Stronger Together

Hebrews 10:19-25

19 Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

There is no shortage of short, pithy statements concerning community. Some are biblical, others just make sense. Ecclesiastes 4:12 reminds us that “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” There is an old saying that “a joy shared is doubled…a sorrow shared is cut in half.” “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” And Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

We know these phrases by heart, and I know them to be true. We are stronger together. Yet our society seems to be moving more and more toward individualism. We are just as familiar with phrases like, “I am a self-made man.” “Nobody helped me get where I am but me.” And “I don’t need anyone else. Dependency shows weakness.”

Those of us who live in the United States know that our society values the individual, sometimes at the expense of the community. This is one of the many areas that I think we can learn from our brothers and sisters living in other parts of the world, as well as from our brothers and sisters who have come before us.

Imagine you are a Christian living in the early years after Jesus’s death and resurrection. You are a minority and at times you are greatly persecuted for your faith, especially if you lived between 64 and 313 AD when there was official government persecution of Christians. You hear stories of other Christians being fed to the lions in the gladiator areas as a public spectacle. You know, because that’s entertaining. You hear stories of how Emperor Nero had Christians like you covered in tar, impaled on a long pole, and then used them as human torches to light up his gardens as he and guests enjoyed their social gatherings. Or maybe you are an Anabaptist living in the 16th century, and your fellow Anabaptists are being imprisoned, tortured, and killed for their faith. There are two natural responses: you recant your faith, claiming to no longer adhere to the set of beliefs that might lead you toward that kind of persecution, or you huddle together with other people who share your faith and convictions, knowing that you are stronger together than you could be on your own.

When we consider the level of persecution faced by the early church and the early Anabaptists, it is not hard to imagine why community was so important to these groups. And today, in our privatized and individualistic western world where Christianity seems to be declining in both number and power, many people are turning toward these expressions of Christianity to ask what we may be missing out on. It is my assertion that one of the most life-giving and counter-cultural things that we can do today is to live in community.

I really like the way the author of Hebrews speaks about community in chapter 10, verses 23-25a: “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.”

We hold on to the hope that we profess in Jesus for he is faithful. And it isn’t always easy to hold on to hope. So we spur one another on, like a cowboy spurs a horse. Spurring one another toward love and good deeds. The King James translates this as provoking one another. The literal Greeks says to irritate one another to love and do good. And we do this by meeting together. We get together and irritate one another! Are you loving people? Huh, are you? Are you loving people? Are you? Are you?

Last week I was in Jamaica where I spent two days with the pastors and leaders of the Jamaica Mennonite Conference in an Anabaptist Leadership Retreat. That’s right, I can officially add “International Lecturer” to my résumé. It was a great experience learning together with about 30 other people what it means to be a Mennonite church in the Caribbean. I went along with two others from Virginia, and we each presented on various topics as well as hearing from a Jamaican pastor who chairs their missions program. We also spent time traveling across the island, visiting three of the thirteen Mennonite Churches of Jamaica and the Maranatha School for the Deaf, which is a ministry of Jamaica Mennonite Conference and receives a significant amount of support from Virginia Mennonite Missions.

I felt a spirit of community among the people of the Jamaican Mennonite Church. The conference leaders stayed up late into the night playing dominos, talking about track and field as the World Championships were taking place in London while I was in Jamaica. And the whole island grieved together when Usain Bolt crashed to the ground from cramps during what he said would be his final professional race.

Last Sunday I worshiped at Good Tidings Mennonite Church in Kingston and the Jamaican church operates differently than what we might be used to. They start…when they feel like most people are there. It might be the pastor who comes in late, and that’s okay. I was invited to come up to the podium and bring greetings to the congregation, which I learned I would be doing when I heard my name over the loudspeakers. It was a different experience in a different culture, and I am better for it.

Most places we went, the only other white people that I saw were the gentlemen that came with me from Virginia. Nowhere was this more apparent than church on Sunday, as each of us went to different churches to represent Virginia Mennonite Conference. I was the only white person in the building. Black people make up 92% of the population in Jamaica and 100% of that church. And of course they had a name for me in that church, a name for the only white person in attendance that day. Do you know what they called me?

They called me brother.

Community is a beautiful thing. It is inviting, it is supportive, it spurs each other along, irritating us to do right and practice love.

Now I’m not naïve; I know that there would be places on the island where I would not be welcome and people who would look down on me because of the color of my skin. I also know that my role as a pastor granted me a special status among the church people. But for that hour of worship—or to be more accurate, one hour and forty-five minutes—I was Brother Kevin. And I was Brother Kevin during our conference. And I was Brother Kevin when Dougie dropped me off at the airport at 5:30 in the morning and I was invited to come back again next year.

Then I get back into the US, and there is one thing dominating every news outlet: radio, television, newspaper, and internet. That topic is Charlottesville.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what happened in Charlottesville. White Supremacists organized a protest and others organized a counter protest. Things got out of hand, though after seeing pictures of armed citizens exercising their right to carry firearms, I’m thankful things didn’t get further out of hand. Pushing, shoving, yelling, name calling. And one car driven by a white supremacist intentionally directed into a group of counter protesters, injuring 19, killing one.

