Rev. Glenn Schwerdtfeger, Pastor Maple Grove UMC
THE SPIRITUALITY OF A YOUNG MOTHER
When Pastor Glenn asked me to to speak today on the spirituality of being a mother, I was reminded of God’s timely sense of humor. That particular Friday was the end of a particularly rough week of parenting, with most days resulting in both my 2 year old son and I on the floor crying. Spiritual was the last word I would have used to describe motherhood.
When I was younger, I thought that motherhood was something that just came naturally - when a woman became a mom, she would gain these insights and instincts, knowing exactly what to do and when to do it. My own mother’s actions didn’t support my theory, however, and I grew up determined to prove to myself I was not like her. I would be a better mom than she was. I don’t recommend this being the basis for having a child, by the way.
I did follow in my mother’s footsteps in certain areas of my life. As some of you may remember from the cardboard testimonies a few months back, I am a recovering alcoholic and addict. 3 and a half years ago, when I first began my journey of recovery, was when my heart was really first opened to the idea that a relationship with God was still possible, though I was hesitant to believe it. I felt that I had sinned so greatly, had fallen so far down that even God couldn’t reach me. Then, at 6 months of soberiety, I became pregnant and came to know, and fully believe that God still loved me. When Sterling was born, and really for the first year of his life, I could see God in him everyday. He radiated with God’s love and grace, his innocence and sweet demeanor reminded me daily of God’s presence in my life.
Today, my son is 2…. Which brings me back to the fact that spiritual is not the first word that comes to mind when describing my role as his mother. Fearful, worrisome, guilty and shameful are the words I would choose to use. Every day I worry if I am doing all the right things as a mother, if I am doing more good than harm in his development, or if I am just grooming a future serial killer. I feel guilty for the days when all I have to give my son is love because I am too tired to chase him around or take him to the park. I feel shame for the moments that I lose my temper, and allow my frustrations to take over.
Mothering is hard. And every day, I feel like I’m failing at it. But in those brief moments, in between the rushing around, cooking, cleaning, and tantrums, when I am able to sit back and just allow my son to be 2 years old, and witness the miracle of his existence, I am reminded of God’s love and grace. Despite my imperfections, despite my flaws and screw ups, God chose me to be Sterling’s mom.
If there are any mothers here today who have felt like I do, who most days are just praying to make it to bed time, you are not alone. You are a good mother! You are doing a wonderful job with your children, whether parenting books or "experts" agree with your style of parenting or not. We are human, we are not perfect. We make, and will continue to make mistakes in our roles as mothers. Despite all of this, God loves us anyway.
TRIBUTE TO A GRANDMOTHER
My name is Jeff Corcoran, and to you, the 8:30 service, I am the person who stole Judy and Willard Becker from you. For 63 years, they attended the 8:30 service. In January 2015, when I wanted to return to church, I called up Grandma and asked what time she went to Maple Grove. She responded 8:30am. There was a pause. I asked if there was a later service. She informed me there was, and we’ve been attending the late service ever since.
Grandma likes to tell everyone that she switches services every 63 years, so you can look forward to her return to this service at this ungodly hour in 2078.
But in all seriousness, I’m here to talk about what led to that call in January 2015. I wasn’t raised Methodist, so the question naturally arises, why would I call Grandma about attending her church, a church that wasn’t even particularly close to where I was living at the time. The answer is rather simple: I was drawn to her inclusive, loving faith.
You see, I was raised in an exceptionally devout Catholic family. And although I have nothing but respect for the Catholic Church, if Catholicism were the only form of Christianity, I would probably still be wandering through a spiritual wilderness as either an atheist or an agnostic. I have a hard time accepting that the bulk of the 5 billion unbaptized, non-Christian individuals in this world are destined to an eternity in hell. This was always a sticking point for me, but it became even more of a sticking point when I married into a wonderful Hindu family.
Grandma Becker’s faith is different. She believes that God speaks to different people in different ways. In her view of the world, God is at the top of a mountain, and individuals from other faiths are just taking different paths to get there. To Grandma, all we need to know about God can be summed up in three words: “God is love.” These three words capture her entire belief system, and to her, to live as a Christian means to follow the law of love and love your neighbor as yourself.
There is no shortage of support for Grandma’s three-word philosophy in the Bible. In Matthew 22:37-39, we’re told that Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love God and your neighbor as yourself. The other two synoptic gospels, Mark and Luke, contain similar statements, and in John chapter 13, we’re told that Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: to love another as he loved them. In Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:9, Paul tells us that the entire law is summed up in one commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.
Furthermore, Grandma does not just recite her three-word principle; she lives it. The love and peace of God permeate all of her relationships, and numerous people here at Maple Grove have told me that she’s touched their lives. Because of the strength and simplicity of her faith, her life is all but free from the anxiety that burdens the rest of us. Her house is blessed with an almost supernatural tranquility; it’s probably the best place in the world to take a nap.
What is more, to Grandma, when you go too far beyond this basic three-word principle, you often create problems. And I’m no church historian, but I think she might be right. Over the last two centuries, the Church has been ripped apart over issues like whether the Holy Spirit proceeds for both the Father and the Son rather than just the Father and whether Christians should practice infant or adult baptism.
Do these issues really matter? My opinion is that they don’t. Because I know what my Grandma taught me, which is that God is love. And there really isn’t any reason to make it more complicated than that.
THE MOTHER HEART OF GOD
When asked if I would be willing to speak on Mother’s Day about the Mother heart of God, I immediately responded with a very affirmative yes. My entire spiritual foundation is built upon the kindness, gentleness, patience and grace of God’s tender heart. Most of my spiritual growth has evolved from the emotional deficits within me. How that connects to what I’ve experienced about God’s compassionate heart will be explained as my story continues. I will digress briefly before explaining my experience.
While preparing for today’s talk, I did some research concerning what others have to say about the character traits that constitute an emotionally healthy, responsible and caring mom. Of course the Internet is full of all sorts of ideas. They range from: She does not neglect her children’s needs, views herself as a role model for her kids, supports her kids simply by being there, but also by using words as a form of encouragement, to letting her kids know she will always be there for them even when they are older.
Then I wondered what folks who are known as “experts” on parenting had to say.
In his book, Parenting from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Siegel states, “The way we communicate with our children has a profound impact on how they develop. Our ability to have sensitive, reciprocal communication nurtures a child’s sense of security, and these trusting secure relationships help children do well in many areas of their lives. It is through the sharing of feelings that we create meaningful connections.” Virginia Satir, author and social worker who is known as “The Mother of Family Therapy” states, “Every word, facial expression, gesture or action on the part of a parent gives the child some message about self worth.” She also reiterates, “So much is asked of parents and so little is given.” In thinking through preparation for today’s talk, a childhood experience came to my mind that I hadn’t thought about in years. I call those moments small miracles. When I was around 13 years old, my mother and I were asked to give the toast to mothers and daughters at our church’s Mother Daughter Banquet. I remember a few lines from a poem I read that was a part of my toast: An ideal Mother is devotion in a starched apron, (that was the 50’s when women starched everything and actually wore aprons), Truth with a Bible in her hand, Wisdom with a smile on her face and Love with an unselfish heart.
My Mother, who passed in 1994, struggled emotionally. She did an amazing job of caring for her family while living with huge amounts of emotional pain. In addition to managing her own issues, she had the trial of being married to a functional emotionally disturbed alcoholic man who was unfaithful to the marriage. He died at the age of 51 when I was 18 years old. She was often sad and frustrated by all that life required of her. These struggles sometimes prevented her from unintentionally being emotionally available to her family. As I reflect on her pain, I believe she had difficulty being a loving and nurturing presence to herself. Consequently, it was understandably very difficult for her to be that to her children. I came out of my home uncertain about my own value and worth and feeling very insecure about my place in life. I am not casting blame for the struggles I battled. I realized it was and is up to me as an adult to pursue healing and to take responsibility for my mental and spiritual growth.
When I was in my early thirties, I began to question the meaning and purpose of everything. It was a pivotal time of emotional pain and spiritual seeking. God provided answers as well as solutions for the emotional deficits that plagued my spirit. I felt very alone and forgotten. I read in I Peter 5:7 something that to me, reflected the gentle Mother heart of God, “Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” This scripture helped me realize that God wanted to carry my heartache because I am loved by Him. Author Wm. Paul Young is often quoted as saying, “God is especially fond of you.” Life did not as a child and sometimes now as an adult feel emotionally safe. I have come to understand from wise counselors that a chaotic home can be at the heart of an individual not feeling safe emotionally. God’s gentle Mother heart promises safety in Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with you, Be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” That verse convinces me of the soothing nurturing heart of God that basically says I hold every part of your life. It communicates I will give you all you need and I am here to make it all okay. Isn’t that what every child of any age needs to hear? Psalm 27:10 also gives me an insight into God’s compassionate heart. “When my father and my mother forsake me, Then the Lord will take care of me.” Psalm 31:7 is an example of God caring about feelings. King David said to God, “I will rejoice and be glad in your steadfast love, because you have seen my affliction, you have known the distress of my soul.” I love thinking about God creating me for himself. That is so unconditional, it is graceful and very opposite a performance based perspective. He loves me just because I was created. Sometimes I felt loved only if my behavior measured up to certain standards. There isn’t anything I want to do to intentionally displease God, knowing how unconditionally I am loved. My imperfection is covered in grace because He knows the motivation of my heart. Colossians 1:16 tells us, “Everything was created by him, everything in heaven and on earth, everything seen and unseen, including all forces and powers, and all rulers and authorities. All things were created by God’s Son, and everything was made for him.” Knowing God created me for himself gives me my true foundation and identity as a human being. Lastly, I will close with one of my favorite very meaningful Bible verses, Isaiah 49:14-16 – verses that were previously read this morning. I feel as though it beautifully depicts the tender and gentle Mother heart of God. Zion says, “The Lord has abandoned me; the Lord has forgotten me!” “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you. Look, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.”
