February 16, 2020 / Epiphany 7 / Richard E. Holmer
First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 17-18; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; Gospel: Matthew 5:38-47
Gotta Love ‘em All
Most people are well aware of the polarized condition of our society. The fact that we are in an election year makes the divisions even more apparent. The fault lines are driven by political, economic, cultural and racial differences. There are sharp conflicts over values – and even over the facts themselves. These divisions contribute to a level of tension and unease felt by many. Our overall well-being as a nation is threatened when many are inclined to regard fellow citizens with suspicion and antagonism. It goes beyond holding different opinions and supporting different agendas. Opponents come to be viewed as enemies – threats to our way of life.
It’s a spiritual problem as well. There are Christians on both sides of the divide. People who are brothers and sisters in the same faith regard one another with disdain. It’s worth noting that this state of affairs is not unprecedented in our history. Like many of you, I can recall how the Civil Rights movement created a great deal of tension, conflict, division and even deadly violence back in the 50’s and 60’s. People were murdered. Churches were bombed.
One person who was deeply involved in that struggle was a Southern Baptist preacher from Mississippi named Will Campbell. Campbell graduated from Wake Forest College and Yale Divinity School. After a stint serving a parish in Louisiana, he became actively engaged in the movement to gain civil rights for African Americans. Campbell was the only white person involved in the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – which was Dr. Martin Luther King’s operating organization. Campbell escorted the black students who were attempting to integrate a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. He was with Dr. King when King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968. He was passionately devoted to seeking justice for African Americans.
However, after twenty years of steadfast devotion to the movement, Campbell came to a realization. He described it as a kind of second conversion. He recognized that he had a blind spot. It dawned on him just how convenient it was that God hated all the same people that he hated. He realized that he had re-made God in his own image, as a liberal activist on the side of what’s right. It occurred to him that “Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well.” He determined, “If you’re gonna love one, you’ve got to love ‘em all;” that hate was the enemy, and hate has no color.
Campbell was still dedicated to civil rights. He aligned himself with good, but refused to dismiss the humanity and essential worth even of those whom many in the movement considered, with good reason, to be the villains. And so Campbell began to minister to members of the Ku Klux Klan. Sometimes this was simply a matter of sharing their company, sipping whisky on their front porch. He conducted weddings and funerals for them. Klan members came to trust him. Campbell actually visited in prison the man who shot Dr. King: James Earl Ray.
Campbell described how his hate mail shifted: from coming from angry right wingers to angry left wingers. But he wasn’t motivated by politics – he was motivated by the gospel, a gospel he summarized in 9 words: “We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”
Reflecting on Campbell’s life, Presbyterian pastor Gordon Stewart wrote this:
“He reminded me of just how hard it is to be a disciple of Jesus, how hard it is to love my neighbor as myself, especially when the neighbor is the enemy of my own claims to righteousness.
“Campbell,” he wrote, “confused his critics, first on the Right and then the Left – by insisting that his soul did not belong to any team – racial, political, religious, cultural. It belonged to the Kingdom of God. Compassion came first in his hierarchy of values.”
Another pastor, an ELCA Lutheran, Frank Honeycutt, offered this insight into Campbell’s life and ministry:
“It’s tough to minister to people on both sides. Tough to minister to both the spouse who cheated and the one betrayed. Tough to visit a death row inmate and also pray with the victims of the crime. Tough to side with the striking coal miners and also listen to the company’s higher ups within the congregation. It’s natural for us to choose sides. Campbell invited all followers of Jesus to behave as our Lord did, siding with the lost and unlikely.”
Will Campbell came to see that includes all of us.
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Let’s return to our present moment. Together we face the challenge of actually living the gospel. No matter what our opinions might be, you and I are called to follow Jesus – who gives us some specific directions:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
“If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”
We are called to love not just those who love us, those who belong to our tribe, our team, those with whom we agree. We are also to love those with whom we strongly disagree, those who seem wrongheaded, those we perceive as a threat, those we think of as enemies. The problem is not that we have disagreements and differences. The problem comes with how we regard and treat those with whom we disagree. Things become toxic when we regard those with whom we differ with disdain instead of respect, with contempt rather than love.
Recently, at the National Prayer Breakfast, Arthur Brooks encouraged those who were gathered to bridge the divide and set aside contempt and scorn for the opposition. I want to share some of what he said: