Jul 24th, Is It Possible To Heal What Divides Us?, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
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Jul 24th: Is It Possible To Heal What Divides Us?, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski.
Today we’re continuing our summer worship series on questions we asked you to submit, questions you would like us to engage. And we built the focus of our summer worship around your questions. I really suspect we’re closer to God when we’re asking and wrestling with questions than when we think we have the answers. Today’s question someone submitted how could we heal the deep divisions and polarization in our country? This question feels especially urgent as the divisions seem to be getting deeper, the walls of hostility seem to be getting higher.
You know, I think the real test of our Christian earth is not how much we love Jesus, but whether we’re willing to love Judas. The real test of our faith is learning to love those we find most difficult to love, when it’s so much easier to hate, judge, and condemn. I always squirm a little when I read the words of Dorothy Day, who wrote, I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least. Yikes. Talk about a serious shove out of my comfortable self righteousness.
Jesus tells us in Matthew five that we are to love our enemies. I suspect we’re not encouraged to love our enemies so that our enemies will be different. I suspect we are called to love those who are hardest to love, so that we become different. It says in Matthew 543, love your enemies, let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. Learning to love those we find the hardest to love brings out the best in us, brings us as close as we possibly can to a Jesus shaped love.
On the night Jesus tenderly washed the feet of Judas, knowing he would betray him, Jesus then said a new commandment I give you, love one another as I have loved you. The world will know you are my disciples if you have this kind of love for one another. Now, the love Jesus is talking about isn’t, isn’t a soft, warm, fuzzy feeling. The word Jesus used here, translated as love, is agape. Agape love is, I think, best defined as a dogged determination.
Regardless of whether you like someone or agree with them. Agape love is a dogged determination to see the image of God in the other, even when it’s hiding and really difficult to see. Agape love is a dogged determination to be kind, to bless someone when you really feel like punching them in the nose. The test of our faith is not how much we love Jesus, but whether we love like Jesus, especially towards those with whom we disagree and even dislike. You know, conflict conflict is inevitable.
It’s the stuff of life happens every day. Combat is always optional.
It’s not our differences that divide us. It’s how we choose to engage each other in our differences that creates division.
The goal isn’t necessarily necessarily to disagree less. I think we’ll always disagree. I think the goal is to learn how to disagree better to learn how to disagree without demonizing the other or losing sight of our own goodness.
The radical invitation of Jesus is that we don’t have to think alike, to love alike. Listen to today’s Bible story from the Gospel of Mark.
That day when evening came, Jesus said to his disciples let’s go over to the other side of the lake. So leaving the crowd behind, they set out with Jesus to the other side of the lake. A furious squall came up and the waves broke over the boat so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him up crying teacher, don’t you care if we drown?
Jesus rebuked the wind, saying to the waves, Quiet. Be still. And the wind died down and it was completely calm. And Jesus said to his disciples, why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?
And the disciples were terrified. And they asked each other, who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him. Okay, so Jesus, he had just finished preaching, preaching to his hometown crowd on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. And he says to the disciples, let’s go across to the other side of the lake.
Jesus wants his disciples to go with him to the other side, to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. What lies on the other side of the Sea of Galilee?
It is Gentile territory. It is where the other lives. Now, this side of the lake where Jesus was preaching this side of the lake is us. The other side of the lake is them.
Jesus here is asking his disciples to leave behind the comfort and the familiarity of their own people, their own tribe. The people who think like them, who pray like them, who agree with them, leave all that behind and risk going to the other side to encounter the ones that they’ve been taught to fear, to hate, to condemn. So they get into a boat, leaving the Adoring Galilean crowd behind and they push away from the safety of the shore. And the closer they get to the other side, a huge storm swoops in and the boat begins to take on water.
Now, it’s typical, and I’m guessing you’ve heard sermons like this to read this story affirming how Jesus is a calm presence in the midst of the storms of our lives. And that’s actually a really beautiful way to read this story.
But there is another way we can read this story.
Jesus invites his disciples to leave the safety of their community, their community of shared belief, shared customs, shared values and intentionally travel to the other side of the sea where they will encounter those they fear and judge those who hold different beliefs, different customs and values. And a storm whips up and the sea begins to rage.
What’s interesting in the ancient world, a raging see represented chaos, danger.
Today, if you went to someone who’s good at interpreting dreams, you would be told that dreaming of a stormy sea represents fear in your subconscious. So the further the disciples got from the safety of the shores of Galilee, the closer they got to the other side. A storm erupted, the sea raged. Well, where is Jesus in the midst of the storm? He’s asleep.
He’s asleep in the back of the boat. No. That seems kind of odd, right? Is it possible that the gospel writer Mark is wanting his readers to remember someone else who was asleep in a boat during a great storm? Any idea who that might be?
That’s right. Jonah. Jonah. In the Hebrew scriptures, Jonah is fast asleep in the stronghold of the boat as he’s trying to escape God’s call to go to the hated Ninovites to share the good news of God’s love. Jonah doesn’t want to go to the other side.
