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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Do You Know What Time It Is? (Luke 21:25-36, The First Sunday in Advent)

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27 Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28 Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near. ”

29 Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. 32 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

34 “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. 36 Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.”

One of the advantages of living in this part of the country is our access to college sports.  In this part of North Carolina, we have our pick of great schools with great athletic programs, where loyalties run deep.

Camping out for Duke basketball seats in the tent city known as Krzyzewskiville is an honorable tradition reserved for the undergrad students, who have the privilege of camping out from the beginning of second semester until the game against the Tar Heels – over a month, usually, in January and February.

The graduate students got to do it a little differently.  In order to get our tickets, we camped out for one weekend, in September.  Campout lasted from 7pm Friday until 7am Sunday, and the rules were simple.  A whistle would be blown at random times throughout the weekend, and you had to check in.  Miss two check-ins, and you were out.  Those who survived, their names were put into a lottery, in order to be given the chance to purchase a student season ticket.

The whole weekend was a social experiment in 36 hours of sleep deprivation.

After my first year of campout, I went home, took a shower, and collapsed into bed.  When I awoke, I looked at my clock, which said 7:00.  I looked outside; it was cloudy and twilight, but I couldn’t tell if the sun was rising or setting.  Was it 7:00 pm?  7:00 am?  How long had I slept?  Was it Sunday evening?  Monday morning?  I was so disoriented and confused.  I just kept asking myself out loud, “What time is it?”

Coming into church in the weeks leading up to Christmas can be similarly disorienting.  All around us, the world is celebrating Christmastime.  You don’t have to be particularly religious to celebrate Christmastime.  Christmastime is a made-up season invented by retailers to get us to spend money at the end of the year.  The season starts earlier and earlier every year – I saw Christmas displays in some stores by the end of August this year – all in an attempt to get us to spend more this year than we did last year.

Christmastime is a season marked by excess – over-eating, over-drinking, over-partying, over-stressing, over-spending – with the illusion that we can purchase happiness tied up neatly with a big bow on top.  And yet, the only lasting gifts we receive are a few extra pounds, and a January credit card bill from you-know-where, not the lasting joy we were promised we would find at the end of the meal, the bottle, or the shopping list.

In the church, a completely different season happens at the same, and we call this season Advent.  Christmastime is a secular season, Advent is a holy season.  We become so accustomed to Christmastime being constantly in our face and we expect it everywhere, and when the church is keeping the rhythms of Advent – traditions that are a bit slower, more subdued, reflective.  It can be disorienting, and refreshing.

For the church, practicing Advent instead of Christmastime opens us up to a world of surprises.  Just take the lectionary Gospel passage from the 21st chapter of Luke we read a few moments ago.  Were you paying attention to it?  It doesn’t sound like what we expect to hear at this time of year.  It reads, "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the seas and the waves..."

I know what you're thinking – what does any of this have to do with Advent? Our thoughts already have turned toward putting up the Christmas tree and decorating our homes.  When you come to our house on Tuesday evening, you’ll see that it is definitely Christmastime, in our home, although we have wrapped our light post with blue and purple lights, and placed a purple bulb in the globe, as a sort of advent candle standing in our front yard.  But in the rest of the house, it’s definitely Christmastime – I’m not sure if elves or Martha Stewart have secretly been in to decorate.

On this first Sunday in Advent, we all would rather hear a message about Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. Why does the church encourage us to consider this passage today?

Because, many of us need a wake-up call at this time of year. It is so easy to become distracted by the shopping, the stress, and the endless parties that we miss out on the "peace on earth and good will to all people."  We can get so focused on the presents we will buy or receive that we overlook the presence of Christ. "Wake up and don't miss out on the coming of Jesus!" is one message of Advent.

Not only does Advent try to wake us up, but it also invites us to look in two directions—back upon the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and forward to Jesus' return as he brings God's kingdom on earth to fulfillment. Therefore, Advent always begins with a Scripture that looks toward Jesus' return. In other words, we begin by looking deep into the future—to the end of history.

