The One of Peace

Sermon on Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:46b, 53-54 My soul proclaims the greatness of God… God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty. God has come to the help of God’s servant Israel, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy… 

Introduction 

It’s nice to be in charge, right? It’s an ego boost to be the boss, the one where the buck stops. It’s fun to be the leader, the one who decides this and that, and here and there, the one who tells this and that person what to do and what to say. The more power the better, right? For isn’t it in the acquisition of power and dominance—the incessant climbing of the occupational ladder—where I achieve my true human liberty and freedom? As I climb up, I’m freed from the constraints of the lower echelons of human existence, and I finally have that long awaited liberty where none can tread on me. The higher up I move along this ladder, the more I acquire the rewards and accolades of this system, and the more I’m lifted out of the muck and mire of obligation to anyone else. (There’s something wrong with someone who is content with the middle or, God forbid, the lowest rung of the ladder; who wants to stay there?) Here, at the top or near the top, I’m my own law. Here, I am respected. Here, I’m freed from the tyranny of others. Here I’m that which I have strived for: powerful. I get to holler at subordinates and underlings, echoing Eric Cartman from the cartoon series, South Park, “Respect my ah-thor-ah-tah!” It’s nice to be in charge, right?  

Or is it… 

Once I start seeing my leadership in the schema of the personal acquisition of power—and the continual pursuit there in—I will ignore that the ladder I am hoisting myself upon is always made up of the human bodies I was charged to guide and lead in the first place. The bodies will be used to an end to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of a bloated and an autonomous self, untethered from the mores of being human: the humility of existence made tangible in the willing and sometimes not-so-willing self-surrender of the self to other humans in the activity of love. To climb that ladder as far as I can, I must turn off the “human” part of my humanity, which—if you are doing the math—renders to near zero “humanity.” And the farther-up I go pursuing the acquisition of power and privilege, the deeper-in I’m pushed into what can only be described as a solitary confinement with walls built of competition and fear– it only takes one slip (slide?) to fall from that glory. It’s nice to be in charge, right? 

Or is it…. 

Micah 5:2-5a 

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, 
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. 

And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great 
to the ends of the earth; 

and he shall be the one of peace.  

Micah 5:4-5

The bulk of Micah’s message (from the beginning of the book to the end) is embedded in Micah’s mission to expose the sins of Jacob and Israel, being the first prophet to declare the destruction of Jerusalem.[1] What sins does Micah expose? In short: moral corruption. The long of it is that there is violence (from the wealthy and powerful) and the proliferation of lies.[2] And the even longer of it is: the heads of the houses of Jacob and the rulers of Israel “abhor justice and pervert equity” and the brick and mortar of their cities are the wrong-doing of the leaders and the spilled blood of the people.[3] And, according to Micah who is emboldened by the passionate Spirit of God in the face of such violence,[4] God will not tolerate this depraved leadership, profiting off of the bodies and souls of God’s beloved.[5]

In the prophesy, Micah, so moved by God’s Spirit, transitions from exposing sins and naming the trespasses of Israel’s and Jacob’s leaders to speaking of one who will be raised up from the small clan of Bethlehem of Ephrathah. This one will be of old and of the ancient of days. This humble one from a humble tribe will be called out to lead God’s beloved in the name of God and in the Spirit of God: delighting in unconditional and unceasing love, forgiveness, mercy, and humility.[6] Specifically in our portion of the text, Micah’s prophesy moves toward a God who rejects the idea of letting iniquity run amok[7] even if the city itself is complacent.[8] so, God comes, and in that God comes, there will be forgiveness and peace because when God comes, so to comes the true leadership of Israel defined not by humanity but by God, the one of peace.[9]

Conclusion

Micah’s words haunt me. Israel’s leadership has run away with Israel for its own power and privilege. And God is coming to rescue God’s beloved. Woe to that leadership so bent on self-aggrandizement and power and authority and privilege; violent leadership that uses the beloved as a means to their own end will be exposed in God’s light of truth. Leadership so bent in this way is in direct opposition to God and God’s conception of leading and can meet no other end in God but death. God has a very specific interpretation of what it means to lead, especially leading God’s beloved: it is done through mercy, kindness, humility, love, and forgiveness. To be completely frank, God doesn’t like it when human leaders forget themselves and become drunk with power and abusive and violent, resulting in the oppression and marginalization of God’s beloved. God will come and rescue the beloved from such domination. Thus, the judgment of this prophecy is targeted at me, the leader of God’s beloved—and others like me holding power and authority. God will come for the beloved and in that the beloved is sought and liberated from oppressive and violent leadership, so too will the violent and oppressive leaders be liberated. It’s nice to be in charge, right? Or is it?

With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:7-8

It’s into the presence of God I am called. I am pulled off my ladder of power and am dragged onto the carpet; I am beckoned into the light; I am exposed by the Spirit’s prophetic utterance still fresh on Micah’s lips. I am asked to come close and to hear and to see what means to be a good leader. And, it’s not defined in the way that I think it should be: through the acquisition of more and more power and lording it over those under my charge. It won’t look like making people feel small so I can feel big. It won’t even look elite, special, or privileged. Rather, this good leader will look remarkably like a humble and vulnerable infant wrapped in meager rags, laid in a manger, dwelling among the creation in its earthy glory, surrounded by dirty shepherds and an exhausted woman of color. I am asked here: can you lead like this? For here lies the true leader, the one from the ancient of days who knows no end of time but is now a tiny baby in swaddling clothes: humble and accessible to anyone; can you lead like this…of the people for the people? Can you love them like I do?

That this prophetic utterance of Micah is for me it is for you, too. Because divine love does not remain dormant when the beloved is in need: hope exists. We can, right now during this season of Advent in 2021, hope. We can hope because we dwell in and are invited into a story of God acting on behalf of the beloved by coming in the judgment of God’s love to give life to all the beloved trapped and held captive in violent systems—when the captive is set free, so too will the captor be set free through death into new life. We are all beckoned—leaders and the lead alike—to walk humble with God and like God, in love and mercy and forgiveness and humility. And we are called to walk this way not just here in this place, but out in the world, furthering the elastic reach of divine love in the world and for the beloved out there.

O come, Desire of nations,

bind in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind;

bid thou our sad divisions cease

and be thy self our King of Peace.

O come, O come Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.


[1] 1 Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Micah” New York: JPS, 1962. 98 “Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, apparently regarded the purpose of his mission to be ‘to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin’ (3:8). He was the first prophet to predict the destruction of Jerusalem.” 

[2] Heschel Prophets 98. “In his eyes the fatal sin is the sin of moral corruption. The rich men are full of violence, and the inhabitants speak lies: ‘Their tongue is deceitful in their mouth’ (6:12).”

[3] Heschel Prophets 98 “The prophet directs his rebuke particularly against the ‘heads of the house of Jacob and the rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity.’ It is because ‘they build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong’ (3:9-10) that Zion and Jerusalem will be destroyed.”

[4] Heschel Prophets 99. “To the soul of Micah, the taste of God’s word is bitter. In his love for Zion and his people, he is tormented by the vision of the things to come…” 

[5] Heschel Prophets 99. “Here, amidst a people who walk haughtily (2:3), stands a prophet who relentlessly predicts disaster and disgrace for the leaders as well as for the nation, maintaining that ‘her wound is incurable’ (1:9), that the Lord is ‘devising evil’ against the people: ‘It will be an evil time’ (2:3).” 

[6] Heschel Prophets 99. “Micah does not question the justice of the severe punishment which he predicts for his people. Yet it is not in the name of justice that he speaks but in the name of a God who ‘delights in steadfast love,’ ‘pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression’ (7:18).” 

[7] Heschel Prophets 100 “Yet, there is reluctance and sorrow in that anger. It is as if God were apologizing for His severity, for His refusal to be complacent to iniquity. This is God’s apology to Israel. He cannot forget ‘the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked’ or ‘acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights’ (6:10, 11).”

