Sermons
Home Sermons “So far as it depends on you…”

“So far as it depends on you…”

Date: December 8, 2020/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Romans 12:14-21

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) officially became a denomination in 1968.  I’m not sure[1] what prompted the desire in the 1960s to formalize our structure with a constitution and by-laws (what we call the Design), but it was a process that involved a lot of discussion and prayer, and at least a certain amount of conflict.

How would we structure ourselves as a denomination?  Would the denomination own our buildings and require us to pay a per-capita assessment—a set amount for each member on our rolls?

Some people thought that’s how it was going to be.  Other denominations work that way, so there were folks out there scaring congregations:  “You had better sever ties with the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) now, or the denomination will take your building.”  And many congregations did leave, choosing not to join the restructured Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and this fear over losing the building was one of the reasons.

Now it turns out that our General or Regional churches have no desire to own all our buildings (although I know of at least one exception in the Upper Midwest Region, where the Region had taken ownership of a church building back in the 1920s, when there was a not-unrealistic concern about the Ku Klux Klan coming in and taking over the church).

We might be a denomination, but we’re not that kind of denomination.  We operate under congregational polity, which simply means that, while we do come together as Regional and General church to do ministries that no single congregation can do on its own, all authority over the property, life, and governance of a congregation lies with the congregation itself.  The Region or the General church, headquartered in Indianapolis, may take a position on a political or social issue, or what have you, but there’s nobody who has the power to force us to agree with that position.

(The only real exception to this has to do with the standing of our ordained and commissioned ministers—and that’s because we learned the hard way that this really needed to be standardized and supervised denomination-wide.  You may remember the incident that taught us this:  The People’s Temple, which ultimately relocated to Guyana in South America and then the leader and many of the members died by mass suicide, was at one point a Disciples church, and the leader, Jim Jones, had been recognized as a Disciples pastor.  At the time of the murder-mass suicide event, Jim Jones’ standing was under review by the southern California Region, but no decision had been made.  That shocked us into realizing we needed some consistent policies and criteria across the whole denomination, in the hopes of not having history ever repeat itself.)

During the Restructure process, one question that was up for discussion was whether the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) would be a peace church.  What that would do is make it possible for Disciples to register as conscientious objectors during wartime, because they belonged to a church that didn’t believe Christians should fight in wars.  It would have put us in the same category as the Quakers, Mennonites, and Church of the Brethren.

And this was happening around the time the war in Vietnam was really ramping up.

My driver’s ed teacher when I was in high school had been raised Mennonite, and when he was drafted in the early 1970s he was assigned an “alternative service”—in his case, working in a veterans’ hospital in central Kansas.  If we were officially a peace church, Disciples would have been able to be given alternative service like that, too, without having to jump through the hoops that a person who didn’t belong to a peace church might need to jump through in order to be recognized as a conscientious objector.

The trouble is, our church culture doesn’t allow for pronouncements from on high that Disciples should not serve in the military.  Many Disciples, including some of us in this room, have served, and I sort of feel like becoming a peace church after we were in existence as a brotherhood—if not a denomination—for over a century and a half is like changing horses in mid-stream, and could even be seen by some as disrespectful to those who have served.

As it turns out, the folks who were working on the Design and how we would restructure ourselves chose not to make the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) an official peace church.  Given our polity and our personality as a church, I think it was the right decision.

But does the fact that we are not officially designated a peace church mean we don’t care about peace?  Well, of course not, and I would imagine that folks who have served in the military during armed conflicts may desire peace even more than the general public.

The longtime, and much-loved, senator from Oregon Mark Hatfield, then a Lieutenant in the United States Navy, was one of the first Americans to enter Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped there.  He saw the devastation firsthand, including horrific injuries among those who had somehow survived.  For the rest of his life Mark Hatfield was passionate in his opposition to war.  He’d seen firsthand the horrors it unleashes.

(The argument has been raging since 1945 about whether or not it was necessary to drop two atomic bombs on Japan—did it bring about the end of World War II in the Pacific much sooner than it would have ended otherwise, or should we have avoided unleashing that force on the world?  Historians will probably continue to debate that question as long as there are historians.  And I don’t think it’s quite as black-and-white as that.  I don’t have any idea where Senator Hatfield would have come down on the question, but I know that having been on the ground in Hiroshima shaped him and the work he did throughout his life.[2])

We want peace—in our homes, in our communities, in our churches, in our nation and in our world—but peace is elusive.

The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland really got going in the early 1970s (although they have roots much, much further back than that).  At this time the fight was framed as between Catholics and Protestants—but there was a great deal more to it than religion.  Finally people from both sides of the conflict—if I remember correctly it began with Catholic and Protestant women, mothers—decided they’d had enough, and peace talks started.  Ultimately there was an agreement, overwhelmingly approved by citizens both of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the Troubles came to an end…officially, at least…in the late 1990s.

But there was a small minority that did not support the agreement.  They wanted to keep fighting until the North was reunited with the Republic as “a nation once again,” as the song says.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call some of these folks terrorists, particularly those who identified with the “Real Irish Republican Army.”

