Sorry Saints

A Sermon by The Rev. James Eaton © 2021

Third Sunday in Easter/B • April 18, 2021

Acts 3:12-19• Psalm 4 • 1 John 3:1-7 • Luke 24:36b-48

It’s Easter: the third Sunday. The church life I grew up in had one  Easter Sunday and there were beautiful flowers and special anthems. But the liturgical year has Easter as a season, not a day, spilling over like a caramel sundae into seven Sundays. Celebrating Easter season lets us hear more stories of people encountering the risen Lord. Their stories help us tell our stories. What’s your story?

We heard one of those stories this morning. Two people encounter Jesus near Emmaus, a few miles outside Jerusalem. Christian life always begins with the real person of Jesus. Christian life is real human life, not a fantasy. Today I want to see if we can learn something about living that real life by bringing together two pieces of scripture and a real life story.

Here’s the real life story. Anne LaMott is speaking.

There is a coastal town of about 1,500 people [near San Francisco], where one of my first memories took place, of splashing with my parents and older brother in warm water that had pooled and warmed after the tide had receded. We used to go to the town fairly often for seafood dinners. It was artsy, hidden away, with gulls and pelicans overhead. We would have picnics there with friends and lots of wine, and elderberry hunts in the fall….There are sheltered beaches, tiled in shells and beach glass; and boats and fishermen, shaded lanes and towering trees; and a few overpriced places to eat (“Would you like a croissant? . . . That will be one hundred dollars”). Many of the townspeople go back generations; others came in the sixties…The colors there—of the water, the rushes, the impossibly rich vegetation—drive people to ecstasy and madness.
In 1995, there was a huge and devastating fire on the long, majestic ridge that runs for miles out to the bay. Four older teenage boys from the town had camped at Mount Vision overnight, illegally, had built a campfire, buried it under dirt when they left in the morning, and caused a fire that destroyed 12,000 acres of wilderness area and nearly fifty homes.”
Helicopters saved the town with water from the bay; the water was dropped on the pine forest between the town and the burning ridge. But the loss of wildlife was unimaginable: birds, deer, coyote, bobcats, mountain lions, beavers. It was as if a bomb had fallen.
The four teenage boys who had accidentally started the fire turned themselves in early on, with their parents beside them.

Imagine you live in this town. Imagine you lived other places, and then found this beautiful, wonderful place and moved there, and then one day it’s gone, the beauty is completely destroyed. Thank God you and the cat got out but now you have to rebuild and rebuilding is hard. You find out four boys caused it all. They didn’t quite put out a campfire. They did take precautions but the precautions weren’t enough. Your home is changed, your life is shattered, because four boys made a mistake putting out a campfire. What would you want done?

I’ll leave that question hanging and come back to it later. Time to move on now, move with me. Listen to this from the epistle this morning: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.”[1 John 3:1] What comes to mind when you think of children? For me it’s smiles and noise. One week I was walking through a parking lot and there was a Japanese woman with a little girl, maybe two or so, and the little girl was singing so beautifully, right there, in public. I had to stop and listen. On the whole, we love children in our culture. So it sounds warm and fuzzy to hear that we are children of God. 

But that’s not really the meaning of this verse. When this was written, there was a different approach to children. They weren’t valued in the same way; they weren’t treated in the same way. In our culture, when a child is expected, there may be some worries but there is usually a great deal of joy as well. There is hope for a healthy, happy baby. 

But listen to this letter from the first century. It was discovered on the west bank of the Nile about 120 miles south of Cairo in an excavated garbage dump. The worker Hilarion writes to his wife, Alis, addressed in Egyptian fashion as sister, on 18 June in the year 1 BCE. Alis is expecting. 

Hilarion to his sister Alis many greetings, likewise to my lady Berous [his mother-in-law?] and to Apollonarion [their first and male child]. Know that we are even yet in Alexandria. Do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I urge and entreat you, be concerned about the child and I should receive my wages soon, I will send them up to you. If by chance you bear a son, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, cast it out [to die].

John Crossan, Jesus

In the same voice that a spouse might send directions for what to do about a garage door that doesn’t work, the fate of a child, a baby, is dictated. New born babies were commonly killed, often by exposing them. A child’s future wasn’t secured until it was received officially by the father. To be a child was to be nothing, life dependent totally on the pleasure of a more powerful person. This is why Jesus’ statement that we need to become like children to enter the Kingdom of God is a problem for those who hear it: it’s a summons to a radical shift in power, an invitation to powerlessness.

So this statement, that we should be called children of God, is both problem and solution. On the one hand, it proposes that we are going to begin without any of the things that give us a platform in life. Our social standing, our insurance, our history, our accomplishments; none count if we become children. To be a child is to be stripped of everything, even a claim to life itself, entirely dependent on someone more powerful. To say we are children of God is to put God in the place of that parent who accepts us and guarantees life. So then truly, God is our surety.

