(Preached today at St. Peter's, Lewes. Some folk wanted a copy, and so I'm posting it here. M)
Sermon: Easter 3, year C.
The lessons this morning have a remarkable trajectory:
they begin and end in violence.
At the beginning of these readings we are introduced to Saul (later to be known as Paul) who is "still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" and the readings close with the prediction of the violent death of Peter (previously known as Simon). And, just as sometimes we become aware of violence by the bullet that hits and only later find its source, we are presented first with the violence against the followers of the Risen Lord and only later in the Gospel reading are we given the source of the hatred: It is their love of the Lord itself, represented in Peter's love for Jesus. At the close of the readings the cost of that love is disclosed.
In many ways violence is the condition of the world.
At the beginning of this last week we were startled and appalled by the violence and death on the Virginia Tech campus, and at the end by violent death at the NASA facility in Huston. And running through the week there were the reports of hundreds killed in bombings in Iraq, dozens of Iraqi police killed and twelve members of the US armed forces killed. Of course all of those together only touched the surface of the violence that is everywhere.
To that we must add the violence of life in places where chance killings, brutal poverty and massive disease combine to make life both precious and precarious.
A good friend from Haiti has been visiting all this last week and he bears the signs of the suffering in a violent Haiti in his heart and mind. On the last morning here he commented that it was so relaxing here. Here, he said, he didn't have to first listen to the radio to find out if it was safe to go out of the house. He didn't have to phone to check if his grandchildren got to school without getting kidnapped. He didn't have to phone his wife to find out if she made it through the violent streets to her office.
The appalling thing is, this violence is the condition of the world. Sometimes that fact even comes home here in peaceful Lewes. Someone we know is killed in the war; someone is shot in a domestic quarrel; someone on the highway. Some of the violence is capricious – random. Other elements of this violence are clearly more systemic. But it is all around, made surprising only because of it unpredictability.
We seen in the first words of the first lesson, and then repeated in the last words of the Gospel, the presence of this violence. We are given the path of the violence from the effect seen in Saul's murderous threats and we see its source, in the crucifixion of the Lord and later of his devoted followers who claim he has risen and that their love for him, and his for them remains.
Nothing is surprising about the trajectory of violence. In this world this violence is, awful as it may seem, the norm: a norm repeated in so many ways, in the physical and psychological tearing of families, communities and nations.
What then is surprising about these readings is not the violence, which takes only a few sentences to relate, but the rest of the story, which takes in all the other words.
What is that "rest of the story" about? Look again:
The violent Saul has a vision on the road to Damascus, one that blinds and then gives sight, and his murderous thoughts turn and he proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God.
Turning back in history the Psalmist recounts in poetry how, in the midst of enemies, the violence of others, of self, even of God as judge, we have been lifted up by God and restored. "You have turned my wailing into dancing: you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy."
Looking forward to the close of the age John of the Revelation is overcome with the vision of pure worship.
And then, in the Gospel of John we have the wonder of the encounter with the Risen Lord and the simple meal, and the comfort of love restored.
What the core of these lessons all have in common, I believe, is a vision. They all envision – put into visionary language – that which overcomes the violence of the world. And what overcomes might be called restorative love, found in acts of loving kindness – what in Hebrew is called Chessed.
It is restorative love when Paul's enemy, Ananias, becomes his healer and the gate into the restorative love of God in Jesus Christ. It is restorative love when simple water, simple baptism, and finally a simple confession result in Paul's declaration: "He is the Son of God."
It is restorative love when God's loving kindness comes simply and comes a thousand times over in the Psalmist' comforting vision.
It is restorative love when at the last all creation – the many angels, the living creatures, the elders, and every creature in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is in them sing, "To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever… Amen." In the end it is so simple…everything praises the Lord God.
It is restorative love when Jesus meets his rag-tag followers on the shore, and they share a simple meal, and Peter makes a declaration of his love and is told simply to get on with it – to do the works of love.
The power in these words is they tell us a very different story than that of the trajectory of violence, that describe the paths of the bullets that kill and the manner of deaths we face. These stories tell us things filled with the vision of restoring love.
More, they remind us that in all the complexities of a violent world this restoration is in the small acts of love and devotion – being washed, praising God, living close to "all creation", breaking fast with a few fish and lots of love.
The answer to all the violence, and there is so much, is to cherish and be cherished, love and be loved, and to do that as a restoration to fullness of life.
Someone reported that local campus ministers at Virginia Tech, in trying to find the right response to all the violence, did all the expected – arranged for vigils, for counseling, for ways to grieve. But what they hit on as most appropriate was to provide home cooked food and simple presence in simple acts of loving kindness. They provided a meal on the beach, simple and a comfort and a restoration. The answer to the violence was restorative love.
Over the years I have visited our friend in Haiti many times. On some occasions we could not go out from his house at all, for there was a curfew or a coup to deal with. These were some of our best visits. We could do nothing but sit and talk and write and hang out and care. It was restorative love, and a small vision of peace in the midst of a violent world.
So simple is restorative love that it seems itself a violation of the expected or hoped for. We expect to meet violence with violence, indeed it seems necessary.
But what we do is violent against violence: these small acts of visionary restorative kindness tear at the fabric of normal violent living. They set members of families against one another, for some clamoring for a clearer vengeance or justice, others desire nothing more than to hide.
Restorative love neither fights nor runs away. It remains – it remains until the day when the vision of God's restoration arises.
Love, as Paul says, is patient and kind. It is its own violence against the rule of the day, for it lives in the rule of tomorrow, in the peaceable kingdom.
In the midst of death we find life. We overcome the violence of the world in visions lived out in simple acts of kindness and in small delights. They all seem so small against the violence, but do not be dismayed. They are the acts that overcome the world, the acts that become the basis for the breaking in of Resurrection and New Live in Jesus Christ.