Thursday, March 27, 2003


WE SEEK A BETTER COUNTRY

Last Sunday's sermon might seem, at first blush, to be avoiding the issue of right or wrong regarding the Iraq war. Actually, it is an implied slam on the deepest heresy working within American Christianity--the idea that "God blesses America." This heresy is at work in every nation, but it does its worst damage in militarily powerful ones, for obvious reasons. Its sources go all the way back to the Emperor Constantine, who, about the year 315 AD, told his soldiers to put the Holy Cross on their battle shields, and "by this sign, conquer." God does conquer by the power of the Cross, but calling on its power to commit mass homocide is an obscenity whose horror we cannot grasp because we have grown used to it over 1700 years.

b>THE ROAD BEFORE US

Genesis 12: 1-5; Hebrews 11: 13-16

March 23, 2003

Rev. Steve Harvester

It seems like a long time since last Sunday, when war was still a possibility and not a present reality. I chose the sermon title, “The Road Before Us,” a month ago. It has a new meaning now, and contains a new question. As our soldiers move up the road to Baghdad, what other roads are before us as a people? Where is the road taking us, and where will it end?

When we ask this question of our political leaders, they will answer in terms of politics. They will talk about what this means for the future of the Middle East, the battle against terrorism, or the role of the United Nations in global affairs. “Where is this road taking us,” you ask, and they assume the “us” you are talking about is “us Americans,” or “us people of the world.”

When you bring your question to the Bible, however, you discover that the Bible has a different “us” in mind. The Bible is the roadmap for the citizens of an international kingdom, the kingdom of God.

The new “us,” the new people, gets its start about 4,000 years ago, with the encounter we read about today. Abram and Sarai are told to take a new road, “to a land I will show you,” says God. That’s all the description they get. They set out together, and as Paul would point out thousands of years later, what made them the parents of a great nation was not circumcision, but faith. Abram became Abraham, and Sarai became Sarah. They arrived at the Promised Land—but it was owned by other people. “Don’t worry,” God said. “I am giving this land to you—in my own time, in my own way.” So Abraham set up a pile of rocks on the land God said was his. His descendents came back with Joshua to claim it—about 500 years later. The new people, the new “us,” is a people who don’t always have any earthly country at all. What makes us a people is our faith.

The Sword in the Stone is a Disney movie about the young King Arthur, based on the novel The Once and Future King. In the book, Merlin, the great wizard, changes Arthur into a hawk. He tells him to fly high and far, then come back and report on what he sees. Arthur tells Merlin about many wonderful sights. Then Merlin asks, “What did you not see? What Arthur did not see, it turns out, is boundary lines. Merlin is helping the future king to understand that God made this world whole, undivided, and beautiful. No matter how distant, he is to keep that vision before him always: A world with no borders, no enemies, no wars.

There was a song playing on the radio at the time of the last Iraqi war. Bette Midler sang it. It was written by a woman as she gazed at photographs of the Earth, taken from a satellite in outer space. Perhaps you remember the lyrics. They go like this:

From a distance the world looks blue and green,And the snow-capped mountains whiteFrom a distance the ocean meets the stream,And the eagle takes to flightFrom a distance, there is harmony,And it echoes through the landIt's the voice of hope, it's the voice of peace,It's the voice of every manFrom a distance we all have enough,And no one is in needAnd there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,No hungry mouths to feedFrom a distance we are instrumentsMarching in a common bandPlaying songs of hope, playing songs of peaceThey're the songs of every manGod is watching us, God is watching usGod is watching us from a distanceFrom a distance you look like my friend,Even though we are at warFrom a distance I just cannot comprehendwhat all this fighting is forFrom a distance there is harmony,And it echoes through the landAnd it's the hope of hopes, it's the love of loves,it's the heart of every manIt's the hope of hopes, it's the love of lovesThis is the song of every manAnd God is watching us, God is watching us,God is watching us from a distanceOh, God is watching us, God is watchingGod is watching us from a distance

Like Abraham and Sarah, like young Arthur, we cannot imagine how, or when, this vision of a Promised Land, a new Eden flowing with milk and honey, will ever come to pass. We can’t visualize a course of history that will bring us to one world, no borders, no hunger or war or disease. What we can see is the road, the road before us. What the Letter to the Hebrews said 2,000 years ago is true for us, the people of faith all over the world who hear the words again today:

From Abel to Abraham to the present day, “All of these died in faith without having received the promises. But from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak this way must make it clear that they are seeking a homeland…They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11: 13-16).”

