Living in Exile

A sermon delivered on May 8, 2011, at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, by Christopher L. Webber. [Note: this sermon was delivered from a chair in the center aisle and not from the pulpit.]

Late last Sunday or Monday morning most of us heard of the death of Osama bin Laden and I’ve been wondering ever since whether it would be possible to say something useful about it this morning.  Is there something to reflect on, to learn from, or is it too emotional, too divisive? If I were smart, I would probably leave it alone, but I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between faith and social issues so I want to give it a try, but not from the pulpit – six feet above contradiction – but low key and undogmatic: and simply offer an opinion – I hope, a Christian opinion – but not the last word on the subject, maybe only the first word of what might be a constructive conversation.

The announcement of bin Laden’s death made me think of the day when we heard that Japan had surrendered and WW II was over – some of you won’t remember! But I remember going over to the church and helping ring the church bell. I remembered it, but I thought to myself, No, this is not the same.  This is different.  It’s not the end of a war. No one has surrendered.  Nothing is over.  Not much is even changed. Americans can’t help feeling a sense of relief, of renewed hope for peace, but I had the feeling that a lot of the cheering was premature.

I found other words coming to mind: I remembered how John Donne had written, “Every man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind.” And I thought it might be worth trying to think that through and trying, if it is possible, to think about bin Laden’s death not as Americans but as Christians. I wondered whether that would even be possible, especially at a time of high emotion.  But let’s give it a try.  The epistle gives us a text: “Live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.”  Let’s think about that.

Can we agree first of all that there is a difference between being an American and being a Christian? Well, they can’t be identical because St Paul wasn’t an American nor was St Peter nor St Francis nor most Christians through most of time. Most Christians today aren’t Americans.  So I think you can be a Christian without being an American and you can certainly be an American without being a Christian. They aren’t the same thing, and that’s why the founding fathers wrote a constitution that keeps church and state separate. One great advantage of that is that it gives us as a church, as Christians, the freedom to be critical, to hold up a higher standard for our country and say, “We can do better; we ought to do better.”

Part of our history is the story of how we have worked at doing better and have done better in many ways. The Constitution established slavery but a good many Christians waged a long campaign against slavery and finally fought a bloody war that ended it and changed the Constitution. The Constitution was written for an agricultural society and over the next century we became an industrial society, but the Constitution did nothing to control economic exploitation.  Small children used to work 12 hour days in factories and there were no pensions or social security plans, but Christians have worked with others to change that and to establish some level of economic security.

That’s just two examples.  The country the founders left behind wasn’t perfect but neither was it set in stone as beyond change. So we have that freedom to change and improve and we have continued to do that.  This is a wonderful country but it’s not perfect and it’s vital that we remember that and ask ourselves always as American Christians: Can I support, endorse, be comfortable with this, that, or the other aspect of our life in view of my commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord?

There’s an old, old document, maybe from the early second century, called the Epistle to Diognetus that says of Christians “every foreign land is for them a fatherland and every fatherland a foreign land.” In other words, Christians are at home everywhere – and nowhere. A missionary can grow up in Kansas and go to live in the Congo because he or she thinks of heaven as their true and final home and they are no further away from their true home in the Congo than in Kansas.  Every foreign land is a fatherland and at the same time every fatherland is a foreign land.  Heaven is our home and even the United States is not heaven. In heaven, the Bible says, God will wipe away all tears from our eyes but that doesn’t happen here, there’s grief and anger and injustice and unnecessary suffering and not all the tears are wiped away.

We are in exile from our true home.  We live in a world with enormous evil in it, war and suffering, poverty, hunger.  We try to alter it and alleviate it. We bring food to the altar every Sunday for those who are hungry and we pray every week for those who are sick and we pray for those serving in the armed forces. In heaven I don’t expect to find food pantries or hospitals or armed forces. Some would say that there shouldn’t be any here; that no one should have to go to a food pantry and that Christians should never be required to participate in war. Quakers and others, including a good many Episcopalians, are pacifists and refuse to fight for their country. Mahatma Ghandi, one of the great leaders of the 20th century, believed it was always wrong to fight against evil – even Hitler’s Germany.