The signature act of taking care of a child is feeding them. An infant is entirely dependent on being nursed; a baby has to have foods prepared and fed to them and it’s a messy process. Most of us try letting them do it on their own at some point, often with hilarious results. So when Jesus, who is in the full glory of the resurrection, allows someone to feed him, he is becoming child like. He is showing us how it’s done: freely choosing to come to them not in overwhelming power but without power, without glory, as a person with the same needs every person has. That’s a second meaning of feeding Jesus in the resurrection: the rejection of power in relationships so that love flourishes, so that mutual care becomes the connection. 

Mutual care, genuine love, are about our choices going forward. But what about the past? Jesus’ solution to the past is forgiveness. The mission the risen Lord gives his followers is to go forgive sins.

… he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,  and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Luke 24:25ff

The same thing is true in the appearance we heard about on Easter from the gospel of John: “If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven.” [John 20:21] Jesus gives the spirit precisely to empower forgiveness. Jesus called his disciples to forgiveness during his life. They consistently try to put a boundary on this forgiveness; he consistently rejects their attempts. “Love your neighbor”, he says; who is my neighbor, they ask. “how many times must I forgive? they ask; he multiplies their generous estimate to make forgiveness infinite.

This is not how we usually deal with the past or with sins or wrong doing. We deal with it by separating. If someone offends us, we stop talking to them; we unfriend them on Facebook. As a community, we put them in jail. The United States has a higher proportion of our population in prison today than any other modern society. We punish people for doing bad things but mostly we get rid of them, we get them out of our lives.

What does Jesus hope? That we will understand we can only come to the resurrection reality by giving up everything that makes us powerful, becoming like children with no burden of past injuries, past hurts. The name for such people is saints. ‘Saint’ means simply the elect of God, that is: God’s children. Congregationalists used the word to refer to all covenant members of the church. That’s right: you are saints, we are saints.

But what kind of saints? We come to this reality through forgiveness. That begins with learning ourselves to say, “I’m sorry,” to put ourselves in the place where we can receive forgiveness. We are saints but not spiritual superstars; we are meant to be sorry saints, saints who know how to say, “I’m sorry,” and who forgive when someone says that to them. It begins with a process similar to what Buddhists call mindfulness; that is, paying attention to  this moment right now. Begin with realizing no one hurt you right now; perhaps no one hurt you today. If we begin right there, with today, with now, the process can spread. When it spreads, we are ready to deal with the results of yesterday. If it spreads we will deal with the past in forgiveness.

It’s time to come back to the story of the burned out community and the four boys. Remember them? Here’s how the story ends.

There is one action all grateful and grieving communities take: holding a picnic where speeches are given, tears shed, sighs heaved, everyone overeats, and all that sneaky extra breath helps people start to breathe deeply again. A picnic was held to honor the firefighters. The whole town turned out. The president of the board of firefighters gave a speech, but at the end, he digressed from what you might have expected him to say.
He talked about how in ancient times, people who did damage to a town were sent to live outside its walls, beyond the pale, or boundary, beyond community, beyond inclusion and protection. He mentioned the four young men who had started the Mount Vision fire, and that he had heard that their families were thinking of moving away. He thought the town should make it clear to the families that they should “stay, that they were wanted, that they were needed.
There was sustained applause. People whose houses had burned down came up to the speaker to say they agreed with this plan. The town wanted these young men inside the pale, inside the ring of protection…“So what seems to me to be happening is that this community, which has just fought so stubbornly to save itself from a holocaust, has turned, almost without missing a beat, to try to save the future of four young men. 

We know what Easter looks like. But Easter is a season: it isn’t just flowers, it’s also planting a promise that can grow into new life. We’ve been through a difficult season and we need now most of all to remember to enact Easter every day. We are meant to be the people who forgive, we are meant to be the people who know each person is a child of God—and act like it. Every voyage starts with goodbye; Easter invites us to say goodbye to past hurts, past hostilities and look for ways to embrace each child of God.

One day Jacquelyn and I drove up to Lake George before the season there; most places were closed. The lake was frozen except for a strip of water about five yards wide around the edge. It wasn’t the warm, beautiful resort it is in the summer. But I knew this, that the lake was going to unfreeze, it was going to be blue and beautiful and people were going to sail on it and go for cruises and fish and swim and remember what a great job God does with creation.

The same is true of human hearts. They freeze up. But that’s not how God made them. God made us to live together in love. Jesus came to teach us that we should feed each other and forgive each other and love each other. Then like a child blowing a dandelion gone to seed, he blew us into the world to show the world it can be done. Every time we forgive, every time we see our saint hood as an occasion to say, :I’m sorry,: trusting God will forgive, the edge of ice shrinks and the world becomes just a little more full of resurrection.