This is the message that was delivered at Emmanuel Mennonite Church on Sunday, October 21, 2007:
I Peter 3: 8-12
8Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. 9Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 10For,
"Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep his tongue from evil
and his lips from deceitful speech.
11He must turn from evil and do good;
he must seek peace and pursue it.
12For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil."[a]
Who wants to be first? Sometimes that’s a scary question. As in: Who wants to be the first to fly in this new kind of airplane? It works great in all the computerized tests we’ve put it through, it held up in the wind tunnel, and it even comes with an extra wing in case one should fall off…. again. So who wants to fly in it first? Someone has to be the first.
It makes sense that test pilots get paid so well, doesn’t it?
Or who wants to be the first to try a new medication? It killed off all the dreaded fungy-bungy bacteria in thousands of Petri dishes, and twelve generations of laboratory mice have fairly thrived on the stuff, but who’s going to be the first person to actually take it? Someone has to be the first.
Aren’t you glad there are strict guidelines around human testing of medications?
In the weekly Army newspaper that American soldiers read during the Second World War, Stars and Stripes, the last cartoon on the European front, from May, 1945, shows two American soldiers in a foxhole, with a German soldier across the field from them in another foxhole, and one American says to another, while pointing his thumb toward enemy lines: “I know the war’s over, but I ain’t standing up until he does.” That cartoon only confirms how much easier it is to start a conflict than it is to stop it. But again, for peace to break out, someone has to be first to act in peace.
When the new I-35W bridge goes up over the Mississippi River, someone will have to be the first to drive all the way across it. It will probably be a public official in the course of some civic ceremony. If you don’t count the construction workers themselves. And it will be a very big event. But in all of those instances and more, someone has to be first.
The world often sees being first as foolish. But Peter considers it to be often a sign of wisdom. Everything he has said to us in the last few messages of the last chapter we have examined, is about being the first to offer and to make peace. He addresses the disciple as a subject of a worldly king and a worldly kingdom. There’s a situation fraught with the potential for conflict and injustice. But Peter’s advice is to honor and do justice by everyone, from the king to each commoner. Don’t wait to receive honor and justice before you give honor and do justice. Then there’s the matter of the disciple as a slave. Peter says, in effect, serve everyone as you would God, and be willing to suffer for doing right, not for doing wrong. Don’t wait to be served before you serve. Don’t wait for someone else to do you right before you do right. Then there’s the matter of the disciple as wife or husband in a marriage, at that time, a situation full of all sorts of power imbalances and vulnerability. Peter says, don’t wait to be treated with respect, treat each other with respect, make allowances for each other’s weakness, so that nothing might hinder your prayers together.
In today’s passage, Peter sums all this relational wisdom up, beginning with the word, “Finally…” What he’s been saying all along about all these different relationships comes down to this, in verse 8: “Finally, live in harmony with one another, be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” And that will automatically ensure you sweet, peaceful relationships with everyone, right?
Not necessarily. Not always. Peter goes on to say in verse 9, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing….” as a way of admitting that our efforts to live in harmony, empathy, love and compassion could sometimes be met with more hostility, even abuse. But again, someone has to be the first to give a blessing, and to be a blessing, whatever the history has been, and to that, to being the first, Peter says, we have been called. Someone has to be first, and that someone is the disciple of Jesus. That, we shall see, is our calling. And that, I hope I make clear, is wisdom.
If wisdom is just about getting our way in the world, and stacking the deck in our favor, so that we’re more likely to get what we want and to accomplish it with less effort and more efficiency, then some are more wise than others simply because they have more power and money than others to make things work out the way they want them to. Otherwise, the vast majority of us are condemned to be fools, simply by virtue of the fact that we have so little power or control over what others do and how they respond to us.
But we are only responsible for ourselves. Knowing that leads to the kind of wisdom recounted in a folk tale from India, about a scorpion that was stranded on a branch over a raging flood. A peasant saw it, took pity on it and reached out to rescue it and put it on high, dry ground. But as he did so, the scorpion stung him. The poison made the peasant’s hand swell and turn numb, and though he yelped with pain and anger, he didn’t fling the scorpion into the water or onto the ground to stomp on him, though he was tempted. Someone who saw this asked the peasant, “Why didn’t you kill the scorpion for stinging you while you were rescuing him? Why did you continue to carry it to safety?” The peasant replied, “The scorpion could only do what was in his nature, and I must do what is in mine.”
