What has been your greatest challenge in being a part of the Church? In calling yourself a Christian? In telling others that you are a Christian. I would consider that one of the things I am naturally drawn to doing is sharing what I believe in with others, not to promote myself, but rather in the hope that I might give them support and hope. Or that I might create space in time – open up a space in time through a relationship, a connection, where we can exchange, knowledge, answering or asking questions, challenging the way someone thinks, and being challenged myself – creating space in time for that person to be able to become the person God intended them to be.
But you know what, I often find this hard to do. Why? Because we as Christians belong to a body, and perhaps even have participated ourselves, in eroding the trust necessary for people to believe that we have a message that is true and so worth hearing. I’m going to be really blunt this morning. Have you ever heard of Westboro Baptist Church? Here is an example of Christians who – trying to live faithfully – have turned the good news of Jesus’s coming into the world for the sake of everyone, into an angry, violent, and exclusionary message. How? Well, as I’ve talked about before, it isn’t so much what they have to say that is problematic (although in some cases, it has more to do with secular moralism than the Christian faith), it is rather in how they proclaim the message of the Christian faith both to other Christians and to those who aren’t Christian, who have yet to hear the good news or who have abandoned it for one reason or another.
So let me get really specific. This Christian group has proclaimed and stands behind these words:
Concerning gay men: "Filthy sodomites crave legitimacy as dogs eating their own vomit & sows wallowing in their own feces crave unconditional love."
— Westboro Baptist Church news release, Jan. 15, 1998
"We told you, right after it happened five years ago, that the deadly events of 9/11 were direct outpourings of divine retribution, the immediate visitation of God’s wrath and vengeance and punishment for America’s horrendous sodomite sins, that worse and more of it was on the way. We further told you that any politician, any political official, any preacher telling you differently as to the cause and interpretation of 9/11 is a dastardly lying false prophet, cowardly and mean, and headed for hell. And taking you with him! God is no longer with America, but is now America’s enemy. God himself is now America’s terrorist."
— Fred Phelps, “9/11: God’s Wrath Revealed,” Sept. 8, 2006.
Concerning Jews: "JEWS KILLED JESUS! Yes, the Jews killed the Lord Jesus…Now they’re carrying water for the fags; that’s what they do best: sin in God’s face every day, with unprecedented and disproportionate amounts of sodomy, fornication, adultery, abortion and idolatry! God hates these dark-hearted rebellious disobedient Jews."
— Westboro Baptist Church news release, April 23, 2009
This sect of Christians makes it very difficult for me to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as, ‘good news,’ or as something that provides hope to all, or as something that isn’t a mere tool of those who want to control or witch hunt others. I MUST recognize these persons as my brothers and sisters in the faith, for indeed they have been baptized into Jesus Christ. I cannot dismiss, therefore, their testimony as if a Christian has not uttered these words. These words are what the world hears – they are one part of Christian witness to the world. And I must therefore, acknowledge that in Jesus Christ, they are one with us.
And yet, precisely because they are, in Christ, one with us (even if they would deny it), the love to which Jesus Christ calls us in this case is very particular: it is NOT, NOT, radical acceptance of ‘just any witness to him.’ Rather it is faithful witness to the one who brings not hatred, not rejection, but invitation and so mercy, by grace for ALL, all who are all undeserving. And so to love God is not to accept my own actions of disobedience under the pretense that anything is forgiven or acceptable to God and it is not to accept other actions that contradict God’s own laws, his order, his discipline and his redirection of our erroneous desires (often given to us by the culture we live within).
To love God, which requires that we love one another, even those whose words or actions make them our enemies, is not to merely accept them, but to know God deeply enough to challenge false witness and to challenge it not with condemnation and vitriol and hatred – since this simply drives people away – but rather to do so with love, patience, kindness, perseverance in relationship.
