a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
October 25, 2020
Romans 12.1-2, 9-21
1I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
9Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
The Protestant Church, our church, was built on protest and change. Our Church emerged out of a desire first to reform the church –at that time the Catholic Church in the west of Europe. It emerged out of a radical claim that God’s love was not something to be purchased, that God’s forgiveness could not be bought, and that God’s purpose for the church was to free people from chains, not bind them to human made claims, cloaked as God’s will.
On October 31, 1517, legend has it that the priest and scholar Martin Luther posted a piece of paper on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, containing 95 revolutionary opinions that would begin the Protestant Reformation. This morning as we remember the event that became the focal point of that revolution we look at our world and our church today. The challenge is that most of us don’t want anything to change. But the truth is the church today needs to change and it must change to be faithful to God.
The Church at that time had become the most powerful presence in Western Europe. It was the “Holy Roman Church” Empire. It controlled governments and people. It claimed to have the “keys to the Kingdom of God.” And therefore its declarations, its rulings, were absolute law over life and death and heaven and hell. But those with the means could buy the forgiveness they needed. The church offered “insurance” against bad actions. You just needed to give the right “offering” to receive a “dispensation” that allowed you to violate the seven deadly sins as well as pretty much any lesser evils. One could even buy a previously deceased family members entrance into heaven with the right gift to the church. Martin Luther objected to this theology of profit and privilege for the powerful. His objections earned him the scorn and hatred of the powers of the Holy Church and ultimately they threatened him with death for his stance. But he stood for what was right as he understood the right and history has confirmed the rightness of his stance. His actions changed the church forever. It gave birth to what was called the “protestant” or “protesting” church. Luther didn’t intend to create a new reality, but nevertheless, he did. He brought about a change that liberated the church and believers.
Today many people feel we are teetering on the precipice of a giant choice between paths of good and evil as a nation. I believe people of faith ought to be driven by what is good and not what is evil. I want to suggest that we consider whether we still have the Spirit of Martin Luther in our midst, the spirit to stand up to what is wrong and seek to do what is right? Do we have the courage to change the church, the world, and at the center of it is the question of what we need to change about our attitudes and actions in order to do that? Before you turn me off thinking I am simply pushing partisan politics ask yourself what Paul meant when he urged the Christians in Rome, living in the most powerful empire in the world, to be transformed to live more by the values of Christ, not conformed to the values of the world?
To illustrate what I mean let me quote Rev. Cameron Trimble who wrote something in a devotional recently that I think helps put the question of “politics and religion” in the right perspective. She “was talking with a neighbor when the topic of the presidential debates came up.” Her neighbor said, “I do not talk about politics or religion with people. I do not think any of that matters in the whole scheme of things.”
Rev. Trimble said, “I was dumbfounded. I do not know anything more important than talking about politics and religion, and I believe it matters more today than ever before in human history. Let me state the obvious. Our theology - what we believe and say about God - shapes our politics. Look at the jihadists as an example. If you believe that God is an angry, vengeful God, then likely you will behave in angry and vengeful ways. If you believe God is active in our lives and a loving force for good in the world, then you likely behave in active, engaged ways that channel God’s love into the world. Because we live in community, we shape our laws and social codes through the lens of what we believe about God and each other. Talking about religion and politics matters,” she said. As an example she says that “in the past few years over 200 pieces of legislation have been targeted at LGBT people in an attempt to take away or further oppress their civil rights.
Rev. Trimble says, “We cannot escape the obvious connection between religion and politics. When you listen to people who passionately stand in opposition to others being treated equally (whether it is) - gay people, black people, Latino/a people, women, immigrants, people of others faiths, or are differently-abled, etc. - you come to understand that their God is an angry God - a God of law, judgment, and rigidity.” They believe “It is their Christian duty to ensure God’s law - whatever [they believe] that is- is upheld. Many supporters of equal rights are also Christian, but they argue that God is … still revealing ways of understanding and expressing loving. God is … showing us more ways to give and offer grace to each other.” I would add that we also believe that all people are loved equally by God, even those different from us, and they have a God-given right to be treated justly and equally.
She says, “How we see God in our own lives is not [just] a private matter. It shapes our public policies. Religion and politics have always and will always be connected. But here is what we must remember – good theology always says that faith overcomes fear, love overcomes hate, and grace overcomes judgment.” She asks, “what image of God do we want to embrace? Do we want a wrathful God who upholds fear, control, deception, white supremacy …? Or do we want a God of Love who celebrates the diversity of every single one of us? The choice is ours.
Another example we must change, in my opinion. One of the most important reforms we as Christians ought to be working for is to throw of the chains of racism that shackle us as humans, white or black or any other color. I believe there is hope to transform the injustice of racism. I believe it is curable. Kelvin Pierce lived with these chains for a long time. His father, William Pierce, a PhD in Physics, was the founder of the National Alliance, an organization of white supremacy that had almost died out until recently. William Pierce even created a “whites-only enclave,” that he hoped whites would flock to and join him in his plan to “violently overthrow the U.S. government in the name of white nationalism.”
His son Kelvin now hopes to help stop what he called the “illness” of hatred from spreading even more. He said, “There’s hope [in] a story like [mine]. If I could overcome that hatred, that depression, and that feeling of unworthiness, then maybe somebody else could too.” Pierce’s hatred was such that he fantasized “about going into Washington, D.C., standing on a street corner with a machine gun, and mowing down Black people with it.”
What changed? He went off to college and for the first time, he started “to experience people from all over the world … people from every kind of race and religion that you can think of.” He had been feeling depressed – even worthless – for “a long, long time,” so he sought help: “Therapy. Counseling. Spiritual studies. A lot of reading. And that’s when I started this journey of challenging my thoughts and adopting a more spiritual worldview. I learned that I did not need to attach myself and my self-worth to all of the fearful and hateful thoughts … That I could choose different thoughts. That I could reach out for better feeling thoughts.”
Pierce believes that “those who spread hate ‘ultimately, deep down, whether they consciously recognize it or not, don’t feel good about themselves.’” He said “hate is like a drug: ‘You take a drug to feel better, but you end up feeling worse in the long run.’ Pierce has changed, but he is clear “a monster that went into hibernation has come out.” That is why Pierce is now speaking out.
“I was like, ‘Okay, if there is something I can do to counter this, then I have to do it.” He is speaking up because he wants people to know they can “chart a path in a different direction.” Pierce said the current state of the white power movement means there has been “a pretty massive swing of the pendulum in the wrong direction.” He still strongly believes, however, that “the pendulum is going to swing back in the other direction.” He adds, “Look at me… Have a little hope.”
I believe having hope means taking action. It is not just a matter of voting for the values that stand against racism and hatred. I think it also means finding creative ways to address, confront and even transform the racism and hatred that too many still nurture in our time. The small town of Wunseidel, I think put Paul’s commands into action. In response to a neo-Nazi march to be held in their town, a group of organizers gathered pledges of financial support to an organization against Nazism for every meter the neo-Nazis walked. As the neo-Nazis marched, they encountered writing on the street thanking them for raising so much money to fight hate. The organizers even set up water tables along the route to “thank” the marchers.
We can transform our world. I believe every one of us here believes racism, injustice and unequal treatment of human beings is wrong. Let’s stop assuming what is wrong cannot be changed. Jesus called us to be transformed by the love of God for all people. No change is not an option for Christians. AMEN.