Scripture Lessons: John 6:1-21, Ephesians 3:14-21
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Stand your ground. We are hearing a lot about this lately. The phrase has come to refer to laws that protect those who use violence in self defense when they feel their lives are in danger. So, if I am afraid of you and think that you are threatening my life, then I have the legal right to kill you. And to be immune from prosecution.
Stand your ground is a reference to Florida Statutes chapter 776 entitled “Justifiable use of force.” The statute says in part:
Home protection; use or threatened use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.—
(1) A person who is in a dwelling or residence in which the person has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and use or threaten to use:
(a) Nondeadly force against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force; or
(b) Deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.
There is that phrase, “has the right to stand his or her ground.” While there may be a logic to this, there are also problems. Like when a black person feels threatened by a white person. If the black person kills the white person, they are much less likely to be protected by stand your ground than if a white person does the killing. And people are already protected under the law if they kill in self defense. And stand your ground has led to increased killings. Some people with guns feel this law compels them to use their guns in self defense rather than simply walking away from a volatile situation. Even in active shooter training, they tell you to run and hide. The last resort, if you can’t run or hide, is to confront the shooter. One on one, the same advice should apply. Walk away. Drive away. Leave. Get out of the situation. That should end whatever the conflict is right there. With stand your ground, people feel emboldened to confront. To engage. To shoot. Some critics call it the “shoot first” law. Florida was the first state to enact this legislation in 2005. Since then, at least 34 states have followed suit. We started a trend though not a good one.
The phrase “stand your ground” used to have more nobility to it. It was about standing up for your principles. Not backing down from your moral commitments. Being firm in your righteous convictions.
As Christians, we are called to stand our ground. We are to stand our ground as we see it in Jesus. Jesus shows us a reality in which everyone is fed with food and with love. He shows us a reality in which people work together and all have a contribution to make. In the story we heard this morning, it is a child that has the bread and fish that feed the multitudes. Jesus shows us a world of simplicity, generosity, and abundance. Just bread and fish. Nothing fancy. But more than enough for all. This is our ground. This is the ground we are to stand on. This is what we are to claim and protect and foster. This reality that we see in Jesus.
Yes, standing our ground as followers of Jesus means committing ourselves to living by his values and promoting those values in society. It means being in solidarity with those who are being oppressed and abused like the farmworkers. I hope some of you will be at the rally this afternoon here in St. Petersburg in support of farmworker justice. Yes, stand your ground for us means defending the people who are trying to immigrate into this country and protecting their children. Jesus also shows us that standing our ground means being against the use of violence especially when used to serve what theologian Walter Wink calls the “myth of redemptive violence.” Our society promotes the use of violence to achieve peace. This approach is rejected by Jesus. We know that our faith does not stand behind a law that increases violence and promotes racial bias. We are the people of “blessed are the peacemakers.” We are the people of every person “made in God’s image” not some people “made in God’s image.”
We are called to stand our ground for love and justice. If you see something, say something. If you see racism, say something. If you see abuse, say something. If you see people treated unfairly, say something. Whether it be one on one or society at large, we are called to stand our ground with love like Jesus. And in today’s world, there are many ways that we are called to stand our ground.
This morning, we also want to notice that oft over looked verse in today’s scripture: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” While this may not be historically factual, the writer of the gospel felt it was important to say this. The people, the people who had been fed on the mountain, wanted to make Jesus their king. They wanted to define his role and his power. They were coming to take him by force. Notice, he does not “stand his ground” Florida style and fight back. He retreats. Run. Hide. But still he stands his ground. He will not let even his beloved followers impose a power arrangement upon him that is at odds with his values and calling. He will not accept a label that is laden with the potential for abuse of power – remember David last week? Jesus will not allow himself to be the king of just one people, one geographical region. His message is universal. By refusing to be king, he is refusing to accept this power structure, this power arrangement. You see, other people are standing other ground: they are hungry for power, or looking for economic profit, or seeking revenge. There are many other things that people are seeking to defend and protect. Jesus will stay true to Divine love and will stand his ground so that his influence is not limited by the desires of others hungry for what would be a false sense of security. In the next scene we see Jesus portrayed as exerting power not only over people but over the sea and the wind and the storm. That is more than any king could do. Jesus will stand his ground for the good of all of creation. And he will not be manipulated or capitulate.
Yes, we are called to stand our ground with Jesus, working for a world of goodness, abundance, and peace. And we do that in many, many ways. We do that on an individual level, in our relationships and behavior toward others. We also do it in our efforts to influence society, the government, and our life together. This is who we are as Christians. We stand our ground with Jesus. But this work can take its toll. There are many initiatives on many fronts that seem to call out for our attention. Trying to stand our ground and make a difference can seem overwhelming, exhausting, and futile. Where are the wins? The present federal administration seems bent on wearing us down through repeated traumatization. Some days you just don’t want to turn on the TV or the radio or check social media. Like Jesus withdrawing up the mountain by himself, you just want a break from it all!
But let’s remember those beautiful words that we heard from Ephesians. The writer is addressing second generation followers of Jesus. They have seen the killing of the apostles and the martyrs. They are a small group gathered in a home. No large fancy temple. In fact, the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. What is the future of their religion? What is the future of the church? What is their future? These people are unsteady; in a fragile state. Maybe feeling overwrought and under stress. And the writer offers a prayer of soaring sentiments:
“I bow my knees before the God, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.” Their numbers may be small but they are part of God’s great human family. “I pray that, according to the riches of God’s glory, God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Divine Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” They are not dismissed or denigrated for their fragile state. They are offered empowerment to stay strong. Rooted and grounded in love. They will be equipped to stand their ground in love. “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” This is an expansive, all encompassing vision. They are part of a much larger reality. Let that incomprehensible love work in you.
These are words of hope and encouragement for us in these challenging days as we seek to stand our ground – in the way of Jesus, rooted in love. Together, in God, there is more than what is needed for the living of our days and the standing of our ground.
This past week, I went to the Trump rally in Tampa. I was asked, Why? I have thought about that. Trained as an historian, I like firsthand knowledge, when possible. And I like facts. So much is said about the president, good and bad, I wanted to see for myself. I was also very interested in seeing first hand those who support Trump in a crowd setting. What are the people like? Again, firsthand. Not filtered; even through an ethical, professional journalist. I also went in my own little way, to stand my ground. We say we believe in one human family. We say the divine image is in everyone. We say we are working for justice and peace for all people. We say we believe in reconciliation. Jesus interacted with all kinds of people, even those who were considered enemies and hated by others. By going, by being there, by taking an interest, by listening, by being present, I wanted, in some small way, to be part of building a bridge and not a wall.
It was an unforgettable experience. I will be thinking about it for a long time. I saw thousands of people who are angry and hostile. They were yelling at each other in line to get in. They were giving the finger and heckling the press. There was a lot of rage. And they were glorying in venting those feelings. I felt sadness and compassion. As a church, how can we stand our ground in love that reaches out to everyone, including these angry, hostile people? Especially these angry, hostile people? I don’t know.
The writer of Ephesians ends the prayer for the struggling congregation, saying, “Now to God who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to God be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” Here we are assured that the power at work within us, together, as a congregation, as a church, can do more than all we can “ask or imagine.” Just like the loaves and fish. With faith we trust that together we can stand our ground. Amen.
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