Sunday, June 2, 2019

Phil Kniss: The discomfort of love

Easter 7: Love & Resistance
John 17:20-26; Acts 16: 16-34

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Why is it that love and conflict
show up at the same time, at the same place, so often?
What is it about genuine, life-changing, transformative love,
that can bring with it
resistance and distress and pain and suffering?

Jesus’ famous prayer for his disciples in John 17,
today’s Gospel reading,
struck me in a new way, when I read it,
how Jesus was so passionate and prayed to God so fervently,
for the love of God to be embodied fully in his disciples,
and then immediately he begged God to keep them
from becoming fractured and broken apart by conflict.

He prayed as if he knew the risks of love,
knew something huge was at stake,
as if the future of the kingdom of God hung in the balance.
He prayed simultaneously for love and unity.
He prayed that they would embody, in their flesh,
the very love of God,
And he prayed they would find a way through the resistance
that love would inevitably bring along with it.

Think about it!
Isn’t it remarkable
that Jesus had a universal reputation for being loving,
and yet the powers that be were so threatened by him
that they executed him?

Here’s a thought I want to test with you. Tell me what you think.
I suggest the reason love and conflict go together so often,
is that love, by definition, extends freedom to the other.
And freedom often offends someone.

Now, freedom is essential to love.
The objects of our love, cannot also be the objects of our control.
Love and coercive power do not mix.
If we say we love someone, we must also say we release them
to become all that they were created to be.
We free them.

I’m not saying we free toddlers to run across a busy road at will.
I’m saying,
if the one we love is capable of safely
making their own decisions,
we let them.
Even while we remain loyal and connected to them.

But the fact is,
loving people in that way, extending freedom in that way,
can bring about conflict.

Often, when someone cashes in on their freedom,
someone else seems to pay for it.
Sometimes freedom rocks the boat.
creates imbalance, disequilibrium.
disturbs the status quo.
When somebody is given freedom,
there’s often someone else
invested in that person not being free to become
different than they were before they got their freedom.

Think about all the people Jesus showed love to,
by extending some freedom to them that they didn’t have before—
he allowed women to accompany him, talk to him, even touch him,
he let children climb onto his lap,
he let Gentiles engage him as equals,
he let lepers approach him, and he even touched them,
he let tax collectors and sinners be his host, and feed him dinner.
That rocked the boat!
Every time he showed love to someone by extending freedom,
someone else pushed back, hard.
First-century Palestinian Jewish social order,
and the powers that maintained that order,
needed for all those people Jesus touched
to know where they belonged in the social order, and stay there.
It threatened the powers, and threatened stability,
for Jesus to show those people the door to freedom.

Clearly, this is what is going on
in today’s dramatic story from the book of Acts, as the apostles
start spreading the movement,
start taking the Jesus way seriously,
start behaving toward other people the way Jesus did.

This is a story about a slave girl who was shown love,
and thus, freedom.
In fact, she was freed twice, in one single act of deliverance—
an act of God carried out by Paul and Silas and other apostles.
She was freed from an oppressive spirit that held her captive,
and . . . she was freed from human exploitation.
In one fell swoop.

But ironically, her owners remained captive.
They were captive in a different way.
They were captive to greed,
captive to a desire to control others,
thereby captive to anxiety about maintaining control,
since their economic livelihood was based
on their ability to keep exploiting this young girl.
So captive were they,
that the healing and freeing of one little girl,
could completely unhinge them.
Paul and Silas, two simple, unarmed, itinerant preachers
were so threatening to them,
that they concocted a story to get them arrested.
Said they were disturbing the whole city.

In truth, maybe they were . . . disturbing the whole city.
They were preaching a gospel of love and freedom.
They were preaching resurrection.
They were pulling together a community of people
who dared to publicly live out this gospel of resurrection,
dared to be fully human in the way God intended them to be.
Resurrection can be pretty threatening
to the powers that deal in death.
It can be deeply disturbing to forces
that depend on maintaining the status quo.
Resurrection causes people to turn and go a different way.
I can see why those in control
might have been threatened and reactive.

So Paul and Silas get thrown into prison.
The powers of that town, themselves captive to fear and anxiety,
lock up Paul and Silas and put them in iron shackles,
because they gave a powerless and oppressed girl her freedom.
Pretty twisted, huh?
And it happens all the time.
And everywhere.

Think of all the people in our country
who have been fined or jailed or slapped with felonies in recent years,
because they did something to show compassion
to undocumented immigrants.

Right now, in fact,
the powers that be are coming down hard on a non-profit group
called “No More Deaths”
whose volunteers leave large stashes of drinking water
in the Arizona desert along the border.
Moved by love and compassion for human beings,
these people could not stand idly by
while human remains of over 3,000 border crossers
who died of dehydration in the desert,
have already been collected by the Arizona medical examiner.
You may know that border patrol agents have been filmed
destroying or emptying these water jars in the desert,
when they find them.
And if you’re following the news right now,
you know that one of the No More Deaths volunteers
is on federal trial facing felony charges
for giving aid and shelter to two undocumented persons.
His charges could land him in prison for 20 years.