The story is not just about baby Jesus.  To focus only on baby Jesus is to miss the point of the whole story.  There’s more to it; Advent invites us to consider the whole story.  We remember that Jesus came as a baby, he became one of us to redeem all of us, and we prepare for the time when he will come again to finish what he started, righting every wrong, overcoming every evil with grace and love.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  It makes me wonder why when so many teachers and preachers talk about Christ coming again, they present it in such a way that it’ll scare the living daylights out of you.

In 1970, Hal Lindsey wrote a book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. On its pages, Lindsey predicted that Christ would return by the year 1988. The book sold over 28 million copies! Well, when 1988 came and went and Christ did not return, they merely adjusted their numbers to buy a few more years and sell a few more books. Nearly thirty years later, we're still waiting.

Christ’s return isn’t a guessing game, it’s not a gimmick to sell books or raise money for ourselves, though we see countless prophets today who are doing just that.  Not a ploy to frighten people into faith.

The promise that Jesus will come again is something that should fill our hearts with hope, such that we lift our heads and rise up and soar to greet him in newfound heights, and yet it’s often delivered as some sort of veiled threat to get us to shape up and fly right.  “Jesus is coming, and boy, is he ticked!”  That can’t be the Gospel, the “good news” about Jesus, can it?

No, and here’s why.  The Scriptures consistently tell us, “God is Love,” as in 1 John 4:8.  They tell us that Jesus is the perfect embodiment of God, “the visible image of the invisible God,” as Colossians 1:15 puts it, the love of God with a human face.  The Bible further says, “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).  And so, if God is Love, and if Jesus is the most perfect embodiment of that love, and if perfect love casts out fear, then anything to do with Jesus can’t also be associated with fear.

Our reading for this first Sunday in Advent proclaims that Christ's return is a source of hope.  In preparation for his birth, angels consistently brought the message, “Fear not.”  Lest we miss the point, Jesus and fear simply don’t go together.  If we’re practicing our faith in a way that induces fear, then we’re doing it wrong.

I would add that many of the events Jesus predicted have already taken place. In the year 70 AD, the Roman army invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and the earth shook with violence. Jesus warned his disciples that life would be difficult for all who sought to serve God in his time, and that certainly was true. It can still be difficult.  The promise to return was Jesus’ assurance that even when all hell breaks loose, we are not alone, help is coming, he is coming.

Further, to get fixated on the exact day and time of his return – something Jesus said no one other than God the Father, not even himself, knew – is to miss the reality that Christ comes to us and walks among us all the time.  Would it be that we would greet Christ in everyone we meet; would it be that they would see Christ in us.  Christ is among us all the time – would it be that we have the eyes to see him in our midst.

We cannot scare people into the kingdom of heaven or frighten them into faith.  They say you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and you witness more faithfully to the activity of God in our world by offering hope to people rather than condemning and threatening them.

In our Scripture reading, when Jesus said, "Now when you see these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near," he wasn’t trying to frighten us or scare us straight. Those signs do not signal the end of the world; they signal that it’s time to start looking for Jesus.

Do you hear that? In the midst of tragedy, in the midst of war and rumors of war, in the midst of oppression and poverty, in the midst of our own personal losses, we can raise our heads and look for the Lord because he is near. Doesn’t mean that all our troubles get taken away.  It does mean that even in the midst of our greatest difficulty, we are not alone.  God is near.

Let me see if I can get at it this way. In the beginning God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. Where was God? In the darkness. On Easter morning, while it was still dark, Jesus rose from the dead. Where was God? In the darkness. When we sense that we are lost in the darkness, Advent reminds us that we are not alone. The God of hope is with us. Jesus warns us not to get distracted by the worries of this world. Lift up your eyes and look upward toward God because even in the midst of difficult times our Lord comes to us.

No matter how dark things may get, we are called to be the people who scan the horizon for light, confident that the sun will rise.  Christ will come. That is the message of Advent.  That is what it means to be a people of hope.

What time is it?  It is Advent – a time to watch and wait, and look for the coming Light of the World, especially when everything around us seems dark.  It’s time to look for Jesus, who is coming soon.  What time is it?  It’s a time to prepare.

This year, let’s prepare by turning away from fear, and turning toward hope.

