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?

Eunuchs, Goats, and Unfinished Stories

bekah anderson

This is the sermon preached by Bekah Anderson at First Church of Christ Simsbury on November 26, 2017 to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance. Bekah is an intern in the church’s Young Adult Service Community (YASC) ministry. YASC interns live in community in a house on the church premises, work in a social service agency for 32 hours a week, and are active in the life of the church for about 6 hours a week. Bekah is an intern at Our Piece of the Pie in Hartford.

Acts 8:26-33

Matthew 25:31-40

God, for all your beloved children, thanks be to you. For the Christ-being inside each of us, thanks. For all those who share in your suffering and your death and your power, honor forever. Amen.

For the past two weeks or so, I’ve been in mourning. Not constantly, you understand, but in preparation for Transgender Day of Remembrance, which was last Monday, and then for this service, I’ve been reading through the list of names of the people who died this year. This list is thirty-seven pages long, and it contains the name, location, and cause of death of transgender and gender-nonconforming people murdered this year around the world, for nothing more than the crime of being trans. I have read this list and cried, not just for the names on it, but for those left off. This list does not contain murders that were not reported. It does not contain victims who were trans, but were not identified as such by families or officials. And finally, it does not contain suicides, which claims huge numbers of trans people every year. This list is an unfinished story. It does not tell the full truth of the losses transgender communities around the world have faced, but perhaps more than that, it is a reminder that every life is a story, and all of these stories are forever cut short. Unfinished.

Some of you may perhaps have noticed that our scriptures this morning are also, in a sense, unfinished. They both end a little … abruptly. You might have heard this passage from Matthew before and remembered that Jesus talks not just to the sheep, but to the goats. I know you heard the story about the Ethiopian eunuch as recently as September, and you might remember that something kind of important happens to him after he talks with Phillip. But this morning, both of these stories are cut short, unfinished. There are several reasons for this, one of which, frankly, was a desire to not have us spend all morning reading scripture. But more importantly, I think there’s something important for us to ponder in these abrupt endings. Take, for instance, this passage from Isaiah that the Ethiopian eunuch is reading aloud: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

Now, a verse or two after I stopped reading, Phillip is going to tell the Ethiopian eunuch how these verses are really talking about Jesus. And that’s a reasonable interpretation. But reading these verses today, I can’t help but think of others whose lives are taken away from the Earth. Who, in their humiliation, are denied justice. And I can’t help but imagine how the Ethiopian eunuch might be reading these passages.

Eunuchs, if you don’t remember from Pastor George’s sermon on Rally Day, are biological males who have been castrated. In the ancient world, eunuchs occupied a gender category all their own, not exactly male or female, and many of them took on a feminine presentation. While we don’t know how these individuals would identify using our current terminology, it would not be a stretch to call them gender-nonconforming, and not inconceivable to call them transgender. And Ethiopian is Bible-speak for African. So our friend the Ethiopian eunuch is, potentially, a trans-feminine person of color. Which reminds me that most of the names on this list are trans women of color.

Of course, biblical time is not our time. Our friend the Ethiopian eunuch—let’s call them E—has a position of power and prestige: they are in charge of the queen’s entire treasury. On the other hand, eunuchs were still socially marginalized in many places, including the Jerusalem Temple, where they were considered ritually impure. Plus, E’s dark skin would have marked them out as different, at the very least. I sincerely hope that in biblical times, a black, trans-feminine foreigner was no more likely to meet trouble on the road than anyone else. But I think I know enough about how humans have historically perceived difference to guess that E’s life was far from smooth. They probably faced inappropriate questions or remarks about their body; snide comments behind their back or to their face; lost friends or opportunities. Even with all the power and prestige they seem to have, they are still not safe from the world’s view of their identity. And as they are riding along in their chariot, reading these words from Isaiah, perhaps they are remembering times when they were not physically safe. Perhaps they are wondering, “Am I really safe? Or could my life be taken away from the earth at any time?”

That is the kind of question this list makes me ask every time I think about it. How safe are my trans friends? I, and the various communities I have been a part of have worked hard to keep our trans siblings safe. We’ve given them a place to sleep when their family’s house wasn’t home; we’ve offered to walk them home, or to the bathroom, or anywhere else they feel unsafe; we’ve worked to educate ignorant family and friends; and above all, we’ve made sure that wherever we are is a safe place to be. But this list reminds me that even the best of allies cannot promise safety. Some of the people on this list never were safe; they were homeless, or in abusive relationships. But some of them were surrounded by loving communities, had jobs and other societal advantages that seem to promise safety. But in the end, they were fundamentally unsafe, because deep down, our society still considered trans and black lives disposable. One or several people embodying that mindset crossed their path, and they died.

