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.

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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.

 

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Breaking the Rules

Sermon on Matthew 18:15-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.  Audio for this sermon can be found here.

rachel_mcadams_mean_girls_20080813_02In 2004, Paramount Pictures released Mean Girls, a comedy about the perils of attending high school during the first decade of the new millennium.  Starring Lindsay Lohan before she became a tabloid headline, Mean Girls is, in many ways, a typically trite teen comedy; the protagonist succumbs to the temptations of cliques and cattiness only to realize that the coolest thing she can be is herself.  What sets Mean Girls apart from other films in its genre is the writing.  The movie is endlessly quotable, and nowhere is this truer than the scene in which Lohan’s character eats lunch with the popular clique known as “the Plastics” for the very first time.  One of the other girls, Gretchen, explains the rules that members of this clique must follow: Plastics wear pink on Wednesdays, Plastics can’t wear tank tops two days in a row, Plastics can only wear ponytails once a week, Plastics can only wear jeans or track pants on Friday.  After reciting this litany of requirements, Gretchen warns about the consequences of violation: “If you break any of these rules, you can’t sit with us at lunch.”  This scene is meant to show the audience the superficiality of the Plastics; the ludicrousness of excluding someone from a group for wearing sweatpants is supposed to make us laugh.  And yet, if we’re honest, every group establishes rules that members must follow in order to remain part of the community.  Establishing such rules is a way of ensuring that the community can function properly, a way of reducing conflict, a way of understanding who we are.

We see an example of a set of such rules in our gospel reading for today.  These rules deal with the management of interpersonal conflict among the group of first-century Christians to whom Matthew wrote his gospel.  Now, Matthew’s was a diverse community of Jews and Gentiles, those who had grown up following the Law of Moses and those who had never heard of Moses, those who kept kosher and those who ate what they wanted.  With such a diversity of backgrounds, conflict was, to some extent, inevitable.  As we all know, it is difficult for a community to function when members are clashing with one another.  There are a variety of different strategies that leaders use to deal with this kind of conflict.  As the leader of a church community, Matthew, like the Plastics, seems to assume that those who persistently and unrepentantly disrupt the social order ought to be removed from the community, though he is concerned with offenses more significant than not wearing pink on Wednesday.  The evangelist recalls Jesus’ instructions for dealing with conflict in the church and as we heard this morning, our Lord spells out the procedure pretty explicitly: if another member of the church sins against you, take him aside and talk to him about it.  If that doesn’t work, bring two or three other people to see if they can get through to him.  If he still refuses to repent, bring him before the whole community, and if the person fails to respond even to the whole church, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Jesus, in other words, seems to say that those who persistently and unrepentantly sin against other members of the community ought to be removed from the body of the faithful.  Far from the pettiness of a high school clique, this whole process assumes that the actions of the one being excommunicated have become destructive of the very fabric of the community.  Not only that, excommunication requires a rigorous due process: the offender is given three distinct opportunities to make things right before they are shunned by the church.  In Matthew’s community, people are not excommunicated for light and transient causes.  Nevertheless, it is sometimes necessary to make the hard decision: to exclude those who disrupt the social order in order to maintain unity within the church.

There’s a level at which I think we can really understand this.  We have all been in situations where we have seen a single person cause problems for an entire community.  There’s the person at work who refuses to pull his weight, who piggybacks on other people’s successes and shifts blame when he is at fault.  There’s the friend who selfishly takes advantage of her relationships and somehow manages to make every gathering a symposium on her personal problems.  There’s the family member whose self-destructive behavior has yielded only frustration and shame for those closest to him.  Often, these people will continue in these behaviors no matter how much we cajole or threaten or beg.  It seems that Matthew was dealing with his own version of these issues.  In these seemingly intractable situations, Jesus himself appears to indicate that we ought to remove these people from the community so that those of us who remain can live and work in harmony.

