“Let Love Be Genuine”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
September 3, 2017
Jeremiah 15:15-21 & Romans 12:9-21
Nickel Mines is a beautiful little hamlet in the southern countryside of Pennsylvania, about an hour north of where I grew up. In Nickel Mines there was a one-room Amish school house, set against a backdrop of stones houses and silos, a picture of which is on the front of your bulletin today. On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts burst into this school house strapped with a semi-automatic pistol, two shotguns, a stun gun, two knives, two cans of gunpowder, and 600 rounds of ammunition. Charles ordered 15 Amish boys to leave the room, then lined up the girls and the teacher against the wall, execution style. The teacher managed to escape and call the police. But shortly after the police arrived, Charles began shooting—after it was all done, Charles had shot 10 girls, 5 of which died immediately, before turning the gun on himself. No answer has yet to be given as to why Charles did what he did.
Last year, ten years after that unspeakable morning, the British newspaper The Guardian interviewed some of the survivors, some of the boys who were released and some of the girls who escaped wounded. One of the boys, Aaron Esh, was 13 when Charles gunned down his classmates. He told reporters, “Its been ten years, and everyone is doing pretty well, for the most part, but we still wonder: why did it happen?” And that’s what the small Amish community in Nickel Mines calls it: the happening. This is certainly not something they ever expected to happen in their community; they certainly did not invite this tragedy in. The Amish are peaceful people, pacifists, who live almost entirely separated from the modern world. After The Happening, the men of the community tore down the school house and built another in a different part of town. But surprisingly, that's the only thing that changed in the community: they did not hire security officers to patrol the streets; they did not arm themselves against a future threat; they did not put bigger locks on their doors or distance themselves even more from the outside world. Seems strange, doesn’t it?
It gets stranger. Aaron Esh said later in the interview with The Guardian that, “The essence of Amish life is giving up, giving up self to the group, to God. From how one dresses to the kind of work one does, Amish life is shaped by rituals of self-surrender. We do not want to be thought of as saintly or as stoically stuffing our feelings into a box.” And the community lives these values. On the day of the killings, members of the Nickel Mines community took food to Charles Roberts’ widow. Six days after the shooting, families who had just buried their daughters attended Charles’ funeral. The Nickel Mines community did not accept a dime of the money that poured in from all over the world; instead, they sent it to the killer’s family, even though many in the community had huge medical bills. Esh said that forgiveness was the topic of every conversation, every sermon, every casual interaction in the weeks after the shooting. “Harboring anger and resentment is corrosive,’ he said, ‘it will eat you up. Forgiveness is so ingrained in our heritage that it’s part of our character.”
Terri Roberts, the gunman’s mother, has become a friend of many of the families in Nickel Mines over the years, by their invitation. And their reasoning is so compassionate: Terri lost a son in the tragedy, but she gained an entire community who knows what it is like to lose a family member. The families invite her to holy day celebrations and meals, and she has become very close to Rosanna King; Rosanna was six when Terri’s son shot her. Rosanna is confined to a wheelchair now, fed through a tube, and suffers from terrible seizures. But they go on walks together, Terri pushing Rosanna through the peaceful countryside. And they travel together. They traveled to Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. When they visited families at Sandy Hook, the community was amazed that Rosanna and Terri could even be in the same room together, let alone share such a close friendship. Just last month, almost eleven years after one of his daughters was killed and the other wounded, Chris Stoltzfus said that the shock and horror of that day is still fresh in his mind, but he chooses to forgive. “But you see,’ he said, ‘it’s a journey. I still made that immediate choice in principle. But it took me a few years until I could feel that I really mean it inside me, to forgive Charlie. And when I did, I felt a great weight falling off of me. I felt lighter.”
I don’t know where Aaron Esh and Chris Stoltzfus and the others found the courage to speak so peacefully and gracefully, or where they found the faith to embody such deep, Biblical convictions. Aaron made it seem like it was genetic, and it might be. Maybe their courage and faith came as gifts from God, wrapped and sent from heaven. Or maybe each person in the community owns a well-worn Bible, and they read and practice the Bible thoroughly. Maybe it is a combination of all of these. I don’t know. What I do know is that their words and actions are powerful for one simple reason: they are a true expression of genuine love.
So much of what we read in the Bible is abstract for us, hypothetical at best, isn't it? Think of what Jesus teaches us in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A Jewish man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road. Two religious men pass by but neither stops to help. Finally, a Samaritan happens upon the traveler and offers him aid. The tricky part of the parable is that Jews and Samaritans were sworn enemies. Jesus told this parable when a scribe asked him, “Who is my neighbor?” Faith in Jesus compels us to stop on the side of road and offer someone aid, even if the person in need is our sworn enemy. But in reality, how often do we see someone beaten and bloody on the side of the road in need of help? How often do you take in a widow or an orphan as Jesus commanded? How often do you give your coat to someone, as Jesus commanded, so that they don’t take you to court and sue you for it? I have not recently, or ever, been forced to walk a mile against my will and then chosen to walk an extra mile to shame my oppressor, again as Jesus commanded.
