Back in high school, Rogers Griffin and I worked together as restaurant bus boys. After years as friends, we planned a vacation in the Colorado Rockies. We met at my suburban home to plan. He didn’t stay long because of the prying, wary looks cast by my neighbors. These were good, hard-working people, but something about Rogers seemed to inspire their suspicion. With trepidation, he suddenly announced it was time to go. Oh, did I mention that Rogers is African-American?
I’ve never been at the place of being the stranger persons react negatively to or judge unfairly because of my race, faith, gender, accent, origin, or sexuality. But I’m sure I have had that same wary suspicion in my own eyes. Some 44 persons died in the 1967 Detroit riots. The suburbs were panicked. But there’s no excuse for treating innocent others as a threat in ways defiant of Jesus’ expectations. By the grace of God, I’m being redeemed of my own hateful inclinations toward fear.
That’s what I hope to preach about in a sermon series beginning this Sunday: Fear of the Other—No Fear in Love. The series is in dialogue with a recent book of the same name by William Willimon. Pick it up if you wish to enter into deeper conversation along these lines. I will preach this series once a month for the next five months. Also, this Sunday we’ll meet Bushra Alshelabi, a Syrian refugee who arrived here in August, 2016. She currently works at Macy’s and is studying at Norwalk Community College to become a dental hygienist. She fled to Egypt with her family and is now here with her family, although she will be alone on Sunday.
We further plan an 11th Hour after worship in Parish Hall with Bushra, IIConn’s CEO (an organization settling refugees in Connecticut) and myself in a panel discussion, inviting your participation. Deacon Gary Holmes, active in IIConn for years, will moderate our discussion. So in a dark, divisive time in America, we will find our way forward by the light of Jesus. I am bold enough to believe that Jesus gives us the means to condemn, repent of, and defeat fear-filled crimes of hate. I also believe if this doesn’t start with us, where else should we expect it to begin?
While I give Gary Holmes full marks for initiating all that begins this Sunday, my own peculiar calling is to help the church think more like Christians in the hope that we will be given the grace to act more like Jesus. That never comes cheaply.
Back in divinity school days as I studied the New Testament in its original Greek, one of the first books they assigned us to translate was I John, where our text for Sunday is found, a text setting the pace for our sermon series. I John 4:18 reads, “perfect love casts out all fear.” The Greek in I John is among the easiest to read in all of the New Testament. But it is also among the very hardest for us to live.
We seek friendship with Christ and he invited us to approach him on those terms. But as fear displaces loving faith, we disappoint and betray Jesus. Politicians can leverage our fears. Still, we know we’ll be judged according to a higher standard.