Monica watched the news in horror. The reaction to Charlottesville consumed her. Day in and day out, she couldn’t take her eyes off of the cable news channels. She wanted to see every interview, every reaction, what politician said what. It bordered on obsessive.
But for Monica, it was personal. Her father was white and her mother was black, and so every day of her life was a study in racism in the culture. So, her obsession with the Charlottesville story was really about how she would be treated in her community. Were there people like that at her job, in her neighborhood, in her church? Monica had had a love-hate relationship with her church as she got older and graduated from college and started to feel a disconnect. It was a largely white church, and she felt as though there were whispers behind her back sometimes, especially when she brought friends of color to church. One of her friends invited her to a Black Lives Matter rally once, and the newspaper happened to take a picture of her and put it on the front page. After that, she was sure that there were people who looked at her differently…a couple of them even made some rather rude comments to her. She slowly quit coming as often to church after that.
But now, after Charlottesville, she felt a yearning to go back. To hear a word of hope. To be a part of community. To talk about Jesus. Sunday morning, as she drove into the parking lot, she wondered how they would respond to her. These were some of the most loving people she had known, but in a politically and racially charged time, how would the church treat her? She walked in from her car, more than a little nervous about what would greet her that Sunday morning.
My guess is that some of you can relate to Monica in her obsession with the fallout from Charlottesville last weekend. Anytime you turn on the news, or open social media, or the newspaper, there it is. It has indeed captured the conversation in the last week. It is pretty easy to get caught up in the minutiae: who said what, what politician responded, what politician responded to that politician saying that the first one was not angry enough or not quick enough to denounce. It can get a little overwhelming.
For me, I think it might be healthier to take a break from the 24-hour news cycle. While this is definitely an important conversation to have nationally, the emotions and anger of the last week are not always a healthy place to start dialogue. Instead, this week, rather than blame or point fingers, I have spent some time this week looking in the mirror.
It is clear, and it is right, and it is pretty easy to say that a rally of that kind is terrifying and horrifying. That’s a no-brainer. Ask any WWII veteran if they fought the Nazis, only to see them rally on our own soil. It is obvious that people who stand holding torches, chanting threats of violence about people of color is clearly non-Christian behavior.
But what is harder to do is ask, “how am I more like them than I would like to admit?” Of course, we say that we would never do anything like that, and I assume we wouldn’t. But at the heart of a rally like that is a fear and an anger of those who are different than us. Different skin color. Different religion. Different gender or sexual orientation. These are people who came to this rally from their own cubicles or classrooms or church pews, feeling like their way of life has been threatened, that the world that they have known is being lost. And out of that fear and anger, came to support a cause that they felt was right. Now, we can see clearly that it was not. But is that enough…to simply recognize that and feel smug that we are not that bad?
For me, instead of simply pointing my finger at others this week, which is correct and right and fair, but also pretty easy, I have also spent some time this week asking, “where in my life is that fear of other present?” Specifically, what in me is susceptible to white nationalism? To racism? To prejudice? I preached the sermon a few years ago titled, “I am a racist.” Because I knew then, and I know now that there are attitudes and prejudices in my heart that are not from God. And I know that I am not alone. We all, I believe, struggle at some level with the fear of other. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that I believe that there is a little part of Charlottesville in each of us.
The reason for my self-reflection this week is the book 3 John! The book of 3 John is the second in our series on little-known books of the Bible. Last week, Obadiah blistered us with his withering attack on the people of Edom and his prophetic word against them. I opened the pages of 3 John (or to be more specific, page) and hoped to find something else. I am used to the Gospel of John and 1 and 2 John, where the overarching theme is love! “God is love.” “Love one another.” If you remember a memory verse from your childhood Sunday school about love, it is probably from one of these books.
But probably not from 3 John. I came looking for a book on love, and found that 3 John only uses the word once! Albeit, there are not that many words in 3 John – Obadiah last week was the shortest book in the Old Testament and 3 John this week is the shortest in the New Testament and the whole Bible. But in those 15 verses, the word love only shows up once!
I came looking for love, and instead found Diotrophes.
Anyone ever met a person with the name Diotrophes? There are a lot of Biblical names out there, but Diotrophes is not one that usually makes the list of most popular. For good reason. Diotrophes is not an example of someone you want your child to grow up to be. Third John was written by someone called “the Elder,” and it seems that he was a church leader, maybe someone like a bishop, sending out preachers and missionaries to churches.
But Diotrophes was not having any of it. We don’t know why for sure, but he rejected these missionaries. According to the Elder, Diotrophes was a bit of an arrogant sort, and had no interest to be scolded or even encouraged by these missionaries and preachers. So, when they came to his church, he threw them out. Not only that, but then he made up lies about them and spread false rumors. And to top it off, when others tried to show them hospitality, Diotrophes threw them out of the church, too! This is clearly a church bully, in every sense of the word.
