Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Ps 105: 1-6, 23-26, 45c
Why Broken Lights Shine Brightly
In 2005, I volunteered as a facilitator for victim-offender reconciliation in Tennessee. I worked with first-time non-violent juvenile offenders. Colleagues at Sewanee told me that I was getting caught up in a project that was distracting, time-consuming and difficult. To them, I was motivated by the naïve, idealistic belief that I could “save the world.”
There were days when their suspicions proved valid. Disillusionment came easily. Meetings took time to coordinate and were difficult to manage. Victims could be stubborn and bitter. Offenders struggled to acknowledge and take responsibility for their actions. Rival narratives of loss and outrage could loom as large as the actual crimes were small.
However, I found this work fulfilling. It is remarkable when a young person acknowledges wrongdoing, and the victim and community respond with compassion and mercy. The offense becomes an opportunity for learning and not merely for punishment. The community finds common ground that it otherwise did not have. These actions evoked a social bond stronger than what we normally feel.
Many meetings took on this sacramental quality. In them, the line between victim and offender became thin. The place where we were met became sacred space. The saying of Jesus would continually come to my mind as I, the facilitator, remained a neutral party, playing only the role of witness.
In one meeting I facilitated, a sixteen-year old girl named Denise had been caught shoplifting from Walmart™. The offense itself was nothing out of the ordinary. To maintain status, many young people stole the jeans and jewelry prominently displayed in big-box stores to keep up with their classmates. However, in Denise’s case, she tried to steal household items – cleaning supplies and red-tape to repair a broken tail light on her mother’s car.
In a preparatory interview, Denise offered no explanation for her actions. It was possible that she wanted to pocket the money her mother gave her to buy these items. It also was possible that she followed her mother’s instructions, an all-too-common practice in that county. Either way, Denise was not talking. Sitting with her arms folded, she told me that she would admit what she did was wrong, but that would be it. “Is that it?” She asked me. “That’s all,” I said.
At the meeting, she met the manager of the store, a single mother in her late thirties. The manager had never participated in a mediation like this before. She explained to Denise the impact that shoplifting had on her performance evaluations as well as on her employees. When Denise’s turn came to speak, she suddenly began to tremble. Tears came to her eyes. She turned to me and said, “I can’t do this,” and then she stood up from the table and walked to the back of the room. As Denise sobbed in the corner, the manager looked to me, waiting for me to reveal the next step.
This was a problem. I hadn’t planned for a next step. I had assumed that Denise was a tough nut to crack. She presented herself as a rough country girl who lived with few regrets. I didn’t expect her to breakdown. Although the crime was small, a great deal was riding on this meeting. If it failed, Denise’s offense would become part of her record, setting in motion a predictable trajectory. I decided to deviate from the script given to me during my training.
“Denise,” I said, “I am a person of faith. Many people will tell you that holiness means being powerful, complete, pure and without flaw. But I believe that the real holy moments in life come when we present ourselves as powerless, broken and flawed. It is in those moments that we feel most alone and lost that God is most present and near.”
After saying this, I immediately felt nervous. Part of my training as a facilitator included the instruction that we should never refer to religious beliefs so that no one would feel pressured to go forward with a resolution. I had crossed an invisible line I normally observed.
I was also nervous because, although I am a priest, I am also, well, an Episcopalian. I did not expect that doing this work would mean sharing my faith while sitting in the back room of a big-box store. I felt exposed and vulnerable.
Somehow, however, Denise stayed in the room. She stopped crying and returned to her seat. The manager reached across the table and touched her arm. “You can do this,” she said to her.
The manager was right. Denise acknowledged what she did and, at her initiative, wrote a beautiful letter of apology. A year later, I saw Denise working at a local supermarket. She was stacking the selves. We recognized each other but said nothing, which was as it should be.
In today’s reading from Exodus, we revisit the moment when Moses meets God in a burning bush. Theologians and writers have long treated this as the founding moment when God’s presence was perfectly revealed in time and space. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas argued that the burning bush revealed God as a being of infinite activity. God is actus purus, he wrote, Latin for “pure act.”
Flannery O’Connor referred to this passage in a letter she wrote to a Jungian analyst named Ted Spivey in 1960. She had just read a book he suggested on religion and psychology. “The real religious person,” she wrote, “will accept the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, but not one who is no more than psychic energy.” Psychology is “good medicine and a step in the right direction,” she concluded, “but it is not religion.”
For Thomas and O’Connor, this passage from Exodus reveals a God who is active and alive, working in the world around us in ways we miss, overlook, and cannot fully comprehend. Their main concern is God’s existence – the question, in other words, of whether God is “really real” and not a phantasm.
As important as this point is, however, I think there is another lesson to learn in this passage, another question answered, as it were. That question is whether God can be trusted to deal with the whole of who we are as broken and lost human beings, out of touch and out of place. This is the question of whether God loves and accepts us, whether God is capable of entering our lives so that we might live through him.
Moses did not just meet God in the wilderness as he was tending his father-in-law’s sheep. That is only half the story. The whole story is that he was a fugitive from Egypt because of a murder he committed. Moses was, in other words, an offender needing reconciliation.
The burning bush was not revealed, then, on account of Moses’ virtue, but in spite of his wrongdoing. The voice telling Moses to take off his shoes because he stood on “holy ground,” communicated a crucial message. God’s holiness is made perfect in what it embraces, and transforms, rather than in what it excludes and shuts out.
Many Christians define holiness as something that exists outside of us. “Holy, Holy, Holy,” wrote Reginald Heber, Anglican Bishop of Calcutta, in a hymn composed at the turn of the nineteenth century, “the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see.” For Heber, holiness is a category of divine perfection. So the hymn goes: “Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee; perfect in power, in love, and purity.”
However, I want to suggest that God’s holiness consists in God’s willingness to enter into the space of sinfulness, brokenness and unfaithfulness so that we might be redeemed by his forgiveness, love and grace.
Indeed, this is the good news, the Gospel message that radiates from today’s reading from Exodus: The ontological divide Heber believed existed between God and creation was crossed when God entered time and space to redeem God’s people who were in captivity. Moses, the chosen leader for this mission of liberation, is the first to experience a new revelation of God’s holiness. For Moses, grace will abound, and, by God’s grace, the people of God will be liberated and saved.
Holiness is not something that we can gain. But holiness can be given to us as a gift, as grace. This is what is important for us to learn today. This, ultimately, is the essence of Christianity – what Christianity offers to the world about Jesus. Our reading today from Exodus is a foreshadowing of what we proclaim about Jesus. This is the vox ipissima Christianismi – to match Thomas’ Latin – the true and authentic voice of Christianity, foreshadowed by Moses and yet spoken definitively by Jesus. Jesus is God’s reconciliation perfectly entering time and space. For this is what we read in John’s Gospel: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
All of what I say can be understood as preface to the invitation Jesus gives in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus says, “If anyone want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Although it might seem otherwise, today’s gospel is not an invitation to self-denial and death. You and I by virtue of being finite creatures and sinful beings have already been sentenced to death. This is not so much a theological idea as an empirical fact, a brute fact of existence. Today’s gospel is an invitation, then, to life and transformation in ways we cannot imagine – the ability to live as if death were not. This life and transformation comes from the unimaginable forgiveness and grace that Jesus brings. It is as miraculous as a bush that burns but is not consumed. May this heavenly fire change us, inspire us and lead us. May God’s embracing holiness radiate from this place and its people now and always. Amen.