Into My Heart
April 30, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
Into my heart, into my heart,
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Come in today, come in to stay.
Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Today's gospel reading is about a journey. It’s presented as a journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus. But hard as they’ve tried, scholars have never identified a place called ‘Emmaus.’ Which means, I think, that Luke is not reporting a literal journey, but a spiritual journey. The journey to Emmaus is a journey from the head to the heart.
There’s a difference between hearing about the resurrection and experiencing it, a great difference between knowing about the resurrection and being changed by it. Before Jesus came and walked with them, the two disciples had already heard all about the resurrection. The women had told them about angels who said Jesus was alive. Other disciples had confirmed what the women described. But this knowledge did not pull the two men out of their despair. Resurrection comes not when the story is apprehended by the mind, but when it penetrates the heart.
When John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was in his mid-30s, he was already an ordained priest, he’d been a professor of New Testament, he’d served as a parish pastor and been a missionary to America. He knew more about the faith we ever will. And yet he was restless, unhappy. Until one evening in 1738 Wesley wrote in his journal, "I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”1 After years of preaching and teaching, the gospel had made its way from Wesley’s head to his heart.
The two disciples had also heard the good news, but they too remained restless and unhappy. Not until they had walked with the risen Christ, not until he had opened the Scriptures to them, not until they had been at Table with him, did it sink in. Looking back, they said, “Were not our hearts burning within us" while he was with us? Burning hearts—that’s how you know that Jesus is real. A burning heart--that’s how new life and hope are born.
And yet we often guard our hearts for all we’re worth. Wesley kept Christ at arm’s length for 35 years. It’s far easier for me to talk about Jesus than to place my own heart in his hands. Don Ackerman attends Maple Grove with his young family. He teaches ROTC at Capital University, and kind of like a chaplain he gathers ROTC students each week at his home for fellowship and Bible tudy. "College students love Bible study," he told me." But he went: "Yeah, they're always up for studying the Bible with their minds. What they don't want to do is engage their hearts. They don't want to let God change their lives." The longest journey in the world, they say, is the eighteen inches from the head to the heart.
Yet even so those two disciples found themselves with burning hearts, the presence of Christ so real it couldn't be denied. We may guard against that, yet it's also what we most deeply long for. And sometimes it happens--Christ comes crashing through and our hearts burn within us. On the one hand, whenever this fire happens, it's always God's doing, not our own—we can't make it happen. But on the other hand, there are ways of "stoking the fire."2 So if you, too, long to have a burning heart, to feel the life-changing presence of Christ, here are three ways of stoking the fire.
Practice hospitality to strangers. The two disciples had arrived at their destination. This man they'd been traveling with was, they thought, a perfect stranger. And he seemed to have somewhere else to go. But to their credit, they said to this stranger, "Come on, stay with us. It's getting late." And so it was they came to eat with, to spend the evening with . . . none other than the risen Lord.
In this age of suspicion and fear, how reluctant we are to invite strangers in. How hard it is, after a certain age, to make new friends. Yet what if the stranger we fear and suspect is none other than Jesus come to change our lives? What if it takes a new friend to set our hearts on fire? One way of stoking the fire is to practice hospitality. You just never know which stranger may be Jesus.
A second way of stoking the fire is to acknowledge your brokenness. When someone says, "How are you?", you're supposed to assume they don't really want to know. Right? You're supposed to smile and say, "Fine, thanks." But of course we're not fine, not always. So when Jesus met these two forlorn disciples and said, "How you doing?", they broke the rules. They told him how they were doing, at great length, all of it was sad. And their brokenness was Jesus' way in to their hearts. He was known to them, Luke says, not in toughness or strength, but in the breaking of bread. Our brokenness is Jesus' way into our hearts. Acknowledge it and he can heal it.
One more: Jesus engages those two disciples in what we would call worship—he opens the Scriptures with them and joins them at Table in what amounts to Holy Communion. Word and Table—worship--are the ways we know come to know Christ. Oh, I'm painfully aware that worship doesn't always touch every heart. But one thing is for sure: wherever two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is there, and any road can be the Emmaus road, the road to an open heart.
There are words we say when we come to the Table:
"The Lord be with you," I say.
And you respond, "And also with you."
And then I say, "Lift up your hearts."
And you say, "We lift them up to the Lord."
So let's try it. Not only say it, but do it: My friends, lift up your hearts: We lift them up to the Lord. And again, My friends, lift up your hearts: We lift them up to the Lord.
If you long for the fire of Jesus, then you've got to take the journey from the head to the heart: practice hospitality to strangers, let him know your brokenness and pain, and lift up your heart. I want to bring the screen down now, and suggest two other ways to stoke the fire of Christ. Let's sing together the little prayer with which I started this sermon: into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay, come into my heart, Lord Jesus. And then I want you to hear about a spiritual retreat, open to all, called The Walk to Emmaus. Ready to sing?
1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wesley, accessed 4/28/17.
2 Gerrit Scott Dawson, Heartfelt: Finding Our Way Back to God (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1993), 148-53.
April 16, 2017 Easter Sunday Maple Grove UMC
Here are some words from today’s Gospel reading that you might not expect to be part of the Easter story: Don’t be afraid. I mean, if ever there was a time when you shouldn’t have to tell people not to be afraid, you’d think Easter morning would be that time. But here’s the angel telling them, “Don’t be afraid.” And five verses later, the risen Jesus himself appears to them, and he has to say it again: “Don’t be afraid.”
What does it mean that even an angel of good news, that even the risen Christ himself, have to tell people not to be afraid? Surely it says something about the depth, the persistence of fear in our lives. Over the past several weeks at Maple Grove, we’ve been studying and pondering how to overcome fear with faith. We heard Jesus tell us not to worry, to let each day’s trouble be enough for that day. We heard the Bible insist that hospitality, not fear, guide our treatment of strangers and foreigners. Perfect love, 1 John says, cast out fear—the goal is to be so filled with love that there’s just no room left in our hearts for fear. And when afraid, we can always hang on to God, who’s got the whole world in his hands. Yes, we have been learning, but so deep and persistent is our fear, that even in the presence of the risen Christ, the message has to be “Don’t be afraid!”
I had a seminary professor who gave one entire lecture on things not to say to troubled souls. I don’t remember them all, but one was, “Never say, ‘I know just how you feel.’” No you don’t, he said. You can be sympathetic, but don’t pretend your experience is the same as someone else’s. Another was, “Don’t say, ‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.’” That may or may not be true, but it sure doesn’t help someone who feels overwhelmed. And, he said, never ask someone, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Because, he said, sometimes it does.
What’s the worst that could happen? What if someone had asked that of the women who followed Jesus, a week before Easter? I doubt they could even have imagined anything as bad as what actually happened. Within days Jesus would be arrested, put on trial, brutally mocked, crucified and sealed in a tomb. And for their part, the disciples would desert and deny him. That’s the worst that could happen, and then some.
Yet in spite of all of that, here’s the good news of the Easter story: On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life!
On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. Now, this doesn’t mean that life goes back to just the way it was before the worst happened. That’s not how it was for the disciples and the women who followed Jesus. They had amazing new life, but not the same old life.
On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. It also doesn’t mean that this new life will be without stress or trouble. In an article about the gospel for survivors of abuse and trauma, Shelly Rambo teaches that even after the resurrection, life can remain difficult.1 This also was true for the disciples and these women. They would themselves face persecution and disbelief, the churches they founded would go through tension and division. Life was new, but often difficult. Maybe that's why, in verse 8, Matthew tells us that the women left the tomb quickly, he says, with "fear and great joy." Not either fear or great joy, but somehow both at the same time.
On the one hand, too many redemption stories are all joy and no fear. "My life was rotten," goes this kind of testimony, "full of sin and sorrow. Then I found Jesus, and ever since all my troubles are gone!" Pardon me if that just doesn't ring true. Don't get me wrong. I have new life in Christ—thank God, I do. I've also still got my share of troubles. How about you? Resurrection isn’t an end to troubles; it’s new life in the midst of troubles.
On the other hand, too many people's stories are all fear and no joy. Yeah, life may always be difficult. But if Christ is risen—and he is!--then fear and negativity don’t have to control our behavior. A new power has been unleashed in our lives—the power of love, the power of forgiveness, and trust in the goodness of God. After all, on the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life.
Here's another piece of the story: Jesus didn't just tell the women not to be afraid, he also gave them something to do. He said, "Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee—I’ll meet them there." Having something to do makes us feel less afraid, like we're part of the solution rather than part of the problem. And the mission hasn't really changed since that first Easter. The mission Jesus gave the women, the mission Jesus gives the church today, is to go and tell, to bear witness that on the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life.
