The Power of Love

1 Kings 18:20-39
Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench. When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, "The LORD indeed is God; the LORD indeed is God."

Galatians 1:1-12
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel--not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

Luke 7:1-10
And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, "Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.

* * *

Over the past 20 years or so I have received at least a dozen phone calls or emails from gay and lesbian persons asking if this church would be safe for them to attend. By the way, I have never gotten such a call from a divorced person, nor from an African American, Hispanic, Asian, nor from a Baptist, Catholic, or Pentecostal, nor from a Democrat or Republican. Only from gays and lesbians. And you know why? It’s because many, if not most, churches in this country are not a safe place for homosexuals.

I assure them this is a safe place, that all are welcome. But, I also tell them I can’t guarantee that each and every person here will be pleased or polite. It’s not that I know of any particular member who would be rude; it’s just that I know human nature.

Fear of the other is a powerful survival mechanism, a legacy from our animal brain. Fight or flight.

For most of us progress from intolerance to tolerance and then to acceptance and celebration is a gradual process. Cultural evolution like biological evolution comes by fits and starts.

Somewhere in the distant past as humanity evolved out of the animal world, something was poured into, or arose in, the human heart, a certain capacity to create and destroy like no other animal on the planet. In that sense we are, as our ancestors could see, god-like. It is both our glory and our shame.

For tens of thousands of years the human species practiced tribalism—us against them. And still today, tribalism is our default position.

Survival instincts breed fear of the other and often lead to violence and that, by the way, happened long before organized religion arose among us. However, once organized religion got established, the name of God or the gods or the Bible was used to justify wholesale murder against others, which brings us to the Old Testament lesson for today (1 Kings).

Elijah, the legendary prophet of Israel, lived nearly 1000 years before Jesus. Elijah despised foreigners, especially the foreign Queen Jezebel and her non-Israelite ways and religion. So, as the story goes, the first chance Elijah got he challenged Jezebel’s priests to a contest. The two sides assembled at Mt. Carmel to determine whose god was more powerful and therefore whose believers were more righteous.

The rules were simple: each would place a butchered animal on an altar of stone and see whose god would send fire down from heaven to consume it. The priests of Baal went first. No amount of praying, shouting and wailing brought down fire.

Meanwhile Elijah taunted them. Pray louder, he shouted. Maybe your god is napping or on vacation. They prayed louder. They prayed all day long. Still no fire.

And then came the smug and cocky Elijah’s turn. Just to make it more interesting, he made his challenge harder by soaking the butchered animal with water. Then he prayed to the god of his people and just like that fire zoomed down like a missile from a drone and consumed the animal to ashes.

And with that Elijah whooped and hollered like a Scottish chieftain. He rallied his tribe on the spot and slaughtered all the foreigners present. Hundreds of them.

And there you have it: another “inspiring” story from the holy book. It’s a gruesome story but it does remind us of where we’ve come from and that so-called holy people are as prone to evil as the rest of us. As the bumper sticker puts it: God, save me from your people.

This tale of Elijah’s fury made me think of the Scotch-Irish who established this Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in 1743. No they were not murderous like Elijah but they came from a tribal people who once were. And, as you may know, when the American Revolution against the English Crown broke out, the Scotch-Irish were armed, loaded, cocked and ready to fire.

I’m reading Jim Webb’s book Born Fighting: How the Scot-Irish Shaped America.  About 27 million Americans have Scottish ancestry. During the 18th century a quarter million or so migrated to America and into Appalachia. Many settled here. And, as we know, established this church.

I never met any of them, of course, but I’ve met some of their descendants, some of whom sit among us. I can tell you this: they were and are a feisty, resilient and resourceful people. From Scotland, by way of Ulster Ireland, they brought centuries of experience in fighting as tribes against other tribes not to mention many a ferocious battle against the first century Roman invaders and later against the English along their border. Think William Wallace. Think Braveheart.

The Scots raised many brave hearts that despised and resisted authority and power concentrated in the hands of a few or on thrones. And that’s why, in part, John Knox and other Scots embraced Presbyterianism in the 16th century as a foil against kings, bishops and priests.

And thus when their descendents came to America in the early 1700s they brought a fierce democratic spirit. We are still reaping the benefits in our nation and in this congregation.

Of course, we no longer arm ourselves with sword, pike, axe, or musket. Still, I’d like to think we embody their feisty, fighting spirit. We now arm ourselves with the words and deeds of love and wage peace against bigotry and injustice.

Which brings us to the gospel lesson for today from Luke. The gospel of Jesus is a gospel of love, which many seem to have forsaken or perverted. If the Apostle Paul were writing letters today he might say to us: If anyone says “Christ” is other than love, don’t believe it; don’t believe them.

Jesus was weaned on the stories of Elijah. He was taught to exclude people outside his kin and kind. The god of his people was the only true god. Everyone else was an unclean heathen.

But as we now know Jesus allowed the Spirit of Love to fill him from head to toe. He practiced compassion and found many ways to reach out and touch the world with love. All were welcome at his table. None excluded. Many were healed by the simple power of love.

When a despised Roman came seeking help from Jesus for a sick friend, his first instinct might have been to say “No,” the way a Scot would have refused a Roman long ago. But instead Jesus said, “Yes.” And in saying “yes” he saw something in that Roman centurion to commend and praise—something he might have missed had he turned his back on him. Not even among my own people, said Jesus in astonishment, have I seen such faith. Which only goes to show, there are many pleasant surprises to be had when we treat others as people and not as categories.

Jesus was on his way to becoming a “neighbor without borders.” And that is the power of love we honor today.

Next Sunday is the West Virginia PRIDE Festival and Parade in Charleston. And by sheer and happy coincidence this past Thursday our Session (governing council) approved placing a rainbow decal on the sign in front of our church. The rainbow is a universally recognized symbol of peace and inclusion. It says explicitly what we have said implicitly for many years. I guess you could say, we’ve now “outted” ourselves.

If our Scotch-Irish predecessors could see it and knew what it meant, they might roll over in their graves. But had they lived through all the generations that have led to this one, had they listened with us to the spirit of Christ that continually brings more light and more understanding, I’m pretty sure they would rejoice with us today.

After all, the church of Jesus Christ is a living organism; not a museum. We are led and shaped by the Great Spirit that continually reforms and transforms persons and communities.

I don’t know if the Scotch-Irish were any more bigoted or prejudiced than other people of their time but I’m guessing they would have flinched at the possibility that children of former African slaves plus gays and lesbians would one day be included in their church. Nor would they have expected unwed mothers, single parents, gay parents, divorced and remarried people, or the blessing of same-sex marriages to be part of the community they started in this place.

What happened?

“The Pentecost conspiracy” happened. That’s what happened.

Apparently, the power of love that was poured into our species thousands of years ago is still working to create more and more neighbors without borders. In fact, it’s made an impact on our forthcoming, new web site.

Our new web site will link a rainbow button on the homepage to this statement:

We welcome all people regardless of age, race, ability, sexual orientation, marital status, social class, religious affiliation or none. We understand hospitality to be central to a life of faith.  We aspire to practice the radical inclusion that is at the heart of Jesus’ life and teaching.  We are committed to the movement of full inclusion and equality in church and society for all people, including our GLBT brothers and sisters.

Which is to say, all are welcome. And may it always be so.