A Sermon on 1 John 4:7–21 by the Rev. Tricia Dykers Koenig
Philadelphia Regional Conference ~ Chestnut Hill Presbyterian Church
February 7, 2015
At my alma mater, Duke University, the road to the main quad of the main campus begins with a traffic circle at the head of a long gentle slope. There’s no practical reason for me to drive down it, since you can’t park when you get to the end, but I always do anyway, because the view upon turning down that road makes my heart beat faster, stirs my soul – the Chapel, a massive Gothic edifice that dominates the campus. I didn’t actually spend that much time in the Chapel as a student, though my haunts in the Religion Department were right next door – my Christian friends and I mostly worshipped at an evangelical Presbyterian church off campus. But still that towering building right at the center of the University is iconic. It represents my profound gratitude for my time there, and for how my experience at Duke built my faith – or more precisely, disassembled the faith I arrived with, put it back together deeper and stronger. I’m not the only one who gets emotional about the Chapel; in many ways it is the symbol of Duke. If ESPN cameras aren’t trained on the stadium during a game, the Chapel is invariably the building they show.
A few weeks ago social media lit up with the announcement from Chapel staff that an invitation had been extended to the Muslim Student Association to broadcast their call to prayer once a week from the Chapel tower – on Friday afternoon, in English and in the traditional Arabic. While the Chapel has long been an interfaith center whose rooms are used by many non-Christians, this was a departure from the usual carillon tolling hymns. I was pleased and proud, understanding this invitation as an expression of Christian hospitality in the spirit of Jesus to a group of people who have lived for at least the last 14 years since 9/11 with an incredible level of hostility and suspicion from the majority population in this country. But many did not share my reaction. Led by Billy Graham’s son Franklin, who so far as I know has no relationship to Duke, the University got an onslaught of hostile messages, including threats to harm property and people. Less than 24 hours after the announcement, the invitation was rescinded.
Instead of singing the call to prayer from the Chapel tower, the Muslim community at Duke gathered that first Friday in front of the Chapel. The student who was intoning the call through a smaller speaker did so from a remote location out of concern for his safety; Muslim worshippers were joined by several hundred others in solidarity. Conversations on campus continue, and I for one hope that the decision is reversed when it can be done safely, donation-withholding threats be damned. But alas, what began as an attempt to embody the values of a great university and witness to the love of Jesus Christ became an embarrassment to Duke – and even worse, brought shame to the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as people identifying as Christians vilified Muslims even to the point of threatening violence. Islam is a terrible, violent religion, therefore it should not receive respectful recognition, and to emphasize how much we scorn those violent Muslims we will hurt you. Seriously?
The Duke Chapel controversy blew up just before the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, which this year coincided with major interest in the new film Selma. It all seems related to me. I ask you – is there anything uglier than the contorted face of an angry bigot? I am haunted by the pictures, in historical photos or in movies, of white people screaming at courageous, dignified African-American men, women, and children peacefully marching or sitting or just walking to school; haunted by the knowledge of routine humiliations and deliberate cruelties; of fire-hoses and clubs, bombs and bullets and boots wielded in defense of – what? It was hateful anti-gay rhetoric spewing from the mouths of people in pews that started me on the ministry that has been my call these last two decades plus. And here again we have people claiming to be defending Christianity by ranting against an already-marginalized people. Jesus weeps.
Honestly, not to my credit, I had never before given any thought to how the towering Christian Chapel might be experienced by non-Christian members of the Duke community; as a white, economically secure, heterosexual Protestant I possess immense privilege that I don’t always recognize. The Chapel says to me, loud and clear, “you belong here.” Does its prominent presence at Duke contribute to making some feel that they do not? The Chapel staff intended the invitation to the Muslim Student Association as a tangible sign of welcome, of belonging, to persons who are repeatedly being made to feel unwelcome in this nation. What about that is threatening to Franklin Graham, who so far as I can tell is a member of every dominant privileged demographic there is?
Now maybe there are other motivations for opposing the use of the Chapel tower for the call to prayer, such as a sincere belief in the superiority and exclusivity of Christianity – I have a friend from my Duke days who believes that encouraging Muslims in their faith is unloving toward them because if they do not accept Christ they will not receive eternal life. But I doubt that those threatening Duke over this were primarily concerned with the salvation of Muslims. Many of them painted all followers of Islam with the brush of terrorism. I can’t help but see the virulent reaction to the Chapel invitation as based in fear – of actual violence, perhaps on the surface, but also fear of what seems different, fear of what is misunderstood, fear of change, fear of the unknown – and fear of losing the dominance that Christians have so long taken for granted.
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love,” we read in 1 John. I am convinced that most behavior we term hateful stems from fear. But those who are absolutely certain that nothing can separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ have no reason to fear anything, because they know their future is secure in God. Those who are aware that their future in God’s presence is entirely a gift of God’s grace have no reason to seek superiority over others, because being better does not make them more loved. Those who are aware that God’s gift of grace is infinite have no reason to hoard it for themselves and their tribe. Those who know they have received grace without deserving it have no reason to belittle others as unworthy.
