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.

Amen

 

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.

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God’s Resounding Yes: A Sermon for Easter Day 2013

This sermon, preached at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on Easter Day 2013, is built around the readings for Easter Day in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

I wonder when it happens…  when our response to the world around us becomes fixed… when the way we respond to the world around us begins to gel, to set, to harden…

I am sure that there are folks among us this morning who have studied this, who can tell us how the stress that our mothers endure affects us in the womb, how the birth experience shapes us, how the way that our early needs are met defines how we will trust, or not trust, the people and the world around us.  I know that all of these things impact our responses to the people and events in our lives.  I know that our outlook on the world is impacted and shaped by more variables than we can count and that we are all unique and wonderful individuals in or own right.

But this morning I am concerned with something that seems to be pretty universal, part of the human condition, something that we recognize in ourselves, that we know we would be better off without, and that is so hard to overcome that we will spend our entire lives struggling against it.

I believe that this tragedy begins when we are very young, during that awful period known to parents as the terrible twos.

Yup!  That’s when it happens.  The terrible twos… when we develop our obsession with the word “No!”

“No!”  it feels so powerful.  It startles the people around us, causes them to pause.  It even makes them a little uncomfortable.  And when we say it often enough we can cause quite a stir.  Everyone else seems to be saying it all of the time.  It seems like everywhere we go, every time we reach out to try something new, every time we experiment with the freedom we are beginning to feel, people are shouting it at us… “No!  Don’t touch that!  No! Don’t do that!  No! Don’t go there…”  This must be how the world works.  And if you are going to keep saying “no” to me then I am going to say “no” right back at ya!”

It happens so early.  We don’t yet have the resources or the sophistication to recognize what is happening to us.  And before we know it… It’s too late.  “No” becomes a habituated response.  It becomes familiar, predictable.  It is what we know…

So we are really ill prepared to defend ourselves from the “no” that surrounds us when our circle becomes larger and we fall under the influence and spell of the larger world.

“Can I join you?”

“No!  You don’t look like us!”

 

“Can I try this?”

“No!  You will just fail anyway!”

 

“Can I go there?”

“No!  You’ll just get into trouble!”

 

“Can I have some of that?”

“No!  There isn’t enough to go around, and you haven’t earned it yet!”

 

“But aren’t I important?”

“Are you kidding?  Who are you?  No!”

 

“Am I not then worth loving?”

“No!  Not until you measure up and give me what I want…  No!”

“No” rains down on us from people we trust, people we respect, even people we love.  So we don’t even recognize the fact that “No” is the tool that Madison Avenue uses to sell us their soap, “No you aren’t quite acceptable…  But if you buy what we are selling you will be just fine…”

We don’t recognize what is happening when “No” and the threat of “no” are what the powers that be use to keep us in line.  “No!  But you shouldn’t be complaining…  I am just protecting you from their bigger and even more oppressive ‘no.’  You should count your lucky stars that you only have to endure the ‘no’ that I am offering!”

Two thousand years ago, there was another word spoken.  It was spoken very quietly, by a young girl, who whispered the word in response to and unlikely and seemingly impossible request.

The word grew a little louder when, in a city that was lining up to be counted, cataloged and taxed by a foreign occupying power, a child was born in the lowest of all places.

This word grew in volume as an itinerate preacher began to wander the countryside, speaking primarily to those upon whom the world’s “no” had wreaked the greatest damage

It reached a crescendo as this word began to challenge the “no” in very public and threatening ways…

Jesus, Emmanuel, God among us, is God’s Word; God’s resounding “Yes” uttered, spoken into being, and proclaimed, in the face of the world’s “no.”

“Yes!  You can join us!  You don’t even need to ask.  Because you are already a part of us!”

 

“Yes!  You can try that!  And if it doesn’t work out…  we will find something else… together!

 

“Yes!  You can go there!  And I will go with you on your journey!”

 

“Yes!  You can have some of this!  There is way more than enough to go around!”

 

Yes!  You are important!  You are precious in my sight and there is no other like you!”

 

“Yes!  You are worth loving!  And I have loved you even before you were able to love me in return!”

Can you feel it?  It’s palpable!  God’s “Yes.”  Something like that could change the world!

