by Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
What the world needs now. . . . .
That’s the title of this art piece our Sunday School children painted for the Central Visitation Program’s annual fundraiser earlier this month. The Arons’ family won a lively bidding war to buy it and promptly donated it back to the church for our nursery. The colorful collection of hearts was intended to reflect the mission of Central Visitation—to mend and reconcile relationships between children and their non-custodial parents.
It took on added meaning for me post-election. Whatever your reaction, one reality stands out (and frankly, it would have stood out no matter the outcome): we are a deeply divided nation. And more troubling is that we’re isolated from one another to such an extent that we find it hard to understand the depth of the divide, and the reasons behind it.
What the world needs now. . . is love. And not generalized love, warm and fuzzy affection, but love powerful enough to move us beyond familiar suspicion and stereotypes to listen and hear one another. Love that doggedly reaches beyond self-interest to seek the well-being of others. Love that heals resentments and bitterness, no matter how long-standing. Love that picks us up when life has knocked us down and gives us new courage to act. Jesus said that to love God and one another was “the greatest commandment,” and then spent his life translating it into everyday practice.
One of those “translations” is our morning text, from the summary of Jesus’ sayings known as the sermon on the mount. We were called to worship by the pronouncement of God’s blessing upon people in the most unpromising situations. I confess I read them agnostically today because it was not the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful and the peacemakers who triumphed at the polls. But our friend and Central member Carl Duncan quoted last week’s sermon to remind me to “Fear not. God is still God, the Holy Spirit is alive and well and available 24-7.” (I hate it when he does that!) So let you …and me!…. listen for what that Spirit has to say to us today in the reading from Matthew chapter 5, at verse 13, immediately following the “blessed ares.” [Matthew 5:13-16]
Christians do not have the luxury of a private faith. Jesus calls us as witnesses, testifiers, sharers, and doers of the startling, life-changing truth that God loves the whole world and is working for its life. We’re to be and do all this in public; not hidden away in the sanctuary and not going incognito everywhere else. We live our faith out in the open (as salt and illumination) to provide an unmistakably zesty presence in a cynical, languishing world. To reflect the light of God in even the darkest, most confusing times.
What follows this morning are some suggestions on how the church can be salt and light, in response to the deep division revealed by the presidential election. The chasm was there before, of course, but there sure has been a lot of scrambling to analyze its sources. In some ways the church—like American society itself—is looking at each other across this divide and wondering why we didn’t know, what has been forgotten or ignored. Make no mistake: the church—and this congregation—finds itself on both sides. But this is true, friends. God has given the church a surprising blessing that has the power to bring us together and breach the chasm with understanding and yes, love.
First, there are groups in our country who feel particularly vulnerable. I made phone calls to three of our mission partners who serve the LGBTQ
community, Latino families living in the Colfax corridor, and Somali refugees, most of whom are Muslim.
A young woman named Hope answered the phone at Rainbow Alley. Her soft voice expressed gratitude for this church’s support of a safe space and counseling services for homeless LGBTQ teenagers, and expressed concern that these services will be needed now more than ever. Every week last summer we provided love in the form of home-baked cookies and delivered them in person. Time to do so again?
Hope in Our City is committed to building a healthy community in Sun Valley, one of Colorado’s poorest neighborhoods, where more than half the population are refugees. Ben–the staffer I spoke with– said events this Fall have prompted many conversations about fear of terrorism and national security. He quoted a Somali father of three who spoke in frustration: I can’t believe anyone would be afraid of me, or think I want to destroy my new home! They don’t know me.” Hope in Our City tries to counter fears by building relationships—getting to know one another and seeing that our differences diminish in light of our similar hopes and desires for a good life. Ben made several suggestions:—participating in their after-school Friday Recess with elementary-aged kids. There’s a weekly leadership class for middle and high school students that needs adult mentors. And they’ve just created a small business to sell the handcrafted items made by the Ladies’ Sewing Circle. Can shooting hoops and eating energy bars together bring about world peace? Could contact with caring Americans counter the hateful rhetoric of extremists? Will a craft store combat poverty? Well, these small actions can dispel the fear that triggers prejudicial behavior and promote greater understanding and acceptance.
Dean’s 25 now, an aspiring actor in graduate school. But when I knew him in the youth group of a former congregation, he was one of those kids who questioned everything from authority in general to God in particular. I was surprised when I read his Facebook post on Thursday (he gave me permission to quote him, adding it was probably the only time he’d make it into a sermon!): I didn’t post anything the day after the election because to express my anger and frustration would soothe no one and would not heal any wounds. But there are things worth believing in.. . . It is precisely moments in history like these that require a loving and supportive hand held out to those who need it most . . .[so] provide a loving hand and a courageous voice to all you encounter. Inspire hope and love in others by walking side by side with them. That’s what I’ve decided to say and do. . . .
In a word, friends, love. Love shows up. Love meets people in person to talk and listen, to pray and play and to affirm the humanity in every single one of us. To look upon others through God’s eyes, and see their mixed motives, their fears and failures, their cruelty and nobility. . . . . and to recognize oneself.
That’s equally true of the other side of the chasm: people who felt hope stirred by the promise of America made great again, who cast their vote for Donald Trump. Is this an urban v. rural divide? College educated “elites” v. the white working class? We must not reduce this group to a single category, but there is evidence to suggest a great number of people feel forgotten and left behind. JD Vance grew up in Middletown Ohio and Jackson, Kentucky, impoverished communities in the Appalachian rustbelt. A stint in the Marines including a tour of duty in Iraq enabled him to attend the Ohio State University and eventually Yale Law School. He’s written Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, a heartbreaking love poem, lamenting the losses of a people with whom he still identifies. What an eye-opener! Vance notes that no group of Americans—not African-Americans, not immigrants— are more pessimistic about their children’s economic well-being than working class whites. And whenever he is asked what he’d most like to change about them, he responds “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.” The feeling that our choices don’t matter.
There’s a world of hurt in that perception. And I know I have some learning to do; some listening to people who feel dismissed, disregarded, and insignificant. My brother Jack is a family doctor and led adult education classes here on the opioid crisis which has hit rural America hard. 440 overdose deaths in Colorado last year, and 10 times 400 in emergency room visits and hospitalizations. Medical research has come to see that the biggest predictor of opioid use disorder (formerly described as “addiction”) is a sense of disconnection and isolation. Can love cure this pain? Can love heal the disease? Jack challenged us with a very concrete proposal: to introduce ourselves to one gentleman living in New Genesis. Get acquainted with him, find out what scares and inspires him. Let him know you don’t regard him as merely one of a group called “homeless,” “alcoholic,” “drug-addicted,” and “deplorable,” but see him as a person who– like everyone of us—is part need and part gift….and part of the family.
Friends, what the world needs now is what the world needed yesterday, and what the world will need tomorrow: love. There are a lot of scripture texts I don’t understand, but Jesus is pretty transparent in this one: God’s love gravitates toward need. To the depressed and grieving, the forgotten and displaced, the people with hungers both physical and spiritual, the ones who need mercy, those who are at war with each other, who are persecuted and bullied. It might seem harder to love today, but love has always been hard. If it were easy, everyone would do it, and there would be no need for grace.
But God’s grace is exactly what we have. A surprising blessing, but a blessing nonetheless. A blessing to receive and to share—not a perfect offering, for in the words of the late, great singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, there is a crack in everything. But that’s how the light gets in. Amen.