Imagining the Future

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

To listen to an interview with Fr. Greg, click here.

When Greg Boyle was appointed as the pastor of the Dolores Mission in the late 1980s, he recognized that it would be a challenging call. The Mission is located in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which at the time was the epicenter of more gang activity than anywhere else in the world. Fr. Boyle understood that much of his ministry would be devoted to addressing the proliferation of gang violence in his community.  At the beginning of his time at the Mission, Boyle attempted to make peace through diplomacy. He was Henry Kissinger on a ten speed bicycle, shuttling between the various gangs and negotiating terms. Boyle would draw up treaties that stipulated rules about things like shooting into each other’s houses. The various parties would sign, and hostilities would cease for a time. Though these truces initially felt like victories, Fr. Greg gradually realized that they were ultimately hollow. Negotiation and diplomacy assume that there is conflict: that the parties involved have opposing goals and that there is the potential for a mutually agreeable solution. But Fr. Greg soon recognized that while there is lots of violence among gangs, there is no conflict. Boyle realized that gang violence stems, not from conflict, but from “a lethal absence of hope,” from the reality that the kids in his community “can’t imagine a future for themselves.”

We see a similar absence of hope among the disciples in today’s reading from John’s gospel. John tells us that it is evening, that the darkness is approaching. The bright sunlight of Easter morning has dissipated, the triumph and joy have faded into memory, and the disciples are now waiting with apprehension in the gathering darkness. Indeed, John explicitly tells us that the former companions of Jesus have gathered in the uncertain twilight of that locked room because they are afraid: afraid of those who executed Jesus, yes, but also afraid of confronting the harsh reality of their own faithlessness. The disciples abandoned Jesus in his darkest hour and are now paralyzed by guilt. Having lost their Lord and Teacher, they are uncertain about what they are to do next; indeed, they are uncertain about who they are now or what they will become. The disciples are stuck in that room because they are unable to imagine a future for themselves.

For whatever reason, Thomas is not with the disciples in that locked room. Perhaps he is scrounging for food, perhaps he is plotting the disciples’ escape from Jerusalem, or perhaps he just can’t bear to be in the same room with those who remind him so viscerally of the one he abandoned. Apart from Peter, Thomas was the disciple whose renunciation of Jesus was the most thorough. Remember that when Jesus announced he was going to visit the tomb of Lazarus in spite of the potential danger, Thomas alone courageously affirmed, “Let us go also, that we may die with him.” Thomas understood the danger of Jesus’ mission long before the road to Golgotha, and he claimed that he would remain with Jesus until the very end. And yet, just like the other disciples, Thomas fled from the authorities, stayed away from the one he claimed he would die for, and left Jesus to walk the way of the cross alone. Perhaps Thomas stayed away from the disciples because because he couldn’t stand the sight of those who reminded him so poignantly of his infidelity. Perhaps Thomas left that locked room because he simply could not imagine a future for himself when he had failed so completely.

This perspective would have given powerful and predictable shape to Thomas’ reaction when he returned to that locked room. Thomas would have been wallowing in the pain of his guilt when the other disciples told him that they had seen the Lord. Jesus has been raised, they tell their friend, and he came to share share words of peace, reconciliation, hope, renewal, and love. Thomas refuses to believe it because he can’t comprehend the idea that Jesus would return to those who rejected him with anything other than words of retribution. Peace? There can be no peace for those who are so plagued by regret and shame. Hope? Hope is for people who can imagine a future. Thomas claims he won’t believe unless he sees the wounds that he and his companions had allowed to be inflicted; like most of us, he believes that there are some things that simply can’t be forgiven.

Immediately after Thomas demands to see the wounds of the crucified Lord, John sets a nearly identical scene. I say “nearly identical” because John tells us that this gathering takes place eight days later. Eight is the number of new creation: the signal that we are transcending the normal rhythm of the calendar, the promise that a new day is dawning, the implicit proclamation that the world has been given a new future. By setting this scene on the eighth day John indicates that the disciples are about to experience God in an entirely new way. thomassunday1ebayIndeed, when Jesus appears in the midst of the disciples breathing words of peace and renewal, Thomas recognizes the reality of the new creation when he exclaims, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas understood a fundamental truth: that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the complete manifestation of God’s very being. It is an affirmation of God’s deathless love, a pledge that all our past unfaithfulness has been forgiven, that our lives have been and will be renewed, and that our future has been redeemed. Notice that our participation in the renewal of creation is not about accomplishing particular tasks; it is about abiding in peace. When Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he does not commission the disciples to do anything. Rather, he invites the disciples into a place of love, a place where they can hope for a future that they could not previously imagine.

