What is that third way waiting to be revealed?

The Rev. Cynthia KR Banks; The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 18—Year C; Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Hold on folks—the scriptures just aren’t going to let us up for air today. Jesus is going to push us on inner transformation, Paul is going to push us transformation in our relationships, and no less than God speaking through Jeremiah is going to push us on the transformation of the nation, yes, the nation. So, let’s dive in.

Large crowds are traveling with Jesus and he turns to them and says, “Whoever comes to me and doesn’t hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” He then launches into a teaching on cost-benefit analysis. “Which of you, intending to build a tower, doesn’t first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, you lay a foundation, and you can’t finish it, and you get ridiculed. Or what king going out to wage war against another king doesn’t first sit down and gauge whether he can with 10,000 go up against one with 20,000? If he can’t, then while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation to ask for terms of peace.” And after this little cost-benefit, Jesus continues, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not first give up all your possessions.”

Huh? We were just talking about building towers and military planning, how did we get to “if you don’t first give up all your possessions, you can’t become my disciple?” Jesus seems to be saying, “You better do some hefty cost-benefit analysis if you are thinking about jumping on the discipleship bandwagon because it is going to cost you everything. I want you to know exactly how much it’s going to cost you if you want to follow me.”

How much is it going to cost? Give up all your possessions, and not just your material possessions, though that’s entailed, too, but it’s even deeper than that. You have to give up possessing, period. Any notion that you can possess another in a relationship, any notion that we can possess our parents, or our partner, or our children, or our siblings—we’ve got to give it up. Any notion that our life is ours to possess, any notion that we can relate to our life as anything other than complete and utter gift—we’ve got to give it up. Any notion that we can escape the cross—we’ve got to give it up. And how radical is the cost of the cross? Well, we can start with the fact that Jesus receives all the violence of the world and refuses to retaliate, refuses to return violence for violence. If we are called to carry the cross and follow Jesus, then we cannot further the cycle of violence that he died to stop. Inner transformation. The way of Jesus has no room to possess anything—that’s the only way that our vessel is empty enough to be completely filled with his love and free enough to empty all of that love back out into that world. We are permitted to possess nothing.

On to Paul. Paul understands that when you have undergone an inner transformation that this automatically gives birth to a reordering of all your relationships. You cannot lord it over another—all are one in Christ Jesus. And so, Philemon has to understand that his relationship to his former slave, Onesimus, has to change. They can no longer be master and slave, but they can only be brothers in Christ. Paul is gentle and elegant in how he coaxes Philemon into this new understanding, but make no mistake, Paul has just upturned the social order applecart. If Christ has taken possession of us, if Christ has taken up residence in our souls, then we have to rethink every relationship we have in light of the radical equality Jesus calls us to. We can’t keep people in boxes, labeled by our definitions; we can’t hold distinctions that enable us to enjoy more power or status; we can’t keep a nice, comfortable distance from those who make us uncomfortable—the “other” is our brother; the “other” is our sister. Thanks a lot Jesus—it was a whole lot easier when I could keep “those” people over here in my head; a whole lot easier when I didn’t have to recognize my neighbor as my kin.

And then we have the LORD God speaking through Jeremiah, and here is where the rubber really meets the road. Here the text again: The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So Jeremiah goes down to the potter’s house, and there the potter was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, [Kids, what do you do when you have a piece of clay, and you shape it into something, but it doesn’t look quite right, what do you do? (pause) Right, you make it into something else.] And the potter reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

God continues: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it (we had that lesson two weeks ago), but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

Really God, do we have to deal with nations today? When our nation is contemplating military action against another nation, do we have to hear this today? What are you trying to tell us? Well, first of all, God cares about what nations are doing. It’s not enough to be just about inner transformation and relational transformation, but God wants communities, even communities as big as nations, to be transformed. We are vessels; nations are vessels; and as we are formed and shaped, we can lose our shape so easily. And if we lose our shape and form as vessels of grace, then God is going to rework us into some other kind of vessel. The only problem for God is that God has us as co-creators. We aren’t just lumps of clay, but we also bear the potter’s image, which means we have agency and choice and will and power. Don’t you just know that God has some days where God wishes he/she hadn’t breathed divine breath unto us and had left us as lumps of clay completely shapeable according to God’s desire?

God is saying here that national transformation matters. God reiterates today that God is in the plucking up, breaking down, and destroying business, as well as the building up and planting business. Vessels, be they individual or collective, need to be vessels of life and grace—if they’re not, then God is going to find a way to rework that clay until that vessel of life and grace is once again revealed. And for the clay, i.e. for us or our country, that reworking sounds painful.

