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Charlottesville – 2017
August 20, 2017
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana

Text: 1 John 4:7-8

Germany – 1934: Adolph Hitler has declared himself head of the German church and replaced gospel truth with Nazi ideology. A small group of pastors and church leaders gather to draft a response. Now known as the Theological Declaration of Barmen, this statement calls upon Germany’s Christians to resist the idolatry and false truths of Nazism by standing fast on scripture and boldly proclaiming the lordship of Jesus Christ even at the risk of exclusion from their congregations, imprisonment and even death.

South Africa – 1986: Apartheid has separated the South African protestant church into three distinct bodies – one for whites, one for blacks and one for those of mixed race. National and church law forbids these three churches from worshipping or taking communion together. The Dutch Reformed Mission Church – the one for those of mixed race – issues a bold statement calling on their fellow Christians to pursue Christian unity at all costs and names racism as the fundamental sin of the South African Church. At the same time the Dutch Reformed Mission Church defies apartheid culture by opening their churches to all Christians, regardless of race.

Within the Presbyterian Church (USA) we hold both these documents as formal confessions – authoritative interpretations of scripture seen as radically prophetic in their time and decisive doctrine in our own. When our sisters and brothers in Christ stood hand in hand along the streets of Charlottesville last weekend, they stood upon the shoulders of those who faced down the evils of Nazism and apartheid with gospel truth and prayer for justice. While our national leadership and media spun a narrative of a faceoff between two equally radical fringes of American culture, our sisters and brothers in Charlottesville lived an older story.  

Grandparents stood with their grandchildren. Soccer mom’s joined together with football dads. Methodist and Quakers, Presbyterians and Catholics. Jews who braved armed men shouting words and bearing flags of hate to say their Sabbath morning prayers. African-American Christians who braved armed men shouting words and bearing flags of hate to pray for peace and proclaim the healing grace of our risen Lord.

On Saturday in Charlottesville, God called ordinary church folk – people like you and me – to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. As they stood on their streets, in their town, they were sworn at. Spat upon. Physically attacked. Yet they stood strong. With the fire of the Holy Spirit they faced down the flames of torches. With prayers for peace they faced down the weapons of violence. With songs of blessing they faced down chants of hatred. As a community born of God, they made visible the love which comes only from God. As a community born of God, they laid bare the godlessness of those who marched.

I’ve spend the last week praising God for the witness of our sisters and brothers in the face of the evil that descended in their city. I’ve prayed for those who marched and for healing of a city exposed to the vilest hate. And I’ve asked God what this all means for us, here, hundreds of miles away. How do we remain faithful in a time like this? How do we witness to God’s vision of wholeness, healing, inclusion and renewal? If we ignore it we deny the Gospel and betray our sisters and brothers who literally risked their lives. Yet its easier if we let it be someone else’s problem, a problem for those far away.

In prayer God blessed me with the firm conviction of this morning’s scripture:

“Whoever does not love, does not know God. God is love.”

Out of prayer came the beginnings of a statement upon that scripture, affirmed, ratified and released by most of my colleagues in town. You may or may not have seen it. The Morning Journal wouldn’t publish it, so we were only able to release it online. It states this:

As servants of Jesus Christ who revealed to us the way of love, we stand against those who use violence, force, intimidation and words of hate towards their fellow citizens. Such actions under-cut the God-given dignity of every person, run counter to democratic principles and promote division instead of reconciliation.

The same bigotry and hatred exists here in Columbiana as existed last weekend in Charlottesville. We have neighbors who were too afraid or busy to go but sympathized with those who marched. We have in our own hearts the seeds of the same hatred, the lingering traces of taught prejudice. We must both name the sins and proclaim Christ’s healing promise. In prayer God reminded me how, in the face of hatred and evil, prejudice and violence, Christ calls his church to build intentional communities of love and justice, healing and peace.

In the face of foreign occupation and religious corruption, Jesus Christ gathered his disciples and created a radical new form of community. In the face of Nazi ideology, the Confessing Christians gathered together to proclaim Jesus is Lord. In the face of Apartheid, South African Christians gathered together to worship and break bread together across racial lines. In the face of the alt-right, Charlottesville’s Christians formed a contrasting community, demonstrating by their very existence the emptiness of those they opposed.

And we, here in sleepy Columbiana, have set before ourselves the challenge of genuine Christian community – a community of radical welcome, a community of compassion and support, a community anchored in the faith we confess. Little did I realize a year ago how important this vision would be. Little did I realize how desperately our town, our country, our society needed the love, justice, healing and peace our congregation has the potential to offer. Little did I realize that as I prayed over an event miles away God would tell me that he has shaped and formed, nurtured and guided our congregation so it can faithfully stand, faithfully witness in moments such as these.

May we hold fast to this commitment. May we continue to embrace our calling. May we stand upon the shoulders of our sisters and brothers in Charlottesville, of our spiritual ancestors in South African and Germany, to faithfully proclaim and live out the gospel of Jesus Christ even in the most difficult times.

Amen.