What is the road set before us? As Americans, we have to do our best to figure that out. We have to make the best choices, as voters and active citizens, to point our nation and the world towards a future of relatively more justice and relatively more peace. As the people of God, the road before us is longer, but it is the only road that leads us to the better country, the city God has prepared. In our doing the pragmatic jobs of daily life, let us never lose sight of that vision: our one, beautiful, unbroken world. Let us step onto the road together, in the Spirit of our Lord Jesus, hand in hand.

Friday, March 21, 2003

I DID NOT KILL IRAQIS YESTERDAY, AND I DID NOT DISRUPT TRAFFIC, EITHER

I recall when a liberation theology priest from Guatemala came to Boston University School of Theology in 1979, preaching justice and stating clearly that the chapel offering would go to fund the revolution. I said "No," and a fellow student informed me that "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." The solution, of course, was violent.

Yesterday, the forward outposts of the Iraqi Army were annihilated. Translation: we slaughtered some human beings who were shooting their little bullets at our tanks before being blown to shreds. Also yesterday, thousands of people snarled traffic in major cities, including Boston. In San Francisco, windows were smashed. In both cases, people were working for a "solution to the problem."

Yesterday, I got through the snarled traffic to be with a young mom who has just had a tumor removed from her brain. I touched her arm, but she did not wake up. I laid my hand on her arm and called on the power of the Holy Spirit to heal her, strengthen her, and grant her peace. I doubt that it showed up on her monitoring equipment. Then I drove home--total time, round trip, three hours.

How futile. How irrelevant. How "not part of the solution." And yet, the people of my church actually pay me to do such irrelevant things. They seem to think it is a good use of their money, and my time. They appear to be sane. Perhaps we see a different problem, and are working on another kind of solution.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

WHY I AM NOT PROTESTING--TODAY

I am not protesting--today. Today I am praying that President Bush was right all along, and that most of the rest of the world was wrong. I am praying that the Iraqui government will collapse, the Iraqui Army will surrender, the innocent will be spared, and democracy will bloom in the desert. I am praying.

If you read my sermon on "The New Creation," you know that I do not expect governments to operate in the spirit of agape. In fact, there is a limited but vital role to play for governments in God's plan to save the world by love. This is spelled out by Paul in Romans 13:1-- "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." Not surprisingly, this verse has been used by tyrants in every generation to demand unquestioning obedience to their every outrage. But read rightly, Romans 13 gives us a way to understand the different tasks of church and state.

The state does what those committed to agape cannot, will not do: "execute wrath on the wrongdoer" (Romans 13:4) and thus protect the innocent from violence. Those who serve God's will in this way are not to be reviled because they have refused the Way of agape. They are to be "honored", and taxes to support them must be paid. Jesus, and his followers for 300 years, never imagined that people would claim to be his disciples and try to run an empire in a violent world at the same time. Jesus thought that his people would be "the salt of the earth" (Matt. 5:13), infinitesmally small in number, but saving the whole as salt preserves fish. They would be "leaven in the loaf," a few tiny grains in a great lump of dough, but filled with a power that would raise all and create life in all. Jesus did not judge the many who refused him. Even on the cross he said, "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Jesus expected the great lump of the world to remain ignorant, and he loved them nevertheless. The lump of the world needs defense from evildoers.

The nations, therefore, have the God-ordained task of restraining the evildoer and protecting the innocent. Throughout history their tendency has been to go beyond that task to claim godlike status for themselves, pursuing their ends "by whatever means necessary." Since World War II those means have often resulted in the deaths of thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people, from the Japanese rape of Nanking, to the terror bombings of Guernica and Rotterdam, to the Holocaust, to the fire bombing of Dresden, to the nuclear annihilation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to My Lai in Vietnam, to the deaths by attrition over the last ten years in Iraq, after the destruction of that nation's ability to keep its children alive in 1991. Nations have a habit of going beyond "restraining the evildoer" to making their own ends the ultimate ethical value.

