September 29, 2019
Several years ago, pastor Sharon Buttry was working as director of Friendship House in Detroit, an organization the operated a food bank and provided other services in an impoverished section of town. She was cleaning out her van in the Friendship House parking lot one Friday morning, and when she turned around she saw a man pointing a gun at her. He told her to give him all her money. Sharon told him that she only had $1 in her purse and invited him to help her look through the purse to find it. So he sat his gun down to help her look. And as they looked they started talking—about how the man’s mother had recently died; about how he lost his job; about how he was ashamed that he couldn’t support his 11-year-old daughter. Sharon calls this “the mugging that turned into a hugging.” She promised not to call the police if the man promised to return the gun to its owner and come back to Friendship House so they could help him find a job.
This reminds me, a bit, of the story we heard this morning from Matthew. He is in a garden with a group of his followers, when suddenly people with swords and clubs surround him and arrest him. In the midst of the fray, one of Jesus’ disciples—likely afraid for his own as well as Jesus’ life—draws his sword and cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus tells his disciple that they are not going to resort to violence—he should put the sword away. In Luke’s version of this story, Jesus re-connects the severed ear. Then Jesus goes quietly with his captors.
This morning, we are focusing on the “create peace” portion of our mission statement. It should come as no surprise to anyone that PEACE MENNONITE seeks to create peace. As Mennonites, we are committed to following the way of Jesus, and one thing we believe about Jesus is that he lived out and taught peace. Our story from Matthew’s gospel demonstrates Jesus’ example of peace. And the story of Sharon Buttry demonstrate just a one of many, many ways that followers of Jesus have worked to create peace in their own contexts.
I think that our peace stance is something, as Mennonites, that we can take for granted. We sing “We are people of God’s peace” and hear about our ancestors who were conscientious objectors and hear about the peace work of groups like Mennonite Central Committee and Christian Peacemaker Teams. We barely even think about it.
So it’s important to examine our peace stance once in a while; to go back to the scriptures—and particularly to the teachings of Jesus—and remind ourselves why we believe what we say we believe.
In our scripture this morning, the most relevant part for “creating peace” is obviously when one of the disciples pulls out his sword and starts swinging. Then Jesus says: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”
Brethren biblical scholar Richard B. Gardner notes that Jesus here offers three reasons for his rejection of armed defense:
- First, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” That is to say, those who use violence will ultimately be harmed by violence themselves. This is practical reasoning that has, as it turns out, been affirmed by various social and historical scholars; at least in terms of creating social change, non-violent action is generally more effective than violent revolt.
- Second, Jesus says he could get his own military defense if he wanted it. Jesus has not chosen violence for himself, and he does not want someone else to choose violence for him. So often, victims of violence are regarded as helpless; it is important to recognize that non-violence is a legitimate Just because someone does not fight back doesn’t mean that they can’t fight back. As strange as it might sound, claiming power is another reason to reject armed defense.
- And finally, Jesus says that he must be arrested to fulfill scripture. This is a theological argument that, in this particular context, probably has more to do with the writer of Matthew’s insistence that everything in Jesus life is about fulfilling scripture—if you read through the Gospel of Matthew you’ll see what I mean. But in a larger sense, this commitment to non-violence is a fulfillment—a living out—of the teachings of prophets like Micah, who we heard from at the beginning of worship, and Isaiah, whose book contains a nearly identical passage: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” When we reject violence, we live out scripture.
Jesus says “put away your sword” and then gives three reasons why.
I’ll be honest, I’m not sure this is exactly how it went. I don’t doubt that Jesus said these things at some point, but it seems like a long speech for Jesus to give as he’s being arrested by an armed mob. Also, this is the only Gospel that includes this little peace lecture.
There is one detail in the story, though, that remains consistent throughout every Gospel, and it strikes me as a very significant detail: the person whose ear is cut off is the slave of the high priest.
This is something that we, as people who want to create peace, need to pay attention to. Because it speaks to the reality of violent retribution: the people in power, the people doing the most harm, are most often not the ones who get hurt by violent retribution.
The slave of the high priest was probably forced to be there, arresting Jesus. He likely had no personal antagonism toward Jesus, but if he didn’t follow his master’s orders, he would suffer dire consequences. And it’s not just this one slave. Notice that early in the passage it says that the crowd arresting Jesus is from the chief priests and elders. These religious leaders are not doing their own dirty work. And they are not in a position to get hurt if Jesus’ followers decide to respond violently.
The generals are not on the front lines of a war. Our commander-in-chief isn’t there at all. The United Nations reports that at least 3,812 Afghan civilians have been killed or wounded due to the war in Afghanistan just in the first half of 2019. In the United States, for every criminal killed in self-defense by a gun, 34 innocent people die by gunfire.
So we can add this to our list of reasons why we seek to create peace: because violence is more likely to harm the high priest’s slave than the high priest himself.
This story of Jesus’ arrest gives us a lot to consider as we think about why we want to create peace. And it is good to think about the “why.” The why is foundational to our peace commitment.
But the why is not enough. We also have to think about the “how.” And this story of Jesus’ arrest gives us some insight into that as well.
Actually, not the story of his arrest so much as what comes before it—Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane: “God, your will be done.” Jesus is in agony, expecting his own violent death. And he asks three of his disciples—Peter, James, and John—to stay awake and pray with him, but they just keep falling asleep.
It is worth noting here that, according to John’s Gospel, Peter is the disciple who pulled out his sword and severed the slave’s ear. Peter, who slept instead of prayed in the garden. I have to imagine that Jesus’ strong prayer life—seen here and several other places in the Gospels—is a primary reason he is able to resist acting out violently even when violence is being done to him.
Creating peace is not something we can just decide to do and then do it; peace-making takes spiritual preparation and practice.
In sharing about the “mugging turned hugging,” Sharon Buttry wrote: “I have always prayed that if I were ever faced with a violent situation I would be able to respond in a way that is consistent with my conviction for nonviolent action.”
That is a serious prayer. It’s a prayer that I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I had never thought to pray for myself. I mean, if I were faced with a violent situation, sure, I’d pray for help. But in the midst of everyday calm, to pray about how I would want to act if I faced violence? It never occurred to me. But of course it’s important.
I remember a story I read several years ago about a bus driver who was able to remain a calm, comforting presence to the special needs students on her bus when an armed hijacker forced his way on. Asked later by a reporter how she managed to handle the crisis so well she said, “I pray a lot.” Not “I prayed a lot.” “I pray a lot.”
Spiritual preparation—in the form of prayer, Bible study, worship–is essential for those of us who hope to be ready to create peace in the most violent and unexpected circumstances. And in addition to spiritual preparation, it doesn’t hurt to have some practical preparation as well.
Sharon Buttry also writes that when she was trying to decide how to respond to her mugger: “I clearly remembered a piece of nonviolence training: If you can engage your enemy in a common task, the distraction may lead to a humane interaction.” The common task she chose was to look through her purse for the dollar bill. But she thought of that successful strategy because she had taken nonviolence training.
There are lots of practical ways for us to prepare—many of you studied non-violent communication in Sunday School; some of us carry one of these “Bystander Intervention” cards from the Peace and Justice Support Network and Mennonite Mission Network (You’re welcome to take one from the table in the entry area); some of us have done trainings with KIPCOR in Newton; some of you have trained in mediation; we have books on peace-making in the library that anyone can check out. The training won’t look the same for everyone, but if we are serious about following Jesus’ way of peace, we’ll find opportunities to learn more about how to do that.
Sometimes it can feel like the preparation is far removed from the work. It can feel like a waste of time to pray, to worship, to read and think and train, to breathe deeply and take care of our own bodies and spirits. But the preparation and the action—they are not far removed at all. The one is essential for the other.
Creating peace is hard work. Fortunately for us, we have an ideal guide to follow in Jesus. And we have a loving community to support us on the journey.