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Active Hope and Relationship Building

Active Hope and Relationship Building

Mark 2:13-17

New Revised Standard Version

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

I want to share a true story that was reported by TIME magazine back in 1992. It has been retold numerous times through the years including a feature story on NPR and a story in the New York Times. It’s primarily about two men, Larry Trapp and Michael Weisser, who at the time of the story lived in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Since his youth Larry’s body had been ravaged by juvenile diabetes. By 1992, the disease had left Larry blind and confined to a wheelchair due to the amputation of his legs. However, his disability did not stop him from being a leader. Unfortunately, his leadership was used to promote evil and spread hate.

Larry joined the American Nazi Party. And from his wheelchair, Larry single–handedly reorganized the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska, becoming its “Grand Dragon.” He seemingly lived for only one thing — harassing racial and religious minorities.

One of Larry Trapp’s victims was the cantor in a local synagogue, Michael Weisser. As soon as the Weisser family moved into the community Larry’s bullying began. Larry sent the cantor and his family threatening letters, inserting in each one a business card that read - “The KKK is watching you.” He made anonymous phone calls to their home, spewing out messages of hatred. The Weissers knew where the chilling late–night calls and hate mail were coming from, and they were understandably frightened.

Yet after the initial shock and even with some well understood fear, Michael Weisser’s response to these hate filled messages was one that spoke of hope and love, not hate and fear.

One day Weisser found out Mr. Trapp’s phone number and he called his tormentor back. Trapp did not answer, letting his answering machine pick up the call. After listening to its pre–recorded anti–Semitic diatribe, Weisser calmly left a message. He would do this weekly sharing such thoughts as ‘Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?’

After finding out about Trapp’s disability, Weisser even began adding to his messages the offer to drive Trapp to the grocery store.

For weeks Weisser kept at it, leaving recorded messages which offered help for this KKK Grand Dragon.

When Larry Trapp was arrested and charged with disturbing the peace, Weisser and his congregation prayed for him.

Finally, Klansman Trapp called Weisser back, complaining, “What do you want? You’re harassing me. Stop it.”

But then a few days later, to Weisser’s surprise, Trapp called again. This time, he confessed, “I want to get out of this life, and I don’t know how.”

Weisser immediately responded, “I’ll bring dinner and we’ll talk.” His wife brought along both a casserole and a silver ring as a peace offering. When the Klansman and the cantor came face to face, Trapp burst into tears. As Trapp was given the ring, he pulled off his swastika rings and said, “These rings are the symbols of hatred and evil, and I don't want them in my life anymore.”

Larry resigned as Grand Dragon of the Klan and apologized for his racist comments. Three months later, he even spoke at a worship service in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. Even more incredibly, Larry

Trapp converted to Judaism and joined Weisser’s congregation. As his illness became worse, he moved into the Weisser’s home, where the family cared for him as his hospice caretakers.

Larry died that same year, in the home of the cantor. During his memorial service in the synagogue,

Michael Weisser spoke of his friend and then it is reported that he sat quietly off to one side, weeping.

This story is powerful for so many reasons, but for me two of the biggest takeaways are 1) the power of active hope and 2) the power of creating relationships.

The term active hope is one I just made up. (I mean I literally made it up right here on the spot – impressed?) What I am trying to describe in this phrase is not some illusive statement of “oh I hope something happens”—if it does it frankly it will just be luck. But instead what I am trying to describe is hope built on a courageous faith that vigorously works in the belief that with God’s help, the world will be changed, that justice will roll down like the waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

This is what Michael Weisser did with every phone call and every prayer. This is what he did when he went over to meet with the Grand Dragon of the KKK. And this is what he did when he chose reconciliation over retribution. He not only wished for things to change but was actively involved in the work of hope.

Jesus’s work was all a work of active hope. Every time he had a conversation or interaction he was actively working with hope for the promised building of the Kingdom of God.

Second, this story is another example about the capacity of relationships in building bridges and healing divides. Clearly Weisser could have simply told Trapp to leave him alone. He could have said I am glad you want to change but you can do it away from me. And I am certain many folks probably wondered aloud—and I am sure some even directly to him—about his decision to befriend this person who had caused so much hurt and pain. Yet he elected to follow Isaiah’s calls to be a “repairer of the breach.” And the only way that could be done was to enter into relationship with this person we might call Weisser’s enemy. Instead Weisser chose to call him brother, and by the transformational grace of God, Trapp made the decision to open his heart and see him as a fellow brother as well.

Friends, the divides in our world are great. But God’s redemptive power is even greater. But we must decide to live a life engaged in active hope and in relationship building. We must be willing to ignore the cries of the crowd who mock our faith and choose to sit at the table with tax collectors and sinners and even those whose political party does not match our own. Because if we do, we might find a brother or sister we never knew we had.

Thanks be to God for such transformational love and grace.

Alleluia. Amen.


Clay Gunter


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