Jose is a young man from Fr. Greg’s parish who has been a gang member, a drug addict, and a prison inmate. When Jose was six, his mother said to him, “Why don’t you just kill yourself. You’re such a burden to me.” Jose’s mother beat him, to the point that he wore three T-shirts at a time in order to protect himself and hide the wounds his mother inflicted. Jose was ashamed of his wounds well into adulthood and he resisted every attempt well-meaning people made to help him. But when he met Greg Boyle, Jose met someone who was not ashamed of him and who didn’t prescribe a program to get him off the streets. In Greg Boyle, Jose met someone who loved him regardless of where he had been or what his mother had done to him. He began to turn his life around. Gradually, Jose realized that by recognizing his own wounds, he could help the wounded. For Jose, love made his wounds a source of redemption. For Jose, love allowed him to hope for the first time. For Jose, love empowered him to imagine the future.



On Mozart, Baptism, and Changing the World

Sermon on Mark 1:4-11 offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, Kansas on the occasion of my goddaughter’s baptism.  To view the scene from Amadeus, click here.

Every once in a while, a scene in a movie perfectly encapsulates the rest of the film.  In Amadeus, it is a scene that illustrates how Mozart’s outsized talent completely dwarfed that of his contemporaries.  For those who haven’t seen it, Amadeus is the Milos Forman film that chronicles the deadly rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri.  Though the story is largely fictional (Salieri and Mozart were actually friendly), it accurately depicts Mozart’s incredible talent and demonstrates how his work in many ways represented a new musical language.

During the scene in question, Salieri and several other courtiers have been summoned by the emperor, who wants to commission an opera from the young Mozart.  Salieri, who is the court composer, tells his employer that he has written a “March of Welcome” in Mozart’s honor.  As the talented young composer enters the room, the emperor doggedly stumbles through Salieri’s pleasant, but otherwise unremarkable piece on the piano.  After negotiating the commission, the emperor reminds Mozart not to forget the manuscript for Salieri’s “Welcome March.”  Mozart demurs, claiming that he has already memorized the piece.  Incredulous, the emperor insists that the composer prove himself.  Of course, Mozart proceeds to play the piece flawlessly.  It is what he does next, however, that sets the tone for the rest of the film.  Mozart improvises a variation on Salieri’s piece that is compelling, memorable, and brilliant.  It incorporates the themes of the original piece but transforms them into something completely new.  In one scene, the movie illustrates that Mozart was not just talented, but transcendent.  In one scene, Amadeus reveals that Mozart was not just making music; he was changing what music could be.

The lectionary this morning gives us a similar scene from the gospel according to Mark.  It was only a few weeks ago that we heard about John the Baptist’s ministry by the banks of the Jordan.  This morning, we return to our old friend, who is still up to his old tricks: wearing camel hair, eating bugs, and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Once again, we hear John predict that one more powerful than he is coming after him.  This morning, however, we hear about how that promise is fulfilled when Jesus of Nazareth is baptized.  The baptism of Jesus is one of the few events that is attested to by all the gospel writers, and all of them imply that it is enormously important.  As Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan, we get a sense that the gospel writers see this moment as turning point in the life of Jesus and the life of the communities to which they wrote.

In spite of the weight that the gospel writers and the Church give to the baptism of the Lord, it is a little difficult to discern why it is so significant.  Even though the evangelists treat it like a major biographical touchstone in the life of Jesus, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of his ministry.  In fact, the fact that Jesus was baptized by John never comes up again.  Even when John reappears in the gospel narratives, his baptismal relationship with Jesus is not addressed.  If the baptism of John is as important as the evangelists imply it is, it stands to reason that they would mention it more than once.  Instead, the baptism of Jesus by John is a non sequitur; it feels more like a piece of trivia than anything else.  Not only that, it’s hard to know why Jesus was baptized in the first place.  As we all know, John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins.  But if Jesus was sinless, as the Church claims, being baptized seems a little redundant.  Matthew, of course, attempts to deal with this problem by describing that byzantine exchange between John and Jesus: “You should be baptizing me,” “It is necessary for us to fulfill all righteousness,” “No, after you, I insist,” etc.  While this exchange acknowledges the tension, it doesn’t do much to resolve it.  And so we’re left in a bit of an awkward place: the evangelists and the Church insist that the baptism of the Lord is crucially important to our understanding of who Jesus is, even though it seems to have minimal impact on the rest of his life and work.