And it could happen to my friends. That’s the pain beneath my pain these past two weeks. I’ve been sitting with the knowledge that, like the dead we are honoring today, my friends are fundamentally unsafe. It’s terrifying, and it’s not a truth I can, or should, focus on for most of the year. But this is a truth that I need to wrestle with, first of all because it is true, and second of all because I know that many of my trans friends can never forget it. They live every day with the knowledge that they are unsafe, that society does not recognize their gifts, their struggles, or even their deaths. If I cannot make them safe, the least I can do is share their pain.

Let’s return to E now, and I’ll tell you the piece of the story I didn’t include in the reading this morning.

E is reading this passage of Isaiah to themself, thinking their thoughts, when suddenly this random Jew runs up to them and says, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

And E says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

There are several things that could be happening in this answer. E could be asserting that, as a Jew, Phillip is far more likely to know how to interpret Isaiah than they are. They could be inviting Phillip to interpret with them, knowing that in Jewish tradition true scriptural understanding comes through conversation. But I wonder, too, if part of their response comes from a need to find a new lens through which to see these verses. Let me not see death, they are begging Phillip. Let me stop remembering the times I’ve been demeaned, or assaulted. Let me see something other than my own death in this text.

And Phillip, God bless him, does give E something new. First, he does talk about death—the death of Jesus. Jesus, who was killed for being himself, for living his mission and his call. Jesus, whose death was unjust and cruel.

And then Phillip goes on to speak of resurrection. He explains that, though Jesus was killed, though his body and his life were rendered disposable, he defied everyone’s understanding of him and rose from the dead.

E listens to this in awe, not just because someone rising from the dead is unheard of, but because they see themself in Jesus. E, too, is being themself, living their mission and call to be themself, no matter what society thinks. And because of that, they fear dying a cruel death and receiving no justice. So the fact that Jesus can absorb all this pain, die, and return with a renewed message of peace and joy and love—that is deeply meaningful to E. E knows, of course, that if they die, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be resurrected. But for E, identifying with Jesus’ suffering means identifying with Jesus’ power. It means that whatever they may suffer, whatever Good Fridays and deaths of the spirit, they can return, stronger than ever, more themself than ever, and make the world a better place for it. Which is perhaps why they say to Phillip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Jesus is saying much the same thing in Matthew. “Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” “I am them,” Jesus is saying, “and they are me. We are one in our suffering and need.” The obvious reading of this text, of course, is that those of us with resources have the responsibility to care for those without. We must search for Jesus within one another, and treat each other the way we would treat Jesus. This of course, is extremely relevant to this list I still have before me. The people who murdered these individuals were not treating them like Jesus. Any friends or family who abandoned their loved one when they came out as trans were not treating them like Jesus. And the justice systems that are making little or no progress in finding the murderers in many of these cases, are not treating the dead like Jesus.

But again, to identify with Jesus’ suffering is to identify with Jesus’ power. Hidden within all the forms of suffering Jesus mentions—hunger, thirst, sickness, prison—is the possibility of resurrection, of new life, new hope, new justice. For trans and other marginalized folks, this means that there is light, even at the darkest of times. You have the power of Jesus within you, and you can use it to do great things.

And for allies, this means that we need to recognize not just the vulnerability, but the power of trans and marginalized people among us. We are called not only to nourish and sustain them, but to lift up and empower them.

On a day like Transgender Day of Remembrance, it can be easy to feel powerless. We read this list of names, and know that nothing can bring them back, and we feel hopeless, alone, and afraid. I know I do. But it’s natural to feel these things. Necessary, even. You have to go through Good Friday in order to get to Easter. But in that Easter spirit, I tell you that we are not powerless. We can find the power of Jesus in ourselves, and in others. We can sustain one another, lift each other up, and affirm that whether the world values the least of these or not, we do.

So I invite you to feel whatever it is you are feeling right now. If you need to grieve today, for these losses, and for the ones we will likely suffer next year, I grieve with you. If you need to be in fear today, for yourself or your loved ones, I am in fear with you. If you have found hope or courage in these words or others, I am in hope and courage with you. And if you have found awe in looking around at your siblings here today and seeing the power of Jesus, I am in awe with you, and of you. Let those who are in hope and awe comfort those in mourning and fear. And let us all honor our own power, and use it well, so that we may one day have a year where there is not a single name on this list.

God, for all your beloved children, thanks be to you. For the Christ-being inside each of us, thanks. For all those who share in your suffering and your death and your power, honor forever. Amen.

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