They continued some of the tactics the IRA had used before renouncing violence during the peace process, including setting off bombs that killed innocent people just trying to live their lives, like in the town of Omagh, where a Real IRA bomb killed a huge number of people, including a year-old child and a pregnant woman.

Peace is precious, and so very elusive.  Yet Paul, and Jesus himself, call on us to live in peace.  Don’t return evil for evil, both of them say.  Don’t take revenge when you’re wronged; leave that to God.  Love your enemies.  Overcome evil with good.

Is any of that even remotely possible?  Is it realistic, given the world we live in?

Surely Jesus and Paul lived in times when it was easier to live in peace.  Really?  Are you kidding?

They were residents of occupied territory in the Roman Empire, and Rome was never exactly a peaceable kingdom.  Rome ostensibly did business by the rule of law—in fact, Roman law forms the basis for the system of laws in most of the western world—but it was not a rule of law that kept them from violently conquering territory and putting down any opposition to their presence, oppressing minorities, levying punishing taxes, and even glorifying violence-as-entertainment.

By the time the four Gospels came into existence as we have them. Rome had responded to a Jewish revolt by destroying the city of Jerusalem and the Temple there.  We cannot say Paul and Jesus lived in times when living at peace was easier.

But peace on a national, or empire-wide, level isn’t necessarily what Paul and Jesus were urging on their brothers and sisters and followers.  Although Paul was a Roman citizen by birth, neither he nor Jesus would have been able to effect political change in the Roman Empire or any of its territories.  They did not have that power and there was no real chance of them acquiring it.  (Well, Jesus was tempted by the devil with that kind of power, and he could have taken it as the Son of God, but he said no.)

What can we do with their instruction to live in peace, then, in this time and place where we’re not an oppressed minority, and we can become powerful, even politically?  That’s sort of the question before us this morning, the Second Sunday of Advent, when our focus is peace.

Paul is speaking to a church community that may well have had some conflict in progress.  Any time you have a group of people get together, there’s going to be differences of opinion, clashes of personality, arguments, even power struggles.

Unlike in the letters to the Corinthians, in this letter, Paul doesn’t mention outright that there are problems in the Roman church.  But scholars wonder if some of what Paul writes in the letter—most especially chapters 9—11, addressing the position of the Jewish people in God’s covenant that now is extended to Gentiles—is prompted by concerns he has about that church’s life.

Jews had been kicked out of Rome by the emperor Claudius (the same one who conquered Britain and made it part of the Roman Empire), and then after a time were allowed to return.  It’s possible that during the absence of Jewish Christians, Gentile Christians had begun to assert themselves in ways that caused trouble when the Jews returned, both Jewish Christians and Jews who weren’t Christian.  Perhaps they were espousing an early form of the extremely problematic Christian teaching known as supersessionism, which says God has nullified the covenant he made with the Jewish people, and made a new covenant with Christians that excluded the Jews.

It’s also possible that the church in Rome had more mundane concerns, ones that might be more familiar to us today:  how the church spends whatever money it has and who has the power to make that decision; whether any one person, group, or family should be the final authority on church business; how people can live together who have different—maybe even vastly different—opinions on matters of theology and practice; and so on.  Maybe the church had, like many churches nowadays, its share of people with insecurities, gossips, passive-aggressive people, and what on the internet are called “trolls,” folks who stir up trouble just to sit back and watch the show, along with lots of decent people who were doing the best they could.

It’s to churches like these that Paul speaks when he says, “So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  He’s talking about in the church and outside of it.

We may not have the ability to influence those who make decisions about whether our country will make war on another.  (I would argue, though, that in a democratic society, we should make our voices heard, without violence, in whatever way we can, whether that’s making phone calls, protesting, writing letters to elected leaders, and voting.  But we have to know that our elected leaders and their advisors are going to make the final decision.  After all, that’s what we elected them to do—and when it comes to matters of national security, our leaders inevitably know things about the issues facing our country that we cannot know.)

But we can seek peace in the spaces we occupy.  We can refuse to retaliate when someone does us wrong.  We can try to do good even to those who are not doing us good.  We can decline to show up to every argument we’re invited to.

When all’s said and done, there is one person each of us can cause to live in peace:  ourselves.  And perhaps, if enough of us commit to living in peace as far as it depends on us, we may get a little bit closer, at least, to the Peaceable Kingdom Jesus, the Prophets, and so much of the Bible point toward.

As the song says,  “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.[3]


[1] No doubt the answer can be found in one of the excellent histories of our church that have been written over the years; I just didn’t have access to them at the time I was writing this.

[2] There are many sources on the internet where you can find out more about Senator Hatfield’s life and work.  One interesting one I found was the report on a roundtable discussion held at Hatfield’s alma mater, Willamette University, five years after his death.  It’s at https://willamette.edu/news/library/2016/01/hatfield-event.html.  I first heard about Sen. Hatfield’s experience at Hiroshima and how it shaped him from an interview with him on a Portland radio station in the mid-1990s.

[3] “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” by Sy Miller and Jill Jackson; ©1955, 1983, Jan-Lee Music.