It seems that for the last three months or so I have had a watchword. As I understand it, a watchword is a word or motto that embodies a principle or guide to action. This watchword seems to be coming from deep inside me, welling up when I least expect it, shaping questions that I ask and conversations that I have. And just now, the watchword is shaping my writing.
My watchword is the word bold. And more specifically, it is the phrase: Be bold.
Over the last few months I have grown in my understanding of this word and in the knowledge of what God wants me to do with this word. The writing that follows may not appear bold to some, but I realize that I am growing and preparing to be bolder in conveying my understanding of the Gospel and Jesus’ command that we see his presence in everyone and act accordingly, out of love and compassion. I pray that I am faithful to the task.
So, if you and I could have a conversation, and if in that conversation I asked you if there is something about you that very few people know, you would be able to tell me “yes.”
I, too, have one or two or maybe more things about me that very few people know.
For instance, I am a huge fan of German soccer. I really enjoy watching Bundesliga soccer. There is something so elegant about German soccer, poetic even. I like German soccer so much that I have the Bundesliga app on my phone and I read it daily. I have favorite players, of course, but they are not confined to one team in particular. Rather, these favorite players are included on several different teams, making my enjoyment in the sport that much more expansive.
However, I do have a favorite team. When I was in Germany several weeks ago my one souvenir, from the trip, was a coffee mug from my favorite team—Bayern Munich.
I enjoy watching German soccer so much that I often get up early on Saturday mornings so that I can be finished with my weekly writing and sermon preparations in time to watch a match or two.
German soccer is my “guilty pleasure!” It has been for years! But it is probably not something most people would associate with me.
Something else that many people would not suspect about me is that I have an obsession with “Game of Thrones.” You know, that HBO show based on the book series by George RR Martin. It started several years ago when Grace, my daughter, suggested that I read the series because I like reading novels in the fantasy genre. It is about several kingdoms in a medieval type world, where there is much determination to see who can claim the ultimate throne.
The novels are well written and I found it easy to escape into this world that has such complex characters, whose actions in their lives are both good and evil. Some of the decisions are based on greed. Some of the decisions are based on compassion. The kingdoms of this fictitious world are about to face the end of a summer that lasted years and will be plunged into a cold and darkness because “Winter is coming.” And this winter could last for a decade or more.
Not only are the people of these kingdoms preparing for winter–endless winter–but they are struggling for leadership that will unite them against an enemy that they have never faced—never really seen for a long while, because the enemy only comes into the kingdom in winter. The White Walkers.
Initially, I decided that I would not watch the HBO series that was made from the book series, but after a visit to Ireland where I saw several places where the show was filmed I decided that I would watch some of it. The scenery is beautiful and having been to the Dark Hedges, the Antrim Coast, and the rugged, harsh landscape of Northern Ireland, I wanted to see how it was incorporated in the telling of this story.
What surprised me about the show was how graphic the violence was portrayed. There is much blood and gore in the depiction of this world. There is much violent punishment when people are perceived as doing something wrong. And while all of this blood and gore is present in the books, it is not as graphic in the written word as it is on the screen.
Avenging acts committed against families is a main theme in this story. The violence and greed, displayed among these families, is divisive and does nothing to unite the people against the common enemy of the North that everyone knows will come with winter.
Now we are in Season 7 of 8 seasons. As I have been watching this season I have noticed that there seems to be more violence and hatred and greed. At times it seems to be pure evil and I have asked myself over and over why I keep watching this series? Why am I drawn to it?
Is it because I have already put so much time and effort into following this story and getting to know the characters and all their flaws and complexities. I do not know.
What I do know is this: I do not like violence. I find myself watching much of the violent portrayal with my hands over my face. And yet, each Sunday night, at 9:00, I find myself watching the next episode along with millions of other people worldwide.
So why am I so drawn to this story that contains so much violence and evil?
I really don’t have an answer, except to admit that humanity has a dark side and that all of us have complexities that are not very pretty and we probably don’t want many people to know about and somehow manage to keep hidden.
No matter how much we want others to think that we are loving and kind, we all have flaws about us that cause us to be imperfect, to make mistakes, to sin, and if we are not careful to border on or cross the border into evil.
I thought about all of this this past weekend as I watched what was happening in Charlottesville and the University of Virginia as a gathering of people brought out the worst in humanity and where evil seemed to take on a life of its own fuel by racism and hatred. I was shocked and in horror as I was aware of the violence and even death that unfolded.
How could this be happening? This is evil. This is racism. This is wrong.
We are better than this, aren’t we?
