How long will you sit on the fence?

A Memorial Day sermon

Text: 1 Kings 18:20-39
29 May 2016
Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville NC

by Ken Sehested

       A week ago I was coming up with ideas to share with Brian about music appropriate for today’s service. I sent a note to Larry Wilson who, as a life-long Mennonite pastor, would surely know the Mennonite hymnal and might have some Memorial Day music suggestions for worship.

       Larry wrote back and said, “Well, we never paid much attention to Memorial Day, so the truth is I don’t know of anything to recommend.”

       Here in this Circle we, too, enter Memorial Day weekend feeling a lot of ambiguity. On the one hand, we’re generally aware of the extraordinary sacrifice which veterans have endured. Since 1973 we’ve had an all-volunteer army here in the US. With a draft, the human costs of war are not widely felt throughout the population. But I suspect many know the unique ache of losing a loved one to the ravages of war.

       Although he almost never talked about it, my Dad was in the first wave landing at Omaha Beach in the 1945 D-Day invasion on the French coast of Europe. He carried to his grave a piece of shrapnel embedded in bone behind his right ear. Whenever I go to Washington, DC, I try to make time to visit the Vietnam War Memorial. My cousin Ron, whom I played with when our families gathered most summers at the Sehested clan house in Marlow, Oklahoma, has his name engraved on that wall.

       Years ago I daydreamed about taking a tour of war memorials around the globe, to experience them first-hand as a way of reflecting on what role they play in the life of a culture. Most, of course, glorify war. They function very much like religious altars, lifting up the memories of the dead as blood sacrifice and atonement for the nation and the penal cost of freedom. They are among the most sacred architecture in a nation’s liturgy. The flying of a nation’s flag, and the reciting of pledges of allegiance, point to these structures and the memories they store. Which brings to mind a couple of quotes:

       We believe “neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. We “repudiate the doctrine of Pacifism—born of a renunciation of the struggle and an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice. War alone brings up to their highest tension all human energies and put the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it.”

       Then a second quote: “In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.”

       I can imagine any number of political leaders saying that first quote. But in fact it was written by Benito Mussolini, the World War II dictator of Italy. The second is from Adam Smith, the Scottish moral philosopher and political economist who is considered as the “father” of free-market capitalism. I think of it every year this weekend when the Indianapolis 500 car race happens, and the morning paper is more than twice its usual size due to the Memorial Day sales fliers.

       By the way, 350,000 people were at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway today to watch that race. Another 7 million or so watched it on TV. By my rough estimate, over the past 15 years worship attendance at Circle of Mercy totals a bit less than 40,000. Assuming worship attendance remains about the same, it will take us another 100 years to equal today’s attendance at the Indy 500. And it will take 175,000 years for us to total the number than watch today’s race on TV.

       Does that make you feel small? I hope so, for it’s only when we learn to embrace our smallness will we discover the goodness of the Gospel and the secret to our power.

       Memorial Day cookouts and picnics draw family and friends together. That’s a good thing. Millions of people experience the raw horsepower of the Indy 500, where the average speed is more than 150 miles per hour. That’s a rush. Tens of millions will visit cemeteries this weekend to honor the dead, especially those killed in our nation’s wars. They should be remembered. For decades my uncle in Oklahoma goes to the Marlow cemetery to lay fresh flowers on the graves of the Sehested and Rowell clans. The reason I appreciate the Vietnam Memorial is because it is designed for grief. Whether you are or against any particular war, we all need to grieve the inevitable losses.

       Hundreds of millions of US flags will fly this weekend. Once upon a time that flag symbolized the overthrow of repressive government and militarized oppression—though I dare say what the flag symbolizes today is not as clear, especially in our time, when U.S. special forces are operating in 134 countries around the globe and are supported by more than 800 military bases outside our nation’s borders.

       No one should dispute the valor of soldiers and sailors and airmen and women, and I certainly don’t. In fact, I’m envious, envious over the fact that we have institutions capable of calling forth the willingness to go into harm’s way for reasons beyond self-preservation. Once upon a time, the church offered a similarly compelling story, inspiring similar levels of commitment.

       “Greater love hath none than this,” Jesus told his disciples, “than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Nowadays most adults can buy an assault rifle with that verse of Scripture inscribed on the barrel.

       Solemn oaths of allegiance and loyalty have long traditions in both the military and the church. My argument with military culture is not over morality. I’m pretty sure there are proportionately as many sincere, fair-minded members in the military as in the church. My argument, rather, is whose vision—the one in Scripture refined and focused in Jesus’ testimony, or the one in policies of national defense—whose vision about the exertion of power to order the Beloved Community is more compelling and, more importantly, more trustworthy in the long run?

       Does the Way of Jesus compete with the wont of the Pentagon?

       Is the Way of Jesus “an act of cowardice in the face of sacrifice?”

       Is it true that “war alone brings up to their highest tension all human energies and put the stamp of nobility upon the peoples”?

       Is it remotely possible that loving one’s enemies is not a silly notion but is, in fact, the way to peace?