It could… but the “no” doesn’t give up easily.  In fact, the “no” has such a deep hold on us that, as attractive as the “yes” may be… we find ourselves backing away, distrusting the very thing we long for, yet find so hard to imagine.

God whispers yes to a young girl named Mary.

God says yes in a lowly stable in Bethlehem.

God walks the dusty roads of Palestine saying yes, yes, yes!

But we turn away from the Word of God and cry “No!” as we nail him to a tree.

That “no” is still ringing in Mary’s ears as she approaches the tomb this morning.   It is screaming at the disciple Jesus loved and at Peter as they run to see what has happened.  That “no” is so loud and strong that Mary, weeping at the tomb after Peter and the other disciple have left, doesn’t recognize the voice, the Word, when it begins to speak to her again.

Then something incredible happens.  The Word, God’s “yes” calls to her by name…  Mary…  Yes!

It’s hard.  The “No” has not gone away, has not completely loosed its grip on us.  That voice is still ringing, screaming in our ears.  Sometimes the “no” even finds voice on our own lips.

It is our longing that brings us here: our longing for a different voice, and different word, a yes that might just change us and change the world; a yes that will proclaim that love is more powerful than death.

The “no” will never silence the yearning.  And this morning, as we stand weeping at the tomb… we hear it again.  That still small voice, whispering to us… calling us by name… and saying, “Yes!”

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

And There’s Nothing You Can Do About It: A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany

This sermon is based on the readings for the Third Sunday in Epiphany, Year C, in the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here.

It’s easy to get confused.  We miss the first episode of the new season, or even just last week’s installment, and we turn on the television at eight o’clock on Sunday night and we don’t have any idea what is going on with our favorite characters in the show.  The same thing can happen here in church.  We open the bible and read a short passage and, unless we know what is happening in the greater narrative, we aren’t sure what is really going on or how to interpret it.  This morning is a case in point.  So it’s going to be very important for us to set the stage a little before we dive into today’s Gospel reading from Luke.

Let’s back up a little.  Jesus is baptized by John in the River Jordan, “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21,22).

Then Jesus is led by the spirit in the wilderness where, with his identity firmly established, he makes some decisions about how he will live out his vocation and mission as the Son of God.  Jesus declines to win over “followers” by turning stones into bread and buying their allegiance by meeting their physical and bodily needs.   He declines to gather people to his cause through the use of might and force.  And he declines to make our belief in him a matter of science by throwing himself from the pinnacle of the temple so that the angles will bear him up keeping him from dashing his foot against a stone, thereby proving who he is.  Jesus chooses to offer us the opportunity to Love, something that cannot be bought forced, or proven.  So the devil departs from him until an opportune time (Luke 4:1-12).

That brings us to today’s Gospel…  “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country”  (Luke 4:14).  Jesus begins to preach and teach and then he goes home.  He goes to the synagogue, stand up to read, and when the scroll is handed to him he reads them a beloved passage from the prophet Isaiah.  He says,  “I have been ‘anointed,’ I have been ‘sent,’ to proclaim good news to the poor and release to the captives, to give sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”  Jesus chooses this passage of scripture to tell us that something new is happening; that God is breaking into the world in a powerful and transformative way: and that this is the day, the moment for which we have all longed.

Now if this was Matthew’s Gospel we might have heard this story a little differently.  Matthew had a tendency to spiritualize Jesus’ words, to make them less earthy and present.  While Luke’s version of the Beatitudes say:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20a).

Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes say:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

Luke has a particular passion for the poor, the marginalized, for women in his society.  Luke is concerned with the people on the periphery.  Luke says blessed are you who are hungry “now,” blessed are you who weep “now,” for you shall be filled and laugh.   When Jesus, quoting Isaiah, says “I have been anointed,” and “I have been sent,” and “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” he is not talking about someday, in the future, in the next life.  He is making a pragmatic, earthly statement about the impact that his presence will have on us today.

Here in his “inaugural address” Jesus is laying out his agenda for the next three years of his ministry and he is doing it in Nazareth, the place where he was brought up.

Now, even in your hometown, this would be a pretty aggressive and ambitious agenda for an inaugural address, even if you had been elected with a huge mandate from the people.  It would take someone with a lot of influence, the ability to work the halls of power…  In first century Palestine it would have taken a king to pull all of that off!