All weekend long I kept thinking back to the riots and violence in the south during my childhood as the same components of racism and hatred fueled unrest close to my childhood home. I remembered the whispered talk at my grandfather’s that I didn’t understand as he discovered that the KKK was meeting illegally on his land and was concerned about how to make them leave. I remember the fear that I felt all through my second grade year—1968 and 1969—and I remembered how my friends who were African American would stop talking to me, because they wondered if I and my family were like every other white family that they knew.
This time, of my childhood, made a huge impression on me. It shaped me and cast a shadow over everything I thought about and learned as I was growing up. I didn’t know it then, but I was living in times of terror and I was really scared for the first time in my life. Yet, there were people all around me who, in their 7 short years had never known a day without some kind of fear– terror.
And what I kept thinking about, this past weekend, was that we really didn’t learn much during those violent days if, as a society, we are ok with it happening again.
Actually, we as a church didn’t learn much if we are failing to remember what Jesus called us to be about—accepting and loving of everyone. Even our enemies. Even those who are different than we are. Even those that we do not completely understand.
This past weekend, in my mind, I kept seeing Jesus weeping over the violence in Charlottesville, where those who feel superior proclaimed that not all of God’s children are welcomed any longer. You nor I—indeed none of humanity—has the authority to exclude others because we think that we are better than others.
And in my mind, as I saw Jesus weeping over Charlottesville, I heard in my heart the hymn that I learned as a child, during the turbulent 1960’s:
In Christ there is not east or west
In him no south or north,
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.
Join hands, disciples of the faith,
Whate’er your race may be
All children of the living God
Are surely kin to me.
–William Arthur Dunkerley (1852-1941)
I also heard in my heart these words:
You must address this evil. My children cannot let this go when you know that Jesus calls you to love, unconditionally and abundantly, no matter who I call you to love. Be bold, Alicia. It is time to be bold.
God is calling us to have faith and be bold to include in our hearts and lives everyone. No matter who they are, whether they know it or not, all are God’s children. How can we talk about the love of God when our actions have no basis in love?
It isn’t easy to stand up to evil. Is it? It is so much easier to think that maybe if we pray about it long enough and deeply enough God will take care of it for us. My friends, prayer IS powerful, but it is my experience that it is through prayer that I discover that if God is going to accomplish something then, probably, I am called to help. Prayer is something that leads us to discover how God might use us in a situation and that indeed is powerful.
When we are called to stand up to evil, it is to not unlike the Gospel story we find in the 14th chapter of Matthew. Here, we find that Jesus is tired and grieving at the death of John the Baptist and he needs to get away, so he sends the disciples ahead of him in a boat and goes up the mountain to pray and be comforted.
When it is time Jesus heads toward the boat by walking across the water. Maybe Jesus knew that it would appear strange and otherworldly for him to walk across the water. I am certain that he knew that the disciples would not completely understand. Maybe he was hoping that one of them would be bold and try to come to him. Maybe he even knew that it would be Peter.
And so, Jesus encouraged Peter to join him and walk across the water. He wanted Peter to be bold, to trust him, to have faith. And at first, Peter had all of those things and was able to walk a bit, but then he began to feel the wind. The fear took over and he began to sink. Jesus reached over and saved him.
At the moment, when Jesus saved Peter from sinking, we find these words placed in the mouth of Jesus: “O you of little faith.” I don’t think that this was a condemnation of Peter, as it has been used down across the ages. I think that simply, Jesus was asking Peter to think about when he began to have fear, to think about when he lost his faith.
It is an important question to ask ourselves as well.
What Peter learned from the experience was that even our best intentions are not always successful and we fail, but we are never alone. The blessed presence of God through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit is with us. We may fail, but there will always be help and another chance to act, to speak, to be kind, to love, to have mercy, to forgive.
What I understand from reading this Gospel lesson, right now in this time, is that God is calling us to be bold—my watchword again– and to step out on faith as we address the evil that seems to be growing in our world.
God calls us to proclaim love and grace, mercy and peace and to provide places where these gifts of God can grow and touch the lives of the people that God places before us. It is difficult to hear love and grace, mercy and peace in an atmosphere of fear and evil. Part of the proclamation of love and grace, mercy and peace, is to name and confront the evil that seeks to make the loudest noise.
This naming and confrontation is a bold calling that God has put on our lives and it may not be easy. It may not feel comfortable. We may be afraid and we may feel as if we are sinking, but even in those moments we are not alone. The One who loves us more than we can imagine will continue to lift us up and make us bold. This One who loves us more than we can imagine will give us love that will embrace even those who act out of evil notions.
So let us pray. Not that God will take care of this for us, but that God will take care of this through us—boldly even–you and me and all who proclaim the love and mercy of Christ in this world.
To God alone be glory!