Gracious God, for this season we are grateful. Wake us up. When we find ourselves in darkness, teach us to hope for your light.  In the midst of the busy-ness of this season, help us to hear your voice, sense your presence, worship you, and serve you in both word and deed. This we pray in the name of the Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Disciples of the King (John 18:33-37)

33 Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”

35 Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”

37 “So you are a king?” Pilate said.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”

"My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus. No kidding. That seems pretty obvious. Yet at the same time, working for Jesus’ kingdom, praying for “thy kingdom come” is a rather difficult endeavor when it seems so far away from the reality that we know and in which we live. The kingdoms of our world could hardly be more opposite than the kingdom Jesus has in mind.

When we hear the word “king” or “kingdom,” any number of images may come to mind.  Maybe we think of a gilded throne, a crown encrusted with jewels, or a royal palace.  Maybe we think of fine robes, vast riches, huge tracts of land.  Maybe we think of power and authority, giving commands and orders that are followed or else.  All of this is part of a certain image when we think of the word “king,” something regal, something with pomp and circumstance – we have this image from the world around us of who a king is and what a king does, and Jesus just doesn’t fit these notions.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, we celebrate this Sunday precisely because of our Christian belief that Jesus is the King of kings. He is the fulfillment of the covenant made with David to forever have one of his heirs sitting on the cosmic throne (2 Samuel 23). When Handel’s Messiah gets performed and played umpteen times across the upcoming holiday season, those who belt out the words “King of kings and Lord of lords” in the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” will be stating it plainly: Jesus is King.

But in John 18 we encounter that King in a most compromised and humble station. Hands bound behind him, his lip split and his cheek puffy from where one of the high priest’s officials had whacked him (cf. John 18:22), Jesus doesn’t look like a king.  More like a car accident victim. Or someone who went one too many rounds with Rocky Balboa in the boxing ring.

By contrast, Pilate, the Roman governor, looks the role of a king-like figure. A palace, a garrison of soldiers, the ability to decide another man’s fate with a word or a gesture.  Like any important person, Pilate’s schedule was probably chockfull of appointments and meetings and P.R. appearances.  The last thing he had time for was this man from Nazareth (who looked about as threatening as Murray the Grocer) – this would-be “King of the Jews.”

Pilate almost felt sorry for this Jesus fellow who now stood before him – what a pathetic and preposterous notion that this Jesus could, in any conceivable or credible way, be considered a king.

And perhaps that’s exactly the point.  Jesus just doesn’t fit the part of what we understand about kings and kingdoms.  We’ve taken the sum total of everything we know and have observed about the power structures of this world, we’ve tried to impose those onto Jesus, and Jesus just doesn’t fit the part.

How often have we placed expectations upon someone else?  How often have others failed to live up to our expectations?  Imposing our own set of expectations on other people is a guaranteed recipe for frustration, disappointment, and heartache.  I’ve found that my pre-conceived notions and unspoken expectations on others are an unnecessary burden in my relationships with them.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be the kind of person who is constantly disappointed in others because they didn’t live up to my expectations of what I think they should do and be.  Rather, I want to be the kind of person who can notice and appreciate who they are on their own terms, with their unique gifts and perspectives.  Often, they bring things to the table that surprise me and challenge me and force me to re-think my pre-conceived ideas.  But when our hearts and minds are open and ready to receive and appreciate, we see things that move us past our own understanding and expectations, such that we catch a glimpse of something more.

When it comes to our expectations on Jesus and his kingdom, he confounds and challenges us in the same way.  Jesus’ vision for us is simply, “something more.”  Something more than our expectations, something more than our pre-conceived notions, something more than what we are so often willing to settle for.

Growing up in Western New York, I have always been a Buffalo Bills fan from a young age.  I thought there was a direct correlation between the intensity of my prayers for a Bills win and how they actually performed on the field.  When they won, it was obviously because of whatever God and I worked out in my prayers, and when they lost, it was obviously because I just hadn’t prayed hard or long enough.

For several years, my sister and her husband lived in southern Massachusetts.  They live in Hickory, now, but my nephews are still fans of, God bless them, the New England Patriots.  Can you believe it, the Patriots?  Can anything good come out of Foxborough?

So, you can imagine a scenario in which the two teams are playing one another; I am praying for a Bills victory, my nephews are praying for a Patriots victory, but at the end of the day, only one of those prayers is going to be answered.  Does that mean that God was listening to one side and ignoring the other?  Does it mean that God favors one over the other?  Or, does it mean that, in our smallness, we were both praying for things we wanted and desired, without the realization that God’s desire and will was about something more than the outcome of a football game?

Likewise, could it be that the will of God, the kingdom of God, is about something more than our own personal desires and expectations?  Something more than what we want or demand, because Jesus wants more for us than we often want for ourselves.

The way of his kingdom is probably not the way we would choose.  Not what we desire.  Not what we asked for, not what we wanted.  We have trouble recognizing the kingdom of Jesus because it doesn’t look like what we expected. 

As people of faith, we all want God’s kingdom to come.  We pray for it every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer. But we short-circuit who Jesus is when we forget that the resurrected Jesus was first the crucified Jesus.  David Crowder says, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”  We all want the gain without the pain, we all want to enjoy the benefits without having to pay the costs.

We all want the resurrected Jesus, the ascended to the right hand of God the Father and reigning in glory Jesus.  We want separating-the-sheep-from-the-goats Jesus, riding in on clouds of thunder Jesus, smiting the evil and wicked Jesus – that’s the Jesus we’re all waiting on, glory hallelujah!  Instead, we get the “my kingdom is not of this world” Jesus, the “if it were, my people would be fighting you” Jesus.

We all want Jesus the victorious, Christ the conqueror, and, yes, the story will get there, but we cannot ignore the road it takes in doing so.

There are countless stories from literature and history of kings and queens who would disguise themselves in common clothes and sneak out to mingle among the people.  The ones I admire most are the ones who were trying to gain an understanding of what ordinary people were going through, taking on some of their situation.

In Jesus, we have a king who did the same thing – one who willingly left the splendor of heaven in order to become one of us, to experience what we experience, to take on the fullness of our humanity with all its frailties and weaknesses, subjecting himself to and taking on powers and forces in our world that are less-than-noble – Jesus did all of that because of his great love for us!  Our King is none other than Jesus who humbled himself and became one of us in order to redeem all of us.

Jesus stands before Pilate with all power and authority at his fingertips, yet he refuses to use it to his own advantage.  Won’t use it for self-preservation or personal gain.  John Wesley said “Love is God’s reigning attribute,” and in Jesus’ resolution to give himself in order to give life to the whole world, we see that primary characteristic of God’s abundant and unconditional love on full display for all to see.

Both the way into and the way of Jesus’ kingdom is the way of self-giving, sacrificial love.  Yet, you and I don’t have the strength or the character or the resolve to love like that, so we look to the One who does, and we ask for his help to live his way, that we might be selfless and generous toward others as God in Christ has been toward us, that as, the recipients and beneficiaries of matchless love and infinite grace, we might show that love and grace toward others.

And friends, that’s the hard part.  For people of faith, we must each come to a point where we stop trying to squeeze Jesus into a box that satisfies our expectations and desires.  Being a follower of Jesus is living such that, by the grace of God, his way becomes our way.

Being a follower of Jesus will be the most counter-cultural thing you can do.  When we find ourselves trying to cozy up to the structures of this world, King Jesus just won’t let us fit in.  Too much forgiveness and turning the other cheek.  Too much compassion and not enough common sense.  Too much practicing peace and not enough displays of power.  Too much love and grace, not enough might when he had every right – that’ll get you killed in a world like ours – what kind of king would go for that?

Our king would, and he did.  He followed that grace-filled path all the way to his death on a cross, where the ironic, upside-down nature of God’s kingdom was put on full display for all the world to see.  No greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, Jesus’ reign of love and light at its pinnacle when he was lifted high for all the world to see – lifted not to a throne, but on the hard, cruel wood of a Roman cross.  It looks to most like the moment of greatest defeat, but to those who can see it through the eyes of faith, it is God’s greatest victory as his strength is made perfect in weakness.