Part of the reason for this is that our image of the baptism of Jesus tends to be very static: Jesus rising from the water, the Spirit descending beatifically as a dove, and the voice of the Lord resonating from heaven.  It is a scene almost tailor-made for a Caravaggio painting, one that can be hung in a museum and forgotten.  But if we look at the language that Mark uses to describe the baptism of Jesus, it is anything but static.  Mark is notoriously straightforward, even abrupt, and we get a sense of that in this passage.  Jesus arrives at the banks of the Jordan and there is no polite exchange between John and Jesus; Jesus comes from Nazareth and is baptized during the course of one sentence.  As he emerges from the water, the heavens are literally torn open when the Spirit descends.  It’s a dynamic, violent image, one that recalls Isaiah’s plea that God would tear open the heavens and come down.  It is an image, in other words, that points to something utterly new.  And indeed, Mark tells us that the life and ministry of Jesus represent a complete departure from what has come before.  Just a few verses after the passage we read today, Mark tells us that Jesus also begins preaching repentance.  While Jesus drew on the same themes as John the Baptist, his proclamation of repentance is fundamentally different from that of the one who baptized him.  John the Baptist preached repentance as a way for sins to be forgiven; Jesus preaches repentance as a way to live as a citizen of God’s kingdom.  For Jesus, repentance is less about being sorry for one’s sins and more about living a transformed life.  Through his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus inaugurates a new way of being, one that is shaped by the reality of God’s presence among us.  Just as Mozart changed the way people thought about music through one improvisation, Jesus changes the way we understand repentance, sin, and grace through his baptism.  This event at the Jordan is less a significant moment in the life of Jesus and more the announcement that this world has been and will be transformed by the grace made known to us in Jesus Christ.

In just a moment, we will baptize Kason and Eirnin into Christ’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  Our hearts will melt as one Fr. Funston welcomes a new member to his parish, while another Fr. Funston baptizes his granddaughter.  Babies will coo and cry, parents will beam, and if history is any indication, godparents will fight back tears.  It will be a beautiful moment, one that will be captured on our cameras and in our memories.  But we must not be distracted by the loveliness of this moment.  Just as Jesus’ baptism is about far more than his immersion in the Jordan, Eirnin’s baptism, Kason’s baptism, our baptism is about more than the moment someone pours water over our head in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  As we baptize Kason and Eirnin today, we are affirming that something new is happening in their lives and the lives of their families, that they are citizens of God’s kingdom, that God is empowering them to live transformed lives of grace and love.  Baptism is not an isolated event, a piece of trivia that gets added to our biography; baptism is the acknowledgement that our lives have been and can be fundamentally changed through what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, a celebration that God is changing what the world can be.


Sermon on Luke 23:33-43 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX on November 24, 2013.

This past week, our country relived one of the most traumatic events of the past century.  jfk convertibleAcross the country, people commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and if the coverage of the anniversary is any indication, it’s clear that the country continues to be somewhat overwhelmed by the experience.  This past week, Jackie Kennedy once again graced the cover of magazines.  There were documentaries dedicated to the Kennedys and their impact on American politics on all of the major news channels.  And the Internet was abuzz with beautiful photographs of the youthful president and his family as they gave state dinners in white tie and tails and sailed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.  We continue to be haunted by the memory of JFK’s assassination.  More than Pearl Harbor or even 9/11, it is burned into the American consciousness, and I’m led to wonder why.

