Avoided the Ways of the Violent

(Psalm 17:1-9) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, November 11, 2019 – UBC Digby

October 9, 1923, in Victoria Park, Windsor, NS, the new Hants County War Memorial was unveiled. 

In the program for the ceremony, a description of the large cross-shaped stone cenotaph included this description:

The text inscribed on the lower front–“They fought to bury deep the Sword,” voices the leading thought embodied in the Memorial. A huge laurel- hung sword struck deeply into the rock, indicates the hope of an end to all warfare. Above hovers the Dove of Peace, in the act of placing upon it the Olive Branch; which the globes at the base at the sides, further suggest that peace be universal. 

‘They fought to bury deep the sword.’ This is the sentiment of November each year, for us. We look back to ‘the war to end all wars,’ and the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the War in Afghanistan, not to mention so many other moments of conflict and peacekeeping.

So much of the violence of the ages, aimed at the end of violence. The end of repression. The end of injustice. The end of poverty. The end of fear. Oh, to build a world where everyone can ‘avoid the ways of the violent.’ 

Who, of us, has been able to do that? Live non- violently? Or, at least, used force to bring about peace? Use the sword to bury deep the sword? “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” said Jesus, we are told. (Mtt 26:52)

When Bonnie read Psalm 17 today, we responded each time with words of verse 4. “I have avoided the ways of the violent.” Psalm 17 is sometimes known as one of the many ‘Psalms of innocence’ here in the Bible. It is the voice, the prayer, of an innocent person, who has done no wrong, but is now surrounded by enemies. 

Some of this poetry resonates with the theme of national conflicts and the struggle for what’s right. ‘Hear a just cause, O LORD’ are the first words. We have the theory of the ‘just war,’ and even ‘holy war.’

‘O saviour of those who seek refuge from their adversaries.’ ‘Deadly enemies… surround me.’ Many people like me have no idea what this experience is like, that has been faced by so many military, and civilians. So we must tell the stories, the history, the poetry of war and peace. 

Who has been as innocent as the one speaking in Psalm 17? Who has buried deep the sword, and truly avoided the ways of the violent?

Our whole scripture is strewn with tales of war and bloodshed, of terrible violence – both against and by ‘the people of God.’ Who is the Prince of Peace?

As a disciple keenly interested in the Bible and our use of it, I have been facing the challenge more, lately, of how to understand our violent history. I want to be a peacemaker, influenced profoundly by scripture.

So, today, we happen to be saying some official farewells to a couple people I think of as peace- makers: Rev. John and Evelyn Dickinson. I pay tribute to them, here in the sermon, because of how they have led others to avoid the ways of the violent

I suppose I met Evelyn and John thirty years ago, attending annual gatherings of the Atlantic Baptist Fellowship. But I never had talked with them much, nor got to know them, until I moved here and became their pastor in 2014. 

First impressions could lead one astray. An Englishman of significant intelligence, who plays bridge and reads widely, might be expected to be rather hoity-toity and uppity. And his wife! The daughter of a great Baptist Minister and a wise educator, intelligent and elegant in her own right – she could be expected to be a bit holier-than-thou. But no! More kind and compassionate folk you could not find. And their friendships span every religion, ethnicity, economic status and politic, I’d wager. 

If these friends are infamous around here, at all, it could be for how they opposed a quarry project fifteen years ago. I’d call this one way they have avoided violence against creation. Care of and responsibility for the environment come from them.

I give thanks that John and Evelyn have avoided they ways of the violent against humanity. Their ministries have led to some amazing caring for people. I love their stories. Like that from their Ontario Church in 1979, The Year of the Child, when they raised one million pennies for the cause. That’s $10,000 – in 1979!

And, they have showed me things about avoiding the ways of the violent in religion. This takes us back to the challenge of the terrible violence in the Bible stories, and in Church history. John also finds this hard. He has been passing on many of his books to me, and more to the Church Library, actually. I should be giving him a book, like Derek Flood’s ‘Disarming Scripture.’ Flood teaches things like this, about the Old Testament Prophets, and Jesus Christ:
Jesus [therefore] rejects the prophets’ claim that [such] judgment (sickness, suffering, etc.) is God’s work, and instead frames his healing ministry in terms of the kingdom of God advancing against Satan’s kingdom (cf. Luke 11:17-20). (Flood, 2014, P. 40)

John and Evelyn have even been associated with an international group called…
wait for it… 

The Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America.
Did you know there is such a thing? Yes! Peace loving, peace making, even pacifist Baptist Christians. 

As you go from our midst, after 23 years in Digby County, go in peace, and may the LORD guard you as the apple of God’s eye, and keep you in the shadow of God’s wings.

Let me begin the third and final chapter of this sermon by dealing with Psalm 17 in one more way. Let me quote that famous Christian martyr of the Second World War, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, beloved pastor, professor, and theologian. 

A Psalm that we cannot utter as a prayer, that makes us falter and horrifies us, is a hint to us that here Someone else is praying, not we; the One who is here protesting his innocence, who is invoking God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other that Jesus Christ himself.
(Life Together, p. 45, translation 1954 by John W. Doberstein)

Today’s Bible poem does come across as the words of a completely innocent man or woman. Done no wrong. Been perfectly faithful to God in every way. Yet now beset by enemies of all sorts – perhaps even incarcerated unjustly. What if we read these words as the words of Jesus the Christ? Jesus, whom we proclaim as perfect, as totally right and justified; but who was attacked, arrested, tortured, & executed. How do these verses sound as Jesus’ prayer?

Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry;
…if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
    my mouth does not transgress.
by the word of your lips
    I have avoided the ways of the violent.
Wondrously show your steadfast love,
    O savior of those who seek refuge
    from their adversaries at your right hand.

This is the Jesus we seek, and find. 
This is the Christ we claim as ours, to follow.
This is the Son of God, who suffers with us.
This is the Holy One who gives us life, abundant and eternal. 

If the author, Derek Flood, is right – and I believe he is – our Jesus avoided the ways of the violent. He suffered ultimate violence to end violence. To make peace. Peace with God. Peace between people. Peace with all creation. Peace with the past, the present, and our future. 

Jesus fought to bury deep the sword, even the sword that pierced him at His death upon the Cross. How I cry out to Him now, for the people who are still at war in this world, and who face life-long trauma after. How I plead with Jesus now, for friends who face domestic violence which is trying to destroy their lives. How I beg Him now, for the power to be non- violent, and to oppose the powers that hurt people, and hurt the whole planet. 

And, I believe, He is already answering.

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