1 John 4:16-18
Today we heard the passage from 1st John that tells us that perfect love casts out fear. As people of faith we believe this. That the God of love will be the one who tames our fears, casts away all doubt, all insecurity and surrounds us with the blanket of love and comfort. We believe that love will win, that good triumphs over evil and that in the end, all will be well.
But this week, no matter how you voted or what you believe, we cannot get away from the fact that people are scared by the results of the election. Again, no matter how you voted or what you believe, we cannot get away from the fact that violence is being acted out both towards people who feel they have been given free rein to put down and injure people who are different from “us” in this way, and from people who are terrified and feel they are fighting for their lives. My news box has been filled with stories in the last few days. According to USA Today, hate crimes including harassment, threats, vandalism, assault and even killing have been numerous. From my own friends I have seen posts such as this: “My 12 year old daughter is African American. A boy approached her and said, “now that Trump is president, I’m going to shoot you and all the blacks I can find.” “Kids at my kids school have been told to “get out” because of their skin color. They’ve been told they will be sent out or be killed or even imprisoned because of their heritage.” One post of a friend said that a man had walked up to her grabbed her crotch and told her it was now legal to “grab p___” whenever he wanted. A lesbian acquaintance in New York city was told on the subway, “I hope you enjoy the concentration camp!” and far too many people are expressing deep concern about their health care coverage. According to several studies, the worst of it has been happening in our elementary schools. On one school wall the words “make America white again” were written along with a swastika. A friend’s sister, who is Muslim girl, had a knife pulled on her on the bus. And one person reported students yelling “Hiel Trump-Hitler” on the campus during recess. Another post came from a woman who was born in Minnesota but who was wearing a scarf and was told at the gas station that she had better “go home” or face the consequences as he actually showed her his gun. Again, I understand that people voted for different folk and for different reasons. But you cannot get away from the hateful reactions that have been going on this week. And you cannot get away from the protests (most peaceful, though those aren’t being reported as much because they aren’t as big news) as well as riots from people who are scared. No matter what you think or feel, we cannot escape the reality that this has given people permission at some level to be open with their hatred towards others. And we cannot get away from the fact that people are demonstrating their fear and anger through many ways, including a returned violence.
In the face of all of this, what are we called to do? Where is Jesus when all of this is going on? Does he tell those who are suffering or who are hurting to ‘calm down’? Does he tell them “Don’t worry, God’s got this!”? Does he promise them everything will be okay? That God is in charge so it will all be alright? Does he say, “just relax and sit back. Everything happens for a reason.” Or “your faith will protect you.” Does he encourage violence as a solution? Does he say, “hate for hate” or even “an eye for an eye”. No. Jesus said none of that. Instead, Jesus did four things. First, he goes out there and heals people. He heals the people who others have called “unclean”. He heals the people others have dismissed and don’t want to have around. He heals, talks to, acknowledges and eats with the people others call “sinners” and those the elite, the powerful, rejects. He heals those others don’t want to see or touch or be around.
