VI Epiphany – February 15, 2008
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
Freedom of choice. It is understood as the bedrock of American democracy. Our constitution guarantees the idea of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” People are drawn to America – ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ – from around the world by that idea. My grandparents were. Perhaps your grandparents or ancestors were, as well. As Americans, were very keen about this idea.
What I’ll bet you don’t know is that it is also a foundational value of Christianity. It’s all about choice of how to live our faith – the good choices and the bad – because we know that we sometimes learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes.
We know that ours is a gracious and loving God who always provides us with an opportunity to repent, to seek forgiveness and find plenteous redemption. We believe what St. Paul says in Romans 8:28, that, “all things work together for the good for those who love God.” I’ll have more to say on this in a wee bit.
Today’s lessons from Hebrew Scripture, the Psalm, and the Gospel Lesson all speak to making choices – some for the good and some which are in direct disobedience of what was spoken.
The leper says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Jesus says to the leper, “I do choose. Be made clean!” And, so he was. But Jesus also gave him very explicit instructions about keeping quiet and following the rituals of cleansing as prescribed by Moses which the leper chose not to follow.
Freedom of choice. It’s a gospel value and a standard of the good news of Jesus Christ. Now, admittedly, for some of you this ‘good news’ is news, indeed! I’m willing to bet that this is not the message you got when you first started reading the bible.
Indeed, the bible for many Christians is still a Book of Rules which is to be followed closely or we risk placing ourselves in peril of life eternal in the fiery furnace of Hell.
Walter Brueggemann is a prolific author, Hebrew scholar and one of my favorite modern prophets. I once heard him say, “Martin Luther’s conviction that you have to make a distinction between the Gospel and the Bible is a terribly important one . . . It’s very scary now in the church that the Gospel is equated with the Bible so that you get a kind of Biblicism that is not noticeably informed by the Gospel.”
The Gospel is the Good News. That’s different from The Bible which time bound and written through the filter of ancient cultural structures which must be sorted through in order to get to that which is, in fact, “Good News for Modern Man – and women!” - which is timeless.
You know, I really don’t give two figs about what you think the Bible says or what you think I think the Bible says. What I want to know is: how does what you read in the Bible make a difference in your life? What is the Good News of Christ Jesus that you hear? And, how would I find evidence of that in your life?
For example, I recently spoke with someone who had a very annoying inclination of backing everything she said with scripture. Maybe you’ve spoken to someone who does that same thing.
The conversation goes, “So, I did this, because as you know, it says in Scripture in the Book of St. Swithin, Chapter 12 verse 22 . . . .”
The hardest part is not rolling my eyes as a response.
She said to me, “You know, I believe with all my heart what St. Paul says in Romans, Chapter 8, vs. 28, that “all things work together for the good for those who love God.” Right, I said. So, how’s that working out for you?
Her head snapped back as if I had hit her with a ton of bricks. “What?” she asked, stunned.
“How’s that working out for you in your life? I mean, what have you done lately that lives out that belief? Where’s the Good News of Jesus Christ for you that caused you to take a risk of the Gospel because you believed that, no matter what happened, even if it wasn’t what you wanted or desired or prayed for – even if it turned out you had made a HUGE mistake – that it would all work for the good?”
Funny. She was not at all pleased with me and didn’t answer my question. She just kept quoting the bible, chapter and verse.
I suppose that was because the point of her conversation with me was really just to impress me with how much she knew about what scripture said, while I was more willing to be impressed by how she was living the Gospel message she heard.
That’s a choice we have to make. It’s not a choice about good or bad, right or wrong. It’s a choice about how we live out our lives. It’s a choice about blindly following the words of the Bible, or opening our eyes to the Living Word of the Good News of Christ Jesus. One is much riskier. Much costlier. It’s often not what the world would expect us to choose. However, it is what Jesus would ask us to consider.
Let me give you an example by way of a story I once heard Jon Bruno tell. It’s been a number of years, so I may not get it exactly right, but like the Good News, it’s not about precision of detail but the substance of the message.
Jon is now – and has been for over a decade – the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of LA. You only have to lay eyes on him was once to know that he was once a professional football player. Denver Broncos, I think. Fullback, I believe.
When he left professional football, he became a cop in the place of his family heritage – in the barrios of his East LA. It was his work there that inspired him to eventually pursue ordination to the priesthood in The Episcopal Church.
As evidence that God has a sense of humor, Jon found himself, fresh out of seminary and with a clean white collar around his neck, as vicar in one of the scruffier churches in the barrios. Early one evening, as Jon tells the story, a young man rang his doorbell. Jon recognized him immediately as one of the gang members who often gave him trouble when he was a cop.
The young man had a strange request. He wanted Jon to hear his confession. Right now, please. And then, after you hear my confession, please take me downtown where I will turn myself in to the police.
A good priest, Jon put on his stole, took out his prayer book and listened as the young man confessed to murdering a young man as part of his rite of initiation as a gang member.
Jon remembered the murder well. He knew the boy and his family. Rage flared in his heart as the memory of his brutal death flashed in his mind.
The young man said that, at the time, he felt he had no choice. Now, he said, he knew better. He had chosen not to kill another since that first murder. And, that was becoming a problem in terms of his continued membership in the gang. He had decided that prison was better than continuing the path of murder. So, he wanted to make his confession and pay for his crime.
Jon listened carefully and then said, “I will give you absolution, but not until you come with me to the boy’s mother’s house. As your penance, I want you to tell her your story and then I will give you absolution and bring you downtown to the police station.” Much to Jon’s relief, the young man agreed to the plan.
When they got to the woman’s home, she invited them in and insisted on serving them coffee and dessert. After that pleasantry, the young man cleared his throat and revealed the purpose of his visit.
The woman listened carefully to his story, then rose quietly and went to the window near her kitchen sink. She looked down into the courtyard and Jon suddenly realized that this was the spot where her son was murdered, execution style. He wondered what hell she must have lived through in the past few years – how many times a day she must have looked out that window and relived her son’s death . . .
She began to weep – great uncontrollable sobs – as Jon and the young man sat there, immobilized. Finally, she wiped her tears and returned to her place at the table. Clearing her throat, she pointed at Jon and asked, “Padre, were you wearing your stole when you heard his confession?” Jon was bewildered by this question, but answered truthfully, “Why, yes,” he said, “Yes, of course.” “Good,” she said, “then you are bound by the seal of confession.”
Turning to the young boy she said, “And you, you will not be going to the police station.” “But . . .,” started the boy. “No,” she said, cutting him off, “You will be staying here. With me. You will be my son. You will not take the place of my son. No one could ever do that. But, you are the son the Lord has sent me. You will live with me like a son and I will live with you like a mother. You have chosen not to live your life for violence. No more gangs. Choose family. This is what I choose. I choose no more bitterness. No more anger. No more death. I choose life.”
It’s an incredible story, isn’t it? I don’t know if I could have made that same choice. Could you? I do know that that choice is not outlined in the Bible. I can’t recite chapter and verse that tells you that this is the choice – the only choice – she had to make. It’s not right or wrong, good or bad. It is, however, a clear choice of the message of Good News as she heard it. It’s her freedom of choice as to how she is going to live out what she hears in the Bible.
The leper said to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” And Jesus said, “I do choose. Be made clean.” That’s a Bible fact. I can quote you chapter and verse. So can you. That’s not the point. The point is this: How is that working out for you in your life? What message of Good News do you hear in this Bible verse? And, what are you doing about it?