But notice how Jesus frames the sentence of excommunication: if you aren’t able to get this guy to repent, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”  Now, this seems like a fairly definitive condemnation.  After all, for a Jewish audience, Gentiles and tax collectors are among the most hated people in first-century Palestine.  Labeling someone as a Gentile or tax collector means that person is naturally excluded from the fellowship of those who worship the God of Israel.  But remember that Matthew’s community includes Gentiles.  Remember that Jesus himself calls a tax collector named Matthew to be his disciple. Chapel-window Remember that at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus enjoins the disciples to go into the world and make disciples of all nations, literally “all of the Gentiles.”  Gentiles and tax collectors, in other words, are those whom we are called to embrace, those with whom we are called to reconcile, those to whom we are called to proclaim the abundant and redemptive love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.  For Matthew’s community and indeed for the whole Church, the door is never closed; there is always an opportunity for even the most notorious sinners, even those who persistently reject the community, even the Gentiles and tax collectors to be brought back into the fellowship of Christ’s body.

Who are the Gentiles and tax collectors in our lives?  Who have we excluded because of their repeated failure to meet our expectations?  Is it the lazy coworker, the selfish friend, or the shameful family member?  Or is it someone else?  Have we excluded ourselves because we believe that what we have done cannot be forgiven?  The gospel calls us to look within ourselves, to discern who we are excluding from our lives, and to reach out to those people and open ourselves to the possibility of reconciliation.  We may not get anywhere, we may be rejected for our efforts, but we worship a God who reached out to us while we were still sinners, while we were rejecting God.  We are called to be persistent, to remember that Christ does not willingly exclude anyone from the fellowship of his body, to live our lives deeply aware of how inclusive God’s love really is.

Fear

PrintA few months ago, I was eating a disappointing breakfast sandwich  in a restaurant at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport when I overheard a group of people mention the word “theology.”  Being a sucker for theological inquiry, I slowed my chewing and listened a little more closely.  To my surprise, the group was not discussing Athanasius or Thomas Aquinas (the fact that this surprised me tells you a lot about who I am), but rather the Illuminati and their sinister plot to take over the world.  For those of you who are not up to date on your conspiracy theories, the Illuminati are supposedly a secret cabal of wealthy and powerful individuals bent on world domination.  While this narrative is boilerplate for any self-respecting conspiracy theorist, I was curious to hear it framed in terms of Christian theology.  The group of people I heard talking in the airport apparently believed that the Illuminati’s secret control of the world was part of God’s plan to bring the world to an end.  Several members of the group repeatedly said things like, “God has already set the plan in motion” and “It’s only a matter of time.”  When I decided I could no longer remain in the same room without holding my tongue, I abandoned my sandwich and wandered to my gate.

Though I was initially surprised by this marriage of old-school conspiracy theories to dispensationalist theology, it occurs to me that these worldviews have similar perspectives.  Those who subscribe to both of these worldviews are convinced that someone else is in complete control of the world, that there is nothing they can do to influence the course of history.  In both of these worldviews, the only solution is enlightenment; the only way we can deal with our lack of control is to realize that we have no control, to realize that the puppet strings are being held by someone else.  And I think that both of these worldviews stem primarily from fear of the unknown.  The only way some people can deal with the very human fear of uncertainty is to deny that anything is uncertain.  If it’s all part of the plan, and they realize that it’s all part of the plan, then they can take solace in their enlightened understanding of the world.  Both conspiracy theories and dispensationalist theologies, in other words, can be sources of profound comfort.

Yet, by denying the reality of uncertainty, these worldviews fail to help people deal with reality.  Not only that, the idea that God has set a definite plan in motion is not terribly Scriptural.  As I mentioned yesterday, one of the central affirmations of Christian theology is that we have free will, that we have a choice to be in relationship with God.  In fact, St. Paul argues that our reconciliation to God occurs because of Christ’s faithful obedience, because of Christ’s exercise of his freedom.  Faithfulness, therefore, is not about being certain about what is going to happen next, it is about trusting that God will be faithful to us even when we don’t know what is going to happen next.  Faithfulness is not about believing that God is controlling every aspect of our lives, it is about trusting that God is with us as we move through this life.  As you walk the way of the cross during Holy Week, I pray that you will be comforted by the fact that God is with you even in the midst of uncertainty.