But in some ways, I think those women had it easier than we do. All they had to say was, "Jesus is risen!" and everyone said, Really? He's alive again—that's amazing! It was new news to them. Try saying "Jesus is risen" to someone today--they'll probably yawn and mumble, "Uhh, yeah, I've heard that." It's not that people haven't heard it before; you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who's never heard that Jesus rose from the dead. It's that they've never really heard it, haven't seen how it matters to them. They haven't made the connection between Jesus being risen from the dead and not having to live such fearful lives.
And what is that connection? What might we go and tell people that would change their lives, the way what the women had to say changed the disciples' lives?
Well, we could go and tell people Easter means that God has power over death. Not that we won't die—we all die, even Jesus died. But God still has power over death. Back in 2008 I had three funerals during Holy Week, one of them for a 27 year-old man who was murdered and one for a baby that lived just two hours. The following week I had the funeral of a 40 year-old wife and mother of two, one of my best friends in all the world. Since I've been pastor of Maple Grove, I have officiated at 76 more funerals. Death is, in many cases, the worst that can happen. If I did not believe in my heart that God has power over death, I couldn't do all those funerals. I'd give up. Maybe you, too, know someone who is surrounded by sorrow and death, weighed down by a grief that will not shake. Well, maybe you could tell them our news. It won't give them their same old life back, of course, and it won't mean a new life without trouble. But it is quite a piece of good news—that in raising Jesus from the dead, God has power over death. On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. Fear not!
Or how about this: go tell people Easter means their story is never over. The women came that morning expecting only to tend to Jesus' body. They thought that with his death, his story, and their story with him, were over, that theirs had been a noble effort, but evil had won again. But their story was not over. In fact, he told them to go to Galilee to start a whole new chapter. Do you know anyone who thinks their story is over? When a spouse or child dies, it feels like your story is over. When you lose your job or don't get into the school you dreamed of, it feels like your story is over. When you have to move to a nursing home, or when friends turn again you, or things just change too much, it feels like your story is over. But Easter means that the story is never over. No, it won’t be the same old story you used to have. It may not be an easy story. But it isn't over. If God can raise Jesus from the dead, who knows what God can do for you? On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives new life. So fear not!
One more: go and tell people that Jesus wants to meet up with his brothers. Did you hear that word, 'brothers,' in the story? The angel tells the women, "Go and tell his disciples." But Jesus says, "Go and tell my brothers . . ." Why is that important? Remember what just happened with the disciples. Despite Jesus pleading with them to stay awake in Gethsemane, they all fell asleep. Out of fear, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus. And they all turned away and deserted him at the cross. Yet when he comes back, Jesus doesn't say, "Go and tell those dirty rats . . ." He doesn't say, "Go and tell those former friends of mine." He doesn't even say, "Go and tell my disciples . . ." He says, "Go and tell my brothers." As one writer has put it, Jesus didn't come back to judge anyone. He returned to gather his family.2
Do you know anyone who may feel guilty or like they’ve failed in some way? Do you know anyone who has trouble holding their head up or looking you in the eye? Do you know anyone in desperate need of some family of one kind or another? Well, go and tell them that in the Easter community, no one is turned away and all are more than welcome. Because the risen Jesus comes back to gather his family. On the other side of the worst that can happen—loneliness, failure, shame--God gives no life. So fear not!
Never ask anyone, my professor warned, "What's the worst that can happen?" Because sometimes, he said, it does. That's why I want so much for you to take this Easter message with you today: On the other side of the worst that can happen, God gives no life. So fear not!
1 Shelly Rambo, “Spirit and Trauma,” Interpretation, 69/1 (January 2015), 7-19.
2 Frederick Niedner, Reflections on the Lectionary, The Christian Century (March 11, 2008), 21.
Praying Through Fear
April 14, 2017 Good Friday Maple Grove UMC
I grew up in a church where the big stained glass window was ofure of Jesus praying in Gethsemane. His body was gray, his face had an anguished expression, and to my child’s eyes it always appeared that a sharp rock was poking him in the side as he prayed. You’d think I’d have grown accustomed to this Bible story. But I have not. It’s a shock every time I hear about Jesus in Gethsemane—about Jesus throwing himself on the ground, about him repeatedly pleading with God to avoid the cup of death, about his friends not being able to stay awake with him even one hour, how Matthew says that Jesus was grieved, even unto death. It’s still a shock to me. It’s kind of like seeing your parents being afraid for the first time. You mean, even you get scared, Jesus? Yeah, even I get scared.
I want to share two ways the story of Jesus in Gethsemane can help us address our fearfulness. One is this: not even Jesus tried to face his fear alone. He took with him to Gethsemane all of the disciples and asked them to sit nearby while he prayed. And he took three of them—Peter, James and John—a little ways apart and asked them to stay near him, to stay awake, while he prayed. I know that they all fell asleep. But they were there. Not even Jesus tried to face his fear alone.
After our daughter Rachel was born, Carolyn had emergency surgery for internal bleeding. The surgeon came out just for a moment and I asked him, “Doctor, is she going to be all right?” And he said, “If she makes it through tonight, she’ll probably be okay.” And then I just sat there in a waiting room, no one else around, for hours. I tried to pray but I couldn’t really. I’d never been so scared. Finally, I knew what to do. I called Laurie Clark. I don’t know where she was or what she was doing. Maybe she was already in bed. But she came to Riverside Hospital, and sat with me, and prayed for us, and after a while I began to feel like I could face it.
Whatever it is that you are afraid of, you do not have to face it alone. Not even Jesus tried to face his fears alone.
Here is the other thing I want to say about how Jesus in Gethsemane can help us face our fears: prayer is one of the ways God gets us through our fear. You might even say that fear is the way God gets us through our fear. Ann Lamott wrote: “courage is fear that has said its prayers”1 One kind of prayer is asking God for things, telling God what we want and need. Jesus did that: “Father,” he prayed, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Surely we all do that: God, heal my mother’s cancer; God, keep my son sober; God, keep our family together.
But there is another kind of prayer—simply asking God to be with us if we don’t get what we want, praying for strength to do whatever we have to do. Jesus prayed this prayer too: “yet not what I want, [God,]but what you want.” This can be seen as submitting one’s will to God’s, and maybe it is—I know some people struggle with that idea. But for sure, it is praying that the relationship with God go on, that God will continue to be our loving Father, even if the worst happens. And that prayer is always granted.
In our Lenten study book, Rabbi Kushner says: “When I pray, I don’t think of myself as asking God to intervene and change things. I pray because invoking God’s presence helps me to feel less alone.” Martin Buber said, “When we pray, we don’t ask God for anything. We ask God for God.”2 We don’t often get around what we’re afraid of; Jesus didn’t. By we can get through what we’re afraid of--and we don’t have to do it alone, and we do it by praying.
In one sense at the end of the story of Jesus in Gethsemane, nothing has changed: Jesus is still going to die. But in another sense, everything has changed: Jesus is now prepared to die. He had prayed his way through his fears.
Not even Jesus had to face his fears alone.
And even Jesus had to pray his way through his fear.
I expect those things apply to us as well.
1Ann Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 239.
2 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Book
John 12:12-15 / Psalm 46 / Psalm 27
When Afraid, Hold on to God
April 9, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
Here's what that first Palm Sunday was: a crowd of people, banding together to prepare for the week to come. They didn't know it yet, but Jesus would soon be arrested and put on trial and hung on a cross to die. They themselves would soon desert and deny him. And the scripture John shares for Palm Sunday is this, from Zechariah:
Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion;
See, your king is coming.
Actually, the "do not be afraid" part is not in Zechariah, at least not the version we have today. Perhaps John added that, knowing it's what the disciples needed to hear, given all they were about to go through.
And here's what Palm Sunday is today: a crowd of people, banded together to prepare for the week to come. And though, unlike the disciples, we do know how Holy Week will unfold, there is much that we don't know about this coming week, or any week—how that doctor's appointment will turn out, whether a loved one will stay sober, whether people will support us or turn against us. And so we band together to prepare, we form a parade and wave palm branches, And we hear the scripture: "Do not be afraid! See, your king is coming."
This banding together is so important. As hard as that next week was for the disciples, just think how it would have been if they hadn't had each other. They did make it through that week, through Jesus' suffering and death and through their own failure, and together they became his powerful witnesses for Christ. Scott Bader-Saye says that we "tend to lack courage just to the extent that we lack community. As a community we can often bear risks together that we might be reticent to face alone."1 We all need someone to parade with, whether that's a literal or a metaphorical parade. So here we are, the community of Christ, banding together to prepare for what lies ahead and to hear the message of the gospel: "Do not be afraid."
At the end of his Palm Sunday story, John adds this: "At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him." That's the way life is, isn't it? As things are happening, it's hard to know what's going on—what you should and shouldn't do, what everything means, where God is in all of it. Only later can we sometimes begin to piece all that together. Which means that for the disciples on Palm Sunday, following Jesus required—here's a big word—TRUST. They didn’t know where he would take them; they had to trust. And for us today, courage and faith in this troubled word require—here's that big word again—TRUST. Of course, it's one thing to trust Jesus on Palm Sunday when the crowds are cheering, the palm branches are waving and Jesus is right here. It's another thing to trust him when the soldiers have come, and quite another when he's hanging on the cross. The same is true for us. It's one thing to trust God when there's money in the bank and everybody's healthy. It's another thing to trust God when health fails and quite another when people you love fail and desert you. I guess that's why they call it trust.
