Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter May 03, 2015 Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
It’s a good thing Saint Luke recorded Saint Philip’s explanation of the verses from Isaiah that the Ethiopian court official was reading, because if I heard them out of context, and somebody asked me to guess to whom the verse referred, the one that says, “In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth,” my first guess would not have been Jesus. It would have been Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old black man whose death at the hands of the Baltimore Police touched off a wave of violence and disorder not seen in that city since 1968.
You could take that interpretation a good ways. Freddie Gray’s death was certainly an injustice, and it stemmed out of a pattern of police humiliating the citizens they are sworn to protect that had long been normalized in that city. The repercussions of his death may, if justice is done, include humiliation of his killers; it has already brought the city itself to its knees. And that breakdown is not a fluke or an overreaction, but rather the manifestation of a generation of oppression, disinvestment, and exploitation. It’s true that some opportunists took advantage of the situation on the streets, but their crimes are petty compared to the crimes of the power players who ground down a great city and its great neighborhoods and people.
You could even take that interpretation as far as painting Freddie Gray as a Christ-like figure, not only because he was killed by cynical agents of the state in the midst of social tension despite having committed no crime, but also because his death is yielding benefits for many others, by prompting serious efforts at reform. But even if reforms are made, and some observers more knowledgable than I am doubt they will be, they will be made by human beings, to human creations. Some people may think that these events will prevent anything like them from ever happening again, but some people surely thought that as the smoke was clearing in 1968. So that interpretation goes a ways, from glib cleverness, past interesting parallels, through social, economic, and political analysis, but it lands just short of true hope, weighed down by the same knowledge of human sin that moved it that far.
But thanks to the sacred tradition of the Church, as recorded in her Scriptures, we know that the words of prophecy refer not to the depths of human sin, but rather to God’s cure for our sin. Let’s take a moment just to be grateful for interpretations of Scripture that glorify God by proclaiming grace and life and hope in God’s name. And few passages of Scripture are more richly expressive of God’s grace than the fourth chapter of the first letter of Saint John. As it says, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
Jesus was born, and lived, and died, and rose again not because we were good enough to merit his favor, or even just his company, but rather because of how badly we needed help, and because his nature is, fundamentally, love. Our hope is not in ourselves or the works of our hands, but in his love, his grace, and his ongoing ministry. But what does that mean in practice? Are those just nice words from an entry-level theology class, or can we see that stuff happening in the world?
Saint John continues, “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” And so we see Christ, and therefore our hope, in our capacity for love and charity. We can’t see God’s love any more than we can see the electrical impulses that animate our minds and our bodies, but just so, we can infer the invisible cause from the very visible results. In Baltimore, we can see peaceful protests and demonstrations demanding justice and reform. Clergy marching in the streets as real peacemakers. Storefront churches acting as refuges, and offering long-term hope by engaging constructively with youth. Larger churches organizing the collection and distribution of food and other essentials. And everywhere, neighbors helping neighbors, strangers and friends healing the fabric of their neighborhoods.
And so they bear much fruit, just as Jesus promised. Some of them are aware of the source of the energy that produces this abundant fruit, but God does not require our understanding in order to get us moving in the right direction. As Jesus said, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” And so much good is being done, right now, in the face of crises. The relief workers pouring into Nepal to save the injured and rebuild what has been broken. And, closer to home, our own civic leaders gathering yesterday to address the opiate crisis with strategies that are both more constructive and more compassionate than the status quo. There is so much grace, so much hope, and we can more readily connect with them once we recognize the source of all good is our God who is mighty to save. God is mighty to save the world, and to save each of us, and to save all that is good within us. If we allow it, God will prune away the unhealthy and twisted branches in us and nourish those that are most healthy, lively, and promising. And so what once was a thicket of vines will more and more resemble the Tree of Life.