"OTHER" - I John 4:7f from February 26, 2017

Alex Evans on February 26, 2017

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 33-34; I John 4:7-21 (selections)


            What kind of people are we seeking to become?

            This is a sincere question. It is surely a pervasive question for people of faith. What kind of people are we seeking to become?

            I hope all of us are striving more and more to be people who trust God and serve God. I hope we are all seeking always to be more Christian, more loving, more faithful in how we live.

            The kind of people we become has a lot to do with how we see the world around us. Do we see the world more as a place where God is at work and love can prosper, . . .  or as a place of fear, such that we have to protect ourselves and our interests? Do we see our surroundings  - both people and circumstances – as opportunities for compassion and kindness, . . . or as a threat or challenge to our existence?

It matters how we see the world around us.

The renowned ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr went so far as to say that the first question of ethics is not “What is right?” or even “What is good?” but rather “What is going on?”  What is going on around us? How do we see God acting in the world, and what kind of people are we seeking to become? Niebuhr recognized that it is increasingly hard for people to see God at work in the world. If you cannot see God at work in the world it is easy to be discouraged. If you cannot see God present in life, anxiety grows and fears grow.

In a culture of fear, the short answer to “what is going on?” is “we are at risk,” or “we are in danger.” And when we accept that answer as our dominant description of the world, our lives will be shaped mostly by self-preservation. Our vision becomes tunnel vision. Fear becomes the ambient background to our lives rather that a life striving to trust God and serve God. Anxiety and caution assume prominence in our hearts; and before we know it we have wandered a long way from God and God’s ways, from following Jesus and living as disciples. (see Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, p. 26-27)

Whenever we gather in this historic and sacred sanctuary, we are seeking to become the loving, trusting, serving people of God. For generations, people have gathered here to sing and pray, to worship and serve – seeking to become God’s people, to spread God’s love in this city and across the world. And we can only be effective as God’s people as we deal with what is going on around us – in our place, in our time.

Today, our Word of the Week is OTHER.

And here is what seems to be going on around us – a growing FEAR OF THE OTHER. We can even use the familiar word from the Greek – XENOPHOBIA – Fear of the other, or fear of stranger, or foreigner.

Xenophobia – we can affirm - is both historical and biological.

Human beings have a long history of struggling with THE OTHER. We seem to have an innate inclination to recognize differences – even create differences and distinctions - instead of commonalities. Wars and genocide, boundaries and laws, racist attitudes and mores have emerged because of our differences. This has been our shameful history.

            Xenophobia is also biological. Neuroscientists can demonstrate how our brains constantly judge whether the events or persons we encounter will hurt us or help us, appear as a threat or a reward. When we encounter a stranger, the central and powerful core of our brains – which has been functioning this way for millions of years – enables us to determine whether a person is a possible reward or a possible threat, which inclines us to move toward or move away. Scientists know that encounters with strangers demand more brain work than meetings with people who are familiar. In fact, the neurological response to danger comes upon us faster, and with more intensity, and is difficult to displace. Clearly, this response to danger exists in us for self-preservation. Thanks to millions of years of conditioning, we have learned to move cautiously toward Others who may potentially reward us. We have learned to run away from Others who may cause us harm. (see W. Willimon, Fear of the Other, p. 23)

            But while Xenophobia remains both historical and biological, it is also very much a contemporary issue. You know the current themes: keep immigrants out, round aliens up, change the rules about transgender people, and more. So what we want to explore today is what the Scriptures say about this topic – OTHER. While xenophobia – fear of the other - is historical and biological, God gives us the will, the capacity, the CALLING to embrace, to welcome, to love the OTHER – the xenos, the stranger, the alien among us.

            What kind of people are we becoming, and what should guide us?

            Early on, within the first few generations in covenant with God, as we heard today from Leviticus, God explicitly commands the people “to love the immigrant as yourself,” to love the alien in your midst, not to cheat them, not to abuse them, not to chase them away. You are to treat them as a citizen among you, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

            God shows us a way that runs counter to history. God expects a life counter to biology. God calls us, expects us to live a certain way: do not oppress them. Do not fear them. Love them, for you were aliens once too.

Jesus echoes this same message: “I was a stranger (xenos), and you welcomed me. In welcoming strangers, in welcoming the OTHER, . . . we welcome Jesus.

            God is always calling us to something more, something better, something beyond our biological or genetic heritage. God is always trying to get us to a better, more wholesome, hopeful place. God is always trying to move us to more faith, more love, more life. It is not in fear, but in faith. It is not in walls, but in bridges. It is not in oppressing others or minimizing others or squashing the rights of others, but in love, justice, kindness, welcome of others - hospitality.

