I don’t need to tell you what is happening in the world today. But this week, both today, and in my daily videos this week, I want to share a different perspective than what is reported through most media outlets. COVID has dominated most of the news for the past three months, but race relations are heated – and America’s issues are mild compared to India and China or North and South Korea. We are on the brink of a nuclear war due to different ideologies among different types of people.
But what is closest to home are the demonstrations and riots that have affected many areas of our country. First, let me say that I do not believe the pulpit is to be a place for politics. But I do not believe the pulpit can ignore political happenings. The pulpit is a place to proclaim the Word of the Lord. But God’s Word is sufficient to deal with all of life’s moral issues, and those moral issues largely define our political landscape today. So, this is not a political message, although some may hear it that way. This is a message of reconciliation, which is, and has been, God’s central aim for mankind since He asked Adam, “Where are you?” in Genesis 3.
I want to also make clear the I do not believe in a social gospel. I do not believe that the gospel is to primarily focus on the social needs of others. But the gospel certainly is to address the needs of others, and those needs do include social needs and issues. The gospel is all encompassing. It must be – it is the Good News.
And ultimately that Good News boils down to God making a way for us to be reconciled with Him. Ultimately, the reconciliation that so many desire is not possible on this earth because people reject Jesus. To be fully reconciled with one another means we must be reconciled with God through Jesus. But even with that being the case, for those who claim to know Christ, an attempt at reconciliation must be evident in our lives with others whether they are Christian or not.
So, how can we make a path towards reconciliation possible?
Well, the answers are complex. But one truth is certain, without God it will be impossible. And even with God, both sides will have to listen to each other.
Take a moment to read Ephesians 2.11-22.
This passage states that two groups of people were the recipients of the letter. One group was the chosen group (the preferred group) – that is, the Jews. The others were called the “uncircumcision.” That is, they were the unclean. Paul also states that the second group were outsiders as they were considered to be separated from Christ, having no part in the promise of God, and indeed, having no hope or even an opportunity to know God (v. 12).
In other words, one side was very racist. You were a Jew or you were nothing. That belief was not Paul’s when he wrote Ephesians, but it certainly would have been a part of his belief at one time as a prominent Pharisee. So, Paul is proof, people can change.
Paul’s writing reveals that Jesus’ death made the two one. Jew and Gentile together. The dividing wall of hostility was obliterated – not by man’s doing, but by God’s doing through the sacrifice of Jesus (v. 14). Paul goes on to say that the result is one new man – again Jew and Gentile as one instead of two (v. 15), reconciling both together, thus killing the hostility (v. 16). That is, instead of killing each other (literally or figuratively with words), those who chose Christ were now bound together with Jesus, who is the foundation (vv. 20-22) supporting it all.
Thus, to be racist is to be against Christ. We can either be one in Christ, or we are not a part of Christ. Those are not my words; those words are the implications of what Paul has written.
Like the people of Ephesus, Philippi, and Rome, etc., we face similar issues and hostilities today. The difference is that we see it on the news day after day. But Paul knew something that we need to keep in mind as well: making a statement is one thing; making it a reality is another.
Thus, Paul writes to the churches. And the dominant theme of his message is this – love. He tells church after church to get along, and make love the centerpiece (see, for instance, Colossians 3.14) because God has loved us. So, let me quickly give a few ideas about love in the context of the racial tensions we face today.
Love Requires Us to Listen to One Another
Black lives matter. Yes, white (and all) lives matter as well, but white lives have not generally been in question, and it does not help the conversation at this moment. That said, I do not endorse the organization Black Lives Matter. It has many beliefs I cannot support. But I fully believe that black lives matter. But to prove that we must listen. I must listen. And I must learn. Wrongs are being committed in the present, but wrongs have been committed in the past. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” You and I are not directly responsible for the actions of the past, but we must listen to the concern in this moment. However, as Lamentations 5.7 says “Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their inequities.” So, until we listen, we will likely not be heard. In the minds of many, whites are the only ones who have ever been heard. And the legacy of this country is that many whites have suppressed blacks (e.g. slavery and restricted rights), and reds (e.g. Trail of Tears), and yellows (internment camps), etc. So, we must start by listening and acknowledging one another.
And let’s face it, the Bible has been used as a defense. Slave owners have long used the Bible to justify slavery. But somehow the Golden Rule was overlooked – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Note for our sakes today, it does not say, do unto others as they have done to you! So, yes, slavery was mentioned in the Bible. But so is love – and love is mentioned far more!
Love Requires Us to Empathize With One Another
Why should we listen? Because of the pain. I can tell you the names of someone (or of many) who have sat in nearly every room in this church and shared their pain with me. The pain of teenagers, the pain of grieving families, the pain of a person or of couples trying to salvage their marriage, the pain of struggling with various types of addictions and sin, and the pain of those who have berated (and spread rumors about me) because of some pain that was gnawing at them. I have also sat in some living rooms and kitchens and on porches and listened to your pain. We all have experienced pain and we need somewhere to turn.
And I have even heard the pain of two black men here. One shared it in this room. Another shared it after he left this room. One was Linus, who shared about the pain he had for the lost people in his native Kenya. But the other, which happened a few years prior to that, was Ayo, from Nigeria, who shared the pain he felt the last time he preached here. Many of you remember that day. For those who do not, please watch this week’s Friday Preview on the church’s YouTube channel (search Fairfax MO Baptist Church).
