Be A Blessing

Romans 12 (The Message)

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.  Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good.  Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy people; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.

I shared a message on this very passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans this past spring, and today, it’s come back around in the lectionary. I considered leaving this text alone, since I’ve preach on it so recently, but as I thought about it further, I came to realize that the words of Paul, as interpreted by Eugene Peterson, could still be mined for more wisdom for these troubling times and as we approach a contentious election season.

Paul begins with the words, “Love from the center of who you are” and concludes his thought with, “discover beauty in everyone.” And in between, …in between, the meat of the sandwich if you will, is this invitation to think of the other before self.

And this is where I will focus our energy today. As the election draws near, there will be an ever-increasing tension in the air. I dare say that supporters of the president and his detractors, that Democrats and Republicans, couldn’t be further apart in their platforms, their ideology, or their perspective on the best course for the future of our nation. However, no matter which side of the isle you’re on, the challenge for us all is to be a blessing. We are called to be a blessing not only to those with whom we agree, but to those with whom we disagree.

Now, I know in the political climate that’s a big ask. So, to help us along I’ve ordered signs to put in front of our churches. They are intended to look like political yard signs, but instead of endorsing a candidate, that offer the following invitation. “BE A BLESSING. Pray often, be kind, have courage, lead with love, practice peace, be the light, work for justice, encourage others, and be joyful.”

Now, I’m struck, as I read these “acts of blessing” out loud, by how similar they are to Paul’s message to the Romans. Paul’s words and our list of blessings give us pause and permission to think and then act beyond ourselves. These beautiful words begin to form the foundation of what it means to be a community of faith, a church. Remember, the church isn’t a building. Our buildings can be, and should be, closed during something like a pandemic. But the church, our communities of faith, they’re something more.

And that “something more” the meat of Paul’s sandwich, describes his vision of what it means to be a “blessing-centered” kind of church. He says things like be genuine, choose to do good things over bad things, be humble and be a good friend. He admonishes us to hang in there, stay passionate for justice, a passion that’s realized in prayer, outreach to the needy, and this is interesting, he wants us to be “inventive in hospitality.” We should love our enemies (both political and otherwise); laugh together in times of joy and weep together in times of sorrow. And finally, we should get along with each other and whenever possible and live in peace with everyone. (even those on the other side of the isle)

You know, When I spoke about this text last, I referred to an interesting book with a somewhat different take on the Christian faith. It’s called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. In this book the author uses insights from his study of Buddhism to re-frame Christian community and this re-framing, I believe, is similar to what we’ve seen in Paul’s “blessing-centered” vision.

Take for example the Buddhist greeting, “Namasté.” Namasté has the unique connotation of acknowledging that everyone we meet has all the same goodness within them that we believe we have within ourselves. All humanity, according to this teaching, has the capacity for goodness. And when we acknowledge that, it enables us to relate to others with genuine compassion.[i]

So, considering this bit of re-framing, how do we then respond to those with whom we might disagree? I mean, if we’re challenged to see the good in everyone, how do we treat someone who’s not-so-good in our opinion. Well, I would say, in the same way Jesus did. Jesus knew that only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, could lead to real and lasting redemption. He was calling his disciples to follow a pattern of non-violent resistance by embracing those who were different, or those opposed them, with mercy and kindness and forgiveness.

It’s the way Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and countless other black South Africans responded to the white South Africans who had committed unspeakable atrocities against them. It’s the way Gandhi responded to his detractor and oppressors. It’s the way Dr. King and those with him during the civil rights movement withstood the brutality, and the firehoses, and the dogs. And it’s the way Jesus responded to being spit upon and flogged, beaten, and executed. Non-violent resistance; over-coming hatred with good, over-coming shouts of vengeance and chaos with whispers of peace, over-coming the partisan name-calling by naming our common humanity. That’s the common thread running through all of these instances and it’s the common thread running through our list of blessings and Paul’s center of loving kindness.

