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Sunday, February 7, 2020
“Beloved” Sermon Series
Scripture: Joshua 1:1-9 & 1 John 4:7-21
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
I’ve always been drawn to stories of people who showed extravagant grace in horrific circumstances. I spent some time trying to put a finger on why I’m so drawn to those stories, and I think it’s because I truly hope that I could respond in a similar manner of grace, humility, and courage. I’m not sure I can. (No one really knows until they’re thrust into such a circumstance, do they?) But by immersing myself in those stories, I hope that God is shaping me to be more Christ-like in showing grace when the world would expect vengeance. I have lots of those stories close to my heart. There’s the one about the man from Northern Ireland whose daughter was killed by an IRA car bomb. He forgave them and eventually served in Parliament as an advocate for peace. There’s the story of Jesus in John 8 who offers grace to a woman caught in adultery and whom the religious leaders are ready to stone. There’s the story of the Amish Community in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, that showed an unbelievable amount of grace towards the family of the deranged man who entered their school and started shooting.
Today, I want to share one more of those stories of grace. It’s a painful story, but in this month where we as a nation celebrate black history, I think it’s part of our work as the church of Jesus Christ to remind ourselves that we are a people still in progress and that listening to voices of pain and forgiveness develops empathy within us. This is the story of Emmett Till and his mother Mamie. She raised Emmet, her only child, in Chicago. When he was fourteen in 1955, she sent Emmett to spend the summer with relatives in Money, Mississippi. During that visit, Carolyn Bryant, the white cashier of the grocery store, accused Emmett of whistling at her. Four days later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother kidnapped Till, beat him, shot him in the head, and threw his body in the Tallahatchie River, where he was found three days later.
Mamie held a funeral for Emmett back in Chicago, where she had an open casket, so people could see the horror of his lynching. They left the casket open for five days. She later said she did this to “let the world see what has happened, because there is no way I could describe this. And I needed somebody to help me tell what it was like.”
In September 1955, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted the two men who lynched Till. Fifty-two years later, Carolyn Bryant revealed in an interview that she lied about the incident. Mamie Till had a strength deep inside of her that came both from a resolute belief in the gospel and in her experience as a black woman in America. But it’s that strength that has me sharing the Till story again today. In response to a question about whether she hated the people responsible for her only son’s murder, she responded with unbelievable grace. ““It certainly would be unnatural not to hate them, yet I’d have to say I’m unnatural,” she said. “The Lord gave me shield, I don’t know how to describe it myself…I did not wish them dead. I did not wish them in jail. If I had to, I could take their four little children – they each had two – and I could raise them as if they were my own and I could have loved them…I believe the Lord meant what he said, and try to live according to the way I’ve been taught.” She lived until 2003, and Mamie Till spent the rest of her days promoting forgiveness, grace, and justice. What a strong woman of God.
How does a person have the strength to do what Mamie Till did? How do we get to the point where we can absorb the pain of loss and learn how to face evil with grace? I don’t have all the answers to this, but I see a common thread. They all have realized they have nothing left to fear. What more could the lynchers do to Mamie? They already took her son. Well, they could rob her of her sense of purpose in life, but in interviews late in life, she clearly recalls how she heard the voice of God tell her to let it go. Don’t let these men rule your life at all. That will destroy you. Yes, justice is imperative, but harboring hurt for years destroys the person harboring the hurt, perhaps even more than those the person wants to hate.
This brings me to our text in 1 John 4. Honestly, it’s such a rich text that I think I could have spent every week of our sermon series on this chapter alone, but I’m going to bear down on just a couple of the verses. They are verses 16-19. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.”
