“I Just Have to Believe That People Can Change”
A Sermon by the Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
September 7, 2014
Sometimes I’m amazed at how much I can accomplish without speaking directly to another human. I can order shoes on the Internet, refill a prescription over the phone, take a University class online, text my kids to come for dinner, take a trip on the Light Rail, or sit in a coffee shop all day without ever meeting anyone’s gaze, let alone speaking to them.
According to a new Google database, since 1969, individualistic words and phrases have increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases. On the rise were terms such as “personalized,” “unique, “self, “I come first,” and “I can do it myself.” Receding were communal words like “band together,” “collective,” and “common good”.
On some level we knew that, that we are becoming a culture less concerned with community and more concerned with self. Technology only accelerated a trend that had been developing for years, as we rely less on neighbors, family, and even other human beings, and more on screens and devices to intercede for us.
Some of it is culture, of course, but some of it is personality. I’ve always been an introvert who likes her own space and is ready to bail and regroup alone during group activities that go on more than ninety minutes.
Today’s Gospel has a lot to say on these topics. It has an amazingly contemporary feel to it, like it could be a lesson in family systems or an hour out of a therapy session.
The process Jesus calls us to is this: If someone “sins” against you, go to the offender. If this doesn’t work, bring people with you. If that doesn’t work, move on.
Note that the victim of the action (the one “sinned” against) must take the initiative and go to the offender. The victim can boost their credibility by bringing along others who agree with them.
What is being sought at this meeting is not necessarily forgiveness or change of behavior or restitution….what is required is that the offender must listen to the charges. They must listen without swooping in with defensive statements, covering their ears and saying “I’m going to my happy place,” or walking away, because as we know, a person walking away from you can’t hear you.
But who wants to go do this? Bring on the excuses:
- Why should I go to him? He’s the guilty party here. Let him come to me!
- I’ll just not speak to the person. The Amish shun people, don’t they? I’ll sort of shun him.
- I can’t bring people with me; he’ll feel ganged up on.
- There are other ways I can get my message across. I might have to leak a few details to the right people at the right moment….
On the other hand, the offender may not agree to such a meeting, knowing they’re just going to get confronted…
I think the only reason that the offender and the victim would both agree to meet is that neither wants to lose the relationship. If neither party cared about the relationship, one or the other would probably just walk away.
So what if the relationship is between us and the Creator? Suppose we are horrified at the things that are happening in the world that God “allows”: starvation, AIDS, Ebola, war, greed, staggering selfishness, breath-taking brutality. This is an argument for leaving organized religion that has been made forever—and is still being made. How can a loving God permit things to happen like the Holocaust, like disease, like the slaughter of the innocents.
In the Christian faith, we believe that God does listen when we cry out. Maybe what God hears us saying is: The problems are overwhelming. Love is losing the battle against greed and hatred and violence.
But to restore hope, maybe God sent a single life whose time was long ago but whose story is still one of the most powerful ever. A good man, a man embodying compassion and justice, who was killed in brutal fashion by a world who saw him as a threat to the political system, to their religious beliefs, to the established powers who were used to having things their way, no matter the cost and were terrified of losing this power.
And then suppose, that for the next 2000 years, large numbers of people believed that this person—and the things he stood for and against—rose from death and walked the earth again. And in this story the powers of love and justice had not been destroyed by the powers, that in the resurrection we see that there is the seed of indestructibility in every human spirit
A preposterous, in a way, but not without evidence. The evidence being our own personal experience that love is the strongest force of all in our own lives, and the powers of evil have not yet destroyed the world.
Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures is about the Passover, when God brought the last of ten plagues upon the Egyptians (who had enslaved the Israelites) and the Jews were protected by following directions God had given, to put lamb’s blood on their doors so the angel of death would pass over their houses.
This tenth plague was death to all of the first-born. And the next day, as Ramses, the Pharaoh, throws himself over his young son’s dead body, Moses appears in the doorway. In tears, Ramses looks over his shoulder at him and cries, “Go! Go forth!” It is a Father’s heartbroken love that ultimately frees a nation.