So I am not protesting--today. I am praying today that President Bush, a devout Christian, meant what he said last night: that every effort will be expended to save innocent lives, and that the United States will honor the limits of its role in God's plan for the world. May the evildoer be disarmed, and the innocent be not only spared, but freed from oppression. Oh God, let it be that your servant George W. Bush was right all along. For this world's sake I pray, amen.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003

A REAL PERSON IN BAGHDAD, AND A STORY OF RABBI JESUS

And one of them is telling us what it is like these days to live in Baghdad.. The theology of agape becomes so clear and right once one gets out of the head of being master strategist/politician and looks into the face of the "enemy," the human being created by God in all beauty and complexity and, perhaps by this time tomorrow, blown up into bloody shreds of meat on the sidewalk. Yesterday "Salam" (Arabic for "peace") was in a store when a young woman said goodbye in the traditional way: "See you tomorrow if God keeps us alive." Everyone stopped dead in their tracks. Then she laughed. "Oh, I didn't mean it that way!" They are trying to laugh, because of what we are getting ready to do.

There is a little-known story in the Gospel of Luke, not part of the lectionary and therefore never heard by those millions of Christians who go to church on Sunday but don't open up the Bible at home. It goes this way (Luke 9: 52-56):

"On their Way (the code in Luke for alerting the reader that "this story is about what it means to follow the Way of Jesus"),

they entered a village of Samaritans (not the "good Samaritan". Samaritans were hated by Jews, and vice versa, for reasons going back 800 years and too complex to explain here. That's why the story of the "good Samaritan" was so shocking. It would be the story of "the good Al-Quaeda" today) to make ready for (Jesus).

But they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem (they rejected him not for who he was, or for what he would have taught, but just because he was a Jew).

When the disciples James and John (nicknamed "Sons of Thunder") saw it, they said,

"Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"

But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village." Then comes this footnote:

"Other ancient authorities add, "You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of women and men, but to save them."

O Lamb of God, who faced and quenched even the fires of hell in perfect love, we do not know the spirit we are of. Save us, have mercy on us, teach us how to "save" our brothers and sisters without burning them. For you reign forever in peace, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

LIKE LAMBS WE ARE BEING SLAUGHTERED ALL DAY LONG

We will pray for a miracle these next 48 hours, that somehow the Lord will move the heart of Saddam Hussein to save his people from a horrific war. It has happened before: In 1962 we bragged that "we stood eyeball to eyeball with Kruschev, and he blinked." By blinking, and saving the war from nuclear war at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kruschev weakened his own political standing enormously. His action was noble, and I will always give thanks for him. Kruschev, like Hussein, was a ruthless man. We can, then, pray with hope for this miracle.

Meanwhile, what does it mean to be a Christian in the United States? Pretty much what it means to be a Christian anywhere else. Our Lord is Jesus, whatever spot on the planet we happen to occupy. And our mission, everywhere, is peace. St. Paul puts it this way (Romans 8: 35-36):

Who then, can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble, or hardship, or persecution, or hunger or poverty or danger or death? As scripture says,
"For your sake we are in danger of death at all times;
We are treated like sheep that are going to be slaughtered."

Please note that Paul takes it as a matter of course that Christians will be the slaughtered ones. They will not be the slaughterers. They will suffer trouble, hardship, persecution, hunger, poverty, danger, and death. They will not inflict trouble, hardship, persecution, hunger, poverty, danger and death on others. Their mission of agape, selfless love, will lead to suffering for themselves, not suffering for others.

And yet, they are to be joyful. Because none of these things can possibly separate them from the love of Christ.

"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors (literally, "super-conquerors", conquerors far more than military conquerors can imagine) through him who loves us. For I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities and powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below--there is nothing in all creation that will be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8: 38-39)

We owe the nation and the world our prayers right now. Let's get to it.


Sunday, March 16, 2003

NOW THIS IS HOW TO INVADE A COUNTRY

St. Patrick invaded pagan Ireland with an army of one. His victory was absolute, and his occupation in the Spirit of Jesus Christ continues after 1400 years. Here is the weaponry he took with him for the "Shock and Awe" attack:

PRAYER OF ST. PATRICK

The following prayer, which appears in various forms in countless sources, is generally ascribed to St. Patrick of Ireland.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgement Day.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the love of seraphim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In purity of holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today
God's power to guide me,
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to teach me,
God's eye to watch over me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's Word to give me speech,
God's hand to guide me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to shelter me,
God's host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of witches, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison,
Against burning,
Against drowning,
Against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me;
Christ to comfort and restore me;
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the name,
The strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word;
Praise to the God of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Today's sermon connects "The New Creation" with the question of who does the diapers and who does the dishes. I am, after all, a practical theologian.


