Sunday, August 9, 2020

Fearless: Sermon on Phillipians 1:27-30

“Hey, let's put some water on the Reverend!” Up until he heard those words, Fred had been having an excellent day. He was so proud, so full of praise to God, for the protests. Finally it had reached the breaking point. At last change would be forced, whether Birmingham was ready for it or not. The Rev. Fred. L. Shuttlesworth, 41-year-old Baptist preacher, had been going toe-to-toe with Bull Connor and the monumental demons of racism for years, and these marches had finally overflowed the city's jails, finally caught nationwide attention, finally forced the issue. Fred was proud. But as he turned his head toward the source of those words, he caught sight of the massive column of speeding water descending on him, arching full-blast from the fire hose trained in his direction. Scarcely did he have time to protect his face, but even as he turned, the water hit his shoulders and ribs, slamming him into the brick wall of the church with bone-crunching force. As it hit, short words of prayer flashed through his mind: “Lord, I've been coming this way a long time. This is it. I'm ready when you are.”

Fred had been coming that way a long time. For over seven years he'd been standing up for the vulnerable in the name of Jesus; for over seven years he'd been calling Birmingham's city government to let his people go. Seven years and then some he'd opposed all manner of Jim Crow laws and segregationist policies. It's been six and a half years since the Christmas Eve of '56, when a car full of Klansmen pulled up outside his parsonage, tossed a bundle of dynamite at his bedroom, with him inside it. Shattered the house, blew out the windows, caved in the roof... and somehow, the blast hurled the mattress Fred had been sitting on out from under him and turned it into a protective shield from the storm of deadly debris. In the moment of fiercest fiery wrath of man, the Holy Spirit applied the word of God to Fred's heart, he believed, and he heard the words of scripture well up within him, how “the eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27). Cradled in those everlasting arms as the dynamite detonated just feet beneath him – Fred knew God was saving and protecting him. Sustaining just a bump on the head, he knew God was calling him to stay and lead the fight against the violence and terror that those Klansmen and their dynamite represented. That fight, a campaign of love, would be the gospel in action, the gospel fleshed out with skin like his, the skin they hated. So when friends wondered if they should slow down after the bombing, Fred refused to be frightened.

Fred remembered, too, that day in September 1957 when he took his family to integrate the high school. As city government dragged its feet in implementing the Supreme Court's ruling, Fred would push the issue. But there was a mob waiting for the family. Not only was his wife Ruby stabbed, but Fred was set upon with baseball bats and brass knuckles and chains, thrashing him with demonic fury, knocking him to the ground over and over again as they brutalized him. But as the beating subsided, Fred heard a voice say to his heart, “Get up, I got a job for you to do.” And so he got up, pressed on. Miraculously, the knuckles and bats left him scarred but failed to crack his skull. He quipped God knew he'd live in a hard town and so had given him a hard head.

Fred remembered that night in June 1958, when his quick-thinking guards narrowly averted the bombing of his church – a massive load of dynamite in a paint bucket placed against the wall. It was the city commissioner's doing, working in concert with the Klan. So, too, did Fred remember the persistent intimidation campaigns – the detectives sent to infiltrate his every meeting and scare people away, the repeated harassment, the daily ringing of the telephone with mockery and threats. Fred remembered all the times he was arrested, the constant court cases, the frequent fines imposed by unjust judges. Had Fred been less convinced he was marching for God, it might have been easy to let all that intimidate even him. But still he'd pressed on, determined to live the gospel. And that had brought him to these latest marches, demonstrations by the thousands joined not just by adults but by young folks, teens, even children. For the Birmingham authorities to be bullying and arresting eight-year-olds would prove to be an especially bad look. Now he was here. Dogs had been unleashed, and the police and firefighters met the marchers with ferocious repression. Fred was under the hose himself. He was wondering if his time to die had finally come, this day, this march on Tuesday, May 7, 1963. Was this it?