[8] Heschel Prophets 100 “‘Answer Me!’ calls the voice of God. But who hears the call? ‘The voice of the Lord cries to the city’ (6:9), but the city is complacent.”

[9] Heschel Prophets 101 “Together with the word of doom, Micah proclaims the vision of redemption. God will forgive ‘the remnant of His inheritance,’ and will cast all their sins ‘into the depths of the sea’ (7:18 f.), and every man shall sit under his vine and ‘under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid’ (4:4).”

Like Beloved Children

Psalm 130:4-7: I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for the Lord, more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; With him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Introduction

For 11 years, I was a stay-at-home parent. My favorite and least favorite part of being a stay-at-home parent was watching how my mannerisms, colloquialisms, and habits were reproduced by my children—for better or for worse. Somedays it would be Liza who would see to her duty of unpacking the pantry I just packed after a run to the store. Or it was Quinn who would use a spare calculator as a cellphone and walk around the house, like I did when I was on the phone, yammering to some unknown person while imitating my intonations and inflections. Or, in Jack’s case, it was making use of my penchant and fondness for polysyllabic words.

Of all the stories I have about Jack’s ability to command language and his artistic ability to render it to his will, my favorite was an encounter with our mailman on a warm summer day. Playing out in the gated front porch, both boys were busy with paints and bubbles. The mailman climbed the two flights of stairs to our mounted mailbox. As he was putting the mail in the mailbox, he greeted the two toddlers with a happy smile and a warm, “Hey guys!” Quinn, my shy extrovert, smiled and whispered a hello in reply. Jack, a little over two and wearing nothing but a bulky cloth diaper, looked at the mailman, pointed at him, and—assertive and confident—said, “Do not antagonize our cat, Joe Joe!” The mailman was a bit taken aback by both the prohibition and from whom it came. He laughed and assured my son, “Don’t worry, buddy, I won’t!”

It didn’t take but a second to figure out where Jack had learned that polysyllabic word: me. Day in and day out I would use various words to exhort the boys to stop (verbally) fighting—some more colorful than others, but always words natural to the way I speak. And, “antagonize” was one of those words targeted at the boys locked in verbal fisticuffs. Thus, Jack had not only made note of it, he learned when to use it. He didn’t need to memorize the word; he just heard it enough in specific situations to absorb it and imitate it to an innocent mailman making rounds.

Ephesians 4:25-5:2

Let all bitterness and outbursts of negative passion and impulsive vengeance and clamoring against others and abusive language be removed from you with all malice. Now be kind with respect to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God forgave you in Christ. Therefore, be imitators of God as beloved children and walk in love, just as Christ loved us and handed himself over for our sake, as an offering and sacrifice for a fragrant odor to God (Eph 4:31-5:2)[1]

Ephesians 4:31-5:2

The author of our love letter to Ephesus continues with the exhortative nature initiated at the start of chapter four. As we pick up in v. 25, neither lose the beseeching to walk worthy of the call to which you were called (v.1), nor the imagery of being the reborn children of divine Love. What we have in our portion from Ephesians today is a dive into what it looks like to walk in this worthy way, as those beloved children of God—heirs with Christ of the fulfilled promises—sealed by the Holy Spirit. Being reborn of God in and by love, we are to reflect that divine genetic material of love into the world; the old life being shed, we are new.[2] This new person and worthy walk, according to the author, is what it means to be a new person born into the reign of God in the world.[3]

What will this new life reborn of love look like? The first thing is removing falsehood from our language. This isn’t about threatening others with condemnation if they lie; it’s about pursing what is genuine and real, rejecting what is in opposition to genuine and real.[4] We not only seek honesty with others, but we are also honest with ourselves. We live in reality and not in some mythical approximation that makes us feel comfortable. We can twist and bend our words and language about the world however we want, but this exhortation is about calling things as they are for what they are. We owe others truth because we are linked together with them in our humanity and as objects of divine love—both in and outside of our common gathering on Sunday.[5] In this way, to propagate falsehood does harm to us as it is does to others. Perpetuating the myth and lie of the kingdom of humanity keeps us all trapped in complicity and captivity of the myth and lie.

