Sunday, January 29, 2017

“Agape in Action”

Jan. 29, 2017
First Congregational UCC of Manhattan, KS
By the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” Oh, Paul. What would you think if you were watching us today? No divisions among us? Oh, my. We’ve got so many divisions we’ve got divisions within division. We are no longer Liberal nor Conservative, Christian or Muslim, USAmerican or Syrian …..we are two million divisions within each of those identities.

In a week that has seen people from predominantly Muslim nations detained at airports, because the President of the United States signed an order saying they are no longer welcome here “no divisions” seems laughable.

Those of us who seek to follow Jesus must take seriously the Bible’s call the welcome people from other nations. You could argue that, while the Bible is famously inconsistent, it is totally consistent about the command to welcome immigrants and refugees. This one sample passage from Leviticus is consistent with other passages in both testaments: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt.” And in case we were doubting who said it, the author finishes with “I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19: 33-34)

It seems unbelievable to me that we are living in a time when it is counter-cultural to be both Christian AND a person who believes we should welcome immigrants and refugees and treat them the way we would want to be treated. Christmas is barely over and many Christians in this nation seems to have already forgotten that Jesus was once a Middle Eastern refugee who depended on the hospitality of people outside his ethnic group.

Earlier this week, I had the honor of speaking to a large crowd gathered at K-State for the annual MLK Fellowship Luncheon. For the invocation, I chose to share some of Dr. King’s words from his collection of writings, Strength to Love. In the passage I shared, King wrote of how the world needs “transformed nonconformists.” People who are willing to go against the grain, and be transformed through their experience of the Holy into new beings. He wrote:
This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists.  Our planet teeters on the brink of atomic annihilation; dangerous passions of pride, hatred, and selfishness are enthroned in our lives; truth lies prostrate on the rugged hills of nameless calvaries; and men do reverence before false gods of nationalism and materialism.  The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority. (Strength to Love, p. 18)

Who else wants to be creatively maladjusted? I know I do! I think anyone who seeks to follow Jesus must be willing to be a transformed nonconformist. After all, our Teacher is one who said bizarrely counter-cultural stuff like “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Talk about nonconforming!

It seems to me that we are currently living in a time where love is counter-cultural. Everywhere you look, there are people calling each other names, shouting at each other, disparaging one another. It sometimes seems as if many people in our culture have forgotten to see the very basic humanity in one another. When I gathered with neighbors at the Islamic Center for an event last night, several people told me they would feel safer and more welcome here in Manhattan if people would simply look up and smile at them. See them. Notice their humanity. Greet them.

But recognizing one another seems to be counter-cultural these days. How else can we explain some people’s ability to close their eyes and heart to a Syrian family of six who have been living in a Turkish refugee camp since 2014? The New York Times reported just yesterday that at least one Syrian family that was supposed to arrive in Cleveland yesterday to begin a new life here with the help of a local nonprofit, was not allowed to come into the U.S. (Source: The New York Times and The Cleveland Plain Dealer).

I cannot even begin to imagine the horror and pain of being a parent who is simply trying to care for your four children. You’ve been basically homeless for two years, living in a refugee camp, and you begin to have hope because you learn there is an apartment waiting for you in Ohio. But then, suddenly, it’s not to be. With the stroke of a pen, a stranger has declared that Syrians will be unable to come to the US for an undefined period of time.

How can people hear that story and not have their hearts moved? Why is there such a failure to love? When did loving become counter-cultural….especially for Christians?

And how am I supposed to find a way to keep loving these the people who seem to be so filled with hate, fear, and indifference...especially the ones who call themselves Christians?

In a world where loving is counter-cultural, I want to rely on Dr. King to help us unpack love a bit. Because when Dr. King speaks of love, he is not speaking of some warm fuzzy attraction. He’s not speaking of liking each other. He’s speaking of something else entirely.

In his 1958 essay “An Experiment in Love” King writes in great detail about nonviolent resistance, which he found his way to through the bus boycott in Montgomery. (Note: all the King references….direct quotations and summaries in this sermon are from this particular essay)

King says that when the boycott began, no one in his circle was really talking about nonviolent resistance. Instead, they were speaking of “Christian love.” He says it was the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus of Nazareth that initially stirred the people in Montgomery to protest with the creative weapon of love.

Over time, they came to learn more and more about Gandhi’s tactics in India. They came to understand nonviolence as their most-likely-to-succeed technique. In this way, King says, “Christ furnishes the spirit and motivation, while Gandhi furnished the method.”

King gives six characteristics of nonviolent resistance in this essay:

First, nonviolent resistances is “not a method for cowards.” It is active, difficult, dangerous resistance. It is costly.

Second, King says that “nonviolence does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win [the opponent’s] friendship and understanding.” The goal is always social change AND reconciliation.

Third, King challenges us to always make a distinction between the evils that are being committed and the people committing them. Remember how, every month, I stand up here at the communion table and say that saints and sinners are all welcome because we’re all a little bit of both? King’s ultimate regard for all humans - even those who committed great acts of evil - allowed him to see even his enemies as complex beings. Beings who were sometimes in the grips of Evil with a capital “E.” But once you think a person is Evil and, therefore, somehow irredeemable….well, you’ve lost the ability to try and seek a victory that will be good for everyone.

Fourth, (and these are getting progressively harder, aren’t they? Shew.) the Rev. Dr. King said that those who are willing to resist nonviolently must be willing to accept suffering without retaliation. This is probably the hardest for most people, I would guess. Most of us don’t really want to be hurt - emotionally or physically. But King believed, as did the Apostle Paul, in the creative, redemptive power of suffering.

Fifth, King points out that nonviolence is not just about refraining from throwing stones or punches. It goes further. It’s also about guarding against what he calls “internal violence of the spirit.” He says, “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent, but he also refuse to hate him.”

Now, I don’t recall hearing King really define HATE as carefully as he defined LOVE, but based on my knowledge of him, I think he would have defined hate as action. So I don’t think he believed we should never be angry or frustrated or even have thoughts of violence. I mean, when someone is literally standing over you, beating the daylights out of you, it’s probably going to be completely impossible to not feel anger, scorn, and to even feel hatred towards that person. But feeling hate is not the same as DOING hateful actions.

King is very clear that love is active. He wrote time and time again about the Greek word used for love in the Second Testament: agape. In Greek, there are several different kinds of love: Eros is romantic or sexual love, philia is brotherly love, friendship.

King tells us agape is not based on familiarity or affection. Instead, it is overflowing, understanding, redemptive love for all humanity. It is “disinterested.” It is a love that loves for the sake of loving. It’s not bound by a shared bond, shared interests. In fact, it is possible to have agape for another person even if you dislike them. Because agape is about seeing other people through God’s eyes.

It is about connecting deeply with the Holy in us and allowing ourselves to see another the way God sees them - as a beautiful, flawed, valuable person of worth - even when they are really making us mad. Even when we want to hit them.

Dr. King says that agape is always looking out for the basic needs of other human beings. For example, even though many did not know it, white people living under Jim Crow, needed to be freed from the Evils of segregation. King says that “the white man’s personality [was] greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul greatly scarred.” Because of this, King believed white supremacists needed agape to help save them from their “tensions, insecurities, and fears.”

Agape is communal. It is not weak or passive. It is always acting. King said “agape is love seeking to preserve and create community.” When the temptations are to isolate, draw in, cut off, close borders, build walls, agape is always telling us to open up, reach out, and attempt to build bridges. Always.

We talk about God reaching out to humans again and again and again and again. We remember that “love came down at Christmas” as God put on human form and walked among us. That continual reaching out, that continual creation of community is a part of agape.

This love stuff is a tall order. Especially when Dr. King and Jesus are telling us we have to try and be loving even towards people we don’t like. Even towards people who are not behaving in a loving way. I don’t think we can actually make it happen every single day. Well, maybe YOU can, but I fail most days. But I keep trying. I keep trying. It seems to be a life’s work.

I look at the way King was able to maintain this active love for others even in the midst of persecution and I wonder how he did it. Contrary to what we might think, he wasn’t actually superhuman. He was imperfect. He made mistakes. I am certain he probably occasionally got intensely angry and wanted to lash out. And heavens knows he wasn’t a pushover. Have you read the letter he wrote from the Birmingham Jail? Scathing.

But through it all, he kept a sense of the inherent basic human dignity of those he encountered. And he chose to act in ways that he believed were loving and that were helping bring about good for all of creation.

How did he do this? How did he keep living into the transformed, non-conforming power of agape? I believe a part of the answer lies at the very end of this essay about an “experiment in love.” His sixth and final point about nonviolent resistance is this:

Nonviolent resistance … is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. Consequently, the believer in nonviolence has deep faith in the future. This faith is another reason why the nonviolent resister can accept suffering without retaliation. For he knows that in his struggle for justice he has cosmic companionship. It is true that there are devout believers in nonviolence who find it difficult to believe in a personal God. But even these persons believe in the existence of some creative force that works for universal wholeness. Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power of infinite love, there is a creative force in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.

Amen. And, please, God, may it be so.

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