Somebody said to me last week that she was still getting used to the idea that Christians can be strong in their faith and yet not exclusive of other people who might have a different faith. She found it refreshing that we here at Incarnation refuse to waste our time worrying about whether or not Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Atheists are going to hell – but she admitted that it was a hard to fully trust it – that we can really be Christians who also respect and love and learn from other spiritual paths.
She reminded me that, just because it’s obvious to those of us who have been Episcopalians for awhile, we can’t assume that it’s obvious to everyone. The power and influence of exclusive forms of Christianity has been so great that we can unconsciously find ourselves reading the Bible through their eyes, rather than through the eyes of the people who originally wrote it.
A good example is this statement in John’s first letter, which we read this morning:
God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. (1 John 4:15)
When we read this in Scripture, a lot of us can’t help but interpret it as the evangelical Christians have done, which is this: if you say, out loud, that Jesus is the Son of God, then you will abide in God and be saved. I mean, that’s what it says, right?
But I think what he is actually saying is this: “Those Christians – you know, the ones who confess Jesus as the Son of God? Those ones? Man, they really abide in God.”
It’s like saying, “Those folks who live around Harvard Square? Wow, they’re really smart.” That may be true as a general statement – but what it doesn’t mean is that moving to Harvard Square will raise your IQ!
Just saying the words “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” does not necessarily make you a better person. I grant you, it’s an excellent start – but God knows the world has seen its share of people confessing Jesus as the Son of God who are clearly so afraid of the rest of the world that they find it nearly impossible to love it.
Apparently this was a problem in the earliest days of the Christian community as well. Apparently there were members of the early church who not only failed to love their neighbors – they actually hated them. So much so that the disciple John has to call them out: “Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.”
The problem, John says, is that we are afraid of one another. But “perfect love casts out fear…, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4: 18)
Last week I talked about one of my favorite writers, Marilynne Robinson; I talked about how I had gone to a writing conference in Michigan and she had given a couple of talks that were quite inspiring. So I was tickled by the fact that, this week, our readings include the very phrase that she based her keynote speech on: “Perfect love casts out fear.” Apparently the Holy Spirit wants me to talk about her just a little bit more.
Robinson’s point in the talk was to challenge the culture of fear that she sees all around her. She talked about the professional fear-mongers who seem to be cropping up everywhere these days; people telling us to be afraid of the immigrants; be afraid of the liberals; be afraid of the President. The most extreme things are being said nowadays about our neighbors that if you were to believe all of it, you’d think America is populated by teeming hordes of brown-skinned homosexual atheists intent on depriving us of our lives, liberty and happiness. She said that we can’t seem to get over the idea that we are under attack:“We’re stuck in psycho-emotional bomb shelters,” she said, when, in fact, we Westerners are more free, safe, and stable than most people throughout the world and throughout history have ever hoped to be. “Why not enjoy it?” she said. “If there have ever been people on earth who should have been able to take a deep breath and say, `Thank God,' we are that people.”
She referred to the folks who feel it necessary to carry guns around with them, and that people are feeling so “justified in fear” that they see nothing wrong with shooting a man simply because he felt threatened. And so people with no training in police procedure and no sworn oath to protect and serve, accountable to no one, are allowed to carry guns and shoot other people simply because they felt frightened.
“We’ve begun to rationalize preemptive defense,” she said. “People feel justified in fear that they can take preemptive violence…. Who do you want to shoot? Which image of God has been getting on your nerves lately?” I mean, let’s face it, “There are a lot of people who are not good judges of the degree to which others are a threat to them.”
This is what happens when people start to believe in fear over faith. When we’re afraid, she points out, we are no longer objective observers of reality. People who are afraid have a distorted view of the world. And so, the more we let fearful people make our public policies, the more we’re letting the inmates run the asylum.
So: what do we, as Christians, need to do to make a difference in this world? She said the first, we need to “Talk ourselves out of our crouch of fearfulness. If you’re frightened, you’ve already given in.”
As Christians, it’s our job to risk respect. “What about risking respect of everyone,” she said.
“If you’re frightened, you don’t trust God. God told us he would protect us. Trust God and abandon fear.”
This, of course, is much easier said than done. Fear is not something that we can just will ourselves to overcome. If we’re afraid, we’re afraid – and sometimes that fear is justified; sometimes fear really is nature’s way of saying, “Hey, eyes open. Be careful.”
A few days ago, I was in here with the band, rehearsing for today. And the front doors were open and during the rehearsal a guy wandered in; he was obviously drunk and disoriented. At first I watched him, and thought I’d just keep my eye on him. And he seemed okay at first. But then he started interrupting the rehearsal and saying crazy things so I explained to him that this was actually a closed rehearsal and he would have to leave. Then he started getting belligerent and so I started over: I introduced myself as Fr. Matt, and I said, “What’s going on with you?” And suddenly he opened up; he gave me a hug; he poured out all his troubles and concerns. I prayed with him and blessed him and sent him on his way.
It was only later that we realized he had stolen the saxophone player’s wallet, which had been left on one of the pews!
So as Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” We don’t have to be afraid of the ones we seek to serve – in fact that will make it impossible for us to serve them. We are called to have the deepest respect for every person who comes in these doors. But at the same time, well, you know, keep an eye on your wallet...
Jesus would have us challenge our fear every step of the way. When the food servers at Open Table decided to come out of the kitchen and interact with the men and women who come here for food, not only did they send a life-giving, gospel message of love to the folks they were serving – they also radically decreased the chances of violence actually breaking out. As we demonstrate respect and civility, we find that other people are grateful to follow our lead.
And the second thing we can do is just turn off the TV or the radio. This Lent Rose and I cancelled our TV cable service. We killed our TV. And I think it has helped us to see and appreciate the respectable reality around us, rather than having it interpreted for us by people who make enormous amounts of money off of our fear. It is unbelievable to me how often we mistake reality for the reality represented on the TV. The TV is not reality. Nothing in there has much of anything to do with truth. God is truth; God is not Bill O’Reilly and God is not Stephen Colbert (as difficult as that is for me to admit).
God, in other words, is all around us, right here.
Jesus says, I am the vine, you are the branches. I think of how the branches in a vineyard go laterally, parallel to the ground, not vertically; they look like an altar rail, traveling across the field. That's how we find God - not so much by looking up at the sky, but by looking around us. God travels along the horizontal plane.
God is in the miracle of life that turns those vineyards green; that miraculous combination of water and sun and earth and photosynthesis and millions of years of evolution. and that spark of life that is God. God is in the miracle of life here, turning oxygen into life-giving red blood cells, giving us strength to serve, and courage to lead.