43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor[ and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same?48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
1 John 4:16b-20
16 We have known and have believed the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. 17 This is how love has been perfected in us, so that we can have confidence on the Judgment Day, because we are exactly the same as God is in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. 19 We love because God first loved us. 20 If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen.
We are in a sermon series called “Unafraid” where we are examining some of the most common fears of Americans today, and how our faith can enhance practical advice from the care community to help free us from the fears, worries and anxieties that rob of our joy and steal our peace. Today we are focusing on the fear of others. We learned in the first week that our brains are designed with a kind of “alarm system” to alert us to danger, which releases hormones that trigger the “fight or flight” response. And that the purpose of fear is to keep us safe. But that our complex minds and our rich imaginations can sometimes trigger this fear response when there is no actual danger. One of the most common fears that we would categorize as an unhealthy or imagined fear is the fear of the Other, a fear which has been perpetuated by the media and fear-mongering tactics of politicians. As humans, our fears of those who are not like us may extend to differences of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and even socio-economic status. And so today, we find ourselves in one of the most divisive and polarized eras in modern American history.
In November, new statistics were released that show a 17 percent increase in documented hate crimes in 2017, the third consecutive year in which hate crimes have risen across the United States. Not only did hate crimes rise altogether, but there were notable increases in anti-Hispanic and anti-Semitic crimes. Anti-black crimes also substantially outpaced all other race-based hate crimes, according to the 2017 Federal hate crime statistics. Hate crimes, by their very nature, are acts of violence perpetrated against someone the perpetrator deems “other than.” This fear of the ‘other’ has reached a point in our country where we are seeing a sharp rise in hate crimes, even while the national crime rate has declined substantially since the early 1990’s.
In response to this phenomenon, retired United Methodist Pastor and Bishop Will Willimon released a book last year entitled, Fear of the Other. In his introduction he writes, “Thanks to fellow Christians Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. If not for them, I would not have been asked to write this book. I’m serious. Competing attempts among politicians to leverage our fear of others into votes for them led to the idea of a book that thinks as Christians about the Other. Let the politicians do what they must to be elected by people like us, though I think they are selling us short. My job is not to worry about opinion polls, or what nine out of ten Americans can swallow without choking. My peculiar vocation is to help the church think like Christians so that we might be given the grace to act like Jesus.” (Willimon, William H.. Fear of the Other . Abingdon Press.)
Let me start by sharing that I feel an overwhelming responsibility to speak about the fears that seem to have gripped our nation’s imaginations, especially those of us who seek to follow the Way of Jesus, and that have caused real harm in our relationships with others. I think Church ought to be the very first place where we can say out loud what we see is going wrong in our lives and in our world, and then to courageously ask Jesus to send his Spirit of Truth to open our minds and hearts so that we can know how to respond in love.
So let me just share with you where my heart is on this issue of fear of the Other. Right now in America, our government is enduring its longest shutdown in American history because the president is demanding millions of dollars for a southern border wall, which doesn’t have American or congressional support. This is just another in a series of fear tactics, such as separating children from their families, aimed at curbing the number of brown-skinned immigrants that cross our Southern U.S. border. On Friday, a group of mostly white teen men wearing “Make America Great Again” hats confronted, intimidated and publicly taunted a Native American man in Washington D.C. while he was peacefully participating in an Indigenous People’s March. And next month, our denomination will convene a special General Session to determine if we can stay united as a church while disagreeing over the theology of human sexuality. Border security, intimidation and harassment, and legislating our interpretation of morality… these are signs of our fears. When we are uncomfortable with someone’s differences and allow those differences, along with whatever the news or politicians tell us, we allow our discomfort to turn to fear. And then, in response to that fear, we go to extraordinary measures to feel secure again. So we put up walls, we may invest in rifles and handguns or martial arts; we may demonize or dehumanize with our words, using slurs or insults that make us feel more powerful; and we make judgements that allow us to feel morally superior, and point our fingers at others, and shun and shame them. You see, when we let our fears of others take control, we almost never make good decisions about our behavior towards those whom we fear.
Growing up in Mississippi in the 70’s and 80’s, I was well-versed in the attitudes of white supremacy, even as my generation – the first generation born after the civil rights movement – tried to live out the ideals of equality. And maybe that’s why I am so passionate about the ideals of justice and equality in America. My generation had the opportunity to live differently than our parents and grandparents, because we were born in a new era, with new opportunities for everyone. But some fears, like racial fears, are harder to deal with than others.
In the book, Unafraid, Pastor Adam Hamilton writes about his own experience of growing up on one side of Kansas City and being taught that bad things happen to white people who venture into the other side. As an adult, he has had conversations with African Americans who grew up on that ‘other’ side of the city who remember being warned similarly, that to go into the other side of the city could be dangerous for them. And so another generation grew up being fearful of those who were of a different race, not because of anything they themselves experienced, but because of what they were told. And how much of our fears toward others today come from what we’re told by news outlets? You know, I think we forget that in order for something to make the news, that means it is news-worthy; in other words, uncommon, out of the ordinary, an anomaly. But the 24-hour news cycle keeps it ever present as if it is the most likely thing to happen in the world, and we lose our perspective. Whether we’re afraid of crime or terrorist attacks or the loss of our own economic security, the facts tell us that our fears are largely unfounded. Did you know that after heart disease, the second leading cause of death for Americans is medical error? But I don’t hear of many leading news stories or political platforms stoking our fear of French fries or hospitals…
So here are some questions for you to consider today: What differences between you and others make you the most fearful? Is it race, religion, politics, lifestyle? Do you fear Terrorists? Mexicans? Homosexuals? Hillary? The FBI? Trump? And in light of these fears, are you doing all you can to educate yourself about these fears, or are you indulging them by choosing to listen to and converse with those who share your same fear? Fake news is a phrase that’s tossed around a lot these days, but it isn’t really a new concept. Do any of you remember the first days of email, when you would be forwarded a really outrageous ‘news’ story, that had already been circulated five or six times before it got to you? Now, anything you click on the internet has the potential to be the same sort of ‘spam’ – something created just to get a ‘rise’ out of people, and not based on real facts or events. This may be a surprise to some of you, but did you know that you can choose your own news source these days that will support your own political leanings?? How can it be that we have news outlets that report the exact opposite ‘spin’ on events? (I’ve give you a hint: it means that neither one of them are telling you the whole truth!)
