Sermon for Sunday, May 3, 2015
Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:7-21
I have been contemplating today’s sermon on love of each other, especially in light of what happened in Baltimore this past week, and protests that are going on here in NYC and across the country.
The writer of 1st John says that we are loved by God and called to love each other. Perfect love casts out fear the writer proclaims. And yet, there is so much fear in our world and in our country right now, as people try to make sense of what is going on.
Those of you who have lived a long time will remember protests and yes, sometimes violence over the years in relation to race relations and the military situation in Vietnam. I am 53, and was just a baby and small child in the midst of much of that – but I remember my father being very public in Wilmington NC advocating for peace and justice and an acceptance of people as they are – judging them, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated: “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
This time, in Baltimore, this was not a racial issue, per se, as the leadership of the city is both African descent and White, and several of the police officers who have now been indicted are persons of color.
People have posted on Facebook and other places that the protests, and perhaps even the violence and destruction is justified, given the conditions of this country. Others would say, those who destroyed property can be judged by the “content of their character” and found wanting.
What can the church say at this time? And more importantly, what is the church called to DO in this time?
As I was meditating on what to say, THIS post came up on Facebook from a colleague of mine, Pastor Gil Gilbert. It is from Benjamin Watson, an African descent member of the New Orleans Saints football team. He posts:
We have major problems as a nation. Yesterday Ferguson burned, tonight Baltimore burns; tomorrow it will be another city in our homeland. Watching the coverage I’m hearing yet another version of a nauseatingly familiar narrative. Violence by police reciprocated by violence by the community reciprocated by violence by the police reciprocated by . . .
It seems fruitless to analyze, condemn and respond to these dreadful episodes. “Frustration, anger, tension boiling over, upset and unfortunate” are words we heard from Baltimore residents.
When it comes to law enforcement, race, poverty, education, immigration we always talk about “fixing” broken systems. We resolve to legislate for education, job creation and systemic overhaul. These are helpful and definitely needed BUT we have done all these things ad nauseum and look at us! Without a change of heart these attempts fail us. So what can we say? What can we do? Systems are broken because people are broken and if systems are fixed without hearts being changed the result will be a legalistic attempt that will lack long term results. Our problems are wholistic and common to the human heart. Hatred, prejudice, exploitation, pride, self-righteousness, secrecy, and rebellion manifest itself in the explosions we’ve seen over the last year, the last century, the last millennia.
Tonight I see so much entrenched pain without remedy. Most are handling it without violence while a few are committing the unacceptable.
Tonight, I see young children, asking like my daughter did earlier, “What’s happening Daddy?” in desperate need for parents to walk them through these disturbing scenes.
Tonight I see “smoke,” but we must address the fire. The response that we are watching is just “smoke” from years of hopelessness. After each situation the more I am convinced that the love of God for our fellow brothers and sisters who were created in His image, is our only hope for reconciliation. But the only way we can see him (sic) that way is if God illuminates our view and changes our thought process. I’m not talking about holding hands and singing. Love is an action that compels one to treat the other with dignity and respect even if they don’t deserve it. It pushes for education and opportunities for those in poverty. It gives identity and self-worth. It administers justice without abuse. It honors authority and promotes peace.
It is not weak, but strong for what is right!
Tonight I see a brokenness that only Christ can give us the wisdom and power to mend.
We pray for every disaster that happens to us: bombings, natural disasters, cancer, and outbreaks. What we’ve seen in our country lately deserves the same attention. Our attempts to fix this have fallen short.
We and most importantly, the body of Christ, must stand for justice in all areas, for all people. We must set the standard for the correct way to treat people.
Tonight I pray for pastors, leaders, police and the community of Baltimore.
POWERFUL words of wisdom and challenge to the Christian church.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus refers to himself as the vine and us as the branches. A branch, cut off from the vine itself, loses all nourishment and opportunity to bring forth ripe fruit. It withers and dies. If the vinedresser – in this case, God the Father – is good at his work, he prunes these useless branches so that the vine can bring forth NEW branches and grow.