Certainties

Today is Tax Day.

imgresThough I generally take a moment in this paragraph to explain the provenance of what I have mentioned in the first sentence, I suspect the vast majority of those reading know exactly what I’m talking about.  April 15, the day that US Tax Returns are due, has the quality of Judgment Day.  For accountants, it is the finish line after a long marathon.  For the self-employed, it is the day that we have to send an inappropriately large check to Uncle Sam.  And for the procrastinators among us, it is a day of panic, stress, and promises that we will not wait this long next year.  Tax Day touches everyone in some way because taxes touch everyone in some way.  The ubiquity of sending money to the government supposedly led Benjamin Franklin to quip that the only certainties in life are death and taxes.

With Franklin’s words in mind, it occurs to me that Tax Day is appropriate way to wrap up our Lenten experience.  After all, we began this season of penitence and renewal with a reminder of our mortality.  Part of the purpose of Ash Wednesday is to remind us about the certainty of death.  And here in the waning days of Lent, the IRS reminds us that taxes are also inevitable.  This year, our Lenten journey is bracketed by Benjamin Franklin’s two certainties.

It’s easy to read this quotation in a fatalistic way: we are going to die, and we are going to pay taxes.  That’s all we can count on; everything else is ephemeral, like dust blowing in the wind.  But I think that these words about life’s inevitabilities are actually hopeful.  The only true certainties are death and taxes, but the rest of our lives are full of possibility.  We are not hamstrung by fate or destiny; we have the power to make choices and forge our own way in the world.

In certain strands of Christianity, one often hears people say things like “God has a plan for my life.”  This has always fascinated me, since so much of Christian theology is predicated on the notion that human beings have free will, that there is not a plan that we must follow slavishly, that we are responsible and accountable for our actions.  In fact, the story of Christ’s Passion indicates that Jesus himself exercised free will on his journey to the cross.  He had the choice to turn back, he had the choice to utter recriminations, he had the choice to reject his disciples, and yet he faithfully made the decision that would reconcile the world to God.  Jesus Christ was not subject to some plan that was beyond his control; he made the choice to walk to Calvary, trusting that God would be with him.  In the same way, we are called to recognize that we are not slaves to our circumstances; we can walk through our lives, make the best of our situations, and trust that God will be with us even when we feel like we are losing control.  While death and taxes may be inevitable, we are called to trust in the God of boundless possibility.

The Immediacy of Grace

Today’s post is going to be a bit meta.

Tonight, we are starting our Lenten series at Heavenly Rest.  This year, the series is called “The Immediacy of Grace: Literature and the Catholic Imagination.”  We are exploring the work of several Roman Catholic authors, including Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sigrid Undset, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.  The goal of the series is to explore how these authors are shaped by their Catholic identity.

One of the most conspicuous elements of Roman Catholic practice is the central importance of the sacraments, the outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace.  The most extraordinary thing about these sacraments is that the Church affirms that those who participate in them have access to the grace of God.  Anyone who participates in Holy Communion, the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) or any of the other sacraments has the opportunity to experience God’s abundant grace; it is theirs for the asking.

imagesHow does this understanding of the immediate accessibility of  grace shape the way a Catholic author looks at the world?  If one looks at the work of Flannery O’Connor, one will be struck and perhaps horrified by how brutal her depiction of the world can be.  Stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” chill one to the bone, and make one wonder if there is even a possibility of redemption.  I believe that part of the reason that O’Connor can present reality in such an unvarnished way is that she is shaped by the knowledge that God’s grace is available to us.  O’Connor’s wrote her stories in light of what she calls “the central Christian mystery,” that the world, “for all its horror,” has “been found by God to be worth dying for.”  To put it another way, Catholic authors try to view the world through the lens of the Cross, the ultimate source of grace that has been made known to us through the brutality of this world.

I hope that this is the perspective that has shaped and will shape this series of devotional readings (this is where the post gets meta, in case you were wondering).  Too often, we get bogged down with the drudgery of the world and forget that God’s grace is available to us in the sacraments and revealed to us  in surprising ways.  During this season of Lent, I pray that you will strive to see the world through the eyes of God: a place that is, for all its warts, worth loving to the point of death.

Security

Sermon on Matthew 24:36-44 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on December 1, 2013.

