Up the road aways, near Adrian and east of Dublin, sit some unremarkable homes next to a fallow field and among the pines. A few of these homes have sat there for quite a while, with the space growing over the last thirty years. It was here that two Methodist pioneers, Steve Bullington and Faye Key, founded Green Bough House of Prayer; a retreat center modeled after monastic life.
I visit once a quarter, seeking renewal in my spirit, for the work of a pastor is taxing to my relationship with God. Upon arriving, I fall easily into the rhythms and routines of life together, going to night prayer, waking with the birds chirping, taking prayer walks and spending the morning in prayers of various kinds until it’s time for lunch.
At the table in their kitchen are all kinds of fresh foods, including some produce grown right there on the property. We pass the plates, eating in silence, another ancient practice of the Christian monastic tradition they emulate. And when lunch is over, Steve picks up a book and reads to us about a saint.
I love learning about some saint I did not know. Through these readings, I have encountered amazing stories out of South Africa, India, China, Brazil, and right here at home in America. The lives of these saints were often difficult, sometimes exceedingly so, and yet they persevered through hardship, believing in the work to which God had called them. All the while, no matter how rough things got, whether imprisoned, tortured, left for dead, or the like, they continued to praise God. The praise of God never ceased from their mouths.
These saints are inspiring to me for that last reason: their praise of God never ceased. I do not know if these saints, read to us after lunch as we eat dessert, are officially canonized saints of the Roman Catholic Church or if, in the larger and older tradition, they are simply Christians who have gone on to glory.
Regardless, in this book are stories of Christians par excellence; Christians whose lives are worth emulating, who set the example and standard for us of what it means to live a life in service of Christ.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday. It’s the day we remember those who have gone before us. We are, as Hebrews says, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; those saints who have shown us how to live our lives, those saints who have paved the way so that we can worship in freedom, those saints we hold in our hearts who have gone on to heaven.
It’s the day we pay special attention to that line in the Apostle’s Creed: I believe…in the communion of saints. That’s not some fancy theological concept at all. Rather, this is an ancient tradition that has a few meanings. First, we believe that the saints commune, literally share life together, with God. This is the promise for all who die in the faith, one that we can take comfort in when our loved ones pass away and one that we can look forward to. It’s one of the ways that Christ defeated death; no longer is there emptiness but, instead, life and life enteral shared with God.
Second, it means that we have a cadre of individuals and groups whose examples we can emulate. These saints who have gone before can show us how to have faith, show us how to live life as God has called us to. I think of the big heroes of the faith like John Wesley or St. Francis of Assisi or the original apostles. But each of us hold the memory of a saint who showed us the way, one not widely known but one cherished in our hearts. When we live into their examples as we live our lives, we are communing with the saints.
And so we approach the throne of grace this morning communing with those saints who have gone before us, who are praising God right now, whom we hold in our hearts as examples, people to follow.
Let’s read together our scripture on this All Saints’ Sunday: Psalm 149.
As I read and studied this Psalm, an old song I hadn’t thought of in a long time came to mind. I don’t know where I learned it and I didn’t know its history until I googled the opening phrase. Here are the lyrics:
“Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. And we’ll all stay free.”
According to the always accurate and truthful Wikipedia, this song was written in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, describing a chaplain who’s asked to say a prayer for the men as they go off into battle. Rather than pray, the chaplain responds by grabbing a gun to take on the enemy, praying, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”
Sounds a whole lot like, “Let the high praise of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands.”
This kind of combination of militarism and Christianity might make us uncomfortable. Jesus showed us the way not to militarism but to turning the other cheek. The height of Jesus’s example was the cross. Rather than call down the armies of heaven to destroy the Romans and Jewish authorities who had nailed him to the cross, he accepted death. The generations that followed Jesus did the same, as many were martyred for the faith. These are the earliest saints we have on record: those who were arrested by the Romans for being followers of Jesus, who were thrown into the arenas with wild animals and mauled to death for the entertainment of the Romans, who were crucified like Jesus, who were beheaded, who were tortured and then left for dead on garbage dumps; these are the earliest saints. And none of them ever attacked back. None of them ever tried to raise an army in revolt. None of them did anything except willingly go to their own deaths, praising God as they did.
Christianity, when it was founded, was a pacifist religion because Jesus demonstrated pacifism in going to the cross.
Now we can argue about whether or not Christianity should be a pacifist religion or we can argue about whether or not Christianity is today a pacifist religion. Those are academic arguments that, in the end, can’t be definitively resolved because scripture gives witness to both pacifism and militarism.
Indeed, religious militarism sounds like the message of our scripture this morning. Hear again verse 6:
“Let the high praise of God be in [the throats of the faithful] and two-edged swords in their hands…” Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!
And why would the faithful, the people of God, need to be praising God while holding a two-edged sword? Hear the remainder of the Psalm: “to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron, to execute on them the judgment decreed. This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the Lord!”
Can you hear the militarism? The violence? Those who wield the sword against God’s enemies are faithful; those who forcibly take prisoner unrighteous kings and nobles are faithful. It is good and we should celebrate those heroes who take action through violence and war-making and assassination. Praise the Lord! And pass the ammunition.
Historically, that’s how this Psalm has been used. To stir up Catholic sentiment against the new Protestant movement in the seventeenth century, bishops used this very Psalm to call Catholics to arms against Protestants. The result was the Thirty-Years War, considered the most destructive war in Europe until World War I, costing the lives of eight million people. All those deaths in large part because of the reading of this Psalm that said faithful Catholics would grab their swords and go murder some Protestants.
That’s not the only war where this Psalm has been used to encourage Christians to take to up arms for a righteous and holy war. Christianity moved from a pacifistic religion to a militant religion about one thousand years ago when popes encouraged Christians, especially nobles who had money, to raise up armies to go and take back Jerusalem and the Middle East from the Muslim caliphates that ruled the land. Popes and bishops often cited this Psalm as justification for their war-making.
And in that song, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,” we hear echoes of that militant theology and of this Psalm, saying it is faithful to take up arms, to go and kill others, in the name of the Lord, if they stand in the way of God’s ways.
This stands in direct contrast to the saints we often remember. The saints we hold in our hearts this morning were, I would guess, peaceful people who sought reconciliation in relationship. My guess is none of the people you hold dear in your hearts, who set the example for faith, were violent and especially none of them killed anyone. Could you hear the saints in your life, the people you hold dear, who set the example of how to be a Christian, whose example you try to emulate and pass on to generations behind you, could you imagine them saying this Psalm and then encouraging you to go out and be violent?
Jesus said, in the beatitudes, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus speaks of being a peaceful presence, of not engaging violently. To the disciples as he commissions them, he tells them if they are not welcomed in a town, they are not to force the gospel on anyone. They are not to strike out in anger at the town. They are simply to shake the dust off their feet and walk on to the next town.
Paul never resorted to violence when churches rose up against him or when he was kicked out of synagogues. Several times, towns tried to stone him. He was captured and jailed, sometimes in terrible conditions. But no matter the violence he endured, he never got violent himself.
Indeed, the main source of violence in the New Testament is God-caused and God-driven and done by angels, not by humans. The book of Revelation is full of God being violent, taking “vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples…bind[ing] their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains of iron…execut[ing] on them the judgment decreed.” And we say with the ending of the book of Revelation, the same language as the ending of Psalm 149: “This is glory for all his faithful ones. Praise the Lord!”
Scripture, whether Revelation or in many, many, other places, makes clear: God sometimes resorts to violence. And if we’re honest this morning, we want that. We need a God of vengeance to come and make right injustices we know. We need a wrathful God to bring judgment upon oppression in our society, upon evils we experience whether caused by people or caused by nature, things like cancer, dementia, and other terrible diseases. We want God to come and take down kings and nobles who cause people to suffer and threaten the world. We want God to be a wrathful, vengeful, God. And indeed, that is a faithful belief in God. If God is going to be against evil, God is going to sometimes be violent.
But what is our role in that vengeance, in that judgment? Is it militarism like this Psalm seems to suggest? Is it pacifism, like early Christianity practiced?
In good Methodist fashion, the answer is somewhere in between.
This Psalm, in fact, says that the answer is in between.
In the original Hebrew, the term “double-edged sword” is a pun. It literally means “a sword of mouths,” such that the verse would read, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats, and a sword of mouths in their hands.” That, of course, makes no sense to us. But we’d have to speak Hebrew for the double meaning to be understandable.
