Sixth Sunday of EasterErr on the Side of Love
Acts 10:44-48; John 5:1-6 and John 15:9-17
May 13, 2012
When I came into the church on Wednesday, I looked in my church mailbox and pulled out a copy of Sojourners Magazine. This magazine that has been existence for forty years has as its mission “. . . to inspire hope and action by articulating the biblical call to racial and social justice, life and peace and environmental stewardship.”
In the June issue there are articles on human dignity in Guatemala, a contemporary reading of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth and and article on the rebirth of Detroit. But what caught my eye was the cover. Sitting in a chair looking out the window is a teenaged girl holding a sign that in big bold letters reads: GOD HATES AMERICA
That’s not what I have been hearing in church for the past few Sundays as a matter of fact I have been hearing an awful lot about love and God’s love relationship with us.....“we love because he first loved us.” “for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen.”
That’s just a few of the messages from scripture lately and the tenor of that conversation continues this morning: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.You are my friends...”......
So the sign on the cover and the other signs shown in the article: AMERICA IS DOOMED--DESTRUCTION IS IMMINENT -- GOD HATES THE WORLD, cannot possibly represent the God I know through Jesus the Christ who gave up his life in a self-sacrificing act of love for the world. These negative messages are not what we believe, not what we teach here at St. John’s in Summit New Jersey on the east coast of the United States of America! This not what we want those soon to be confirmed to learn!
Anyway, the magazine cover drew me in! The cover article was titled: “The Face of Hate.” Rebecca Barrett-Fox a professor at two Mennonite Colleges was being interviewed about her time doing ethnographic research with the Westboro Baptist Church.
WBC for short is a congregation in Kansas that spews hate filled rhetoric and protests daily against people and things that they believe are destroying this country. The list is long: Jews, Blacks, Amish, those who are outside of their small Topeka community. They are especially bigoted against those who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered.
They have picketed the funerals of Matthew Shepherd, the Amish girls who were killed while attending school, Elizabeth Edwards and they often appear protesting at the funerals of soldiers killed in action. The people of Westboro practice what can be termed hyper Calvinism; they believe in predestination to the extreme--that God has already decided who is in and who is not. And for some repentance is not an option...it is too late.That’s the rhetoric.
This “church” is led by Fred Phelps a disbarred civil rights attorney.The membership of the church consists of 9 of his 13 children and their families. Most records say there are somewhere between 70 to 100 members.
Why would a magazine that has as its mission the promotion of justice, life and peace feature an article about a group that is sooooo negative? The explanation according to the editor and I am paraphrasing is so those who sit on the edge of hateful rhetoric might be warned!.........................................
The bible tells us: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey God’s commandments.”...................
The most disturbing thing about this “so called” congregation is the presence of so many children; Phelps children and grandkids are taught this hate. I found this out watching a documentary titled “Fall from Grace” As these children are interviewed you see them holding signs and calling those outside of their small group Fags and Evil beast. They cannot, in the lest, explain why they believe what they believe, but the children can certainly recite the venomous party line.
The documentary also shows Phelps preaching; many of his sermons have as their subject obedience. One of the signs his group holds up in protest is OBEY OR PERISH! The members of WBC do what they do because they believe they are following the commandment of God. To obey God to Fred Phelps and his followers is to condemn, criticize, ostracize and shame people, but God’s command that we hear this morning is a command to bear the fruits of love.
Jesus says: “If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commandments and abide in his love. This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you.”.....................
But following Jesus’ commandment is hard. It takes an act of will to love as Jesus loves; it takes obedience.....................
While Westboro Baptist Church’s rhetoric is extreme we hear such ideas about who is condemned, who is in or out, who is entitled to rights and freedoms and who is disenfranchised all the time. It doesn’t matter if we lean to the right or left as people--we human beings-- always want to say who is good and who is bad, who has the correct opinion and who is incorrect. It is hard for us to love all the people of God all the time.
We are especially tempted to delineate the in groups and out groups, the good and bad, when our economy is in the tank, when banks fail, when all we hear is bitter political rhetoric, when circumstances and situations in our lives seem precarious. Sometimes we speak of the other with venom and hatefulness.This hatefulness whether from Phelps or from our own lips stems from fear.
Fear about our own place in the world-fear that we will be left out-fear that our status and well being will be threatened-fear that we won’t be accepted, included, loved. But we have heard in this season of Easter that “perfect love casts out fear.” Love, acceptance, and inclusion, is what we hear in all of our text for today.
In Acts, we hear the change leading to inclusion that happens in the minds of those first disciples. While once they were arguing about making those who were different subject to conditions to enter their group.----Once they believen that gentiles who would be part of their crowd needed to be circumcised, but here, because of what they have witnessed through the Holy Spirit there has been a reversal---Peter asks: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
Peter realizes that he doesn’t want to be the one who has to decide who is right or wrong, but with the urging of the Holy Spirit Peter errs on the side of love and, welcomes “even these gentiles” into the community through water and the word. Phelps thinks he is being obedient as he spews hate. Peter believes he is being obedient when he acts from the urging of the Holy Spirit. We believe that we are being obedient when we hear and respond to God’s commandment to love!
Is our obedient act of love-- really loving?
Does it benefit someone besides ourselves?
Does it lift up others?
Does it help us grow into the people God is calling us to be?
How can we know? Perhaps we might look in the bible not just for laws and commands of what we should or must do but ways in which we believe Jesus might respond. We might look to our own experiences and decide how we would want to be treated. We might look around at our context and community and ask those we are about to criticize, ostracize or leave out how they will be affected. And in all we do when it comes to exclusion and humiliation we might err on the side of love.........
The sad thing about Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church is that they have created a small narrow world to live in. While talking about an all determining all powerful God, that smites and condemns, they have in the same breath limited the width, the depth and the breath of God’s,mercy God’s forgiveness and God’s love. They haven’t realized that when Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross that his arms were opened wide enough to encircle the entire world.
A pastor being interviewed for the documentary about WBC said that Phelps was one of those people--one of those children of God--that needed love the most, but deserved it the lest. . .And so are we. We are sinners in need of God’s love. Thanks be to God we don’t get what we deserve. What we get is God’s unmerited, unconditional love......
And so we hear the story of Westboro Baptist Church. From the tone of the conversation we can see that Professor Barlett-Fox believes that what the people of this family congregation do is awful. But she is able to seperate the actions from the people. She looks at the children and believes: “There is hope here for transformation.” We even have evidence in scripture. Saul who once stoned followers of Jesus became Paul and Peter adamantly against the gentiles changes his mind.
Transformation or not, the people of Westboro Baptist Church are those who God loves no matter what they think, no matter what they do. All those who WBC condemns, Jews, Blacks, Amish, LGBT are also those who God loves; as are we:
No matter our perfection or imperfection, no matter our right behavior or wrong behavior, no matter our good or bad, no matter our sins, no matter our flaws we are those who God loves. In this we have faith and this faith that is grounded in God’s love conquers the world!!!