I have a deep appreciation for the situation comedies of the 1990s.  In all likelihood, the reason I am so fond of these sitcoms is because I grew up with them; watching Frasier or Friends or Mad About You was my reward for finishing my homework or practicing the piano.  At the same time, part of the reason I love these shows is because they hold up well even fifteen years later.  Nineties sitcoms were more sophisticated than their hokey and saccharine eighties counterparts, but they still had a charming innocence that the cynical, reality-driven shows of the last decade abandoned.  There are, of course, elements of these shows that did not stand the test of time, plotlines that simply don’t make sense in our current context.  For instance, every episode of a show in which two characters were unable to meet because of some earlier miscommunication could be solved very easily with a cell phone.  Also, every episode of a show where there was a misunderstanding about someone’s identity could be resolved with one of the characters looking her up on Facebook.  Perhaps the most obvious sitcom trope that no longer works is the two lovers sharing a tearful goodbye just outside of the airplane jet bridge as one of the characters is about to fly away.  Those of us watching in our post-9/11 world are saying to ourselves, “That could never happen anymore.  They would have to say goodbye at home or by the ticket counter, and that’s not nearly as dramatic.”

imgresThis particular nineties sitcom trope exposes how much has really changed since terrorists hijacked airplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon twelve years ago.  We are now hyper-vigilant; we’re not willing to take any chances.  At the airport, you can no longer go through security unless you have a photo ID and a boarding pass, and I’m willing to concede that this makes sense.  You can no longer carry knives of any length onto an airplane, and that makes sense.  When you go through security, you have to take off your shoes and put them through the X-ray machine.  Why?  Because a guy once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that was in his shoes.  You can no longer carry containers of liquid larger than three ounces on the plane anymore.  Why?  Because someone once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that involved combining liquids hidden in shampoo bottles.  You also may have to go through a machine that allows the TSA agents to essentially look under your clothes.  Why?  Because a guy once tried (and failed) to explode a bomb that was in his underwear.  Now I don’t mean to suggest that all of these are bad things.  Rather, these measures are indicative of not only our society’s intense concern with security, but also our very human preoccupation with protecting ourselves, our insistence on always being prepared for whatever comes next.

It is this very human impulse that Jesus taps into in today’s gospel reading.  Today, we hear what is frankly one of the more terrifying passages in Matthew’s gospel.  This comes from what scholars call the “Little Apocalypse,” which is Jesus describing what the coming of the Son of Man is going to look like.  Prior to this passage, Jesus appropriates a number of apocalyptic metaphors from Scripture, telling the disciples that “the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its lights; the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of heaven will be shaken.”  This is dramatic, Cecil B. DeMille-type language that is meant to give the disciples at least a fleeting sense of how great and awe-inspiring the day of the Lord is going to be, that day when God will reconcile the world to himself.  This language is supposed to fill them with hope and expectation, because it describes a time when the righteous will be vindicated and God’s people will be restored.  Naturally, the followers of Jesus would like to know when this is going to happen so that they can be prepared for what comes next.  Jesus tells them, however, that the coming of the day of the Lord is a mystery at the heart of God, that no one knows about that day or hour, not even the Son.  In fact, Jesus says that it will take us completely by surprise, that it’s going to happen when we least expect it.  And here is the terrifying part of this passage: Jesus says that the Son of Man will come so suddenly that people who are working side by side will be taken away from one another and vanish from each other’s sight.

