Sunday, October 21, 2012

Peace where it hurts most

Peacebuilding and the Church
Matthew 5:38-48; Jeremiah 29:1-9

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Peacebuilding is the most challenging in our closest relationships.
That’s something we all experience at a gut-level, 
even if we don’t quite want to believe it at the head level. 
It is among those who share the closest, 
most intimate relationships, 
who are most deeply committed to one another, 
who spend the most time together, 
where peace-building presents unique challenges.

Of course, we’re talking about different kinds of peace, here.
In most churches and neighborhoods and families and marriages, 
we are not generally firing weapons, 
dropping bombs, or engaging in brutal oppression. 
Although I would be quick to add,
violence is certainly not absent in these close relationships 
more often than we’d like to admit.

But short of physical violence, we often 
invest more emotional energy, and inflict more damage, 
in struggles with our loved ones, 
than with strangers or enemies at a distance.

So we take this Sunday in our 3-week series, 
to speak of peacebuilding close to home—
peacebuilding where it hurts most.
If we cannot build peace here, where can we do it?

I want to tell an extended story, 
as the core part of my sermon this morning. 
It’s a story about this congregation, Park View Mennonite.

I told it one other time, 15 years ago.
But that’s almost a generation ago.
Our daughter who’s about to turn 30,
and will give us our first grandchild any day now,
was just out of middle school then.
And a story like this should be told to every generation,
at least several times, it seems to me.

Mennonites are one of several historic peace churches—
a church that consistently opposes participation in war—
so there are far more stories about our responses to war
than we ever have time to tell.
There are stories from the Revolutionary War,
from the Civil War,
from both World Wars,
the Korean and Vietnam war,
and the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are far more stories than we know about.
And they are not all good stories.
They are not all stories we can be proud of.
But they are part of who we are.

Today’s story, which is a good story, comes from the Vietnam War era.
And it is based in this congregation.
And it involves several persons who are here this morning.
In fact, a couple key players in this story, 
Dan and Barbara Lehman, from Mansfield, Ohio,
are here with us this morning,
visiting Dan’s father, Harold Lehman.
I did not know they would be here,
when I planned to tell this story.
But I mentioned my plans to Harold last Sunday,
and he informed me they would be here.
So Dan has bravely agreed to share his personal response,
after I tell the story.

I didn’t learn about this story from anyone here at Park View.
I learned about it by reading a book
published by Herald Press 30 years ago,
called “The Path of Most Resistance.”
This book is a collection of stories from the Vietnam War era,
and one chapter focuses on Dan Lehman.

In the early 1970s Dan was one of a number of 
Mennonite young men in college who decided to resist the draft.
Rather than cooperate with the Selective Service,
and legally choose a student deferment,
or to register as a conscientious objector,
they took the position that any kind of cooperation
with the Selective Service System at all,
was cooperating with a system whose aim was to wage war.
They decided to do so would be to violate their conscience,
and to deny their faith convictions.

As you might imagine,
this raised some controversy among Mennonites.
Most Mennonites did not agree with this radical position.
They felt it was better to cooperate with the law,
since the law provided for a legal way to avoid military service.
My grandfather, for instance, during World War I,
suffered beatings and psychological abuse in boot camp,
for disobeying direct military orders.
He had no alternative service option.
He was a courageous conscientious objector.
But I know that he had huge problems with persons like Dan,
and other young Mennonite radicals,
who seemed to forsake the traditional non-resistant position,
and started actively, though non-violently, resisting,
when there were legal alternatives.

So there began to be some lively, and sometimes quite tense,
debate over this issue,
across the Mennonite church,
and in this congregation at Park View.

I’m curious,
how many of you were attending Park View in the summer of 1970?
That’s 42 years ago, if you do the math.
Those of you who raised your hand, 
at least if you’re pushing 60, or over,
probably remember this story first hand.
I know Harold remembers it well.

It seems some Goshen College students a short time earlier
non-violently took over a church service
at College Mennonite in Goshen,
in order to talk about this issue.
They called the action “Operation Blaurock.”

So four young people here got to talking,
and decided that taking over a service
would be a fine thing to do at Park View, also.
They named themselves the Park View Action Faction.

The four people from Park View were Dan Lehman,
his girlfriend Barbara Brenneman (now his wife),
Curt Berkey, son of the late Doris Berkey,
and Eddie Bumbaugh, 
who now heads up Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance.
I had hoped Eddie might come this morning to also give a response,
but he is doing something far less radical this weekend,
going to visit his grandchildren out of town.
But at least we have half the “Action Faction” with us today.

The four of them carefully laid their plans.

Their passion about draft resistance was, of course,
a radically political action.
But they decided not to just get up and talk politics to the church.
They needed to address the church in its own terminology.
So they decided to do Bible study all summer.
They bought copies of the “Good News for Modern Man” Bible
and read it from cover to cover.
They especially focused on the parts 
that seemed politically radical.
This was a new way to engage scripture, for them.
And it got them excited about the Bible 
in a way they hadn’t been before.
They were especially challenged by the book of James,
and the Sermon on the Mount.

They did tip off the pastor, Harold Eshleman, about their plans.
To their great surprise, Harold thought it was a good idea,
and gave them a whole Sunday morning
to do whatever they wanted.
And Dan’s father Harold,
even though he did not agree with draft resistance,
volunteered to lead the singing.
He probably wanted to save them from embarrassment,
since none of the four had a reputation
for being able song leaders.

