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Love Overcomes Violence
A Maundy Thursday sermon at Augustana Lutheran, Oregon. Jesus washes feet. References to violence in 20th century, in Brussels, and at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by anti-federal government zealots.
By Ed Knudson
Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016
Augustana Lutheran Church, Portland, Oregon
John 13:1-17, 31b-35 Exodus 12:1-4, [5-10], 11-14 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Grace to you and Peace, from God our father and our lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
What is going on in the texts for this evening has to do with life and death – what it means to live in the world, what it means to die. We are coming down to the last days of the life of Jesus. What would you do if you knew you had only a day or two left to live? In our culture we would be told to try to enjoy ourselves, to do something for ourselves. But Jesus is not curved in upon himself. In the thirteenth chapter of John we are told that Jesus does something really astounding, if we hadn’t heard about it before, he actually washes the disciples’ feet. At the time this was work that only a servant or slave would do. But Jesus reveals a different kind of God, a God of love who becomes known in the most intimate and loving act as the washing of feet.
We especially need to hear the good news that God is a God of love in our time when we are experiencing a great deal of violence. In fact for many people in many different religions, including Christianity, God is associated with power and violence and national glory. Violence is being done often in God’s name. Modern communications brings the violence in one place to every other place. We hear of major terrorist attacks occurring in Paris and Istanbul, in San Bernardino and just day before yesterday, Brussels in Europe where 31 human beings were killed and over 300 wounded.
Right here in Oregon we have recently experienced a situation where violence was threatened to be used in the small town of Burns in the desert country of the south central part of the state. In the Western United States there are various groups, sometimes calling themselves “militia”, who consider the federal government evil. They have armed themselves with guns and believe in the power of force against others. They came to the town of Burns to protest what they considered an unjust prison sentence for two ranchers. But then they decided to engage in an armed take-over of a nearby wildlife refuge and called for more men with guns to come to Burns to take over the legal system in that city and in Harney County.
I drove over to Burns to see for myself what was happening since I am particularly interested in matters of church and state. Some of the militia leaders were Morman and justified their actions partly on the basis of their understanding of their faith. And I wanted to see how the Lutheran pastor there was doing. When I talked with him and others it became clear what was going on. The people of Burns wanted these militia people gone. Men with long guns were strutting around town pretending they were the law. They stood at the entrance to the local Safeway store watching people as they came and went, as if they were the legitimate authorities in town. Militia in vehicles would follow federal employees to their homes and sit outside as if to threaten them. The pastor told me that the people of Burns felt intimidated and terrorized by these militia.
The Oregonian newspaper was making it seem as if these guys were engaged in a legitimate protest. It was making the leaders seem like heroes, as if the town of Burns was completely divided over the issue and that many supported the militia. But what I found is that was entirely untrue. The people of Burns wanted these guys gone. It was a very small group of political extremists who wanted to force the federal government to turn over all its land to the local county.
I was in Burns the day the FBI and state police set up the road block to arrest the leaders of illegal take-over of federal property. Despite the efforts of law enforcement to avoid violence, one of the leaders was killed when he reached for his gun. Now a large group of these militia people are in jail and some face long prison terms. They believed they could change the law in Burns with the violence of guns and they failed.
Martin Luther taught that it is the role of the state to keep order in the community even if it is necessary to use the “sword” of violence to do so. A Christian could serve in the police force since God worked through the state in keeping order so people don’t end up killing one another wantonly. But this role of God in the use of violence through the state Luther called God’s “alien righteousness”, that is, something God did for the sake of temporary order in the community but that was against God’s basic nature, which was love. God is revealed through Jesus as a God of love. The true nature of God is not revealed through the state, for God is fundamentally opposed to violence. The true nature of God is revealed through the church which preaches and practices the love of God known in Jesus Christ. At least, that is what the church is supposed to do. Any church which preaches and practices violence is not the true church of Jesus Christ.
We especially see that tonight as we remember what Jesus did the night before he died. He ate with his disciples. And he washed their feet. He didn’t pick up the sword and go around threatening people in the community.
In order to hear the full gospel message of this night, however, it is helpful to try to imagine yourself right here this evening having your feet washed by Jesus. I know, it may seem a little silly. We tend to be embarrassed by our feet. They are smelly. We are walking on them all the time. This past summer I was at a family gathering at a lake cabin, sitting around in lawn chairs. I had sandals on which revealed my twisted toes and the corns on the sides of my feet. My niece sitting next to me kept looking at my feet and said, “Ed, why do you make the rest of us look at your ugly feet.” Now, this is one of my favorite nieces, I love her spontaneity. And she was right. Wearing sandals exposed all the ugliness to the world.
But tonight I could say to my niece, “Jesus loves my feet just as they are.” I can let myself imagine Jesus washing my feet, tenderly massaging them, lovingly drying them with his towel. It is not that we should go and wash someone else’s feet. That’s not the main message tonight. The main message is the gospel of God’s love for each one of us here tonight. When we know God loves us we don’t have to be so terribly concerned with ourselves, we can open ourselves to the lives of others, we need not be tempted to use violence against others. Ultimately it is true that “love overcomes violence.” With all the violence in the world I know that it is sometimes hard to believe this is true. State violence has been going on a very long time now. The 20th century was incredibly violent, two world wars, the systematic effort to exterminate a whole people in Nazi Germany, millions killed in Russia and Ukraine by the dictator Joseph Stalin, the Vietnam War which was a complete failure for this country taking millions of lives. Then we have had the Iraq war which was sold to the American people on false pretenses, which destroyed more millions of lives of real human beings, and inflamed hatred for this country throughout the Middle East. You would think leaders of this country would get the message. Violence doesn’t work very well.
What is true is that love overcomes violence. The day after Maundy Thursday Jesus was put on a cross by the Roman state. He suffered and died. But as we all know that is not the end of the story. The Roman state is long gone. All the great empires of the ancient world are long gone. Nation upon nation using violence has come and gone. If this country continues to emphasize the use of military violence for its security then it too will eventually destroy itself. Violence finally doesn’t work.
We here tonight are proof that this is so. We are the church. We started out a long time ago. We are still here. We gather tonight to remember these events of old which are new again this evening, to hear about this person, Jesus, and learn that God is love and that this God loves each and every one of us.
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