On one level, the Kennedy presidency had incredible promise.  Kennedy was a stirring orator who enjoined his countrymen to ask what they could do for their country and reach for the stars.  But for all its promise, Kennedy’s presidency didn’t accomplish much.  It was Lyndon Johnson who ultimately pushed through the legislation and initiatives for which Kennedy advocated.  Though Kennedy was undoubtedly inspiring, it is hard to imagine that this was the only reason we continue to be overwhelmed by his death.  On another level, the JFK assassination and its aftermath was probably the first experience to be completely televised.  Within hours of the shots ringing across Dealey Plaza, ninety percent of the people in this country knew what had happened.  Everyone was able to watch as Walter Cronkite emotionally announced the death of the president.  Everyone was able to watch as Caroline reached under the flag to touch the hard wood of the coffin as her father lay in state in Capitol rotunda.  john jr.Everyone was able to watch as John Jr., wearing a tiny blue peacoat, saluted the caisson as it passed by bearing the body of his dead father.  While all of this explains why the Kennedy assassination is burned in our collective memory, it doesn’t explain why we continue to be haunted by it.  It seems to me that the reason the Kennedy assassination continues to overwhelm us has to do with the aura of the Kennedy White House.  Kennedy assembled this group of beautiful young optimists working hard to make the world a better place.  Kennedy and his administration had panache, they had charisma, there were moments that were downright regal.  It was no accident that Jackie referred to her husband’s White House as “Camelot,” that mythical, idyllic kingdom where the sun always shined and the grass was always green.  Fifty years ago, an assassin’s bullet tore through that idyll and forced us to deal with the reality that even the bulwarks around the kingdom of Camelot cannot withstand the brokenness of this world.  JFK’s death haunts us because it forced us to confront the fact that our world is a sinful and broken place, one where even those who embody what we think is ideal can be cut down in their prime.

Today we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, which is one of the Church’s newer observances.  It’s only been around since 1925, when the Pope at the time declared the importance of acknowledging the reign of Christ and his kingdom.  It’s also an observance that tends to unsettle people a little.  As I was visiting with my ecumenical colleagues earlier this week, I asked whether they were observing “Christ the King” at their churches, and they all said, “No, we’re doing Thanksgiving instead.”  When I pressed them about their rationale, they all indicated somewhat vaguely that Christ the King tended to make people uncomfortable.  And I get that.  It’s always made me a little uncomfortable.  On one hand, the concept of kingship doesn’t really resonate with us much anymore.  We haven’t had a king in this country for a long time, and all of the monarchs in other countries tend to be figureheads.  Perhaps part of our discomfort with calling Jesus Christ our king is that the designation provides no frame of reference for us; we have no idea what it means to call someone king.  On other hand, kings are often tyrants, and that’s not an image we like to associate with the one we call the Good Shepherd.  We might be more comfortable with thinking about Jesus as a particularly well-liked president or prime minister, one who is in charge but answers to his people.

While these are certainly possibilities, I think the real reason for our uneasiness with calling Christ our King can be found in today’s reading from Luke’s gospel.  Today we hear a story that we generally hear during Holy Week, the culminating moments of Christ’s Passion.  We hear how he was crucified at Golgotha, how we was mocked by the crowds and derided by those who were crucified with him.  imagesIt’s a scene that is painfully familiar, one that fills us with anguish.  Yet Luke tells us that above all this tumult, above the derision and the mocking, above the pain and torture, an inscription hangs: “This is the King of the Jews.”  Luke offers this information without comment.  Unlike other accounts of Jesus’ Passion, Luke doesn’t tell us who hung the inscription, he doesn’t tell us if there was controversy about its wording; for Luke, the statement is self-evident.  What this indicates to me is that we are meant to read these words as a description of the events taking place.  Luke’s illustration of the torture and death of Jesus is captioned by this inscription that calls Jesus King: “This is the King of the Jews.  This is what Kingship looks like.”  In other words, Luke demonstrates to us that the kingship of Jesus is not revealed to us in his acts of power or the fact that he is divine; ultimately, Jesus is most fully “King” in his Passion and Death.  If we’re honest with ourselves, this is what makes us uncomfortable about calling Jesus Christ King.  Because when we do that, when we confess the kingship of Jesus, we are confronted with the same reality that the Kennedy assassination confronts us with: no one, not even God’s own Son, not even the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, not even the one we call King, is immune from the brokenness of this world.

Yet there is a distinct and vitally important difference between events like the one we commemorated this week and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  While both shake our equilibrium and force us to acknowledge our vulnerability, the passion and death of Jesus is distinct, even unique because he submitted willingly to the brokenness of this world.  He did not try to outflank his opponents, he did not try to outsmart the powers that crucified him.  Instead, he gave himself up on behalf of others, he willingly submitted to the sinful powers of this world and by doing so nullified their power.  The ultimate power that tyrants have over us is our fear of death.  By willingly going to death on the cross, Jesus Christ overcame that fear of death and thus made every tyrant, every evil and sinful force in this world powerless over us.  And not only did Jesus go willingly to the cross, he went in a spirit of love and forgiveness.  We would expect someone condemned to death unjustly to have plenty of vitriol to spare for those executing him.  We would expect him to shout over and over “You’ll see! You’ll get yours” or at least “You’ve got the wrong guy.”  But the words that Jesus utters from the cross are not words of retribution, they’re not words of protest, they’re not even words of triumph.  The only words that Jesus offers from the cross are words of love.  He forgives those who are putting him to death and he promises Paradise to a person who only a few moments before had been a selfish criminal.  At the cross and as our King, Jesus willingly submits to the sinful powers of this world and promises that the world, even with all its brokenness, can be healed.