Closely linked with putting aside untruth, we’re exhorted to be angry in a life-giving way and not in a death-dealing way. As we’re called to see things as they are, we will become angry when we see people suffering and being held captive by oppression and injustice perpetuated by the myth and lie.[6] In this righteous anger over pain and suffering,[7] we’re to aim at the mark: remedying the situation and not exacerbating it. We are prohibited from missing the mark (“sin”), thus in the negative prohibition is the positive command: do the right thing, fight for those who need to be fought for, ally with those who are being pressed and killed by greed, and overturn violent institutional and systemic oppression as if they were tables.[8] Concurrently, we must prevent our anger from festering for too long and becoming septic.[9] This is why it’s important to channel the energy of anger toward life; festered and septic anger brings death.

The next two exhortations—to work with hands and not steal and the call to speak edifying words and not “worthless” words—address the orientation of heart of the new person as the beloved child of God. Both exhortations are directed to the neighbor. While we may think thievery is anyone who steals what they have not purchased, it’s more than that. It’s about greed. A poor person steals bread to eat because they have a desire to eat; a rich person steals not for lack but because of a desire to satisfy greed. A loquacious person may speak many words, but not all of them will be edifying. In both commands the heart of the believer is exposed. We must keep watch over ourselves and our tendency to fall prey to the myths of our society that convince us we can say what we want and take what we want to the detriment of the neighbor. We must remember that our material existence and the material of our words are not ours; rather, they are of God because we are reborn of divine love.[10] We use both our work, our material existence, and our words[11] to benefit those in need, bringing the love of God to them in real and tangible ways. Thus, the Holy of Spirit of God (in you and in whom you are sealed[12]) rejoices and is not grieved.[13],[14]

Conclusion

We are to remove from us a bitter attitude, negative outbursts of passion, destructive anger, clamoring against each other, and abusive language. In other words, our attitude, disposition and manner of speech,[15] must resist participating in death-dealing. This is the way of humanity, bent on its desires to consume until everything is gone, bent on its own destruction, bent on gain and greed even if it means the end of the world, of humanity, and of themselves. Rather, we are to pull close to our divine parent, to gaze upon God in Christ. We are to look so ardently and listen so well (shema) that we, like the beloved children of God that we are, mimic Christ in the world. The more we gaze upon Christ, the more we hear about God’s activity and speech manifest in Christ for us and the entire creation and cosmos, the more we will reflect those things into the world and all for the love of God and for our neighbor.

The more we understand God’s compassion for us and the world, made tangible in Christ, the more compassion will take root, grow, and flourish in our hearts, minds, and bodies in word and deed.[16] As we see and hear God weep with us in our grief and sorrow, so will we weep with others who grieve and sorrow. As we see and hear God relieve our hunger and thirst, so will we relieve the hunger and thirst of others. As we see and hear God present in our pain and suffering, so will we be present in the pain and suffering of others. As we see and hear God ally with us in our captivity and get angry about it, so will we ally with those who are being held captive and be angry about it. As we see and hear God forgive us for missing the mark, we will forgive others who miss the mark, too. As we witness by eye and ear God’s gracious and free gift of Grace in Christ to us, we will reflect this free gift of grace into the world.[17]

Like beloved children of Love, let us know God’s love for us and the cosmos in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can’t do anything else but mimic and imitate this divine love into the banality and monotony of daily life, boldly communicating this profound love to others in word and deed…even to the unsuspecting mailperson making their rounds on a warm summer day.[18]


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 615. “Having established the believers position as a new person, the inferential conjunction Sid points to the desired application of this position. The lifestyle of the old person is integrally tied to the person and so the lifestyle and the position of the new should be integrally bound together. Once the new person had been put on at conversion, one’s subsequent life should reflect what he or she is.”