imgresAll of this underscores Jesus’ exhortation to keep awake and be ready for the coming of the Son of Man.  He tells us that we do not know on what day our Lord is coming, and it is here that he plays upon our preoccupation with security and preparedness.  Jesus presents us with a scenario to help us understand his point about readiness: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”  It’s a vivid and potent image.  The thief is not going to send us a note to tell us when he is going to try to break into our house.  And if we can’t prepare for a specific moment, it would seem that we’re supposed to be prepared all the time.  Perhaps Jesus is telling us to stay hyper-vigilant, to keep all of the lights in the house burning, to sit up straight and fight off sleep even as our eyes grow heavy peering out the window and looking for the thief.  I think this is the classic human response, the post-9/11 response to this scenario: we don’t know when the thing we’re preparing for is going to happen, so we have to stay awake forever.  Of course, there’s no way we could possibly stay awake forever; there’s no sustainable way for us to be that vigilant.  Perhaps we have to look at this image differently.  I think that when we hear this metaphor, we’re conditioned to imagine that we can prevent the thief from coming, but remember that Jesus is using this image to describe the coming of the Son of Man, and the day of the Lord is coming whether we think we can stop it or not.  In fact, Jesus tells us that this is the only thing that we can be truly secure about, that God is going to make things right through the Son of Man.  So if we follow Jesus’ metaphor to its logical conclusion, we don’t know when the thief is going to arrive but we also have no way of stopping him; perhaps, then, we’re not meant to worry about catching the thief in the act.  Perhaps Jesus is using this image to point us to a different way of looking for the Son of Man.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the time in the Church year that we not only prepare for Christmas, but we also affirm that God is going to be revealed and reconcile all things to himself on the great and terrible day of the Lord.  Now, I’m perfectly willing to concede that the coming of Son of Man tends to be a touchy, even uncomfortable subject for many Christians.  Many of us would much rather concern ourselves with the mangers and stables and sheep of Christ’s first coming.  Part of the reason for our discomfort is that throughout history, there have been two extreme approaches to preparing for the coming of the Son of Man.  imgresOn one hand, there have been numerous Christians throughout history who, in spite of what Jesus said in our gospel today, have proclaimed that they could pinpoint the exact date and time of the day of the Lord and Christ’s second advent.  While there are a whole host of issues with this, I think the desire to know exactly when Christ is going to return stems from the very human desire for security.  We want certainty, we want assurance, we want to know when to expect whatever we’re expecting.  On the other hand, instead of being hyper-vigilant about the day of the Lord, there are those who say that it’s never going to happen, that it was a mistake of the early Church, that Jesus only was on this earth once, and any talk of the coming of the Son of Man is foolishness.  Ironically, I think this impulse stems from the same desire for security.  We would rather assure ourselves that something is never going to happen, rather than living our lives with any kind of uncertainty.  As we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, however, we are called us to a middle way, one that is less secure, one that is riskier, but one that takes Jesus seriously and trusts that we are being reconciled to God and one another.

In the very next chapter of Matthew’s gospel, just after we have heard three parables about the necessity for watchfulness, Matthew unfolds the judgment of the nations, the passage wherein people are separated as a shepherd separates sheep and goats.  Ravenna Last JudgmentStrikingly, Jesus introduces the passage with the phrase, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory.”  The last time Matthew uses the phrase “Son of Man” is in the passage we read this morning.  To my mind, this means the story about the judgment of the nations reveals something about the day of the Lord; the story about the judgment of the nations is meant to prepare us for the coming of the Son of Man.  You know the story well: when the righteous come face to face with the Son of Man, he says to them, “Come, you that are blessed by my father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  The righteous are surprised, because they don’t remember doing any of these things for the king.  But the Son of Man responds “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”  Jesus tells us that we encounter the Son of Man when we reach out and care for those who cannot care for themselves.

Advent, therefore, is not about pinpointing the precise day of the Lord’s return or saying “Christ will come again” even as we assume that it will never happen.  We are not meant to look for the false security of certainty; we are called to embrace the uneasy reality of risk.  Jesus calls us to risk ourselves, to take a chance and reach out to those in need.  In a moment, when we pray for those who have died, you will hear the name of David Dingwall.  David was a priest in the Diocese of Easton who died this week after a disturbed man set himself on fire and walked into a church’s outreach center. This tragic event highlights the risk we take when we care for those who cannot care for themselves.  Events like this might tempt us to close our doors and turn our backs on the world.  But I suspect that Fr. Dingwall knew the truth that we affirm today, that each moment we spend caring for other people is an Advent moment, an opportunity to encounter the Son of Man.  Every can of food you give to Hands-On Outreach, every hour you volunteer at Thrift House, every note you send to someone who is lonely, every time you welcome a newcomer to Heavenly Rest is an Advent moment.  So be ready and stay alert, because every person you meet could represent the coming of the Son of Man, the one who reconciles us to God and one another.

Reconciled

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.