The spray of the fire hose, powerful enough to strip a tree bare of its bark, thudded into Fred's ribs, pounding him against the brick wall continuously, knocking the breath from his lungs and preventing him from drawing another one. “I'm ready when you are,” Fred silently prayed to the Lord of life and death. “Not here,” came the answer as the hose finished, leaving a barely conscious Fred crumpled on the ground. “And not yet.” Dazed and in pain, suffering for the cause Fred saw as the service of the gospel in action, soaked to the bone, Fred Shuttlesworth gathered himself. Not all the water they could ever spray could extinguish the fire in his soul. He would not be frightened. Would not be intimidated. Would keep striving. So he gazed fearless at the fury and refused to flinch. Rev. Shuttlesworth determined to march and pray 'til good news became social reality in civil rights, in integration, in reconciliation – in the day when he and the men who formerly beat and bombed him could at last sit down as friends and eat from the same table, being of one blood and one body in the Lord.

In all this, Fred knew that Paul had gone before him. Whenever Fred was jailed, he remembered Paul, jailed once in Philippi on charges of disturbing the peace and upsetting the social order. He remembered how before being tossed in jail, Paul and Silas had been beaten by a mob, just like he was. In Philippi and elsewhere, Paul stood up for Jesus, marched with the gospel from land to land, and took his share of licks for it. As Paul told one of his churches, “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea. On frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). And now here's Paul, under house arrest, where the everlasting arms have upheld him, too, these past couple years. Writing a letter from Rome to the Philippian churches, he's got some guidance to offer those whose destinies are bound up with the same cause for which Paul marched and prayed.

And the first of four words of guidance Paul has is this: “Only act like citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). Your Bible may say it a bit differently, but that's literally what Paul says. He's got a word he usually uses when he wants to talk about our Christian walk. He doesn't use that word here. Instead, he uses the word we get 'politics' from. He tells us to behave like model citizens. He tells us to do our civic duty. This would have hit the Philippians right at their civic pride. They lived in a Roman colony. As colonials, people in Philippi were obsessed with gaining and enjoying citizenship in their mother city, Rome. Paul speaks to the church there, though, of another mother city and a different empire, whose citizenship reshapes our civic lives here. What it means to be a citizen of Rome or a citizen of America is transformed by citizenship in the Empire of Jesus. Fred Shuttlesworth had to fight for the benefits of American citizenship, which he held as a birthright, to be applied to him and those who shared the color of his skin. We have to use those benefits – and the duties they carry – as vehicles for the gospel. Paul puts it this way: we have to undertake civic duties worthily of the gospel – have to reside in America as its citizens in a way that honors our higher citizenship well.

We're used to thinking of the gospel as a gift – and it is. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus, Messiah of Israel and Hope of the Nations and Light of the World, although he was crucified by the powers of the world, has nevertheless been raised to life by God and, in light of the cross, enthroned as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, a Savior to all who bend the knee to him in heartfelt faith. And, in light of Jesus' enthronement, which means the golden age is at last breaking in upon us, there are suitable and unsuitable ways to live. Paul tells us to live in suitable ways, ways that match the story of Jesus. Paul tells us our political lives, as much as the rest of us, should be rooted in the cross and the empty tomb. Paul calls us to live as citizens of the Empire of Jesus, the kingdom of God, before any other allegiance; and to let that reshape what it means to tread American soil. Act like citizens, and do it in a way that measures up to the good news that Jesus Christ is on the top throne.

Paul's second word of guidance summons us to march together. As he says it, he hopes to find us “standing firm in one spirit, with one soul striving side-by-side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27). That's the language of a march. The image, specifically, is of soldiers standing and moving with their shields locked – soldiers staying united in formation, not breaking ranks even when under assault, especially when under assault. Philippi was a popular destination for retired Roman soldiers to move to, so Paul's language here would have connected dead-on. In this military formation, each soldier's shield offers protection to the guy standing next to him. And as they march in formation like that, as they press against the enemy assault and don't break ranks, they stand firm as if they share a single spirit and a single soul.

