Love: It’s Not What You Think (or Feel, or Believe)

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on February 24, 2019.

Matthew 25:34-40, Luke 6:27-38

Achiri Nelson Geh, a young activist deeply involved in the independence movement in southern Cameroon, knew he had to flee: Police officers had killed his brother, and they were looking for him. Making his way by plane, boat, bus and foot to Mexico, he surrendered to United States authorities at the border in the hope of winning asylum.

But his new life wasn’t what he expected. He has spent the 21 months since then inside three federal immigration detention centers, imprisoned until he can collect $50,000 for a bond, while his asylum case winds through the appeals court.

Achiri’s story, included in a New York Times article that our member, Pricilla Hurly handed me two Sundays ago, was on my mind when I turned to this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ radical and challenging command to love our enemies.

Achiri is considered to be an enemy by authorities in his own country, clearly unloved there, his life threatened. Now, seeking asylum in the United States at a time when some see immigrants as enemies, it is fair to ask, what would it mean to love Achiri Nelson Geh?

I don’t know about you, but when I hear Jesus insisting that I love my enemies, I feel rotten about myself, because I know I don’t feel loving toward those who have hurt or betrayed me, those whom I judge as a threat to me and my family. A pastor though I may be, I am only human, and asking that a feel love toward these people when I feel only fear and anger? Well, Jesus, that’s simply asking too much.

But as I reread verses 27 to 31, I began to hear something else in Jesus’s words. Maybe he isn’t telling me what to feel, but pointing toward how I might act toward those whom I distrust and fear, toward those I might consider enemies.

What if we read Jesus’ admonition to love your enemies this way? Love your enemies, and this is how. Do good to them. Bless them. Pray for them. Give to them. Maybe Jesus isn’t talking at all about feeling love, but acting a certain way toward those who make us feel most angry and afraid. Still not an easy task, to be sure, but maybe more manageable than asking us to feel something we just don’t feel.

This week I heard a story on National Public Radio about how Martin Luther King responded to his anger. The reporter told a story about King when he was in high school. He had won an oratorical contest, and he and a beloved teacher were riding home on a bus. The white driver told them to give up their seats to white passengers and cursed at them. They stood in the aisle for the 90 miles back to Atlanta. Decades later, King said that was the angriest he had ever been in his life. King’s daughter, Bernice, would retell the story, saying that in that moment, her father came dangerously close to hating all white people, identifying all white people as his enemy.

In college and theological school, King learned about nonviolent responses to injustice. He realized these strategies offered a productive way to channel anger that would otherwise destroy both others and himself.

During the year long bus-boycott, someone threw dynamite at King’s house. He rushed home to find a crowd of supporters who were ready to riot. Instead, he calmly stood on his porch and spoke about following the teaching of Jesus to love your enemy.

It is hard to imagine that King was feeling love for his enemies in that moment, but he had learned that he could act out of love, even toward those who hated him.

For a time King had an advice column in Ebony magazine. Someone once asked him, “How can I overcome my bad temper, when I am angry I say things that hurt people.” King replied, “A destructive passion is harnessed by directing that same passion into constructive channels.”

In Jesus’ day, relationships were viewed as reciprocal. A person behaved generously towards another person in the expectation that in the future, the generosity would be returned. But Jesus challenges this notion.

‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.”

If Jesus’ followers relate to others based only on reciprocity, they simply reinforce existing divisions between so-called friends and enemies. Instead, Jesus implores them, and us, to:

“Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

Here again, Jesus does not emphasize feeling love, but the love we demonstrate to those for whom we feel anger. Do good, give without expectation, be kind and merciful.

In Matthew 25, Jesus takes this a step further, saying that when we respond to those who are often judged the enemy, the poor, immigrants, and prisoners, we are, in fact, responding to Jesus himself. Jesus calls these “the least of these who are members of my family.” When we give food, drink and clothing to the poor, we feed and clothe Jesus. When we welcome the immigrant, we welcome Jesus. And when we visit the prisoner, we visit Jesus.

Which brings us back to the prisoner, Achiri Nelson Geh. In that New York Times article titled: ‘A Light for Me in the Darkness,’ Aciri’s story continues:

One day this past summer, a lifeline arrived: Not the $50,000 bond, but a letter from Anne-Marie Debbane, a professor of geography at San Diego State University, near the Otay Mesa Detention Center, where he was housed for the first 20 months. “I am terribly sorry for what you are going through both in Cameroon and here,” she wrote

Mr. Geh, now 29, was elated to hear from someone, even someone he had never met. “Thank you for your letters,” he wrote. “It gives me courage.”

Here begins an old fashioned correspondence that bloomed into a friendship, part of an unusual epistolary campaign initiated by San Diego State professors and others in suburban San Diego. Over 200 volunteers now write letters, offering “commissary and moral support” to detainees.

