People So True to Love

Randall Tremba
March 18, 2012
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church

John 3:14-21
And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

* * *

Paula and I have two sons. First came Jonah. Then 13 months later there came Nate. Way down deep Jonah and Nate loved each other, but for 16 years or so it was so deep they couldn’t quite reach it. For 16 years or so they seemed determined to kill, maim or humiliate each other every chance they got.

Due to our pacifist leanings, Paula and I didn’t buy our sons toy guns. But it didn’t matter. They created guns out of sticks and shot each other dead many times.

As their father, I felt obligated to tell them that because they were indeed smallish people—weak and witless—they needed a gun to defend themselves. But a time would come, I told them, when you’ll be mature, strong, creative, wise, witty and courageous and then you’ll put away childish things like guns and learn how to solve problems like adults—non-violently, that is by talking things out.

One evening, a few years later, while they were trying to maim each other I decided to intervene. I forcefully separated them and made them sit on chairs facing each other.

I told them it was obvious that one or both had a grievance against the other. So I would referee while they thoroughly articulated their grievances. But, I told them, before the other could explain or justify himself he would have to mirror, which is to say, repeat to his brother what he just heard to make sure he had indeed heard correctly. (If you’ve ever done this sort of thing, you knew it takes time and careful listening.)

At the end of the hour each had had their say and the rage had subsidized. I gave each of them a pat on the head for their good work. I don’t remember them shaking hands. And I know for sure they didn’t hug each other. But as I headed up the stairs one or both said to me: “Dad, next time just spank us.”

Hitting is easy. Listening is hard. And understanding another is even harder.

This coming Saturday we have a rare opportunity to learn from a reservist on the Christian Peacemaking Team. Beth Pyles, a part-time Presbyterian minister in Virginia, has done six tours in Iraq. I’ve only recently come to know Beth but I can tell you this: she is one vivacious personality and a fabulous storyteller. (She’s also a grandmother and a self-described “Cranky old lady.”)

You will be informed, edified and inspired by her witness to the theory and practice of non-violent actions in the midst of a war zone. She believes—and has staked her life on it—that Jesus taught and practiced such a way of life while he lived under the Roman Empire’s violent occupation of the Jewish homeland. Beth also believes Jesus meant for us to practice non-violence for the salvation of the world.

Easier said than done. Easier said than done for it sure does seem that humans are condemned—condemned to live and die by violence. Greed, tribalism and revenge are in our blood.

And yet there is within our species an amazing capacity to imagine and practice another way—the way of love and forgiveness. Or, as Gandhi put it:Nonviolence is the law of our species as violence is the law of the brute.You can hear it in today’s gospel lesson.

God so loved the world that God sent the beloved son so that whoever believes in the beloved will not perish but rather will have eternal life[“eternal” could be translated “abundant”; it does not mean “everlasting.”] For God did not send the beloved child into the world to condemn the world but rather that the world might be saved, which is to say, healed—part of the root meaning of “salvation.”

We might think those verses are about Jesus and Jesus only. But there’s another way to see it. Yes, it sounds like a theologicaldeclaration but it just may be an anthropologicalclaim rooted in our on-going evolution. All species manifest the glory and beauty of God. But which species uniquely bears the power of divinity, which is to say, the capacity to create and destroy? You got it! That would be us.

It’s true we are an ingenious and clever species. It’s also true that we often go awry and sometimes horrifically. And yet it is within us to find infinite ways to reach out and mend the world and ourselves with love.

You can see it in that odd Old Testament story about the bronze snake on a pole. (Numbers 21:4-9) It’s a story some 3000 years old, from a far away time and culture. But consider what it reveals about humans.

In this world we are vulnerable to poisonous snakes of one sort or another—some slither along the ground; some slither into our hearts and minds. It’s inevitable: in this world, on this planet, something’s bound to get you and make you deathly sick. The moral of this story is that a human being figured out a way to bring hope and healing to a society wallowing in despair and fatalism. Look up, he said, and you will be healed. Some did. Some didn’t.

Maybe it was magic, maybe it was psychosomatic. Whatever it was, one of our fellow humans found a way to heal rather than condemn others to misery and hell on earth.

I have come into this world to see this: the sword drop from human hands even at the height of their arc of anger.(Hafiz)

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the Son of Man, which is to say, the Child of Humanity, be lifted up.

And when we lift our eyes up to Jesus—our icon of true humanity—what do we see? I don’t know what you see but what I see is this: one of our own flesh and blood who dropped the sword. I see one who loved and forgave his enemies even if it killed him. No sword. No retaliation. Love and forgiveness. Look up. There’s hope.

I have come into the world to experience this: people so true to love they would rather die before speaking an unkind word, people so true their lives are God’s covenant—the promise of hope. (Hafiz)

By the way, this way is not the way of passivity and cowardice. As Gandhi said, if the choice is between cowardice and violence—choose violence. The way of non-violent action requires courage greater than armed warriors. And—get this—it’s meant for households as well as nations.

During the early 70s, while I was in seminary in Pasadena, California, I came under the influence of Quakers. I developed pacifist leanings. One of my heroes at the time was Clarence Jordan, a Baptist minister and founder of a pacifist rural, farming community called Koinonia Farms, outside of Americus, Georgia. During WW II Clarence and others there were conscientious objectors, which greatly irritated his patriotic neighbors. Did I mention this was inrural Georgia?

One afternoon a self-styled, super patriot paid a visit and told Clarence Jordan—in no uncertain terms—that he couldn’t and wouldn’t respect a man who was afraid to fight.

Oh, you got that wrong, said Clarence. We’re big fighters.

That’s not what I hear. I hear you won’t go to war.

That’s right. But that doesn’t mean we’re not fighters. We just happen to use a different kind of weapon.

Clarence could see the man was confused so he put it in terms the farmer might understand.

Look over yonder. See that mule.


If that mule bit you in the butt, would you get even by biting its butt?

No way, replied the farmer in disgust. I’d never put my mouth on a mule’s butt. I’d smack that mule in the head with a two by four!

Well, said Clarence, that’s pretty much the way we see it, too. We will not let the other determine the weapons we use. We’re big fighters but the tool we use is love.

Hate is easy. Love is hard. Revenge is easy. Forgiveness is hard. Despair is easy. Hope is hard.

Life itself is hard. But guess what: grace abounds.