What does this mean for us?  What does it mean to be subjects of a vulnerable king, a monarch whose power is revealed in powerlessness, a ruler whose primary weapon is love?  Ultimately, we acknowledge the kingship of Christ by refusing to fear those powers that Jesus defeated in his death and resurrection.  We are called to make it abundantly clear to this world that we are not enslaved to the power of death, that we refuse to live our lives in fear.  The fact that Christ is king means we do not have to fear pain or uncertainty or embarrassment or shame or any of the things that prevent from doing what we know to be right.  The fact that Christ is king means that we are empowered to follow Christ’s example of love for every one of our fellow human beings, no matter how they have hurt us.  The fact that Christ is king means that we do not have to fear even our own powerlessness, even our own vulnerability.  Above all, the fact that Christ is king means that love ultimately triumphs over evil and empowers us to heal this broken world.


On the third Monday of every April, the City of Boston commemorates the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the first official skirmishes of the Revolutionary War.  Known as Patriot’s Day, this holiday is a day when state offices and schools are closed and everyone has the day off.  Patriot’s Day, however, is not like other Monday holidays.  Under normal circumstances, one might try to get out of town for a three-day weekend, but everyone who lives in Boston seems to want to be in Boston for Patriot’s Day.  It’s the day of the Boston Marathon, it’s the one day each year that the Red Sox play in the morning, it’s a day when people celebrate the end of a long winter and rejoice at the coming of spring.  During a time of the year when we might expect college students to be on edge because of exams and the pressures of looking for jobs, Patriot’s Day defies those expectations and offers a welcome break, an opportunity to take part in a citywide celebration of history, athletics, and community.

I admit that I was feeling a little wistful as I drove to clergy conference in Amarillo this past Monday.  I thought of my friends and family in Boston, wondering how they were celebrating Patriot’s Day, wondering how they were taking advantage of this unexpected break in the calendar.  So I was shocked when I saw a text message from my sister-in-law that said, “In case you’re seeing footage of the explosion at the marathon, I just want you to know we’re home and okay.”  I tried calling her, but the network was overwhelmed.  I called my wife, who narrated what she saw on television: two bombs had gone off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, just steps away from Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square.  Three people were dead and scores of people were injured in the blast.  Hundreds of runners were separated from their families and supporters, uncertain what had happened.  An entire city was on edge, worried about the possibility of further attacks.  A day that is usually filled with joy and accomplishment had been blighted with grief and terror.  Two explosions brought untold carnage and shattered our expectations of a day generally filled with life.  It was a sad and scary day, a sad and scary week, a week in which we simply did not know what to expect next.

In our gospel reading for today, Jesus confounds the expectations of those listening to him.  One of the most important themes we find in John’s gospel is the question of identity.  Specifically, the religious authorities spend an extraordinary amount of effort trying to discover the identity of the Messiah, or the anointed one.  At the very beginning of the gospel, John the Baptist, the first charismatic religious leader who comes on the scene, is questioned by priests and Levites who ask him, “Who are you?”  John responds by saying, “I am not the Messiah.”  While it might seem that John evades the question, it demonstrates that the religious authorities were actively looking for the Messiah.  The religious authorities were looking for a spiritual leader who would drive out the Roman oppressors, punishing them and reestablishing home rule in Israel.  So when they encountered a charismatic guy who is attracting followers, their obvious question is, “Are you the guy we’ve been waiting for?”  When John says, “No” it is pretty clear that the priests and Levites are disappointed, because they ask him if he is Elijah or the prophet, one of the people who is going to herald the coming of the Messiah.  Once again, John disappoints them and tells them that he is the voice of the one crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.  While the religious authorities want to give John a particular title, he confounds their expectations and instead points to what he has been doing, preparing the way of the Lord.