My friends, these examples are meant to inspire us, as communities of faith, to find our center in love, even in the midst of suffering, even when we’re under oppression. These historical moments, and Paul’s invitation, invite us to begin to discover deeper, hidden blessings in every single person, even the person with whom we disagree. Because here’s the thing. We can only truly find peace, inner peace and a peace that expands across this nation, if we can embrace the other with compassion.[ii]

So, my friends, as we continue to be and become community in these unusual and often frightening times, please remember to Be a Blessing, and to live-into Paul’s vision to “Love from the center of who you are and discover the beauty in everyone.” If we can do that, it will enable us to take a step back during those difficult moments and gaze upon a wider landscape. These words will allow all of us, as a community, to turn our focus outward, advocating for justice for the most vulnerable and peace among nations. This is our higher calling. This is what it means to be a community who finds it’s center in love and by becoming a blessing to all.

May it be so. Amen & Amen

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[i] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (One World Publications) 2009

[ii] ibid. Knitter, Without Buddha, 188, where he cautions that even the act of calling others “evildoers” can preclude our ability to respond to them in a way that creates justice and peace and freedom.

A Beautiful Vision

Romans 12:3-8 – Transformed Relationships

Because of the grace that God gave me, I can say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think. Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you. We have many parts in one body, but the parts don’t all have the same function. In the same way, though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other. We have different gifts that are consistent with God’s grace that has been given to us. If your gift is to prophesy, you should prophesy in proportion to your faith. If your gift is service, devote yourself to serving. If your gift is teaching, devote yourself to teaching. If your gift is encouragement, devote yourself to encouraging. The one giving should do it with no strings attached. The leader should lead with passion. The one showing mercy should be cheerful.

Our nation is deeply fractured. And these divisions have reached the point that we view those who differ from us not as compatriots but as people who live in an entirely different country. In protests and counter-protests, on social media, and even in our choice of news channels, these fractures entrench themselves. Even basic public-health guidance has become a flashpoint. And I’m afraid we’ve moved beyond the point where a return to “normal” can be achieved by symbolic gestures or speeches or prayer-vigils. The divisions among us can only be resolved by real, substantial change.

And thank God for that!

When tens of millions are unemployed and yet the stock market soars, things must change. When policing methods, the wealth gap, and a lack of access to affordable health care continue to disproportionately brutalize and kill black and brown and native people, things must change. When more than a hundred and seventy-four thousand people die from a preventable illness, and for a hundred seventy-four families who are grieving as a result, things must change.[i]

But how will change come? And from where will change come? Well, as I thought about these questions I remembered the twelfth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this exhortation, Paul challenges the individualism that is apparently plaguing this “new church start” in Rome. He told the congregation to use their God-given talents, their individual gifts for the benefit of all.

If one’s gift was to proclaim the hard truth, to challenge the status quo, to lay bare injustice… then that person should become a prophet. If another person’s gift was serve those who were struggling or hungry or sick or in prison, that person should devote them self to service. If still another person was gifted as a teacher, they should devote themselves to teaching. If encouragement was one’s thing, then become an encourager, a cheerleader, a confidant. In other words, Paul wanted them to “stay in their lane” as it were, to take the time to discover their calling, and then fulfill that calling to the best of their ability.

And notice something here. None of these “gifts” we’re meant to be used for individual gain. Paul said, “…individually, we belong to each other.” That’s profound! “…individually, we belong to each other.” And I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. There’s something deeper going on here. You see, Paul wasn’t only talking about those within the Roman Church; later in this letter Paul says, “…each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up.”[ii] So, that means that these “gifts” that Paul was talking about (challenging injustice, service, teaching, and encouraging) these things are to be used for the benefit of all people, for betterment of the church family and beyond, out in the wider community. This is what I call, “Paul’s beautiful vision of possibility”

And this same vision still exists in the world today. God is calling us to recognize, in a very profound way, the beauty and workings of a body whose parts function together. Each of us have our own role and importance, each of us bring our own gifts and abilities to the table, each of us play an important role in the unfolding of the Present Realm of God.

This is important to understand! It’s important because the progress and the spiritual growth, and the strong sense of community that we’ve enjoyed in our churches, didn’t come from one or two or even three individuals. We have these things because many, many people, across many, many years, have taken these words of Paul to heart. Many hands make easy work, especially when each hand is doing what it does best.

Now, there’s a challenge in all this as well. We, like the Romans, live in an age of individualism. We live in a culture that values wealth and power and winning above all else. And we’re all a part of and participate in this cultural norm. There’s no way to escape it. But what we can do, what we must do, is put wealth and power and winning into proper perspective. And that perspective allows us to be countercultural. Countercultural in the sense that we recognize these norms, and because of that recognition, we don’t allow the lure of wealth, power, and winning to outweigh our capacity for empathy.