Second, he empowers people. Again, he does this in a variety of ways. First, he talks to people he is not supposed to talk to: women, tax collectors, Samaritans, Syrophoenicians, children, prostitutes. He talks to people others want gone, want out. He listens to them, is present with them. He stops the stoning of the woman caught in adultery. He talks to the woman living with a man who is not her husband and offers her his life-giving water. He argues against violence, encouraging us to instead take a non-violent stand. But I want to be clear with you about this. When he says “turn the other cheek” this is not an argument for passivity. It is also not an argument for acceptance. He does not say “run away when someone hits you”, he says “turn the other cheek”. This is an act of civil protest which can only be understood by understanding something of the culture at the time. People were not allowed to use their left hands for contact with others, including hitting others. If you hit with your left hand, you were shamed. We have a hard time understanding this in our culture, but shame was a huge deal in this society. So if someone struck you they would have used their right hand. Additionally, if it was someone trying to shame you or say that you were an inferior, he would have to have used the back of his hand. That was considered a statement that the other was an inferior. But when you turn the other cheek, if the other were to try to hit you again, he would have no choice but to use his unclean hand, which would be a deeply shameful act for the one doing the action, or he would have to use a fist or the open palm, both of which were statements that the other was an equal rather than an inferior. Standing there and turning the other cheek therefore was a way of saying, “I am not your inferior and I will no longer be treated as such.” But Jesus continued. “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give him your cloak as well. And if any one forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” These too were acts of civil disobedience. Roman law allowed that soldiers could demand others to carry their stuff for them for one mile. They were not allowed to demand more than a mile. So if a person insisted on carrying the stuff for a second mile, the soldier would have been doing something that had the consequence of severe punishment for the soldier. Likewise, the only two garments usually worn by peasants were a coat and an inner garment called a cloak. You were allowed to gain in exchange for a debt someone’s coat. By saying, “if they take your coat, give them your cloak as well," Jesus was basically encouraging his followers to strip naked. In that system, nakedness shamed the person who observed it, not the one naked. He gives those who were being oppressed non-violent but active tools for standing up and reclaiming his power. *
Third, he teaches. He teaches about loving God, loving ourselves, and loving each other. And again and again he says this is it: this is what it’s about. No matter how you feel about someone else, no matter if you disagree with them or if they scare you or if they are threatening, we are called to love them. And there is an especially here – especially if they are “the least of these”, especially if they are suffering. Jesus is clear: when you feed people, when you visit people, when you care for people, especially “the least of these” you are caring for Jesus.
And the last thing Jesus did was to tell us to follow him, to do as he did, even to the cross in order to teach love and to bring healing and empowerment to those others have harmed, to love those who are feeling scared and threatened and have been cast out. We usually in our gospel lessons are seeing Jesus talking to people or interacting again with those we would consider “the least of these” – the unclean, rejected, outcast. But in today’s gospel lessons we see Jesus talking to the insiders, to the disciples, to US. In the passage from Mark we hear him being reassuring, but also castigating. Have faith. But by faith he is not talking about belief. He is talking about a faith that is active. He quiets the storm because his faith is active, not simply expecting God to do things for him, but taking action himself to quiet the storm. He calls them to do the same. The second passage, the passage from Matthew, it is an even stronger statement. Peter is not just instructed to have faith, to believe. He is instructed to act on that belief. To have the courage and faith to step out of the boat, out of his comfort zone, to do what others claim is impossible and to walk on the water towards Jesus; walking on the water towards Jesus, towards faith, towards LOVE because that is what Jesus is and who Jesus is and what Jesus calls us to do.
These are the things Jesus does. And these are the things we are called to do as well, even in our fear. The thing is, fear doesn’t leave room for anything else: like beauty or truth or love. From a physiological place we know this. Fear literally leaves no room in our psyches for anything else, including rational thinking. In this way, the only thing about fear that is helpful is that it informs us that there is danger, and that something needs to be done. The message of perfect love casting out fear is not, therefore, a message of “it’s okay, everything will be fine.” It’s a message that calls us to strive to live out perfect love, to be kind and gracious and loving so that fear will no longer have a place, a need, a reason. Our job in this is not one of telling others to not be afraid. Our job is not to tell others it’s not a big deal. No, our job is to be part of creating a world in which people do not have to BE afraid because they know they are loved, actively, by us, and that we will stand with them, and keep them safe, and hold them up no matter what happens.
I think for all of us, for all of us who are afraid in one way or another by what is happening, again, no matter what side of the political coin you are on, our actions have to start with the reminder that we are all connected. We are clearly not unified. And we may not even be united, but we are still connected. We are all God’s children. And therefore we are brothers and sisters to one another. Therefore what hurts any of us, hurts all of us. When one person feels threatened, we are all threatened.
I am reminded once again of Niemoller’s poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
All of our actions for love over fear have to start with our faith. So I found myself reminded of this prayer by Thomas Merton:
"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."
*This is one of the many articles that talks about this. See Walter Wink and Marcus Borg for more info on this. http://www.beliefnet.com/
faiths/christianity/2004/04/ what-would-jesus-think-of- kings-protests.aspx