[3] Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 4-6 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974 511  “In what follows Paul presents examples to show what specific deeds and attitudes are rejected when the ‘0ld Man’ is castaway.”

[4] Hoehner Ephesians 615-616, Pseudos “…in all contexts this word is used as the antithesis of truth…. Falsehood connotes that which is not genuine or real. The lifestyle of the old person was one of deception (v. 22). This kind of lifestyle has been laid aside.”

[5] Allen Verhey and Joseph S. Harvard Ephesians Belief: A Theological Commentary Louisville, KY: WJK, 2011. 188, “Truth is owed to the neighbors because of our social solidarity with them. It is also a bit surprising that the text does not say that we are members of the ‘body’. The ‘body’ is not mentioned. Perhaps it is also too obvious to mention. But perhaps the reference the ‘body’ is left out because ‘the neighbors’ to whom we are to ‘speak the truth’ evidently include those who are not members of the body, not members of the church. The exhortation was not simply that we should tell the truth ‘to one another.’ Truthfulness is not just owed to other members of the church, but to any and all neighbors.’ The ‘truth’ in Jesus of our social solidarity, that ‘we are members of one another’ points beyond the church to the universal community that is God’s plan.”

[6] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 190, “Anger at injustice is permitted. Indeed, an injustice not only prompts anger; it requires it When we see the poor oppressed, we should get angry. When the ‘other’ is demeaned or insulted, we should get angry. But anger can be an occasion for sin, for seeking revenge instead of justice, for holding a grudge instead of seeking reconciliation. It is sin that is renounced.”

[7] Barth Ephesians 513, “Among the saints who are ‘God’s imitators’ (5:1) such anger cannot be excluded any more than in God himself (Rom 1:18; 2:5, 8; 5:9) or in the Messiah (Mark 3:5, etc.). ‘Wrath against a brother’ draws judgment upon the angry man (Matt 5:22; cf Gen 45:24), but ‘indignation on behalf of others is one of the common bonds by which society is held together.’”

[8] Hoehner Ephesians 619, We Anger “Since the word sometimes is in reference to Gods anger it cannot be said that anger is intrinsically evil. Hence, the next command is important. The imperative is from ὰμαρτάνω, meaning in classical Greek ‘to miss the mark’ such as when throwing a spear or ‘to miss’ the way. Generally it means ‘to fail to accomplish ones purpose, go wrong.’”

[9] Hoehner Ephesians 623, “This is why Paul does not want believers to give the devil an opportunity by their anger. The devil twists and distorts the truth. If there is no quick restoration between parties, further anger mounts and dissension and revenge often result.”

[10] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 192-193, “There is the sort of theft to which the poor and powerless are tempted, but there are also the subtle forms of stealing that tempt the rich and powerful. It is a kind of theft when the rich get richer at the expense of a decent wage for laborers or by taking advantage of slaves. It is a kind of theft when merchants ‘make the ephah small and the shekel great’ (Amos 8:5). It is a kind of theft when a judge takes a bribe. And it is a kind of theft when the wealthy do not recognize that what they call “their own” is really God s and an opportunity to practice justice and generosity. It is a kind of theft when the rich ignore and dismiss the legitimate claims of the poor upon them, when they do not share with the needy what is due them by Gods justice. It is likely that the latter sorts of theft are in view here in Ephesians rather than the first. Then one need not suppose that there were a lot of petty thieves and shoplifters in the churches of the Lycus Valley.”

[11] Hoehner Ephesians 631, “Paul states that believers are accountable for what they say. In fact every word is accountable. Care must be taken that each word is not useless or unprofitable but is beneficial for the building up of the body. While the preceding verse dealt with the physical needs of believers, this verse speaks to their spiritual needs.”

[12] Hoehner Ephesians 633, “In conclusion, verse 30 revolves around the person of the Holy Spirit. Believers are reminded that he has sealed them for the day of redemption. They are warned against the use of worthless words because they not only hurt the body of Christ but also grieve the Holy Spirit.”