If you’re looking for the coming kingdom, don’t look to the powerful and wealthy. No, start looking for the scarred ones.  The ones who are burdened, who are bruised, beat-up and broken.  Look to them and treat them with Love, for a king moves among them.

What kind of king is this?  He’s our king.  Not the king we would have chosen, but definitely the one we need.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” says Jesus.  No kidding.  And thank God.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Christian Response to Terror

Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[o] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Romans 12:9-21 (NRSV)

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.[a] 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly;[b] do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;[c] for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

1 Peter 5:6-11 (NRSV) 

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert.[d] Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters[e] in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. 10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. 11 To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.

There are times when a preacher has carefully planned and prepared for worship to move in one direction, and then something else happens where that plan get scrapped.  Sometimes, there are things happening in the world or within us that cause us to move in another direction.  Today is one of those days.

Friday night, eight people carried out terrorist attacks in Paris that took the lives of 143 people.  Two days earlier, there were terrorist attacks in Beirut and Baghdad.

Like you, I have plenty of mixed feelings about the things that have taken place over the weekend.  I’m sad, I’m angry, I’m afraid.  I’m wondering, “What next?  When?  Who and where?”  I’m concerned for how we might react – will we make it better or worse?

Maybe we feel a sense of helplessness.  We want to help, but we’re so far away, so far removed, what can we do to help in Paris, or Beirut, or Baghdad, or Kenya?  Sure, we can pray, but it’s still hard to sit comfortably while the world around us bleeds and grieves.

I can’t speak today for how the nation is supposed to respond.  Today, I’m only speaking about what might be the response for those of us who gather under the cross of Christ.  What action does Jesus call us to?

Thankfully, the Bible has much to say about that sort of thing, particularly in the face of persecution.  It may not be what we want to hear, but it does have a lot to say!  Mark Twain famously said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”

Perhaps today is exactly a Mark Twain kind of day.  We have explicit instruction from Jesus about how we are to treat our enemies.

What we read a few moments ago from the 5th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel comes from Jesus’ most important sermon, we know it as the Sermon on the Mount.  [Jesus said] “43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

I’m with Mark Twain on this one.  It’s not like we don’t know what Jesus is talking about.  It’s not that complicated – it’s that we just don’t want to. 

Mike Slaughter says, “How can we as people who claim to love God not respond with violence, retribution or prejudice when evil attacks through human agents? If we are going to deal with these questions we have to understand the nature of the real enemy.

We are at war, and the real enemy is not people. There is a spiritual force of darkness. There is a blinding spirit of sickness and a spirit of hate on Planet Earth that defies logic.

Why does this matter?  Because friends, evil is a parasite that requires a host.  Evil, hate, violence, is not something that is intrinsically part of someone.  It’s something that finds its way into people and makes them do unspeakable things.  Wipe out one evil-doer, and the parasite slithers its way into the heart of another.

Ephesians 6 says our battle is not against flesh and blood.  It’s against the forces of evil.  We are fighting a spirit of hate that is not tied to a particular people or relegated to a particular place.  We are in a spiritual war zone, battling a spirit of hate that has as its sole purpose the destruction of people.

1 Peter 5:8 says to be alert, because the devil prowls about like a roaring lion, seeing whom he may devour.  The devil is anyone who has succumbed to evil, when we give in to hate and evil, we are devoured.  Do you see how, when we are consumed with blind anger and rage, we become casualties in the war against evil?  What’s at stake is our very soul and being, and Jesus is asking, “Will you choose to be a person of hate, or will you choose to be a person of love?”

The front line in the battle against evil and hate runs through every human being; Jesus knows that love is stronger than hate and goodness stronger than evil.  The way to keep evil from getting into us is to be so full of love, so full of grace, that there is literally no room for something more sinister to get into us.  If evil is a parasite looking for a host, Jesus tells us to love our enemies so that evil doesn’t find a host in us.

