|Today’s scripture readings:
1 Peter 3:13-22
Have you been feeling as exhausted, hopeless, and beaten down by the news lately as I have been? I feel like I’m beginning to lose faith in the institutions that have ordered our civic life since our nation’s founding; like I’m losing faith in my fellow citizens; like, despite my best efforts, the toxic discourse that permeates our society has infected my system and is poisoning my heart. Sometimes as I’ve read the news lately I’ll confess to experiencing a certain amount of schadenfreude. That’s a great word for a terrible emotion, which is pleasure at the misfortune of others. I know from talking to some of you that I’m not the only one who’s had this experience lately. How did we get here? What has happened to us when so many of us find ourselves rooting for another’s demise? Somehow we have allowed the unholy forces of division to turn us against one another and tear each other apart. I’m having a hard time these days imagining how we could ever begin to rebuild a more civil society, or how we might find ourselves reoriented toward the common good.
I want to share three stories that have given me hope lately.
When their flights back to Washington, D.C., were canceled by a snowstorm in March, two Texas congressmen, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, decided to rent a car and make the 1,600-mile trek back to the Capitol together. Along the way, they discussed health care and other policy issues, and they realized that they have more in common than they had previously assumed. They used social media to livestream video of the entire trip and engage constituents in their discussions. They even called congressional colleagues to get them in on their conversations. Thousands of people tuned in online to watch the live video of their roadtrip conversations. Arriving at the Capitol in Washington, one of the congressmen told a reporter, “I learned something—this is a guy I can work with. It just happens that we’re on opposite sides of the aisle.”
Here’s another story: After seeing a car painted with anti-Muslim slurs driving through her neighborhood, the pastor of Grove Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, put up a huge sign at her church saying, “We love our Muslim neighbors.” She didn’t want to make a political statement on immigration, and she didn’t want to get tangled up in the culture wars. But there were some Muslim families who’d taken part in after-school activities at the church, and she thought of them seeing that car with the slurs driving around the neighborhood. After the sign was erected at the church, students at the nearby Charlotte Islamic Academy responded with handwritten notes. Some said the sign made them smile, others said it made them cry. One student wrote, “Thank you for standing up for us and supporting us, even when most of the world is against us.”
And one last story: Halfway around the world, Muslim youth in the Kingdom of Jordan launched a campaign to protect Christian churches on Easter Sunday. It was their response to the attacks against two churches in Egypt the previous week, on Palm Sunday, for which ISIS claimed responsibility. Muslim youth organized themselves on social media to travel to churches throughout Jordan to be a physical presence providing safety on Easter morning. The organizers said they wanted to show solidarity with their Christian neighbors, protest extremism, xenophobia, and radicalism, and demonstrate Jordanian harmony.
I’m not sharing these stories just because they’re the kind of feel-good news I think many of us need to hear to restore our faith in humanity. I’m sharing these stories because they are stories of people overcoming division, stories that reflect the kind of love God calls us to show one another. These are stories about people who practiced loving someone different from them, even when it was hard, even when it was risky.
Today’s gospel lesson opens with Jesus telling his disciples all he expects of them is that they embody the same kind of love he has modeled for them throughout his ministry. The fourteenth chapter of John begins a four-chapter section of his Gospel that biblical scholars call the “Farewell Discourse.” It comes immediately after the Last Supper but before Jesus is arrested. He spends these final moments alone with his disciples preparing them for a future without him. And in today’s passage, what he basically tells them is this: “When I’m gone, your job is to keep my commandments. Live the way I have lived. Love the way I have loved. Love everyone, including the people you don’t think deserve it. That’s going to be hard, but don’t worry: I’m going to send you another Advocate, the Spirit of truth, to help you. I won’t leave you to do this alone. I’ll send the Spirit to come alongside you and support you.”
Think about the world Jesus’ disciples were living in. It was a world dominated by the Roman Empire. The Jewish people were ruled by imperial forces, and surrounded by images of Roman authority and the weapons used to enforce imperial power. Their world was defined by physical and psychological violence; fear and oppression were the status quo. Then Jesus comes along and shows them a different way to wield power—not by doubling down on division, or by exacting revenge, or by seeking their enemy’s destruction. Jesus shows them how to wield power through radical acts of love. This was Jesus’ message all along: If you really want to throw a wrench into the works, try loving people the world tells you you’re not supposed to love. It will disrupt business as usual and turn the world upside down. But be warned: Loving the people you’re not supposed to love is risky. It will make a lot of people upset.
At one point in the middle of their bipartisan roadtrip, as the two congressmen from opposing political parties discussed issues and found common ground, one of the men looked into the camera that was broadcasting the live video and said, “Our party leadership probably isn’t super excited that we’re doing this.” Sure enough, while these two congressmen were making their way across the country together, building a relationship and discovering areas of agreement, the Texas Democratic Party released a statement that included a long list of critical questions for the Republican congressmen in the car. “We all love a good road trip with great photo ops,” the statement sneered, “but the appearance of bipartisanship is not a hall pass to avoid answering tough questions.” It’s true, isn’t it, that resisting the forces that try to keep us divided makes people upset? Any attempt to practice loving those our tribe says are off limits will be met with hostility by the powers that be.
Jesus knows this kind of love will be difficult. That’s why he says he will send the Spirit to be another Advocate, one who will come alongside us when the going gets tough—when the forces of hatred and division creep in and try to tear us apart. The Spirit is there to support us. What if
we prayed, “Come, Holy Spirit,” whenever we felt those unholy forces manifesting in us? What if we prayed, “Come, Holy Spirit,” each time we read a snarky post on Facebook or felt tempted to write our own? What if we prayed, “Come, Holy Spirit,” when we heard divisive remarks on cable news, when we found ourselves caught up in mean-spirited banter around the water cooler, or felt ourselves lured into schadenfreude? Could the Holy Spirit cleanse our hearts, turn us away from division, and make us agents of healing in a world that is desperate for signs of hope?
The past few days, several us from Gloria Dei and a few hundred of others from across the Saint Paul Area Synod witnessed one of the places where the Spirit is at work, healing divisions and creating a way where there had been no way. On Friday, as ELCA Lutherans from across the east metro gathered at the Saint Paul Area Synod Assembly, we were joined by Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. He and our own Bishop Patricia Lull had a lengthy public conversation about the ways that Lutherans and Roman Catholics are overcoming the divisions that have kept us apart for 500 years. Both Archbishop Hebda and Bishop Patricia said they have been praying for one another and praying for the Spirit to guide our two churches toward greater unity. At one point the question was asked, “What is the significance of this Lutheran-Catholic dialogue?” Bishop Patricia replied, “This dialogue is important because our world is craving signs that people can work together.”
Isn’t that the truth? Our world is craving signs that people can work together. We are fed up with disunity, yet too many of us are held captive by forces that keep us apart, even complicit in perpetuating the problem. We are so tangled up in it that we can barely imagine another way.
Come, Holy Spirit. Transform our hearts. Come, Holy Spirit. Make us a community of hope. Come, Holy Spirit. Give us courage to love beyond divisions. Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.
Suzanna Goussous, “Muslim youth take initiative to guard churches as Easter celebrated,” in the Jordan Times, April 15, 2017, http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/muslim-youth-take-initiative-guard-churches-easter-celebrated.
Jamie Lovegrove, “Bi-car-tisanship: Democratic and Republican congressmen take road trip from Texas to Washington,” in the Dallas Morning News, March 14, 2017, https://www.dallasnews.com/news/politics/2017/03/14/bi-car-tisanship-democrat-republican-congressmen-take-road-trip-texas-washington.
Nancy J. Ramsay, “John 14:15-21: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 2, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Peter St. Onge, “A Charlotte church put up a sign about its Muslim neighbors. Then the neighbors spoke back,” in the Charlotte Observer, April 12, 2017, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/peter-st-onge/article144196939.html.
Jessica Taylor, “Bipartisan ‘Bromance’ Blossoms As 2 Texas Congressmen Make D.C. Road Trip,” on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, March 15, 2017, http://www.npr.org/2017/03/15/520223241/with-flights-canceled-2-texas-congressman-hit-the-road-for-d-c.
The Christian Century, “Century Marks,” April 12, 2017.
The Christian Century, “Century Marks,” May 10, 2017.