[13] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 194-195, “The motive here, the motive to do an honest days work, is not simply to earn a living for oneself and one’s family, honest enough motives, to be sure. The motive is surely not to accumulate enough possessions to pretend one has achieved by oneself and for oneself security and an identity. The motive, rather, is simply ‘to have something to share with the needy’ (4:28). That will include those who do not have work.”

[14] Barth Ephesians 522, Blaspheme “This term may have been chosen in order to show that one’s fellow man is under God’s protection: he who reviles his brother by using profane speech shouts obscenities against God.”

[15] Hoehner Ephesians 636, “To summarize, first noun ‘bitterness’ in verse 31 deals with attitude. The next two nouns ‘anger and wrath’ deal with disposition, and the last two ‘shouting and abusive’ refer to the manner of speech.”

[16] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 200-1, “Compassion (eusplangchnos; NRSV ‘tenderhearted’) is the second in this triad of virtues. Compassion is a visceral response to the suffering o£ another. It is to share the suffering, to ‘suffer with’ (com-passion) another. Compassion will seek to relieve the suffering of another, even if the only way to relieve it is to be present to it, present to the sufferer, lest the sufferer be abandoned to the desolating loneliness of suffering….. In solidarity with that Christ, we hope for the day of resurrection, the day when death will be no more, when there will be no more suffering. But meanwhile we share in Christ s death. And if we share in that death in baptism and the Supper, then to refuse to share the suffering of another is quite unfitting, quite unworthy of our new identity and community.”

[17] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 206, “Nevertheless, the broader meaning should not be neglected here. Both God’s forgiveness and the practice of forgiveness within the church are, after all, works of grace. Moreover, kindness, compassion, and forgiveness—and the whole set of renunciations and exhortations in this section—find their final motive and basis in the grace of God made known in Christ Forgiveness, surely, but also kindness and compassion, follow upon this affirmation of the gospel, that “God in Christ has been gracious to you.’”

[18] Verhey and Harvard Ephesians 206-7, “Love is the mark of God s own life, both in the relations of the Trinity and in Gods creative and redemptive relationship with Gods creation. But here, no less than in Johns epistle, ‘we know love by this, that he laid down his life for us’ (1 John 3:16). We are to imitate God by living in accord with Christ’s love. We imitate God by following Christ; we are to ‘walk [peripatetic] in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God’ (Eph. 5:2). Here, no less than in John’s epistle, the implication is that ‘we ought to lay down our lives for one another’ (1 John 3:16). That imitation of God, that following of Christ, may mean first; as in 1 John, something as mundane and commonplace as helping the needy in the community (Eph. 4:28; c£ 1 John 3:17).”

Forgiveness as Death and Resurrection

For 9/11 (Homily)

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Corinthians 5:14-21)

Two miles doesn’t seem like much. On 9/11 it was. About 2 miles separated my office situated a stones throw from Trump Tower in midtown from the Twin Towers downtown; two miles felt like the distance of an ocean separating me from those two massive towers collapsing in Manhattan. When you are in and out of Manhattan daily, midtown’s Rock Plaza and downtown’s Financial District don’t feel far apart. But on that day, they were. Midtown was secure and safe; downtown lay under layers of debris, destruction, and tragedy. They could have been two different cities…it was just two miles.

Last year I shared with you that I was a new Christian during this national tragedy. I shared that I couldn’t make sense of this God who a few months earlier brought me the comfort of love and forgiveness and now seemed and felt far distant and even absent. For those of us separated by a mile or two from the events, the question about God’s presence in the aftermath of the tragedy became a mere echo within months as Manhattan did what Manhattan does: rebound. It felt like it took New York a New York Minute to find its new normal.

Actually, as we rebuilt and restructured, mended and healed, interned and inurned, the question about God’s presence didn’t go anywhere. While it wasn’t readily on our lips, it lay underneath the resilient human spirit in the form of fear and its twin, anger. At least I can speak for myself: I was afraid and I was angry. Was another attack coming? I should be ready just in case. I would spend months commuting to work prepared to spend the night away from my apartment. Why did this happen to my city, to those innocent people going about their day?! And cue the anger.

