Sermon for Sunday, May 14, 2017 || Easter 5A || Acts 7:55-60

Growing up, I was not the stereotypical rebellious preacher’s kid. I never stole my parents’ car. I never had a fake I.D. I never smoked or did drugs or partied. I was actually a pretty boring teenager. Even so, I committed my fair share of infractions against my parents’ rulebook. No matter the infraction, big or small, my parents never grounded me. They never took away privileges. They certainly never whipped me. They didn’t need to. They had a much more effective punishment at their disposal. They would sit me down for a Talk, look me in the eye, and say, “Adam, we love you. And we are very disappointed in your behavior.”

That was enough.

They would ask me to rehearse what I had done or left undone to earn this disappointment. And then that was that. Except not really: next came my inner turmoil. I was a sensitive kid who thought his parents could lasso the moon. The knowledge that I had disappointed them swirled around inside me, a maelstrom magnified by the echo of their opening words: “We love you.” A day or two after the Talk, my mother would say, “Look. You know what you did wrong. I’m confident you’re not going to do it again. Let it go.”

What I did not appreciate at the time has clarified for me since I became a parent myself: What I did not appreciate was this: their disappointment in me could not dent their love for me. I feel incredibly blessed to have parents whose love for me came as close to God’s own unconditional love as humanly possible. I know my mom will listen to this tomorrow on my website, so let me say this on Mother’s Day: “Thanks, Mom. I love you too.”

I didn’t know it when I was a teenager, but in their approach to discipline my parents were enacting one type of justice, called “restorative” justice. Their aim was to help me take ownership of what I had done and then to help me return to right relationship with them; to “restore” our relationship following my upsetting of it. Restorative justice has very much been the lesser employed type of justice throughout human history.

The more common type is called “retributive justice.” If my father had responded to my infractions by taking off his belt and smacking me across the back a dozen times, he would have been using “retributive” justice. That is, justice in the form of retribution. Theologian Richard Rohr says this:

“Almost all religion, and all cultures that I know of, have believed in one way or another that sin and evil are to be punished, and retribution is to be demanded of the sinner in this world – and usually the next too. It is a dualistic system of reward and punishment, good guys and bad guys… and it is the best that prisons, courtrooms, wars, lawyers, and even most of the church, which should know better, can do.”*

In other words, retributive justice is built on the dictum, “An eye for an eye.” But remember what Ghandi purportedly said: “An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” Ghandi’s sense of justice was not retributive, but restorative. Jesus’ sense of justice was not retributive, but restorative: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, one of Jesus’ first faithful followers quotes his Lord’s sense of justice. While being stoned to death, the first martyr, Stephen, says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Why would Jesus and Ghandi and my parents champion restorative justice over retributive justice? Because their main goal was not punitive punishment, but a return to right relationship. That’s the key. And that is the main point of divergence between these two types of justice.

Back to Richard Rohr. He lays out four steps to each type, and here we can see both the stark difference and why so many great spiritual leaders advocate restoration over retribution.

Retributive Justice: “Sin > Punishment > Repentance > Transformation”

Restorative Justice: “Sin > Unconditional Love > Transformation > Repentance”*

The first one has too many holes. If you meet sin with punishment, the punishment is often another instance of sin. Just look at some of the horrible conditions in our prisons in the United States and tell me that sin hasn’t begotten sin.*** Furthermore, does punishment actually lead to repentance? True repentance cannot be coerced. If my parents had whipped me, I think I would have nursed vengeance, not embraced repentance.

But look at the other model and see how each element flows beautifully into the next. And feel the truth in your bones that this is the way God works. Sin is met, not with punishment, but with love. This love leads to transformation of both sinner and victim. And repentance is chosen authentically out of the transformed heart.

If this sounds like a theoretical pie in the sky notion, please know it’s not. Restorative justice is a tried and true method. Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought it to post-apartheid South Africa when he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. All people, black and white, perpetrator and victim, oppressor and oppressed told their stories. The acts confessed were heinous. The truth told was unflinching. And at the end of the day, the newly powerful did not seek vengeance on their previous persecutors. And the country did not descend into civil war.

In our own country in recent years, a new initiative of the justice system has met with rousing success. They’re called Treatment Courts. Some exist specifically for those charged with nonviolent drug offenses. And others exist specifically for military veterans. These courts are not adversarial. Judges, lawyers, social workers, medical professionals, and offenders work together to bring offenders back from the brink, to save them from themselves, to reintegrate them into society in meaningful ways. That’s restorative justice. And you know what? Treatment courts are way more cost effective than prison.****

Again, it’s a matter of priority and a matter of how you view justice. If the goal of justice is punitive punishment, then retribution makes sense and my parents had the wrong idea about discipline. But if the goal of justice is a return to right relationship, then engaging in the hard work of love on the long road toward reconciliation is the only path worth pursuing. Jesus said as much: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44).