When we judge someone to be an enemy, whether asylum seeking immigrants or a family member who betrayed us, we dehumanize them. They become caricatures comprised only of their worst traits and behaviors.

By exchanging letters with prisoners at Otay Mesa, volunteers developed understanding and empathy. In time, they would send Christmas cards, poems, and pictures and updates about their own families. They would also send small amounts of money to the detainee’s accounts so they could purchase extra food and drinks.

Through their correspondence, they fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner. And by doing so, they dissolved assumptions about those many consider enemies. By writing simple letters, the least of these came to be seen as family members.

Now to be fair, I don’t think these San Diego volunteers understood these immigrants as their enemies, nor was it necessarily their desire to follow Jesus that inspired them to write.

But this story got me wondering, what if we each took an opportunity to be pen pals with someone we are inclined to judge, not to change their mind, not to persuade them of something, but simply to share a bit about ourselves and invite them to do the same.

I am not suggesting that you do this with someone who has actually hurt or abused you, or someone who may still pose a threat to you.

But, for example, I have very strong feelings about racism. If there is anyone I might consider to be an enemy, it would be someone who is unapologetic about their belief that white people are superior to people of color. It is helpful for me to think about exchanging letters with such a person, not to change their mind, to simply share a bit about myself and invite them to do the same.  I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that we shared much in common, certainly universal human experiences of love and loss, and I might come to empathize with them around these experiences. I may or may not come to feel love toward them, but the simple act of welcoming the stranger through letter writing may dissolve some assumptions between us.

I’m not sure how practical such letter writing is, but it might be an interesting exercise to ponder this morning: Who do you fear? Who makes you angry? Who do you perceive as an enemy? Can you imagine yourself exchanging letters with one of these, who is, after all, a member of Christ’s family?

You might even write such a letter, not to send, but as a spiritual practice. What would you say? How did it feel to write? How would it feel to get such a letter back in response?

What do you think?

Advertisements

In 2017, Make Like a Pig! Rooting Our Way Through the Mud to Unearth the Truffles.

I preached this sermon at First Church Simsbury on New Year’s Day, Sunday, January 1, 2017.

Revelation 21:1-6a

Matthew 25:31-46

 

Research shows that most people complain once a minute during a typical conversation. Complaining is tempting because it feels good, but like many other things that are enjoyable—such as eating a pound of bacon for breakfast—complaining isn’t good for you.

Your brain loves efficiency and doesn’t like to work any harder than it has to. When you repeat a behavior, such as complaining, your neurons branch out to each other to ease the flow of information. This makes it much easier to repeat that behavior in the future—so easy, in fact, that you might not even realize you’re doing it.

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you.

I thought of this research about the way repeated behavior can change our minds when I read a quote from a book by Rob Bell. In his book Love Wins, Bell writes:

When we speculate about what happens when we die, it’s important for us to keep in mind that choices have consequences that lead us somewhere. It’s possible to make choices over years to become the kind of person who doesn’t want any part in heaven.

Let me read that again:

When we speculate about what happens when we die, it’s important for us to keep in mind that choices have consequences that lead us somewhere. It’s possible to make choices over years to become the kind of person who doesn’t want any part in heaven.

This quote, in turn, caused me to think about the passage I read from the Gospel of Matthew in a new way.

Sometimes called the Parable of the Judgement of the Nations, Jesus speaks here of the consequences of choices we make. Speaking of his own return, Jesus says the Son of Man will choose some to “inherit His kingdom,” while others will be condemned to eternal punishment.

I expect that for many, this image of Christ the King sitting on a throne doling out rewards and punishment feels pretty foreign, inaccessible, and scary, which is why I find Rob Bell’s perspective so helpful. In much the same way that complaining can rewire our brain, Bell suggest that the repeated choices we make over our lifetime can change us to the point that we simply lose interest in God’s promised realm of eternal love and peace.

Jesus is using this metaphor of dividing sheep from goats to show us that the choices we make will determine what kind of people we become. Will we ultimately become one with God’s realm of perfect harmony or will we opt out, deciding we need no part in the choir of angels, deciding instead that we can sing by ourselves in the shower of life.

So what are these choices Jesus presents to us?

We have choices, Jesus says, about the way we treat those he calls “the least of these,” the hungry, thirsty, and naked, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner. When you feed, give drink, and clothe these, you do it to me, Jesus says. And when you welcome and visit these, you do it to me. Likewise, says Jesus, when you fail to respond to the needs of these so you turn your back on me.

I have preached many sermons on this passage over the years.

On its surface the message is pretty simple. Provide for the basic needs of the most vulnerable. When I arrived at church this morning I encountered a group of volunteers from First Church setting out to Hartford to serve a New Year’s meal to the hungry and homeless. Our church helped found and continues to sponsor a clinic in Uganda that ministers to the sick there. We seek to be a welcoming church to the stranger. Certainly, as we enter 2017 we can recommit ourselves to ministries like these.

