Despair is not an option. Cleave Closer to the Way of Jesus: Stand up, Reach out, and Do the Right T
Most everything I’ve learned about what it really means to follow Jesus has come from my getting schooled by some very wise, veteran Christians, tough & wise souls, who have experienced in their lives far more suffering than I have. I feel very fortunate that in my life I’ve encountered and been able to sit at the feet of some humble masters who really know what it means to be a Christian during tremendously troubled times. Here’s what they’ve shown me: In the face of violence and terror, The faith that fires our hearts must have in it the heat of defiance. There is a fierceness to this love, a fierceness to God’s Love Supreme.
So, when I see that these days people of good conscience in our community and our country are deeply troubled these by these truly unspeakable acts of violence that have been going on,(and a number of sermon requests from you all have asked me to keep addressing this), I want to urge us all to take a breath and to step back from the anxieties of the moment, And to draw deep into the resources of our faith. Because we will discover how the resources of our faith have great power to defy the forces of evil, however they may manifest in one generation or another. And what I for one am really drawing on right now, is that there is a fierceness to this Love Supreme. This fierceness of God’s Love Supreme feeds a spiritual defiance to the forces of evil.
That white supremacist mass-shooter hell-bent on killing Latinos in El Paso, he wants us all to feel afraid – this is an act of terrorism. It’s a twisted power trip to see fear in someone’s eyes. And my faith compels me to defy that terror, to defy that fear. I refuse to feel afraid. I’m not going to let him get that power over me. I know Who’s really got the power. There is a fierceness to God’s Love Supreme. So it doesn’t matter if in one moment or another I may feel a little fear –I refuse to obey it. My faith compels me to defy that fear and obey my God over all else. And this means that, for me, as a Christian who happens to be white and American in these times, I have to be bold in doing the right thing even though I can easily chose to stay comfortable. I can’t care about the risks, which are far less for me than for so many others. I’m going to stand up and join with the people whom those white supremacists want to expel and exterminate. That’s acting with the heart of Jesus.
These mass-shooters and terrorists want us all to feel hopeless and helpless. Hopeless: we’re powerless to stop this. This violence, this hate is a contagion that’s out of our control. It’s seized the throne even, it’s got the levers of power. Because this is about state violence, not just rogue actors. Tearing families apart and caging kids, who can stop that? It’s hopeless. My faith defies that hopelessness. I refuse to be hopeless and helpless. They aren’t going to have that kind of power over me. I know Who has really got the power. There is a fierceness to this Love Supreme. It doesn’t matter if I may not feel hopeful one moment or another. Despair is not an option. I gotta act as if I have hope. Make the choices, do the actions that are hopeful. We gotta do the hopeful thing, and keep doing it, and keep doing it. Agitate for the Realm of Heaven here on earth. Dare to act as if sin has already been conquered, above and below – God has already done the deed and it’s just a matter of this sluggish old world to catch up. Alright? We just gotta get tougher in agitating for the Way of Jesus, the way of peace, the way of mercy, the way of uprightness, the way of humility, the way of integrity. That’s what Jesus did. He didn’t care if things seemed to be getting worse or getting better. He just kept on schooling everyone, all of us, in a higher way through this world. He had a job to do and he just went ahead and did it. And our job is the same job. We’ve just got a job to do, and we have Jesus as our help.
These mass-shooters and terrorists want us all to hate them. This kind of evil feeds off of hate. It’s how it gets its power: this kind of evil loves causing offense and causing harm and stoking hate against itself. If they’ve gotten you to hate them, then they’ve succeeded in spreading their hate to you. And my faith defies that. They aren’t going to have that kind of power over me, to get my heart to be as clenched as theirs. I refuse to hate. There is a fierceness to this Love Supreme. There is a much greater power at work than the power of hate. And this higher power actually renders hate powerless.
So, there’s been research on people who used to be in hate groups but who left and who are now actively working against hate groups. What this research shows is that what turns people from hate groups is an experience where they receive compassion from someone they expected fear or anger from. You can find these stories – testimonies, really, testimonies to the power of compassion – you can find a lot of them with this group called Life After Hate. Life After Hate, check it out, it’s a very important organization that supports former hate group members who repent of what they did and actively work to rescue others from this. On story for example I happened to hear on the radio: This Swedish guy. He had a rough childhood and got brought into this neo-nazi gang, which gave him a sense of family, a sense of purpose. And they gave him the thrill of violence, the rush of having that kind of power over people. Research also shows that most young people who join these groups aren’t particularly racist before they join these groups. But the gang makes them racist. They join looking for purpose and for some personal power and worth.
See: this is a place where a church could have intervened.
But instead this troubled young man got recruited into a Swedish hate gang. And went whole hog into it. He had prominent swastika tattoos and liked how that set people on edge, you know. Alright, so he hears from white supremacists in South Africa that they’re gearing up for a race war there to reinstitute apartheid. He flies down to Johannesburg and there isn’t a race war going on, he just ends up lost on the streets of this foreign country, penniless. He’s hungry and lost. He ends up going into some bar to get out of the heat and this black South African guy buys him a meal and a beer. They talk. This South African guy has to see the Nazi tattoos. But he also sees this young man’s distress.
And so, he commits an act of spiritual defiance against hate and treats this guy just like a human being. He gives him money for a hotel room. And that’s that. They end up getting together a few times after that and get to know each other. This experience makes a crack in the hate that had imprisoned this young man’s mind and his heart. And after some time, he ended up repenting of his former ways and learning a better way to deal with his humanity and his struggles and to respect the humanity of others.
