“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” — Matthew 10:16 (NRSV)
On the same morning as many of our NOVA United Methodist congregations gathered to celebrate All Saints Sunday, giving thanks for the service and witness of Christian saints who have gone before us, in southern Texas, a congregation of Christian believers gathered in Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church. Their witness on that Sunday morning became much more than most Christians would expect when they attend church. For them, the possibility of being persecuted for your faith became a terrible reality. More than two dozen were martyred that day; many others suffered severe injuries, and many more were deeply wounded by the pain of unspeakable grief and sorrow.
Our prayers flow out to heaven on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ, in that small town in Texas, and in other places in their world, where standing up for Jesus means putting your life on the line, literally.
Bishop Robert Schnase, United Methodist bishop of the Rio Texas Conference, headquartered in San Antonio, and including Sutherland Springs, expressed a profound depth of feeling in these words: “This was an outrageous, senseless, and tragic act. We pray God’s blessings on families, friends, and the entire community. We pray for those who will face rebuilding their lives after such deep loss. We pray for those who were injured, that God’s healing grace may be upon them. Each death by violence diminishes each one of us.”
Amid our feelings of shock, outrage, sympathy, and grief, somewhere the question may arise, “What if it happens here?” Shall we turn our welcoming sanctuaries into protected fortresses? Shall we look with suspicion on any new stranger in our midst? Shall we stay away from church in fear of what might happen there?
Of course, we are not the first generation of Christians to face such questions. Generation after generation, Christian believers have faced fears and persecutions of various kinds. Generation after generation, Christian disciples have been fortified in the strength of Christ’s love to navigate these challenges and opportunities. Generation after generation, we have experienced the paradox of what Jesus means as He sends His followers forth to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.
Being “innocent as doves” reflects the vulnerability that Jesus Himself lives as He pours Himself out for this troubled world in self-sacrificing love. He reaches out across the established barriers to welcome strangers as friends and to build relationships in love rather than fear. To be innocent as doves is to be friendly and hospitable, to be open and welcoming, even to place ourselves in harm’s way as we stand in the love of Jesus.
Being “wise as serpents” reflects the shrewdness that Jesus uses in overcoming the temptations of evil and the snares of His enemies. He is not so innocent that He fails to see the power of fear and the reality of evil for what they are. Nor is He so innocent as to succumb to them. In wisdom that can only come from the depths of God’s steadfast love, Jesus undoes the power of evil without losing His identity or forsaking His mission. To be wise as serpents for us means to be alert and aware about the dangers we face, and to be prepared to not allow those dangers to undo our identity or our mission.
Every local church would be wise to have a plan as to how to prevent and how to react in the case of a violent attack. Local police departments and insurance companies can be helpful in developing these plans. There will be a workshop offered at the Bi-District Training Day on January 13, 2018, at Christ UMC, called “Church Safety and Security.” In this workshop, people can find out how to prepare for and respond to natural disasters, fire and medical emergencies as well as potential hostile activity.
Fear can be a powerful force in our lives. It can motivate us to take some courageous steps. It can also lead us to retreat from engagement with the world God so loves. I invite us to live in the love of Jesus, which will cast out the fear, and give us the wisdom as well as the innocence we need to extend His ministry as His followers today.
Grace and Peace,