September 03, 2017
The front page of last Sunday’s New York Times featured an amazing story about recent events in Fort Smith, Arkansas. It tells about both the fall and the redemption of Abraham Davis, a 20-year-old white guy with a troubled past and a poor self-image. One night, he and a friend got drunk and drove Abraham’s mother’s rickety van to the local mosque where the friend spray-painted a swastika and curses and the words “go home.” At school, before Abraham had dropped out, he had been sort of friendly with a Muslim in his class, which may have provided some consolation as he dealt with poverty and a chaotic family life. Nevertheless, he participated in the defacement of the mosque and ended up in jail, caught in the act by the mosque’s security camera.
Then, wonderfully, remorse set in. Lacking other means of communication, he wrote two letters. In the first, he apologized to his mother, who had entrusted him with the van and who had recently been diagnosed with leukemia. The second began, “Dear Masjid Al Salam Mosque,” and apologized for his involvement in something he hadn’t really meant. Then, equally wonderfully, members of the mosque responded with forgiveness and generosity. They had done well since coming to America two or three decades ago, and they love this country, despite the difficulties they have faced. Grateful for support from their Fort Smith neighbors of other religions in the aftermath of the incident, prominent Muslims went to the local prosecutor and pleaded for leniency in Abraham’s case, which the judge reluctantly granted. Law officers wouldn’t let him go to the mosque to thank those who had interceded for him, as he desired, but through Facebook, his old Muslim friend from school assured him that all had been completely forgiven. Abraham now has a job at Goodwill, and we can hope and pray that he will begin to have a more positive sense of himself and of his own potential. Perhaps his name, Abraham, points to a future at peace with others whose faith goes back to the original Abraham, a future characterized by the fruitfulness God ensured for the patriarch, despite all odds. We hope so.
In reading this story, it strikes me that the Fort Smith Muslims’ response to this crisis parallels that of the members of Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who faced a much greater crisis with the shooting there in 2015. (As you may recall, they forgave Dylann Roof for murdering nine of them after they had welcomed him into their service.) In both these events, those most deeply hurt followed the ethic urged by St. Paul in today’s epistle: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves . . . . No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink . . . .’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
God clearly transcends our religious boundary lines. The Spirit of God and, we would say, the Spirit of Christ was at work in both these cases, bringing about a response that was healing and life-giving, rather than divisive and destructive. We learn from this, I would argue, backed by scripture and tradition, that God cares more about how we live, about how we treat each other, even than about the words we use when professing our faith. How we treat each other is even more important than whether we attend church—and you know I’m a huge proponent of attending church!
In last Sunday’s gospel, Peter said the right words, when Jesus asked him and the other disciples who they say that he is. “You are the Christ,” Peter proclaimed, “the Son of the living God.” A+ The ultimate Teacher, Jesus, affirmed this as a truth from God himself. However, as we learn in today’s gospel, there was still a problem. Peter could talk the talk, but he was not yet able to walk the walk. He did not yet understand the implications of proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. He didn’t “get” what it would mean to follow a crucified Lord. God sent this anointed King, as the biblical scholar Tom Wright has noted, to build a community, “a people through whom the living God will put the world to rights, bringing heaven and earth into their new state of justice and peace.” Peter and his declaration are not ends in themselves but the rock, the foundational starting point, of a community we call the Church, which is intended to exist not for itself alone, but to engage in God’s mission of reconciliation, healing, and peace in Christ. In other words, we have work to do, stemming from our basic beliefs.
Soon, we will be observing the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which insisted that the Church had so emphasized the importance of people’s works that they had lost sight of their absolute dependence on God’s grace alone for salvation. Justification depended, Martin Luther argued, solely on the grace that comes through faith, rather than on anything we do. He even looked askance at the New Testament letter of James, which bluntly says that “faith without works is dead.” It was an “epistle of straw,” in his eyes. Certainly, Luther had a point which we value and indeed cherish, that our hope is in God alone and doesn’t depend on our own efforts. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t mislead anyone into thinking that works don’t matter. We can take this point from the English priest William Tyndale, who in the early 16th century was strongly influenced by Luther and who wrote an extremely significant translation of the Bible into English, 90% of which eventually made its way into what we call the King James Version. In the preface to his New Testament, after noting that the biblical law is summarized in the commandments to love God and neighbor, he declared, “ . . . if any man that submitteth not himself to keep the commandments do think that he hath any faith in God, the same man’s faith is vain, worldly, damnable, devilish and plain presumption . . . and is no faith that can justify or be accepted before God.” True, saving faith, Tyndale is arguing, involves doing God’s will. Belief is active, not passive. This came to the forefront recently when Houston’s megachurch pastor, Joel Osteen, pronounced that God had everything in hand related to Hurricane Harvey but resisted opening his church building as a shelter until he came under intense pressure from social media.
We all want to take the easy way, of course. Peter did. “God forbid,” he said to Jesus, “This must never happen to you.” The way of the cross is hard. It involves getting our feet wet, and our hands muddy if not bloody. It involves taking risks, whether in Houston or elsewhere. Teri McDowell Ott, the chaplain at Monmouth College in Illinois, was confronted with this reality when she saw herself as one of many who had thought that being antiracist simply meant taking a stance—a philosophical, moral position. In a grace-filled moment, however, she realized that convictions are of little value, and perhaps are not real, unless they affect how we live day to day. We can really claim to be antiracist, she concluded, only when our beliefs lead us to make sacrifices, in what we say or do, that can change things for the better.
“The Son of Man,” Jesus says in today’s gospel, “is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what he has done.” Actions matter! One commentator puts it this way: “One’s faithfulness to the call of discipleship, not one’s verbal confession, will determine one’s standing with God.” God in Christ is merciful and will forgive our failures to understand and to act, just as he did Peter’s. Nevertheless, he wants us to see that the way he showed us, the way of self-giving love, is not only hard—it is also the way to life, and peace, and joy without end.