I wish I could say I understood the fear – of change, of the unknown, of difference, of loss? – but I am not a psychologist or a sociologist. It’s pretty clear, though, that frightened and anxious people often don’t behave well. Sad to say, the world has legitimate cause to question the power of the love of God in Jesus Christ when those who claim his name are so loud and proud in their denunciation of marginalized groups – Muslims, racial minorities, LGBTQ persons. If Jesus is Lord, he doesn’t need the kind of defense that many Christians seem to feel called to provide. Frankly, people like Franklin Graham make me doubt my own faith; and let’s face it, there’s ample evidence that Christianity, or at least many Christians, are barriers to justice, which as Cornel West reminds us, is what love looks like in public.
“We love because God first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” 1 John is pretty clear. God’s love for us is not dependent on whether we reciprocate – it’s God’s nature to love. But, those who do not act in the best interests of their brothers and sisters seem not to have truly received the effects of God’s love.
Want to argue about what love is or who deserves it? Paul in Romans insists that love does no harm [13:10], and Jesus himself is impatient with those who want to wriggle out with a narrow definition of whom we’re called to love [Luke 10:25-37]. As William Self writes, “Love is not an ideal; it is a relationship…. Against the lovelessness of fear, John sets the fearlessness of love.” [i] Whatever else it includes, love requires trying to understand the reality of the other – deliberately stirring up fear, hatred, and scorn for another can’t be included.
Those who are confident in their own belovedness by God have no need to question God’s love for others; if Christianity is superior to other religions, the evidence will be in the power of love, not in the vehemence of the claim. If Christ is the Way, it’s because his Way blesses Life, and that Truth cannot be threatened by other religions. Faith in Jesus Christ makes us confident and humble, because we know that our hope, being from God and not ourselves, is therefore sure – insecurity and arrogance are evidence of lack of faith.
Friends, we don’t welcome other religions because we believe they are true – we welcome them because we believe our own Lord and Savior. We are not kind to others because they particularly deserve it – we are kind because it is our call in Christ. Welcoming all, especially the marginalized, is not about who they are. It’s about who we are. Or perhaps more precisely, because we know who we are – children of God because God loves us unconditionally – then we know we can never deny that identity to another.
Even Franklin Graham. Even internet trolls. Even homophobic, racist, Islamophobic American Christians. Even Presbyterians who stand up in presbytery meetings and claim to love their LGBTQ sisters and brothers but still speak against honoring their committed relationships. I will admit that I am as full of judgment about their actions and attitudes as they are about mine. So, if that also describes you, how do we avoid committing the sins we identify in them?
Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was viciously beaten five decades ago in Selma, issues a challenge to us:
You have to be taught the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. And in the religious sense, in the moral sense, you can say in the bosom of every human being, there is a spark of the divine. So you don’t have a right as a human to abuse that spark of the divine in your fellow human being.
We, from time to time, would discuss if you see someone attacking you, beating you, spitting on you, you have to think of that person, you know, years ago that person was an innocent child, innocent little baby. And so what happened? Something go wrong? Did the environment? Did someone teach that person to hate, to abuse others? So you try to appeal to the goodness of every human being and you don’t give up. You never give up on anyone.
“The Civil Rights Movement, above all, was a work of love.” The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m going to still love you… Revolutionary love is another way to think about that. Not just an external stance, but a fundamental shift inside our own souls. It’s very powerful.[ii]
Perfect love casts out fear; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us. It’s a challenge I want to pose to those who perpetuate racism and denounce Muslims and fight against equal rights and dignity for LGBTQ persons. And it’s a challenge I must pose to myself, for the ones I want to denounce are also beloved children of God. Not that there aren’t plenty of actions that deserve to be rebuked and repudiated; but if we trust God, we need to find ways to keep loving the people who commit them – and that includes convincing them above all of the truth of their belovedness by refusing to treat them as less than brothers and sisters, children of the God we seek to serve.
So, this conference is about Marriage Matters, not Muslim Matters. But whether we’re going to the Chapel to celebrate the love of two persons for one another, supporting them in their commitment to one another for life, or going to the Chapel to demonstrate the love of Christ also to those who do not claim his name, the Chapel, and all other gatherings of Christians, are where we strengthen one another in our capacity to love, and together to try to live that love toward the world. Whether in relationship to a life-partner or relationship to angry strangers or relationship to neighbors who see the world vastly differently, whoever it is who challenges our patience and good will, “love as abandonment of self-interest and self-concern cuts the ground from under fear.” [iii] We are grounded in the absolute assurance that God loves us, and through God’s love both called and empowered to live fearlessly for the benefit of others.
Maybe we seem far off from being perfected in love – thanks be to God who never gives up on us, and will not allow us to give up on one another. Amen.
[i] Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox, 2008, p. 471.
[iii] D. Moody Smith, First, Second, and Third John, Interpretation series, John Knox Press, 1991, p. 114.
Tricia Dykers Koenig is the National Organizer for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians.