13 Pentecost A—9/3/17
Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:19-21; Matthew 16:21-28
Pr. Scott Kramer
In the September issue of National Geographic magazine is a short interview with Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States. This month’s issue is dedicated to the “Science of Addiction” and Murthy was asked what it means to be healthy, and he speaks specifically about emotional health:
I am deeply concerned about the level of stress that our country is experiencing…I have long believed that there are fundamentally two forces or emotions that drive our decisions: love and fear. Love has its many manifestations: compassion, gratitude, kindness and joy. Fear often manifests cynicism, anger, jealousy, and anxiety. I worry that many of our communities are being driven by fear.
Love and fear. Today’s second reading returns our attention to love. This is our Christian reason for being—and not just our Christian but our human reason for being: our lives are to be signs of God’s unconditional love for all people. In his letter to the church in Rome, St. Paul writes:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…extend hospitality to strangers…if your enemies are hungry, feed them…And Paul concludes with these words: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
It’s a tall order! God’s love by definition pushes back against our fear-filled human instincts toward self-preservation. The kind of unconditional love to which we are called, in fact, is possible only by the grace and power of God.
Since last fall’s election there’s been a lot of coverage in the news about hate groups. Those of you who lived through WWII, did you ever think you’d live to see the Nazi swastika paraded openly and proudly through the main streets of America? Did you ever think you’d live to see a President who seems okay with that? But what concerns me is not so much those whose lives have obviously become, as Paul writes, “overcome by evil”—what concerns me more is those ordinary millions of people whose lives have been overcome by fear.
The former Surgeon General may or may not be a Christian, but he’s preaching the Gospel! 1 John 4:18 teaches that “Perfect love casts out fear.” Our Christian work is to courageously examine our own hearts to discern where we have been overcome not by love but by fear. According to our scriptures, the opposite of love is not hate, but fear!
It’s not hate groups that are the main problem in our land. It’s not even the White House, which has given comfort and encouragement to such groups. Often as not, hate is a symptom of fear. Last fall’s election is the story of a nation caving in to fear, failing to choose love as its highest priority.
Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. We are, after all, human beings—no better and no worse than anyone else who’s ever lived. Each one of us is daily tempted to allow our lives to be organized around fear.
Even the great Moses, for example, had to confront his fears. In today’s story from Exodus, Moses has a strange vision of an encounter with the Living God. In the middle of the story, v.6, we learn that Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God! And why wouldn’t he be afraid? God was expecting big things from him, calling him to speak against wealth and power and privilege for the sake of people who were being oppressed.
You and I, every single one of us, has the power and opportunity to make choices every day between love…and fear. It’s so easy to fail without even realizing it!
In yesterday’s Seattle Times, for example, was a story that caught my attention. Jade O’Neil is a black woman who lives in the Central District of Seattle. Like Columbia City and other traditionally black or multi-cultural neighborhoods, the Central District is becoming gentrified, meaning that rich white people are moving in, forcing out poorer long-time residents. Here’s her recent experience:
Recently, I had an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. I stopped my car temporarily on 31st Avenue across from Leschi Elementary to answer a work-related message. I looked up and saw an SUV in the street blocking my car. I gestured to the driver, confused. I wasn’t blocking her driveway and there was room in front and behind my car for her to park. The driver left her car idling in the middle of the street and approached my window.
“Am I in your way? What’s going on?” I asked.
“Yes, you are. I live here.”
“I thought this was a public street? I could be waiting for my child.”
“Well, I have children, too. And I pay a shit ton of money to live here. You need to leave.”
I was shaken. I, too, live in this neighborhood. I lived on this very street. I learned to ride a bike here. My daughter plays at this playground. And yet, because I was a black woman, the other driver assumed I didn’t belong, and ordered me to leave.
I told her I didn’t want to argue, that her tone was uncalled for and disrespectful. I told her that, had I been “someone else,” she wouldn’t have approached my car angrily or asked me to leave. When she argued, I pointed out that she had left two young children in a car that was still running, in the middle of the street, and that I could not drive away until she moved it. “I’m sorry for cussing,” she said. “But I pay a lot of money to live here, and I just want you to move your car.”
She moved her car. I drove a few car-lengths away, pulled over, and broke down.
I’m a woman, a business owner, a voter and a mother. I, too, pay to live in the neighborhood (as if that matters). And I’m tired of having to remind people, much too frequently, that I’m black, but I’m a person, and that my life matters, too.
Love…or fear. It’s easy to demonize the white woman in this story, but this story is not as helpful if it fails to lead each of us to take stock of our own lives. Our scriptures call each of us, each day, into the very personal kind of encounter that Moses experienced. Coming face to face with the Living God and seeing what love looks like forces us to choose fear (hiding ourselves!)…or love; a human response, or, a Christ-like response.
In our reading from Matthew Jesus spells out what love looks like and its consequences for him. When Peter responds with denial and fear, Jesus responds harshly: Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.
The choice between love and fear is not for spiritual superstars; it is a choice required of ordinary folk like Peter, and you, and me. If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
We tend to blame the ills of our world on such impulses as greed and hate. But the deep wisdom of our tradition echoes the insights of Surgeon General Murthy. The crises of the world arise out of the ordinary decisions of ordinary people. The decisions of us ordinary people dailly tend to be choices between love…and fear.
In Egypt, Moses was a man of great power and privilege. In the end, for the sake of people without voice or power, Moses eventually overcame his fears. Today, and also for the sake of those in our world with no voice or power, followers of Jesus—especially white Christians–are called to cease hiding our faces from God’s love, to name our fears, and to take up the cross of Jesus, the power of love.