First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
April 29, 2018
Scripture: 1 John 4:20-21
Sermon: “Visible God”
I hate it when people judge whether or not someone else is a Christian. Usually, the judgment is: you have to believe in scripture inerrancy to be a Christian, you have to believe in virgin birth, or bodily resurrection, or claim Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior and be immersed in at least 100 gallons of water. I hate it when people say, you can’t be a Christian if you don’t do xyz, or you can’t be a Christian if you do xyz.
However, the author of today’s scripture does just that. You can’t be a Jesus follower if you don’t love people. You are a liar, if you say you love God, and you hate other people. This author uses strong language: hate, liar, commandment, must. He gives an ultimatum: if you love God, you MUST love your brothers and sisters. It is a moral imperative, and there appears to be no exception clause. We must love not just those who are peaceful like us, or inclusive like us, or progressive. We have to love this that Jesus called, ‘a brood of vipers.’
This love is not warm, fuzzy feelings. It’s not just about love of the siblings on your family tree. This is love for ALL brothers and sisters on the grand Homosapiens tree of life. It is love that is more than sentiment; it is love in action. It was Jesus main message – perhaps it was his only message. The love that he showed with his life is the love that results in abandonment of self-interests and self-concerns and self-absorption. It is love’s recognition that gives us new eyes to see ourselves and all others. It is not easy. There is an opposite force at work in the world – no, it’s not Satan or hate that is the opposite of love, but fear.
This passage begins by addressing fear. There is no fear in love. Godly love casts out fear. Why start off with fear? It is fear that prevents us from loving. We fear we might give too much away then fear that there won’t be enough for us. We fear that others might hurt us if we get too close to them. We fear of those who are not just like us, those who don’t look like us or sound like us. We fear of those we have been taught to fear — maybe it’s some primordial fear of those from a different clan or tribe. We fear of those who think opposite us. We fear of those who might take away our power, our privilege, our food, our work, our rights, our beliefs. We cannot see the other. We can’t love the other because we are blinded by our fear of the other.
Two men go to Starbucks to transact business. They sit quietly at a table waiting for the man they are supposed to meet. They are told to leave. When they don’t leave, the police are called. The men are handcuffed and removed. Others sit in Starbucks doing business are not approached or asked to leave or removed forcefully. The others aren’t black men in America.1
Ralph Nimmons was thought to be homeless. He entered a Stop & Shop in his neighborhood and was accused of trying to steal cookies. Employees grabbed him, and sat on him until police could arrive. Ralph said he couldn’t breathe. He told them he had a heart problem. He begged them to get off. A lady, a stranger, offered to pay for the cookies if they would let the man go. The Employees did not move. Ralph died last Friday. Ralph was a black man in America.2
A white guy strips naked and sits outside a restaurant watching people through the window. He sees young people enrolled in college and new graduates just starting a promising future. Then he walks in and starts shooting people. The headlines don’t read, “white man kills four black young adults.” The headlines never do. Truth is that white men, not black men or brown men, but white males have committed more mass shootings than any other group.3 We don’t much talk about that fear.
Eighth grader, Manu Livar, was clearly upset when his mother picked him up from his San Antonio middle school. As soon as he got in the car, he showed her why. His history teacher gave him a worksheet titled, “A Balanced View of Slavery.” On one side of the paper he was supposed to list the negative aspects of slavery. On the other side he was to list the positive aspects of slavery.4
FBI data shows increased incidents of hate crime in the last year. The Human Rights Campaign points out that hate crimes against LBGTQ Americans have risen 5% – that is of those reported.5
These stories all happened in the last two weeks. I didn’t have to work very hard to find some sermon illustrations for this week. Just opened the news and there were plenty of examples – too many examples of people hating each other. People are afraid of others. Particularly afraid of those different than themselves. For good reason. We are not a loving people. We are afraid and anxious people. The Church and those who call themselves Christian are no different.
Slavery split the Methodist church in 1845. “The denomination divided on the subject of slavery, with some northern Methodists becoming more convinced of slavery’s evil and some southern Methodists more convinced that it was a positive good. They were caught, in effect, between church rules and state laws.”6 The Methodist church operated as a split entity for 94 years, almost a century passed before reconciliation in the Methodist Church.
Now the UMC church is at the brink of that decision again. Last month, I was sitting around a table of unlike, different minded people at a meeting with the bishop in Topeka. We were talking about church stance on gay marriage and ordination. We discussed a ‘live and let live proposal’ which would allow those pastors who affirmed gay marriage to perform them which seems like a relief for those of us restricted. It was also allow those who opposed them to refrain from doing them. It allowed everyone to live and act by their own conscious. It sounds good until someone asked the question, “if this were slavery, not sexuality, would we say this live and let live was a workable solution? In my mind, the two sides were not progressive or traditionalist; the anti-gay proponents were salve holders. Would we allow them to remain so? Would we allow slavery to continue if some thought it okay?”
At the root of this and all other divisions, prejudice, bigotry, sexism, white supremacy is certainly not love. It is fear. 1 John is a letter proclaiming God is love. It’s a short letter, and it says it over and over and over. God is love. Love is God. Without Love, we cannot know God. Without love, we cannot see God. God is in the love. John proposes that our brothers and sisters, people, are right before our eyes. We can see them if we look. If we cannot love (respect, honor) those right before us, why do we suppose we can grasp the abstract, ethereal concept of the Divine.
The God became flesh. God becomes flesh. The image of the holy divine essence of all goodness is within those around us. We struggle to see it. We struggle to see it within us and within others; our fear blinds us.
Perfect love casts out fear. Godly love is love that sees beneath the exterior to see the Holy transcendent divine embedded in each person: black/brown/white, gay/straight, rich/poor, powerful /marginalized.
Our world is not perfect. Stories of racism, prejudice in many ways are plentiful. Jesus taught how to address our divisions. Jesus taught us how to see God. His Way will make a difference. His way will end racism and bigotry and sexism and assault and violence. The solution (for our own sakes, for the world’s sake) is to see beneath, to see into essence, to see Spirit of God in each person and to love that essence.
When we do that, we will be different. We still speak differently. We will act differently. We will vote differently. The world will be different. Then we will see God. Then we will love God.
May it be so.
6 http://blogs.wofford.edu/from_the_archives/2013/01/30/how-the-methodist-church-split-in the-1840s/