In today’s reading, the religious authorities are once again trying to discover the identity of the Messiah, and their expectations are once again confounded. This time, their questioning is far less subtle.  John tells us that they gather around Jesus and say, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  It’s important for us to pay attention to the context of Jesus’ encounter with these religious authorities.  John’s gospel tells us that this conversation takes place at the Festival of the Dedication.  judas-maccabeus-jewish-patriot-leaderNow this festival is a commemoration of the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the foreign king Antiochus Epiphanes defiled it by sacrificing a pig on the altar in the holy of holies.  This festival is a celebration of Israel’s spiritual identity, recalls the victory of Israel over a foreign power, and celebrates the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, a spiritual leader who defeated and expelled an occupying enemy.  The Jewish people still celebrate this festival, though it is now known as Chanukah.  The Festival of the Dedication is a remembrance of the most Messiah-like person Israel has ever known, someone who expelled foreign rulers and reestablished home rule in Israel.  John wants us to have this in mind as the religious authorities question Jesus.  When they ask him to tell them plainly if he is the Messiah, they have a very specific Messiah in mind, one like Judas Maccabeus, a spiritually and militarily powerful leader who will kick the Roman occupiers out of Israel.  The response of Jesus, therefore, is completely unexpected.  The religious leaders ask Jesus if he is the Messiah, the one they’ve been waiting for, the one who will restore Israel to its former glory.  Jesus responds by saying, “I’ve already told you, and you do not believe!”  But here’s the thing: as of this moment in John’s gospel, Jesus has neither confirmed nor denied that he is the Messiah.  Instead, he tells the crowd that his works, the things that he has been doing testify to his identity. 

Good_ShepherdJesus is telling his hearers that their messianic expectations are misguided.  He refuses to identify himself as the Messiah because the crowds are expecting a Messiah who is a military leader, someone who will crush Israel’s enemies underfoot.  Jesus disabuses them of this notion through his reluctance to claim the title of Messiah.  At the same time, Jesus makes it very clear that he is not a military leader, but a shepherd, one who knows and lovingly calls his sheep by name, one who, in the words of the Psalmist, is with his sheep even as they walk through the valley of the shadow of death, one who pursues his sheep no matter how far they stray from the flock.  It’s a stark comparison that confounds the expectations of those listening to Jesus.  They are expecting a Messiah that will wield a sword and wreak vengeance on Israel’s enemies, but Jesus offers them a shepherd who gently holds a staff and guides the lost sheep home.  Jesus Christ confounds our expectations and calls us to move us from vengeance and retribution to acceptance and forgiveness.

There is no question that this has been a rough week.  On Monday, we bore witness to the marathon bombings in Boston.  On Wednesday, we watched in horror as a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, killing at least 12 people and injuring scores of others.  And on Friday, a whole city was locked down and a whole country held its breath as authorities cornered and apprehended a 19 year-old boy who allegedly committed a heinous crime.  And yet, even in the midst of this terror and tragedy, we saw people confounding our expectations.  Runners in Boston who had already run 26 miles ran to nearby hospitals in order to give blood.  Volunteer firefighters in Texas entered an inferno with little regard for their own lives in order to rescue survivors and extinguish the flames.  And volunteers at the Boston marathon, upon hearing two explosions, did not cower in fear but ran toward the blasts to see what they could do to help.  In the midst of terror and tragedy, the citizens of Boston and of West, Texas confounded our expectations and exhibited unparalleled bravery and sacrifice.  Even as the events of the last week shook our equilibrium, our communities came together as one. 

As we deal with aftermath of these events, we are left with many questions.  What possessed these two brothers who had lived in this country for years to terrorize the city where they came of age?  Were safety concerns at the fertilizer plant ignored in the lead up to Wednesday’s explosion?  And of course, what do we do with people responsible for these acts?  We may be tempted to stand with the religious authorities of Jesus’ day, clamoring for vengeance and retribution, expecting a Messiah who wields a sword.  We may feel that the person responsible for the Boston bombings has forfeited his right to live.  This may be a reasonable expectation.  But just like those who exhibited such bravery and sacrifice this week, we are called to confound the world’s expectations.  We are called to follow the example of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who pursues the lost sheep, puts him on his shoulders, and carries him home, no matter how far he as strayed.  I’m not suggesting that we do not seek to bring the people responsible for these acts to justice, but our goal cannot be retribution.  We are called to put away our desire for vengeance, recognizing that violence begets violence, and realizing that the Prince of Peace and Good Shepherd calls us to forgive.  This is not easy, but we affirm that Jesus himself walks with us on this journey through the valley of the shadow of death, accompanying us even when we feel utterly alone and incapable of mercy.  Even in the midst of tragedy and terror, we are called to trust in the Good Shepherd who knows all of us by name, even those who have rejected his love.  Even in the midst of tragedy and terror, we are called to trust in a Messiah who defies our expectations.