Empathy. That’s an important concept. Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. I’ve often hear empathy likened to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Now, not that all of our experiences are the same, not that all of our grief, not all of our broken places, are the same, they’re simply not. But empathy suggests that we as human beings have the capacity to suffer with, to share brokenness with each other, and, we have the capacity to begin to move toward wholeness, together. It’s like Paul suggests, each of us has a calling, a gift, whether it be teaching, or encouraging, or service, or seeking justice; collectively, we have the necessary tools to continue to be and to become to an even greater degree, congregations grounded in empathy.

Which brings me back around to my original supposition that “our nation is deeply fractured.” So, here’s my question. If we were to ground our shared calling in this concept of empathy, how might our view of mission, of ministry, be transformed?

I don’t  know. Maybe an empathy-based church could help to begin to heal divisions within our community and beyond, across our nation and the globe, by addressing our collective pain and by acknowledging our shared brokenness. It seems to me that a church grounded in empathy would dedicate itself in the work of justice and peace and equality for all people, because that’s what Jesus taught and lived over and over again in the gospel stories. Jesus himself was a living example of how empathy could and should be the root of our faith.

I mean, can you imagine what beautiful, healing work hundreds of thousands of faithful empathy-based people of faith might accomplish? Systems of oppression named and dismantled. Educational disparities acknowledged and addressed. Hunger revealed and alleviated. Hatred within and beyond the walls of the church relegated to history and the doors, both figuratively and literally, swung open wide, inviting all people, welcoming all of God’s beloved. What a beautiful vision that would be!

One final thought before we come together in prayer. Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, once said, “Every day, at home, I have the astonishing and humbling opportunity – together with my wife Sophie – to nurture empathy, compassion, self-love, and a keen sense of justice in our three kids.”[iii]

My friends, when a church grounds itself in empathy it becomes an example for generations to come. I think that’s the final piece of this beautiful vision that Paul had in mind. He implored his hearers to put aside prejudice and racism and nationalism, (he called them stumbling blocks) in favor of walking a mile in the shoes of another. He encouraged his audience, time and again, to be open to the possibility that each of their individual gifts, when combined, would create what we in the United Church of Christ have articulated as “a just world for all.” And finally, I think Paul knew, that to share Christ, to really share Christ, that couldn’t be done from some lofty throne of judgement, but rather, from a place of empathy.

May each of us, as we continue to discern and discover our gifts, use them to transform Paul’s beautiful vision of possibility into a beautiful vision of reality. May it me so. Amen and Amen.

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[i] John Edgerton Fractured (www.stillspeaking.org) 2020

[ii] Romans 15:2 Common English Bible (CEB)

[iii] Quote found at (www.brinyquote.com)

Scraps of Justice

Matthew 15:21-28

From there, Jesus went to the regions of Tyre and Sidon. A Canaanite woman from those territories came out and shouted, “Show me mercy, Son of David. My daughter is suffering terribly.” But he didn’t respond to her at all. His disciples came and urged him, “Send her away; she keeps shouting out after us.” But Jesus replied, “I’ve been sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” But she knelt before him and said, “Lord, help me.” He replied, “It’s not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs, …is it?” She said, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table.” Jesus answered, “Woman, you have great faith. It will be just as you wish.” And right then her daughter was healed.

I would like to begin today, as we consider the persistence of the Canaanite woman, by sharing a devotion I read this week by Cameron Trimble. She writes, “Some years ago I had the chance to visit Israel. We toured the entire country, studying archeology, learning about the history and seeing first-hand the strain of so many years of conflict and violence. We met many people whose stories of loss, pain, hope and faith will stay with me for a lifetime.

One woman I met changed my view of life. She was an old woman when I met her in the old city of Jerusalem. She made stoles for a living. As I was browsing through her store, I asked her how she started making them, supposing that she was some poor woman who spotted a niche in selling stoles to American pastors who are always looking for some good “bling” for their robes.

Instead, she told me about her life. Many years before, her three children had been with her in the market one day and had the bad luck of being too close to a suicide bomber. She was off buying some vegetables for their dinner that evening when she heard someone scream. She looked back just in time to watch her children – her life – as they were blown from the face of the earth. Can you imagine the horror of this? Can you imagine the sheer unspeaking, crushing pain of this?