There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear. Now, John is writing especially about the fear of God’s judgment. And, let’s be honest, many of us have gone through times in our lives where we feared what God thought of us and what that meant God would do to us. Perhaps you’re in a moment like that right now. I know my story of faith is very much one of passing through years of the fear that God thought I wasn’t enough and that my eventual destiny was in Hell. That’s a horrific place to be. I know. But what does John put in front us? God is love. Those who abide in love abide in God and God in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
Do you hear the confidence you can have in that? God loves us. God loves each of us more deeply than we could have ever asked for or imagined. Casting out that fear means that we have nothing to lose anymore. We can’t lose God’s favor. In Jesus, we have it. The fear of punishment can be laid aside because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. This gives us the ability to live boldly to love as God has called us. We have nothing to fear!
And yet, most of us have fears, don’t we? I think it’s fascinating how many documented fears we humans have. For fun, I looked up a few really interesting ones this week. Here are just a few.
Barophobia – the fear of gravity
Bibliophobia – the fear of books (bad for pastors!)
Heliophobia – the fear of the sun
Scolionophobia – the fear of school
Verminophobia – the fear of germs
Now, I’m not making light of the very real, diagnosable fears that people have, but I think there are many of us who go through life on the defensive. We fear things that we are actually in a position to face head-on. We all have our fears. I had a bad experience on a ski lift last winter, and I’ve had to work on mustering up the courage to get back on one this year. We worry about what the last year is doing to us, to our society, and to our children. That’s real. This past year has been a crucible of challenge, and very little of it has been what any of us would have chosen. To fear is to be human, but to give yourself over to fear with no hope of God bringing light into that fear is tragic. Fear is often at the root of some of our worst behavior. One person I read this week put it this way, “There are many explanations for [the] rise in such uncivil behavior toward one another but nine times out of ten if you traced it back to its core cause, you would find some version or another of fear. Fear of losing. Fear of the stranger. Fear of having the Bible disproven. Fear that if this or that turns out to be true, our whole faith edifice might collapse like the proverbial house of cards. And most of those fears, in turn, can be traced back to the fear that maybe our great God doesn’t have the whole world in his hands after all. Maybe he is not the loving and gracious God the church says he is. Maybe . . . maybe my status with this God hangs by a thread and so how can I ever be sure if I am really saved?… The less sure you are about God’s unconditional love toward you, the greater you fear. And the greater you fear, the more likely it is you will find it hard to treat other people with the love of Christ because so much of life will feel threatening to you in the end.”
So, what do we fear? God’s judgment? Failing at something or failing someone? That God really doesn’t care about us or our problems? That the impact of this year will devastate us or our children forever? That a year away from church has made worship irrelevant? I want to flip those fears on their head. John tells us that God’s perfect love casts out fear. Which brings me back to the main theological point of John’s entire letter. I think it’s summed up so nicely in verse 19. “We love because God first loved us.” God is love. That means everything that is right and true and beautiful about love is a reflection of the very character of God. God loves the world. That means everything – from the best to the worst – is within the realm of God’s love. Since God is love and since God loves the entire world, that means that we are recipients of that love. What is more, when we awaken to the reality of that we are the beloved of God, we have the privilege and responsibility of waking the rest of the world up to this great, great love. God’s love has freed us to love. So, in the words of Joshua to the Israelites as they were entering the Promised Land, I urge you to be strong and courageous in how you love. Don’t let your love be weak-kneed or bland. Be strong and courageous! It’s a world in need of each of us living into the promise as God’s beloved. There is no fear in love, my friends, because God’s perfect love casts out that fear.
This is the love that gave Mamie Till the strength to live out her days grieving her lost son but not giving an inch of space for the hatred that often comes when someone is hurt. She was strong and courageous, and her courage was one step towards our nation grasping the depth of the sin of racism and moving in the direction of a society where all people are equal. We’re not there yet, but with the courage and conviction of people like Mamie Till, like you, like me –there is a better chance that the light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome. But it takes the courage to embrace God’s love for you and to let it break down all those fears and worries you’ve built up until you find yourself resting and trusting in the loving arms of the God who loves you more than anyone else.
We love because God first loved us. There is no fear in love. So, my friends, be strong and courageous.