Sunday, October 8, 2017

Responding to violence

Matthew 21: 33-46

This Gospel text should lead us into a discussion of how we care for our portion of the vineyard we have been sent to care for.
Instead, the news lately is constantly drawing our attention toward the violence we see and experience.
Many people today use violent words at others. After decades of trying to make business and political and personal conversations more polite, more respectful of all people, that very politeness is being criticized. Many people believe they have the right to openly critique and criticize others simply for being different from them.
We are also seeing a lot of violent actions toward groups, toward countries as we go to war against them, or threaten violent action against groups or countries. What were intended as peaceful protests become deadly because someone or some group feels violent toward others.  Add to this a person who has a psychotic episode and decides to go on a killing rampage.
It makes us feel like all this violence is a new thing. But, it’s really very, very old. The Bible is full of violence.
Cain murdered Abel over a disagreement of whose offering was more pleasing to God.
Joseph was kidnapped and sold into slavery by his brothers.
Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped.
Jephthah’s daughter was killed because of an oath he made.
The slaves Moses led out of Egypt were frequently beaten and abused by their task masters.
The people who lived in the Promised Land to which Moses led the Israelites were killed so the Israelites could have the land. Today, we would call it genocide or at minimum, invasion.
David seduced Bathsheba and had her husband killed by sending him to the front line in a battle.
Inside the temple were signs that only Jews were welcome. That meant many people were forbidden to enter: women, children, and men whose bodies were not whole including eunuchs. Eunuchs were slaves who had been forcibly, surgically altered.
The Romans who governed the Jews were violent soldiers, so the Jewish people never felt safe from threat of violence.
Herod and Pilate didn’t hesitate to use violence to control the people.  
Today’s Gospel story includes a parable based on real life in ancient Judea. It is also filled with violence.
There was a landowner who had a lot of land. Since he couldn’t manage it all himself, he had tenant farmers work the land. The tenants would keep a portion of the crop, grapes, wheat, whatever it was, and the rest belonged to the landowner. In America, we had sharecroppers. Same idea.
In Jesus’ story, the tenants decide they want to own the land, and so they refuse to give the produce to the landowner’s slaves. Instead, they kill the slaves. More slaves are sent, who are also killed. Finally, the landowner sends his own son, in the belief that the son would be safe from the tenants. But he, too, is killed.
In recent weeks, we have had stories Jesus told that were about vineyards and sons. In the previous stories, it was not obvious that Jesus was talking about the Jewish leaders.
This time, when Jesus tells the story, he doesn’t beat around the bush. He doesn’t disguise the real purpose of telling the story. He makes it clear that the landowner is God and the priests and other leaders are the tenants in the story. He makes it clear that they have been poor caregivers of God’s people and there will come a time when they are no longer the leaders. Of course, the priests are angry, but there is nothing they can do, since the people think Jesus is a prophet.
A human response to the killing of Jesus could have been violence. The disciples could have taken up swords against the Romans, but that move was doomed to fail.
A divine response could have been to have Jesus return with fire and brimstone and wipe out the Romans and the Jews who refused to believe in him. But that is not how God works. Jesus’ response was to tell the disciples to spread the news of his death and resurrection, of God’s love and forgiveness to all the world.
… Violence exists. Evil exists. How we respond to it makes a difference.
A few weeks ago, a violent event happened in Charlottesville, NC. We have heard a lot about the white supremacists who started the mess. We have heard about the person who drove a car into the people who were protesting the white supremacists. And we have heard about the people who were injured and killed.
But here is a story that didn’t make big news. At least I didn’t see it until recently in a magazine.
Knowing that the racist group was coming, local clergy met and formed a group of their own. There were leaders from many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations and groups. The day began with a prayer service; then the group moved to the park entrance, knowing they could get hurt. Standing in a line with arms linked, they stood against hatred and violence. Their goal was to show love, using non-violent resistance, which many of us know about from the 1960s and Martin Luther King, Jr.
As they sang, “This Little Light of Mine” the neo-Nazis switched from verbal assaults to physical violence. The clergy did not react or resist. They were beaten and trampled, and it took police and antifascist activists to save their lives.
First United Methodist Church opened its doors to the injured, and offered water, bandages, counselling, and prayers. Volunteers turned tables on their sides to limit access to the building.
The gathered clergy put their lives on the line. They took a visible stand against violence. They were determined to not let hatred to have the last word. So, one response is to advocate against the hatred that causes the violence.
… In the even more recent event in Las Vegas, the media finally took notice of the heroes. Many people died, and many more were saved because others were willing to put their own lives at risk. They led them out of the concert area. They covered others with their bodies. Some used their own vehicles to transport injured people to the hospital. Medical personnel who had been enjoying the concert put their skills and training to work. Another response to violence is to offer your own body as a shield or your skills to heal those who have been injured.
… A third story of a response to violence happened in 2006 in Lancaster PA. Many of us are familiar with the story of a man entering an Amish school and killing and injuring the girls there. The Amish families could have responded with hatred and violence. But they shocked the world by offering forgiveness to the shooter and to his family. In Amish faith practices, forgiveness is a requirement. Since God forgives us, they must forgive those who hurt them. Eventually, the practice of healing was followed by hearts also healing.
… So, faced with so much violence in our world, what can we do? We can advocate, stand up against violence and the hatred that causes it. We can work to heal those suffering from violence. And we can forgive those who bring violence into our lives.  
Above all, remember two things: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth leaves the whole world blind and toothless. And, Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, even with those who were about to put him to death.
Are you willing to follow Jesus into peaceful, non-violent living?

Please pray with me. Lord Jesus, you know how much evil and violence fills the world. Help us be non-violent people, in our homes, in our congregation, in our community, and in our world. Help us follow you in being more loving and forgiving than we want to be. Amen