She spent the next year of her life in a numb fog, trying to understand how and why this could happen. Until finally, she stopped. She awoke one morning realizing that there are no good answers to these questions. What would answers bring her anyway? What she had to do was to decide how to live.

Her way of living in the midst of her woundedness was to start making these stoles. To her, they became signs of peace and symbols of God’s unfailing love.  She has a vision of clergy all across the world wearing them as they stand in pulpits, march in protests, and sit with the sick. In her brokenness, she turned to love, gifting us all with her testimony, her handmade art, and her unfailing grace.

When I found the stole I wanted to buy, she placed it over my shoulders. Looking me in the eyes, she said “This is a symbol of peace that I give to you this day. May every day of your life bring peace to our earth and love to all people.” It was the most powerful commissioning I have ever known.

Were I to suffer such terrible loss in my life, I pray that I would have the faith and strength that she has. She could have become deeply bitter. She could have sought revenge. She could have lived with biting anger. But instead, she decided to live believing that God is love and grace is true.”[i]

Now, turning back to our gospel passage for today, the Canaanite woman also persisted, in spite of her grief, she also chose to believe that God is love and that grace it true. How do we know this? Well, she, a woman, a gentile, someone from outside the religion, came before Jesus and begged for justice, she pleaded for her daughter to be restored to wholeness. Remember now, in that time and culture, she had no right to even speak to Jesus, let alone ask him for anything.

And perhaps it was these cultural considerations that lead Jesus, first, to ignore her, and then he seemed to give in to the pressure of his disciples who were urging him to send her away. And when she refused, when she continued to overstep the culture norms and plead for her daughter’s mental health, Jesus called her a dog.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Does this passage make anyone else uncomfortable? I mean, doesn’t feel at all like the welcoming, inclusive Jesus we’ve come to expect, right?[ii]  It doesn’t sound like the Jesus we’ve been taught to emulate. As a matter of fact, I read a reflection from a scholar this week, who out it this way: He said, “…Jesus was caught with his compassion down.”[iii]

Maybe that was the case. But there are also other theories about why Jesus disrespected this woman. One popular one, in trying to make Jesus look “less bad”, suggest that Jesus really wasn’t being mean, but that he was simply testing the woman. Others suggest that he didn’t really mean that she was less than human, it was all a misunderstanding, or even that there was more to this story that didn’t make it into the Gospels. [iv] And while these are all plausible ways of approaching this text, my theory is a little different. I contend that Jesus changed his mind. And I think he changed his mind because of her persistence. I believe that this passage was included in the gospel text to help us to understand that change and growth beyond the limited view of what our society has taught us is acceptable. It here to show us that a foreign, non-Jewish, woman actually affected the way Jesus viewed the world.  She helped him to become more inclusive in his life and teachings.

You know, I shared this contention a number of years ago in a message on this very text to the congregation I was serving at the time. And all was well, at least on Sunday. But Monday rolled around and a got an unexpected visit from a church member who was livid about my message. And by livid, I mean he came unglued! Now, mind you, he wasn’t in church the previous day, but his wife had told him that I said, “Jesus was wrong.” I explained to him that I didn’t say he was wrong, but instead that I had said, “Jesus changed his mind.” But, unfortunately, that didn’t matter to him and he proceeded to air every grievance he had with me and the church and especially our movement toward becoming more inclusive.

Now, over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that encounter and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. First, I concluded that for some people change is frightening. You see, his anger, I believe, was fueled by his fear of change. Not only that we were attempting to welcome people who didn’t look like him, or share his political views, or necessarily share his traditional understanding of morality, but that we were poking at the very fabric of what he had always been taught about the nature of God; that God is unchanging. Immutability is the 4 dollar theological word for this understanding of God.

And I know, I understand …there are many people, like me, who have been taught that God is unchanging. Immutable. It’s one of the core tenets of our faith. And since we hold that Jesus is God incarnate, God-in-the-flesh, or at the very least, that Jesus had a unique and unparalleled connection with the divine, it makes sense that Jesus would be unchangeable, just like God.

But here’s the thing. I’m not going to argue the finer points, the pros and cons if you will, of immutability. I’m not going to argue because whether or not God changes is beyond our purview, it’s above our pay-grade so to speak. But what we can know, I believe, is that the human perspective of God, our concept of the divine, does change. Morality, ethics, what constitutes right and wrong, for better or for worse, these things have changed over time and continue to change as humanity evolves and progresses as a species.