What was in that merciful peasant’s nature is similar to what Peter says is in our nature. Or at least in our calling. Peter says in verse 9, that we were called to bless and to be blessed. “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing,” he says, “because to this you were called, so that you might inherit a blessing.”
To this we were called: to inherit a blessing by giving blessings. The Amish of Pennsylvania showed that they understood this connection between being blessed and giving blessings in their response to the terrible and tragic shootings of their school girls in Nickel Mines last year. They immediately gathered around the family of the assailant, to share their support and forgiveness in their shared grief. And when asked why they rushed to support the wife and children of the assailant and to cry on each other’s shoulders, they alternately said, “We must forgive if we are to be forgiven,” and “We must forgive as we have been forgiven.” Their loving and merciful response to this tragedy was more about who they were, than about who the assailant was and what he did. They would not let the actions of someone else determine who they were and what they were called to do. They didn’t wait for anyone to come to them for this experience of mercy and mutual support. They went first.
I confess that I’m still getting my head around this different understanding of wisdom, that wisdom is more about being in harmony with who we are and are called to be, than it is about being in harmony with the world, getting what we want from it, and getting by with it. Or we could go deeper and say that this wisdom is about who God the Creator is and what his Creation is really, really like. If we really want to overload our mental circuits and challenge the whole idea of wisdom as just the best way of coming out ahead in any given circumstance, consider that Wisdom is also a name or a title for Jesus. And Wisdom went to the cross, rather than calling twelve legions of angels down for a pre-emptive strike against his enemies.
Paul wrote the Corinthians in his first letter to them that, “Christ is for us the wisdom of God, that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.” This is similar to when Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” In Jesus we see the nature of God and the will of God for all of Creation. In him, in his life and words and work and character, we see the peace and the harmony for which and by which the universe was brought into being. In the words of Isaiah and of Paul’s letter to Ephesus, “He is our peace.”
More concretely, Christ demonstrated this wisdom, in that “While we were yet enemies [of God and each other], Christ died for us (Romans 5:6).” So God did not wait for us to reconcile with him; God, through Christ, went first.
But this understanding of wisdom and peace is older than Peter and the gospel. Peter quotes from a Psalm of David, Psalm 34, to make his point. That psalm is a wisdom psalm, coming from Israel’s wisdom tradition.
“Whoever would love life and see good days
Must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech.
He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it.”
“Seek peace and pursue it,” Peter says, because that is how God is and who God is, and what God is doing in the world, through Christ and the cross. And if we bear the image of God, if we are the image of God, then seeking peace and pursuing it is true to who we are, too. This business of, “When in Rome, do like the Romans,” and “I’m not going to stand up until he does,” sounds safe, maybe even prudent, but as a way of life in the world, it requires so many violations of our true selves that it leads to spiritual death by a thousand compromises.
Those are challenging words, I know. But I have been set back on my heels this week by this very challenge in verse 11, to “seek peace and pursue it.” The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that all these years I had rarely thought of peace as something that needed active seeking and pursuing. I’ve more often thought of it as simply the absence of conflict. So if my neighbors and I never even look at each other, let alone talk, that’s peace, right?
Some of us might remember the John Lennon song from the 1970’s, “All We Are Saying is Give Peace a Chance.” It was meant as a statement against the Vietnam War. But I took it to mean that peace is just out there, waiting to show once the conflict dies down. Like its just hanging in the air like wallpaper on your computer screen, like the default mode to which everything would return if we just shut up and got along and were nice. Stop the fighting and peace will automatically fill the vacuum, I thought, as though peace is the vacuum.
But the wisdom of the Bible and of Peter’s letter says that peace is something that must be sought and pursued. It is not just the silence between the bombs and bullets; it is something active and assertive, something to be cultivated intelligently and artfully, sought and pursued continually and attentively with just as much effort and imagination and discipline as is victory on the battlefield. It often takes just as much courage and effort, because it often requires being the first, the first to bless, the first to love, the first to approach the enemy, the first to lay down his weapons. Learning how to do so is the very essence of wisdom.
