Saving Our Lives by Losing Them: a Call for Restorative Justice

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is based on the readings for the Proper 17 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

This text is a transcription of the recording made at the 9:30 Celebration of the Eucharist. I have made a few adjustments in the transcription, mostly where my proclivity for compound run on sentences began to border on the absurd.  There is a link at the end of the text to the article by Charles Hefling that is quoted in the sermon.

Here is the recorded version:


This is a big weekend here in Madison just like it is in college towns all over this country. Students are returning for their second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth year of school. First time students are arriving on campus, finding their roommate assignments, making their way through the dorms, learning the layout of campus and where the dining hall is. It’s a tremendously exciting and terrifying and important moment in the life of any young person. I think it’s a very similar; it doesn’t matter where you’re going to school; it doesn’t matter who you are; there’s a lot that’s shared in this moment. But I think there’s something very different about college today than there was when I started in 1978. That year at Juniata College, a small private liberal arts school in central Pennsylvania, room board intuition for a whole year cost a whopping sum of $4800. I don’t know that you could even get a meal plan for a year for that much money today! We had gone to great lengths to plan for a college education, to research, to find the right place to go, and then over the four years that I was there cost of that tuition tripled. It was almost $15,000 the year that I graduated. Sometime during my senior year I was home and we were having a conversation at the dinner table and someone said something that caught my ear and I asked for clarification and my father said “uh… no. I sold the sailboat.”   Really? So why did you do that? He looked very uncomfortable for second and then he said, “Well tuition has gone up quite a bit since you started school.” I felt all the breath rush out of me. I thought uh oh, now is to be mad at me. Now I’m going to find out what this really costs. I was stunned that he just went on… changed the subject. He almost looked embarrassed that it had come up at all. And I was flabbergasted by that. I really didn’t understand how that could have been; that this thing that was so precious to him was gone and he never even mentioned it; wouldn’t have mentioned it unless it had come up in this conversation.

I think I started to have some understanding of how all of that worked for him about 15 years later when our son Daniel was born. When we were expecting Daniel I went to church and I told all of these older men there at the parish that we were expecting a baby and there was almost a universal response from them. They would come up and put their arm around my shoulder and they’d go, “Oh man… Your life is about to change…” And I’d say “Yeah! I know! We’ve been trying for a long time to have a baby! We’ve planned for this and were prepared and I know what’s coming and I’m glad of it.” The Sunday after Daniel was born I went back to church and went back to the same guys and I said, “Oh man my life has changed! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Here I was with this defenseless infant who couldn’t feed himself, couldn’t clean himself, couldn’t clothe himself, or protect himself… I was responsible for him, and for all of the things that he needed.   And so suddenly things that I thought were mine, rightfully mine, had to get set aside. You know my sense that I deserved eight hours of sleep a night, the idea that I would get to choose when I slept, that I would get to choose when I ate… All sorts of things that I thought were under my control and mine to decide suddenly became his to decide. I had to give up things that I thought were important to me, that I thought made me who I was, in order to be a father to this child.

I think that my dad was doing much the same thing only on a different scale and at a different point in my life when he sold his boat. He was helping to launch me from college into the real world.

So Jesus in the gospel today tells us that if we want to save our lives we have to lose them. I think that as we consider the ways that we change, the ways that we give of ourselves for the people we love, we have some sense of what he’s talking about here. In order to be in relationship with those who are close to us we make concessions. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to change. We give up pieces of ourselves that we thought were crucial to our identity and who we are, and in doing so we find something much greater. We find a gift of life in the light that we couldn’t have expected or experienced until we were willing to make ourselves vulnerable and give up something in that way.

Now, I think that’s an easy thing to picture and this is a great metaphor to understand all this but it’s kind of limited because it’s easy to give of our life in this way for our children, our parents, our siblings, our family, our tribe, our community. It’s a little more difficult when it’s a stranger for whom we have to give. It’s a little more difficult when we are asked to change or to give up something for someone we’ve never met and may never meet again. We all know on some level how difficult this is and you see evidence of that in the way that we honor those stories and those moments. I can sit in the evening at 5:30 at night and watch 25 minutes of terrible horrible news from all over the world. But you get the last five minutes and the news anchor is going to show you something to lift your heart, and make you smile, and show you someone in the world who has reached out and done something spectacularly generous in giving for a stranger. Those moments we treasure and we value. They give us an insight into something that we claim and proclaim that is awfully difficult to do.