These two emotions pack a punch when coupled together, and they are often coupled together. Fear makes room for anger because anger protects us from that which we fear. However, the more anger we have the more we are afraid because anger doesn’t actually solve anything–it keeps us blinded. Yet, suppress either and they both fester and become toxic.

In the aftermath of 9/11 I was in quite the dilemma. I was a new Christian who was afraid and angry. Monday through Friday I worked in the post 9/11 atmosphere of NYC masking my fear and anger; on Saturday and Sunday I was involved in conversations about God’s peace and God’s love. I wanted very much to place blame and seek vengeance; but I was exhorted weekly to love my enemies as myself and to forgive those who trespass against me as I am forgiven my trespasses.

Forgiveness is a very heavy topic in any situation, especially those situations involving deep pain, personal loss, fear and anger. So, I dare to piggy back off of Rev. Kennedy’s excellent homily from last Wednesday wherein he discussed our need to be forgiven and to forgive and the reasons why. While I have nothing substantial to add to what he said, I was moved to contemplate the act of forgiveness. What is it? What does it do?

I’ve found in my years walking with Christ, forgiveness isn’t a mere formula of words uttered into the universe hoping they land somewhere, like shooting arrows at an unknown target in the horizon. Forgiveness demands intention, demands my full presence both to offer and to receive the words of forgiveness. Forgiveness demands so much because–like it’s twin, love–there’s no half way. Like love, forgiveness demands a death. It’s not only setting your pride a side, it’s dying to what was. I can no longer hold on to what was, for it’s gone; to cling is to grasp at oil. I can only turn forward and face the oncoming future, the very future forgiveness beckons me into, the future I do not have control over. It’s a death to follow in and to relinquish the façade of ownership of the past. But in this gallows there God is; in this crisis there Christ is; in this suffering, there the Spirit comforts and whispers: it is finished.

And where there is the divine it is finished, there is resurrection. When we die to what was, we are brought into new and vibrant life of now. In this newness of life in the aftermath of forgiveness, something remarkable happens: what is possible takes priority over what is actual. In forgiveness, it’s now possible to build anew, to move forward, to grow into solid and beautiful selves—scars and all. I know well it’s not easy and it takes time—as anything worthwhile in our lives: time, space, and patience is needed. It’s not easy, but the life that comes from it is worth every painful, cautious step.

Christ’s love and forgiveness plucked me from the very real clutches of darkness, sin, and death in 2000; not even a year later, in 2001, Christ’s love and forgiveness beckoned me forward through death into life again. A few more times since then this call has sounded.

I don’t know much, but I do know that in Christ there is life even where there seems to be only death everywhere; I know that out of the ashes and rubble of our lives, the phoenix that is God’s grace rises; I know that fear and anger do not have the final word because the comforter, the Spirit, brings peace beyond understanding. I know that in this in love and forgiveness I find the core of all that is good and right and divine and human, and that love and forgiveness are the foundation and substance of my life. I know that in this love and forgiveness God is good and that even the darkest times, God will never leave us of forsake us because there is love and forgiveness.

A Sermon for a Wedding

The following is a sermon I preached at a friend’s wedding this Saturday past.  I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent…or guilty…whichever fits 😉  I’ll say here that it was an honor to be asked to preach at this particular wedding and I was humbled by that honor. So, without further to do….A Sermon for a Wedding:

 

Today is a great day! Look around you. There is beauty, and joy and excitement; all things that make for a great day. Still, I’m lead to ask: Why are we here? No, I don’t mean existentially speaking, but practically speaking.  Why are we here today, gathered as we are?

 

Some of us are here because we’re family; some of us are here because either Renee or Joseph (or both) is a dear friend; some of us are here because, well, we’re just the “+1”.  But no matter what brought you here or how (or why), there’s one bond tying us all together here today: we were asked to be witnesses to this wonderful and beautiful union between Joseph and Renee. And we desired to be those witnesses, to watch and listen as these two profess and confess their love for each other, because deep down, we’re all true-love addicts…and we might as well face it.