When it comes to trust, one of my go-to scriptures is Psalm 46, which we read together. I often read it for people as they prepare for surgery. I share it at funerals. I read it to myself when I'm afraid, and read it, and read it. Psalm 46 expresses confidence and trust in the midst of various circumstances: trouble (verse 1), change and natural disasters (verse 2), chaos (3) political upheaval (6) and even war (9). Those may not be the only things there are to be afraid of. But if we can have trust in the face of trouble, change, disaster, chaos, politics and war—we can probably have trust in almost any situation.
In the book we've been studying together this Lent, Rabbi Kushner names several other life situations where trust is hard to come by, but therefore all the more important:
Talking about a treatment plan with the oncologist
A congregation facing misfortune or division
Walking into your very first AA meeting
Your first day on a new job or at a new school.2
How do you find trust in God at times like that, when you need it most? Well, turning to scripture, and especially to the psalms, is one great way to start. Rabbi Kushner tells the story that on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, when Arab nations threatened to overrun Israel, one rabbi told his students, "This is a time of great danger. Don't just sit there doing nothing. Recite psams."3
In Psalm 27, the other psalm we read together this morning, the psalmist says three times in the first three verses that he is not afraid. I suspect the truth is that he was afraid, but was working on not being afraid.4 We tell ourselves, I am not afraid, not because it's already true; but in order to make it true.
In his commentary on Psalms, James Mays teaches that in ancient Israel Psalm 46 would have been sung responsively. A leader would have sung parts of the psalm, but the whole community would have sung together that "The Lord of hosts is with us!" And again, a leader would have begun, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble," but the whole community would insist, "Therefore we will not fear!" This psalm, in other words, is worship; it's liturgy by which worshipers learn to entrust our lives to the love and protection of God.5
So here today the liturgist said, "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble." And we responded "Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change." What I’m wondering is--was that really true, what we said? That we will not fear. Well, maybe not yet. But keep saying it; give it time. Worship is the way we learn to trust in God.
Here's something else James Mays says in his commentary, this time about Psalm 27: "Trust is nurtured and strengthened by the exercise and discipline of religion." In other words, worship and singing together and daily devotions and praying for one another are the ways we learn to overcome fear with faith. Trust in God, he says, "transforms mere anxiety [in]to prayer." Let’s just keep saying it, so we can believe it more and more.
Rabbi Kushner says that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most solemn day in the Jewish year.7 It's a day for the faithful to articulate their most heartfelt hopes for the upcoming year and at the same time to acknowledge their deepest fears about what may be lurking in the future. And Jews prepare for this Day of Atonement by adding a psalm to their daily morning and evening prayers—Psalm 27. For forty days before Yom Kippur and for ten days after they recite twice a day,
The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
Now, is that really true for Jews preparing for Yom Kippur, that they’re not afraid? Well, maybe not, but they've got a hundred times to say it. And if it doesn't quite become true this year, they'll say it again next year. Trust is not something you have once and for all; it is something you learn, something you make true by liturgy, by repetition, by the discipline of turning anxiety into prayer.
Psalm 46 says, "Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult." It goes on, "God is in the midst[, in the center,] of the city; it shall not be moved." In the midst of change and shaking, in the midst of roaring and trembling, there is something in the center that does not change, something solid to hold on to. We call that something "God." When afraid, you can hold on to God.
Overcoming fear with faith is about holding on to the God who does not change or tremble. Overcoming fear with faith comes from holding on to the God who’s got you and me, who’s got the whole world in his hands. On your way out today, we're going to give you something literally to hold on to, something to remind you of the God who is at the center of it all, strong and able. When everything else shakes and comes apart, you can hang on to God.
1 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, The Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 65.
2 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 162-65.
3 Kushner, 16.
4 See Kushner, 162.
5 James L. Mays, Psalms, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 183.
6 Mays, 13
1 John 4:16b-21
Love Casts Out Fear
April 2, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
Here's how the great preacher William Sloan Coffin put it: "I am sure the Bible is right: the opposite of love,” he said, is not hate but fear."1
And here's how 1 John puts it: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear." I believe that with all my heart. That said, I want to acknowledge that there is a relationship between fear and love. Scott Bader-Saye points out that there is a sense in which love is actually born of fear. We love something and therefore fear losing it. And the more we love, the more we have to lose, and therefore the more we are subject to fear. But this does not mean that fear is love. Rather, Bader-Saye concludes, "fear is the shadow side of love."2
Fear is at the root of our worst behavior; fear is what can divide and separate us from one another. "You know what jealousy is, don't you?" asks Fred Craddock. "It is fear of the loss of love. Why are people greedy and . . . get as much as they can? It is a fear, a fear of insecurity. Why do children cheat at school? A fear of failure. Why does anybody tell a life? A fear of punishment."3 We could go on. Why do people drink? Fear of feeling painful feelings. Why do we criticize people whose ideas are different from ours? Fear that we're not as right as we like to think. And why do we reject and push others away? Fear of being rejected and pushed away ourselves. Fear is at the root of what we call sin; fear causes so much of our worst and most destructive behavior.
Fear is also a deeply spiritual problem. “Fear,” writes James Martin, “is dangerous because it turns us away from God.”4 We’ll talk more about this next Sunday. If we don’t have a fundamental trust that God will hold us and love us come what may, then we are always unsettled, tempted to see a threat in every situation and to take every matter into our own hands.
Over the years, when I have failed to love well, it's usually fear that's been in the way. You know, I may look confident up here, on a good Sunday. But a lot of times I fear that if people knew what I’m really like, they might not want to have anything to do with me. And that fear is not unfounded. So sometimes I keep people at a distance—to make sure they can't see what I'm really like. The trouble is, across all that distance, it's pretty hard to love and be loved. Fear gets in the way.
And there's a part of me that's afraid I haven't measured up, haven’t proven myself. And if I can't accomplish enough to feel good about myself, then I'm tempted to try to make myself feel better by bringing someone else down—by criticizing someone, trying to show someone up. But it turns out that for some reason other people don't like that very well. They don't find it loving. Go figure. Fear gets in the way.
If you read 1 John, it’s clear that it was written to a church under threat, going through a crisis. Heresy, oppression and division are some of the things they were experiencing.5 Given how stressed and frightened that church must have been, Will Willimon points out, it is all the more impressive that 1 John urged them not, ‘Be on guard!’ or ‘Defend yourselves!’ but rather [simply], Love!”6 Love one another; love the way God loves. The answer to division and distress is not to strike back, not even to protect yourself, but to love all the more. You’ll remember that Jesus commanded us to love not just those who agree with us, and not just those who are can disagree without being disagreeable. We are commanded to love even those who act like enemies to us. That may not be the answer we’re looking for, but it’s the only answer Jesus has.
There is no fear in love, 1 John says, but perfect love casts out fear. Let me think with you about what that means.
One thing that means is that if there is fear in a relationship, something other than love is going. It doesn’t mean there isn’t any love in the relationship; but if there’s fear, love isn’t all that’s going on. If you’re afraid of someone, it’s not love, no matter what he says or how much he apologizes. And if every single thing you do as a parent is to protect your child from harm rather than to help them grow or give them joy, then you’re parenting not out of love but out of anxiety. The same is true of our relationship with God. The “fear of the Lord” means being in awe of God, not being afraid of God--there is no fear in love. If you find yourself fearful in a relationship, stop and ask yourself what’s going on there that isn’t love.
Love is not a form of grasping or of holding on ever tighter, but a form of letting go. In The Phantom Menace, one of the Star Wars movies, Anakin Skywalker is being examined by the Jedi Council:
Yoda: How feel you?
Anakin: Cold, sir.
Yoda: Afraid are you?
Anakin: No, sir.
Yoda: See through you we can.
Mace Windu: Be mindful of your feelings.
Ki-Adi-Mundi: Your thoughts dwell on your mother.
Anakin: I miss her.
Yoda: Afraid to lose her I think, hmm?
Anakin: What has that got to do with anything?
Yoda: Everything! Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”7 When there is fear in our love, one teacher says, we “find ourselves unable to rejoice in the presence of what we love, because we are too afraid of losing it.”8 There is no fear in love, the Bible says, but perfect love casts out fear. The answer is not to strike back, not to defend ourselves or to hang on ever tighter to what we’ve got, but to love, to let go.
John Wesley taught the doctrine of “Christian Perfection.” To this day, United Methodist clergy are asked at our ordination if we’re “going on to perfection.” And we are meant to answer, “Yes, by the grace of God.” (Some of us have a very long ways to go!) By this he did not mean that Christians could be free from error or weakness or temptation. Nor did he mean perfection in the sense that no further improvement is possible. What he meant was that a Christian’s heart could become so filled with Christ’s love that increasingly there’s no room for anything else—no room for pride or resentment, no room for selfishness or impatience. When it comes to fear, the goal is not so much to combat our fear, as to so increase in love that fear just fades away. May I say that again: the goal is not so much to combat our fear, as to so increase in love that fear just fades away.