And maybe God did all this to stay in relationship with us and to keep before us the ultimate power of love against everything that threatens us. And that we are the ones to carry that power forth. It would be hard to be a Christian alone. We need each other to tell our stories to, to help us forget about ourselves, to draw us out of ourselves, to save us from the temptation of believing in our own self-sufficiency, to make our fear manageable.
But increased community is not the direction in which our culture is moving. I like this summary of a book by C.S. Lewis, called The Great Divorce: “Lewis describes hell as a vast, gray city, inhabited only at its outer edge with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle—empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbors and moved and quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving empty streets full of empty house behind them. That, Lewis says, is how hell got so large—empty at the center and inhabited only on the fringes—because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to a fight.” (2)
How often do we choose distance? In our relationships? In our community life? In church?
So I’d like to tell you two stories.
The first is from a short story by Simon Wiesenthal called “The Sunflower.” (3) The main characters are Simon, a young Jew imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp, and Karl, a 22-year-old Nazi officer, near death in the hospital adjoining the camp. Karl wants a Jew to come to him so he can ask him for forgiveness before he dies.
And so, a caring nurse sees Simon and brings him to the hospital room of the dying Nazi. Simon has witnessed years of torture and barbaric cruelty and murder by the Nazi’s. He has lost his family to their gas chambers. People in the camp are dying in front of his eyes and each day he is sure his own death is imminent.
Karl says he must unburden himself before he dies and tells Simon in some detail of some of the most hideous crimes he has committed, that he would do anything to undo these sins, that he had been raised a Catholic but that a horrible chain of circumstances had changed him and he was sorry in the depths of his very soul.
Simon is stunned to realize after an hour or more of this that he is hearing Karl’s confession and that Karl is asking for absolution and forgiveness from Simon, a Jew.
The question is posed to the reader? What should Simon do? The “sinner” could not make restitution for his crimes—he was near death. Was it only the fear of death that was prompting this confession? If he recovered, would he really be changed? Maybe his penance should be to be alone with his conscience before he died.
And was it Simon’s job, his right, even, to forgive on behalf of all Jews? Maybe only God can forgive on this scale.
If Simon keeps silent, is he no better than all of the bystanders who kept silent as they watched Jewish men, women and children being led to the slaughterhouses of Europe?
Yet that is what he does. When Karl has finished and is too weak to go on, Simon says nothing and leaves.
This story has been debated for decades but what is important today is that Simon doesn’t refuse the meeting. He stays. He listens.
And that is our mandate today from the Gospel.
Now the second story, this one much closer to home.
An African-American friend of mine lives in northeast Minneapolis. She and her husband are their early forties. Both are teachers in their early forties.
There is a corner store in their neighborhood where everyone goes to buy small items or get things they need at the last minute when making a meal. My friend, we’ll call her Susan, needed some cinnamon for a recipe she was making and sent her two daughters, seven and ten.
They came home in tears because the white storekeeper had accused one of them of stealing. She insisted she had never stolen anything.
Susan and her daughters were back at that store in two minutes and she confronted the store owner and told him her daughter had stolen nothing and she was scared to come there any more because he would see her as a suspect and not a customer, and that she really, really needed him to look her daughter in the eye and apologize.
And he did. He listened carefully and then asked the girl to look at him and he reached out his hand and told her he had made a mistake, he was sorry, and that he hoped she would come back to the store whenever she wanted to. And Susan was crying because this conversation needed to happen at all and because of all those black mothers whose mothers hadn’t been able to intervene and whose children had not come home.
Do not go on, the Gospel says, as though nothing has happened, when it has.
The African-American Congressman John Lewis, now 75 and still serving his country in Washington, recalls that in the depths of the despair and violence and killings and bitter hatred that were part of the civil rights struggle in this country, at the darkest hours, the phrase he repeated to himself was this: “I just have to keep believing that people can change.”
And so do we. We have to keep believing that people can change.
(1) David Brooks, “What Our Words Tell Us,” New York Times, May 20, 2013.
(2) Cited in Barbara Brown Taylor, ”Family Fights,” in Seeds of Heaven, 2004.
(3) Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower, 1969.