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.

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