As a pastor, I’m privileged to have sacred conversations with people at critical times in their lives: when they’re getting married, when they’ve lost a loved one, when they’ve had a near-death experience. And never once in any of these conversations has anyone looked back at their life and said, “You know, Pastor, I just wish I’d been more scared.” No one has ever looked ahead and said, “You know, Pastor, from now on I want fear to run my life.” Oh, there’s an appropriate caution in life, of course. ‘Foolhardy’ was not what 1 John had in mind. But yes, love is risky. Yes, love for those who mistreat us is hard. Yes, love leaves us open to being hurt and taken advantage of. And yes, love is what makes life matter. To be filled with love is the only way to get beyond fear.
Sam Wells tells a legend about John the Evangelist, who by tradition is the author of John’s Gospel, the book of Revelation, and the three letters of John. One of his followers came and spoke to him, “Master, why is it that you always write about love? Why don’t you ever write about anything else?” St. John paused for a long time, waiting for *his disciple to work out the answer for himself. Finally he answered the question. “Because,” he said, “in the end, there isn’t anything else. There is only love.”9
If there is only love, there is no place for panic, no space for anxiety, no room for fear. I want to love like that! Don’t you?
1 William Sloan Coffin, Credo (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 27.
2 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 40. See also 39-40, 58.
3 Fred B. Craddock, "Faith and Fear," The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 34.
4James Martin, “From Fear to Calm: Spiritual Direction on Stormy Waters,” The Christian Century (April 16, 2014), 33.
5See D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 18-21.
6 William H. Willimon, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 11.
7 Quoted in Bader-Saye, 47.
8 Bader-Saye, 58.
9Samuel Wells, Learning to Dream Again: Rediscovering the Heart of God (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 30.
March 26, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
This Lenten worship series is called “Fear Not: Overcoming Fear with Faith.”
We started with Jesus saying, “Therefore, do not worry about what you’re going to eat or drink or wear . . .” I heard one person summarize that message as “Take deep breaths and don’t watch the news.” That’s a great start to overcoming fear!
The next Sunday was about balancing our natural fear of strangers and foreigners with the Bible’s insistence on hospitality and justice.
Still to come in this series:
1 John says that perfect love casts out fear. Oh, to love like that!
The psalms teach that the opposite of fear is not fearlessness but trust.
On Good Friday we’ll watch in Gethsemane as Jesus prays himself through fear.
Even the Easter story has the phrase Do not be afraid not once but twice. Even on Easter people are afraid.
We are such fearful creatures; and Jesus just keeps saying it: Take heart, it is I; don’t be afraid!
The first part of today’s Gospel story shows that we can allow ourselves be scared of almost anything—even Jesus! The disciples are in a boat, in a storm, in the dark, wind and waves everywhere, and Jesus comes to them, walking on the sea. But instead of saying, “O thank God, it’s Jesus,” and calming down, they think he’s a ghost and their fear turns to abject terror. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of you have ever been afraid of the very thing you needed most? Yeah, me too.
You see, the disciples thought they were on their own. Jesus had stayed behind to pray and sent them on ahead. What the disciples forgot is that as long as Jesus is praying, we are never alone. What the disciples forgot was that when we need him, Jesus is never far away and will make his way to us come what may. What the disciples forgot was that just a few chapters earlier Jesus had calmed one storm; and if he can calm one storm, he can calm this storm.
We fear because we forget that Jesus is praying for us, forget that he is never far from us, forget that he is the wave-walker and storm-stiller. We fear, I once read, because we overestimate the power of the storm and underestimate the power of the Lord Jesus Christ. We forget, and so I am here to remind you—we are here every Sunday to remind each other: Take heart, Jesus says, it is I; don’t be afraid.
Some people stumble over this story and similar stories in the Bible because they get caught up in whether or not it “really happened,” whether physics allows someone to walk on top of water. These people fail to realize that the Bible is not a science textbook, or even a history book, exactly. This story is a parable. At the end of the story when we expect Matthew to say, “the disciples worshiped Jesus,” instead it says, “those in the boat worshiped him.” And who are “those in the boat?” Well, we are, of course. This is not a story about the laws of nature. It’s not a story about something that happened once a long time ago to other people. It’s a story that happens all the time, to us: in our little boat, in the storm, in the dark, with wind and waves all around, we get so anxious that even Jesus scan frighten us. But here he comes, walking on top of those waves we’re so afraid of, he gets in the boat with us, and now look—everything’s going to be all right. The truth is, he was never far away, and we had each other all the while. What is there, really, to be afraid of?
The second part of this Gospel story has Peter daring to see if he too can walk on water. He takes a deep breath, steps out of the boat, starts to walk on top of the water, and then suddenly he falls. You could call it a failure; even Jesus seems exasperated with Peter. But what actually happens next? Well, for one thing, water isn't too hard a thing to fall on. It doesn’t hurt him. And then Jesus reaches out, scoops Peter up, and sets him back in the boat with his friends. That's it. That's the full extent of what happens when Peter falls—Jesus picks him up and puts him back in the boat. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? What is there, really, to be afraid of?
Now I'm aware there's more than one answer to that question. Jesus asks Peter, "Why did you doubt?" Writer Amy Hunter says, "I want to jump in to defend Peter. 'Hello! Lord! Waves and wind!"1 Wind and waves, Lord—what do you mean "Why did I doubt?"
And we might answer the same way. Why are you afraid?
Hello, I might lose my job, Lord. Or my marriage, Lord.
Hello, it could be cancer, Lord. People die from it.
Hello, I haven't heard from my kid in days, Lord.
Hello, Lord, it's called high school, or college, or retirement, or, well, you get the idea.
What are we afraid of? Plenty! And when we fall, Jesus will scoop us up, dry us off, and set us back in the boat. And when we get sick, Jesus will come to our side. And when a loved one dies and we feel all alone, Jesus will set us back in the boat with the other disciples. And when we go through things we think we can't endure, Jesus will come to us walking right on top of the water, just to show it can be done. On the one hand, there's plenty to be afraid of; on the other hand, with a Savior like Jesus, what is there to be afraid of?
Here’s what I mean. Pastor Michael Lindvall tells this story. On the day their youngest child was baptized, Pastor Lindvall and his wife took the baby to visit an elderly couple from their church. Minnie was 91 and near the end of a long and painful battle with cancer. Her husband Angus was doing the best he could, but just didn’t know how to face life without his partner of over sixty years. They laid the child in the old woman’s eager arms. The baby, who had wailed through her baptism and cried much of the day since, became still. Minnie looked into the baby’s eyes and said, “Shhh, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Pastor Lindvall writes, As I looked down from the pulpit at the funeral two weeks later, I wondered if it is true that there is nothing to be afraid of. Have all the mothers who have cooed those words to their sleepless babies been telling lies? After all, a disease marches deeper into your body for a decade and a half, finally taking you away from the ones you love. And now a man has to sleep alone in a double bed at the age of ninety-one. Is there really nothing to be afraid of?
Then came the closing hymn for Minnie’s service. Precious Lord, they sang, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
Minnie, it occurred to the pastor, had not been afraid, but not precisely because there is nothing to be afraid of. The truth is more subtle. There is plenty to be afraid of, but in spite of that, you don’t have to be afraid.”2
Take heart, Jesus says, It is I. Don’t be afraid. Yes, Lord, we say. Yes, Lord.
So here’s what we’re going to do. In your bulletin is a pink card. At the top it says, “What are you afraid of?” And at the bottom it has those words of Jesus: “Take heart. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” With that card in hand, take a few moments and get in touch with what you fear. What makes your heart race, your muscles tense, your stomach churn? Whatever it is, write it down: What are you afraid of?
Then when you’re ready, come and leave that paper at the cross. As you leave that paper here, take a moment to hear Jesus say the words to you: “Take heart. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” This is, I hope, a helpful spiritual exercise. It is, of course, not magic. Will there still be things to be afraid of after you leave that paper at the cross? Of course. But remember--the truth is subtle: there is plenty to be afraid of, but in spite of that, you don’t have to be afraid. Take heart, Jesus said. It is I. Do not be afraid. Whenever you’re ready, bring your card, bring you fear, and leave it at the cross.
1 Amy B. Hunter, "Stepping Out," Living By the Word, The Christian Century (July 26, 2005, 19.
2 Michael L. Lindvall, Leaving North Haven: The Further Adventures of a Small Town Pastor (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 2002), 232-33.
Leviticus 19:33-34 / Deuteronomy 10:17-19
Fear (and Love) of Strangers and Foreigners
March 12, 2017
Fred Craddock told this story: He stopped off at the Winn Dixie to get some peanut butter. He was in a hurry, and those stores are so huge. So he saw a woman pushing a cart, and he thought, She’s comfortable here. I’ll ask her. He said, “Um, lady, could you direct me to the peanut butter?”
She jerked around, stared at him, and said, “Are you trying to hit on me?”
He said, “No, ma’am. I’m looking for the peanut butter.” As he backed away from there, he saw a store employee, so he said, “Where’s the peanut butter?”
“Aisle five, I think, way down on the left.”
He went there, and sure enough—big jars of peanut butter. As he turned to leave, that woman was there and she said, “You were looking for the peanut butter!”
He said, “I told you I was looking for the peanut butter.”
She said, “Well, nowadays you can’t be too careful.”
