Yesterday, the North Carolina Pride Parade took place in downtown Raleigh. I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to pride parades most of the time, even though a business appointment landed me smack dab in the middle of Market Street for San Francisco’s largest pride parade ever last year, two days after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Usually, though, I just see them on the news. After the parade yesterday, one image was shown over and over on the local news and on social media: a man standing on the sidewalk, holding a sign screaming: “You Deserve Hell.”
Way to spread the gospel, dude.
Not to say anything whatsoever about the righteousness of anyone’s behavior, but I wished I had been able to walk up to that man and say, “And so do you. And so do I.” The Bible is full of references to the fact that we are all sinners, even if we’ve only fibbed about taking a cookie from the cookie jar. We’re all flawed creatures right from the start, so finger pointing is a laughable practice. This picture made me grieve—grieve for those who were hurt by it, grieve for the soul of this man who could be that arrogant, grieve for all those who would turn away from Christ because of it, and grieve for the church that suffers loss every time one of us responds to the world in hatred instead of love.
This morning, our pastor preached a timely sermon on responding in love. Since he is an expository preacher, he works his way through the Bible verse by verse, so the passage in Matthew 5 that deals with turning the other cheek and loving your enemies just “happened” to come up this week. In it, Jesus recalls the passages in Leviticus that instruct Moses on the importance of impartial judges, loving your neighbor as yourself, and doing good to the “sojourner among you.” It is not a matter of someone else’s sin; it is a matter of the content of our own hearts.
The word “love” occurs in the Bible over 500 times in modern translations. (Older translations use the word “charity” some of the time, but that word does not have the same meaning as it did in the 17th century.) The word “peace” is also used hundreds of times. John tells us, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:7-8.) Paul tells us, “Let love be genuine…. As far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:9 & 18.)
Why can’t we get this? If God so loved the world, why do we hate so much? I’m not just talking about yesterday; just pick a topic on the news or in your neighborhood any time. The world is on fire, and we’re throwing gasoline. The church in the United States seems to believe that it is a political party, waving the flag and acting as if America used to be the Promised Land and we just need to get back to those times. But this was never the New Jerusalem. We were just a nation blessed by God, and now, perhaps, not so much. I understand that Christians in America are afraid of losing our freedom of religion, and fear can cause people to retaliate against anyone perceived as a threat. Decisions made in fear, though, are rarely our best decisions. Our scriptures tell us to repent and pray. Sure, as American citizens, we can and should work for better laws and for freedom of thought and conscience for everyone, but when God says that his people should repent and pray, he means us—the church—not “them.” We should repent. We should pray. Oh, my soul, we should pray.
Brothers and sisters, we can be righteous and loving at the same time. We can wage peace and be strong at the same time. We can be humble and stand up for the weak at the same time. We can love people who are not in our “group,” just as Jesus did when he shocked his disciples by hanging out with the Samaritan woman at the well. The gospel needs to be declared, truly, more than anything else, but screaming hatred toward the world is not the way of Jesus.
There is so much sin in the world, and we are called to speak the truth in love at all times, but if you want to take on a project of reforming a terrible sinner, go look in the mirror. Start there.
And can I find that horrible sign again? No, of course not, even though I’ve done some Google searches that I’m sure will put me on the map with all of those folks who keep track of who’s doing what on the internet. So sorry. It really does exist.