CALLED FROM HATE AND DISDAIN TO LOVE
At the beginning of 2022 the Word of the Lord came through Jim Wright to all of us. Representative of the thousands of sermons given on January 9th, Wright provides us with God’s guidance in times when we often look to others far less helpful. A lawyer and professor, his message to us is that we are called away from hate and distain to love toward all.
His text is 1 John 3:16-24: We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
“Heather and I recently watched the latest Bond film “No Time to Die”
Always fun to reestablish contact with that other Englishman called James
Spoiler alert – the film is not entirely plausible.
Which is surprising really, given how deeply convincing all the rest of the franchise is….
Even more concerning than the implausibility of the plot are the elevated levels of violence. Gone are the days when Q would provide Bond with a special pen that would poison a single, especially odious, foe.
Now our palates are so jaded by violence that only wholesale slaughter seems to be enough to keep people engaged.
Which brings us to the story of Cain.
A text without a context is a con, so let us look at what immediately precedes our text today, as it has been some weeks since we were in this letter.
“We should love each other. Do not be like Cain who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother…anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.”
The story of Cain and Abel is such an enigmatic story, and has intrigued both Jews and Christians for thousands of years.
I don’t want to make this sermon about that story, but the text for today starts out responding to the violence of Cain and contrasting it with the command to us to love. When Jesus said love your enemies, he presumably did not intend us to kill them.
We can be quietly confident that Cain thought he was justified in killing Abel, that his violence was somehow required.
But it wasn’t because it never is.
Now I would be very surprised if any of us has meted out physical violence to any human being any time lately. But let’s face it this is not a high bar given how extraordinarily safe and unthreatening most of our lives are.
But have we used violent, highly conflictual language about the other in our country lately?
The US has a significant issue with othering at the moment. That is we are sharply conscious of those who have similar social, political and religious views as we do, and those who do not.
That part may not be new, but talk of a civil war certainly is.
I don’t like the presentism of politics. Words like ‘unprecedented’, ‘historic’, ‘once in a lifetime’ and ‘Black Swan event’ pop up in a lot of media commentary on our times.
Being married to a historian has many advantages, not least that Heather is able to point out that almost all of these terms are historically untrue. Times have been bad before – and often worse.
But the level of animus, of hatred of and division from people who see things differently, in terms of what is wrong with this country and how to make it right, does seem to be to be pretty bad just now.
This is for us in the church, in this church, a pressing Christian issue – the Biblical text – which is relentless – forces us to concede this.
Verse 18: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
We are called to love not to hate. I see so much hate filled rhetoric. Ironically the problem is in fact our words and speeches.
I am not a US Citizen, so I don’t vote, but I pay taxes – taxation without representation anyone…
But I am a close observer of US politics, I have opinions and I am right now perilously close to if not hating then most definitely disdaining those who I believe are ruining this country.
And I strongly suspect that some of them are equally close to disdaining me due to their belief that I – and those like me – are ruining the country.
The text calls us, it calls me, away from hate and disdain and towards love.
This is my first takeaway from this text:
That we are called unerringly away from hate and disdain and towards love in how we consider the other and in particular at present the political other.
There are a number of studies that show this country is becoming increasingly socially divided. People are moving states to be closer to those who are politically aligned with them. They are leaving friend groups and coalescing, often on line, with new groups of people who share their political and social views. Even families are being riven by this. I saw recent research that suggested that more than one in four families had at least one member cancel or be cancelled by other family members.
It is as though a great sorting out is taking place – and pretty rapidly.
And I would love to say that the church in this country is resisting this partisanship. That it is insisting that if Jesus loves someone who sees the world differently from me, I am called also to love her.
But as we all know that is not happening.
And if we think this is not an issue in this church then we are deceiving ourselves.
However, I perceive that this church is still one of the last places where the great sort has not wiped out communities with mixed social and political views.
I am grateful that strongly differing opinions on politics are in fact reflected in the membership of this church.
I believe we should treasure this and treat it with care.
But that takes all of us, and history suggests that if we are not conscientious in preserving our relationships across the aisle, we will lose them and we will all be impoverished.
We will also have failed to live in line with this text.
We are called unerringly away from hate and towards love.
What may this look like in practice?
May I suggest two things:
First don’t dismiss out of hand the views of someone else but be curious rather than confrontational.
Second, actively demonstrate warmth and welcome to those who you think may hold divergent opinions from you, not only because this is loving to them but also because your soul needs such people.
My second take away from our passage today is that in the realm of love, the text calls us away from theory and towards practice
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
Jacques Ellul, the French philosopher, said that human beings are tested by power, sex and money.
It is intriguing that John here, writing 2 millennia before Ellul, implies something similar, at least about money.
“17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”
I don’t want to get deeply into the subject of giving – that deserves an entire sermon series…but I don’t want to ignore it either.
Because it would have been an extremely pressing issue in John’s context.
The work of our very own Dr Helen Rhee is important here. She has published on the fact that the best estimates are that at the time of Jesus around 85% of the population would have been just above, or at, or mostly below the subsistence level. And that was in good times, when there was no war and no famine. And there were not that many good times.
Since reading that work, I now see the Bible differently.
I now cannot read it without seeing the huge concentration in the Torah on the poor and marginalized, and Jesus’ repeated interactions with the poor and marginalized.
We have grown complacent about the poor because of a public safety net.
