Sunday, February 18, 2007

Last Sunday after the Epiphany Sermon

If today were not the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, we would have heard in the Gospel of Luke, these words from Jesus, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

These are some of the toughest words from Jesus. Love your enemies, do good to them, bless them, pray for them… It is hard to practice what Jesus taught us to do when we resist such teaching.

One Baptist Church in Sydney, Australia, tried to live out those words. It put up a sign outside the church that read in large print: “Jesus loves Osama.”

In fine print below those words, from the Gospel of Matthew, it read, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you". (Matthew 5:44)

A spokesman for the Baptist Church said: "Osama is the head of terrorism. We are saying that Jesus Christ loves everyone in the world, even this man. ... All we are doing is sharing the gospel."

Many in Australia criticized their sign. I understand what they were trying to do, for St. Paul reminds us that without love we are a noisy gong, we are nothing, but I am not so sure that big sign is right for the message…

They got it right that Jesus is talking about love your enemy, pray for them, but we cannot forget that justice is also part of the equation and certainly someone tied to so much violence and terrorism in our world, like Osama, must be brought to justice too.

As Reinhold Niebuhr, an American Theologian of the 20th century put it, "Love without justice is mere sentimentality."

But Jesus does not want us to fight back using their methods, those who do evil, who use hate and abuse to control others. Jesus has a better way.

Jesus said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.”

We as Christians are called to go the extra mile, in our love of others, even those who are our enemy. Jesus does not want us to pray for the others demise, but instead tells us we are to do good, and pray for those who abuse us in ways that leads to reconciliation and forgiveness. Jesus does not want to perpetuate the abuse, the injustice, nor does Jesus wants us to seek revenge.

This is not the easy road, but it is the road that Jesus bequeathed to us…

Sadly, we often try to go around the words of Jesus and capitulate to the evil around us.

In this country and in Britain for many years, we lived the lie that said we could love the slave and let the injustice of slavery exist within our country, reaping its economic benefits. Many white Americans felt it was divinely ordered since the bible never condemned slavery.

And yet, there were Christians like William Wilberforce who saw the cruelty, the inhumanity, the lack of care for their neighbors in Africa.

In a speech to parliament, he said, “Let us put an end at once to this inhuman traffic—let us stop this effusion of human blood. What is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?”

Wilberforce saw that if we are to love to one another, than we cannot enslave others, force them to work and reap the benefits…

In this country, one who stood up for abolition was an ex-slave Sojourner Truth. In 1851 she addressed a women’s convention in Ohio which was debating abolition or women’s suffrage. In the midst of the squabbling, Sojourner Truth asked in her famous speech: “Arn’t I a Woman?”

It is a question that sill hangs with us today when we remember all the women around our world who are exploited and enslaved, and treated so horribly.

And there is John Newton, he was the captain of a slave ship that transported Africans to the West Indies and America. After a conversion experience and hearing the preaching of others, he gave up his maritime duties and over time became an Anglican priest.

He would come to regret his time aboard those slave ships, he would come to face the evil he participated in, and he would say in his later years that “I am not the man I ought to be, I am not the man I wish to be, and I am not the man I hope to be, but by the grace of God, I am not the man I used to be.”

And it is that grace of God that he found, that inspired his hymns, his preaching, his pastoral duties in his parish.

And from that, in 1779, we have his most famous work, Amazing Grace.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found.
Was blind but now I see.

And with his eyes open, he joined the campaign for abolition and he shared his thoughts on the African slave trade…

John Newtown wrote, “The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and profited deign of purchasing our fellow-creatures…”

The battle for abolition would take until 1807, when the slave trade was finally abolished. We are celebrating the 200th anniversary this year! But sadly, as David Batstone has written…

“Twenty-seven million slaves exist in our world today. Girls and boys, women and men of all ages are forced to toil in the rug loom sheds of Nepal, sell their bodies in the brothels of Rome, break rocks in the quarries of Pakistan, and fight wars in the jungles of Africa. Go behind the façade in any major town or city in the world today and you are likely to find a thriving commerce in human beings.”

He’s right and it is in our own backyard. A couple of weeks ago, it was reported by several of our local news agencies that a dozen Guatemalan workers filed a federal lawsuit accusing Imperial Nurseries in Granby, CT and its labor recruiter of human trafficking. They said they were taken in a van to Connecticut without their consent, had their passports confiscated so they would not escape, were threatened with arrest or deportation, were paid less than minimum wage and had medical care withheld. (from an NBC30 article)

"These workers came here lawfully to earn a living and support their families," said Nicole Hallett, a Yale Law School student helping the workers. "Instead they were defrauded and trapped into conditions of forced labor."

Exploitation, pure and simple. Its Slavery. And behind it all is the evil, the greed, the dehumanization of people. Human slavery today is worth over $13 billion dollars in profits for those who control it.

It is up to us to put our love into action, to step up and become modern abolitionists. To sign the petition, to ask the questions: Who is making our clothing? Our food? To support organizations that reach out to those working to help bring people out of slavery and restore their lives.

It all comes back to love, our sharing of that love with friend and foe, living that love that as St. Paul talks about because love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

As one counselor in Uganda who is working with children who have been enslaved as child soldiers in their civil war said, “Forgiveness starts with today’s enmity; revenge nurses the enmity until it can reach satisfaction in some future opportunity.”

“If you want love to take root in your life, you can only travel down the road of forgiveness.”

In the end it is up to us, in what we say, what we do, what we buy, what we support, that speaks of our love for our neighbor, our enemy and our commitment to do good in this world, to bring about that forgiveness and reconciliation, to end slavery in our lifetime.

And it is all part of God’s amazing grace, how sweet the sound! May we help others know what that grace is in their lives. Amen.

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