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Romans 12:2, 9-14
2 Corinthians 9:8-11, from The Message
Before the New York Times broke a story last week about the Trump administration’s latest plans to discriminate against transgender people, I had planned to share with you today the good news of our ever-extravagant, ever-creative, still-speaking God.
Before a Trump-loving, CNN-hating white man began mailing homemade bombs to some of the right wing’s favorite targets, I had planned to talk with you today about our generosity, and why, in my opinion, people like us should direct the lion’s share of our personal giving to the church.
Then, after the president’s cynical and deceitful strategy of dehumanizing and demonizing the Honduran families fleeing violence and poverty was laid bare in news reports—but before a white man gunned down two African Americans in a Kentucky grocery store—I had planned to think with you today about love and power and the vital role of the church in these troubling times.
I was going to talk about powers and principalities, and what it means to love our neighbors when so much of our politics, so much of our national discourse and public policy, seems to be based on fear and hatred. I had even considered using that four-letter word that begins with E. I was going to talk about what it means to be a “transformed nonconformist,” in the words of Dr. King, and encourage us to consider how Jesus and the early church showed us the way.
Yesterday morning, before an anti-Semite wielding an assault rifle stormed a synagogue in Mister Rogers’ Pittsburgh neighborhood, killing 11 worshipers and wounding six other people, I was thinking of beginning this sermon with the moving story of how poor Mexicans who live along the route of the so-called migrant caravan have been feeding and clothing and providing first aid to thousands of Hondurans. Given how the week had gone, I figured we all could use some heartwarming news.
Instead, I spent much of the afternoon and evening letting my heart be newly broken by the violence that we humans visit on one another. I called for prayers—even before we learned the scope of the massacre. I posted online statements of grief and support for our Jewish siblings, I emailed our local rabbis to express our support and offer our prayers, and I learned from a member of the Jewish Community of Amherst who is an active sanctuary volunteer that the Pittsburgh shooter had railed online against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. And so we conferred about whether to seek additional security for tomorrow evening’s talk on Jewish immigration.
And I prayed.
I considered anew what we all might need to hear this morning—what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ in these times, how to weep with those who are weeping, how to love God and all our neighbors, where to find hope, and what to do after the world, or at least ourcountry, seems to have gone mad.
I know many of us are putting a lot of hope in the midterm elections, now just a little more than a week away. I have great admiration and appreciation for those of you who invest your energies in making phone calls and knocking on doors to get out the vote. It heartens me to see how others of you are making sure everyone who wants to vote can—including getting absentee ballots for Diane Kelton and Bob Page because they won’t be able to go to the polls.
And I can’t say it strongly enough: VOTE. Voting can be love in action, another way of loving our neighbors. Voting is a statement that says we will not give up, and an expression of our faith in a God who loves this beautiful and broken world. Voting is also a matter of stewardship, a way to use our privilege to work for justice for those who face marginalization, discrimination, oppression, and danger because of who they are or where they were born.
And while voting, organizing, and activism are important tools in the struggle for justice, I do not believe that justice comes from laws alone. I do not believe that politics alone can save us from violence, inequality, climate change, hatred, or fear.
I believe we need love for that, and love comes from God. I believe that more that politicians and policies must be changed—that people, that we ourselves, must be transformed. I believe that inner transformation is a life-long process of surrender to the higher power of God’s never-failing love and unending mercy, a free and joyful giving of ourselves and what we have to people and missions beyond ourselves, a willingness to do the hard work of living with and loving others in close quarters, for the long haul.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
It’s a wonderful and inspiring statement, but I think it also falls somewhat short of the gospel truth. Because it takes more than thoughtfulness and commitment to change the world; it takes the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. It takes the vision, unity, love, generosity, and commitment of people who have themselves been changed. And love is what heals and changes us; it is relationship and connection that saves us.
This is why, here at First Church Amherst, when we become members of the church we proclaim a version of the same covenant that Congregationalists have been professing and entering for almost 400 years now. We say:
We covenant with God and one with another and, here in God’s presence, do bind ourselves to walk together in all God’s ways, as they are revealed to us by God’s still-speaking Spirit.
Then, after a new member has entered into that covenant with God and with us, we respond with joy and thanksgiving, proclaiming our congregational covenant with them, saying:
We promise you our prayers and companionship as we walk the spiritual journey together, seeking to follow the radical loving and living ways of Jesus, and striving for God’s realm of peace and justice here on earth. By God’s grace and through God’s Spirit, may we continue to grow together in love.
It is a fancy, churchy way of saying: We’ve got your back. We’re in this thing together, and by God’s grace we are going to stick together. We are, together, going to let God’s love transform us, even though we realize that is not always a piece pf cake. Even when we disagree, even when we annoy each other, we will continue to grow together in love and walk the way together.
This, beloveds, is what changes the world. It is the only thing that ever has. It is one of the reasons I left my long career in journalism to throw my lot in with the church: I knew that changing the world would require much more than politics. It would require the radical, sacrificial love of groups of people who were committed to one another and the well-being of all. And that would require a power much greater and different than our own. It would require the witness of communities of faith living out among them God’s vision of justice and peace for the world; it would require not different beliefs as much as different ways of living.
This is why I am committed to the church, with all its imperfections. This is why, while I give away a pretty substantial portion of my money, I give most of it to this congregation and other church-based missions. Because I believe that, along the way as well as in the end, love is the way, because I know that I can do more with others than I can do on my own, because the church is committed to living in love. And that is why, in this time of deepening darkness, I have chosen to increase my pledge to First Church—so that our love-light might shine more brightly, so that we might be a greater force for God’s love and goodness.
Sometimes love looks like a great big stop sign, and sometimes love looks like a cross. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, as guards and soldiers surrounded him and prepared to lead him to his death, one of his own disciples took out his sword and, striking the slave of the high priest, cut off his right ear.
But Jesus cried out, “No more of this!”
And our scriptures say that Jesus then reached out to the injured man, touched him, and healed him.
This is the way we are called to follow.
When Jews are slaughtered at worship, when African Americans are gunned down at the grocery store, when Central Americans trying to escape violence and poverty in their homelands are persecuted by our government, when trans folks are told they do not exist, when even good people start to hate their enemies, when voting rights are stripped away from the poor and people of color, when anti-Semitic and other racist incidents are on the rise, when politics plays on fears and seeks to divide, the church must be clear.
We must say, again and again again, with our lives as well as our words: “No more of this!” We must say, together, “No more of this!” (Let’s say it together right now: No more of this!) Together, we must show the world another way, a better way, the way of love and transformation. Together, we must reach out to our neighbors and , our enemies with the touch of love. Together, we must be a healing force. We must continue to follow Jesus, the light that shines in the darkness, the light no darkness can overcome.
In Mexico, the poor are giving of themselves and what they have to thousands of Honduran men, women, and children, young and old, weak and able-bodied, who are traveling through their country. A group of nuns flew south to offer healing to those with blistered feet and sunburned skin. Individuals have made boatloads of food and offered rides and shelter. The churches, officials, and residents of one small town came together and donated nearly $8,000 for one day’s worth of food.
“What God gives us, we should share,” explained a woman who had set up a table with stew and lemon tea. “We do it with a lot of love.”
May God help us to do the same.