Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22, Year B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on October 8, 2006. 
Based on Genesis 2:18-24, Mark 10:2-9 (Proper 22, Year B).

 Everything I know about the Amish I learned from the 1985 Harrison Ford movie “Witness.” That’s not entirely true but it’s hard not to think about the stereotypes: the horse and buggies, the beards, the suspenders, the utilitarian clothing, the rejection of all the “modern” conveniences like cars and electricity.

The Amish community has, of course, been in the news this week. The tragic shooting at a one-room schoolhouse in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania has brought unwanted attention upon a group of people who shun the spotlight. And it’s a story that has caught the nation’s collective imagination because of the horror and senseless slaughter of five young girls.

Sunday morning always offers us the opportunity to bring the week’s events to God. Whether it’s a personal crisis or thanksgiving for a particular blessing or news from outside our own community. And so this week we can’t help but bring the vicarious pain of a rural Pennsylvania into our midst as we pray and read Scripture and celebrate the eucharist. It’s simply what we do as people of faith.

This morning we hear two stories from Scripture that seemingly stand as polar opposites. We get a piece of the creation story; that wonderful portion of Genesis where God creates Adam and Eve. The creative energy and power of God fills the great void with humanity. And whether creation is metaphorical or by “intelligent design” or by natural selection doesn’t matter. Humanity is created at God’s hand.

And then from the Gospel of Mark we hear Jesus’ discussion of divorce. An oft-misinterpreted passage. But if the Genesis passage is all about creation, the passage from Mark is all about destruction; the painful destruction of human relationships. I’ll digress for a moment to note that Jesus isn’t saying that divorce should never happen under any circumstances. He doesn’t blindly condemn those who have been divorced. Listen to what he says, “What God has joined together let no one separate.” (Or in the marriage rite, “What God has joined together let no one put asunder”). So many failed marriages seem, in retrospect, to have precious little of God in them. God wouldn’t join two people together in a verbally or physically abusive relationship. God wouldn’t join two people together in a relationship that didn’t lead to emotional and spiritual growth. God wouldn’t join two people together who lacked the maturity to live a life of mutual joy and respect. But unfortunately we don’t apply to God for marriage licenses. So Jesus doesn’t condemn divorce; he just wishes it weren’t ever necessary.  

Creation and destruction. They aren’t mutually exclusive. Divorce is destruction. But at times it leads to resurrection, to new life, to the shedding of the old and the creative energy of the new. Likewise creation also has its darker side. Adam and Eve were created and given free will and they famously squandered the opportunity. Creation can lead to destruction; destruction can lead to creation.

So in these two passages we hear about creation and destruction. We have building up and tearing down. And in this context, the shootings at an Amish schoolhouse stand right in the middle of these two passages; between creation and destruction. It was obviously an act of violent destruction. No one would question that. Five young girls dead, the gunman’s suicide, and a community in turmoil. 

But the creative side of this story is the response of the Amish community. Their response to the shooting has been as countercultural as their refusal to own telephones. Because their expressions of grief have been as powerful as their expressions of forgiveness. The family of the shooter has been prayed for and literally embraced by the Amish community. One of the speakers at the memorial service this week, who was a friend of the shooter’s family, told of an Amish neighbor who came into the Roberts’ kitchen, wrapped his arms around the gunman’s father, and said “We will forgive you.”

More than the movie, this is a “witness” to the power of the Christian faith. Forgiveness is hard work and it takes time, just like grief. The families involved will never be the same; they will go through the classic stages of grief, including anger. The conviction that their children are in heaven doesn’t minimize their anguish. But the strength of their faith provides the framework for their response of forgiveness and it speaks volumes.

And maybe the Amish have it right. Perhaps forgiveness is the appropriate starting point for healing the deep wounds of a violent tragedy. Whenever someone is put to death through capital punishment, people speak of “closure” for the families of the victims. The Amish have modeled a different response; a response that says closure begins with forgiveness rather than retaliation. 

The Amish are a tight-knit conservative Christian community. I don’t agree with many of their tenets, like the patriarchal system of church and family and their fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture. And I don’t think that isolating yourself from culture is the answer. But I can’t deny the power of their faithful response to a horrific act. It is an inspiration to us all.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2006

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