Indeed, this is what Stephen the first martyr miraculously accomplished during his stoning. In my mind’s eye, I see him at the point of death raise up his bloody face and see a young man looking on. The man has an air of authority about him and, while not taking aim himself, he surely condones the brutal execution. Stephen’s final desperate words float to him on the wind: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” They are not the words of a curse. They are not words of retribution. They are words of love. They are words of restoration. And these words are seeds which sink into the soil of the man’s soul, this young man named Saul.

Saul makes it his mission to persecute and punish the followers of Jesus until one day he is knocked to the ground and he hears a voice, Jesus’ voice: “Why do you persecute me?” And at that moment the the seeds of Stephen’s witness sprout in Saul’s soul. He realizes his sin. He feels the love of Christ. This love transforms him and he takes a new name, Paul. And he repents. He turns his life around and becomes the most fervent witness of the love of God in Christ Jesus.

That’s the power of restorative justice, a power that can change the world.

* Rohr, Richard. Breathing Under Water. Franciscan Media: Cincinnati. p. 38, 42.

** An interesting article on the quotation attributed to Ghandi: [Accessed May 8, 2017]

*** I’m not claiming here that the concept of prison as a whole is wrong. In some cases, incarceration is the correct choice. But too often in the United States prison policy follows this quotation from Warden Norton in 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption: “There’s only three ways to spend the taxpayer’s hard-earned when it come to prisons. More walls. More bars. More guards.”

**** Read more about the success of treatment courts here: Funding for such restorative endeavors in the justice system are under threat from the new head of the Justice Department (New York Times).

***** After church on Sunday, a parishioner mentioned a wonderful example of restorative justice in fiction. Jean Valjean, the main character of Les Miserables, is sent to prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Those years are a complete waste and he leaves prison in bad shape with no prospects. This leads him to steal again – this time silver from a bishop who had taken pity on him. When caught, Valjean is brought before the bishop, who maintains he (the bishop) made a present of the silver. Now free, Valjean’s life is changed by the bishop’s love and mercy and his charge to use “this precious silver to become an honest man.” That’s restorative justice.

Worst Enemies

Sermon for Sunday, May 7, 2017 || Easter 4A || John 10:1-10

There was a problem with the audio for this sermon, so unfortunately, it’s just text this week.

Whenever I watched The Empire Strikes Back as a kid, I would always fast forward through one particular scene because it terrified me. Luke Skywalker is training with Jedi Master Yoda on the swamp planet Dagobah when Luke feels the cold presence of death emanating from a nearby cave. “That place is strong with the Dark Side of the Force,” says Yoda. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda replies, “Only what you take with you.”

Luke enters the cave, lightsaber in hand. From the shadows appears Darth Vader. They duel for a few desperate seconds, and then Luke cuts off Vader’s helmeted head. The helmet comes to rest, and the black mask blows off, only to reveal Luke’s own face. As a child, this scene terrified me because Darth Vader was really scary, and the darkness of the cave and the tremulous musical score only added to my fear. As an adult, watching this scene still touches my heart with fear, but fear of a different kind: fear of the truth that Luke discovers in the cave and that I discover whenever I look within myself.

Like Luke, I am my own worst enemy. Continue reading “Worst Enemies”

So I Send You

Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2017 || Easter 2A || John 20:19-31

Near the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Stone Table cracks and Aslan returns to life. His adversary had executed him on that table in place of the boy Edmund. The witch thinks she has won a decisive victory, but Aslan knows of deeper magic than she. So the witch doesn’t expect the risen lion to appear at her castle while she’s off trying to conquer the land of Narnia. But that’s what happens. Aslan, the Christ-like figure of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, races to the witch’s home to free all those whom she had turned into statues. And do you know how he releases them from their captivity? He breathes on them. Continue reading “So I Send You”

Two Gardens

Sermon for Sunday, April 16, 2017 || Easter Day, Year A || John 20:1-18

On three occasions over the last couple years, I have left Home Depot laden with weather-treated boards and decking screws. I brought the materials home, lugged them to the backyard, and set about shaping them into rudimentary boxes. I’m not much of a carpenter, so “rudimentary” is actual quite a compliment. Thankfully, all these boxes have to do is sit in the sun and rain, full of soil and compost and manure.

You see, my wife Leah has become quite the gardener since we moved to Mystic. There was a single three foot by six foot box in the yard when we arrived, a remnant from a previous occupant. I built another the same size, and, let me tell you, the tomatoes Leah grew that first year were…mwah…delicioso! I put in a 4 x 8 bed last fall, which now has little stalks of garlic reaching through the soil. And a few weeks ago, I knocked together the last box, a long narrow one, 12 x 2, for peas. Needless to say, the surface area for gardening at the rectory has tripled in the last year, and I am looking forward to eating the results. Continue reading “Two Gardens”

The Day of Preparation

Sermon for Good Friday, April 14, 2017 || The Passion according to John

The story of Jesus’ Passion, which I just read, overwhelms me. Truly. After reading it aloud, I feel like I’ve hiked a mountain. The beauty and grief of the Passion takes my breath away. Because the Passion overwhelms me, I find that when I sit down to write sermons about it, I must focus on a single moment in it: one detail that can help tell the story as a whole. They say the devil is in the details, but when it comes to the Gospel, the divine is in the details instead.

The detail that caught my eye this year comes at the very end of the narrative directly after Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit. The detail is a simple marker of time: “Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity.” Continue reading “The Day of Preparation”

The Last Supper

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017 || 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

This evening we celebrate two things. First, we celebrate the new commandment to love one another as Jesus loves us. This new commandment is the “mandatum” that gives Maundy Thursday its name. We wash each other’s feet to remind us of Jesus’ own servanthood and his love displayed through his act of humility. Second, we celebrate what we loftily call the “Institution of the Eucharist.” That is, we remember the Last Supper when Jesus took a loaf of bread and a cup of wine and shared them with his friends and said, “This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

This meal goes by many names: Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper. And they all derive from the event St. Paul recalls for the Corinthians in tonight’s second reading, an event we call the “Last Supper.” Continue reading “The Last Supper”

Who is this Jesus?

Sermon for Sunday, April 9, 2017 || Palm/Passion Sunday, Year A || Matthew 22:1-11; Matthew 26:36 – 27:56

As we move in our service from the humble triumph of Jesus’ festive entry into Jerusalem towards his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, there is one question on my mind. It is the question asked at the end of the Palm Sunday Gospel reading. “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’”

Who is this Jesus?

At the end of today’s service, we will read the Passion Gospel; that is, the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, suffering, and crucifixion. It is a story that is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, and I cannot read it without being moved. Indeed, it makes me tremble, tremble, tremble, as the old spiritual says. Today, as we hear this powerful story of our Lord’s unbreakable love for us and for all creation, I invite you to listen to how Matthew’s telling answers the question asked in today’s first Gospel story: “Who is this?” Continue reading “Who is this Jesus?”

If You Had Been Here

Sermon for Sunday, April 2, 2017 || Lent 5A || John 11:1-45

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” So say both Martha and her sister Mary when they meet Jesus outside Bethany. They must have been saying this over and over again to each other in the four days since Lazarus’s death: “If the Teacher had been here, things would be different. If Jesus had come when we first wrote to him. If, if, if…”

Two weeks ago, one of our ten Handy Guidelines told us that how a line of dialogue is spoken is a matter of interpretation. So how do the two grieving sisters deliver this line? Is it an accusation? [angrily] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Is it wistful? [sadly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Or is it faithful? [lovingly] “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Probably a little bit of each one, all rolled together in that roiling mass of anger and sadness and love that we call “grief.” No matter how Martha and Mary speak this statement, my question is this: is it true? Would Lazarus still be alive if Jesus had been there? Continue reading “If You Had Been Here”

The Gift of God (With 10 Handy Guidelines for Interpretation)

Sermon for Sunday, March 19, 2017 || Lent 3A || John 4:5-42

Recently, a few dozen parishioners of St. Mark’s blessed us all with their meditations on Bible passages found in the Lent issue of The Lion’s Tale magazine. Their work got me thinking about biblical interpretation in general and that fact that such an adventure is not reserved for clergy alone. Anyone can be an interpreter of the Bible, though I am aware that most people do not feel equipped to do so. So today, I’m going to give you a crash course on interpreting the Bible, as at least a place to start: Ten Handy Guidelines for Interpretation (or HGIs for short) that we will derive from the Gospel story I just read. There’s a bookmark in your program that lists the Handy Guidelines, and I invite you to stick it in your Bible when you get home. You ready? Here we go. Continue reading “The Gift of God (With 10 Handy Guidelines for Interpretation)”

The Guest Star

Sermon for Sunday, March 12, 2017 || Lent 2A || John 3:1-17; 7:45-52; 19:38-42

The Pharisee Nicodemus is not a member of the main cast of the Gospel according to John. In the parlance of television, he would be known as a recurring character. If each chapter of John’s Gospel were an episode of a TV series, it would fill one standard network season, and Nicodemus would guest star in episodes 3, 7, and 19. We meet him at the beginning, middle, and end of Jesus’ ministry, and each time we drop in on him, Nicodemus is somewhere new in his own journey towards an active faith in Christ.

The Gospel writer makes clear that the intention of the Gospel is to help the reader believe by telling the story of Jesus in a certain way. The writer uses Nicodemus’s three-part journey as a stand-in for our own, as we, too, journey towards more active faith in Christ. The world of Nicodemus and our own world share some striking similarities. Nicodemus lived in a world that had yet to be steeped in Christian tradition; people around him were either confused by the message of Jesus, hostile to it, or ignorant of it. Today’s world is similar; the Christian worldview no longer permeates Western culture, while confusion, hostility, and ignorance to the message of Jesus are in long supply. Today, we’re going to go on the journey of our guest star Nicodemus to see what his participation in the story of Jesus has to tell us about our own. Continue reading “The Guest Star”