TO SIT AT HIS FEET1 Peter 2: 9; Luke 10: 38-42
March 16, 2003
Rev. Steve Harvester

“In Christ we are a new creation.” That is our theme for Lent this year, and the theme of our Upper Room readings as we pray and read Holy Scripture together day by day. This day, we look at the story of Martha and Mary. It’s a tough one for many of us, especially many women who cook and clean every day of their lives. As the saying goes, “A woman’s work is never done—or appreciated, or paid for.” In what sense, if any, can this story point us towards becoming a new creation?
In the first place, recognize the fact that when the Bible says, “In Christ we are a new creation,” most of us do a little internal translation. We hear those words and ask, “How can I become a new creation? How can I reach my full potential? How can I achieve my personal best? How can I maximize my self-development? The byword of our culture is, “Be All You Can Be.”
I saw the fruit of this self-potential culture on display last week, at the Norwell High School Talent Show. It was wonderful! I couldn’t believe the level of talent on display: singers; dancers; baton twirlers; jazz musicians; classical musicians; even a bagpiper! The punk rock group I could have done without, but hey…the point is, these kids are developing their gifts and talents in marvelous ways, and we are all enriched by it. A lot of good comes out in a culture where we focus on helping each child achieve their personal best.
The Bible has a different point of view. The Bible understands that each of us is unique and beautiful, but that is only a secondary fact of life. The first fact is this: We were made to love each other. We were made to be in community together. In Christ we are a new creation, the people who find our self-fulfillment in mutual servanthood.
Did you read the Upper Room story for Wednesday? A pastor in Tennessee tells how a 93-year-old woman in his church lost her husband. He had an appointment he could not break, and so he asked a lifelong member of the church to visit her in his place and let her know he would be there that evening. The man explained the pastor’s dilemma and apologized for him. The woman looked up at her old friend and said, “Don’t worry. You’re better than the preacher. You’re the church.”
Pastors love stories like that. They love it when people show they understand that they are the church. The Tennessee pastor chose this text to go along with his story. It’s from First Peter: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” There is no longer a separate priesthood, going through rituals on your behalf and making you right with God. We are the priesthood, “the priesthood of all believers”. And all of us together make the world right with God, by our prayers, our service, and our mutual love.
So what does all this have to do with Martha and Mary? Simply this. If we are to be this new creation together, this royal priesthood, we have to break out of old patterns of behavior. The highest priority must be to listen to the Word. Martha is gently but firmly being told that she has got it wrong. How frustrating and offensive! She was doing the work, the practical caring and in the process giving herself fully to the task - which is then interpreted as fussing around. Poor Martha! It is time for Martha to go on strike!
In fact, it is time for Martha to go on strike. She should go on strike and sit down next to her sister. That’s what Jesus is telling her! For part of the message of the Word is that everyone is to be included and no one is to be left aside trapped in a role that prevents them from participation. Martha is being encouraged to abandon a role in which she is being held captive: to serve the needs of others even at her own expense. She is being challenged to leave behind the stance which says, ‘If I don’t do it, no one else will!’ She doesn’t have to ‘play mother’ any more. As long as she does, some people are not likely to grow up and she will be likely to carry a resentful sense of not being all she can be. Not until she abandons that role will the community be challenged to take seriously that in the kingdom of God, everybody takes a turn doing the dishes, and everybody gets to sit at the feet of Jesus, hearing the Word of life. Workplaces would be better if everyone took a turn making the coffee. Marriages would be better if everyone took a turn with the diapers. But in the kingdom of God this is not an intriguing option. It is the command of our Lord Jesus: “See, I am washing your feet,” he says at the Last Supper. “You do likewise. Wash one another’s feet. Love each other, as I have loved you (John 13: 12-15).”
We then, are becoming a new creation together. We are discovering our full potential by washing the feet, the diapers, and the dishes, for each other. When everyone washes, no one is higher or lower, no one is better or worse. Jesus, the Lord of all, is the servant of all. We are to serve each other, as he has served us. So with all the dishes cleaned together, and all the babies in clean diapers, we can all sit down together at the feet of the Lord who loves us. There won’t be any chores to distract us because we all took on our full share of the chores. We can sit at the feet of Jesus, as brothers and sisters of equal dignity, and equal beauty, to hear what he has to say to us: “You are my chosen ones, my holy nation. Proclaim my Good News to the world, by the way you serve and love one another.”