So, I think, it’s perfectly natural to conceive of a human Jesus who can grow, and learn, and even can change his mind. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t diminish his divinity, it enhances it! The ability to adapt to the situation, to replace old ideas with a new and more inclusive perspective, that makes Jesus closer to the nature of God in my book.

And it’s this understanding that our perception of God can change that leads us to my second conclusion from that Monday morning encounter, and it’s a conclusion that ties directly back into our text for today. It seems to me that we all persist in some ways. It seems to me that we all, like the woman who made stoles, and like the Canaanite woman from our gospel narrative, we all seek the scraps of justice that fall from the table of life. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s been my experience, that no one is beyond grief. No one can escape at least some suffering during their lifetime. We all, my friends, especially in this time of pandemic, have to deal with the temptation to simply give up. We all, in the face of the racial injustice we’re beginning to face as a nation, are sometimes overwhelmed by the enormity of the change that’s necessary to being about equality. It only human to feel this way. And this is where our faith enters the picture.

Our faith tells us to persist, even when it seems like a long-shot. Our faith asks us to hang-in-there, if not for ourselves, for the sake of others. And our faith, my friends, invites us to be and to continue to become a better version of ourselves, both individually and as a people, by changing our minds about the things that hold us back. Even those things we once held dear. Our faith challenges us in these ways because in the end, this time of change will lead us to become, to an even greater degree, a reflection of the true, inclusive, welcoming, non-judgmental, nature of God.

May it be so for you and for me.

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[i] Cameron Trimble Plotting Faith (cameron@convergenceceus.org) Aug 11, 2020

[ii] David Lose, The Canaanite Woman’s Lesson, Dear Partner in Preaching, August 20, 2017.

[iii] David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press) 2009

[iv] Rev. Louise Kalemkerian. Nevertheless, She Persisted. (www.stpaulsnorwalk.org) 2017

In the Midst of the Storm

Matthew 14:22-33 (a paraphrase)

Immediately, the disciples jumped into a boat, and went ahead of Jesus to the other side of the sea, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. But in the twilight, a strong wind came up. It battered their boat with high waves and pushed them far from land. Early the next morning Jesus came walking towards them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him they were terrified. And they cried out in fear, “It’s a ghost!” But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “It’s me, don’t be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it’s really you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened and beginning to sink. Peter cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “Why do you doubt Why did you let your fear diminish your faith?” When they got back into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the chosen one of God.”

Becky and I have seen our fair share of rough waters. When we were first married we lived in Bellevue Iowa, right on the Mississippi River. So, it wasn’t unusual for us to go fishing after work. One evening, we decided to try a little further downstream than usual, pretty far from the launch. You can see where this story is headed, right? Yep, a storm suddenly came up and we were suddenly caught in a torrent of rain and lightning. We were too far away to make it back, so we pulled up to an island, got out of the boat, covered ourselves with raincoats, and waited the storm out. It was only after the rain subsided that we discovered we were surrounded by poison ivy!

You know, it’s funny, we’re more likely to remember these “rough water” experiences than all the times the sailing was smooth. Perhaps it’s because facing difficulties, overcoming challenges, creates within us a sense of confidence. A confidence that will serve us well when the next storm arises. A confidence that helps us to overcome our fear. It’s kind of like the old proverb says, “Smooth seas do not make for a skillful sailor.”

In our gospel message for today, we find the disciples experiencing  one of these “confidence building moments.” You see, they were afraid because their boat was being battered by waves and they were far from the launch. Now, the story tells us that Jesus understood their fear, so he went to them, and said, “Hey, look, it’s me! Don’t be afraid! But notice something important here in Matthew’s telling of this story. Jesus didn’t calm the waters until after Peter was back, safely, in the boat. The sea was still raging under his feet when he began to doubt, when Peter let his fear take over the situation.

Let stop here for a moment and think about how an old story like this one might be relevant to us in these troubling times? Well, as the turbulent seas of this pandemic rage on, claiming the lives of so many of our fellow Americans; and as the prospect of significant changes in how we as a nation treat all people with dignity and equality and justice, looms on the horizon; and as our entire planet, and so many species of plants and animals, continue to be decimated by climate change… Jesus continues to symbolically walk with us and toward us. And we as people of faith… we instinctively walk towards him, like Peter, knowing we are called to leave the safety of the boat and traverse unsettling waters as well.

