Sunday, November 05, 2017

"Peace, Peace," Where There is No Peace: Sermon for Remembrance Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to make you great in the opinion of all Israel. Then they will know that I will be with you in the same way that I was with Moses. You are to command the priests who carry the covenant chest. As soon as you come to the bank of the Jordan, stand still in the Jordan.”

Joshua said to the Israelites, “Come close. Listen to the words of the Lord your God.” Then Joshua said, “This is how you will know that the living God is among you and will completely remove the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites before you. Look! The covenant chest of the ruler of the entire earth is going to cross over in front of you in the Jordan. Now pick twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one per tribe. The soles of the priests’ feet, who are carrying the chest of the Lord, ruler of the whole earth, will come to rest in the water of the Jordan. At that moment, the water of the Jordan will be cut off. The water flowing downstream will stand still in a single heap.”

The people marched out from their tents to cross over the Jordan. The priests carrying the covenant chest were in front of the people. When the priests who were carrying the chest came to the Jordan, their feet touched the edge of the water. The Jordan had overflowed its banks completely, the way it does during the entire harvest season. But at that moment the water of the Jordan coming downstream stood still. It rose up as a single heap very far off, just below Adam, which is the city next to Zarethan. The water going down to the desert sea (that is, the Dead Sea) was cut off completely. The people crossed opposite Jericho. So the priests carrying the Lord’s covenant chest stood firmly on dry land in the middle of the Jordan. Meanwhile, all Israel crossed over on dry land, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
Joshua 3:7-17, Common English Bible

After two months of reading how the people of Israel are brought out of slavery in Egypt and wander through the desert, today they cross the Jordan River into the land God promised to them. It sounds like a military campaign as the people march from their tents and across the river, and it was, because if you keep reading in the book of Joshua you find that Israel crossing on the dry Jordan riverbed took their opponents by surprise, and then Israel goes to war against the nations listed by Joshua, the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites, to conquer the land for themselves.

Crossing a river is always a very difficult military operation, in any age. A lot of battles get named after rivers. I read a book once about a division of British and Indian troops crossing an otherwise insignificant river in Italy during the Second World War, and all the planning that went into this relatively minor attack and all the decisions that had to be made quickly under fire. I was in the infantry at one time, and all this preparation and logistics goes largely unnoticed by the troops who are on the front line. We just expected that food and ammunition would arrive and that trucks would show up to take us out. But someone had to arrange that, and someone had to make the food, and someone had to load the ammunition, and someone had to drive the truck and someone had to get fuel for the truck. That’s what militaries are like, the people at the sharp end where the fighting takes place are supported by many more people who look after food and supplies and transport and mail and pay and repairs, and bringing home the dead and wounded.

The head of the American Federal Emergency Management Agency was on TV saying that hurricane relief in Puerto Rico "is the most logistically challenging event the United States has ever seen." I thought, in 1944 the United States was fighting a war against Japan on the other side of the Pacific Ocean while simultaneously participating in the invasion of Europe and campaigning in Italy. That was a challenge. You know, our societies are good at war. We are good at these big and expensive efforts to deploy and sustain forces overseas. We get practice. Canada kept a substantial force in Afghanistan for over 12 years.

The Bible tells us that there will be a future time when the old things pass away and all things are made new, and in that future swords will be beaten into ploughshares, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and no one will learn war anymore. So we say today in our worship that this is God’s vision of peace, one proclaimed to us by Jesus.

But we live in a time when, as the prophet Jeremiah says, we say, “peace, peace,” but there is no peace. Jesus tells us that we will hear of wars and rumours of war, and that is our world. The time when no one will learn war anymore seems very far off. So how are we to act now? Is the way that we must follow one of refusing to participate in anything our government does that involves war or preparation for war? Many Christians would choose that route. Or do we follow what many other faithful people have believed, to quote the Church of England’s Articles of Religion from 350 years ago, that it is lawful for Christians, at the command of the government, to serve in war?

This is not an easy choice. War isn’t clean and antiseptic the way it seems when we see videos from drones of missiles striking their targets. We don’t see the blood and broken and burned bodies that are the result. War is a horrendous evil. But sometimes it can be argued that not going to war will allow other evils like aggression and genocide to continue and to grow. Christians have to decide. I remember watching the movie Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper. Alvin York is a simple man who believes strongly in what his church in rural Tennessee teaches, that war and killing are wrong. He has to work this through for himself when he is drafted during the First World War. He chooses to become a soldier. There is another movie, made just last year, called Hacksaw Ridge. Another devout man, named Desmond Doss, is a Seventh Day Adventist who swears never to carry a weapon or to commit violence. But he also believes that it isn’t right that he stay safe at home during World War II, so he enlists in the army. He is called a coward, but as a conscientious objector he becomes a medic, without a rifle, in the battle for Okinawa. Two men, two different choices on whether Christians can use force. And both men won the American Medal of Honour for bravery under fire.

We talked last week about our Protestant heritage of being able to make our own decisions about faith and what the Bible teaches. So, just like Alvin York and Desmond Doss, we can choose for ourselves. As I said, there is a tradition of pacifism and non-violence, going back to the early days of the Christian faith. It has been rediscovered in recent years through the work of scholars who come mainly from what are called the peace churches, like the Mennonites. They see Jesus refusing to be a military leader in a violent revolt against the Roman occupiers of his homeland, and conclude that Jesus rejects all coercion and violence in favour of non-violent love of our enemies. God’s peace is not just in the future, but a way of life in our war-torn present.

And, as I said, there is another, ancient, tradition to draw on in dealing with war and peace. I have been reading a book, In Defence of War by Nigel Biggar, which is a significant and well-argued work on whether war can be permitted for Christians. Biggar does not hesitate to say that the evils war brings ought to be strenuously avoided if they can be. But not all conflict can be avoided. Sometimes war breaks out because one party, for reasons of greed or resentment or paranoia or nationalism, does not want peace, or wants it only on its own, unjust terms.

Biggar points out that several times in the New Testament Jesus or his followers encounter soldiers, who become disciples of Jesus, but there is no suggestion that they left military service as part of renouncing their past sinful behaviour. So Jesus, and the Scriptures, do not seem to regard being in the military as incompatible with Christian discipleship. It does seem clear that Jesus did not want to lead a religious, nationalist rebellion against Rome, but this does not mean that violence is never permitted against oppression. And, yes, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. But we might kill an aggressor, not because we hate him, but because, tragically, we know of no other way to prevent him from harming the innocent. So, for Biggar, the Scriptures’ prohibition of violence is not absolute.

So, as believers, as followers of Jesus, we can decide for ourselves. The men and women we remember today and on Remembrance Day made their choices too. Regardless of the choice we may make, we respect and honour their choice to serve, and that they died as a result. Jesus says, greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And we pray for the day when this choice will not be needed and God’s peace will prevail over the whole earth.