Fred Phelps has died

Easter is only a few weeks away.  On April 20th 2014 we will celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  While the power of the Resurrection is present at all times, we are particularly mindful of God’s love being stronger than death on Easter Sunday.  It is a joyful time indeed!  Rejoice!  He is risen!


Part of the nature of the Resurrection is that it defies logic.  It is incomprehensible to adequately describe something so profound.  Our best efforts fall short, but perhaps the application of the power of the resurrection into a real life situation can illuminate our attempt at understanding.


A man named Fred Phelps died recently. He was the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka Kansas. For just over 30 years Phelps’ “ministry” focused on his hatred of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning people. He preached his interpretation of the Bible that leaned heavily on the punishing and wrathful character of God.  His belief was that God was punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality.  The public message of his church was that American soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and Iraq were evidence of God’s punishment.  That doesn’t ring true with the nature of a God who died on a cross and overcame death to demonstrate the extent to which Jesus loves humanity. 


One of the ways that he and the folks who are part of the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrated their conviction against homosexual people was by picketing the funerals of fallen military men and women.  Thankfully there are many groups within the United States that make it their mission to find out where Westboro Baptist Church is picketing and then go to stage a counter protest.  A group of bikers called the Patriot Guard is one of the groups whose mission is to shield grieving families from the hate filled protests of the Westboro Baptist Church. Regardless of whether we stand in agreement on our theology in regards to our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters, I believe with some certainty that we agree that the picketing of funerals by Phelps and his followers is grotesque and appalling. 


Here is where I’d like us to examine how the power of the Resurrection informs the way in which we relate to someone with whom we strongly disagree, and who in fact declares hatred for us and those we love. 


How might the power of God’s love in Christ Jesus through the Resurrection help us wrestle with this?  It does so in a challenging way.  While Phelps declared hatred and received hatred in return from many, he is no less a child of God.  Jesus, the Risen Christ loved Fred in spite of his hatred.  In the same way the Risen Christ loves you and me in spite of all of our sinfulness.


The challenge comes when we remember that Jesus the Risen Christ calls you and me to love folks like Fred and anyone we might consider difficult to love.  Some of the most difficult teachings of Jesus are in Matthew 5:43-47.  Jesus states in those verses, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”


I considered Fred Phelps an enemy.  Many folks did.  While you may not have that feeling about Phelps at all, think of someone in your life who may fall into the category of challenging the boundaries of your love and who inspires feelings of anger or even hatred.  Now imagine how the Resurrection reminds you and me of a calling to love our enemies.  Imagine how the power of Jesus to overcome death helps you and me overcome the part of us that leans toward wrath, vengeance, revenge, condemnation, and judgment.


As followers of Jesus Christ, the gift of the Resurrection is more than the salvation it grants and more than the joy that comes from knowing death isn’t the final word in creation.  Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us a responsibility to live in a new way.  That way is the way of Jesus Christ.  We have a responsibility to practice the love you and I receive from God in our relationship with others. We are called to love even those with whom we strongly disagree, even those for whom we hold contempt, EVEN those who would reject us.  The Holy God of creation does not reject humanity because of the power of the love of Jesus Christ in the Resurrection. 


How might our disdain for a person, disdain a group of people, or disdain for the political platform of a group of people be holding you and me back from growth in our relationship with Jesus Christ?  We are invited by the risen Christ to repent from anything that would dehumanize or categorize other people as anything but a child of God.  We are further invited to turn toward the God of Grace whose mercy is greater than ours and ask for strength to love others the way God loves you and me.


I pray that the transformative power of God’s love will visit us this and every Easter.  I pray too that you and I will continually be challenged to grow as individuals and as a community shaped by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Rejoice!  He is risen!  He is risen indeed.