Saturday, March 15, 2003

ART IMITATES AGAPE

As the chanteuse once inquired, "Isn't it ironic?" I leave off my discussion of history not being ours to control, and drive off with my wife Judy to view "The Quiet American" with Michael Caine. I'd read a review in the Globe that said it was all about Americans and Vietnam, and that Greene is famous for predicting the mess in Vietnam but he was wrong about Americans being ugly. Well, that just goes to show you that most people don't get it when it comes to Christianity. Greene was a serious Catholic, and this is only incidentally about Americans and Vietnam. It's essentially about the hell that happens when people try to force history in the proper direction "by any means necessary." Michael Caine's character is an adulterer, a dope fiend, a lazy reporter, and worse. But he doesn't arrange for setting off a plastic bomb that slaughters a streetful of innocent people. It takes a high-minded idealist to do that.

O Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world--
Have mercy on us.

HISTORY IS NOT OURS TO CONTROL

Can we calculate the potential costs and benefits of torturing a human being? Perhaps one who knows about a terrorist plot to kill thousands of innocent civilians? Mark Kleiman does the calculations in his usual analytical way. It's important to understand, then, the difference between calculating and the theology of agape.

Agape, or selfless, sacrificial love grounded in faith, believes that all calculations of cause and effect are doomed to failure. When my daughter Hannah, at the age of four, stole a dollar out of my wallet, I decided to spank her. Today, seventeen years later, she is honest to a fault. She has also never forgotten the spanking, and our relationship is still strained. I think it started then. Maybe not. Did I do the right thing? I don't know, and I don't believe those who are supremely confident that blasting the hell out of Iraq will result in the best of all possible worlds can possibly know the consequences of those actions one year from now, let alone in ten years, or one hundred years, or one thousand years. The self-anointed experts who claim to be dealing in "real politik" are in actuality quite naive. Those who think they know what chains of cause and effect will be set off by a particular act of mass violence are suffering from a severe case of hubris. The realists are the ones who recognize the fact that we have no idea what unintended consequences will result from our choices today.

Agape is anti-analytical. Agape is confessional. Agape understands, with Gandhi, that "The ends never justify the means. The means determine the ends." The prayer of a disciple of the nonviolent Jesus is essentially this:

"My God, I have no idea where I am going. I cannot see the road ahead of me, and I do not know where it will end.
Nor do I know myself. And the fact I believe I am doing your will does not mean I am actually doing so.
But I believe the desire to please you [i.e, to act always in the Spirit of the Lamb, of servanthood and sacrifice] pleases you.
I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road [and direct History in the right direction] even though I know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always, though I seem to be lost, and in the shadow of death [and though my loving actions appear to be totally naive and futile, even irresponsible to the calculations of the principled, democratic torturers and warmakers], I will never fear. For you are always with me [and, in the power of the Resurrection, I and those I love are utterly indestructible], and will never leave me to face my perils alone."

Thomas Merton, with brackets by me.
A Sermon on Jews as the Best Christians

My sermons will be posted here quite often. They are almost always addressed to the people of Church Hill United Methodist Church in Norwell, Mass., a wonderful group of human beings who have put up with me for more than twelve years now. You can learn more about us at our website . This sermon incorporates the essence of "Agape" (pronounced Ah-gah-pay) theology: It's not about getting saved individually, as the evangelicals would have it, and it's not about being good liberal politicans who pray, as the people who used to control the United Methodist Church would have it. It's about being a new kind of people, transformed and made utterly fearless by the power of the Resurrection. Enjoy.

THE NEW CREATION

Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Romans 12: 1-2

Since we last gathered for worship, our President has named a date for the unleashing of all-out war against the nation of Iraq. The date set is March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. And so, it is a very good time to look at what the Bible has to say about the role of nations, and the role of God’s people in the world. In the days of trial ahead of us as believers, what is our task? And how are we to accomplish it?