However, we share more than just Peter’s faith; we share his fear. You see, sometimes the stepping-out-of-the-boat-part isn’t what’s most frightening. The scariest part comes when you realize that you’re actually out of the boat; that you’re standing on the precipice of change; standing amid the waves of uncertainty, and your next step isn’t all that clear.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. During the civil rights movement in the middle of the last century, a man named John Lewis stepped out of the boat and into the turbulent seas of civil unrest. The following story was told by President Barack Obama during John’s funeral service this past month. President Obama said, “…just weeks after the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of interstate bus facilities was unconstitutional, John and Bernard Lafayette bought two tickets, climbed aboard a Greyhound, sat up front, and refused to move. This was months before the first official Freedom Rides. He was doing a test. The trip was unsanctioned. Few knew what they were up to. And at every stop, through the night, apparently the angry driver stormed out of the bus and into the bus station. And John had no idea what he might come back with or who he might come back with. Nobody was there to protect them. There were no camera crews to record events. …John was only twenty years old. But he pushed all twenty of those years to the center of the table, betting everything, all of it, that his example could challenge centuries of convention, and generations of brutal violence, and countless daily indignities suffered by African Americans. Like John the Baptist preparing the way, like those Old Testament prophets speaking truth to kings, John Lewis did not hesitate — he kept on getting on board buses and sitting at lunch counters, got his mugshot taken again and again, marched again and again on a mission to change America.”[i]

Now, there’s no way John Lewis could have known the outcome of this movement. He didn’t even know if he would survive the beating he took on the Edmund Pettis Bridge as he marched with Dr. King on that fateful day we all remember from our history books. He couldn’t have known he would become a statesman, a congressman, and shining example of the American ideal. He couldn’t have known these things. But what his faith told him, what I suspect fueled his confidence, was that non-violent resistance and peaceful protest was right way to attempt to usher in change. And don’t tell me he wasn’t afraid as he sat in the front seat of that Greyhound. Don’t tell me he didn’t experience at least a fragment of doubt as he was being beaten and arrested. But here’s the thing. John Lewis didn’t let his fear overcome his faith.

I’ve said many time that doubt isn’t the opposite of faith, but rather that fear is the opposite of faith. Paul Tillich reinforces this sentiment when he said, “Doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s an element of faith.”[ii] An element of faith! I like that! James wrote to his followers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”

Matthew thought along these same lines as well.  Right here, in this narrative, he reinforces the place of doubt as an element of our faith journey. Peter doubted. He began to sink. But notice that he didn’t drown. In the midst of his doubt, Jesus reached out his hand and pulled Peter to safety.

That’s what it means to be saved! That’s the core, the very fabric of the nature of salvation! It doesn’t have anything to do with handing our tracts or being born again or getting others on our team. As a matter of fact, those understanding of salvation often are fraught with fear-mongering. My friends, salvation, being saved, is a free gift from God. A free gift for everyone. It’s a free gift illustrated wonderfully right here in this text. God is inviting us to overcome our fear with faith. God is reaching out to each of us, our community, and our nation, with a saving hand.

And then in turn, God is calling each of us to extend our hands to others who are sinking. We are being challenged in these troubling times, my friends, take any doubt we might be experiencing, and use that doubt to ask questions. Questions that will finally fuel our faith. Questions that will challenge us to reach out beyond ourselves and our personal fears. We’re being invited, my friends, to reach out with a hand of compassion, helping those who are homeless, or lonely, or hungry. And we are being invited, as communities of faith, to reach out with the hand of justice to our black, brown, and native sisters and brothers who have been sinking in a society that devalues them. And finally, we’re being invited, as individuals, to find our footing in these troubling, pandemic waters, even as the storm continues to rage all around us. A footing that takes us back to the basic core value of the gospel itself: to love God with all of our being and love our neighbor as ourselves.

And do you know what? We can do this! We can overcome any fear we may be experiencing, because we are being invited, again and again and again, into the saving love of God. It’s a love that’s all around us, a love that indwells our soul, and it’s a love that interconnects all living things.

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[i] Barack Obama’s full eulogy of John Lewis found at (www.cnn.com) July 30, 2020.
[ii] Quote found at www.ucc.org/sanuel/sermon/seeds) August 9, 2020