       Part of the answer to that question is defining what “peace” is. In his history of ancient Rome’s conquests, the historian Tacitus recorded this comment from one military commander overwhelmed by Roman might: “They rob, butcher, plunder, and call it ‘empire’; and where they make a desolation, a wasteland, they call it ‘peace.’”

       What we should be asking ourselves is whether the peace of Christ is a reliable alternative to the peace of Rome. Pax Christi? Or Pax Romana? Or is the peace of Christ merely a “spiritual” thing, emptied of fleshly meaning, useful only as a preparation for the life hereafter, where the peace of Rome is the undisputed guarantor of human affairs this side of Heaven? In other words, is “just war-making” the most reasonable bet?

§  §  §

       Today’s text from 1 Kings is a doozy. One bit of background: a little earlier in chapter 18 Israel’s King Ahab refers to the prophet Elijah as “the troubler” of the nation. We need to ask ourselves when and how the Word of God is the “troubler of nations” and in what ways are we to be “troublers” of the nation.

       In this text a national debate is raging over which source of divine power is more reliable. Is it Ba’al, the most common name of the deity of that part of ancient semitic cultures in what we now call the Middle East; or is it Yahweh, the one who mobilized the Hebrew people’s escape from Egyptian bondage?

       Elijah challenges the priest of Ba’al to a showdown. All the people met at Mount Carmel. Then Elijah made his famous indictment of the people’s divided loyalties, in the form of an accusatory question: “When will you stop sitting on the fence?” Another translator uses a different metaphor: “How long will you go limping with two different opinions?”

       When will you stop sitting on the fence? How long will you go limping with two different opinions?

       I hope you loved Nancy’s children’s story about Hedy Epstein[1] as much as I did—though none of us love it was much as Bill Ramsey [one of our members], who was like a son to Hedy. Remember these three things, Hedy told countless number of school children over the course of her lifetime: (1) remember your past; (2) don’t hate; and (3) don’t be a bystander. Get off the fence; quit limping along with two different opinions. Make up your mind and put your assets in the game.

       There’s not enough time now to survey the entire narrative of Elijah’s confrontation with 450 priests of Ba’al. That number, by the way, is key to the sarcasm of this story: Elijah is outnumbered 450-to-1. Needless to say it was a fiery showdown. The priests of Ba’al are hapless. Despite parading around their altar all day long, nothing happened. (The text repeated the word “limped” in describing the priests’ desperate efforts.) All in vain. Elijah mocked them, saying “Cry aloud! It’s shoutin’ time. Surely your god is a true God. But maybe he’s immersed in transcendental meditation, doing some centering prayer, lost in a mystical trance, holed up somewhere in a sweat lodge. Or maybe he wandered off, out of cellphone reach in a no wi-fi wilderness. Or maybe just catching up on some zzzz’s, taking a power nap.

       Then to underscore the drama, Elijah had his altar soaked in water; and then soaked again; and then a third time. He was taunting his opponents, almost like fighting them with one hand tied behind his back.

       That’s when the fireworks began.

§ § §

       And so we, too, are faced with our own Memorial Day choice. How long will we sit on the fence? How long will we go about limping with unresolved, contradictory commitments?

§ § §

       Let me be clear about this. The world is not a harmless place. It can be dangerous, even deadly. Jesus’ call to faith is not a recommendation of naiveté, as if we could just sing “Kumbaya” enough and threats would go away. The question that dogs us is the question about which vision of the future is more reliable? Which god deserves our trust and obedience? Does violence, in the end, play a necessary redemptive function—God, being occasionally distracted, needing a little nudge from us to make history come out right? Or is there a reliable power beyond the weapons of war and retaliation and emotional manipulation and harsh and bitter language? And if so, what does that power require of us? What does it look like? How do we access it and learn it and practice it and teach it? How do we shape individuals and families and economic institutions and whole cultures that cooperate in building a culture of peace? As a start, we should revisit our own “Peace Church” statement approved in 2012.[2]

       Let me be clear about this. There is no Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, telling Dorothy that in order to escape the dangerous land of Oz she only need click the heels of her ruby slippers three times, repeating the phrase “There’s no place like home.”

       This, sisters and brothers—this is home, right here in our often-threatening land of Oz. This is the arena of God’s redemptive plan. This, not some distant horizon, some place in what’s behind the clouds, is where we must pitch our tents. This is where the drama of salvation is being played out. This is the geography of our faith. This is the reference point of our marching orders and our mustering in the God Movement.

       The really uncomfortable news, however, is that we really cannot know this alternative source of power until we actually commit ourselves to it. Details of the Way only opens up as we walk. Nothing important can be known short of the risk of commitment.

       Remember your history; don’t hate; and by all means get off the fence, don’t be a bystander.

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[P.S. The lectionary editors ended today’s 1 Kings reading at v. 39, just short of v. 40 where the priests of Ba’al are massacred at Elijah’s demand. We cannot simply whiteout that part of the story—but that’s another sermon.]


[1] See “Hedy Epstein, Rights Activist and Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 91,” The New York Times.

[2] “Circle of Mercy is a Peace Church.”