July 3rd, 2016 – Proper 14C: 2Kings 5:1-14; Psalms 30;Galatians 6:7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20
Often it is very daunting to stand here before you and presume to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. This morning I am finding it especially hard.
But I suspect that what preaching is really all about is sharing the stories of what God is doing in our lives. So this morning I share a part of my story with you.
Most of you are aware that on June the 13th, my brother Robert was executed by Abu Sayaaf – a radical terrorist group operating in the southern region of the Philippines.
The past nine months have been very difficult for my family – fraught with worry, frustration, fear, and a sense of utter powerlessness to do anything to bring about a positive outcome. And then, the event we dreaded the most became a reality. A phone-call in the middle of the night shattered our hope.
But, even though this has devastated me and caused great turmoil in my family, my story, is just one in millions of similar stories – stories of people all over the world who have felt those same intense emotions as they watched the normalcy of their lives dissolve in the wake of catastrophe brought about by violence, and fear, and hatred.
Even with our technology connecting us globally in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago, most of us still manage to be unaware of the very real pain and suffering that is the everyday reality of so many people in the world. As long as terrible things happen in far away places we can turn down the volume on reality and focus on things that are far more interesting or profitable for us. Somehow we are always shocked when trouble touches down close to home.
How many times do we hear people say in news reports, “Things like this just don’t happen in our neighbourhood.”?
But I think we are all losing our sense of safety – the bombing in the Brussels airport this past week is just the latest in a string of recent events that have shaken us all awake to the fact that there is no longer anywhere in the world that we can go to escape the possibility of violence.
The dream many of us have lived – especially in North America – for so many years, untouched by the problems experienced by others in far away lands, is now proving to be just that – a dream.
I don’t think the world has changed all that much. It has always been a violent and dangerous place. What has changed is our ability to contain and control that violence so that it remains hidden, or apart from us – someone else’s problem.
When these terrible things happen to people, there is often a move to respond with an equal or greater force of violence. Many people would find that understandable, and even practical. This is the situation with members of my own family – there is anger, there is hatred, there is a need to retaliate – a need for revenge.
And I do get it. People need to do something. They want to help – partly from a sense of compassion and solidarity with others who are suffering, and partly from fear. Taking aggressive action in a frightening situation can help us believe that we can somehow ward off the possibility of bad or evil things happening to us.
This is not the road that I can walk. Anger is a necessary and useful response to a perceived injustice. But it is not an end in itself, and unless it is directed to constructive action, it can destroy everything in its path.
What come to my mind are the words of Jesus, spoken from the cross: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”
And I try to make that my mantra – my guiding principle – as I go through the stages of grieving for my brother, and what his death has done to our family.
To do anything less than forgive would give the victory to those who took his life.
I am troubled by the way we often want to put labels on those who do things that we don’t comprehend or understand. We want to believe they are nothing like us. That given the same circumstances we would choose a completely different path. But one only needs consider the history of our human race, or listen to some of the xenophobic rhetoric issuing from the United States, around the presidential campaign – and from the United Kingdom, in the wake of the referendum decision to leave the European Union – to know that we humans, despite our sophistication, have not come very far in our ability to respond, rashly and wisely, to those things that frighten and alarm us.
It is so much easier to justify our behavior, when we can name people as “good” or “bad”; when everything is clear, in black and white; when we can look from a distance and judge based on our own values and customs, while expressing outrage when others judge our actions in the same way.
But we don’t know what forces are at work on people – what influences their decisions, what circumstances make them choose to act as they do. Labeling the other as “bad” or “evil” lets us off the hook. We don’t have to acknowledge our own culpability in setting in motion, or continuing to support, the influences that lead to the very actions we condemn in others.
I know mine is not a popular view – with my family or others who want to give full reign to their anger. Some would call me a “bleeding heart” and unrealistic.
But the terrible event of my brother’s death has not shaken my belief in a good and loving Creator who desires peace for all people and all nations. Who will go to any lengths, even death on a cross, so that we might be reconciled with our God and with one-another. This is not the self-protective, armed stand-off that passes for peace in this world, but a new way of acting and being that leads to fullness of life for everyone. In our human interpretation, it seems, peace for God’s creation can only happen when we humans have blown one-another to bits!
So the question for me to ponder is: “How far am I willing to go for the sake of the one I profess to love and follow?” Can I dare to let myself be angry? Can I truly forgive those who have caused so much pain for my family?
I am still so numb it is difficult to respond honestly to those questions, but I look to others for inspiration: I think of Desmond Tutu, living through the horror of Apartheid; of Martin Luther King Junior marching for peace despite the terrible atrocities in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States; of Mother Teresa tending to the poor in the streets of Calcutta; and elder Chief Robert Joseph, residential school survivor and moving force behind the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All of them turned their anger at injustice to acts of compassion and peace. And with God’s help and the prayers of this community of faith, I will strive to do so as well.
I believe that what was done to my brother, and to so many others who have been held for ransom, was an act of evil. But it would take too much time and space here to explore the concept of evil in this world. That is for another time and place. What I will say is that we all have a choice to let the goodness in us rule our lives, or we can give ourselves over to the forces of darkness. I will continue to pray for those who took my brother, and ultimately killed him, that God will turn their hearts. And I will strive to let the goodness in me grow until I come to a place of forgiveness and peace.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus sends out the 70 to be missioners to the nations of the world. There is a sense of urgency to his instructions. At the end of this service, you will be dismissed into the world. You too have a calling to serve as missioners. There is so much work to be done, it is difficult to know where to begin. So here is my summation of the Good News of Jesus Christ – begin here:
Look around you this morning – these are your sisters and brothers in the family of God. Get to know them. Listen to them tell their stories. Share yours with them. Help one-another discern the pattern of God’s grace in the fabric of your lives. Learn with them what it means to love unconditionally. You are for one-another, a living reminder of the presence of Christ in your life.
Celebrate what is good and beautiful in the world – and believe, that despite the press coverage, there is far more of God’s goodness being manifested in the world than there is evil. Goodness is an innate part of being human because we are creatures made in the image of a benevolent and loving God. Look for the face of God in others and practice doing good together.
Become a gardener – sow the seeds of love and hope. Cultivate beauty, and nurture all that is life giving in your own life, and in the lives of others. Look beyond their faults to the gifts God has planted in them, and patiently help them to grow. This is what God does for us.
Be a healer – acknowledge your own pain and sorrow, and let it be the common bond that helps you to reach out to another who is suffering. Be a compassionate presence, helping to bear the excessive burdens that weigh them down. This is what so many of you have done for me, and for my family.
Welcome the stranger – learn what is sacred in their life and how it connects to what is sacred in your life. Don’t try to change one-another. Celebrate the fact that your lives are connected through the God who offers salvation in many and diverse ways.
Go into the world – you are called to be God’s messenger of peace and healing.
Travel with others – support one-another; be a reminder of the truth of God’s love in your lives; be a living embodiment of God’s peace in the world.
Carry the light of Christ wherever you go – evil cannot thrive in the light, and has no power, except in darkness.
And believe, that God accomplishes great things, with even the smallest and weakest among us.