I need to reiterate this. If we are going to respond to God’s love by returning the love we have received; that is if we are going to follow Jesus when he says: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another – then we MUST come to know who this God is who sent his Son to reveal himself to us. We know the basic outline. Adam and Eve sin, we call this the Fall. God clothes them and raises up a people, Israel, to be his witness. They often fall and are chastised and sometimes cast out by God so that they might understand their reality without him, turned over to nations that rout out and destroy and plunder, rape, and ravage them – a kind or Lord of the Flies reality that humanity lives within without God. God sends his Son who suffers the fate to which all human beings are subject. And fulfills his promise to Abram that he might be the Father not just of the Israelites, but through adoption into Abraham’s own family line which includes Jesus, opens the way to God for all people, more than the number of stars in the sky. We know this broad outline right? But what about all the details? What about all the side stories in this grand narrative? All these side stories of fear, anger, sickness, a fear of and the reality of abandonment, of being turned over to what seems like a life long evil, or enslavement, or uncertainty? Do we know these stories? If we don’t know these stories – all of them – how can we say that we know the one whom we promised to follow?
Part of the reason that I have trouble, that I think many of us sitting in here, have trouble not just talking about, but living our faith out in the world around us, is because we don’t actually know God very well. And I include myself in these ranks of not knowing. It’s much easier to watch the news, youtube, Netflix, Prime, etc. It doesn’t really require self examination or a challenge to my own lifestyle. On my own I can construct an entire way of life that accords with my own beliefs and inclinations. To come to truly know God, to come to know that we are loved by God, actually requires some really difficult grappling with who we are and what we believe. But it is precisely in that challenge of our own self proclamations – when we have to figure out how we can share this WITH THE PATIENCE, PERSEVERANCE, LOVE, SELF CONTROL, JOY AND HOPE, that Jesus calls us to, that Jesus in fact gives to us as a new commandment, it is precisely in going more deeply into the Scriptures and learning the side stories to this over all narrative – what was God’s response to the cutting up of the concubine in the Book of Judges, or God’s response to David after he murders Bathsheba’s husband, or God’s lack of response for so long to Job, or why did God command Isaac to sacrifice his only Son, what does Sarah’s and Abraham’s miracle birth of Isaac mean about the purpose of marriage, about the purpose of sex – it is only when we dig into these stories that we can actually follow God, and truly share him with others.
If we are going to love one another as Jesus loved us, we must first understand who it is that Jesus has loved – ALL PEOPLE - and how God in Jesus, has cast the light of his grace in judgment and in law and in command and in correction and in affirmation, and in challenge, to each person and each situation encountered in Scripture. For in Scripture we find ourselves and therefore our own lives revealed. To receive God’s love, we must know God. That’s not because our effort to know him causes his love to come to us. No. it is simply because we are unnaturally inclined – this is SIN – to hide from the love of God who sometimes calls us out in a desire to redirect us. If we do not know him, we will keep hiding from his love, and when we go to share what we presume to be his love with others, we will, like the Westboro Baptists, tend to distort his love by HOW we share it (i.e. in a way that contradicts Jesus’s own commandment to love, and his very definition of what love is: self giving that is patient, kind, embodied in hope that perseveres through push back and rejection that comes out of anger and fear, and yet firm over time). Or, we may in fact retreat – as I do too often – to not sharing the full extent of challenge to current presumptions about the lifestyle, the morals, ethics, the ways, in which God calls us to live. God demands of us Christians much more than we have been willing to offer for so many decades. He has asked us to have love for one another. Love is NOT acceptance of everyone’s own personal opinions. Pragmatically, this sort of – what we call, moral relativism i.e. anything goes – has led us to epidemic levels of loneliness and depression. Love, discipleship, is coming to know God so deeply, that we allow ourselves to be filled with Jesus Christ – his whole life, his ways, his inclinations – and thereby raised up beyond our own fears we try to eliminate by satisfying our own ego demands for control. In this way – filled with the love of God himself, we are equipped to share our hope in God, with love that often includes the challenge of others and disagreement. This was what God gave to us in his Son. Isn’t it time we stopped sharing secular moral relativism that is easily converted into terrible ideologies – things like ‘be good, treat others as you would like to be treated, be the change you want to see in the world’ and instead share the particular life – that is, the love of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ?