A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, July 31, 2016
Romans 12:9-21 ESV
A liability or an asset? A hurt or a help to the world? Part of the problem, or part of the solution regarding all that is wrong in the world? I am sure that every one of us would reply, “Of course I am an asset, a help, and part of the solution!” But are we really–always?
What prompted and inspired today’s sermon were two different articles that captured my eye by two different writers about three weeks apart in The Washington Post. The first article, “Pastor refuses to mourn Orlando victims,” was written by Lindsey Bever which, unknowingly at the time, served as a precursor for the second one. This article is about the preacher of Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento, California, who not only refused to mourn the 50 victims who were slain at the Orlando nightclub a few days earlier, but actually praised the brutal attack as a good thing. In his sermon pastor Roger Jimenez suggested their deaths were well deserved and that “God says that they deserve the death penalty for what they do.” He also said, “The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die. The tragedy is—I’m kind of upset that he [the gunman] didn’t finish the job.”1 Referring to what he called “sodomites,” Jimenez added, “I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out.” Jimenez’s congregation describes itself as an “independent, fundamental, soul winning, separated, King James Bible believing church.”
It was rightly noted by a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign that there was nothing at all Christian about Pastor Jimenez’s sermon. Instead of offering sympathy or comfort to the survivors and the loved ones left behind, he was boldly preaching hatred from a supposed Christian pulpit.
The second Washington Post article that caught my eye was written by Tony Evans, pastor of a Bible Fellowship in Dallas, Texas. The article’s title is just as provocative, but in a different way: “America’s current violence can be traced to Christians’ failures.”2 Evans states, “Our troubles can . . . be traced directly to ineffective Christians. One of the real tragedies today is that the Church as a whole has not furthered God’s light, equity, love and principles in our land in order to be a positive influence and impact for good in the midst of darkness, fear and hate.”
Well, I have to agree with Evans on that point. Too often throughout history, the Church has not furthered God’s light, equity, love and principles. There have been many occasions when the Church has been dead wrong; many periods when the Church has been on the wrong side of the issues; too many instances when the Church has been more of the problem than the solution to the world’s predicaments.
After hearing about Pastor Jimenez’s sermon, the first thought that came to my mind was the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, whose members travel all across America to protest and spew their hatred at the funerals of soldiers killed in battle and following other tragic events. Their official website is “GodHatesFags.com,” and their contention is that tragic deaths, even of innocent victims, is God’s wrath and punishment upon America for our sins. Such hatred and hurt that the members of Westboro Baptist Church bring to suffering survivors tends only to compound the problems of the world rather than help to solve them.
I was also reminded of the comments of prominent televangelists following Hurricane Katrina that struck New Orleans, to the effect that the hurricane was God’s punishment upon a sinful city and sinful America in general.
But then we could re-live history and recount many times when churches or the Christian Church in general have been part of the problem rather than the solution: the Christian Crusades, Salem Witch Trials, defending the institution of slavery, opposing the Civil Rights Movement and equality for all, support for Adolf Hitler (some German churches early on at least), and so on are just a few instances when churches have been on the wrong side of the issues.
As I continued reading Evans’ article, although I agreed with his premise that America’s violence can sometimes be traced to failure of Christians and churches, I found the solutions he offered to be somewhat shallow and in need of a bit of elaboration and development.
One of the problems is this: All too often individuals and churches can think they are an asset, a help to the world, and part of the solution when in reality they are just the opposite. That is a problem with religion in general, I guess—it can foster tunnel vision. I am sure that Pastor Jimenez is totally convinced in his own mind that he is doing “the Lord’s work” by preaching hatred against the LGBT community. And I am sure that the members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, are convinced that they are doing “the Lord’s work” and helping make the world a purer, better place by their public demonstrations and condemnation of our nation’s sins. But it seems to me that such individuals and such churches have missed the essence of Christianity entirely and are blinded to the way of Jesus and the real purposes of Christian faith.
Thankfully, Pastor Jimenez’s inflammatory sermon, which was posted on You Tube, received a lot of feedback by those who abhor Jimenez’s stance and hateful words. For instance, Robert Lynch, a Catholic bishop in central Florida, wrote on his blog, “Sadly it is religion, including our own, that targets, mostly verbally, and often breeds contempt for gays, lesbians and transgender people.”1
Shifting gears, I realize that the Apostle Paul at times can come across as being somewhat judgmental himself, and not everyone looks upon Paul with the greatest affection. In fact, Pastor Jimenez based part of his hate-filled sermon on a verse in the first chapter of Romans where Paul quotes the book of Leviticus. However, in his same Letter to the Romans (as we have seen in today’s scripture reading), Paul also left us a beautiful passage and marvelous instructions on how we should live as Christians and relate to others and get along in the world, so as to be an asset rather than a liability to the Faith, so as to be a help to the world instead of a hurt, and so as to be a solution for the world’s brokenness rather than compounding the problem.
Love that is genuine; blessing rather than cursing those we disagree with; weeping with those who weep rather than adding to their sorrow; living in harmony with others; being humble rather than proud and judgmental; returning good rather than evil for wrongdoing; living peaceably with all rather than stirring up strife; being kind to those who claim to be our enemies rather than seeking vengeance. Such are guidelines for living and getting along with others in the world and ways to be an asset, a help, and solution to our broken world rather than being a liability, hurt and part of the problem.
Now, none of us at this United Church would ever go to the hateful extreme that Pastor Roger Jimenez went to in his hate-filled sermon. None of us at this United Church would ever protest with the members of Westboro Baptist Church. I am convinced of that. But to be honest, we still have to ask ourselves if we are an asset rather than a liability, a help instead of a hurt, part of the solution rather than problem on a smaller scale as we live our lives each day.
For instance, how do we fare if we tell, or even laugh at, a joke that belittles others of a different sexual orientation, different race, or different ethnic origin? How do we fare if we don’t stand up for the rights of the under-privileged, disabled, or mentally or physically-challenged? How do we fare if we lump all members of a particular world religion or other social group into one, big despised category? In such cases are we hurting or helping the world’s brokenness? Are we part of the problem or solution to helping make the world a better place for all concerned? In asking these questions, I am speaking to myself as well, since I have not always been as sensitive and considerate in the past as I could have been. In May 2000, along with 50 other ministers and directors of education, I was touring Israel and Jordan. I was laughing and joking with some of my traveling companions when I made a comment about a certain group of society that I should not have made. One of my traveling companions called me on it. I haven’t done it since. I have grown over the years.
You see, when we hear of such extreme examples of hatred and malignity as Pastor Jimenez, Westboro Baptist Church, and others like them, we may cringe in horror that they are the ones who are representing the name “Christian.” But when we use a spiritual microscope to examine our own lives and actions, we may find that we are not 100% pure or without fault either. But isn’t that at least a part of what being a Christian, or a member of a religious community, is all about? Isn’t it about gradual self-improvement, seeking to correct our shortcomings, faults, and weaknesses, growing and learning how to be the better people we can be? Isn’t being involved in a faith community—in direct opposition to Verity Church in Sacramento and Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas—about striving toward being an asset, a help, a part of the solution so as to make the world a better, more peaceful place? If not, then what good is religion to the world anyway? At least that is the way I see it. Amen.
1Lindsey Bever, “Pastor refuses to mourn Orlando victims: ‘The tragedy is that more of them didn’t die,’” The Washington Post, June 15, 2016.
2Tony Evans, “America’s current violence can be traced to Christians’ failures,” The Washington Post, July 19, 2016.