In the care community, one therapeutic tool for dealing with our fears of others, especially when we generalize our fears to certain people groups, is a method called “cognitive restructuring.” In the recovery community, they refer to this as eliminating stinkin’ thinkin’ by confronting our fears with factual information that refutes these fears. Cognitive restructuring begins by unpacking what it is that is creating the greatest fear for you. These are sometimes identified as Automatic Thoughts, convictions or tapes you play in your head, things you have come to accept as true about yourself, others or the world. Often these thoughts are distortions of reality. This includes either-or, black and white thinking, catastrophizing, jumping to conclusions, or assuming the worst.
An important part of this therapeutic method is to hold any horrible, frightening story or thought with a grain of skepticism. The next step is to research and seek to discover if the thing you’ve heard that has you upset is actually true. From there you begin to develop a way of reminding yourself that the thought that scares you is not in fact true. Eventually, using this method, you retrain your “stinkin-thinkin” and conquer your fears.
Here’s an example of how this might work: many Americans today say that they believe violent crime is on the rise, and that they are more likely to be a victim of violent crime today than they were 10 years ago. But according to the FBI and the Justice Department statistics, violent crime has decreased a lot over the last fifteen years, nearly 50%. That one piece of information on its own may make you feel differently. But then you have to be able to internalize this and retrain your thinking. For instance, the most likely victim of a violent crime today, according to the Justice Department, is a poor black man living in the inner city, not an elderly suburbanite.
Fear, if left unchecked, can create enemies out of those who we consider ‘other.’ But this is not God’s will for us. In the Old Testament, the people of God had taken God’s ten commandments and extrapolated them into a moral code of 613 laws. Some of these laws allowed for vengeance and retribution on one’s enemies. Jesus referred to these in his sermon on the mount, which where our scripture reading from Matthew comes. In it Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven… Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Other translations say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The Greek word for ‘complete’ and ‘perfect’ is telos, implies maturing, or growing to completion, or reaching its intended outcome. Our intended purposes then, as children of God, is to reach this level of complete and perfect love for others. A love that is the reflection of the love that is shared in the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I’ve had the privilege of having some one-on-one conversations with others over the past few weeks about faith, and what it means to live as a follower of Jesus in this messed-up and divided world. My husband is in Mexico this week for a business meeting, and his first text message to me after letting me know his plan had landed was, “Having a moral crises over the haves, the have-nots, and excess living right now.” It reminded me of a conversation recently with someone else who had been in Mexico recently and had seen the desperation on the faces of some who were living in deep poverty. And this person explained how they had been haunted by those faces and their inability to do anything about it at the time. Here’s what I think. I think that when we see someone and recognize their need, and are moved with compassion, then I think we have seen them with the eyes of God. And, I also believe that being able to truly see another person, to see their humanness and vulnerability, means that we have seen Christ in them. And when we allow God’s Spirit to move through us, to give us eyes to see others as Christ sees them – and when we are able to recognize Christ as the stranger, as the hungry, as the outcast, as the person whose skin is a different color than ours, then the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is the relationship we are created from – the relationship of God the Creator, Jesus the Christ, and Holy Spirit – the Trinity which is Love. And this is the relationship we are created for.
The scripture reading in 1 John 4 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.” (vs. 18) As followers of Jesus Christ, as children of the God of Love – our purpose is to love others as ourselves. Not necessarily ‘as much as’ ourselves, but as an extension of ourselves – as one in Christ. We are all connected to each other through a loving God who “makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.” No matter who it is that you voted for, when it comes to racial justice or the humane treatment of those fleeing war and genocide; when it comes to teens taking their own lives rather than face being disowned by their families and churches; when it comes to food and economic insecurity and homelessness, our purpose is to love. Not to judge, not to exclude, not to alienate or demonize, but to love.
Our cognitive restructuring can help with this, as well. If this ethic of love sounds too high-minded to be of much practical use, we can start by asking one very concrete question: “In the situation I find myself in, what is the most loving thing that I can do?” We can center our minds on the love we receive from Christ, and then pray for God to fill us so full of that love in order to lead us to a loving response to a particular situation or fear. One way to make this part of your daily spiritual practice is a meditation exercise on the Loving Gaze of God. I’m going to lead you through this now, so find a comfortable position and take three slow, deep breaths.
Now, try to imagine the face of God. For you it may look like the face of someone who loves you tremendously, or it may be helpful to imagine the face of Jesus as you’ve seen it depicted in paintings. Once you have an image in your mind, imagine that face beaming at you with eyes of love. It may look similar to images you’ve seen of a parent holding a newborn. This is the way God looks at you. Like a beaming, proud parent. In the safety of that loving gaze—as God takes a long, loving look at us—we can grow courageous enough and hopeful enough to look honestly at our particular problems, hurts, fears or dreams. In learning how to contemplate God’s love for us, we learn how to look at one another and at the whole of God’s creation with God’s eyes of love.
Tomorrow is the day that we celebrate the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He believed in the possibility of the Beloved Community – in all of God’s children one day realizing what it means to live out of agape love for one another, out of a perfect love that casts out fear. In 1957, he famously said, “But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”