Inquiring of God

The Westboro Baptist Church is in town today.

I don’t know if any of you encountered any traffic or trouble on their account, but they’re in town to picket, of course. There doesn’t seem to be any reason other than no one’s paying attention to them anywhere else.

According to their “Picket Schedule,” posted on their website, they started off the morning picketing at Trinity Lutheran, claiming the church is “a dog-kennel masquerading as a church” and that Pastor Bob Ziegler is a “phony preacher” who “lie[s] about God’s word in order to fill the pews and collect more money.”

Around 8:00 am, they were scheduled to move to St. Benedict’s, which they describe as a “Catholic Pedophile Factory” and they use a lot of language that, well, I wouldn’t use in the privacy of my home, let alone here in church.

From there, they are to move on to the First Christian Church, calling them a “phony church” who “would rather fill the collection plates, put backsides in the seats and boost people’s self esteem than dare tell them the truth.”

At 9:00, they should be disrupting worship for fundamentalist Baptist neighbors, Carol Baptist Church. Carol Baptist is being condemned because they preach—according to the Phelps gang—”that God loves everyone…that God love the sinner but hates the sin…and…that we must “love our neighbors.” Scandalous!

But the pinnacle, the high point, the apogee, the zenith, the raison d’être, the culmination of their morning is the United Methodist Church. I won’t even tell you the things they say about Pastor Cyndi Meyer and what goes on at the Methodist church. Let’s just say it makes me an advocate for censoring foul language on the internet.

This is some of the hate they are spewing out (http://www.godhatesfags.com/schedule.html; accessed 9/20/12).

 

It sounds like they’ve got a busy schedule, but I confess—I’m a little let down that they aren’t picketing us. Either we’re not doing something right, or they just haven’t heard yet. And since I’m new, I think I’ll give them the grace of believing the latter: they just haven’t heard about me yet. If they had heard about, they’d be here for sure.

They’d be here because I believe there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God.

They’d be here because I believe there is only one righteous Judge who is able to pass judgment on us.

They’d be here because I believe God is actively working to redeem this world of violence and hate.

And most importantly, they’d be here because I believe that our God loves us—all of us! I believe that it is because “God so loved—God so loved—GOD SO LOVED—the world that God gave his only Son that whoever—WHOEVER—believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

 

The Westboro Baptist Church website says that God does NOT love everyone. In fact, citing that very same verse—John 3:16—they argue that the Greek word kosmos, the one translated “world” never means every individual human who ever lived. And they’re right: that is not what kosmos means. (http://www.godhatesfags.com/faq.html; accessed 9/22/12)

But where they are wrong is that kosmos does not mean something smaller than every individual—it means something much, much larger! Kosmos refers to the entire created order, from the sun and stars to the fish in the seas, from the birds in the sky to the “creeping things” on the surface of the earth, and of course includes humans, that very special part of creation that is formed in the Divine image (for more on this, see the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament III: 367-95, especially s.v. κόσμος, A5, which discusses the Greek philosophy shaping John’s world; and C2, which discusses the use of this meaning in the New Testament).

Their website says that they preach hate—and I quote—”because the Bible preaches hate.” Now I admit, there is a lot of violence and hatred in the Bible. Most of it comes about because of us humans, but some of it is said to have originated with God. Much of that, I believe, can be understood quite simply if you are genuinely interested in hearing God’s Word and engaging our biblical texts, instead of prooftexting. Some of it, however, will continue to be troublesome.

But I keep going back to the fact that Jesus is God incarnate. The person of Jesus is the fullest revelation of who God is that the world will ever experience. If we want to know about the character of God, Jesus—I believe—is the place to look.

And when I look to Jesus—I see that the Son of God was sent to earth because of love, not condemnation. If the Phelps clan had read just one more verse beyond John 3:16, they would have also read that “God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). God’s radical love requires radical action as God seeks to save us.

Not only was Jesus sent to earth because of love, but his mission was one of bringing God’s love to the world. 1 John 4:9 tells us “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world.” It is Jesus who embodies the greatest love of all, of which Jesus taught us: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Jesus’ central teaching is about love. It is Jesus, after all, who teaches us to “love our enemies” (Matthew 5:44). It is Jesus who teaches us that loving our neighbor as ourselves is as important as loving God (Matthew 22:37-40). And it is Jesus who tells us that all of his teachings are given so that we “will love one another.” (John 15:17).