            Listen to these words from I John 4:

7Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . . 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, . . .

17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            When we hear these words, and think about whether we live by faith or fear, whether we live with love or suspicion of others, we forget how very much is at stake. We tend to fear the Other more than we fear the God who commands “Love each other.” Love has been perfected in us, that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as God is in us, so are we in this world – we love as God loves us.

            What kind of people are we seeking to become?

            God calls us to love one another. God is expecting us to welcome one another. This is the way of faith and discipleship.

Ginger and I both have been reading the book, Waking Up White. This is a personal memoir by a woman named Debby Irving. Waking Up White has also been highly recommended reading for these days by the current Co-Moderators of the PCUSA. They are urging every Presbyterian to read this book. The book is confessional – a jolting and continuing journey from white oblivion to white awareness. Our 20 & 30’s young adult group is reading this book this spring. We are trying to plan a Church School class on this thoughtful book for the fall.

Debby Irving grew up with distinctive but familiar white privilege in CT. She saw herself as “a good person.” She was progressive, engaged in community life, and would have been insulted if anyone called her a racist. Then she had a number of experiences that put her on another journey - to be more honest, to step out of her comfort zone, to confront her deep seated prejudices, to realize how racism holds all of us captive in ways we cannot even imagine. Waking Up White is one person’s attempt to find healing, wholeness, and liberation for her life, and her attempt to help all of us with this systemic issue.

Irving shares lots of very personal stories. One of these stories includes some of the final moments she shared with her father, who lived in a nursing home. Her father’s final years of life were full of increasing depression and regret, which was so difficult for Debby to watch. She writes that his blue eyes became dull and his once animated brows sagged. She would ask her dad, “are you okay?” He would always say he was – “depression wasn’t in the family lexicon.” So they would make small-talk instead.

But when this mood persisted, she leaned in and prodded him. “Dad, . . . what is bothering you?” After a long pause, he confessed, “I didn’t do enough.”

Like we often do, especially in those moments, Debby shot back: “That’s ridiculous. You filled every minute of everyday. You are the most hard-working person I know.” But after a long silence, he responded: “I don’t mean that,” he said in a half-whisper. “I mean I could have helped people who really needed it.” And he turned away.

Debby writes that she cannot know for sure what he was thinking about or referencing. But it could well have involved an episode in the 1970’s that gave her a glimpse of the conflict in his heart. One evening she walked into the room to get help on a math assignment – she was maybe 10 years old. Her parents were fretting and consoling each other. Her dad had his face in his hands. Her mother was sitting closely, encouraging and caressing him. The parents did not notice Debby in the doorway so they kept talking. She heard something about “a good family,” and “an impossible situation,” and “makes me sick because this is not right.”

Debby spoke up and asked what they were talking about – “nothing; your father had a hard day at work,” he mother replied.

She did not buy it, and pestered them. Then she learned it was about a Jewish family that had applied to the country club and the board was divided about whether to let them in.

“Do I know them?” she asked. “And what does being Jewish have to do with anything?”

“It’s complicated, Debby.” And her father walked away in silence.

Choosing to take a stand,  . . . or acquiescing to the group – that breeds conflict and can generates heartache and regret. Was it just one incident? Was this a pattern? At the end of his life, he looked back with depression, regret, and a sense of failure?

Reach out in faith – love the other, welcome the other? . . . . Or be led by fear, fear of losing friends, fear of taking a stand?

“I did not do enough,” he said.

And that was Debby’s final conversation with her dad – he died the next day from a pulmonary embolism that seized his broken heart. (see D. Irving, Waking Up White, p. 248)

It is so easy to fall into historical, or biological, or cultural ways of living. It is so easy to justify the things that become part of our life and part of our world. Yet the Scriptures teach us: “beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God. . . . Perfect love casts out fear;  those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

What kind of people are we seeking to become?

We are always seeking to learn and grow into loveliness. Beloved, let us love one another, and welcome the OTHER. When we are growing in loveliness, we begin to foster tenderness – for our own situations and the situations of others. Growing in loveliness and tenderness finds room for others, - THE OTHER. Growing in loveliness and tenderness means we engage the OTHER – we live by faith, not fear; move toward welcome not walls; seek bridges not barriers. This is the heart of the matter, isn’t it? Beloved, let us love one another and so promote the peace and light, the love and joy of Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to stand with you, to love and serve – that is to abide forever. We seek that way following Jesus Christ. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship in the Sanctuary on February 26, 2017. This is a rough manuscript.