Freedom_from_want_1943-Norman_RockwellAt the beginning of the Second World War, Norman Rockwell created a series of illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post called “The Four Freedoms.”  Three of the original four images are no longer particularly recognizable, but one has stood the test of time.  Though originally created to  support the American war effort, the illustration called “Freedom from Want” has transcended its original purpose and has become an idealized image of American family life.  The illustration depicts a smiling family gathered at a Thanksgiving table and filled with gleeful anticipation as the matriarch sets an absurdly large turkey at the head of the table.  Everyone seems to be happy and there is no evidence of any animosity among the people seated at the table.  Anyone who has ever eaten Thanksgiving dinner with one’s family, however, knows that Norman Rockwell’s idealized depiction of that meal is far from accurate.  When families get together, the dynamics can be downright destructive.  Family gatherings can be filled with petty jealousies, old grudges, remembered betrayals, and heartbreak.  They can make us wish that we were part of a different family, yet the vast majority of us eventually embrace the fact that we are irrevocably connected to our families.  Our family meals become reminders that our connection to one another transcends all of the jealousies, grudges, and betrayals that break our hearts.

Tonight Christians around the world will observe Maundy Thursday.  It is the night that we remember the example of Jesus’ humility by washing each other’s feet.  It is the night when we recall and celebrate the institution of the Lord’s supper, when Jesus surrendered himself into the bread and wine before he was handed over.  It is the night that we prepare ourselves for the remembrance of Jesus’ passion and death.  Towards the conclusion of tonight’s service, we will hear this prayer:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The implications of this prayer are profound.  Remember that Jesus’ own disciples run away when he is arrested and brought before the authorities.  It is one of Jesus’ own disciples who denies ever knowing him.  It is one of Jesus’ own disciples who hands him over to death.  These were the people who were closest to Jesus, those who could be considered his family, and yet they betrayed him, handed him over to sinners, and allowed him to suffer death upon the cross.  The extraordinary thing is that they remained his family, that Jesus was willing to experience their betrayal, and offered them a forgiving love that passes understanding.

As we participate in the Eucharist this evening, we will participate in a family meal.  It is not the idealized gathering portrayed by Norman Rockwell, but a gathering of sinners, betrayers, and deniers.  It is a gathering of people who harbor petty jealousies and cling to old grudges.  It is a gathering that would break God’s heart.  And yet, we affirm that we are still a part of God’s family, that we are still irrevocably connected to a God who was willing to be betrayed for the sake of those who betrayed him.


Last week, we explored the theme of reconciliation.  We remembered that Scripture assumes our sinfulness and thus our need for forgiveness from God and others.  We explored how forgiveness often requires us to forget the pain we experience when we are wronged.  We noticed how difficult it is to forgive those who are notoriously destructive of community.  And we observed that the Christian faith trusts that it is ultimately God who is reconciling us to himself and one another.  To conclude our series on reconciliation, I thought that we could examine a real-world example that illustrates many of these features of reconciliation.

One of the great injustices of the recent past was South Africa’s brutal system of racial segregation known as apartheid.  The system organized South Africa’s population into racial categories and separated the population on the basis of these labels.  Established in 1948, apartheid was designed to keep the Afrikaner-dominated National Party in power essentially by removing the majority from the political equation.  Under apartheid, the government segregated residential areas, education, medical care, and a variety of other public services, to the end that South Africa’s majority black population was relegated to second-class status.  The government’s intractable support of racial segregation led to constant internal strife, occasional violence, and outcries from the international community.  Apartheid was officially repealed in 1990, but it was not until 1994 that multi-racial elections were finally held, sweeping Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress into power.