This Lent we are reading The Upper Room daily devotional together. The theme for this week is “The New Creation.” Our scriptures today are on that theme. The first one, from Jeremiah, is often read in worship. But the reading for Saturday is never read, and it sets the context for “a covenant written on the heart.” The context is exile, destruction, and defeat. As the conquered Israelites are about to be taken away in captivity, Jeremiah has a message for them. He tells them:

(Jeremiah 29: 4-7): “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” The woman writing in The Upper Room had been transferred to a poor city with a bad school system. She read this passage and was encouraged to get involved in her children’s school, to start a Bible study, and to make her new hometown a better place to live. But for 2,000 years, the Jewish people understood this passage to refer to the mission of their entire people. They were to be exiles, with no city of their own, and so no army to defend their city. Wherever ten Jewish families could meet together and praise God, that would be home. For 2,000 years, the Jewish people were faithful to God without crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings, or holy wars. This was true for so long, and so universally, that one Christian historian was moved to write that, through the Middle Ages, the one group of people most faithful to the original teachings of Jesus Christ was the Jews. (John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes Towards War, p. 115-125).” In other words, it is possible to follow Jesus. What is required is a transformation of the mind. We must become “a new creation.”

Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” In ordinary thought, this is taken to refer to your personal habits and vices: do not be conformed to the world that offers you tobacco, alcohol, gambling, and strawberry cheesecake. But it means far more than that. For Paul, “the world” means the whole way of looking at the world in which the number one goal, the ultimate value, is survival. The world says, “We will be kind to the poor--unless they threaten our survival. We will be generous with our neighbors--unless they threaten our survival. When our survival is threatened, all other, lesser values, are thrown out the window. Above all else, we must survive.” That is the value system of the world, of every nation, and the value system of every plant, animal, and human being on this planet. Everything alive has at its core the instinct to survive.

But not for those who have come to believe, and know, that death has been destroyed. Survival is not the ultimate value for those who have come to the certain faith that Jesus did not stay murdered. Jesus is alive, and because he lives, all who are baptized in his Spirit, and who call on his name, will live forever. That is the faith that empowered us when we faced the lions in the Coliseum. It was there for us when we walked hand in hand for freedom in Selma, Alabama. And it is there for us today, whenever we act in the name of mercy and compassion, with transformed minds and emboldened hearts. In the power of Easter, we are a new creation.

Let me be clear on this point: living the new creation does not work for governments. Whatever your opinion of the war on terrorism, it is unfair and in fact impossible to demand that a government operate like the church of Jesus Christ. We can work for our government to be more just, more truthful, more compassionate. But we cannot expect it to substitute for the kingdom of God. Only we can be the kingdom of God. Governments cannot know that Jesus is risen. We can know that, and together work towards being as faithful to the teachings of Jesus as the Jews were: across all boundaries, together with our sisters and brothers praying with us this morning in Iraq, in Pakistan, in North Korea, all over the world—to show the world what human life was intended to be: a life lived in compassion and generosity, without fear.

How are we to do this? The passage from Jeremiah points the way. “No longer will anyone say, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” They will not have to read the covenant anymore, because God will “write it on their hearts (Jer. 31: 33-34).” In other words, the will of the Holy Spirit for your life will move from your head into your heart. It will go from being an idea, to being your habit, your way of life.

Perhaps you were struck last month, as I was, by the story of a nurse, working in a rest home in Connecticut. When the fire broke out, some people fled. That’s human nature, the instinct to survive. This woman went against natural instinct. She had developed a new instinct—the instinct of sacrifice, the instinct of love. While others ran out, she ran in. Eyewitnesses say that she stood in the midst of the flames and chaos, directing the movement of firefighters, EMT’s, nurses and patients. She was breathing in smoke. The skin on her hands was blistering as she pushed bedridden patients through the fire to safety. And at the end of it all she said, “It wasn’t anything special. It’s what I always do.”

And that is the key to the life lived as a new creation, the life of the transformed mind. Living for others was what she always did, every ordinary, working day, for years and years of what I would call discipleship. The life of that nurse was a daily process of transformation, of a spirituality of servanthood. So that when the day of trial came, she stood ready, ready to face the flames. When we read the story of a hero, we are reading the most recent chapter of an entire life given over to not being conformed to the survival values of this world, but being transformed into a transformed mind, the mind of sacrifice and servanthood in the Spirit and example of Jesus Christ.


It’s a teaching moment, then, that our invasion is planned for St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick also invaded a foreign nation. He invaded pagan Ireland alone: without weapons, armed only with “the belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness; the helmet of salvation; and the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6: 14-17).” In the power of that Spirit, he conquered Ireland with love. Whatever your opinion as a citizen of this nation, your calling as a citizen of the kingdom of God is clear: to write the law upon your heart. To not be conformed to fear, but transformed by faith; to show God’s love to the world.