All right so take it another step and we see the limitations of this metaphor in describing what Jesus is talking about. It’s easy for your family its more difficult for a stranger. But what about for someone you don’t really like that much to begin with; someone who rubs you the wrong way; someone who you find to be challenging and difficult; or even someone who has hurt you; someone who you believe owes you the gift and not you them.   That’s where the story gets really difficult and that’s where we find ourselves finally able to circle back to the beginning of today’s gospel passage.

Jesus says if you want to save your life you must lose it but that’s buried pretty deep in today’s reading. The reading today starts out with Jesus telling his disciples that he must be crucified, die, and rise again. Jesus is talking about losing his own life and in the shock and dismay that the disciples express after that moment, after Peter likens himself to Satan and says “No Lord this can never happen to you!” Jesus tells us that we have to follow him and be willing to lose our life in order to find it. So I think at this moment we need to dig in just a little bit to see what it is that Jesus is losing.

Jesus dies on the cross at our hands. Now if someone were to harm us, to wrong us in some way, it would be normal, I’ll say natural for lack of a better word, expected for us to expect compensation.   Justice would say that we are owed retribution, compensation, even revenge.   And so punitive justice, retributive justice would say that we respond to that evil with evil because punishment is by its definition depriving someone of something they value: liberty, possessions, time, acquaintances, even their life.   Retributive justice, the justice that the world, in which the world deals, says that we repay evil with evil and we only repay good with good.

Jesus on the other hand places himself in our hands and allows us to nail him to a tree, to crucify him, to kill him. He experiences the very worst that we have to offer and instead of repaying that evil with evil he comes back and loves us anyway.

Now the Gospels tell us, Jesus has said himself, he could if he wanted summon 12 legions of angels who would fight for him and save him from this fate. He could have fled.   He fact in came over the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem to face this conflict, to find himself in this moment. He didn’t flee, he didn’t fight, he didn’t summon a legion of Angels to rescue him. He repaid the evil that was done to him with good and broke the cycle of violence; violence to repay violence, to repay violence, to repay violence by showing us something different.

I think that this is so difficult for us because we want to be compensated. We want to find recompense. When someone wrongs us of justice calls for us to be repaid and it’s very difficult to forgo that compensation or retribution in order to find something different.

I’ve quoted from this article before and I’ll post a link to it when I post the sermon this afternoon. Charles Hefling in the Christian Century, March 20 of last year, has an article called “Why the Cross?” and he says,

“punishment by definition takes away from an offender something valuable – liberty, property, physical well-being, companionship, possessions. Forgiveness would mean the remission or cancellation or cessation of deserved punishment. It comes down to taking away the taking away.”

He goes on to say that,

“If you choose to retaliate you perpetuate the evil by causing new injury” and he says “If instead you choose to hold a grudge, to brood on your injury and cultivate your dudgeon, you will still perpetuate the evil, internally, by diminishing yourself, souring your character and becoming your own victim as well as mine”

the decision to forgive to forgo the righteous revenge, resentment, self vindication, righteous indignation is to rise above that retributive justice that perpetuates the cycle of evil and to participate in the justice of God which is restorative. Hefling tells us,

“If you choose to forgive, you are choosing to absorb the infection, as it were; to contain its self-diffusion, to forgo the gratifications of revenge, resentment, self vindication, and righteous indignation.”

This is what Jesus did on our behalf in coming back and repaying evil with good, loving us anyway; breaking that cycle of violence and showing us a different way; something that will build community, break down barriers and walls, and draw us one to another in a community that realizes God’s vision and dream for all of us. But it is an incredibly difficult crucified place to stand.

