FOLLOW ME – BIBLICAL PRACTICES FOR FAITHFUL LIVING
Love God, Neighbor, Enemy: Be Courageous
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
March 26, 2023
Acts 6 and 7 (selected verses)
Over the last four weeks during this theme on Loving God, Neighbor, and Enemy, we have explored various actions: love extravagantly, serve a stranger, show mercy, wash another’s feet, but notice that today’s focus is not an action, but a way of being: “be courageous”
Courage itself is not an action but a way of living in this world. Of course, being courageous can often lead to courageous action. Being courageous is having the strength to act on one’s beliefs, to act on one’s principles, to stand up and speak up when it would be easier or more safe to remain silent.
“Be courageous” is often found in the Bible as a command. Four times in the book of Joshua, when the people of Israel were being called to enter the Promised Land, the command comes from Joshua: “Be strong and courageous”.
In I Kings 2:1-2 When King David’s time to die is near, he calls his son Solomon to his side: ‘I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes.. . as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do…”
Psalm 27 begins with: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strong hold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? And the psalm ends with: I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
The prophet Haggai, when speaking about the challenges of rebuilding Jerusalem after the exile, cries out: Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts… My spirit abides among you; do not fear. (Haggai 2:3-5)
The prophet encourages the people that, despite whatever circumstances they may face, they are to take courage, to live in courage, to act with courage, because God is with them, because God’s Spirit abides among them.
And so, in the gospel of John, when Jesus gathers his disciples at Table on their last night together, he encourages them: In the world you will face persecution. Let your heart take courage, for I have conquered the world. (John 16:33)
ACTS 6 and 7 – selected verses
In the face of those who were about to stone him, Stephen spoke up. He spoke the truth. Stephen was a truth teller. Stephen reviewed the history of the people in their relationship to God’s messengers. Stephen spoke about God’s covenant with Abraham in his descendants. He wove together the stories of Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon. He reminded the council that the people and their leaders had repeatedly turned away from God‘s chosen messengers. He reminded them that they had killed many a prophet. He claimed that Jesus, in that line of chosen messengers, had been rejected and killed by them..
The council did not respond well to Stephen’s review of their history. They became enraged that he would criticize them, that he would point out their faults. They became angry enough to kill.
Courage is closely related to fear. Courage recognizes that even though fear may be present, fear will not stop courageous action.
Courage acts, even in the face of danger.
Courage acts, even in the face of uncertainty.
Courage acts, even in the face of despair.
The word “courage” comes from the same route as “heart”. It seems as though compassion and courage often go together. A nonprofit worker who is concerned about vulnerable people will dare to speak the truth to the powers that be. A doctor who is compassionate toward those who are suffering will travel to dangerous places in the world in order to provide care.
Often, compassion and courage will walk together. Consider the courage it took for John Lewis to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. He could have found some excuse not to have participated in the march that day. He could have stayed home.
Consider the courage of the whistle blowers, those who risk their careers or even their lives in order to bring to light the sins of a powerful leader or a corporation or a government. They could have kept quiet; they could have stayed home.
Consider the courage of those volunteer soldiers in Ukraine, not trained for battle, just middle class people, just trying to make their way in the world. Today, those men and women are personally engaged in warfare, risking their lives on the front lines, not knowing what may become of this war with Russia, not knowing if they ever will return home and see their families again.
When was the last time that you were called to show such courage?
God willing, we may not be called to fight a war, but we may be called to speak up for someone who is vulnerable. Whether at work or at home, we may be called to take some action that involves a bit of risk on our part.
Not too long ago, the faculty of a local public school engaged together in a study of the book, Courageous Conversations about Race. The book shares the tools needed to engage in difficult conversations about the persistent inequities of race in education. When this local faculty truly listened to one another, they discovered some down to earth reasons why achievement inequality persists in Decatur. They talked about new ways to develop curriculums that would promote more equity. One of the most surprising takeaways from the study was the realization that some white faculty members had not been recognizing equitably the excellent work done by all of their students.
Some of them were even shocked by what they learned about their unintentional practices. When we engage in a courageous conversations, we listen openly and seek to be fully present to the other person. We ensure that others have enough time to be understood, as we also seek to be understood. We seek to build trust and respect confidentialities. And we remain willing to be in relationship with others, even when we do not agree.
In our daily lives, we are not all faced with the dangers of Ukraine or even the challenges of racial equity. But it still takes courage to commit yourself fully to another human being in marriage.
It takes courage to take the risk of exploring uncertain career opportunities.
It takes courage to raise a child or to have a real conversation with your teenager.
It takes courage to seek reconciliation with a distant family member.
In our staff meeting on Tuesday, I asked about examples of courageous actions: One person remembered that seemlngly ordinary man in China, in Tianamen Square, in 1989, standing alone in front of a line of huge tanks, waving his arms.
Another staff member talked about personal relationships, about how it takes courage to speak up in a family about a difficult topic. Sometimes it is easier just to remain silent. Juan, our custodian, told the story about his daughter, Valeri, who was only 11 years old when she stood between a large pit bull and her little sister. Her courageous actions allowed her little sister to climb on top of her car. Though she was bitten by the scary dog and had to go to the hospital for stitches, and had to receive a round of rabies shots, her little sister escaped unscathed. And Valeri still loves dogs.
It seems as though courage is taught, that courage is a learned way of being. Just as some people are taught from an early age to have racist views; others are taught at an early age to be one of those who fights courageously against racism.
Courage is about facing our fears and phobias – whether those fears are related to spiders or snakes, or related to speaking or praying in public. One of our staff members was talking about being afraid of deep water. When a friend encouraged him to go kayaking, he said that even though he had a life jacket on, he was still afraid. His comment was that “Fear eats life jackets.” But because he was with someone that he trusted, he overcame his fear. Trusting in the people around us can help overcome our fears.
When you are in loving and and trusting relationship, when you know that someone has your back, it seems easier to be courageous.
Maya Angelou wrote that, “without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. (without courage) We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest. “
Being courageous means that we will speak up, even when we are afraid. We will speak up for ourselves. We will speak up for others. We will engage in courageous conversations. We will insist on equal rights for all and racial justice and love for everyone. We’ll be willing to get into good trouble. We will stand in the gap and not look away as we work towards what is possible, trusting that God is with us.
And the amazing thing is that courage can be contagious. Like the ripple effect of a stone tossed into the water, courage can have a ripple effect upon the whole community, upon the succeeding generations.
The courage of Volodymyr Zelensky, former actor and well known President of Ukraine, has had a ripple effect upon his whole nation.
I will close with some of Paul’s closing words to the church in Corinth:
I Corinthians 16, verse 13: Keep alert, stand firm in your faith.
Be courageous, be strong.
And then verse 14: Let all that you do be done in love.
In this Lenten season, as we reflect upon Jesus’ courage of turning his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, let us take courage,
and let all that we do be done in love. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
ay God give us the grace never to sell ourselves short.
The grace to risk something big for the sake of something good,
and the Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous
for anything but the truth and too small for anything but love