Regardless of what you think of the group “No More Deaths”
and no matter what your view of immigration policy,
I think we can all agree that this is a prime example
of love meeting resistance.

Some people’s hearts were moved when thousands were dying,
so they took action.
And the social order is suddenly threatened.
Some people will argue it’s a just social order,
and that we are protecting a good status quo.
But we can all see, the boat is being rocked.
There are many people, including ordinary citizens,
who believe their comfort and security is being impinged on
by someone else’s freedom.
So love meets resistance.
I don’t know how else to describe it.

I think it’s wise when we hear about these kinds of things,
to consider how Jesus might have responded.
Or how Paul and Silas might have responded.

And it’s not just these big news-making cases,
that bring this whole issue down to earth.
We live it, daily.
We are personally threatened when we miss out
on something that somebody else got,
who we think didn’t deserve it.
It’s fine if someone else gets a little freedom,
until it impinges on my freedom,
or until it costs me something I think I deserve,
or until that freedom in some way
offends my sense of morality or justice.

This is kind of like the sin of envy,
in our sermon series on the deadly sins this past winter.

Envy cannot rejoice
when someone else comes into possession of something good,
gets some gift, be it freedom, or favor of some other kind.

This sin of envy has caught in its death-grip
all kinds of people in the Bible.
It caused Cain to kill Abel,
and Esau and Jacob to be estranged,
and Rachel and Leah to be in conflict,
and a band of brothers to sell one of their own—Joseph—
into slavery.
And it continues to this day, in many ways, large and small.

When we rightly judge the owners of this slave-girl,
for their abuse and injustice,
we do well to also take a step back and look at the larger picture.
They reacted in that way in order to protect their investment.

Don’t we do the same thing, on a smaller scale, daily.
No, not to the extreme of human trafficking, thank God.
But our sin and theirs is on a spectrum.
The love and freedom someone else receives,
can easily become an occasion for my taking offense.

So rather than jump on our high horse,
and declare judgment against the villains in this story,
we could make this into an opportunity
for some serious soul-searching.

We could ask ourselves,
whose freedom irks us?
And what would it look like
for us to extend love and compassion,
instead of resistance?

Do we see someone getting a pass,
on some behavior or lifestyle we find objectionable?

Or, do we notice someone, or a whole group or class of people,
who are coming into some favor
or newfound power or public esteem,
who did nothing to deserve it,
at least, who don’t deserve it as much as we do,
righteous persons that we are?

I wonder if these kinds of soul-searching questions
might do us as a church a whole lot of good,
in the times in which we live now,
and in being honest about our history.
Think of all the gifted and strong women leaders in the church—
the resistance they had to endure over the years,
and many still do,
as they found new freedom to lead.

And I wonder if, as the presidential election season heats up,
with Democrats and Republicans
constantly going at each others’ throats,
and with many of our neighbors and co-workers joining in,
and things getting uglier and uglier,
whether we can take a step back and look at our neighbors
with eyes of love, instead of judgment . . .
whether we can look at people
in our own congregation and family the same way . . .
and see in them a desire to find meaning and belonging and stability,
the same things we are looking for.

Can we pledge to engage each other in mutual trust and love,
and rejoice with others, in whatever freedom they are discovering,
even if we see things in a different light?
even in a different moral light?

What if those who controlled the life of the slave-girl in Acts
had actually noticed her humanity,
instead of seeing her merely as an object, a resource,
a means to an end?
The story would have unfolded quite differently.

And what if we saw every human being in that same light—
every human being,
even those we vigorously disagree with,
even our political opposites,
even those whose theology we consider heresy,

What if our first reaction—
not necessarily our only eventual thoughtful response—
but our first reaction . . .
what if it was first to rejoice with those who rejoice,
and weep with those who weep.
What if our knee-jerk Christian reaction,
informed by the unconditional love of Jesus,
was to celebrate someone’s new freedom
from whatever oppressed them?

Yes, an oppressed person’s freedom will nearly always
rock somebody’s boat.
It nearly always will interject some complexity into the situation.
Something might need to shift.
When a new passenger boards a crowded bus,
everyone adjusts . . . a little.
What if we all agree to address that complexity, eventually,
in an honest and open and loving conversation.
But only after we have rejoiced in their liberation from bondage.

I just wonder how our world and our church,
might be different than it is.

The desire of God, in Christ,
as lived out and demonstrated by Jesus,
is always freedom from oppression.
Accountability, yes.
Moral demands, of course.
But the yoke offered by Jesus is an easy yoke,
and its burden is light.
And we are all invited to come,
take on that yoke, and rest.
Along with all the others doing the same.

Sing together STS 48 – Come unto me.

—Phil Kniss, June 2, 2019

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