And while, we don’t completely understand his reasons, we have some guesses. The book of 3 John was probably written pretty late…maybe one of the latest books in our Bible. So, by the time that it was written, the Church had become rather formalized and institutionalized. The church had gone from being the other – the outsider – to starting to judge the other and the outsider. Judith Lieu says it this way about the context of 3 John, “there (is) a mutual hardening of attitudes and preference for uncompromising refusal of dialogue.” It didn’t take long for the church to start to forget Jesus’ teachings. So Diotrophes, and probably many like him, thought they had it all figured out and didn’t need to listen to anyone else. Especially not these missionaries, who came to step on his toes and tell him what he was doing wrong. Anyone who challenged his status quo became the enemy. And the Elder called him on it. He wrote a letter to someone named Gaius, possibly another church leader, or even the pastor of the church, and explains that the ways of Diotrophes are not Christian, not of God. In his strongest words in the book, the Elder says, “do not imitate what is evil but imitate what is good.”
And, in that verse, the Elder makes a switch. From complaining about the prejudice of Diotrophes to lauding the hospitality of another Christian, named Demetrius. If Diotrophes is the example of what NOT to be as a Christian, Demetrius is the example of what TO BE LIKE! Some scholars think that the whole reason for the book of 3 John is basically a letter of recommendation about Demetrius. That he was either coming to a new church as a member, or even as one of the missionaries that Diotrophes had slandered. The Elder wanted to make sure that the church accepted him with open arms.
Whoever he was, Demetrius is a foil to Diotrophes. The Elder makes it clear that the way that we treat those who are different than us is a matter of faith: “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends (these missionaries), even though they are strangers to you.” Diotrophes treats the stranger, the other, with contempt and arrogance. Demetrius is an example of welcome, hospitality, and love.
There is the one time that the word “love” is used. As an example of how we are to treat the outsider, the stranger. How the church is to welcome someone who is different than them. But for the Elder, the good news is that this hospitality is already central to who they are: (the missionaries) “have testified to your love before the church,” he says. In other words, “Look, “this is who you really are. You are not Diotrophes. You are not afraid of the other. You welcome all of God’s children! This is in your DNA.”
Sisters and brothers of First Baptist, I am not as wise or gifted as the Elder, but today I want to give you the same message: This is in your DNA, too! This is who you are! In a world and a time that is afraid to welcome the stranger, afraid to listen to those who are different, you are counter-cultural. Unlike Diotrophes, who wants to give newcomers a theological or personal litmus test…who is afraid of the other…who doesn’t want his status quo upset…you are different. You are a Demetrius people.
In my reflections on 3rd John this week, I though back to eight years ago this summer, when I began talking to the search committee about becoming your pastor. I remember fondly those who welcomed me. Mandy Yoder was the first phone call that I got from the committee, and later, she drove us all around town to show us neighborhoods and schools. Hannes Combest welcomed me into her home…told me to take my tie off and be made welcome. JoAn Wilson welcomed me and Kimberly into her home. (the same one that I went back to this week!) Ray Hiner made a point to listen to every single one of my sermons from Topeka…I feel sorry for him. Verlin and Suzanne welcomed us and our children…Verlin to the school he helped open at Deerfield….Suzanne to the school she helped open at Sunshine Acres. Brent Lamb and Hannes and Lee Carlson helped in that first month navigate the crises and chaos that I had no idea how to read the dynamics of a set of relationships that were foreign to me. The staff made me feel at home from the very beginning. All of these names and faces are still burned into my mind, now eight years after the search process came to my door.
And I would like to think that I was not really a special case. Sure, the church was supposed to welcome me because I was a candidate for a ministry position. But I talked to other churches during that search, and was not welcomed in this way. And other people at this church, who were not candidates for pastor, have shared that they had the same experience. They were welcomed. Accepted. Loved. This is who you are. It is a part of your DNA. Now, I would love to think that you are this way because of my preaching or because I tell you to. But I am just jumping onto a moving train…you already know how to do this. All I have to do is call your inner Demetrius. Remind you to choose Demetrius and not Diotrophes. Jesus and not the hate of Charlottesville.
In these hard times, when people of color need to hear who Jesus really is, I invite you to be yourself. Be the Demetrius that God has created you to be. That will make all the difference.
It didn’t take Monica long to know that she had made the right decision. Before she made it into the narthex, she was being greeted by name with handshakes and big hugs. During the passing of the peace, the woman who had made the rude comment before made a beeline to offer her a word of peace. The memory of the words still stung, but today there was grace…and peace.
And throughout the rest of the service…the hymns, the prayers, the Scripture readings, the sermon – she remembered that she was loved here. As she walked back to her car, she smiled. Because she knew those handful of small and angry protesters miles away would not hurt her here. Her church had her back. This was home.
She didn’t need 24-hour cable stations.
She didn’t even need a sheet cake.
She had sisters and brothers in Christ, loving, welcoming, and caring for her.
Was there still evil in the world? Of course.
But today, the good shone brighter.