I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the news this summer very hard to take: the threatening action of the Russian government towards Ukraine; the crisis of children in Central America running from targeted gang violence and coercion and seeking refuge across our border; the intermittent shelling between Israel and Gaza; the documented rise of anti-Semitism in Europe; the increasing atrocities and hostilities of the Islamic State group towards anyone who gets in their way – be they Christian, Yazidi, Shi’ite Muslim, or those who will not support and welcome them.
At some point I got so that I didn’t want to hear any more; it was too much. Then we went on our family vacation to Rhode Island where we had no television or internet, and we didn’t even buy a newspaper. It was a welcome respite.
But when we returned home a week later, the news was full of the protests and racial tensions and military vehicles and weapons in Ferguson, MO that were the aftermath of the killing of a black teenager by a white police officer.
And all of this was happening against the backdrop of two important anniversaries. The first was the fiftieth anniversary of the passage on July 2, 1964 of the Civil Rights Act and the massive effort of civil rights workers throughout the South to register black citizens to vote.
The second anniversary was the centenary of the start of World War I, and in particular, Britain’s entrance into the war on August 4, 1914; that which was supposed to be the war to end all wars.
And yet here we are, in the United States in 2014, with fear, distrust and injustice still so often being the first and primary response of leaders and institutions toward American citizens whose skin is dark. And that same fear, distrust, desire for control and revenge is getting played out over and over again all over the world.
On one level, this is nothing new; it is the result of unredeemed human nature – the desire to have what I want, when I want it, for me and my group, everyone else be damned, and I’m afraid that if someone else gets something then I’ll get nothing. This has been going on ever since Cain and Abel way back at the beginning of humankind, and to some extent we are just hearing about discord and violence much more quickly and loudly than we have in the past because of our technology; fighting starts in a far-away place, and it show up in the news feed on our phone or i-pad almost instantaneously. And so we feel the emotional impact right away.
But I think we are also in an objectively unstable, tenuous, and difficult time in the world for reasons that are as old as Cain and Abel, as old as the Sunni/Shia divide in 680 AD, as old as the expulsion of Jews from England and certain parts of Europe throughout the Middle Ages, as old as the four hundred years of the African slave trade in the Americas, as old as the re-drawing of the national maps in Europe and the Middle East after World War I…as well as factors that have developed over the last thirty, twenty, ten years.
The world is difficult and dangerous right now; we feel that, we are aware of it, and so what do we do about it? What do we, who follow Jesus, who have committed ourselves to living the love of God and neighbor in the world – what do we do when faced with so much violence and fear?
It would be foolish and naïve to act as if it doesn’t exist, or that somehow we might not be touched by it.
In the Gospel today Jesus tells the disciples that he will have to undergo great suffering and death, and he rebukes Peter for trying to convince him otherwise. Jesus tells the disciples that if they are to really be his followers then they must take up their own cross, just as he does, and follow after him. But what does that actually mean, what does it look like?
St. Paul, in his letter to the Roman Christians, gives us a pretty clear answer – what you might call the marks of a true Christian. He says “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good… Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
That’s a pretty tall order; it requires wisdom and courage to hold fast to what is good, and to not only hate what is evil, but refuse to cooperate with it; to bless our persecutors and leave the revenge to God. It means that we have to trust the Holy Spirit to help us not be consumed with fear and anger and hatred – even in the face of spreading violence and the power of those who wish to do us harm.
If we let ourselves get caught up in fear and hatred, in the endless spiral of violence, then we have given up some of our freedom in Christ, and have become captive to the spiritually and psychologically dark streams that can poison our relations with other people and with God.
There’s a difference between making a strong defense where needed and the desire for vengeance; and giving in to vengeance will just eat you alive.
Jesus is both the Prince of Peace and the just and holy Judge before whom the rulers of nations and peoples will one day need to give an accounting of their actions on behalf of the people they lead and serve.We can be confident that Jesus is doing his job, on earth as it is heaven, even though we don’t always see it, even if that seems very hazy right now. So we can let Jesus do his job, and concentrate on doing ours.
God calls us to live hospitably in the world – not in the sense of giving the perfect dinner party or having an immaculately clean house – but God’s hospitality requires that we make room for people who show up in our lives, and that we live with an expectation of celebration – not because “it’s five o’clock somewhere”, but because God’s goodness and mercy is greater than any fear or hatred.
Living hospitably means that we embrace the Holy Spirit’s surprises, that we come alongside people who may be quite different from us, ready to learn some of the ways God has been revealed to them and through them, willing to let down our guard and share our own stories of God’s grace and blessing and healing. Living Christian hospitality means being spiritually humble and knowing that we need to give constant energy to prayer if we are not to get burned out, if we are not to succumb to the frantic pace of the world, and the false promises it makes. And living hospitably means finding ways to respond to the real needs of real people – friend and enemy alike; needs for food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, peace, friendship, justice and love.
I am going to give you some homework this week.
Please take the lectionary sheet home with you, and once a day (at least) read through this section of Romans until it strikes a chord for you – a feeling, a realization, a light-bulb moment: Is your love genuine? Are you holding fast to the good, or being consumed by evil? Are you celebrating your hope? Do you need to persevere in prayer? Are you clinging to revenge? Where do you see nobility in those around you?... whatever that chord might be for you.
Ask God to show you where you might need to make a change in your attitude or behavior, or the strength to make that change, or perhaps give thanks for something you have learned, or how much you have grown spiritually. Over the course of the week really live with this passage and whatever the Holy Spirit is saying to you through it, and then take the news of the world or the news of your own life and see how the Scriptures speak to your concerns, your fears, your worries, your anger, your pain, your joy, your hope. That way you can be ready to live hospitably in God’s world, making space for God to come and work with you and through you for good.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, help us to let go of fear, anger, hate, prejudice, evil-intent and the desire for revenge. In the place of all those dark and dangerous streams, help us to stand on the firm rock which is your peace and justice and truth and hope, so that we may live following Jesus with openness and gladness in this world you have made. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 31, 2014