September 3, 2013

2017 Sept3

Proper 17- Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev Ian M. Delinger


I was asked the other day, and the subject has been broached before, “Just how tolerant are we?” For a congregation as welcoming as St Stephen’s, it’s a more complicated question than you might think. I have explicitly condemned the extreme views that are expressed by the extremists or militants on both the left and the right, and many of you have verbally shared your agreement with me. Would we be tolerant and welcoming of a person who expressed those views? I venture to guess that the answer is “No, but yes.”


Consider what Paul writes to the Christians in Rome:


Beloved, never avenge yourselves;  for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give  them something to drink.”


Jesus, too, calls us to love our enemies, for if we love those who love us, don’t even the tax collectors do that? There is no challenge in loving those who love us. Now – as an aside – we all know that there are plenty of challenges in loving those who love us! We can see that in Jesus’ interaction with Peter. We know that there is the strongest of bonds between Jesus and Peter. Yet, Peter clearly irritates Jesus in today’s Gospel story, and Jesus retorts with hateful words: “Get behind me, Satan.” Peter doesn’t understand what Jesus is telling him, and Jesus is frustrated that the Disciples just don’t get it, over and over again.


But what will we do when extremist views are in our midst? Will we be the most welcoming church in California then? I want you to turn to your neighbor and share. Share a time that you encountered extremist or explicitly racist/sexist/xenophobic/homophobic views. How did you respond, or how do you think you would respond?


It’s not easy, is it? That question, “Just how welcoming are we?”, is tricky. And real life can be very different from a hypothetical question posed to you at 8/10 in the morning on a Sunday. Sometimes when I hear something incredibly inappropriate, I am so shocked that I don’t respond because I’m too bedazzled by what I had just witnessed.


I can’t think of a time I encountered an extremist. And I would want to suggest that the challenge of being tolerant and questioning people’s beliefs and values includes a broader range of expressions, including insults and prejudice.


I think part of the reason I haven’t been exposed to extremist has to do with where I have spent my adult life. There aren’t a lot of extremists in the Silicon Valley. Though, there is plenty of prejudice. And in Britain is very difficult to hold extremist views, at least publicly. One has to work very hard to being an extremist, like the English Defense League and the British Nationalist Party. The reason for that is because the UK has laws against incitement to religious hatred and incitement to racial hatred. Publicly expressing views of the kind we heard in Charlottesville, or which are expressed toward Muslims could result in prosecution. The UK is fully aware that their free speech is what they call “limited” free speech. The laws do not prevent people from holding these views, but the laws protect people who might be harmed by the expression of these views. Like anywhere, though, I came across some examples of intolerance.


Paul tells us today:


“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

As simple as it sounds, what we
need to do is to not only question
the views when they are
expressed, with love and charity,
we need to express the love that
Christ came into this world to
bring. Overcoming evil with
good is sharing God’s love
through Jesus Christ to others.


So, how do we do that? We punt! Working for a university made it even harder to share extreme views or prejudice. There are guidelines for such expressions that are closely monitored, and the reporting of such views is encouraged. Milo Yiannopolous would not be allowed to speak on a British University Campus because the content of his talks has proven to incite racial hatred and violence.

At the University, we had one very privileged young woman, wearing the finest clothes, and driving a brand new Mini Cooper, who lasted one semester. She was very pleasant and bubbly…during the day. With a few drinks, she turned nasty. She came to me after one particular incident, the incident that would later prove to be the straw the broke the camel’s back. She seemed to have run-ins from the black students on a regular basis. And when she would go back to her room and drink more with her friends, the racial epithets would flow freely. What was interesting was that it was an old-fashioned way of being racist. It was genuinely integrated into who she was: that the black students were below her and subservient. It wasn’t the radical views of white supremacists who want to eradicate ethnic minorities from this country. It was more…I don’t know…genuine. She was friends with them…until she had some drinks. She was such a nice person, but if she was wronged by someone of color, it got nasty. Part of her defense when her case was investigated was “I’m from Wales, so it’s OK to be like this.” The unrepentant nature of her actions was the nail in her coffin.


The part of her story that fits with what Paul writes today is the way in which this sort of case is handled. While those of us involved found her views to be abhorrent, we were required as staff to treat her with fairness. We did not return evil with evil. We did not heap burning coals upon her head. In between meetings with her, we made sure she was fed if she was hungry, and made
sure she had something to drink if she was thirsty, both metaphorically and physically.


Being kind and tolerant to those who appear intolerant is difficult. But if my time as a University Chaplain taught me anything, it was how to engage with that intolerance in the way that Paul tells us to, and in a way that brings the Holy Spirit into the situation. Were there uncomfortable conversations about foreign students, Muslims, gays and lesbians and even women? There were many! As Chaplain to all students and staff, I had to find productive ways to engage-but-challenge these views. I wouldn’t say that I was an expert at it. And I would venture to guess that it’s a skill that involves lifelong learning for most people.


So, for a congregation as welcoming as St Stephen’s the answer to the question “Just how tolerant are we? Would we welcome an extremist?” remains complicated: “No, but yes”. I am confident that the Good People of St Stephen’s will always welcome anyone, and when the views they express conflict with our Christian sensibilities, we will politely challenge extreme views. I haven’t met anyone here who would walk away from a conversation. I don’t know any of you here who are interested in heaping burning coals on anyone’s head. But it is good for us to expect the unexpected.

If we set our minds on divine
things, we can overcome the
humans things – the hate and
violence – and replace it with the
Son of Man who is to come with
his angels in the glory of his
Father. It is part of the cross we bear.

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