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Fred Phelps and the Sermon on the Mount

Fred “God Hates Everyone But Fred Phelps/Thank God for Dead Soldiers” Phelps and a couple of his family member-followers paid St. Charles a visit today. And I thought of him when I read the Sermon on the Mount. Specifically, Matthew 5:11-12.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Suddenly I think I know what motivates them.

Face it: In the United States, we don’t get a lot of religious persecution. Sure, sometimes our atheist friends make fun of us, but they soon tire of it and move on to something else. Christians in the States generally don’t have to give up much of anything to practice their faith. One can at least nominally be a Christian and give up nothing at all. I think you do have to give up something to have a living faith, but it’s nothing compared to what the early Christians had to suffer. Nothing at all.

But if you stand on streetcorners waving signs with rude sayings and pictures on them that talk about how God hates everyone except Fred Phelps, then, well, sure, you can expect for everything that Jesus talks about in Matthew 5:11-12 to happen to you. All of that and then some, probably.

I read the same Bible that Fred Phelps reads. Probably not the same translation–he sure seems like a King James Version kind of guy to me, for some reason–but close enough. Essentially it says the same thing. And yes, the Bible does call out hundreds of things that God hates.

Notice I said things. Not people. Things. Specifically, behaviors.

But here’s the thing. The Bible sometimes rattles off a long list of those things or behaviors. One Sunday, my pastor read off one of those lists, and then he paused for a second and he said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’m in there somewhere.”

I can’t speak for everyone, but everyone I’ve ever met is in that list somewhere. And while I haven’t met Fred Phelps personally and I’m not sure I care to meet him, given that he’s a human being and his name isn’t Jesus Christ, he’s in one of those lists somewhere too.

The Bible doesn’t say all those things so that we can write them on signs and demonstrate on streetcorners and make fools of ourselves. Sin is sin, and whether you sin once in your life, or every waking minute of your life, you’re not good enough. I’m really, really good at not coveting my neighbor’s ox, and I’m even pretty good at not taking God’s name in vain. Maybe even as good as Fred Phelps, though I doubt it. But really, really good isn’t perfect. Max Lucado once illustrated that point this way. He said to imagine if the only thing God required of us is to jump to the moon. Well, my son can only jump a foot or two in the air. He’s 2. I’m sure I could double that, at least. Some really good athletes might even be able to jump their height. And that’s great, except for one thing. The moon is a quarter of a million miles away. That four feet closer that an athlete can get over my son isn’t even a rounding error.

The message of the Bible isn’t how God is going to use the bodies and souls of 12 billion people in hell to keep Himself, Fred Phelps, and perhaps a few others warm for all eternity. The message is that all sinned, all fell short of the glory of God, and needed a savior.

I suspect maybe that just wasn’t quite good enough for Fred Phelps, and he wanted to be a Moses or an Elijah. And in light of that brief passage from the Sermon on the Mount, when someone in Oklahoma slashed his tires and every auto shop in the town turned him away, perhaps he smiled a little. Perhaps he imagined piles and piles of treasure in heaven, growing by the minute, with every harsh word those Oklahomans spoke.

And if that’s the case, it’s really best to ignore the man. As hard as that may be–and I understand that, because I’m really sick of the man crossing the border into Missouri and harassing my neighbors. But it’s best to try. Because every word you say hurts you a lot more than it hurts him.

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