Sunday, February 13, 2011

Transcending Brokenness

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Kate Alexander of Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with her permission. 

There is a man in LA doing something extraordinary. A Jesuit priest named Gregory Doyle is in the ex-gang member rehabilitation business. Affectionately known as Father G, G-Dogg, or simply “G”, Doyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation program in the country. For 21 years, the organization has helped thousands of gang members remove their tattoos, get counseling, find jobs and move away from violence. Participants in the program work for a time in the Homeboy bakery, the silk-screening business, or the gourmet Homegirl CafĂ©, all the while learning how to live a normal life. One graduate of the program said that with Father G’s help, he realized that he loved his kids more than retaliation and decided to leave the life of crime and street warfare to be a dad. “The gift that Father G has given us is he sees the best in all of us,” said a former member of the Crips gang. And the testimonies continue. “He loves you. He tells you that he loves you. He tells you that he’s proud of you. This dude is a remarkable human being.”

In interviews, Doyle is quick to mention that his ministry has not always been successful or well-received. When it first started, his office received countless threats by phone and graffiti. He jokes that at one time, he suggested that his staff should answer the phone in this way: “Thank you for your call. Your bomb threat is very important to us…” He sees the threats as symbolic of just how powerful the cycles of violence and crime are for young gang members. Any threat to the system, any chance to see things in a different way, was very threatening to those powers that be. The bomb threats have subsided now, as decades have passed and the ministry is well-established as a lifeline to men and women who desperately want a different life. Doyle has said that on one level, he’s in the trenches telling young men and women to go home before shoot outs begin. But on a deeper level, his role is to offer them a different way of seeing their lives altogether. Lives that are worth more than these kids can imagine and so much more than they’ve ever been told. He offers them a glimpse of lives lived in peace, with healing and wholeness and the opportunity to contribute something of themselves to the world.

It’s a glimpse of life that is close to what Jesus offers in today’s Gospel. But given the harshness of the message, we have to do a little digging to figure out what he’s up to. On the surface, he’s continuing to instruct his disciples in how they are to live as his followers, and it’s a tall order. Obviously murder is off-limits, but so is anger. So is having an unresolved quarrel with a brother or sister. Adultery is off-limits, but so is finding someone outside your marriage attractive. Divorce is only allowable on the grounds of unfaithfulness, but he adds that if you marry someone who has been divorced, you are committing adultery. Finally, he warns that you better not make any vows or take any oaths that you cannot uphold completely. Falling short of that is the work of the evil one. Fortunately, scholars believe that the bit about cutting off your right hand or removing your right eye if they are the source of your trouble is just hyperbole, but that only softens the message so much.

The irony of all of this is that the disciples he had around him were about as perfect as we are. Could he really mean that they should live up to some impossible standard of perfection? If being a follower of Jesus means being perfect and overcoming rather common human shortcomings, I’m afraid I make a rather lousy disciple myself. So, let’s assume for a moment that that Jesus did not intend to set up his followers for failure. Is there something else he’s up to?

What if Jesus is offering a glimpse of what life could be? Well, okay, not exactly what could be under normal circumstances, and not what could be if we just tried harder to live blameless lives. He’s considering life from God’s perspective, otherwise known as the kingdom of God. In that kingdom, there are no broken relationships, no shortcomings, no failures. No grief, no remorse, no hardships. Jesus’ words about basically living perfection are an invitation to consider that life in the kingdom, a life without brokenness, and to move our own lives in that direction. Jesus invites us to live as if that kind of life were possible, and to strive for it. To mend where we can, to embrace goodness and hope, and to repent as needed. To live as if the seemingly impossible were possible: that the lion really could lay down with the lamb, that a child may, indeed, play over the adder’s nest and fear no harm, that redemption and reconciliation in inner-city streets can really happen.

Transcending brokenness is essential to the Christian faith. As followers of Christ we have a fundamental hope that the way things are now is not the final word. Our own lives, and all of creation, are being beckoned by God into a future of resurrected life and wholeness. In today’s gospel, Jesus is offering us a glimpse of that new life and beckoning us to strive for it. By the grace of God, we always have a direction to go in.

I find the story of Homeboy Industries to be one of the most hopeful things I have ever heard. Gang members, whom society would write off as irredeemable, are being offered a glimpse of a new life, a life without so much brokenness. As daunting as the ministry is, Doyle speaks of the delight that he has found in the work. Two young men he worked with were members of rival gangs before they met Fr. G. Now they work side by side in the bakery. Previously, they would have shot at one another. Now they fire text messages back and forth, lightheartedly poking fun at one another and at Fr. G’s receding hairline. If that is not an image for the kingdom of heaven come near, I don’t now what is. Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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