It is Jesus—God incarnate—who teaches us to be ready for reconciliation in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35), who teaches us to “turn the other cheek” to those who do us violence (Matthew 5:39), and who instructs us not to judge (Matthew 7:1).

In fact, in Matthew 7 Jesus tells us that we will be judged on the same scales that we use to judge others, so where we are harsh with others, God will be harsh with us; where we show mercy and and love to others, God will show mercy and love to us.

Paul notes in Romans 2:1 that “in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” Like the apostle Paul, some in the early church noted that those who most violently judged another person’s sin usually fell into the same sin (Abba Pastor—Daily Readings with the Desert Fathers, 24). So if a person harshly judges another person for adultery, that person usually fell into the sin of adultery himself.

Of course, we don’t have to look to ancient times to see this play out. Our world is ripe with modern examples of self-righteous public figures falling from grace when it is discovered that they hypocritically practice what they condemn, rather than preach.

And, of course, if we are to be “imitators of Christ,” as Paul instructs (1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6), we must remember Jesus’ words in John 8:15, where Jesus says “You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one.”

The test of faith—the test of knowing God—the test of being “in” or “out” of God’s Kingdom has nothing to do with hate. 1 John 4:7 tells us that “love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” Note that? “Whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” And lest there be any confusion, the author goes on in verse 8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God because God is love.”

 

We are warned many times in the Bible about those who come and preach a gospel contrary to the Gospel of Christ. Depending on where you look, these persons will be described as “false prophets,” “false teachers,” and even “antichrists.”

Jesus warns us about false prophets and teachers, just like those of concern to the author of 1 John. Jesus uses the imagery of a fruit tree. It is undeniable what kind of tree it is when you see its fruit. Maybe an apple tree looks a lot like a pear tree. But when you see its fruit, you can be confident of its essence.

Of false prophets, Jesus tells us, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). And “the fruit of the Spirit,” the Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 6:22, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” If you run into any picketers today, let me know if you find any of these fruits.

Paul tells us about some other fruits as well—these are the works of the flesh, and not of God. They include things like “enmity, strife, …fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, …and things like these.” That’s in Galatians 5:20-21.

“You will recognize them by their fruits.”

 

Now let me be clear. I’m not interested in deciding who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. That, as far as I am concerned, is God’s job and not my own. To be honest, I’m also quite fearful of having my judgments used against me, so I’d rather show an extra measure of grace with the hopes that God might show me an extra measure of grace too. God knows I need it.

Salvation, I believe, is God’s prerogative, and not my own. I am evangelistic—don’t get me wrong; I am in agreement with Paul’s wondering in Romans 10:14: “How are they to believe in him of whom they have not heard?” But my role—and I believe the role of every Christian—is to imitate Christ in word and deed, carrying God’s transformative love into a world of need.

And this is not something new. I repeat: I am not preaching something new. Paul and the other NT writers continually call their communities back to the fundamentals of faith that they personally taught to them.

As we read in 1 John 3:11: “This is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” This is the Gospel message that we have heard “from the beginning,” as summed up by the apostle Paul in Romans 5:8: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

Repentence?

Now the Westboro Baptist Church says it is only fear that will drive sinners to repentance. Again I’m quoting from their website: “What you need to hear is that God hates people, and that your chances of going to heaven are nonexistent, unless you repent.”

There’s a saying: you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. That’s not in the Bible, and in fact Westboro Baptist Church criticizes other churches for working to “fill the pews” (http://www.godhatesfags.com/schedule.html; accessed 9/20/12).

But the Bible does say that “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” in Romans 2:4; and in 2 Timothy 1:7 we read “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and love and self-discipline.”

 

I don’t get these folks. I really don’t. I don’t know how anyone could read this Bible and come up with the stuff that gets preached by this group. I haven’t found any answers, but I might have found some inspiration.

I’ve been wrestling this week with the scripture lesson I read moments ago (Mark 9:30-37), where Jesus teaches his disciples the difficult truth about his fate, and where they didn’t understand but were “afraid to ask him,” as we read in Mark 9:32. I’d even begun writing a sermon entitled “Inquiring of God,” when I found myself in a similar position.