Fred Shuttlesworth knew that, and so he tried to recruit as many people to march with him as he could. In the marches where the hose was finally turned on him, the turning point came when so many had marched with him that the jails all filled up with demonstrators. Fred had to work hard to forge unity, but as the people marched, their best successes came when they sang as one, prayed as one, marched as one. Paul wants that for us, wants that for the church! Paul does not want us to break ranks, does not want us to scatter, does not want us to be governed by a thousand different desires. 'Breaking ranks' is what happens when we pretend the Christian life is a choose-your-own-adventure story, a do-it-yourself project. Paul wants us to stand firm in one spirit. Paul wants us to behave like we share a soul. Paul wants us to raise the shield of faith to protect each other, and we can't do that if we live out of touch with each other, if we stop marching and go our own way, if we lose sight of the struggle, if the fire goes out. Stand firm. Strive together. March as one!

Paul's third word of guidance is a shocking one. “It has been granted to you that, for the sake of Christ, you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Philippians 1:29-30). Paul's third word here is to embrace suffering for the gospel as a cherished gift. When Paul says it was 'granted' to the Philippians, he's using a form of the word we usually translate as 'grace.' That is, the Philippians have been graced, have been favored with the privilege of suffering for their Heavenly King! It's a privilege just to be able to believe in him, just to trust and rely on him as a loyal citizen of the Empire of Jesus; but to suffer for him is a greater privilege still.

That might not be a typical American view of things. We sometimes view suffering as a necessary evil, to be carried if it can't be avoided; but to view suffering as an honor, as a privilege, as desirable? That might catch us a bit off our guard. Yet there are things worth suffering for – things it brings honor to suffer for. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth knew that, as he led and marched in the campaign for civil rights in Jesus' name. For he said, after surviving the bombing of his house, “I know I was preserved for a purpose: to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to implement that gospel, insofar as possible, as it relates to human dignity and human rights.” And the Apostle Paul taught it first. Hundreds of years ago, a great preacher, John Chrysostom, read this passage and realized that suffering for the name of Jesus is “really a more amazing gift than raising the dead and working wonders.” That is, as incredible and special as it would be to have God work miracles at your touch and to even raise the dead when you called out to him, it's an even bigger deal, an even bigger privilege, an even bigger joy to have skin in the game for Jesus, to suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ!

So far, few of us can relate very strongly to the prospect of directly suffering for the gospel, although we may – if we're faithful – get to taste the sting of sacrifice as we live out the implications of the gospel in love and faith and hope. We can share this suffering as we swallow our pride, as we forgive our enemies, as we surrender our comfort to care for others, as we fast and pray, as we embrace what life brings and allow Jesus to tie it to his cross. But as the seams of our culture fray, as our national temperature gets feverish and boils, these verses may come to mean more to us than they do now. The day may come, and is now coming, when to confess Christ will make us shameful in the eyes of our neighbors; when doors of opportunity are locked to Christ-followers who won't burn their pinch of incense to the culture's latest gods; when there will be hard consequences to be found in marching to the beat of the gospel's drum. Things may get rougher than we've imagined. I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet; I only marvel at the writing on the wall. But Paul says that if such things come on us, that suffering is to be received as a privilege, as a badge of honor, as a sign that God means to save us and qualify us for marvelous things. The chance to suffer for Christ is an outpouring of grace. Embrace it.

Finally, Paul's fourth word of guidance is to “not [be] frightened in anything by your opponents” (Philippians 1:28). Paul does not want us to be frightened, does not want us to be intimidated, does not want us to get scared of those who stand against us. Now, fear is different than aversion. Fear is different than caution. Fear is not the same thing as prudence. You can be averse to a negative outcome, and not be giving in to fear. You can be cautious in a dangerous situation, and that doesn't mean you're giving in to fear. You can behave with prudence and wisdom, and that refusal of recklessness doesn't equate with surrendering to fear. Even Fred Shuttlesworth sometimes tried to evade arrest or escape from a mob, if he judged that it was wiser to get away that time.

