The Jesus of this morning’s gospel is strong. Jesus, the man of authority. Jesus commanding demons to be silent and depart. Jesus healing the sick. Jesus disappearing from the crowds to pray in solitude. Jesus leaving Capernaum on his own terms. He does not explain himself but he knows himself. He is decisive—a man with a purpose. A man on a journey. A man with a lot to accomplish.
By contrast we, the people of God (Jesus “wannabes”) often seem not to have a clue. To those looking in from the outside, we seem lukewarm at best. We neglect to pray, would be embarrassed if we were asked to heal the sick, generally don’t believe in demons, and are largely confused about the finer points of our faith—a faith which is often filled with doubt anyway. If we had been in Capernaum that day we’d be leaving town, too. But we’d be leaving to escape the ridicule.
And that’s the temptation. If only we were better Christians, we think, then we would have something to look to and so would the world. Instead of which we know lots of people who won’t cross the doorstep of this and other churches because we seem so hypocritical.
But to approach the good news with that kind of teeth-gritted determination to force ourselves to “do right” is not what Jesus is about. Notice that he didn’t ask Simon Peter’s mother-in-law how she was doing on the virtue scale. (Jesus might well have been expected to ask her this. In those days illness was viewed as judgement for sin.) Jesus simply heals her. He doesn’t take a moral inventory of the sick. He graces them with wholeness. They experience their healing as free gift and then they get up and serve. Then they get up and follow—some better than others.
So it is with us. God is always waiting to gift us with the grace of his love, waiting for the moment when we open the door just a crack so he can slip in. The time we lower our resistance just enough to let grace happen.
So let me tell you a story about how that works. A story worthy of that momentous beginning, “Once upon a time”…—except be clear that this is no fairy tale. This is a story that is true. Lilo Ukrop, our senior warden, John Hart, Johnny Lou Terry, Harry Warner, Greg Jones, Lindon Eaves, and myself traveled as delegates to Reston this week for the Annual Diocesan Council. Delegates from churches all over the Virginia diocese assemble to worship, hear what has been happening in the past year, and to debate and vote on resolutions about the church and the world. Oftentimes it’s quite boring—but you never know when God is going to show up.
Three years ago the Council had begun in a dramatic and horrifying way. Jamie Knight, the son of David Knight, a priest at St. Stephen’s Church in Richmond, was brutally murdered the night before. The bishop came to us from Jamie’s bedside where he had anointed him and turned off the life-support machine. By all accounts Jamie was a delightful young man. He was a manager trainee at Friendly’s in the Far West end. He had been tied up and shot during a robbery.
I had first heard of David Knight as the priest who drove all night from Winchester to Richmond to reach the bedside of a young parishioner who suddenly found himself in surgery for an unexpected brain tumor. David is a faithful priest, a gentle and sensitive follower of the Lord. Words cannot describe what the loss of this son in such a close and loving family must be like.
That was three years ago. Bowed with grief, David has struggled with his sorrow and rage. And he has had to do it publicly because he lives a public life. David was not the only person attending council who had suffered the violent death of a family member or friend, but David lived this event with transparent agony, neither hiding his desire for revenge nor his sincere wish that the perpetrators of the crime would die. At times it has been difficult to be near him, so awful and pervasive has been his suffering.
This year the council introduced eighteen
resolutions for debate, one of which included the
Be it resolved that this 205th Annual Council of the Diocese of Virginia reaffirms the general church’s long-standing opposition to capital punishment and calls on this diocese and parishes within it to work actively to abolish the death penalty in their states, particularly for those who committed their crimes under the age of eighteen, and be it further resolved that this 205th Annual Council joins those who are calling for an imposition of an immediate moratorium on the use of execution as capital punishment..” etc.
It was likely to be a painful and difficult debate. On the last day of council, when all who wished to speak had said their piece, David rose to come to the microphone. A tense and agonized silence–in fact, I think we stopped breathing–descended on the crowd of well over one thousand people. For David would speak with authority. Many doubted he could bring himself to speak in favor of the resolution. Friends sat considering the hurt involved in voting for the resolution and against David if that were to happen.
And so he spoke. I thought long and hard about telling you this story, for I cannot hope to reproduce for you the manner or words of his comments. He spoke simply of his brokenness, of his struggle with a hatred that threatened to consume him, of how his older son remained vehemently opposed to the death penalty, his younger vehemently for, his hope for room in the Episcopal church for those who carry a deep ambivalence around this issue like himself. How he had come to Council to, at best, abstain from voting on this resolution.
And then he told how, at the Council Eucharist, troubled and torn with anxiety about this resolution, he found himself singing the words of a hymn which said, “O God of gentle strength, your love embraces me… And when life’s challenges eclipse our minds with doubt, let holy wisdom spark a flame to drive the darkness out.” (Hymn 771). And how at that moment, a new peace entered his heart. And how he intended to vote in support of the resolution—against the use of capital punishment.
And how the delegates rose in a body not to congratulate him on agreeing with the resolution, but in joy and gratitude for making the gospel real. For proclaiming that faith is still possible in the most terrible of circumstances. For his not hiding his confusion which made his journey to peace a sign of hope for all us lukewarm Christians. For declaring that love—God—can overcome all things. Thanks be to God for David. Thanks be to God for being such a human man.
And that is the point. We are not the Christ. We are called to follow him, not become him. To follow, so that in certain moments we glimpse the face of Christ among us. As Paul says, “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no grounds for boasting, for an obligation is placed on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel … that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge.”
Like Jesus, David has paid a high price. He has suffered on the cross of violence and has begun the shaky journey from the darkness of the tomb. As he emerges into the light Jesus stands with his hand outstretched to greet him. As he emerges he testifies to the presence of a real God, one in whom we can trust, one who so wants to be with us in our hearts.