Jonah doesn’t want to engage or talk to or even get to know those other people who aren’t even deserving of God’s love.
So I’m curious if the gospel writer Mark is inviting his audience and they probably would make that connection to remember jonah, who resisted, resented being asked to go to the other side. And to make that comparison, to show that Jesus is inviting us into a whole new way of being in the world, a whole new way of loving one another.
Jesus is intentional about going to the other side, intentional about encountering a Jesus shaped love and a gapi love is intentional about trying to break down the walls that divide us. A Goppi. Love is intentional about being willing to step out of our comfort zones and being willing to encounter and engage those we consider as other, as not like us, as the enemy. And it will probably generate fear and resistance, stormy seas within. But agape love is a dogged determination to love those we just might find the hardest to love.
I wonder what would happen if before those who are responsible for making laws about such things as abortion or immigration or transgender rights or gun control I wonder if they first had to spend a month sharing a house with the people whose lives would be most directly impacted by their decisions. Before they could cast a vote, they first had to cross to the other side and spend a month sharing life, sharing stories, sharing meals, sharing fears, learning to see each other not as other, but as a brother or sister. Learning to look for and see the image of God in the other. Listening, trying to understand, seeking common ground, resisting the forces of polarization that continually try to pull us apart, and learning to find a shared humanity.
I wonder. Jesus said, love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. Jesus asked the disciples to cross to the other side because he knew that hate and fear cannot survive proximity.
It’s really easy to hate and to judge and condemn from a distance.
Harder. It’s tougher to hate and judge when we’re willing to take off her defensive armor and our self righteousness and get close enough with a dogged determination to listen, to be kind, to care. I read an article in New York Magazine that began with this sentence on his recent trip to New York, Todd Underwood did not pack his gun. This was unusual, the first time in five years that he went anywhere, even to church, without a gun. Todd is the founder of the United Gun Group, now also traveling to New York City that day was Carolyn Taft, an artist, a mother of four.
A few years ago, Carolyn took her daughter Kristen to the mall with an armed young man open fire, killing Carolyn’s daughter right in front of her and shooting Carolyn so many times. She is permanently disabled and lives with debilitating pain.
Todd and Carolyn were on their way from their homes to New York to participate in an experiment sponsored by a group called Narrative Four, in which people from both sides of the gun debate would meet each other and engage each other’s stories. Todd and Carolyn were paired first to hear each other’s story, to hear why Todd is a vehement proponent of protecting the rights of gun owners, and why he feels strongly that gun advocates are, in his words, completely irrational and make uninformed emotional decisions about guns. And to learn why Carolyn will not stop working until we have strict gun laws that prevent people who shouldn’t have guns from getting them and banning assault style weapons altogether.
The first day of crossing to the other side and hearing each other’s stories was hard work. The second day was even harder. Pairs of participants had to tell the whole group their personal story, but tell it as if they were their partner. So Carolyn got up in front of the group and introduced herself as Todd. She talked about having an abusive father who regularly beat him as a child.
Once, when he was a teenager, his father punched him in the face with a closed fist. Carolyn described as if she was Todd, how he decided in that moment that he would never be bullied or abused again, that he would always protect himself and those he loved, and how guns kept him safe.
Carolyn cried as she imagined and described what it felt like to be a child abused by a parent like that.
Then Todd got up and told Carolyn’s story as if he was Carolyn. And several times during the telling of the story, todd broke down in tears, unable to speak.
I complained to my daughter Kristen about her messy room.
I would give anything to be able to have that messy room again. My name is Carolyn. Todd finished. The article stated, nothing else that happened that weekend begins to compare to those 13 minutes when Carolyn Taft and Todd Underwood took possession of each other’s stories. They became each other.
And in that moment, the videographers were crying that the organizers were crying. And no one in that room will ever forget what they saw in that moment.
Their shared humanity and the courage of their vulnerability was breathtaking. For a moment at least, everyone in that room was separated not by a deep canyon, but by a thin line.
This crossing to the other side, loving your enemies, choosing to love with an agape love, choosing to care, to be kind, to see God in the other is messy. It’s hard, so very hard.
But while Todd hadn’t completely changed his opinions about guns, his heart softened. He no longer assumes those who disagree are the enemy.
He now knows what it feels like to be the victim of a mass shooting, and he genuinely wants to prevent that from happening to anyone ever again.
And Carolyn said she and Todd forged a friendship that remains to this day.
She said, I wanted him to feel.
I wanted him to feel what it was like to be me.
I wanted him to feel my heart. And he did.
Friends, the real test of our faith is not how much we love Jesus, but whether we’re willing to love like Jesus, whether we’re willing to try to love with an agape love, especially those we find the hardest to love.
Being willing to cross to the other side, to invite courageous conversations with those we consider other, may not heal our deep divisions overnight.
But I can’t help but think it will change us and play a part in healing the corrosive anger and hate that surrounds us.
Who knows? Maybe the world can be changed one brave conversation at a time.
Jesus said, love your enemies. Love your enemies with an agape love. Let them be. Bring out the best in you, not the worst.
May it be so.