Hearers of the Hebrew, however, would have immediately understood that the Psalm is saying this:
“Let the high praise of God be in their throats, let the faithful wield the the sword by praising God.”
The praise of God is the two-edged sword. This Psalm doesn’t speak of a real two-edged sword. No, it speaks of a metaphorical sword. And the metaphorical sword is the praise of God. In other words, the praise of God is the weapon of the faithful.
Praising God is what causes vengeance on the nations, punishment on the peoples, the binding of kings and nobles, and the execution of judgment. The praise of God is why, as verse 4 says, the humble are adorned with victory.
This Psalm, then, is not a call to arms. It’s not saying, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” It’s not saying that Christians, nor the people of God at any time, are to take a two-edged sword and execute justice on their own. They are to praise God, for the praise of God is a two-edged sword; the weapon of the faithful.
If that sounds odd, consider this very familiar verse that says the same thing:
“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” That’s Hebrews 4:12, comparing the word of God, both Jesus and scripture itself, to a two-edged sword.
And consider Paul’s admonition to put on the full armor of God, which includes this item from Ephesians 6:17, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
God is the sword, not us. But we wield the sword when we praise God.
Consider how the walls of Jericho came down: the people walked around the city, praising God.
Consider how the people were released from captivity in Egypt: the people praised God, including giving thanks to God during the first passover.
Consider what Paul and Silas were doing when God destroyed the prison they were in: praising God.
Consider what the people of God are doing throughout Revelation as God strikes out against evil and restores the world to as it was in the garden, before there was sin: they were praising God.
Consider the people you hold in your hearts, the saints you are remembering this day. These are the ones who taught you what it means to be a Christian, who showed you how to live your life, who set the example that you not only live into but want to pass on.
What did your saints do when hardship occurred? When there was grave harm, an injury, a betrayal, a significant financial setback, a ruinous turn of events, a terrible medical diagnosis; what did they do?
My guess is they praised God, no matter what.
The praise of God is us wielding a two-edged sword. Because the praise of God is countercultural, it’s subversive, it says to our situations: you will not have the final world.
And so we can say:
Praise God, because cancer will not have the final word in my life. Victory is mine, even in death.
Praise God, because dementia will not have the final word in the life of my loved one. Victory is theirs, even in death.
Praise God, because my enemies will not have the final word in my life. Victory is mine, for God will defend me.
Praise God, because my finances do not determine by value. Victory is mine, for I am God’s.
Praise God, because my family can be reconciled. Victory is mine, for God fights for peace.
Praise God, because depression doesn’t have to have the final world. Victory is mine, for God loves me.
Praise God, because kings, princes, presidents, Ayatollahs, and Supreme Leaders don’t control the world; God does. Victory is ours, for God is still sovereign.
Praise God, because politics won’t have the final word about our country. Victory is ours, for God still provides.
Praise God, because no death, no matter how tragic, is ever the end. Victory is theirs, for the dead live on as saints, praising God.
Praise God, because no evil has the final world. Victory is ours, for God, as our Psalm this morning says, “adorns the humble with victory.”
Praising God reminds us that no evil has the final world. And really, remind isn’t a strong enough term. Praising God puts into our very bones, into the core of who we are, the reality that no evil, no matter how strong, no matter how challenging, no matter how gruesome, no matter how frightening, has the final world, because victory is ours. God will have the victory.
So this morning, don’t be afraid to wield the sword. Praise God, for that is the weapon of the faithful.
Praise God to cut down the evils you’re experiencing in your life.
Praise God to chop down the worries and fears you carry with you.
Praise God to strike down the depression and resignation you’ve known for years.
Praise God to sever the stranglehold cancer, dementia, and other diseases have on your life.
Praise God to destroy the drama that holds your family captive.
Praise God to slay the fears that envelop you.
Praise God to know, without a doubt, that no matter what we face, victory is ours!
That’s the example of the saints who have gone before us. They did not act violently. No, they did something much more powerful. They praised God.
No matter what you’re facing today, join the saints in heaven right now, the communion of saints, whose praise of God never ceases. Join them, for in joining them, we fight against all evil that would come against us.
Victory is ours. Praise the Lord!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.