But that’s not the path that Jesus chose when he went into the wilderness to decide his path forward.  Time and again we see Jesus reject and avoid the kind of power it would take to make the kind of changes that would bring good news to the poor, release the captives, give sight to the blind, and free the oppressed.  Jesus refused in the wilderness to accept that kind of power and, in the end, he chooses instead to allow us to nail him to a tree.

So how does this work?  Jesus is describing his vocation and mission as being about how we live together in this world, how we relate to one another, how we relate to God, how we relate to the world around us and yet he declines, again and again, to assume the power he needs to bring that mission to fruition.

Let’s go back that decision Jesus made in the wilderness just before our reading for the morning began.  Love cannot be bought, forced, or proven.  “If you can’t say ‘no,’ it isn’t love.”  Jesus chose allow us to say “no” and he allowed us to nail him to a tree, to exhibit and manifest the very worst that we are capable of, to erase all doubt from our minds.  If you will allow me to play with Paul’s words just a little:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height , nor depth nor anything else in all creation…”

even experiencing the stark reality of all that we are capable of at our very worst

“…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38,39).

So what does this have to do with the here and now, with the way that we relate to one another, the way that we relate to God and the world around us?  Everything!  Jesus came to show us that nothing can separate us from God’s love and Grace.  Our salvation, our place in God’s embrace is secured!  We are saved!  As my friend Tom Ferguson, former chaplain at Saint Francis House says, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

So just take a moment and let that sink in.  Let it wash over you and see how it feels.  I know.  It’s hard!  We would almost prefer to think that we can somehow earn, deserve, or merit out place at the banquet table.  To accept it as a gift is to give up control and power.  But we say it all the time… maybe in the deep dark recesses of our ego we don’t really believe it… but we say it is by God’s grace that we are forgiven, redeemed, and saved.

So do you have it?  Are you feeling it?  Good!  Now that we have been relieved of the burden of our own salvation, now that we have given that responsibility to the only one who can actually effect it… let’s get back to that ambitious agenda that Jesus laid out in his inaugural address.

The poor will hear the good news, the captives will be released, the blind will see and the oppressed set free when we are transformed by the truth that Jesus came to share with us.  When we know and proclaim that we have all been saved, that God’s grace and love extends to all of creation, that we are beloved of God before we can even begin to respond… we will be the ones proclaiming that good news, releasing the captives, giving sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free.  It is the good news of Christ’s ongoing presence among us, God’s refusal to abandon us even when we are at our absolute worst, that will transform us and, in turn, empower and enable us to transform the world.

I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there has been a lot of chatter in the media, polls results released, studies done, all of which point to the fastest growing faith denomination in the country… the “nones.”  I said that at the early service today and someone, on their way out, told me they thought I was talking about a rush of people joining convents.  Nope.  N o n e s are people who claim that they have no religious affiliation at all.  They get to that question in the poll where it asks them to check their religious affiliation and the check the box next to the word “none.”  Somehow a growing segment of our population believes that what we have to say, what we have to offer, the Good News that we proclaim isn’t important, doesn’t matter, is irrelevant to their lives.

That just doesn’t make sense to me!  How can the truth that God loves you, that God has always loved you, that God will never, no matter what happens or what you do stop loving you be irrelevant to someone’s life?  How can the proclamation that we are all included in the grace and light of God’s love be of no matter?  How can the transformation that all of this makes possible be unimportant?  It can’t!

So here’s what I think…  If the “nones” are the fastest growing “faith denomination” in our nation it is because we haven’t done a good enough job telling people that they are in!  We haven’t done a good enough job telling people, and maybe it’s because we don’t even really believe it of ourselves, that God already loves them and that nothing will ever change that!  If the “nones” are the fastest growing “denomination it is because we have spent way too much time and energy worrying about whether we, and the people around us, have managed to secure our own salvation!

I hope and pray, that here in the season of Epiphany when we recollect and celebrate God made manifest in the world, that we are able to proclaim god’s presence in ourselves and in one another.  I hope that we can look one another in the eye and say, I know that I have a place at the table.  I know that you have a place at the table.  I know that all of creation will be at the table.  And, thanks be to God, there is nothing that we can do about it!

Amen