I know that there are parts of me that do not bear good fruit for God’s kingdom. I know that there are attitudes that have developed in my life, either because society has shaped me, or because of personal experience, that are not godly.
I know that I make false assumptions about people and jump to conclusions too quickly. I know that I don’t always treat my fellow travelers on this earth – even here in Astoria – with respect and dignity.
I see the guy on Broadway, who walks around with his suitcase – often smelling of liquor. I see him buying lottery tickets in the bodega. Do I ever stop to talk with him? No. I judge him.
I run into the guy who asks me for something to eat EVERY TIME I see him on Broadway, usually when I am headed to an appointment. He smiles and yells at me “FATHER PAUL” and asks me to buy him something to eat- as I have several times. I too often tell him, “Sorry, gotta run.”
I believe I shared with you my internal conflict last summer when I was on the N train and saw two fellows, walking with backpacks through the train – not looking either way, just methodically walking – and my mind immediately said, “This is it. They are going to blow up the train, right as it turns the corner into Queensboro Plaza.” Their ethnicity? Middle Eastern or Arabic/Pakistani/Afghani. Would I have felt the same way if these two men were Caucasian?
I get disgusted as I see more and more NY State (and City) politicians being arrested for corruption and I think, “Is there NO HONEST politician in this state?” This attitude is CRAZY. I KNOW several of our local politicians well, and they have our best interest at heart. But I judge them all on the actions of a few.
I need for the Vinegrower to prune these useless branches off of me. I need to realize that he is very patient with me, and loves me even in spite of my fruitlessness and gives his love and grace as nutrients for my life.
I need to allow that grace to flow more fully in my life, and treat others with dignity and respect – and get to know them, spend the TIME to get to know them, before I make a judgement.
And I need to follow the words of Mr. Benjamin Watson, realizing that I cannot do this on my own. I am dependent upon the love of Christ to bring new life and new possibilities for me.
The same is true for the Church. We are called to allow the Vinegrower to prune those parts of us that are not bearing fruit so that new life can flourish.
We are called to do more than just PRAY for an end to violence and hatred and injustice. We are called to act out our love.
We are called to ACT out our love.
I’m not sure what this looks like, beyond each of us as individuals acknowledging our own mistakes, repenting of them and committing ourselves to change our attitudes and most importantly BEHAVIOR toward those who are different from us.
Certainly we don’t need some kind of program – the larger church has been programmed to death with attempts to eradicate racism, sexism, ageism, prejudice toward those of different economic statuses, prejudice toward those of different sexual orientations, prejudice toward those whose religious beliefs are different from our own.
We may have differing views on the political spectrum; and if you know this congregational family at all, you KNOW that we do.
Regardless of this, we are called to live our love for each child of God – even if they don’t seem to deserve it!
Perhaps the best way to begin, AFTER the praying, is to engage in conversation with each other. Maybe we can, in a gentle way, engage in conversation with someone that is different than us – even here in our own Trinity church family.
And if we are bold: with someone different from us in the world.
I know, it is scary. You want me to talk to someone I DON’T know? To engage in a civilized conversation with someone with whom I totally disagree?
Given the wonder of the internet, perhaps at the very least we can learn something about cultures that are different from our own:
Rather than going to websites or news sites that reinforce our own view of the world, could we spend some time learning about the world view of others?
Read something from someone of a different ethnicity.
Learn about the Jewish faith, or Islam.
Take some time to speak with a police officer in our community. Ask them how they are doing, knowing that their job is not easy. They are God’s children as well, and deserve our love and respect.
Speak to someone who is protesting these days. Find out what is really on their mind, and try to understand why they feel that protesting is necessary. Then ask them, “What can happen, in reality, to bring the change you desire?”
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . . We love because he first loved us.
These are the words of our second lesson.
Given that God loves us so much, I believe we are called to show that love, in real ways.
Benjamin Watson says:
I’m not talking about holding hands and singing. Love is an action that compels one to treat the other with dignity and respect even if they don’t deserve it. It pushes for education and opportunities for those in poverty. It gives identity and self-worth. It administers justice without abuse. It honors authority and promotes peace.
God calls us to ACTION.
We love, because God loves!