I am not criticizing the public safety net – I am a big champion of it as an example of our society coalescing around support for the poor among us.
But it has meant that for many of us we never actually speak to a poor person. We know they exist in our communities but we just don’t personally meet them.
When was the last in depth conversation you had with someone living in poverty?
I am not saying you need to all walk down State Street and find someone who is unhoused and talk to them, although for what it’s worth, I suspect you would find that a much better experience than you fear it would be.
I say this because about three years ago, I started attending the weekly meal sharing at Alameida Park that brings together people who are experiencing homelessness, and those of us who are housed. Although the meal sharing was started by a Christian pastor and Christians are disproportionately present there, there is no agenda for the meal sharing. The point is simply to feed folk who appreciate a hot meal, and to reduce distance between those of us who are marginalized in our community and those of us who are not.
I have found the experience truly humanizing and I have learned a lot.
But even if you don’t see yourself drawn to something like the meal sharing, there are ways that those of us who have the world’s goods can support those who don’t.
What may this look like in practice?
I am a great believer that no one can do everything and it is usually more strategic to find one or two causes to support and to support them strongly. It is also helpful to consider giving relationally – in other words, support organisations or individuals with whom you are in relationship.
For example here in our own church we have Jamie and Alyssa Shattenberg. They are spectacular overachievers, having not one but two truly transformational involvements in Madagascar, one of the countries in the world most lacking the world’s goods.
Alyssa leads Sarobidy, the maternity center, and Jamie leads the Madagascar work of Eden Reforestation.
In the interests of time, I will mention only that Eden Reforestation, which was formed 20 years ago by the then superintendent of our Free Methodist Conference, has now planted more than 700 million trees in 9 countries around the developing world. In 2021 it planted more trees than any other organization on the planet.
Climate change is a powerful issue for the poor who bear a disproportionate burden of a hotter climate. They are largely located in less temperate areas already, and those areas are shrinking as deserts spread and cultivatable land is lost. They also have less resources to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change. And we know that planting trees is a fabulous way to combat the negative effects of carbon emissions. So this planting of trees is directly loving the poor.
Eden Reforestation has also created over 10,000 well paying and meaningful jobs in poor communities by employing local and frequently indigenous workers – again, directly loving the poor.
John Wesley was helpful here – as so often he was:
“Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”
This is very simple – but also powerful. What are you going to do about it?
And my third take away from the text is trust God with your love.
19 and 20 “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.”
Those of you familiar with the work of Brene Brown will probably already be familiar with the very helpful distinction that she draws between shame and guilt.
Shame is “I am bad”.
Guilt is “I did a bad thing, but I am not essentially bad”.
We should understand that in the Bible the heart is not so much the locus of feelings, as we typically associate it with being, but represents the essential self. While it is always tricky to read the Bible in the light of modern day psychology, human beings have essentially not changed that much in the intervening period, and I have no doubt that concepts of shame and guilt were experienced by the ancients even if the cultural specificity of these concepts was very different.
Therefore when the text speaks of our hearts condemning us and God needing to save us from that condemnation I think of shame.
Shame is associated with all kinds of poor outcomes and is not Christian. It is a sign of an unhealthy conscience and drives us to hiding, and harming self and others.
Guilt is associated with all kinds of good outcomes and is profoundly Christian. It is a sign of a working conscience and drives us to repentance.
There is a tremendous amount of shame floating around.
“I don’t give enough of my money away”. “I don’t care enough about the climate to take even shorter showers, and recycle even more furiously”. And for many of us it is a short hop from “I don’t give enough” and “I don’t do enough”, to “I am not enough”. And that is shame.
The text encourages us to resist this.
The text says that the antidotes to shame (ie whenever our hearts condemn us) are (1) to believe in God and (2) to do the works of love
The word translated in the NT as ‘believe’ is usually the Greek word Pisteuo – which can equally be translated as ‘trust’.
Indeed I prefer trust.
‘Believe’ quickly gets us into theory again.
I do value very much the life of the mind.
But I am convinced that we are more impacted by the people that we know and trust than by rational arguments presented to us by strangers.
‘Trust’ seems more potent, more embodied, than ‘believe’.
So if we accept that the text is actually calling us to trust God, then we are really getting somewhere.
What may this look like in practice?
May I suggest asking yourself where is God possibly asking you to trust him in love?
To trust him that a difficult relationship could be restored if you take a loving initiative?
Or that you won’t in fact go hungry or naked if you trust God with your finances by making a love gift to an organization that is doing transformational work?
Or that you can forgive someone who has wronged you even when they haven’t asked you to and only you (and God) will know that you did this?
As we go into 2022, may this text encourage us all
to make a number of choices, but three in particular:
- To choose to resist hate and turn towards love
- To choose practically to remember the poor
- To choose to trust God with your love
Now this would mean we need to love our enemies and give some of our money to strangers.
These are outrageous asks.
Not at all easy.
But as C S Lewis once said “Made up religions are easy. Christianity is neither.”
If you would like to see Wright preaching this sermon click here. He starts at 40 minutes into the service.
Wright, who was born in Devon, England, has lived in Egypt for 17 years and now lives with his wife, Dr. Heather Keaney in Santa Barbara. He graduated with a law degree from Cambridge University and has worked for a multi-national corporate law firm in London and Dubai. He studied cross-cultural and Biblical theology in the U.K. before arriving in Egypt, where he has studied Arabic and worked as a corporate lawyer.