The Sunday Sermon: sitting on the bench

Easter 5/Year C 

 Acts 11:1-18 
 Revelation 21:1-6 
 John 13:31-35 

 It has continued to be a difficult week in the news. With the capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, along with news footage of the funerals of those killed, and those injured, along with the pictures, good Lord the pictures, from the Boston Marathon bombings, many of us remain compulsively glued to the unfolding story, even if there really isn’t that much new news from day to day. The bombings and their aftermath, are so horrific, they remain seared in our memories and incomprehensible.

We want to make sense of it, figure out how this could have happened. Assuming they are responsible, what in the world were the Tsarnaev brothers thinking? What so turned their heads and hearts around they could not only plan but witness such carnage with detachment and apparently no remorse? How did hate and anger obliterate their compassion and care for the innocent victims?

And the reality is, we will never fully know. Even if Dzhokhar answers every question asked him, certain things will never be revealed—some matters of the soul will only be revealed to God, about which us mere mortals can only speculate.
So what are we to do with this?

Last week Rebecca addressed that question and the feelings surrounding it, head on. As the body of Christ, we are to be people of healing and reconciliation. Not to let hate and fear rule our hearts and minds but rather pray for grace, wisdom, and strength; to see beyond and go beyond our own abilities and be Jesus to a world sorely in need of good news.

And as she said, it’s hard. It is very hard. We want to punish. We want revenge. We want to blame. We want to ridicule. We want to despise. We want to draw in and fence ourselves off for those we fear or are suspicious of.

So we grapple with trying to find an appropriate Christian response we can at least live with. However, today we are once again confronted with the fact, our response is to be one we very well may not want, or even think we can live with.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Sure Jesus. Did you see the picture on Friday of the woman who lost both her legs in the bombing and her daughter who lost one? We are to love the people responsible for this? On one level it feels like cheap grace to even consider such a thing. This act of carnage demands justice, not unconditional love.

Ah, but what does “justice” mean in the context of our faith? Is it to be devoid of love? Think for a moment, there is nothing in Jesus’ statement that says actions shouldn’t have consequences. In fact, we if look at the image of Jesus which emerges from the Gospels I think it is safe to say he makes the point time and time again, actions do have consequences. Evil is not to be tolerated but confronted head on. We are to name it and do something about it.

But, and there is almost always a “but” for those of us who follow this enigmatic carpenter, we are also to love one another, for that is one way people will know we are his disciples. People who point to a different way of being in world.

But to love someone capable of brutal, inhumane action is hard. It is so very hard. If most of us are honest with ourselves, we don’t want to love that person at all. We want to find as many ways as possible to distinguish or distance ourselves from him or her—heart, mind, body, and soul.

However, this is not what we are commanded to do.

It helps somewhat to remember the call to love each other is not the same thing as liking each other. Or excusing each other. Or even being around each other. But there is not getting around we are asked to adopt the mind of Peter who in today’s reading from Acts in essence told those listening to him, it is not for us to determine who, or what, God will find unclean or beyond the reach of God.

Which once again does not mean there shouldn’t be consequences for perpetuating evil. To ignore evil or attempt to excuse it does not bring about the Kingdom of Heaven. Rather, the kind of love we are commanded to have for one another is not some kind of soft or sentimental feeling but rather a way of being in the world in which we acknowledge all people have the spark of the divine in them—even if it is so dim it appears to be all but extinguished.

So what can this look like as we seek to love, comfort, and take care of those who have been wounded so grievously while at the same time love the ones who caused such pain? It seems impossible. But last week I was given a glimpse of what it could look like in a small tender way.
At our weekly staff meeting the Brothers, Canons Andrew Rank and Barnabus Hunt shared a story of an experience they had in the 1980s while they were going through the Diocesan process to be ordained as priests.

Under the canons, the church laws, all persons seeking ordination must obtain the approval of the Standing Committee, which is like the Diocesan Board of Directors, prior to Ordination.

On the afternoon they were each to meet with the Standing Committee, another person, the first woman to potentially be ordained in the Diocese was also scheduled to come before them. The three sat on a bench on the 6th Avenue Courtyard, outside the Guild Room here at the Cathedral, waiting to be interviewed. Andrew and Barnabus were each called in and the interviews were fairly perfunctory. However, following their interviews, the woman was not called in, so they decided to wait with her on the bench.

And they waited, and then waited some more. The afternoon turned into the evening and it started getting cold but the three of them remained on the bench. Finally someone on the Standing Committee came and invited the woman in. Wisely assuming there might be some kind of problem, Andrew and Barnabus remained there on the bench.

Their instincts were correct. When she came out, the woman reported the interview had been brutal.

While a majority of the Standing Committee members ultimately approved her ordination, those who didn’t made it abundantly clear they did not approve of ordaining women, and treated her very unkindly.

In recounting the story, the Brothers were full of compassion for the woman, and at the same time, clearly didn’t approve of the behavior of those particular people. The behavior was wrong—boorish, and frankly unchristian. Nonetheless, in the telling of the story, the Brothers didn’t show any hostility towards them. Righteous anger yes, but hostility, no.

In reflecting on it later, as I remained fixated at the stories coming out of Boston, two important truths emerged for me on what Jesus meant when he commanded us to love one another.

The first. Sometimes the best thing we can do for anyone is to simply sit on the bench with him or her. Be there as the day turns to night and the air becomes chilly. In thinking of all those affected by the bombings in Boston, or the plant explosion in West, Texas, or just people we know who are ailing for any reason, we are to remain on the bench with them as long as necessary, long after the news cameras have left, or the immediate crisis has passed. To not forget them.

Second. With God’s help, because I think it may be the only way we can do this, we are not to let the hate, anger, prejudice, fear, or just plain evil of others stop us from following Jesus’ command to love. It is hard. It is very hard. But it is not those people we follow, but Jesus. And in him we are given, and shown, the reality of God’s love for us which will sufficiently empower and embolden us to be the disciples Jesus calls us to be.

Thanks be to God.

The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas
28 April 2013

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