How do we live without fear in an age of terror? There was a story of yet another terror attack the other day, but something was different this time that left me even more unsettled than unfortunately usual. I want to read a few excerpts from the CBS news story.
LONDON — A man slammed a van into a crowd of worshipers… leaving a London mosque after midnight Ramadan prayers on Sunday. One person died at the scene. Ten other people were injured by the van driver. A man who said he helped tackle the van driver to the ground and hold him there until police arrived said the suspect kept shouting that he “wanted to kill more Muslims.”
Across Britain, Muslims say they are being targeted by a wave of animosity and violence because they share a religion hijacked by bloodthirsty extremists like (ISIS), which was quick to claim responsibility for recent attacks in Britain and elsewhere.
“We are easy targets because of the way we dress and when we pray,” said Hassan Ali, a 34-year-old resident of a north London neighborhood.”But every time there is an attack here or elsewhere, we are blamed. When we are attacked, people look away.”
How do we live without fear in an age of terror? Does it make a difference that today’s story of terror was about Muslim victims at the hands of a man who looks like most of us of European ancestry here in this sanctuary? Does fear for ourselves and others begin and end with people who we identify with, perhaps with our family members, or other Americans, or white Europeans, or Christians?
The reality of living in a world of terror became all too personal for us living in the United States following September 11, 2001. Yes, we heard of terrorists before in the news, we even witnessed terror here within the US before. But on that day, 9/11, our very foundation of our sense of security was shaken to the core. The world simply didn’t look or feel the same following that day.
Fast forward almost 16 years, and the world is, indeed, not the same. We almost expect to hear some sort of news story each day that has something to do with terror. And most recently, sadly, we hear accounts of retaliatory terror, as individuals are attacking and killing Muslims (not terrorists, mind you, but Muslims) in acts of hate. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones here at home. We fear for our loved ones and other Christians abroad. But is this where our compassion ends?
We know what living with fear looks like; we have all witnessed it in some form or another within our lives. We are not much different than other species, or certainly our ancestors when we feel threatened in this world. There is a tendency to ‘circle the wagons’ as we gather to protect our own tribe or our herd, and push others out. There is a tendency towards isolation, as we seek to eliminate anything that may share a potential for threat. There is the ‘us versus them’ mentality as we cast doubts on outsiders. And as many of us have witnessed, there is a demonizing of those whom we do not understand, we do not trust, and whom we do not know.
So what are we to do? What am I, as a pastor, to say to you all as you sit listening for God’s Word being proclaimed this Sunday morning? Where is God in the midst of such violence, such terror, such fear? Is there an answer that we can find within our scriptures that will alleviate the pain and sorrow that so many of us are feeling and have felt over the years? Is there something that will take away the pain and violence that many around the world are experiencing each and every day?
We know what it looks like to live with fear, but what does it look like for us to live without…or possibly beyond such fear in the world today? I’d like for us sit with this for a moment as we get into today’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Matthew.
This morning we read scripture that is quite challenging at times. Jesus is talking with his disciples about the consequences and risks associated with following him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would famously entitle a book with the same thought, ‘The Cost of Discipleship.’ Jesus will warn of possible persecutions and violence, and even the possibility of division of families amongst them. And this is where we pick up with today’s reading.
Jesus, after giving many warning of challenges to come, gives his disciples words of hope. He speaks of bringing his message, a message of God’s Kingdom, to light.
So where do we go from here? I can imagine some of the disciples thinking, ‘Well, that’s all good Jesus, but I kind of like this whole staying alive thing. Is there some way we can just avoid this whole suffering part all together?’ I imagine some of us have very similar questions in our own lives. ‘I like this whole Christianity thing, but do we really need to experience discomfort? Can’t we just show up on Sundays in nice clothes and call it the day?’
What is the proper response to fear and terror in today’s world?
The Good News is this: God calls us to live beyond fear into love. The Apostle Paul would eloquently write, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
So how do we get there? What does such love look like in an age of terror? Well, we actually see it every day; perhaps sometimes we forget to acknowledge it.
Living in love beyond terror looks like us reaching out in kindness and compassion to the outsiders and those being oppressed of society. We are called to share Christ’s love with those who do not look or talk like us, vote or dress like us, or even worship or believe like us.
Beyond simply reaching out to the outsiders of society, Christ calls us to identify with those on the margin of society. As Jesus also taught, when we reach out and identify with the ‘least of these,’ we do so to Christ himself. Being kind to someone living in the margins of society is one step, but when we are able to identify with ‘the least of these’ we are able to see ourselves within that person, and to ultimately see Christ within the other.
Living in love means grieving with those who grieve, despite nationality or ethnicity, or religion or belief, or even sexual identity or preference.
Living in love means taking on the identity of the sermon on the mount into our everyday lives. We are called to live as the merciful, as pure in heart, as peacemakers.
And as Jesus reminds us, Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Yes, living beyond fear in an age of terror does not guarantee an avoidance of pain, of discomfort, or even earthly death. Jesus was clear with his disciples in sharing this reality with his disciples, and I would be doing a disservice if I were to offer anything less than the truth when it comes to talking about such discipleship.
And yet despite all of this, Jesus continued to preach. He continued to heal. He continued to sit with the outcasts. He continued love. And the greatest example of this love being realized was Christ upon the cross.
In an act of love and grace, Christ taught us that those who wish harm and terror may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul. Yes, there is death. But most importantly there is resurrection.
Friends, today we worship a God who turns pain into grace. Today we worship a God who turns death into life. Today we worship a God who calls us to live beyond fear and terror into faith, hope, and love.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.