Sermon for the Week of Easter 5

Jane Strohl—2002

First Lesson: Acts 7: 55-60
Second Lesson: 1 Peter 2: 2-10
Gospel: John 14: 1-14

I have been a very happy woman since I learned last year of the educator’s discount available for subscriptions to The New Yorker. I am now an avid reader and have grown particularly fond of the feature articles on people with unusual occupations. In the April 22 & 29, 2002 issue there was an amusing piece about a man named Marshall Goldsmith, who makes his living coaching executives, that is, teaching high paid bosses how not to alienate their employees. The following biographical information particularly caught my eye:

Goldsmith was raised as a Southern Baptist, but he was asked to leave his church when he was fourteen because of an attitude problem. “I was always very mathematically oriented,” he says, “so I made a list of all the religions in the world and the percentage of the world population for each, and I asked the Sunday-school teacher, ‘Are Muslims going to Heaven or Hell?’ Hell. ‘Shintos and Buddhists?’ Hell. ‘Catholics?’ Definitely Hell. ‘How about the Baptists—are they all going to Heaven?’ No. Well, I gave everybody the benefit of the doubt, and ninety-five per cent of the world was going to Hell. They didn’t just get to die; they got to suffer for eternity—and the others got to kiss God’s ass for eternity. Talk about sick! I said, ‘He’s worse than Hitler—and he was one of the worst guys in history!’ Needless to say, my negative comparison of God and Hitler was not well received, and they told me to come back when I changed my attitude. So you can see why I ended up a Buddhist.”

Well, there it is in an unvarnished nutshell: the objection to claims for Christianity’s, or any faith’s, exclusivity. Tolerance is not for us a refuge for faint-hearted belief; it is a positive virtue, a necessary survival instinct in a world seething with dogma, drama and death. I tend to read right by 1 Peter’s confident assertion, “They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” I give Jesus at least the courtesy of a hearing: “No one comes to the Father except through me,” and then I fear that the many dwelling places in his Father’s house may not be enough for the peoples of the world.

“But they covered their ears,” Acts tells us about Stephen’s persecutors, “and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” The newspaper accounts echo in one’s head: Nablus in ruins, Bethlehem under siege, snipers in uniform, snipers lying in ambush, the homicidal suicide bombers, the martyred, the murdered of every faith.

How are we to deal with this, Christians far from the fray but by no means untouched by it? So many within this community alone know and care for persons suffering there; our government’s policies over the years have made the United States a powerful presence in the region; 20th-century demons are rising again. Much of the work must be done in what Lutherans call the left-hand reign of God: politics and diplomacy, strategic applications of coercion and the law. But there is a witness to make from the right-hand kingdom as well. “Jesus said to Thomas, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’”

What if we were to hear Jesus’ words as descriptive rather than prescriptive? No one comes to the Father except through me, that is, by the way of the cross. “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” But the way charts itself again and again through human history: hatred and rejection, suffering, to know the temptations of self-justification and revenge, to face death in every guise imaginable… and to choose life. This is the promise we can make to all the children of God from our experience of Jesus’ Father: the power of resurrection knows no bounds. The gates of hell have opened again in Israel and Palestine, but they can be shut. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” Listen to this from an article entitled “Families Shattered by Bombs” in the April 29th San Francisco Chronicle:

Rami Elhanan has not forgotten or forgiven the death of his daughter… Smadar was 14 in September 1997, when she went shopping for books at Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. A suicide bomb killed her instantly. “She was a very beautiful and clever girl,” Elhanan said. “She was a brilliant student; she had a thousand friends. She used to steal clothes from her older brother,” he recalled with a smile.

Rather than be swallowed whole by anger, Elhanan became an activist in the Jerusalem-based Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Parents for Peace, whose 450 member families—Israeli and Palestinian—believe that more fighting will only bring more horror. “The two nations have gone crazy, totally crazy,” said Elhanan. Earlier this month, during Israel’s fierce offensive against suspected Palestinian terrorists in the West Bank, Elhanan’s group staged a peace demonstration in Tel Aviv. They had planned to display 1,050 symbolic coffin-sized boxes covered with both Israeli and Palestinian flags. The government banned the display of Palestinian flags, saying they could incite violence. As someone who has already “paid the price of war,” Elhanan says he want to prevent more parents from losing their loved ones. “The only way to stop this bloody cycle of violence is to stop killing each other,” he said.

The article goes on to say that “[f]ew here think like Elhanan these days.” Yet we must not abandon this godly hope for peace and reconciliation. We know better than to think it will come readily, but we know it can come.

This past weekend my daughter Lucy and I went to her friend Jacqueline’s first communion. Jacqueline has been going with us to mid-week kids church at our Lutheran congregation since the beginning of the school year, and her parents invited us to this celebration in their Roman Catholic parish because they consider us an important part of their daughter’s faith journey. St. Monica’s Church turned out to be farther away than I had been led to believe, and in the midst of my frenzied drive I consoled myself with the memory from my childhood days of my pre-Vatican II neighbors. As long as they got to church in time for the sacrament, then they could safely say they had “gone to mass.” We made it. As I awaited my turn to approach the altar, to receive the bread from the hand of the priest and the wine from the communion assistant, who was Jacqueline’s mother, I marveled at our being there. Why not so long ago… my mom couldn’t be her best friend’s maid of honor because Genevieve was Roman Catholic and my mother was not. I was never invited to attend my best friend’s first communion, although in her home I was loved like one of the family. And even 30 years later, when I went back to her father’s funeral, I was welcomed to grieve but not to commune. Then there was my installation as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in 1979. We invited all the local clergy; the priest of the neighboring Roman Catholic Church came late, bypassed the sanctuary, drank a cup of coffee with the ladies downstairs preparing the reception, and asked them to let me know he had dropped by. Suddenly I panicked, and I asked my neighbor one more time, “Is it all right for us to receive?” The answer was yes and yes again. What a different memory Lucy will have of her first encounter with the church that for my generation was dangerously other. And there was a time, not so long ago, when only a very few dreamed of such a change and worked for it.