Jesus said, “Resist not evil,” “turn the other cheek.”  St Paul said, “Overcome evil with good.” So how can you take up arms and kill for the sake of peace? That’s a hard question to answer. The majority of Christians, including me, have always felt that it can be necessary to use violence for the sake of peace, that there can be a just war, and that using force against a Hitler or Stalin or bin Laden can be justified for the greater good, but always reluctantly and cautiously and with fear and trembling and awareness that we may be wrong to do it.  We need to tell ourselves that, at the last day, the king might say to us, “Did you really believe that my followers could kill another human being, made in my image? Is that all the crucifixion meant to you?”

As I said, I have never been able to take a pacifist position myself but I certainly understand and honor those who do. But one way or another Christians, I think, bring a distinct set of beliefs to political and national decisions. And pacifist or not, I think we can never be completely comfortable with the use of military force and simply cheer for our side without recognizing that our side may be wrong and that our side is attempting to use evil means for good ends. I think that’s part of what made me uncomfortable with the reaction of so many last week, the cheers and the shouts as if it were a football game. People died last week end.  I think they were not good people and I don’t know how else we could deal with the threat they posed to peace and the real danger that they would continue to kill unless they were stopped by force. But these, too, were children of God, made in the image of God. I think that’s why John Donne’s words apply: “Every man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” We share a common humanity.  We ourselves are not perfect examples of God’s image and Isama bin Laden was very far from it, but the image of God was in him also, however distorted and twisted and it’s appropriate to grieve when God’s image is destroyed. Think how much good that man might have done with his abilities and his deep commitment. That’s the tragedy of this week’s news: The sadness of what might have been.

There’s an old story told in the Eastern Orthodox Church of how Judas after leaving the Last Supper to betray Jesus and accomplishing the crucifixion fell into a darkness, a deep dark hole, fell for century after century, deeper and deeper but finally came to the bottom and looked up and saw a distant, barely visible point of light, and he began to climb, slowly and painfully. Century after century he climbed toward that light and at long last pulled himself back up into the light and found himself back at the Last Supper with Jesus still at the table with the other disciples. And Jesus said to him, “Welcome back; we’ve been waiting for you.”

Is that possible?  Is there forgiveness for Judas – and Hitler and Osama bin Laden?  Is there no limit to God’s mercy? I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m reluctant to say that God’s mercy has limits, that there can never be forgiveness. Humanly it may well be impossible.  I can’t imagine Hitler or bin Laden wanting to live eternally knowing the suffering they caused but I can’t see it as God does and I have to accept that God doesn’t see things as I do.  So this is an event that confronts us with basic, complicated issues and where Christians may well have deep and honest disagreements.  In this place of exile, there are no easy answers.

I want to say something also about the word justice.  The president used that word and so did lots of others: “justice has been done.”  But the Bible seldom speaks about justice; it speaks of righteousness; God is righteous. God is likelier to repay evil with good than with more evil and St Paul challenges us as followers of Jesus to do the same. “Render to no one evil for evil,” St Paul said. Justice, in other words, is not the ultimate goal.  There’s a gap between God’s way and ours, and we may not see how to get from where we are to where we ought to be but I think we need to remember that we’re not there yet, that the Bible holds up a vision of something more than justice.  We may have to settle for justice in this world but we can never be satisfied with justice as the final goal.

We need to ask also what the difference is in this case between justice and revenge? The Old Testament, in an early book, calls for “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  That’s justice, but someone has said that the world of an eye for an eye is a world where everyone is blind.  Certainly it wasn’t Jesus’ message.  I think we all know how in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus quoted that very passage of scripture and overruled it saying, “I say to you, Love your enemy, do good to those who hate you, and if someone smites you on the one cheek turn the other also.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.”  No sooner was bin Laden dead than we were warned there could be retaliation and we should be prepared. Nothing has been settled. Justice seldom settles anything.

The book of Proverbs teaches, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when your enemy stumbles.” (Proverbs 24:17) That’s hard, isn’t it?  It’s been very hard this last week. But in the midst of the celebration it may be useful to remember that God in mercy has called us to let those around us see something of the goodness and love and mercy and compassion that God has given us.  We may live in exile, in a world of anger and revenge and violence and justice but we are given a vision of our true home, another world, and need to remember that however satisfied we may be as Americans, we can’t be satisfied as Christians. We are in exile here; not completely at home. We are called to a different vision, called not to be satisfied with things as they are but to make a difference as Christians have always done through the centuries and as we need to continue to do, responding to God’s love for us.

Let us pray:  O God, the Creator of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.     (Prayer for our Enemies, The Book of Common Prayer)

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