When Ayo told me his story, we were just getting onto 59 Hwy for me to take him back to KC, I laughed. I mean, that wouldn’t happen here would it? Could it?
But it wasn’t funny. In that moment Ayo did not know what to expect. It was not funny to him. It was serious – literally, his life, or at least his ambitions, and seeing his family again all hung in the balance.
Ayo was still a bit rattled when he told me what had happened some 15-20 minutes after we left the church. And what did I do, I laughed. Not loudly. It was more like a chuckle, and knowing me, when I laugh like that, it is barely audible. But the situation was serious to Ayo. I had heard his words, but I had not truly listened. That is not empathy. Empathy requires a level of understanding, and I did not show any understanding because I had not truly listened. And that is a big part of the problems in our world today – no one wants to listen. We must listen to understand. And we must begin to understand in order to show empathy.
But love requires us to do more than acknowledge others and have empathy; love requires us to act.
Love Requires Us to Act For One Another
Stories of pain and stories of fear require us to listen. Sometimes that is all we can do in the moment. But listening is the place to start when there is pain. We listen. We learn. We empathize as best we can. But if that is all we do, then we have likely done too little. We may be filled with good intentions, but as you have repeatedly heard me say this year, good intentions mean nothing. Too many graves are filled with people who had good intentions, but the intentions were buried with them, and therefore, so was the goodness. We must move from having good intentions to being intentional.
Sure, sometimes we may be able to do little in the moment. I cannot bring back a loved one. I cannot make the physical pain of abuse disappear. I cannot make the emotional pain of so many disappear. But listening, really listening can help.
However, most of the time, something else can be done – at least, eventually. We may act too quickly and do the wrong thing, so that is why it is important to listen, but we must do more than listen when action must be taken.
One action that may not be enough, but is always a good place to start is to say, “I’m sorry.” That is what I did to Ayo that day. I laughed because I did not understand. Effectively, I dismissed his feelings – I dismissed his fear. The first step towards making that right was to apologize. It was a simple act, but he knew it was authentic. We talked more about the issue, and why it was so troubling for him, for several miles. See, the issue was that officers in full dress enter churches in Nigeria. And fully-armed soldiers in northern Nigeria enter churches to kill the people who are meeting. That was Ayo’s context. It did not make sense to me, but that is because I had not fully acknowledged him by listening to him. Therefore, I had not yet been able to show empathy. But after I began to truly listen, my understanding began to change.
Incidentally, a friend of mine and I were supposed to go to Nigeria last summer (I was supposed to fly to Nigeria from Kenya). I was supposed to go this summer before a few issues came up (and then COVID really shot any plans down). But the reason I did not go last year was because of turmoil in the area and Ayo said, “You are from America, and you are white. That will make you a target. They will take you as a hostage if we go to the villages. So, you will go from the airport to our church and stay there until you are ready to go back to the airport to leave.” But then it got worse, and he said not to come. That is why I didn’t go last year. Even knowing that gives me a slightly better understanding of what African Americans in this country might face. Certainly, I cannot relate overall, but it moves the meter a few inches towards understanding and empathy, which eventually will reflect in love.
Ayo trusted me when I brought him to Fairfax. I must trust him if I am able to go to Nigeria. That trust requires us to act in the best interest of the other. That action is the evidence of love.
So, where do we go from here?
Well, let’s start with one step: get rid of all of the labels. As I mentioned when preaching on the Parable of the Good Samaritan last year, “We cannot love the people we label. We will not label the people we love.”
Labels bring judgment. And judgment brings oppression. I am not suggesting that you or I (or anyone) is to accept everything that happens. But when we label people, it is not healthy. Church, that cannot be us. We must listen. We must love. We must act.
If the church does not get this right, then how can we expect the rest of society to do so?
Right now, we are seeing many labels put on people all over this country, and all over the world. We see people who are not listening. We see people in pain. And the only answer to that pain is Jesus.
Jesus’ death did more than save you from your sin. It tore down the dividing wall of hostility. That wall, as Paul wrote, was between the Jew and the Gentile. But for us, it is between all believers of every color and every race. Even the church had a racial divide then, and it still has one today.
Many of you will remember the little children’s song, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” The words have been changed because it was considered offensive to use colors to speak of peoples’ skin. What was once sang as, “Red and yellow, black and white; all are precious in His sight,” became “every color, every race; all are covered by His grace.”
But while those are the words that come out of many mouths, the words that are in some of those same hearts are:
“If the color is not mine, I don’t think that they are Thine.”
Church, we must set the pace on this. Yes, we live in an area with very little racial diversity. That is just a fact. But that does not mean that we cannot listen and learn and love. That does not mean that we do not need to check our hearts. That does not mean that we do not have hatred or bigotry – in fact it may be a way to mask it easier.
Yes, there are riots and protests. But again, Martin Luther King said, “Riots are the language of the unheard.” All people deserve to be heard. We may not always agree with the thoughts and demands of others. Listening is not about giving others everything they want. But before we can give people what they need, we must listen in order to understand.
If we want others to listen to us, we must first choose to listen to others. If we want others to empathize with us, we must empathize with others. If we want others to act for us, we need to act for others.
The dividing wall of hostility has already been torn down by Jesus. So why are we acting like it is still there?
Remember, the Golden Rule. Do to others what you would want them to do for you!