And yet, when the chips were down, Fred didn't break off his campaign. Neither did Paul break off his mission. Neither should the Philippians back down. Philippi as a city was in love with the ideology of the imperial cult, which was basically an effort to turn Roman politics itself into a religion. And it was largely in the name of this political religion that the Philippian Christians' neighbors, and the local government authorities, were opposing them. These people who turned worldly politics into a religion wanted to intimidate the Philippian Christians into receiving Rome's gospel in place of Christ's. And so they tried, through violence and social pressure and legal action, to intimidate believers into surrendering to that.

And the same thing will happen today. About a year after the Birmingham campaign in which Fred marched, there was another campaign – the presidential one. And 1964 saw the emergence of a new kind of attack ad on the television screen. Maybe some of you actually remember seeing a campaign ad called Daisy. There was a little girl, sweetly and innocently plucking petals off a flower and counting. But as she counted up, her count was interrupted by a voice-over countdown... to a nuclear missile strike wiping the sweet little girl off the face of the earth. In stark and threatening tones, the ad ended by stressing the stakes of voting for the candidate it supported. Without ever mentioning his opponent, it was meant to imply that if you voted for the other guy, you risked condemning your precious baby to atomic annihilation. The campaign aired the ad just once, but it was seen by over fifty million viewers. Some children who were watching got so upset it made them nauseous and they cried all night. The other party filed a formal complaint about “this horror-type commercial.” But it was too late. The election had become all about fear.

Now, that was nothing new in American culture. As far back as 1943, columnist Max Lerner declared that “we live in a fear-drenched society” beset by “the politics of fear.” He warned that “America will find its greatness again” only “when it casts away its fear.” But we haven't. The politics of fear are still in play. As recently as 2016, one campaign ad brought back the Daisy girl, now a grown woman, to apply the fears it stoked to the modern day. Today, there is not a single corner of the political compass from which the 'politics of fear' hasn't been deployed. And often, the church has given in to this fear. Fear of losing social respectability and relevance has led the church to swallow and regurgitate secular culture. Fear of losing power and protection has led the church to sing the praises of unworthy princes. Lately, the church has been divided by its fears – fear of illness or fear of authority, pick which scares you more. Both can be equally motivated by fear. That powerful emotion, fear, can easily get a hold on us, can be used to corrupt us or bully us or manipulate us.

To live Paul's wisdom today, we must choose to consciously resist the politics of fear – to recognize those fear appeals when they come, and to put our foot down and say, “No! No, say what you will: I will walk in wisdom, I will walk in prudence, but I will not be frightened in anything.” We will not allow intimidation tactics or scaremongering to manipulate the beliefs we form, the tone we take, or the behaviors we practice. Though we may be surrounded by forces that would co-opt the church, capture the church, challenge the church, consume the church, yet we cannot afford to be frightened or intimidated, to be made to feel unstable or small. The times are only frightful if we let ourselves be frightened. If we remember that to suffer for Christ is a privilege and a gift of the grace of God, we'll be less vulnerable to that bullying or manipulation – especially that carried out by today's equivalents of the ancient imperial cult, today's politics transformed into rival religions.

Through it all, the gospel remains good news. Our job is to proclaim it and implement it in life and society, thereby bringing good news to those who need it – even to the powers who think they don't. Our job is to march the good news to our homes, to march the good news to work, to march the good news to the store or the doctor's office, to march the good news to town square and town hall. That is our civic duty for the City of God – that is citizenship worthy of the gospel of Christ. So march together in life. Stay in formation. Don't break ranks, but press onward with good news on your lips and in your hands! Scorn the politics of fear, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love” (2 Timothy 1:7), and “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Don't be intimidated or manipulated by anything – not the TV, not the paper, not your neighbor, not your culture – into bending faithfulness. Whatever we suffer for Christ's name, it's a privilege. So stand firm, church, and let us fearlessly march together wherever the gospel bids us go!

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