And Craddock said, “Lady, yes you can. Yes you can.”1
Hold that story in the back of your mind as I think with you, in a biblical and moral context, about fear (and love) of foreigners and strangers. I want to start with an idiosyncratic list of scriptures relating to foreigners. It's not a scientific selection—just whatever occurred to me in a couple of hours with a Bible in one hand and a notebook in the other.
At the very beginning, Adam and Eve become foreigners, having to leave their original homeland, to which none of us has ever returned.
At God’s command, Sarah and Abraham left Ur of Chaldees to sojourn in a land God would show them, only to have to leave that land for a time due to famine.
The city of Sodom was destroyed, not because of sexual orientation, but because of its violent refusal of hospitality to strangers.
The people of Israel spent years as honored guests, and then as slaves in Egypt, and centuries later were exiles in Babylon.
Ruth and Naomi both spent time is immigrants—Ruth as a Moabite in Israel and Naomi an Israelite in Moab.
Esther was part of the persecuted Jewish minority in Persia.
In the New Testament, Jesus and his parents were refugees in Egypt, fleeing King Herod, who was killing babies in Bethlehem.
In Matthew 8 Jesus praises the faith of a Roman soldier—not only a foreigner, but a despised foreigner—and heals his servant.
Jesus makes frequent favorable mention of Samaritans, an ethnic group his people hated with a passion
Jesus separates the sheep from the goats based in part upon whether or not they welcomed strangers.
And when Revelation 7 paints a picture of heaven, there is a multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing together before the throne of God.
The Bible is a big book; there’s other stuff in it too. I know that. When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they took it as their divine mission to destroy everyone else living there. Gentiles weren’t allowed to enter the holiest parts of the temple. After the exile, Ezra expelled all foreign wives. And even Jesus once refused healing to someone because she wasn't an Israelite (though he later changed his mind).
What does the Bible say about how to regard foreigners? We begin at the beginning of the Bible. Every human being--citizens and foreigners, friends and strangers--every human being is created in the image of God. In his book Christians at the Border, Daniel Carroll points out that this does not mean there should be no border control or that no one should ever be deported. But it should inform the tone of Christian talk about immigration. Decisions about how to treat foreigners may get to legal status and documentation, but it begins with the recognition that all immigrants are people, created in God's image.2 That fact doesn't end the complicated moral and political discussion; but it is the Bible's place to begin the discussion.
What does the Old Testament law say about how to treat foreigners and strangers? We just read a couple of relevant passages, and I'll summarize some others. If you want to read them for yourself, just Google "Bible and immigrants" or "Bible and foreigners" and you'll find enough scriptures to keep you busy for a while.
For example, the Old Testament says that the same laws have to apply to Israelites and aliens alike. You can't have one set of laws for citizens and another set for everyone else.
Israelites were prohibited from exploiting aliens. Foreign residents deserved their wages and had to be allowed to rest on the Sabbath like everyone else.
Like other vulnerable people, such as widows and orphans, Israelites were required to provide for aliens among them—food and clothing is mentioned in Deuteronomy.
Leviticus goes so far as to say, "You shall love the alien as yourself."
All of this shows that Old Testament law has a strong bias in favor of aliens and their rights. However, this doesn't mean that anything goes.
The Hebrew word used in these laws—ger—seems to refer to foreigners with some kind of recognized, long-term standing in the community. A different Hebrew word referred to short-term visitors, who had fewer rights. And still another word could have quite negative connotations about foreigners. And foreigners from different places could be treated differently in Israel—those from friendly countries could become what we might call citizens in three generations, while those from hostile countries required ten generations. (Deut. 23:3-13)
And Daniel Carroll points out that foreigners were expected to learn and respect Israel's language and culture.3 If you’re going to live here, learn what it means to live here.
Again, Old Testament law requires fair, generous and loving treatment of aliens. But this is balanced with requirements of practicality and safety. Okay?
Ultimately there are two main reasons why the people of Israel were commanded to respect and love foreigners:
The first is their own history: The Israelites themselves had been oppressed in Egypt. They were not to do to others what had been done to them.
And second, Israelites were to treat foreigners well because there's a special place in God's heart for the weak and vulnerable. Daniel Carroll says, "Israel is to love sojourners. because God does."4
Why does fear of foreigners and strangers matter so much? Scott Bader-Saye says, "Fear is a moral issue insofar as it shapes the kind of people we become."5 As we're learning, fear causes our muscles to tense up, our breathing to grow rapid, our hearts to race, hormones to pump, and our brains to revert to fight-or flight thinking. We don't make our most rational, let alone our most loving, decisions out of a condition of fear.
Some foreigners, of course, should be feared. Most, however, should not. And even when some foreigners are worthy of being feared, they’re still not usually our greatest fear. Courage, Bader-Saye insists, depends on learning "what to fear and how much to fear it."6 So, for example:
Throughout the 1990s US crime rates were declining, yet two-thirds of Americans thought they were rising.7 This doesn't mean we shouldn't have been concerned with the crime that was happening. But for a decade most Americans felt an unnecessary level of fear about crime and our criminal justice policies got shaped by unrealistic fears.
Now a great fear of Muslim terrorism has gripped our country. Again, we need to be vigilant about real dangers. I personally know people affected by the event at OSU back in November. Yet the Dispatch reported last month that your likelihood of being killed in the US by a radical Islamic terrorist is less than being killed by lightning. And since 9/11 nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists and other non-Muslim extremists than by Muslims.8 Are we fearing the right things?
And in our Lenten study book, Rabbi Kushner tells about a study finding that people who were acutely stressed after the 9/11 attacks and continued to worry about terrorism—about 6% of the population—were at least three times more likely to develop heart problems. If even a tiny fraction of those people suffered a fatal heart attack due to that stress, it would mean more people will have died of fear than died on 9/11.9 Fear is literally killing us.
Here’s the thing: If we allow our fear of terrorism and foreigners to fundamentally change who we are and how we live, then terrorism has won. Terrorists aren’t trying to kill all of us; they don’t need to. They’re trying to make all of us live in fear. If our fear causes us to overreact with suspicion of all Muslims or by torturing terror suspects, all we do is perpetuate the cycle of terror.
I was in Britain in the 1980s when the IRA regularly bombed English businesses. Now, of course the police tried to bring bombers to justice and the military tried to prevent attacks—all of that is needed. But after every bombing, that business would reopen the very next day, even if all they could do was set a card table out front with a few doodads to sell, and the sign would always say, “B.A.U.” Business As Usual. Necessary caution? Yes, please. Firm responses to dangerous actions? Absolutely. But fear should not change who we are and how we live. In the face of terrorism, we need some Business As Usual.
In response to recent rhetoric about foreigners in Alabama, Bishop Will Willimon wrote a little book called Fear of the Other. He says, “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather having a reason for doing the right thing in spite of our fear.” And where does that courage come from? From revering, honoring and devoting ourselves to something greater than our own safety--to God, our Rock and Redeemer, the Creator of every human being. And think of church, Willimon says, “as schooling in how to manage our fears, how to fear our fears getting the best of us, fearing the right things in the right way.” 10
So much of our fear—okay, I’ll own this: so much of my fear—has to do with the safety of my children. Hurt me if you need to, but don’t mess with my kids! And welcoming strangers and loving foreigners may in fact put our kids at some risk. But not welcoming strangers and not loving foreigners also puts our kids at risk—at risk of having cold hearts and of not following Jesus. Do you remember that story about the peanut butter, how the lady said, “Well, nowadays you can’t be too careful.” Yes you can; yes you can.
My 21 year-old daughter, Emily, spent a semester last year studying in Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country in West Africa. She spent the end of that time in a city called Kaolack, where she was one of two white people and possibly the only Christian among 175,000 people. If anyone has ever been, she was a stranger, a foreigner. Every day as Emily walked to work, she saw the same old woman sitting on a stool. After a few days, the old lady motioned her over. And even though Emily had grown used to Senegalese hospitality by that time, she felt some trepidation. Is this old woman going to try to get money from me? More likely, is she going to try to marry me to one of her grandsons? Is someone else waiting around the corner to get me? But Emily went over. The old lady took Emily’s hands in hers, pointed up to God, and began to pray. The woman knew no English or French; Emily knew very little Wolof. But from then on, every morning this old lady prayed for my daughter, saying whatever black Senegalese Muslim old women say to their God for white American Christian college students far from home. I will never meet her. I don’t know her name. But I am eternally grateful to this woman for her gracious, prayerful welcome of a stranger.
So here’s your assignment. Some time in the next week or two, spend an hour with someone you might feel some fear of. You don’t need to tell them that’s what you’re doing! Maybe worship in a church made up of immigrants or go to a mosque. Visit someone in prison. Volunteer at the Free Store or New Life Church. Visit the Somali Community Association near Northern Lights or the Bhutanese Community Center on Tamarack. Your assignment is to spend one hour with someone, facing your fear.
It’s natural to fear strangers and foreigners. The point is to learn to do the right thing anyway.
1 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 45-46.
2 M. Daniel Carroll R., Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, & the Bible, second ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press,2014), 45-51.
3 See Carroll R., 99-100.
4 Carroll R., 91.
5 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 26.
6, Bader-Saye, 25.