There are lots of stories like this. Really amazing – the power of compassion.
But I should be clear about a few things here. One is that none of this takes away from our primary responsibility to defend and care for those who are the targets and victims of hate. None of this takes away from the urgent need to dismantle and prosecute hate groups groups, and to hold people accountable for the consequences of their beliefs and actions. None of this takes away from the urgent need to keep the tools of war out of people’s hands. And, in the words of Dylan Marron, who has an outstanding podcast called, “Conversations with People who Hate me:” “Sympathy is not endorsement.” We can show compassion for those who hold hateful beliefs without giving an inch on the severe error of their beliefs and actions. These are acts of spiritual resistance.
All that said, I want to continue to press that there is great power that the Way of Jesus has over the way of hate.
Let me share a personal story about this. It’s very modest, doesn’t involve anything as dramatic as Nazis. And I hesitate to tell this story because I don’t at all want to liken this person to someone who is part of a hate group. But it’s a story about how the power of the heart of Christ to discharge anger. Last spring we had the big demonstration in Walla Walla for immigrant rights and against family separation. It began here in our church sanctuary. A lot of people in town were upset about this. A couple days later, the person who manages our website and social media said to me, “Nathaniel you need to look at this message posted to our Facebook page.”
It was a public post from someone in town basically saying, “How dare you make a big show about being so concerned about illegal Mexicans when there are so many kids who need help here in Walla Walla. Veterans. Homeless. Do something about that instead.”
As far as these things go, it’s not so bad. But still my first instincts were not Christ-like. I talked with our web guy about it. I consulted with some colleagues who serve UCC churches that get real hate mail, every day must nastier messages than you get in passive-aggressive Walla Walla. I also was curious and checked out this person’s facebook page. I could see she has some anger and she has some tenderness and she has her struggles. So, here’s my reply.
“Hi. Our Pastor would be happy to make some free time to talk with you about our ministries, and to hear about what is important to you in how you serve our community. We can always use volunteers for the winter emergency warming center we host. Every Wednesday we serve a free community soup lunch, run by volunteers. You’d be most welcome joining in. If anyone in your life is looking for an addiction recovery group, we have AA, NA and other groups meeting here morning, noon, and night. Please let us know of other opportunities to serve our community that are important to you. We can pass that on to our membership, who are proud to be part of our century-and-a-half history of being one of Walla Walla’s centers of faith and service. Blessings to you this 4th of July.”
She replied: “I would love that!” She then shared about some major struggles in her life, and ends with “You have given me Hope!” Again, this is all public on our facebook page. And was like “Thank you Jesus!” This Jesus stuff works! Now, I reached out to her, but nothing more came of it, which I’m not particularly surprised about. Her mind may not have been changed about immigration, I don’t know. But it does seem like her heart was freed a little. And I know my heart was freed. Very humbling. There is power to this Way of Jesus. The fierceness of God’s Love Supreme defies the powers of sin.
This Jesus stuff works. It doesn’t always convert someone else. But it can. And it’s worth the risk. And it will always convert us. And churches right now need to step up to mission to really embody this fierce defiant Love Supreme, that is free from fear, free from hate, free from hopelessness. This is urgent. It’s especially true of churches that are primarily white in America. Black churches and Latino churches understand that their mission is to defy gang recruitment of the young people in their neighborhoods. They know it is their God given purpose to connect with young people and to show how true self-love and dignity can be found in Jesus. White churches need to wake up and step up. We need to work in a smart, organized, and faithful way to minister to the young people, mostly young men, who are hurting and angry and alone and susceptible to the sense of power that violence brings. We need show true family, true dignity and purpose and power that we find the community of the love of Christ. Let me conclude with the wisdom of the Apostle Paul, written to the community of Jesus followers in Rome, the heart of the Empire: “So, I appeal to you, friends, as recipients of the wondrous mercy of God, to dedicate every fiber of your being to a life that is consecrated and pleasing to God, which is what enlightened worship ought to be. Don’t accept the culture of this age as your model, but let yourselves be remodeled by the recovery of your true mind, so you can discern what is consistent with God’s purposes – what is good, worthwhile, and completely genuine …
Make sure that your love is without pretense. Abhor what is evil. Stick closely to what is good. Be devoted to one another as members of the same family. Take the initiative in honoring one another. Don’t let your enthusiasm fade. Radiate the presence of God’s power. Serve our Lord. Be joyful in your hope. Be patient in adversity. Be persistent in prayer. Treat the needs of the Anointed’s people as your own. Take hospitality seriously.
Ask for God’s blessing on those who harass you. Ask for God’s blessing, not God’s curse on them. Celebrate with those who have something to be happy about. Commiserate with those who are in sorrow. Treat one another as equals. Don’t entertain notions of your superiority. On the contrary, associate with those of low status. Don’t become wise in your own eyes. Don’t repay anyone who has injured you by injuring them. Instead, focus on what is honorable in the eyes of all people. If possible – insofar as it depends on you – be at peace with all people. Don’t try to retaliate on your own, dear friends, but leave that to God’s just indignation, because according to scripture God says, “Justice is my business. I will put things right.” Rather, so far as you are concerned, scripture says, “If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. Because if you do this, you will pile red hot coals on his head.” So don’t let yourselves be defeated by what is evil, but defeat what is evil with what is good.” – Romans 12: 1-2, 9-21
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