So, how does all this bear on our country right now as we contemplate action in Syria? What are we, as Christian people, to think? Well, Jesus might challenge us this morning with this question, “Just what are you trying to possess in this proposed military action?” And God’s counsel in Jeremiah means this is not a simple question. Are al-Assad and his government engaging in evil? Dropping chemical weapons on one’s people certainly seems to qualify. But before we take out the speck in our neighbor’s eye, are there any logs we need to be aware of in our own national eye? We are hearing words these days like “in the national interest,” “in our strategic interest,” “security,” but do these notions become the possessions that Jesus is calling us to give up? And what of the call to carry the cross, that icon of total nonviolent response?

As followers of Jesus who are called to inner transformation and relational transformation, as those addressed by God through the prophets to be about national transformation, what are we to make of Syria? What are Christian responses? And hang on, because here comes a crash course in Christian ethics. There are several responses that Christians can make when it comes to war: pacifism, just peacemaking (which is closely related to pacifism), and just war.

There is one response that is NOT permissible for a Christian to make, and that is the position of realism. Philosophically, realism is a position which sees the international arena as anarchy in which the will to power wins. This position emphasizes power and security issues, says that nations are all about their self-interests, and is suspicious about applying moral concepts, like justice, to the international arena. You can’t square this stance with the scriptures or the Chrstian tradition because moral concepts simply aren’t on the table.

Pacifism holds that war is always wrong because it violates the duty not to kill human beings. Period. End of story. This stance is grounded in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.

Just peacemaking supports the prevention of war through nonviolent direct action and cooperative conflict resolution. This, too, is rooted in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. When Jesus counsels, “If your enemy strikes, turn the other cheek,” this was not a meek action because as you brought your cheek around you met the eye of your oppressor, you humanized that oppressor, and in so doing you claimed that that person had no power over you—you were their absolute equal, and in this you can hear echoes of Philemon and Onesimus.

The most complicated position to understand is just war. And since this is thrown around a lot right now, we need to understand it. Just war has its roots in Greco-Roman culture, and it is Augustine and Aquinas who give it its Christian formulation. There are some problems with just war theory at the root because this theory doesn’t develop until Constantine marries Christianity to the Roman Empire—in other words, you don’t need a just war theory until you have to justify your army going to war. In the first few centuries of Christianity, just war would have been unthinkable because followers of Jesus were committed to his way of the cross and simply received suffering, and even death, without retaliating. However, just war has long been an acceptable Christian ethical framework, and there may be times when it is permissible in this morally tragic violent world. Hitler comes to mind. But just war has a whole lot of criteria. There are criteria that must be met before one goes to war, there are criteria to be met during the conduct of the war, and there are criteria to be met post-war.

Vis a vis Syria, we are still on the “before” end. To be a just war one must meet all six of these criteria before taking action. First, there must be just cause—protection of innocents from brutal, aggressive regimes qualifies. Second, there must be right intention—you fight the war only for the sake of its just cause; you can’t do power grabs or land grabs, revenge or ethnic cleansing. Third, the decision must be made by proper authorities according to the proper process and made public. Fourth, it must be the last resort—you must have exhausted all plausible, peaceful alternatives to resolving the conflict in question, in particular diplomatic negotiation. Fifth, there must be the probability of success—you can’t resort to war if you can foresee that doing so will have no measurable impact on the situation. And sixth, proportionality—you must weigh the universal goods expected to result, such as securing the just cause, against the universal evils expected to result, notably casualties, especially civilian casualties. [These definitions come from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on war].

As I keep listening and learning, thinking and praying, you could make a Christian ethical case for having met just cause, right intention, and proper decision making. But probability of success and proportionality are still very much in question, and last resort still seems a long ways away.

I offer this today because, as Christian people, you need to know the Christian ethical lens through which we view a situation like Syria.

There is one more thing we need to throw in this stew, and it comes from a Christmas Sermon that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on Christmas Eve in 1967. He says, “If we are to have peace in the world, men and nations must embrace the nonviolent affirmation that ends and means must cohere…We will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach a good ends through evil means because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.” Jesus would agree when he says in the Sermon on the Mount, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.” Can a violent military action on our part produce a peaceful end? Can that seed produce that tree? The ends and the means must cohere.

Oh, it is costly when you embrace such a stance towards life. It is costly to say that our ends and our means must cohere. We will give up a lot to live out such a vision, but according to Jesus, at least this morning, discipleship is that costly.

I still don’t know the final answer in Syria, but as a Christian, there is a whole lot more to think about than just security interests, or national interests, or even a just cause with a right intention. How we do this as a nation really does matter—it matters to us, and it matters to God. So, we have to keep going deeper. What is the third way? What is that third way presently known only to God that is neither “respond violently” or “do nothing”? What is that third way waiting to be revealed, waiting to be born? Can we pray for that? Can we discern that? Can we, as a national it’s-either-this-or-that lump of clay be reworked into some other vessel that can move all of us toward life and light and grace and peace?

God have mercy on us all and make us into the vessel, as individuals, as a nation, that you long for us to be. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
September 8, 2013