7 Bader-Saye, 15.
8 Alan B. Miller, "The Inside Story," The Columbus Dispatch, February 12, 2017, G1.
9 Harold S. Kushner, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World (New York: Anchor Books, 2009), 8.
10William H. Willimon, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 35-36.
Not to Worry
March 5, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
“I used to think that the angels in the Bible began their messages with ‘Do not be afraid’ because their appearance was so frightening,” writes Scot Bader-Saye in a book called Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. “But I have come to think differently. I suspect that they begin this way because the quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us.”1
The quieting of fear is required to hear and do what God asks of us. That idea is at the heart of this Lenten worship series called “Fear Not: Overcoming Fear with Faith.” Let me be clear: this is not to say that all fear is bad. Fear warns us of danger and teaches us much about ourselves. But there’s a reason why “Fear not” is the most often repeated command in the Bible. One teacher found over 365 “fear nots” in the Bible.2 Why so many? Partly because we are such fearful people! We need to hear it every day. And partly because, not just to have fear, but letting fear run your life will leave you unhappy, ungenerous, and ultimately unfaithful.
Between now and Easter we will look at fear in several ways:
fear of strangers and foreigners
at disciples who are afraid of Jesus and Peter daring, for a moment, to walk on top of the water
at the relationship between fear and love
at how the opposite of fear isn’t fearlessness but trust
and at praying through our fear.
We begin this series with what is surely the most common type of fear: anxiety. Jesus says, Don’t worry about having enough to eat--birds don’t plant crops or store up food, yet God feeds them. And don’t worry about what you’ll wear--flowers don’t work at all, and still they’re beautiful. Don’t worry.
First, a few things about what Jesus is not saying here:
He’s not saying that nothing bad will ever happen to you. Flowers eventually wither and die; some birds can't find anything to eat. Jesus isn’t saying that bad things can’t happen; he’s saying that worrying won’t make things better.
Jesus is also not saying that there’s no need to work and study and plan for the fuure. Jesus knows full well that food doesn’t put itself on the table. What he’s saying is that worry doesn’t put any food on the table.
And finally please don’t hear this scripture as a judgment or criticism of worrying. All that criticism accomplishes is that people still worry, and they feel bad about it—maybe even worry about their worrying. This scripture is not a word of judgment; it’s a word of hope—there is a way not to worry, or at least to worry less. Don't you want to know what it is?
I want to start by thinking with you about what worry is. I consider myself an expert on this topic, being an excellent worrier myself and coming from a long line of worriers
You can distinguish worry from fear. True fear, writes Gavin de Becker, is a survival signal that sounds only in the presence of immediate danger—let’s say as a bear is chasing you, or a car is swerving into your lane. Anxiety, in contrast, is not a signal, but more of a “state,” a condition—it persists in the absence of any real danger and it does not serve our survival.4 So there’s a difference between true fear and anxiety. The trouble is, though, the mind and body can’t tell the difference between worry and fear. Either way, the heart races, muscles tense up, breathing grows rapid and shallow, the brain reverts to fight-of-flights mechanisms. We are not at our best when we are anxious or afraid.
Gavin de Becker is a consultant to celebrities and government officials who are being stalked or have received death threats. He knows a thing or two about fear and danger. He acknowledges that anxiety is a form of fear, but calls it “manufactured” fear, a form of “self-harrassment.”4 It’s fear based not on what’s about to happen, but on what might happen, or might not happen, or that I imagine could happen, or I hate to think about what it would be like if it did happen. Near the end of his life, Mark Twain said, “I have had a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”5 That’s anxiety.
De Becker says that most often we worry because it provides some “some secondary reward.” If you’re a worrier like me, you’ll recognize these secondary rewards, but as I list them, it will be hard to consider them rewards exactly..
Worry, he says, is a way to avoid change; when we worry, we don’t actually do anything about the matter.
Worry is a way to avoid admitting our powerlessness over something, since worry makes us feel like we’re doing something.
Worry is what de Becker calls a cloying way to have connection with others; in other words, worry is a poor substitute for love.
Finally, worry is a protection against future disappointment. If I worry about failing now, maybe it won’t feel so bad when I actually do fail.6
That makes worry sound like a fun life, doesn’t it? When you put it in these terms, you might wonder, “Why do I worry?” That’s a good question, worthy of our reflection. But today’s question is, “What am I going to do about anxiety? How can I stop worrying, or at least worry less?”
Let me share two ideas about that. You can take them with you. They're safe to try at home. What to do about worry?
Intentionally train your body to react differently to stress and consciously train your eyes to see the world a different way. First, the body: simply taking three deep breaths begins to slow down your heart rate and to release the tension in your body. Try it, right now. Nothing is more effective in countering anxiety than breathing. And try forcing yourself to smile—it is harder to stay worried when you’re smiling and laughing—it's physiologically true.
And then the eyes: almost every book on fear I read had this advice--don’t watch the evening news—the steady diet of crime and car crashes causes you to see the world in an unrealistic way. Keep a gratitude journal—every day write down three things you’re grateful for. It shifts your focus from the negative to the positive, and gratitude is wonderful medicine for anxiety. Start each day expecting good things to happen. Let this be part of your morning prayers: “God, I am expecting good things to happen today." This may or may not make good things happen, but it will help you notice when they do happen. So much depends on how you look at things. I was in a Bible study one time with Jody Oates, whom many of you know. We were studying the story in Matthew where Jesus stayed behind and the disciples crossed the lake and the boat was far from the land, Matthew says, for the wind was against them. And I said, “In't that they way it always is? Isn’t the wind always against us?” And Jody said, “Actually, no, a lot of times the wind is quite nice.” And you know, he’s right. I had developed a way of looking at the world that was negative, anxious and incorrect. Worry is about how you look at the world, and about whether you hold tensions and troubles in your body or release them. And so to worry less, intentionally train your body to react differently to stress and consciously train your eyes to see the world a different, more positive way.
And then there’s this. In his book about dialing back fear, Dr. Marc Siegel says “that if fear is unlearned, it is because a new emotion replaces it.” Fear doesn’t just go away; you have to replace it with something. And secular though he is, Dr. Siegel suggests caring. Caring for someone else gets us out of that self-centered cycle of anxiety. It's good for you. And Scot Bader-Saye admits that we can’t just command ourselves to feel less fear—it doesn't work. Overwhelming fears must be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a larger story that is hopeful and not tragic.7
And here’s how Jesus said the same thing: “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ God knows you need those things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I know this can sound like a religious platitude, but it’s really a deep spiritual truth. Again, it doesn’t mean that nothing bad will ever happen, and it doesn’t mean you should work hard and plan for the future. But you don’t overcome anxiety by doing battle anxiety. You overcome anxiety by reaching out for God, by trusting in God’s care, by breathing in God’s goodness and letting God hold all that burdens you.
But what if I tried it and it didn’t work? Keep trying! I mean, what’s the alternative—keep worrying? Or rather, trying isn’t quite the right word. Keep letting this happen in you:
I’m worried sick, Lord, and I’m going to put you ahead of my worry. I’m going to seek you first, Lord.
I’m worried sick, and your righteousness, God, will be enough.
I’m worried sick, Lord, and I’m going to let you calm my quivering, fearful heart. Lord knows I can’t calm it myself.
God will hold you as far as, and to the extent that, you will allow yourself to be held. It’s not a platitude; it’s the truth we so desperately need.
1Scot Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, Christian Practice of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 59.
2Lloyd Ogilvie, Facing the Future Without Fear, http://www.soulshepherding.org/2010/07/fear-not-365-days-a-year/, accessed March 2, 2017.
3 See Gavin de Becker, The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence New York: Delta, 1999), 292-93.
4 de Becker, 302.
5 de Becker, 315.
6 de Becker, 302.
7 Bader-Saye, 60.
Relationships Include . . . Enemies
February 19, 2017 Maple Grove UMC
We may have smiled and nodded during the Gospel reading today, but if we’re honest we have to admit that those are some very hard teachings, aren’t they? Jesus says not to resist anyone who harms you. Whoa! He says to love not only your friends, but even your enemies. Really? These are hard teachings, and people know it.
Just days after the 9/11 attacks, Tony Campolo dared to read in church these words of Jesus about loving enemies and not retaliating. One listener came to him and declared, “This is no time to go around quoting Jesus.” “I’ve got news for you,” responded Campolo; “this is exactly the time we had better quote Jesus.”1
These are difficult teachings. By that I do not mean that I’m telling you, “Hey, these may be hard for you.” I mean they’re hard for all of us. These teaching are hard because they challenge the notion that justice is about punishment or even about our safety, and they contradict the idea that love is about fairness. They’re not, Jesus says. Justice and love are not about treating people the way they deserve to be treated, but treating people the way God treats us. That is challenging, to say the least.
So what does it mean to keep God’s love at the heart of all our relationships, including relationships with enemies?
Well, for one thing, it implies that it’s okay to have enemies. There’s the old joke about the preacher who gave a sermon on forgiving our enemies. At the end of the sermon, he asked everyone to raise their hand if they were willing to try forgive their enemies. Every hand went up but one. “Mrs. Jones?” the preacher asked, “why aren’t you willing to forgive your enemies?”
“I don’t have any,” she replied, smiling sweetly.
“Mrs. Jones, that is remarkable. How old are you?”
“93,” she replied.
