Lord, how long must I beg for your help before you listen?  How long before you save us from all this violence?  Why do you make me watch such terrible injustice?  Why do you allow violence, lawlessness, crime, and cruelty to spread everywhere? (1: 1-3)


         “Holy Lord God, mighty rock, you are eternal, and we are safe from death.  You are using those Babylonians to judge and punish others.  But you can’t stand sin or wrong.  So don’t sit by in silence while they gobble down people who are better than they are…”  (1: 12-13)


         “While standing guard on the watchtower, I waited for the Lord’s answer… Then the Lord told me: ‘I will give you my message in the form of a vision.  Write it clearly enough to be read at a glance… I, the Lord, refuse to accept anyone who is proud.  Only those who live by faith are acceptable to me…’” (2: 1, 2, 4).


         “’You’re doomed!  You stored up stolen goods and cheated others of what belonged to them… You robbed cities and nations everywhere on earth and murdered their people.  Now those who survived will be as cruel to you.  You’re doomed!  You made your family rich at the expense of others.  You even said to yourself, “I’m above the law” … You’re doomed!  You built a city on crime and violence.  But the Lord All-Powerful sends up in flames what nations and people work so hard to gain…   You destroyed trees and animals on Mount Lebanon; you were ruthless to towns and people everywhere.  Now you will be terrorized.  What is an idol worth?  It’s merely a false god… What can you learn from idols covered with silver or gold?  They can’t even breathe.  Pity anyone who says to an idol of wood or stone, ‘Get up and do something!’ (2: 6, 8-9, 12-13, 17-19).


         [Habakkuk’s prayer] “This is my prayer: I know your reputation, Lord, and I am amazed at what you have done.  Please turn from your anger and be merciful; do for us what you did for our ancestors…When I heard this message, I felt weak from fear, and my lips quivered.  My bones seemed to melt, and I stumbled around.  But I will patiently wait.  Someday those vicious enemies will be struck by disaster.  Fig trees may no longer bloom or vineyards produce grapes; olive trees may be fruitless and harvest time a failure; sheep pens may be empty and cattle stalls vacant – but I will still celebrate because the Lord God saves me.  The Lord gives me strength.  God makes my feet as sure as those of a deer and helps me stand on the mountains…” (3:1-2, 16-19)


         These prophetic words raise many questions and challenges.  In terms of the questions – Do we as a nation bear any responsibility for the roots of the violence that assaulted us on September 11?  Is there any way we can deal effectively with terrorism if we don’t consider its roots, the sense of oppression from which it arises?  Have we strayed as a nation into idolatry? Have we placed our hopes and given our allegiance to global capitalism and military might?  What could God be inviting us to learn from the events of September 11 and beyond? 


What could God be inviting us to learn…?


         In terms of challenges, first, this is, as our President put it, “a war between good and evil.”  But I think that the war is being waged within this nation and even within our very souls.  The spirit of good – as illustrated in the incredible love of those rescue workers who gave their lives on September 11 – is at war with the spirit of evil.  The spirit of hate hit the World Trade Towers on September 11, but the spirit of love responded.  Now this spirit of evil and hate wants us to sink to the level of the terrorists and retaliate in kind and worse.  The challenge before each of us is not to sink to this level but stay at the level of love shown by those rescuers and to challenge our nation’s decision-makers to bring the terrorists to justice without sinking to their level.


         The second challenge that these prophets raise for us this morning is our own prophetic role in sharing the Word of God with those to whom we are sent.  Each of us individually and our Church community as a whole has a prophetic responsibility.  If we don’t share this Word of God, who will?  If we don’t ask these hard questions, who will?  If we don’t offer a different perspective, who will?


         The third challenge God raises through the prophet Habakkuk is to write our vision clearly so that those who see it can run with it.  When the Gulf War broke out in January 1991, peace activists in St. Louis gathered at Christ Church Cathedral to search together for how to respond.  After a while, I felt the need to be alone with God and begin to walk the streets of downtown St. Louis, pleading with God to help me know how to respond.  Within minutes these words were on my heart – “In the face of escalating violence, escalate love!”  They were so clear to me.  And soon the image of a scale with two trays came to me.  One tray held the boulders of violence – war, terrorism, domestic violence, racism and other forms of hate violence, media violence, etc.  The other tray was full of tiny pebbles of love – smiles, kind words, all kinds of random acts of kindness, acts of forgiveness, etc.


         And so this morning, I offer you the Pledge of Nonviolence as a way of escalating love in our own time and place.  And on the back of this Pledge card, our Institute for Peace and Justice in St. Louis offers you this suggestion for action:

“As we urge our government to address terrorism with restraint and its roots with integrity, we can address it personally as well.  The spirit of violence can only be overcome by a spirit of love.  The Pledge of Nonviolence gives us a concrete way of overcoming the evil spirit behind the deeds of September 11 and any acts of revenge being considered in response.  Jesus weeps over our world today just as he did over his city of peace –“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only today you know the things that make for peace” – pleading with each of us to do the tings that make for peace.  We can start with these—


Respect.  In the face of escalating words of hate, we can escalate our words of kindness toward others.


Listening.  In the face of escalating anger, we can escalate our willingness to listen non-defensively and not respond in kind.


Forgiveness.  In the face of escalating cries for revenge, we can escalate our willingness to forgive others who have hurt us.


Courage.  In the face of escalating acts of hate directed at Muslim and Arab people, we can escalate our courage and stand by them.  We can pray with them daily and especially on Fridays.  And in the fact of escalating cries for war, we can courageously and lovingly offer a different perspective.”

“The spirit of violence can only be overcome by the spirit of love”


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