1st READING: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
2nd READING: Albert Einstein
A human being is part of the whole called by us “the universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experience himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
Before I could finish this sermon this week, the world took a turn … and the possibility of our country intervening in yet another Middle Eastern Civil War came much closer to reality. I looked at what I had planned to say and then went back and read these words:
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those … who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
The horrors of chemical weapons have been around at least since WWI, but I suspect that even in ancient times, with poisons on the ends of arrows, some form of chemical warfare existed. I watched a video of teen boys in Syria—boys the age of my own son—who were victims of a chemical bomb in a school yard this week. It was sickening to watch. As sickening as that iconic photo of nine-year-old Kim Phúc running naked from her village in Vietnam.
I bet you know the photo I mean. Phúc was with a group of civilians trying to flee the village when South Vietnamese planes mistook them for soldiers and bombed them with napalm. Photographer Nick Ut captured Kim Phúc and others running out of the bombed village. She was naked from having her clothes burned off. Ut and some other journalists quickly ran to help. Because of the severity of her burns, young Phúc was not expected to live. After a 14-month hospital stay and 17 surgical procedures, however, she was able to return home. Ut won a Pulitzer for the photo and he and Phúc have stayed in touch through the years.
Why do I bring up a 40 year old story of a different war as we Americans sit on the cusp of a new war?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or in the words of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
I believe that the large majority of men and women who serve our country in the armed forces do so with an admirable sense of duty and devotion and with more courage than I’ve ever had to muster in my life. As I look at the history of American military interventions in the 50 years I’ve been alive, however, I don’t see much that encourages me to trust the decisions that our leaders make about what those men and women have to do. Rarely do we go into a region with a strong grasp of the long history of ethnic rivalries that will complicate our involvement. Often our military intelligence has been proven wrong. Our attacks lack proportionality and our exit strategies are usually way off base. We don’t have to go back as far as Vietnam to know that. Remember “Mission Accomplished”?
I am the same age as Kim Phúc. The image of her running naked is one that has been with me for as long as I can remember. I suspect that is true for our President, as well.
I think of Kim Phúc or of the video I saw this week of Syrian teens and I am not naïve about the horrors of chemical warfare.
Nonetheless, hearing the drumbeat of war in response to Assad’s apparent use of chemical weapons does not make me feel the world will be a safer place. Just the opposite, in fact.
Amidst the news from Syria, there were other big political events happening in our country this week. Did you listen to King’s speech again or hear any of the speeches made on its 50th Anniversary? I celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington by rallying at the headquarters of my new congressional district in Lincolnton, NC, District 10. I had never been to Lincolnton before, because it’s not particularly close to Asheville. Asheville is now in Lincolnton’s district because of some very creative gerrymandering. If you look at our congressional district map, you’ll see that Asheville is attached to District 10 like a balloon, separated from the rest of our county. This re-districting was a very calculated move to separate the liberals in Asheville from the moderates in our former District 11 and put us in a more solidly conservative district where our votes could be more easily subsumed.
Since you are across the state line, perhaps you’ve missed what’s been happening north of the border. North Carolina has instituted the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation, refused to accept Medicaid expansion, slashed teacher pay, gotten rid of thousands of teaching assistants and cut educational funding in significant and devastating ways, shortened the length and lessened the amount of unemployment benefits, killed the Earned Income Tax Credit, loosened already loose gun laws and further restricted already restricted access to abortion.
And that’s just a few of the highlights of the past few months. Then, last week, the Raleigh police threatened to arrest a church group serving a meal to the homeless. These meals have been going on without concern for years, supported by Raleigh’s religious community.
And now our nation is planning to bomb a nation in retribution for them bombing their own people.
So … what do these state, municipal, and federal politics have to do with worship on Sunday morning?
Unfortunately, just about everything.
The March on Washington in 1963 was led by pastors. The Moral Monday movement that has arisen in North Carolina in response to the extreme politics is also being led by pastors. When Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight,” he knew he was quoting Isaiah.
As the Episcopal Bishop of WNC, Porter Taylor, wrote this week, “The power of [King’s] speech wasn’t just his oratory or the crowd or the historical context. It came from his speaking a truth imbedded in the story of God coaxing God’s people into the ways of righteousness. The dream Martin Luther King, Jr. articulated 50 years ago wasn’t his dream; it was and is God’s dream.”
The story of God coaxing God’s people into the ways of righteousness.
“Let mutual love continue,” Paul says in the letter to the Hebrews. If we stopped reading there and put that on a bumper sticker, it might seem kind of sweet and sentimental. But let’s not stop reading there. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Homeless strangers, unemployed strangers, families on Medicaid strangers, people who don’t have driver’s licenses strangers, immigrants from other countries strangers, even strangers who may get in the way of one of our missiles. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers …” God’s word is not abstract. It gets played out day by day not just in our personal lives, but in our collective decisions. And as part of that collective, we have a responsibility. In a democracy, none of us can claim to be without accountability.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
We’re not only responsible for those we can see—like the homeless on our streets, like the working poor whose safety nets are being torn apart—but also for those we don’t see. Those in prison, those being tortured, those in Syria.
“Let mutual love continue.” Read in context, it doesn’t sound so sentimental, does it?
Mutual love. This is God’s dream. And we are called to live it, wide awake.
In a democracy, we are accountable. But more than that, as people of faith, we are accountable.
Mutual love. I am so taken with Einstein’s phrase for our mistaken sense that somehow what we do and how we live does not affect the universe we’re part of. He calls this an “optical delusion of consciousness”, an optical delusion that puts us in a prison of our own making. “Our task,” he says, “must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening the circle of understanding and compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
“Let mutual love continue.” In 1996, Kim Phúc gave a speech at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. During the event, the Rev. John Plummer, a Vietnam veteran who believed he took part in coordinating the air strike with the South Vietnamese Air Force met with Phúc briefly and was publicly forgiven. In 1997, she established the first Kim Phúc Foundation in the US, with the aim of providing medical and psychological assistance to child victims of war.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Whether it is our personal pain that is breaking us apart or the pain of our brothers and sisters who are losing their access to voting or the pain of our brothers and sisters in Syria, we know we are called to dream God’s dream, to entertain God’s angels in disguise.
I don’t know exactly what I am meant to do right now, in this moment in history. But I know who I am meant to be. I am meant to be a lover. I am meant to be a hostess to strangers. I am meant to be a healer. I am meant to be a dreamer of God’s dream.
By seeing through the lenses of God’s dream, we can shake ourselves free of the optical delusion that leads us to destruction.
And I believe that if I hold fast to the dreams of God and join with others in dreaming God’s dream, then together we will find ourselves awake to our responsibilities and alive to the possibilities of a different world.
This is why we practice our faith as a community. So we can strengthen each other in the task of mutual love and struggle together in the call to hospitality. So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
If my faith was in my state government, I would be quite depressed right now. If my faith was in my President, I would be discouraged right now. But that is not where my faith lies. My faith lies in the God who sends us dreams of a different way. My faith is in the man who did not fight his enemies, but who laid down his life for his friends.
Wars will come and wars will go, but God through Christ remains the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Fifty years ago this week, Dr. King said these words about the fight for Civil Rights, but I think they apply to more than that movement. They still speak to us today:
“We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protests to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”
And so, we come together to let God fill us with soul force, to hear God place a dream of mutual love deep in the marrow of our bones. By rooting that dream of mutual love deeper than all the things that tear us apart and by giving us a vision wider than the politics of the moment.
Paul said, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” These are words that let Dr. King dream a dream for our nation, even to his death.
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
And they are words that will hold us steady as we find our way in this latest storm.