This is the school in which all of Jesus’ disciples are enrolled. What I am describing is not an addition to our journey of discipleship, nor just a piece of it. It is discipleship, at least insofar as our relationships with fellow humans are concerned. Peter gives us a few practical lessons in discipleship with his advice to “keep our tongues from evil and our lips from deceitful speech,” for example, or to “be compassionate and humble.” These are essential parts and pieces of our stockpile of peace-making wisdom.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
This is the lesson of Pastor Lawrence Hart’s life. Lawrence is both a Mennonite minister and a Cheyenne Indian peace chief. From what Lawrence has shared, most Cheyenne chiefs were peace chiefs, that is, older leaders entrusted with the wisdom and the discipline for keeping the peace within the village and among the Cheyennes, and between the Cheyennes and other tribes. From so many cavalry and Indian movies and television shows we may have come to think of the Cheyenne Indians as warlike and brave in battle. And some of them were. Or at least their warrior societies of younger men were, whenever they threw off the guidance and direction of the peace chiefs.
But the peace chiefs were taught a rigorous science of peacekeeping out of their tribal traditions. It included lessons like, “even if you see your family members being attacked, you as peace chief must sit and smoke your pipe before you react.” They were not to eat until they knew that there was food enough for everyone in their village. And they were to follow up on every insult, aggression and misunderstanding between one village member and another, to resolve the grievances. Some of these peace chiefs gave up their lives in peace-keeping, marching forth unarmed to meet enemies and attackers who were approaching their village, to try and negotiate a peace and discourage the attack.
A few years ago, something happened for Chief Lawrence Hart that strongly tested his peace-making temperament and training. It was an anniversary of the Battle of the Washita, in Oklahoma, when General Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment swooped down one cold winter morning on a sleeping band of Lawrence’s ancestors, and massacred all but a few men, women and children in the camp. This has always been a difficult memory for the Cheyennes, and it didn’t strike them as particularly wise when they were invited to take part in an historical observance of the anniversary of that tragedy.
But Hart and his relatives agreed to participate on the condition that they receive back from the local museum the bones of one of those ancestors, a young boy, killed in that attack. So everything was set to go, when another group showed up on the morning of the anniversary event: a group of Cavalry re-enactors, the actual Grandsons of the Seventh Cavalry, in period uniform, with replica weapons, and on horseback. They asked for and got permission to re-enact the cavalry charge that destroyed the village, shooting off their replica rifles with blank cartridges. Its hard to believe such insensitivity. And when they did so, tensions and anger were running very high among the local Indians gathered there.
The last event of the day was the burial of the bones from the museum. As the coffin was brought past the cavalry re-enactors, they snapped to attention to present arms. That irritated many of the Cheyennes even more. A moment later, a young Cheyenne woman stepped forward and put her blanket on the passing coffin. Cheyenne tradition dictates that this blanket then be presented as a gift to a visiting dignitary, to honor him or her. The Cheyenne chiefs huddled together for a moment, and in true peace chief tradition, they asked the youngest of their own, Pastor Lawrence, to give the blanket to the leader of the Grandsons of the 7th Cavalry, the very descendants of the men who had killed the person in that coffin.
The leader of the Grandsons was invited to approach the chiefs. He marched forward, snapped to attention and presented his sword. Lawrence directed him to turn around, and when he did, he draped the blanket over the officer’s shoulders. The very symbolism and meaning of this action, so many years after the massacre, moved many people at the ceremony to tears. The officer, with the blanket over his shoulder, ordered his regiment to fire the customary 21 volley salute over the casket of the massacre victim, an honor that was otherwise reserved only for one of their own. As it was a cold winter day, the ceremony ended with food and refreshments inside the museum. But there was hardly a dry eye as the descendants of the survivors on both sides of the massacre greeted and embraced each other across the gulf that had once been a racial battle zone. I don’t think that the grandfathers of either the 7th Cavalry or the Cheyenne Indians would ever have dreamed of such a powerful experience of resolution and reconciliation, made possible because someone took seriously the call to be the first, to “seek peace and pursue it,” and “to bless [even our enemies] for to this we were called, that we might inherit a blessing.”
[For the whole story on this encounter, check out the Mennonite Historical Society Archive site at http://www.mcusa-archives.org/MHB/Hart-Washita.html ]
For this is how the very Wisdom of God has come to us, as John the Beloved writes, “not because we loved God, but because God first loved us, and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice [that is, a peace offering] for our sins (I John 4:10).”
Mathew Swora, pastor