My message for Winston Salem Friends Meeting on this All Saints Day…
Below is the message I gave at our college Christmas Candlelight service last week.
Faith communities across North Carolina this weekend are coming together for a special focus in worship services. The North Carolina Council of Churches, working with other non-Christian faith communities, are focusing on this one theme – Love One Another. Every major religion in the world has at its heart the message that we should treat each other the way we want to be treated. So the idea of loving one another comes naturally from this foundational message.
Love one another.
What better way to share the Christmas story than to talk about loving one another? This message is especially critical for us in our society today. Our country is greatly divided. Hate incidents and crimes have spiked dramatically in recent weeks, occurring to people I know personally, and people who sit in this congregation. What is supposed to be a time of great joy with the Holiday season, is instead for many a time of pain, anger, anxiety, and sadness due to the hate-filled division dominating our culture.
Jesus, the baby whose birth we honor today, was born into a time and place of violence, and a society filled with religious and racial and cultural divisions. Born into poverty to two very unimportant people, his family soon fled as refugees to escape the genocide of male children by an unstable ruler.
Yet, in spite of the danger and uncertainty of his time, Jesus brought together people across lines of division from the very beginning. One of our scriptures today tells of a time when the wolf will live peacefully with the lamb. This is a sign which indicates that the light of God’s kingdom is breaking through on earth.
At Jesus’ birth, this Jewish baby had shepherds who visited – men who were on the fringes of society and living out in the fields with the sheep. The average person didn’t want to associate with a smelly shepherd who couldn’t find a better way to make a living.
At Jesus’ birth, the Magi from Persia came with gifts of great monetary value. These non-Jewish leaders, men of great wealth and power in their homeland, gathered with the castaways from society to honor a baby born into poverty in a stable.
At Jesus’ birth, animals were present, welcoming the child into their home in the stable, and signifying that all God’s creation is meant to be united in love and community – the poor, the outcasts, the wealthy, Jew and non-Jew alike, the most vulnerable of creation.
It was certainly a feast of Love at the first Christmas.
What does this mean for us today? When we focus on loving one another, I am absolutely not saying – Just be nice to each other. That is superficial and meaningless. It reminds me of that phrase I often heard growing up in the South, “Bless her heart.” Now it sounds innocuous on the surface, but my mom always said people really meant, “Bless her pointed little head.” – It meant being nice to someone’s face, but disdaining who she truly is. It placed the person as “the other,” separated from ourselves where we lived in a place of privilege and power.
Truly loving one another is not just “being nice.”
Love is the most wonderful and life-giving thing in this world – but we all know that what means the most in this world are the things for which we have to work the hardest.
Something I appreciate about working in the heart of Salem is the Moravian Motto – “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”
This doesn’t mean we gloss over injustice or try to “be nice” – it means we do our dead level best to find ways to respect, engage, and encounter the other person as a child of God. There is not one person on earth with whom we will agree 100%, and sometimes we will find our disagreements are so big that relating to the other person seems impossible. Liberty in non-essentials can be a major challenge. And if we don’t agree on what is an essential or non-essential, it becomes even more difficult. There are no easy answers in trying to figure out how to engage and be in community across what feels like as essential to us. It takes commitment to that relationship with the other person. It takes patience. It takes grace.
This is not easy, but we are always meant to reach out in love – no matter how the other person responds. Loving another can be tough – parents knows we have to provide tough love on occasion for our children. There are times we have to speak words of truth and justice, which the other person may not want to hear. And Love doesn’t mean we always like the other person. Love takes a whole lot of hard work. It takes a generosity of spirit in being in community with that person, trying to understand that person’s point of view. And the more abhorrent or foreign that view seems, the more important to respect them and remain in community together.
Now in the end, love is all we really have, isn’t it? There is far too much hate in the world today – hate which will consume each one of us if we let it. There are far too many people spewing words of division at each other. There are far too many loud voices not respecting the humanity in others.
Love is all we really have, isn’t it? Jesus was love – his life was about loving others – each and every person – and it threatened the establishment so much that the people in power decided to execute him. But that didn’t stop his love. And it didn’t stop millions of people over the centuries being inspired by his example and reaching out in love to others, no matter the consequences. And not just Christians. People of other faiths – Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and others – see him as a great teacher with a prophetic message who has shown us a better way to live.
So I say to you today – go forth and love each other. It’s often not easy. And when it’s not easy – that’s when it is the most important. It will be the most challenging and difficult thing we do in our lives. But it will definitely be the thing that makes us the most fully human, and that makes us most filled with the Divine.
It will be that which makes life worthwhile.
Go forth and love.
November 8, 2016. Church historians will teach about this date in future years. Scholars will explore how the 50 year decline of mainline Christianity had the coffin slammed shut on that day. This is a clear and obvious demarcation of one era to the next. As with any big changes in society or institutions, the writing had been on the wall with the slow slide towards death. A serious episode of illness took place with the advent of the “Moral Majority,” but the movement of evangelicals for Trump was the final death blow.
Now I would argue that America has never been a “Christian” nation as some have claimed. The “founding fathers” were all Deist, believing that Jesus was not divine and that God simply set creation into motion and never intervened. While the Puritans pontificated about this new land being a city on a hill and a light for all nations, the Quakers opened their doors for people of all faiths. It was this mentality that won out in the formation of the new country – church and state were separate. And before anyone starts exclaiming about the Pledge of Allegiance (“under God”) and our coinage (“in God we trust”), please know these phrases were added in the 1950s under the watchful eye of Joseph McCarthy.
Yet, those who have often insisted on America being a Christian nation have been the very ones to vote into office a man who has not only no understanding of Christianity, but also no understanding of basic morality. He bragged of sexual assault and control over women, and dismissed it as something any man would say. He mocked a reporter who is differently abled. He condemned people based upon race, and lumped them together as the worst sort of people (criminals, rapists). He proclaimed a major world religion (and an Abrahamic one which shares beliefs with Christianity) as full of terrorists.
Since his election, incidents against women and people of color have sky-rocketed across the country. My own students are dealing with strangers and hate incidents which could never be misconstrued as Christian. These perfect strangers feel they have the right to act in these hateful and threatening ways, because they are simply following in the footsteps of their President-elect. These are not the footsteps of Jesus.
There were large numbers of Christians who spoke out against the amorality of our future President, including evangelical leaders. I pray they will continue to try and let their voices be heard. We cannot idly sit by and let people of color, women, and non-Christians be treated in this manner.
Yet, even more people will see the fault in Christianity, and believe that a secular humanism is more compassionate, life-giving, and loving. And I cannot fault them. I work every day with young adults, many of whom are not just “nones” (growing up with no religious affiliation), but are also “dones” (done with Christian affiliation after damaging experiences in churches). The many nones and dones I encounter on a regular basis act far more like Jesus than many people who openly proclaim to follow him.
“Christian America” is dead. And I’m fine with that. It doesn’t mean that the Spirit of justice, compassion, truth, kindness, understanding, and love is not flowing throughout our land. It just means that it isn’t to be found in some of the places where people talk about a Christian agenda most loudly.