 

Some part of us gets swept up in the alluring words of King Solomon read this morning, “My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold the winter is past; the rain is over and gone’” (Song 2:10-11). Our hearts twinge with a deep abiding hope that there is a love that “many waters cannot quench…neither can floods drown it” (Song 8:7a). We want true love to be real, concrete, visible and physical; and so we come, because there’s no better place than at a wedding to receive a reminder and to rekindle the flame of hope that true love is actual and not merely conceptual.

 

This desire is so deeply ingrained in us that those of us who are otherwise rather rational and logical spontaneously [like me] shed tears as Renee processed, arm and arm with her father or as Joseph saw his beautiful bride for the first time today; there’s no other explanation for that type of abreaction than a desire for real, true-love embedded in the subterranean recesses of our being.

 

So we’re here, wrapped up in remembrance and enraptured by the hope of real true-love. And we’ll witness shortly as Joseph and Renee exchange vows comprised of heavy words: they will make true-love promises to each other: I will love you through sickness and health, through richness and poorness, through the bad and the good, until death. But it’s not only the words they will proclaim to each other that play on our heart strings, reinvigorating that desire for true love, but the words they don’t say.

 

Embedded in the vows is the subtext of an unspoken question and an answer. Will you forgive me? And the corresponding answer is always: Yes. Yes, I will forgive you.  And this, this forgiveness defined and shaped love is the true-love we are all looking for; to be unconditionally loved at our worst, in our mess and brokenness right now, as is, where our nakedness is exposed yet there is no shame. To receive the love, to quote Mumford and Sons, that “will not betray you/Dismay or enslave you, [the love that] will set you free/Be more like the man you were made to be” (Sigh No More).

 

Yet, though we desire this level of love, and came here to be reminded of it, it seems impossible, this unconditional, one-way love manifested in unrelenting forgiveness. And if you look at it purely from a human, horizontal, level, it is impossible; humans in and of themselves are incapable of this type of love.

 

So, how is it that Renee and Joseph can make such big promises to each other, to confess this depth of unconditional love? St. Paul gives us a clue in the reading from Colossians, “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:12-13).  Joseph and Renee can stand and look each other in the eye and promise to unconditionally love and forgive each other because they’ve been unconditionally loved and forgiven by Christ; this is the beginning of true-love, of loving and forgiving each other in real time, over and over again, day after day.

 

So, this wedding serves another purpose than just the public proclamation of love and forgiveness between two people; it’s about a greater love story that is the foundation of Renee and Joseph’s love story and that which embraces it. And so, by coming here and attending this wedding you were thrust on to center stage, not merely a witness or supporting actor, but as a primary actor in this greater love story.  And this greater love story is played out over and over and over again at wedding after wedding after wedding; it is this love story that has echoed through the halls time to the present day and into the future.

 

For this wedding is about Christ and His bride, His people, us, whom He loves so much that He will hand His body over for her (John 3:16). This wedding is the acting our of the great and profound mystery referred by the priest just moments ago. This wedding is about how much God so loves us; about how He enters into our mess and brokenness and proclaims to us (repeatedly) love and forgiveness.  To our unspoken question: Am I forgiven? His answer to us is always a resounding: Yes! You are forgiven and I love you!

 

His vows to us are fulfilled (always); His promises never fall to the ground.  No matter how bad things get, He never abandons, the union is never put asunder; “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt 10:9). St. Paul proclaims and reaffirms in the book of Romans,

 

 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure 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, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:31-35, 37-39).

 

God, through Christ, has joined, has wedded himself to us in such a way that is forever and never ceasing even when we walk away or turn our backs. This is true love! True love has given Himself to us by no merit of our own; we are truly and fully loved by, in, and through Christ completely. And nothing, absolutely nothing can or will ever separate us from that love.

 

Today is truly a great day.