“Oh, Mrs. Jones, what a lesson you are to us. Come up front and tell us how a person can live 93 years and not have an enemy in the world.”
The little old lady tottered down the aisle, faced the congregation and said, “I outlived the wenches.”
Well, that’s one method. I don’t think it’s what Jesus had in mind.
I want to start with some questions that are kind of philosophical: What did Jesus mean when he said to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies? Why did he want us to live like that? What kind of ethics was Jesus teaching?
First, I mentioned last Sunday I believe the Sermon on the Mount is a kingdom ethics—that is, how Christians need to live in community with each other. These are essentially rules for how we have to treat people if our life together is going to be happy and peaceful.
Clarence Jordan shows that the Bible arrived at this kingdom, or community, ethics in four steps:2
(1) First there is unlimited retaliation. If someone harms or disrespects you, you can get back at them in any way you’re able to, up to and including killing them. There are no limits. It’s a state of nature.
(2) Second comes limited retaliation. We may think “an eye for an eye” sounds barbaric, but it’s a vast improvement over unlimited retaliation! In a way, it’s still the basis of our criminal justice system: the punishment should fit the crime. It makes a kind of sense. But we also know how it inevitably turns out: if you harm me and I harm you back in a similar way, you’re still angry and eventually you’ll harm me again, and then I have to harm you again. It’s an endless cycle of violence and vengeance. Ghandi is often credited with saying that an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
(3) So the third step is limited love, the Bible’s command to love your neighbor. Even if your neighbor harms you, you’ve still got to love them. This is a vast improvement over retaliation, but is still limited only to neighbors. An example from Jesus’ time might be that if a neighbor, that is, another Jew, knocked out your eye or tooth, he can be forgiven; but if a Gentile did it, then all bets are off. It’s limited love.
(4) So the final step, the step Jesus takes in the Sermon on the Mount, is unlimited love. Jesus is saying that love must be the basis for all relationships and must be applied universally—to people like us and to people different from us, to people who treat us well and people who hate us. Just love ‘em all, is what Jesus is saying.
At first, Jordan admits, unlimited love seems counterintuitive, impractical, even dangerous. And indeed there are risks--Jesus himself wound up on a cross. But ultimately, Jordan says, unlimited love is the only way of living with each other that can possibly make any sense. Everything else perpetuates a cycle of violence and exclusion.
So one way of looking at loving one’s enemy and non-retaliation is as kingdom ethics, behavior that makes life together possible and fruitful. But ethicists talk about the difference between consequentialist and deontological ethics. Consequentialist ethics says that it’s the consequences of our behavior that matters, that we should refuse to retaliate and we should love our enemies because these things will lead to the best outcomes. Deontological ethics says that certain things are just right or wrong regardless of the outcome, that we should refuse to retaliate and we should love our enemies because it’s the right thing to do. Which was Jesus teaching—consequentialist ethics or deontological? I’d like to say, “Both.”
In terms of consequentialist ethics, it’s important to note that in telling people not to retaliate, Jesus did not say to be a victim or a doormat to be walked on. He gave three examples of how to respond to mistreatment. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek,” he says, “turn the other also.” To strike someone on the right cheek implies a backhanded blow, which in that culture was not only painful, but deeply insulting. To turn the other cheek is a nonviolent but aggressive response. It says, “Oh yeah, big guy? I can take it! You have not defeated my spirit, and I will not sink to your level.”
Again, Jesus says, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” As best I can tell, this was a kind of rude joke. Jewish men wore two garments—their coat, an outer garment, and their cloak, an inner garment. If you’re only wearing two garments, and someone takes the outer one, and you offer them the inner one too—what does that leave you wearing? This is a way of publicly shaming a person who would try to take everything you’ve got, even the clothes off your back. Maybe you can’t stop them from taking your stuff, but you can make them look bad.
And Roman soldiers could legally require people to carry their pack for one mile, but only one mile. To voluntarily carry that pack a second mile makes the soldier a law-breaker and makes him look weak. It shows that you are in charge, not him.
So when Jesus says not to retaliate, he doesn’t mean to be passive. Rather these are ways to stand up for yourself without stooping to the level of violence and revenge.
I believe all of that is true, that ultimately non-retaliation, forgiveness, and love of enemy are the only things that can save the world. I’m not saying I’m often courageous and in tune enough with God to live that way. But I believe it.
But I also believe that Jesus wanted us to live that way even if it wouldn’t save the world. “Love,” one commentator sums up, “is not a weapon or tool. Genuine love has no ulterior motive; its purpose is simply to benefit the one loved, regardless of [their] response.”3 Clarence Jordan put it, “Jesus didn’t tell his followers to love their enemies because love would or would not work. The idea probably never occurred to him to raise the question of whether or not it was practical. He told them that they should do it ‘that they might be [children of their Father in heaven]4, to be close to God. “Be perfect, therefore,” Jesus concludes, “as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect, of course, impossible, problematic. But as I heard Laurie Clark say a few days ago, the Greek is mistranslated here. The word doesn’t mean ‘perfect’ in our usual sense; it means ‘whole.’ We turn the other cheek, we let stuff go, we love even those who hate and hurt us, so that we can be ‘whole’ like God, whether it “works” or not.
In a moment I want to tell you a couple stories about loving enemies on an interpersonal level. But I want to note that this works at the national level as well. A recent issue of The Christian Century5 told of a restorative justice project in Uganda led by a retired Anglican bishop. In the 1980s and 90s the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army abducted more than 60,000 children in Uganda, killed over 100,000 people and displaced 2.5 million. With that many people involved, to retaliate or even to punish all the wrongdoers would only further devastate the country. Instead the bishop is trying a process of justice called mato oput, which centers on forgiveness, truth telling, compensation, and a ritual in which enemies share food together. Another article was about the widow of a Japanese reporter who was abducted and killed in Iraq by one of the warring parties there. Instead of seeking revenge, she built a hospital and offered it to those who had killed her husband. Take those stories times 100, times 1000, times what you do and what I do, and the entire world is more ‘whole,’ more like God.
I’ve probably told you before about the time I was playing tennis, doubles with my brother, my sister and my brother-in-law. Somewhere toward the end of the first set, little Charley Yoder started riding his bike back and forth across our court, intentionally interrupting our game. We pointed out that there was an entire vacant court where he could ride without disturbing our game, but he just kept riding back and forth across our court. We told him to Scram, Knock it off, or else. But he just kept riding back and forth across our court. I chased him off with my racket (I like to think I wouldn’t have actually hit the kid), and he disappeared. But of course two points later he was back riding back and forth across our court.
We decided to take a break, hoping he’d lose interest and go away. But he didn’t; he just kept riding around. I went to get some water and when I came back, I saw my sister and Charley Yoder sitting under a tree playing a game together. I was incensed—this was no way to treat someone who’s ruining our game! It got worse: when they got up, Charley picked up my sister’s racket and she said, “Charley’s going to take my place for a while.”
“No way!” I shouted. But she’s my big sister, so she got her way. We finished the set—me, my brother, my brother-in-law and Charley Yoder. I did not enjoy it. He wasn’t very good. And he smiled with joy the entire time. “Turn the other cheek,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies,” he said. It’s a hard teaching.
Finally this: Will Campbell was a white Southern Baptist preacher who became a civil rights leader in the South. He wrote a book about his life called Brother to a Dragonfly. (The language, just so you know, was Will Campbell’s uncle’s, not mine.) Will tells how in 1959 his father died after a long illness. Will was exhausted from caring for him, overcome with sorrow. His sister, though, came and said, “Will, I know you’re tired. . . But will you stay with him tonight?” He promised that he’d keep watch over the body that night.
Several hours into the night Will heard, “Believe it’s cooled off a bit.” “Yea,” he replied, “I believe it has.” Slowly, he writes, it occurred to me that someone from out of the darkness had spoken to me. I did not need to turn around to ask who it was. I’d not heard the voice for a long time, but I knew it was a favorite uncle from my childhood. In recent years he’d been one of the most critical and vocal ones concerning my activities in the civil rights controversy, expressing bitter disappointment and displeasure that his own nephew had turned out to be what he called a nigger lover and renegade preacher. I’d ceased to visit him when I came home because I loved him too much to risk his rejection.
He moved quietly out of the darkness and sat down beside me. I tried to see my watch. “It’s three o-clock,” he said. I assumed he knew about the promise I’d made my sister, and had been sitting in the shadows since the last mourner had left, deciding in his own time when I had been alone—though not alone—long enough.
He poured coffee from a lunch box thermos and handed it to me. And until the dawn, Will Campbell writes, I sat in the redemptive company of a racist Jesus.6
“Turn the other cheek,” Jesus said. “Love your enemies,” he said. And maybe even harder, let them love you. Our God-Centered relationships include . . . our enemies. It’s a hard teaching. And the only way to change the world.
1 Tony Campolo, “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times,” The Sunday After Tuesday: College Pulpits Respond to 9/11, ed. William H. Willimon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 52.
2 Clarence Jordan, Sermon on the Mount, revised ed. (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1970), 63-68.
3 Douglas R.A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 60.
4 Jordan, 68.
5 The Christian Century (February 15, 2017), 18-19.
6 Will D. Campbell, Brother to a Dragonfly (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1988), 150-51.