Let me just go on record now and say this in case you have ever wondered: I denounce white supremacy. I denounce any supremacy. I denounce any thought or ideology that claims one person or race is better than another.

I’m reminded of what Paul writes to the church in Galatia. In a church made up of ethnic Jews who could trace their lineage back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, there were also new believers who could only trace their religious heritage back to a few weeks ago. And Paul writes to this group in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” They were all one. One body, one church, one Lord over all.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t cultural preferences among the people. They surely had different tastes in food and clothing, music and entertainment. Some of the things that the Gentiles liked might be seen as weird to the Jews, and vice versa. They weren’t told that they had to like all the same things or to be exactly alike in every way. No, our differences are a part of what makes humanity beautiful. But they were told that they were all equal. And that message is just as true today.

We could have discussions about Confederate flags and statues commemorating Civil War leaders, and there is a place for that. But those topics are so politically loaded right now that I wouldn’t want to talk about them here and now. But please hear me when I say that there are people who hold onto these images that are not racists, they do see them as heritage and not hate. Yet those gathered in Charlottesville last weekend are of a different variety. This was hate.

But since I’m being totally honest, I wasn’t proud of some of the counter protests that I saw either. Some, and I emphasize some, of the counter protesters simply returned hate for hate, scream for scream…eye for eye, tooth for tooth. No, there were no deaths among the white supremacists, but there were injuries. I’ve heard reports of sticks and stones thrown both ways, pushes, punches, pepper spray and smoke bombs.

No, racism is not the way of Christ. But neither is hatred. If Christ died for all, he died for the racists and he died for the counter protesters. And when Jesus said to love our enemies, surely this applies to neo-Nazis and the alt right as well. As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:17-18; 21, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Here’s the challenge, I don’t know what that looks like when the alt right is holding a rally. I also don’t think that we should do nothing. I can be a bit critical of how some counter protesters handled themselves in Charlottesville, but there were some that I think provided a Christian witness in the midst of the ugliness. Unfortunately, these folks don’t often get the same media coverage as the violent and hate-filled protestors.

Did you know that Friday evening before the protests that around 1,000 Christians filled St. Paul’s Memorial Church just off the UVa campus, gathering together for prayer and singing? As the doors opened to welcome people from all denominations and backgrounds, songs of praise, love, grace, and mercy spilled out of the church.

The next day, clergy members walked through the city, arm in arm, wearing their stoles and robes and clerical collars, praying for the people in Charlottesville. At one time, members of the neo-Nazis with their shields, helmets, and rifles broke through the linked arms of the clergy members, knocking them to the ground, pushing them to the side.

Like Jesus encouraging his followers to turn the other cheek, clergy members being pushed around by armed militia exposes the evil in that moment. Again, I don’t know if that was the best thing to do, but it was better than returning hate for hate, and it was better than doing nothing.

But that’s on the other side of the mountain, and as many have pointed out, the white supremacists and a lot of the counter protesters came in from outside of the area. What about our community? On Wednesday I spent some time talking to the mother of one of Paxton’s friends. As these things often go, we soon started talking about world events, we soon started talking about Charlottesville. She wanted to make sure that I knew that the problem wasn’t just in Charlottesville, but also right here as well. Just a few days earlier, she had been with her children at the local Lowes purchasing some household items. She has dark eyes and hair and is from Boone, NC. Her husband is from Hawaii, so he has a darker complexion than those of us of European descent. As you can imagine, their children’s skin is light brown in color with big brown eyes.

This friend said that as she was in the parking lot, a man approached her and said, “Go home.” She thought, “I live in Staunton. Does he mean North Carolina?” No, she said, evidently they looked Mexican to this man. It didn’t matter to this man that she was from North Carolina or that her husband was from Hawaii, which last time I checked was still in the United States. It didn’t matter that her husband had served in the US Army and currently serves as the Supply Sergeant for the local armory. What mattered to him was the color of their skin.

When my friend realized what the man intended with his remark in the parking lot, she dropped her head. It was then that she noticed that on rear bumper of the man’s car’s there was a Jesus fish.

Our district minister dropped some wisdom on us the other day. He said that all of this hatred and racism is symptom of something else. He said the real issue here is fear. I think he is right.

One of the slogans chanted by the white supremacists last weekend was, “You will not replace us.” In interviews I hear white supremacists speaking of being dispossessed of their land and their status. There is a fear among some white people of becoming a minority in this country. Because we know how minorities are treated.

My friends, I don’t have all of the answers, but I do know that we were not given a spirit of timidity. As John’s first epistle tells us, there is no fear in love because perfect love casts out all fear. And to my fellow white Americans who are afraid of becoming a minority, let me quote Jesus one more time: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Treat a minority the way you would want to be treated if the tables were turned. And if you won’t do it because Jesus said so, do it because some day you may find yourself in the position of the minority.

It is my prayer that like Joseph being sold into slavery by his own brothers that God will take this thing that was meant for evil and do something good with it. May we continue to have the difficult discussions, spurring one another, irritating one another toward love and good works for that is what community is supposed to do.

We are stronger together. We need one another. We are the church.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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