There was a joke I used to tell (maybe even from this pulpit) about the cowboy who rode into town to find it empty except for the saloon’s bartender. “Where is everybody?” he asked. “They all left,” the bartender said. “Black Bart is coming to town.” Just then the ground shook, the doors flew open, and the biggest, meanest looking gun-toting scoundrel stomped in, demanded a beer, chugged it down, and started to leave. The cowboy said, “What’s your hurry?” “Gotta go,” he said. “Black Bart’s coming to town!” I used to tell that story. Well, it turns out that Black Bart was real. He was a professional thief whose very name struck fear as he terrorized the Wells Fargo stage line from San Francisco to New York. Between 1875 and 1883 he robbed 29 different stagecoach crews. Amazingly, Black Bart did it all without firing a shot. Because he wore a black hood over his head, no victim ever saw his face. He never took a hostage and was never trailed by a sheriff. Instead, Black Bart used fear to paralyze his victims. His sinister presence was enough to overwhelm the toughest stagecoach guard. They just gave up.
Fear can be a good thing. It can keep us out of harm’s way. But fear can also paralyze us. It can keep us from acting. It can keep us from doing the things God would have us do. For instance (and I’ll get this political commentary out of the way here at the beginning so I can get on to the theological connection) there is a growing fear which seems to be paralyzing our nation and many of our communities. It is fear of the other … fear of those who aren’t like us, who don’t have the same shade of skin we do, and – especially – those who don’t speak the same language we do.
More specifically, recently we have been “warned” of a “caravan” of others who are headed toward our very borders. Some of our leaders have tried to convince us that these Hispanics from a collection of South American countries are gang members, criminals, and others whose intention is to “invade” us. The term “rapist” has been tossed about. Some political ads have shown footage of hordes of people swarming over a border wall. This is all to make you fear that they are coming for you, for your job, for your way of life, for your language.
The church must speak out about this. In reality, many (if not most) of these are asylum seekers – men, women, and children fleeing from gangs, targeted for death by drug cartels, and oppressed by terrorist states. They aren’t the criminals. They are running from the criminals. They have established refugee camps as they have made their way north. One person has said that we need to have the Red Cross waiting at them on the border instead of the national guard. But we are being taught to fear. Black Bart is coming to town. The caravan is heading toward our border.
The church must speak out about this … and I guess I just have. So, I’d like to connect all of this to what today’s epistle from 1st John has to say about fear. It’s rich. But before I get to that, I’d like to detour just a moment to the Old Testament … to Leviticus… you know, the book that the Bible-thumpers like to quote when they want to put down gay people or women. Well, let’s try this one on for size. This comes from Leviticus 19:33. Go embroider this on your parlor pillow: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
The church needs to speak out against this fear of aliens for two reasons. The first reason is humanitarian. The second is theological. In today’s Epistle John lays out the theological reason, or the theological reasonING: God is love. (We’ll start there. This is systematic theology.) Therefore, whoever does not love does not know God. He also says that if you are fearing, you are not loving. Verse 18: “There is no fear in love.” Then John goes in for what I call “the kill.” Listen to the next verse. Just listen to it: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars. (“Are liars.”!!) for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” Then he concludes by saying that this love stuff is not optional. John says, “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Oh yeah, I learned that God is love from the tiny chairs in the primary Sunday School department of Trinity Lutheran Church in Ashland, Ohio, where we sang, “Love him, love him, all ye little children. God is love. God is love.” So, I knew it early on … but I’ve spent a lifetime coming to know what it means. I’ve learned that this God is love business has less to do with sentimentality than it does with radicality. It is not love in the romantic sense or cute puppies, Thomas Kincaid paintings, or that schmaltzy hymn they chose to sing at a recent nationally televised funeral where “he walks with me and h a with me, and he tells me I am his own. And the love we share as we tarry there, no other has ever known,” as if God were some Romeo coming to court his Juliet. It’s not romanticism. It’s radicalism.
Sorry, but that is applying this culture’s understanding of God’s love as romanticism. But if we take John seriously, and if loving God means not fearing and not hating other people, then loving God is counter-cultural. It is radical. It is probably not even peaceful.
We were reminded once again in our Adult Forum last week, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., that peace is not the absence of conflict. It is the presence of justice. I had heard him say before, but the hair on the back of my neck stood up, when I was reminded that Dr. King told his followers that the real threat to the civil rights movement wasn’t as much Bull Connor or the Ku Klux Klan as it was the white moderate … the one who professes to love you and sings all about love in church but counsels caution in the face of oppression: “Just wait,” the moderate says. “Let nature take it’s course. Things will get better if you just have faith in God.” No, Dr. King said. To love is to act.
Let me pass third base and head toward home with this sermon by hauling out an old chestnut of mine … something about love which, we can apply to our every-day family work-and-play living as much as we can our involvement in social issues. Love is a decision. It is not a feeling or an emotion. It is not something you wait around to get. Who is it you hate? Who is it you don’t like? Who is it who doesn’t like you? Who has mistreated you? Snubbed you? Dished dirty about you? Better yet, who are you afraid of? Why?
To love that person is counter-intuitive. No. It’s counter-cultural. The current culture teaches us to fear and hate. One more time from John: “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. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” Why? Because God loved us first. When we recognize that the worst we see in other people is present to some degree in us, the more precious is God’s love and grace for us. We love because he first loved us.
Black Bart’s coming to town!! We can run and hide. Or we can take his mask off and see him as a child of God in the same need of forgiveness and grace as you and I … as a fellow human being in the same need of God’s love as you and I … and as a fellow human being who get’s God’s love by getting it from us.
Text: 1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8