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Not to Condemn But to Save

By Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
John 3: 1-17

In our Old Testament lesson, God makes a startling announcement. God is ready to begin a new chapter. “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” It is an announcement of the coming of respair out of despair.

God makes this announcement in a situation where God’s people have been living in a state of despair. For some time, they had called upon God, and God had not answered them. They had sought God with all their heart, and God had not let himself be found. They had no future with hope. It was a time of exile. It was a time when God had driven them away from Israel their homeland, and they had seen their nation’s capital, Jerusalem, overrun by an alien force and destroyed. God’s people had been traumatized by seeing the entire structure that made their lives meaningful destroyed. When God made this announcement, God’s people were living in the aftereffects of that trauma.

The Bible paints a gloomy picture of how God’s people coped with their post-traumatic stress syndrome. Some folk simply dropped out of the community. They became shiftless, isolated, non-productive. Some folk plunged into exotic philosophies; they practiced dark occult rites; they became obsessed by conspiracy theories. Some folk gave up their national heritage, and instead assimilated into the culture that had conquered them. Israelite children carried in their small, fragile bodies the aftereffects of this trauma. Israelite mothers and dads suffered deeply as they watched their children pay a horrific price as their homeland was taken away from them. When moms and dads became shiftless or obsessed or unhinged, children bore the brunt of their parents’ trauma. Everybody lived with a huge question mark stuck through their hearts: Has God rejected us utterly? Is God angry with us beyond measure? Has God forsaken us completely? What is to become of my child’s future?

We all expect to experience despair when the structure that gives meaning to your life falls to pieces. Like in a pandemic. Like when white people are no longer in the majority. Like when you are asked to honor LGBTQIA persons as they claim their rightful place in society. In a time like ours when the old ways we have lived by have been destroyed, we all wonder about a future for our children. How has this pandemic affected their intellectual, mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual well-being? What is to happen to them as they grow up in the minority? I worry about the effects on children when they see adults acting shiftless or acting out the urges of their latest conspiracy theory. We worry about the future of unaccompanied children at the border. The ones who get thrown into the Rio Grande or pitched over the wall or herded into cages. Will our own children know how to thrive and flourish harmoniously as members of an increasingly racial rainbow?

We are being driven through some dark times, and today we hear God say that God’s mind has changed. There are new plans on the horizon for our welfare, plans that give us a new future with hope. How can we be sure? Can it really be true? Is it too much to hope for? Will we be bitterly disappointed in the end?

The times were different, but these were the same questions that were discussed in hushed tones by Jesus’ disciples in our gospel lesson for today. Some disciples from Emmaus have just burst into the room with the astonishing news that Jesus has been with them as they broke bread with him for their evening meal. Then he vanished from their sight. How can we be sure? Can it really be true? Is it too much to hope for? Will we be bitterly disappointed in the end?

Suddenly Jesus materializes in the middle of the circle. They think they are seeing a ghost. But no. Jesus is fulfilling what Jeremiah has told us that God would do in. I will let you find me. I will give you a good future. I will be present when you call. They still think they are seeing a ghost. So Jesus does something that might leave you aghast. He shows his disciples his hands and feet. The fresh wounds left from where nails were driven into his extremities to pin him on a cross. His suppurating wounds are the signature that he is not a ghost, that, in fact, he is resurrected. Can you picture that sight in your minds? You can feel the holes. The crucified Jesus will always be seen in the risen Christ. He will always live with his wounds.

The resurrection represents a radical breaking with material reality as we know it. Jesus brings a new reality that is recognized by the heart before we grasp it by our senses and confirm it by our minds. In a word, we feel it first, and our thinking has to catch up with our feeling.

Touch me, says Jesus. Come to me with your doubts and fears, your questions and suspicions, your anger and hostility. His wounds tell us that he knows how we feel. But here’s what really makes the difference: His wounds are the windows through which pour the light of the future God has in mind to give us, filled with hope. Place your wounds against mine, he says. I will match you despair for despair, and your life will be flooded with the power of my new reality. The resurrection is the coming of respair as we match our despair with that of Jesus.

Against the question mark stuck in our hearts about our future and the future of our children the Christian faith says what our epistle lesson says so succinctly: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” As you think about your child’s future in the world we have with us now, rest in the conviction that even though your son or daughter does not know what that future will be, both of you know that their future is bound up in a resurrected-crucified man whose first words are, “Peace be with you.”

Much of our national debate is being carried on in the knowledge that we will never be able to return to what it was like before. There is no hope for that, only despair. A lot of people want to say “we’ve got to go back,” but that’s denial. There is a politics of denial and despair. It is dismal.

But there is also another kind of no-hope politics, the politics of no second chance, no hope for you, if once you have screwed up. It ia the politics of purity that has no place for forgiveness and grace. You know it by the name the “cancel culture.” It is dismal as well.

I do not believe that either of these politics matches up with the future symbolized by the man who rose from the grave, overcoming his descent into despair and bringing God’s new future. This church helps moms and dads to shape their children to be open to God’s new future. Not a throw-back to the past and not a witch-hunt that only the pure will survive. This church helps moms and dads to form their children to be open to the good future symbolized by the crucified man who has been raised from the dead. His final words command us to go into all the world to preach forgiveness and to call people to a life of second chances. He brings a future that folds all our failures into surprises of grace which bring us respair and joy.

We help your sons and daughters see that Jesus brings a future for them that widens their vision of what it means to flourish in human community.

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