You see, when I heard the Westboro Baptist Church was scheduled to picket in Atchison this morning, it lit a fire inside me that was hard to control. Like perhaps for some of you, I find their actions disrespectful, distasteful, and contrary to the cause of Jesus Christ. And though I have only been here a month now, I do feel incredibly protective of this town. It is what my wife calls my “big brother” instincts.

So there has been a big part of me this week that has wanted to ask God “Why?” Why does God allow them to continue? Why can’t their hatred be stopped? Why, for all the attempts at limiting their actions, have none of them succeeded? Why does God allow them to defame God’s name with their message of hate?

But, for all my passion—for all my questions—to be honest, I realized that I was a bit afraid to ask God why. I could stew in my anger. I could let my religious fury simmer. But, like the disciples in our scripture reading, I was afraid to ask for an explanation.

Our reasons, of course, are different. Given that the disciples are arguing over who is the coolest right after Mark exposes their fear, I suspect the didn’t want to look stupid.

But maybe, like me, they were just afraid of the answer. That’s what I realized it was, for me. I was afraid of God’s answer. Because I really do believe that God is love, and—like Jonah and Nineveh—I didn’t want God showing mercy to people like that.

On some level, maybe I’m confessing my sin this morning; for in judging them, I fell into the same judgment.

 

Even after all this prayer and wrestling with God, I still don’t know why. But I know God wants to teach them and the world about love. And maybe that is the key.

You see, there would not have been a rainbow and covenant without a flood. There would not have been an Exodus to a Promised Land without a Pharaoh and slavery. There would not be the story of Ruth without a famine. There would not be have been a Jesus without a world in need of redemption. There would not have been a crucifixion without Pontius Pilate.

Maybe God somehow needs a Westboro Baptist Church to show the world a Christian church unified in the truth of God’s love for us. I don’t know. Maybe I’m a foolish dreamer. I don’t understand it, just like I don’t understand God’s love for me; but I am sure trying to live it.

And so I’ve written this letter, which I intend to post on my blog later today:

An Open Letter to the Westboro Baptist Church

 

In the face of hate, this is my offering of love.

May God give us all the strength to meet violence with peace, injury with healing, grief with comfort, and hate with love.

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An Open Letter to the Westboro Baptist Church

Thank you for your recent visit to Atchison, Kansas. I hope you took a few moments during your visit to discover what a pleasant and charming place our small town is.

Anyway, I wanted to thank you for your visit because I found it quite timely. See, I’m pretty new to town, and you provided a fantastic opportunity to show solidarity with the other local clergy. In fact, it has proved to be an opportunity for clergy and other Christians in and around Atchison to come together as one and affirm the core of our Gospel faith: God is love and sent God’s Son Jesus to pave the way for God’s love to invade this world of hurt and hate.

Rarely in our schismatic world do Christians have such an opportunity to show the world that we are all children of God and members of the one universal church of Christ, that “There is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Where the media and fringe groups paint Christianity as a scattered, contradictory, and contrary bunch, you gave us the opportunity to disprove that stereotype, to rally together and speak with one voice. For that, I give you—and God—thanks.

I suppose that is part of the mystery of the redemptive power of God. Maybe it is like what is demonstrated in the story of Joseph: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Or maybe it has to do with that Great Reversal of the Kingdom of God, about which Jesus instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). I don’t understand how God does it, but I believe your visit to Atchison has strengthened the Christian community here. It just shows you how God can use us even when we are not aware of it.

I know you don’t think God gives a flying flip for this world or anyone in it, and you make it quite clear on your website that anyone who disagrees with you is going to hell; but I do believe God loves you and I pray that one day you will discover that love too. The Jesus of the Bible—who is the cornerstone of my faith—instructed his followers to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Whatever I or others may feel about your actions in Atchison and other places, I believe you are human beings made in the image of God. May we all be transformed into God’s likeness as well.

Next time you come to our town, stay for a service. Or join me for a cup of coffee in one of our fine cafes. I don’t believe I can change your mind, but I do believe in the infinite persistence and transforming ability of God’s love.

 

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).

 

Pastor Michael L. Strickland
First Baptist Church of Atchison