For the Christian, Romans 12 is our battle guide for life on the front lines in the fight against evil.  And so, we let love to be genuine.  We hate what is evil, we hate the hate itself, but we continue to hold fast to what is good.  We rejoice in hope for we are people of hope.  Hope is not simply blind optimism or feeling happy, it’s the resolute belief that God will get the last word, and all the trials and suffering we endure in this life will get sorted out in the end.  We will be patient, we will persevere, and we will continue to live into God’s call to extend hospitality to strangers.  I am praying for the strength and will to bless those who persecute us, and if we cannot do that, we will, at least, not curse them.  We will continue to weep with those who weep.  We will struggle and keep in the forefront of our minds to not repay anyone evil for evil.

ISIS is counting on us to repay evil with evil.  That’s their whole goal.  To whip us up into a frenzy of retaliation, such that we become the very thing we hate.  The goal is for violence and hate and division to continue to spiral down and down until all is dead and destroyed – thus giving evil the victory it desires.  When we give into hate, we only multiply evil rather than defeat it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness.  Only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, turning us into the very thing we deplore, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Today, in Paris, even as volunteers help clean up one of the restaurants that was targeted, people are lined up across the street at the Saint Louis Hospital to give blood.  Said one person in that line, “You shed blood, we give blood.”  That’s an example of fighting hate with love.

There will be people on the front lines in the fight against ISIS and whatever agents of terror are out there in the world, and we can empower them and bless them to do their job without giving in to hate.  There is honor in protecting and defending those who cannot defend themselves, and ensuring that bullies are not terrorizing the entire playground.

The important thing is to not allow hate to find a host in us. To eschew that rage that thirsts for blood and demands revenge.  The danger is turning into the very thing we deplore, fueling the kind of blind hate that will darken a night already devoid of stars.

Perhaps this is why Jesus calls us to bless and not curse; to not repay evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good.  How can we do such a thing? We come to the cross. We come before the one who, despite the cost, blessed and didn’t curse. We come to the one who did not repay evil for evil but who overcomes evil with good. We come to Jesus. We lay what we feel, what our questions are, what we don’t understand, and what we wish we could do at the foot of the cross. We hand it over to the One who can guard our hearts and minds; to the one who can overcome the evil that threatens us both within and without. We lay these burdens down at Jesus’ feet. Will it solve the problem of terrorism tomorrow or this week or even this year?  No.  But it will guard our own souls and ensure we don’t carry that terror with us as we follow in the narrow way of Christ.

There are several, simple actions of good we can do even now:

First, pray for the world and its leaders.  Whether you like the current administration or not, they are charged with the responsibility of keeping us safe, and they will need your prayers.

Pray for your enemies, and if you can’t pray for them, ask the Spirit to pray on your behalf.

Pray for victims of violence and their families.

Watch where you lay blame.  There’s a dangerous impulse to start pointing fingers.  This is not France’s fault for how it maintains its borders. It’s not Republicans’ fault or Democrats’ fault, not the fault of refugees.  Not the fault of all Syrians, all Iraquis, all Muslims, or all brown people.  Eight people carried out an attack.  They are the individuals to blame.

And remember:  The only antidote to hate is love, and now’s a time for us to over-use it.  Evil is trying to get a foothold, now is the time to flood the system with faith, hope, and love.

When you came in this morning, you were handed a small piece of paper, and you were asked to write your fear, your anger, or whatever is weighing heavily on you from the events of this weekend.  In a few moments, I invite you to come and lay that paper on the altar, a symbolic way of naming it and giving it over to God.  Later on, when you’re tempted to pick that thing back up, remember where you’ve left it.  God has it, and you don’t need it back.

But I don’t just want you to leave that paper there.  I’m inviting you to trade it in for another.  We’re going to practice overcoming evil with good.  Another sheet of paper has the words “Faith, Hope, and Love” across the top of it, and then a space for every day of the week.  What I want you to do is write down every time you practice sharing “faith, hope, or love” – or even all three – this week.  That could be an encouraging facebook post, that might be going to visit somebody, that might be when someone is shaking their head saying, “What is the world coming to,” you saying, “But God’s got the whole world in his hands.”  Don’t overthink this – you may simply pray for your enemy and be thinking, “Oh my gosh, that’s something I never imagined I could do!”

There’s enough hate in the world.  Let’s not add to it.  Let’s overcome it with love.