The end of apartheid left South Africa with a challenging question: what was the new leadership supposed to do about the wound that apartheid and its supporters had inflicted on the country?  Millions of people had been treated unjustly for more than forty years; everyone agreed that something had to be done.  One option would have been to enact retribution and punish those responsible for subjugating the black majority.  This would have at least given the appearance of justice.  Instead, South Africa chose a far more difficult and a far more controversial path forward.  In 1995, the government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a body headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu designed to give those who had been victimized an opportunity to tell their stories and those had committed injustices an opportunity to confess their crimes.  The most astonishing part of the TRC is the fact that it offered amnesty to those who had participated in apartheid’s work of subjugation and injustice.  For the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the most important part of their work was to allow the truth to be told and to find a way forward for a country that had been divided for so long.  The TRC’s primary purpose, in other words, was reconciliation.

5943Some of those who criticize the Truth and Reconciliation Commission complain that people who had confessed to crimes were not punished; others worried that the “truth” was obscured by the spectacle of the Commission’s work.  While these concerns might have some legitimacy, the reality is that South Africa could have descended into racially motivated violence after the end of apartheid as those who had been oppressed sought vengeance on their oppressors.  Instead, South Africa engaged in an process of seeking reconciliation and restoration, enabling the country to move forward.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu summarized that reconciliation presents: “Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”

I can’t help but believe that part of the reason for the success of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that its leader trusted that it was God who was reconciling people who had been estranged from each other for so long.  Archbishop Tutu trusted Jesus Christ’s mandate to forgive those who sin against us because he knew that it was the only way his country could move forward.  And ultimately, Archbishop Tutu understood that it is only by engaging in the hard work of reconciliation that we can begin to hope for transformation.


urlIn honor of Valentine’s Day last week, my wife and I watched the classic romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.  Directed by Rob Reiner and written by Nora Ephron, the movie explores the age-old dilemma of whether men and women can ever be friends.  Towards the end of the movie, Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) are at a New Year’s Eve Party.  At midnight, the revelers begin to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” and Harry tells his companion that he has never understood the classic song.  Is it about not forgetting our friends?  Or is it about remembering the friends that we’ve already forgotten (which, he points out, is impossible)?  Sally isn’t sure but is relatively certain that the song is about old friends.  It seems to be an appropriate song for the New Year: a promise to do our best not to forget those people and events that we have experienced throughout our lives.

Yesterday, we began to explore the topic of forgiveness.  We noticed that the word that most versions of the Bible translate as “forgive” can also mean “let go” or “abandon.”  In other words, forgiving those who sin against us is entirely our initiative; Jesus does not leave room for us to expect a penitent or even apologetic response from the person we are forgiving.  This leaves us with some challenging questions.  What are we supposed to do with the pain or the anger we feel as a result of the other person’s actions?  If the other person is not penitent and has no interest in being forgiven, how do we move forward in our relationship with that person?  And if the other person has done something to wrong us, how do we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?

When politicians and other public figures apologize for their misdeeds, we often see the people who are close to them say things like, “I’ll forgive him, but I won’t be able to forget.”  I submit, however, that forgetting is a crucially important element of forgiveness.  “Auld Lang Syne” is not a particularly appropriate song when it comes to forgiveness.  It is only by forgetting that we can truly move on from the hurt and the pain that someone has caused us.  In Isaiah 43:25, the prophet writes that God will not remember our sins.  God will let go of our sins and will not permit them to influence God’s understanding of who we are.  In the same way, we are called not to remember the wrongs that other people have done to us; we are called to do our best to forget the pain that other people have caused.  God calls us to avoid carrying grudges, because it is only by forgetting what others have done to us that we can truly move forward in a life of grace.

We are left with the niggling question of what we do about those who aren’t interested in being forgiven.  One thing we cannot do is force our forgiveness upon someone.  Just as we cannot forgive with the expectation of penitence, we cannot expect that everyone will be interested in our forgiveness.  Nevertheless, we must not allow past wrongs to poison our relationships permanently.  We can move on from pain and anger even without the other person, and we can pray that they too will arrive at a place where they can let go.

Perhaps the most challenging question of all is how we avoid being hurt in the future.  On one hand, Jesus instructs us to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves.  We know those situations where we can be hurt and we should avoid those when we can.  On the other hand, part of what the Christian life is about is vulnerability, realizing that we cannot arm ourselves against every hurt, because God himself did not forego pain and suffering.  We are challenged to live in a world where people can cause us pain, but to trust that the new life that God promises us transcends even the deepest pain we might experience.  We live in a world where we can be hurt; God challenges us to let that hurt go and to forget.