But Jesus isn’t just directing us to serve “those people,” he refers to these as members of his family. So I have also preached sermons that have asked what it would mean to treat the least of these as family members.

Family members share equally with one another, not just the good stuff, but family also shares hardships together. Over my daughter Abby’s years playing hockey in Simsbury we have become friends with members of the Melanson family, maybe some of you know them. The matriarch of the family, Ethel, died on Wednesday leaving behind nine children, 31 grandchildren, and 12 great grandchildren, the vast majority of whom play hockey! Some fifty of these, including aging sisters who traveled here from Canada, were at her bedside when she died. Abby was at the Melanson home with her friends Grace and Anna Melanson as the family gathered and said she had never received so many warm hugs. Is this what Jesus has in mind when he calls us to serve the least of these as family members. Warm hugs for everyone, especially in times of trial?

How might we move beyond the soup kitchen model to establish more loving, hugging relationships with one another? Here, we might look toward our efforts to better understand Muslims by inviting Imam Sami Aziz and his wife Vjosa in to educate us about Islam. As part of this effort, our youth participated in a get together with Muslim youth.

So this is where I was with my sermon at the end of the week, thinking about soup kitchens and hugs, when I poked my head in Rev Kev’s office, and he greeted me with these words. Did you know that most animals dig by throwing the dirt behind them, but pigs dig by pushing dirt forward? Well, I did not know that, and I confessed as much to Kevin. I’m not sure exactly what Kevin had in mind when he shared this gem. I expect like most preachers, he thought this might make a good sermon illustration sometime. And so it does!

When I pondered these images of digging through dirt and pushing through mud, I realized that the way I had been thinking about the “members of Jesus’ family” had been too idealized, too precious, too Norman Rockwell. If only we empathize with each other, share with each other, exchange hugs with each other, join hands and sing Kum-bay-Yah with each other, then we will care for each other as Jesus intends.

Yeah, right. The loving Melanson’s notwithstanding, family is messy. Every single human problem exists within families, conflict and betrayal, rejection and judgement, mental illness and addiction, death and divorce. And because of the closeness of these family relationships, these issues are often writ large, are especially challenging and hurtful. I believe that it is often true, that our closest family members, whether a parent, a spouse or a child, know us better than anyone else, and regularly see us at our worst.

There’s an old country song, She Got the Goldmine, I Got the Shaft. Ask any minister’s spouse if they don’t sometimes feel that way when they see the loving pastor who greets the church on a Sunday morning, and experience the grumpy, impatient person that walks in the door at the end of a long day.

Every family has dirt, the question becomes, what do we do with it? Do we try to throw it behind us, like my dog Sweetie does when she buries a bone in the yard? Or do we make like a pig, put our head down, and push our way through.

I actually went online to fact check Rev Kev’s claim about pig digging. Called rooting, it is indeed true, they push their big flat noses in the ground in search of delectable roots and grubs. I even learned about truffle hogs that are trained to root out truffles that grow as deeply as three feet underground. And here is an interesting but irrelevant tidbit, that is likely too much information for a Sunday morning, it is thought that the natural sex hormones of male pigs have a similar fragrance to truffles. There you go.

So, I think this is where Kevin was headed with the pigs. We might think we can rid ourselves of the dirt in our family, in our life, by throwing it behind us. In fact, that might figure into any number of New Year’s resolutions. I have heard many say they can’t wait to leave 2016 behind.

But more often than not, what lies beneath the dirt, is just more dirt. It’s the human condition. So there may be something to be said for just putting our head down and sniffing, snorting and rooting our way through the muck and manure of our lives sure that we will uncover delicious truffles in the process.

So, at this point I have to acknowledge that my New Year’s resolution to preach sermons that have less moving parts has already failed miserably!

But let me see if I can pull this all together just the same.

Jesus asks for us to care for the least of these who are members of His family. We might like to do this in a way that allows us to keep our nose clean, by which I mean not take others’ problems home with us, not having to share in other’s pain. But if we just dig beneath the surface a bit we discover that these are members of our family. There is no escaping hunger and thirst, estrangement, illness and imprisonment in this life. We are called to put our nose in each other’s business and root around until we find the treasured love and peace assured by God’s grace.

So in conclusion, maybe it isn’t a choice between the soup kitchen model, the Melanson hug model, and the truffle hog model that requires us to root through the slop of our human condition, maybe Jesus calls us to choose all three in ministering to each other as members of His family.

May this be a resolution for this good church in 2017, that as members of Jesus’ family we seek to serve each other, hug each other, and be willing to get our noses dirty for each other.

And when we make these choices, and repeat them again and again and again, we will begin to change our minds to become the heaven-ready members of Christ’s family God created us to be.

%d bloggers like this: