Friday, September 11, 2009

Pre-emptive Love

The following is the homily I gave in chapel today:
Scripture References:
Psalm 51:10-13
10 Create in me a clean heart O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

Ezekiel 36:26
26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

Matthew 5:43-48
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, 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.

It's been 8 years since September 11, 2001, a day that most of us will never forget. For this generation, there will always be "what I was doing when we were attacked" stories, much like the generation of the 60s has "what I was doing when President Kennedy was shot" stories. Some people in this room were only 10 or 11 years old when those planes were flown into the twin towers and the pentagon. I remember hearing that in the days and weeks following the attacks, people attended church in record numbers, more Bibles were bought more than at any other time, and pastors everywhere scrambled to rearrange already-planned sermons to deal with what had happened. Philosophical questions and discussions about how to deal with evil were now a reality.
Something I wonder about, when it comes to people who attack without being provoked, who have so little regard for human life that they have no problem taking it away, is what has happened to them to harden their hearts so much?
I believe in God's love. I believe that Jesus can change people's hearts. But how are they to know without being told? And it isn't that all it takes is some sales pitch of the Gospel. It's not telling someone "Jesus loves you; now say this special little prayer". It is so much more than that. It is our responsibility as Christians to continually show that love to people—anyone and everyone. I remember hearing in a sermon once that "sometimes, people can only know Jesus Christ through you". We are not to just tell people about Jesus; as the Body of Christ, we are to be Jesus to people. It is especially important to know that it takes time to break down barriers and develop relationships. A person's heart did not become stone overnight, and in the same way, it will not return to flesh overnight.
I want to read you a story from Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, two United Methodist Church pastors, about a time when the U.S. bombed Libya. I'll be honest with you—as I read this story myself, I had no idea what the event was all about; it's something that happened when I was a child and I am sure I had no idea it was even happening. But the event itself is not the most important part of the story; the important part is the authors' comment towards the end. They write:
The overriding political task of the church is to be the community of the cross.
Sometime ago, when the United States bombed military and civilian targets in Libya, a debate raged concerning the morality of that act. One of us witnessed an informal gathering of students who argued the morality of the bombing of Libya. Some thought it was immoral, others thought it was moral. At one point in the argument, one of the students turned and said, "Well, preacher, what do you think?"
I said that, as a Christian, I could never support bombing, particularly bombing of civilians, as an ethical act.
"That's just what we expected you to say," said another. That's typical of you Christians. Always on the high moral ground, aren't you? You get so upset when a terrorist guns down a little girl in an airport, but when President Reagan tries to set things right, you get indignant when a few Libyans get hurt."
The assumption seems to be that there are only two political options: Either conservative support of the administration, or liberal condemnation of the administration followed by efforts to let the U.N. handle it.
"You know, you have a point," I said. "What would be a Christian response to this?" Then I answered, right off the top of my head, "A Christian response might be that tomorrow morning The United Methodist Church announces that it is sending a thousand missionaries to Libya. We have discovered that it is fertile field for the gospel. We know how to send missionaries. Here is at least a traditional Christian response."
"You can't do that," said my adversary.
"Why?" I asked. "You tell me why."
"Because it's illegal to travel in Libya. President Reagan will not give you a visa to go there."
"No! That's not right," I said. "I'll admit that we can't go to Libya, but not because of President Reagan. We can't go there because we no longer have a church that produces people who can do something this bold. But we once did."
The authors take the church—that is, all believers in Jesus—to task for not having the courage to really be the church, to spread God's love and transformation in the most difficult of places. I'll be honest; I don't think I have that kind of courage, but I do know that I greatly admire it, and I know that it shows that as Christians, we have alternate avenues open to us to respond to terror and tragedy in ways that governments cannot.
Now, I want to read you another, more current story, that is told in Neil Cole's book Organic Church (Pages 209-209). I believe that this story is a kind of example of the point that Hauerwas and Willimon were making in Resident Aliens. Neil says:
In the days that followed September 11, 2001, Awakening Chapel was wrestling with how to respond to the threat of Muslim extremism and cells of terrorists. We figured if there was any group equipped to understand their strategy, it was an organic church multiplying movement. We understood that the attack was a spiritual strike. The terrorists were uttering prayers to their god as they flew the jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We figured that this called for a spiritual response. So we went to our knees in prayer that God would bring the truth of Christ's salvation to the Muslims in our city.
A couple of women in our church wanted to do more. They went looking for a pocket of people where they could meet Muslims. They found an Arabic restaurant in Southern California where many men would hang out and talk about things. They started going there, but it was suspicious to have two single women showing up to talk to these people. So one of them got a job there as a waitress.
They met a man named Ahmed, who was a Palestinian Muslim. He was intrigued by the women's faith and the discussions they would have. One evening he decided to come to their church and see for himself what this Christianity was like. Growing up, he had been told that Christians don't take their faith seriously. They don't pray much, they don't practice their religion, and they do not take the prophet Jesus seriously. What he found was quite different from this description. These people prayed. They worshipped. They loved each other and held one another accountable to live the Christian life fully.
Within a few weeks, he accepted Christ as His Lord—out loud, in front of everyone at the church. His was a radical conversion. He began to devour large portions of the Bible. He was baptized and led his cousin to Christ.
His cousin Mark was baptized and is now in a Life Transformation Group with me. Mark tells us how he secretly sought God his whole life, and finally God found him. God will use us if we make ourselves available to Him.
Today Ahmed is in Kosovo reaching out to Muslims. The girl who brought him to Christ, Allison, has pursued her call to reach out to Muslims and has moved to Amman, Jordan; she is involved in a mission there.
Imagine what would happen if God's entire Kingdom had responded to the events of September 11 in the same way. I believe we can do much more to counter terrorism with the spiritual weapons that are not of this world than with the arsenal deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The response of these women was far-reaching and positive; it didn't matter if they agreed or disagreed with the actions taken by the government because they had their own way in which to respond that was different and that was life-changing.
You might think it's too big a challenge. Or that you can't go to another country. Or that reaching many people is overwhelming. But the good news is that we don't have to reach everyone at once. We can reach our neighbor, our roommate, a professor. Anyone we come into contact with may have some pain in his or her heart that needs to be healed in order that his or her heart not turn to stone. We can follow the guidance in all of the scripture passages that we read this morning. We can be instruments in helping sinners return to God, like the psalmist aspires to do. We can love the people that we think are unlovable.
But we must make sure that our hearts are in the right place too. The anger, bitterness, despair that we face also needs to be cleansed and healed. Our hearts are just as much in danger of becoming hard as anyone else's. When we act judgmental towards another, when we act without compassion, when we think of anyone else as less than ourselves we are in danger of hardening our hearts. But both our lessons from the Psalms and Ezekiel teach us that God can change our hearts. And it isn't some magical thing, though I do believe that people can have experiences that change them. But sometimes, we need to continually practice certain actions in order for it to work. The examples set forth by Jesus and Paul in our New Testament scriptures are some of those things that we can do. In the scripture from Matthew, we're given the instruction that we are to be perfect in our love, just as our heavenly father is perfect in His love. Being perfect might feel hard to live up to, but word used here, teleioi (te,leioi), also means complete or whole—or even mature. If we look at it that way, it's less of a measuring stick to gauge how good we are at love and more of a big picture example of what love looks and feels like, that love is all-encompassing and unlimited.
Would you now please stand and sing "Create in Me A Clean Heart", and not only sing the words, but allow God to do what we are asking Him to do in this song in order that we may be healed and that we may then help to bring healing to the hearts of others as well.

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