Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Luke 14:25-33

The Very Rev. Tracey Lind

Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland
Listen to the complete sermon: 

I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses;
Now choose life that you and your children may live (Dt. 30:19)

This is probably the most basic of God’s commandments.  Uttered in creation, spoken to the patriarchs and matriarchs, and demonstrated to an enslaved people in the Exodus, God proclaimed in Moses’ last words the essence of the covenant.

Our faith tradition teaches us that we are given the freedom to choose life or death.  Because we are free, we are able to make choices about life and death, blessing and curse, good and bad, right and wrong.  God wants us to choose life, but it’s our decision.

In the Ten Commandments, God gives us rules and guidelines for our moral actions and ethical decision-making.  But again, we have the freedom to choose if we intend to follow and obey them.  God says it is a sin to kill, but we have the freedom to kill and the responsibility of determining what is murder.  God says it is wrong to steal, but we are perfectly able to steal and often we are capable of justifying our thievery.  God says it is wrong to commit adultery, but only our consciences can stop us.  God commands us to honor our mothers and fathers, but it is up to us to determine what honoring one’s parents actually means.

Choosing life often means that we have to be willing to die to our old ways, thoughts, habits, strategies, best practices, protocols, rationalizations, and even wisdom.  Choosing life sometimes requires that we abandon what we have defined as right in order to experience the righteousness that God has in store for us.

Jesus said it this way: “Anyone who does not take up their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  And then he advised his would-be followers to calculate, to the best of one’s ability, the entire cost of carrying the cross and to decide (again to choose) whether we really want the life of Christian discipleship and the freedom it has to offer.

To illustrate this teaching, Jesus asked two hypothetical questions:

“Which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it…”

“Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand?”

These questions are not theoretical this weekend as members of Congress try to decide how they will vote on President Obama’s request to approve the use of military force in Syria.  Our nation is divided, and as of Saturday afternoon, nearly forty percent of Congress is still undecided.   I wonder how those who are attending church today are hearing and receiving Jesus’ words of caution.

There is no doubt that we are facing a moral and political crisis of global importance.  The stakes are very high; and the potential cost in lives, dollars, political ambitions, regional and international stability, and national security is difficult (if not impossible) to calculate.  And yes, our nation must act in some moral and timely fashion.  We can’t ignore the situation and hope that it will just go away; fascists and terrorists don’t just go away, especially when they are heads of state.

Over the past week, like many of you, I have been trying to decide what I would propose if I were the President, how I would vote if I were a member of Congress, what I will write this afternoon or tomorrow morning to my congressional representatives, and what more I can do as a citizen and a person of faith.   To inform my thinking, I’ve been reading what others (including a wide range of Christian, Jewish and Muslim ethicists), are writing.

In his weekly blog, Jim Wallis, the founder and president of Sojourners, wrote:  “Christians should be guided by the gospel of peacemaking and conflict resolution that reduces the violence of our world. And it is a long-held Christian principle that governments and citizens are obliged to work for the avoidance of war, which, even under just war theories, must only be a last resort.  It’s natural to feel moral outrage [at the deliberate use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians] but a moral compass must guide our moral outrage.” (Jim Wallis, On Syria: We Must Use a Moral Compass to Guide Our Moral Outrage,” Sojourner Net Blog, 8/29/13)

As I reflect on the Gospel as my principle moral compass, balancing the teaching of scripture with tradition, reason and experience, I often ask the question: What would Jesus have us do?

In his September 9 article in The Huffington Post, Wallis offers two Jesus-centered principles that might guide our moral compass:

  1. Provide substantive humanitarian support for those who are most vulnerable and in need – the some 2 million Syrian refugees scattered around the world (especially in neighboring countries of Jordan and Lebanon) and 1/3 of the Syrian population who are homeless and trying to survive a violent civil war.  “Our Scriptures tell us that our first and deepest response should always be to the most vulnerable who are so often forgotten by the world.” (Wallis, Huffington Post, 9/6/13)
  1. Seek conflict resolution.  As Wallis and others suggest, “Conflict resolution is always the first goal of peacemakers, whom Jesus calls us, as Christians, to always be.”  The question is, “How do we act in ways that could lessen violence rather than escalate it?” (Ibid.)