But you’ve been assaulted by a nasty comment, run over by a cheap shot, and/or demeaned in some way. know I have. This type of behavior has been given approval in our society more recently. And you and I have been tempted in those moments to exact some kind of revenge. Even the sweetest and gentlest of people have been known to turn ferocious when they run up against another person’s cruelty. If it can happen on the playground among first graders—which it does every single day—it can certainly happen among adults who have a special knack for rationalizing even the most terrible behaviors. Fighting back and responding in-kind are basic human impulses when we are mistreated. When you are slapped on the cheek, we’re taught early on to slap back. When someone breaks your favorite toy, we break their favorite toy to feel better. When someone insults you, breaks you down, denies your worth and humanity, you should do the same in return. That’s what we know; that’s what we do; that’s what we call survival of the fittest.
But the Apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus Christ, offer a completely alternative vision for how people of faith are to respond to insults, injury, pain, anguish, and violence. Have you ever heard the phrase, “I have my scruples and I’m going to stand on them”? Most of us assume that scruples are principles, moral and ethical guideposts. But a scruple is actually a sharp stone—you can look it up in the dictionary. The phrase, “to stand on your scruples,” comes from the idea of being bothered by the nuisance of a small sharp stone in your shoe. That small stone in your shoe may feel problematic, but you stand there anyway. “Standing on your scruples,” means to stand firm even though your feet hurt. It implies—because of that little stone, and because that little stone is so important—that to be faithful people who follow Jesus, we’re going to have sensitive and tender feet.
The Apostle Paul and the Lord Jesus Christ teach us to walk through life with sensitive and tender feet. They do not teach us to stubbornly tromp through life believing that we are always right, always righteous, always superior or even superior at all. Jesus teaches us to walk sensitively and tenderly in the Sermon On The Mount, and Paul teaches this in his letter to the Romans. Paul has many scruples: hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, love one another with mutual affection, outdo one another in showing honor, do not lag in zeal, be ardent in the spirit. Paul teaches us to rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, preserver in prayer, contribute to the needs of the saints, and extend hospitality to strangers. There is nothing in here about retaliation, about beefing up security forces, or wiping the enemy off the face of the earth. Some critics say that Paul is soft on justice. In reality, Paul is full of justice. With all of these admonitions that revolve around love and kindness, Paul is putting justice squarely into the hands where it belongs: God’s. We are conditioned to think justice is the same as retaliation or revenge. Only God has the right of revenge, retaliation, wrath, and vengeance. That is God’s right, not ours. Our right is to walk around with these pesky stones in our shoes reminding us to bless those who curse us, rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, live in harmony with all, and associate with the lowly. Paul says that when we do this—and I believe it to be true—those enemies of ours, those who insult and persecute us, those who demean and belittle God’s people, those who do nothing but sow division and discord into society…burning coals will be heaped on their heads.
Part of what Aaron Esh and Chris Stoltzfus and the whole Nickel Mines community did when they took food to Charles Roberts’ widow, and visited his children, and sent them money for education and health care, piled burning coals on the nasty head of evil. The other part was that their words and actions turned the whole mess over to God so that they could again breathe in the pure air of a new and better future…so that they could be free from the need to get even. We may look into their community and judge their actions to be wrong, unjust, weak, or even stupid—forgiving a victimizer is never popular. But their community is free, truly free. And they kept the acidic effects of evil from further burning their lives. If they had taken up arms and demanded a pound of flesh from Roberts’ family for every pound of flesh they lost, would they have truly felt better? Would that have brought about a more tangible sense of justice? No. By their own reasoning, they would have just been contributing to the cycle of violence and destruction that took the lives of 5 of their daughters. Instead, they allowed genuine love to lead and evil was stopped in its tracks and it could go no further.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we have a choice. We have a choice every moment of every day, and that choice is this: to let love be genuine and let it lead, or succumb and lower ourselves to the slimy and destructive ways of evil. Will we work to end the destructive cycle of violence that claims so many lives every day, or will we allow that machine to use our arms and legs and hands and feet to power itself as it rolls over God’s people? Will we love our enemies remembering that God will settle all scores in the end, or will we take on God’s vengeance for ourselves and turn out no better than our enemies? Will we follow the example of Aaron Esh and Chris Stoltzfus and the Nickel Mines community, or will we claim to have a better understanding of justice than they do? Will we stand face to face with evil and command it to go no further, or will we help it do its work?
My prayer today is that we let love be genuine and leave the rest to God. This is my prayer because I believe it is God’s desire. This is incredibly difficult work, but we never do the work alone. We have one another and we have the Lord, and the Lord has promised to deliver us from the hand of the wicked and redeem us from the grasp of the ruthless. We will—we will—overcome evil with good. May it be so. Amen.