Dan was the preacher for that July morning, 42 years ago.
He began his sermon with these words:
“When someone mentions Park View Church,
do you think of brick, mortar, red carpet, padded benches,
and a substantial debt?”
This was only a couple years after the original building was built,
the red-carpeted sanctuary being our current fellowship hall.
He continued,
“Or . . . do you think of a committed unit of Christians
denying the comforts of this world
and taking up the cross in intense love and servanthood?”

After examining a number of scripture references,
he then said these words:
“When we first considered this meeting 1½ months ago,
I was going to speak from a self-righteous standpoint.
But after studying God’s Word and praying,
I now hang my head when I think how far I am 
from the ideal of Christ’s message.
My father can and will tell you 
of my materialism, my record collection, my appetite,
my rash anger, and my foolish deeds.”
[Dan, in your response, 
maybe you can expand on those “foolish deeds” . . . or not]
He then appealed to the Park View Church to meet as a congregation,
“to question the whole validity of our structure.
If we are serious in our desire to reflect a divine Christ,
then we must submit ourselves to his will even if means,
as it did for the rich young ruler,
that we must sell our possessions,
even our church building,
and give the money to the poor.
We may not be asked to go this far,
but we must be ready to examine ourselves to that extent,
or we have lost our vision as a brotherhood of believers.”

After Dan’s sermon, the offering was taken.
And after the offering plates made their rounds,
the four of them sent the plates back into the congregation again,
and told people to take out of the plates whatever they needed.
No one took any money out.
One of the four then stood up and said,
“Do you realize that this might say something about us?
It seems like we aren’t really giving where it hurts.”

After the service was over,
the four young people were invited to continue their discussion 
with the congregation during the Sunday School hour.
This is when Dan spoke more specifically 
about his draft resistance plans.
The authors of the book say that it turned out to be a “hot” subject,
and Dan was “vigorously challenged” by the other members.
They ended up having yet another church meeting with them
on Monday night.
It was a vigorous, back-and-forth exchange.

It says in the book that “nobody changed anybody’s mind.”
But it did help to focus Dan’s feelings on his decision.
And it gave him courage to keep moving ahead.
It also helped the congregation to understand more fully,
why these young people were doing what they were doing,
and to at least respect their convictions,
and show them some support,
even though they didn’t agree with them.

There is a lot more to this story.
There is a detailed account of Dan’s appeal 
to the local draft board,
and how pastor Eshleman accompanied Dan 
and spoke on his behalf.
It describes Dan’s feelings when his number came up,
and his plans to emigrate to Canada,
knowing that choice might mean not being able 
to come back home to the Shenandoah Valley,
and his parents’ home, ever again.
It tells how Dan’s mother Ruth,
who worked in the registrar’s office at EMU,
had to decide how to handle a phone call from the FBI,
when the agent asked her if she knew a student there
by the name of Daniel Wayne Lehman.
If you want to hear the rest of the story, 
the book is in our church library.
Or you can borrow my copy.

Why do I tell this story?
For one, it’s a vivid example of how 
some persons in our church family,
read, understood, and then applied
the Gospel text we heard this morning from Matt. 5,
the basis of the traditional Mennonite stance of non-resistance.
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, 
turn to them the other cheek also. 
And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, 
hand over your coat as well.”
And . . . “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
They read that, and determined that any cooperation—
even legal, non-violent cooperation—
with a violent military system,
would be disobedience to Christ.

This story also illustrates the text from the prophet Jeremiah,
addressed to the Jewish exiles in Babylon.
I think these young people saw themselves, to a degree,
as exiles in a foreign land.
But they wanted to contribute in a positive way 
to this foreign land where they lived.
They could identify with Jeremiah’s words,
“Seek the peace of the city to which you were carried into exile.
For in its peace, you will find your peace.”

I also relate this story,
because it tells of a time when the church was extremely divided,
but how, despite the sharp disagreements,
they struggled together, and stayed together.
This was no casual community,
content with being polite,
and settling for the lowest common denominator.
This wasn’t a church where everyone was just nice to each other,
and buried their disagreements,
or quietly went their separate ways.

They wrestled to work it out.
They took these college students so seriously,
that they spontaneously devoted 
the whole Sunday School hour to engage them . . .
and then planned to meet again and struggle some more,
the following evening.
That’s no small commitment.
That’s a commitment to stay in relationship,
while we work out our disagreements.
And to accompany, to walk alongside others in our faith family,
even when we don’t agree with them.
It wasn’t just the parents who stood by them,
it was also the pastor.
And, I suppose, some others in the church.

I do imagine there were some who did not offer their support.
But at this point, I’d like to hear from Dan directly.
Dan, will you come and talk to us 
about what this experience was like for you.
How did it shape your view of the church? your faith?

[Dan’s reflections]

Thank you for sharing with us, Dan.

This issue of draft resistance
is not our issue any more.
Although it could be again, some day.
There are other issues that divide the church today,
and sometimes result in polite divisions,
because the respective groups aren’t willing to do the hard work
of struggling together,
while staying together.
We are not always willing to stand by, and walk alongside,
in support of others in the church,
even while we vigorously disagree with them.
In terms of dealing with those we differ with,
it’s much easier to walk away,
than walk alongside.

I call us all, and I call the larger church,
to a way of peace-building that gives priority to
walking alongside.

—Phil Kniss, October 21, 2012

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