As everyone concedes, military options have unintended consequences: collateral damage, increased violence, counter-retaliation, and further regional and global destabilization.  And yet, humanitarian support alone is not enough.

And here we get to the heart of the issue at hand.  Historically, we have lived with two ethics regarding war and violence: the just war theory and pacificism.  But these ethical frameworks are outdated in a world that has to deal with the reality and underlying causes of terrorism.

In the third edition of Just Peacemaking: The Practices for Abolishing War, a book originally published in 1998 and revised in 2004 and then again in 2008, a group of twenty-three Christian ethicists, led by Glen Stassen, Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary and a visitor to our Sunday Forum, propose that terrorism “requires more than an ethic that says terrorism is unjust; it requires an ethic that points to practices that prevent it.” (1) Recognizing the complexity of terrorism, these faithful scholars have articulated ten emerging practices of just peacemaking as a new ethic that goes to the root of the issues surrounding war and peace.

The practices of just peacemaking are grounded in realism: “what realistically is working in real history to prevent real wars.” (11) They are “ethically normative because they bring peace, they solve problems, [and] they promote justice and cooperation in a world whose wars are immeasurably destructive.” (14) And, they are informed by a faith perspective committed to furthering God’s reign on earth by “engaging the issues of peace and justice…actively within the brokenness of the world;” (15) and gathering people “to discern together just peacemaking means and to model peacemaking practices in our corporate and individual lives.” (15-16)

The practices of just peacemaking and their possible application to the Syrian crisis include:

  • Supporting non-violent direct action, such as organizing a global humanitarian effort for the some 2 million Syrian refugees scattered around the world
  • Taking independent initiatives to reduce threat, perhaps as Thomas Friedman and others suggest, providing better training and support for the Syrian rebels (NYTimes, 9/4/13)
  • Reducing offensive weapons and weapons trade such as offering to destroy Syria’s arsenal of poison gas as an alternative to missile strikes. (Glen Stassen,, 9/4/13)
  • Using cooperative conflict resolution by working with the United Nations and other countries (including Russia) to bring President Assad on trial for war crimes, and pressure him and his supporters through global isolation, shame, and thoughtful but punishing sanctions.
  • Acknowledging responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness; for the United State, this means an acknowledgement and honest examination of our role in the Middle East and a willingness to consider a change in strategy.

Jesus taught and modeled a third way of confronting evil that transformed it rather than ignoring or violently attacking it.  Rather, he took initiatives that reduced the threat of evil and sought to restore right relationships.  Jesus also taught that a theology of peace that is not simply reactive, but proactive, one that is planted in the heart of the biblical understanding of God’s grace.

I hear Jesus saying to us at this critical moment in world history, our nation needs to initiate just peacemaking with imagination and creativity rather than react with traditional tactics of war.  As a nation, I believe we are called to examine how our foreign and domestic policies impact the rest of the world, especially in areas of economic instability and political conflict, staring deeply at “the log in our own eye.”

And finally, in keeping with the prophets before him, Jesus taught that to make peace, we must make justice.  Recognizing that justice is central to the entire biblical story, Jesus urged his followers toward compassion with the hurting, solidarity with the marginalized, and mission beyond their own boundaries.  Though he recognized that God’s complete reign of peace was in the future, he said over and over again, that when we act justly, love kindness and walk humbly with God, the reign of God is in our midst.  As a nation trying to discern how to respond to this escalating world crisis, we need to urge our leaders to consider all of the strategic alternatives in light of restorative rather than retaliatory justice.

In his acceptance speech, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barak Obama endorsed the practices of just peacemaking.  Perhaps, President Obama and members of Congress should review these principles and practices before they take a vote in response to Syria.  And, as we wrestle with the frightening world-situation at hand, we would be well-advised to adopt and advocate for an ethic of just and prayer peacemaking, recognizing that we too are actors on this world stage, and even more importantly, we are participants in making the peace of God.

I hope that you will go home this afternoon and prayerfully discern where you stand on U.S. military action in Syria, and then I hope you will exercise the responsibility of citizenship by expressing your views to those whom you elected to serve you in our nation’s capital.  And finally, but perhaps most importantly, I hope you will join Pope Francis and the faithful in praying for a peaceful resolve to this crisis.  Friends, never negate the power of collective prayer.

Yes, God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses; pray that we might choose life that all around the globe we, and our children, may live.