Now I just have to offer one caveat in all of this because I know that this passage has been used to cause great harm and I hear people say, “it’s my cross to bear in life.” I don’t believe that God inflicts suffering on us and I don’t believe that God wants us to suffer. God is asking us to be willing to give our lives in order that community might grow, that light and love might grow, that people will all be restored to light and life. But God is not asking us to sacrifice ourselves in order that someone may continue their abusive behavior, or that someone might continue down a dark path that doesn’t lead to life but leads to death. Jesus didn’t allow the crowds to throw him off the cliff when he returned to Galilee, to Nazareth and began to preach to them that, in him, the kingdom of God was fulfilled. He chose his moment in a way that would restore light and life to the world. He did not cast his pearls before swine and allow himself to be trampled into the dust.

Jesus does not call us to be doormats. Jesus does not call us to remain in abusive and life demeaning situations. But he does call us to be prepared to give up our own agenda, to sacrifice our own sense that we are central to this universe and to the world in order that other people might find themselves uplifted, might have what they need, and that we might ourselves break the cycle of violence that drags us all into the depths.

I had a conversation with Ken Stancer (our Music Director) this week. This was the day after an in-service for all teachers in the Madison public school system and he was very excited to tell me about a new program that is designed around restorative behaviors in the classroom. I thought this was a stunning statistic that he told me, and I’ll get this number wrong because I didn’t write it down, but there were somewhere in the area of 4,470 days of suspensions and expulsions in the Madison school system K through 12 last year. He told me that the graph that they showed the teachers said that 68% percent of those days were served by African-American males and that the remaining 32% were divided up equally between all of the other ethnicities and genders present in the school system. The school system is working to balance the need to maintain order in the classroom with the need to restore people to community and to attack the roots of those problems.   So if you pull a child out of class, if you send them from the room, you have to balance that act of justice with another act of justice that is designed to restore them to the community and to resolve the issues that resulted in their being suspended or expelled.

I want to applaud the Madison school system for this effort I want to commend this kind of thinking to all of us. We are called save our lives by losing our lives, by being willing to give to and for one another, to change and be changed by our interactions with one another much the same that we are willing to be changed by our interactions with the people that we love who are closest to us. We are called to this behavior because it has the potential to break that cycle of violence, to become a lamp shining on the hill, and to help create and bring to fruition God’s vision and dream for all of us.

Jesus tells us that he must be crucified and die and rise from the dead, and he tells us that we must walk in his footsteps and be willing to lose our lives in order to find true life. Thanks be to God that we don’t have to hang on that same cross. But we need to be ready and willing to follow him, to recognize others’ needs and rightful demands, we need to be willing to take ourselves out of the center of our own spinning universe and to stand side-by-side with our brothers and sisters in this community and beyond, to call for an end to the violence, to pray for and demand peace, and to bring all of God’s creatures into the light where we ourselves long to stand.



This sermon is indebted to Charles Hefling and his article “Why the Cross” published March 20, 2013 in the Christian Century.  You can read his article here.

I also made extensive use of Hefling’s article in my sermon for Good Friday 2013.

On Bended Knee with Our Broken Hearts in Our Hands: a Reflection on the Season of Lent

This is how we approach the love that we have wounded, the love that we have injured, the love that we have neglected or betrayed.  Filled with remorse for the pain that we have caused, hoping beyond hope for forgiveness, we acknowledge the wrong that we have done, we declare our remorse, we proclaim our love, and we promise to change, to live more fully into the relationship that we long to maintain.  We do everything that we can do to be reconciled to the one whom we love.  It is an all too familiar scenario.  Children and parents, husbands and wives, partners in every kind of relationship find themselves in this place; having hurt one another, desperately seeking forgiveness, hoping for reconciliation, longing to mend what has been broken, approaching on bended knee, broken heart in hand.  This is also the posture in which we approach the season of Lent.

We know that we have sinned, that we have failed to live into the relationship that God is offering us and that we long to experience, in the things that we have thought, in the words that we have spoken to one another, and in the things that we have done.  We know that we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we know that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We know that we have neglected and betrayed the one who loves us beyond all measure, the one with whom we long to abide in peace and trust.  We know that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, has eluded us because we have not sought, recognized, and nurtured the relationship that brings that peace.  This strain in the relationship which should be at the center of our lives is so difficult to bear that we come to church every week and confess our sins, the ways in which we have fallen short of the life and love that God holds out to us.  Every week, again and again we come to the table with our hands outstretched, trembling at the love and grace that endures, the knowledge that God remains faithful even when we are not.   If we are already confessing, on bended knee, our broken hearts in our hands, why do we set aside the forty days of Lent as a time of “self-examination and repentance; of prayer, fasting and self-denial; of reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP p. 265)?    I would like to suggest that the season of Lent is not a time for seeking forgiveness.  It is a time to turn our hearts, to change, it is a time for repentance and renewal.

The analogy that I set up earlier in this reflection, of approaching the people in our lives whom we have hurt, seeking their forgiveness, hoping for reconciliation doesn’t quite describe our humble approach to God.  When we have hurt the person whom we love we hope for their forgiveness, but there is a chance that they will refuse us the reconciliation we crave.  There is the chance that they will have had enough of the pain that we inflict.  There is a chance that the relationship will have finally been ruptured beyond repair.  But God loves us so much  that God came among us as one of us, and giving God’s self into our hands, allowed us to choose whether or not to love God in return.  God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, experienced the very worst that is in us when, in our desperation to be rid of God, we nailed him to a tree.  The analogy that I set up at the beginning of this reflection falls short here because, despite our betrayal, God has not abandoned us!  The Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ has proven to us that nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Every Sunday when, on trembling knees, we confess our sinful thoughts, words and deeds, the things done and left undone, our failure to love God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves, we do so knowing that God is waiting to forgive us and restore us to the light and love for which we are created.  We hear the words that we long to hear, “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life”  (BCP p. 360).  It is interesting and important to note that on Ash Wednesday, the day that we venture into the wilderness of Lent, we do not hear those words of absolution.

On Ash Wednesday we confess our sins in the Litany of Penitence (BCP p. 267-269), and then  “the Bishop, if present, or the Priest stands, and facing the people” … declares that God “has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare pardon and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins”  (BCP p. 269).  And then…  that absolution is not conferred!

Just before the peace is exchanged, at the conclusion of the Litany of Penitence, the confession, the Bishop, if present, or the priest says:

 “Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP p. 269).

Here on Ash Wednesday, as we begin our journey through the season of Lent we are praying for repentance, a turning of the heart, away from the things that damage our relationship with God toward the things that are life-giving, that deepen and nurture that relationship.  Here at the beginning of the season of Lent we are praying for the Holy Spirit, for help and strength as we, acknowledging the great gift that God gives us by lifting the burden of our sins, work to repent, to change!

We all long to hear the words of absolution, to know that we are forgiven, to hear that the relationship is still intact, but absolution is only the beginning of something even harder than asking for forgiveness.   The human analogy will serve us well in this moment.  When we go to our love with our broken heart in our hands we may, on the surface be craving their forgiveness, but what we really are afraid of is the loss of relationship.   What we really long for is the wholeness that comes from being one with another.  Forgiveness, absolution, allows us to remain in the presence of the one we love without shame or fear, but the relationship is only made whole if we repent, turn away from, whatever it was that caused the relationship to be ruptured or strained in the first place.  If the thoughts, words, or deeds that caused the breach continue, then the relationship will continue to be deeply wounded and forgiveness becomes nothing more than a topical analgesic.  We set aside the season of Lent, the forty days preceding Holy Week and the Resurrection as a time for deep healing and true reconciliation.  Lent is a time for change… and that is why, when we ask God to grant us “true repentance” we also ask for God’s Holy Spirit.

The kind of change we are talking about here isn’t something that we can do by force of will, commitment, or by working harder.  The kind of change we are talking about here is only possible through the Grace of God and our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is only in knowing that we are forgiven, that nothing we can do will ever separate us from the Love of God, that we can set our hearts and minds to the work of repentance, of change.  It is God’s gift, loving us even before we can love God in return that sets us free to acknowledge our faults and shortcomings, our betrayals, our sins, and ask for forgiveness.  It is God’s gift, the presence, guidance, and grace of the Holy Spirit, that helps us to know when we have failed to hit the mark, that helps us to get back on target.  It is only through the strength and courage we receive in knowing that God, through the Holy Spirit, continues to walk this journey with us that we are able to begin the hard work of repentance, amendment of life, of change.

“Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP p. 269).