Preacher: Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
I had dinner with the Executive Director of a human rights organization that works in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. His name was Noah. Their mission ranges from emergency humanitarian assistance for victims of forced displacement to strategic litigation protection for citizens persecuted by their own governments. He was here in Seattle raising awareness about their work. He is also Episcopalian which explains my invitation.
The stories he told were laced with danger and violence, from ravaging gangs, to hit squads, to corrupt politicians and judges. But there were also heroes in the guise of fearless lawyers, incorruptible politicians, and saintly teachers and social workers. They fought the system from within the system by using the system. Sometimes they won and sometimes they lost; and sometimes their wins turned into losses; and sometimes they just found themselves frustrated as if on a dead-end street; but they kept at it, unrelenting in their pursuit of justice.
But the story that resonated most with me, and the one I’m going to unpack through the prism of Jesus’ conversation with Peter we hear in the Gospel today, was about a Bishop, a gang leader, and Noah.
At the time Noah was helping run clinics out of Episcopal churches staffed by volunteer doctors from the US. These clinics were designed to give basic healthcare to poor communities. I don’t recall the particular city Noah was in or the name of the church, but he had five doctors from Houston with him and the church was packed with patients and children; when suddenly two men with guns burst in, grabbed two young men, threw them to the ground, and shot them dead. Then they walked out.
One of the murdered boys was an orphan, and since there was no one else to bury him, Noah did. A few months later Noah got a call from the Episcopal Bishop. They knew each other well. The Bishop said, “Noah, I’d like you to go out and buy a piñata. You and I are going to Christmas dinner with ‘so and so’.” The name struck fear into Noah’s heart; it was the leader of the gang who shot the two boys in the church that fall day. The Bishop knew this as well.
“Are you out of your mind!” was Noah’s response. To which the Bishop said: “Some of my children are children of whores, and some are children of saints, but they are all my children, and I’d like you to go with me.”
So, Noah bought a piñata and accompanied the Bishop to Christmas dinner. When they arrived at the square in the heart of the gang’s territory, all of the members were there; as were their wives and girlfriends, gathered on one side of the square. Their children washed and in their Sunday best, were lined up on the other side of the square. There were folding tables on the third side, piled high with food and drinks. The houses and storefronts and street lamps were decorated…it was all very formal and festive.
The Bishop and Noah arrived. Noah pulled out the piñata, the children lined up, and took turns until it broke. After that the women and children began to gather around the food tables, and as they did the gang leader asked the Bishop and Noah to follow him. So, they did…down the street, then into an alley, and around a corner to a dead-end…there, in front of them, was a long table, with a white table cloth, flowers, candles, and real plates.
The gang leader motioned for them to sit down, and they did. Then he came and stood right in front of them, flanked by his posse; it was all very formal, and well-choreographed, and clearly premeditated…
But before I go on to tell you what happened, I’d like to say that: Sometimes we hit dead-end streets. Sometimes we get lost and end up on dead-end streets. Sometimes we are led to dead-end streets. There are even times when dead-end streets are our chosen destination, but in the Kingdom of God there are no dead- end streets.
(for) Whatever road is in front of you, whatever road you find yourself on; if you look with the eyes of your soul, you will always see God; you will always find hope; you will always know you belong, and you will always be loved, because this is the nature of God.
The Bishop accepted the invitation to dinner for only one reason: that these were children of God. He wasn’t going to negotiate with them, or save them, or even ingratiate himself to them. He was going because they belonged to God and so, they belonged to him. He was connected to them in a profound way, because God had set him and them in a time and space together; and their lives overlapped; and because of this overlap the Bishop had a choice to make: to fear them or to love them.
It is easy to imagine that we will never find ourselves on a dead-end street with a gang leader and his posse in a Central American country; but it is also easy to imagine (if we give it some thoughts) how there are places of overlap in our lives that require us to choose between fear and love.
Maybe it is fear of not fitting in with the posse of cool parents at your child’s school; or living up to your parents’ expectations or achievements; or maybe it is fear of the guy that doesn’t look like you walking down the street…but whatever fear it is, when fear shows up so does division. Or as Brene Brown, in an interview she did recently on CBS, said: “We are connected in profound ways, and what moves us away from each other is fear.”
The Bishop did not allow that to happen; he did not let fear prevail. He did just the opposite… he let love win. And this is important, because it is love, and only love, that is going to save the world. That was the message I gleaned from all of Noah’s stories the other evening; that only love is going to save the world. Noah’s human rights group sometimes won legal battles, and sometimes lost legal battles, and sometimes won legal battles that later turned to losses because they were overturned or ignored; but all of these wins, and all of these losses, were fought within the system by using the system; which means they all rested upon the sand foundation of human legitimacy or illegitimacy.
The wins were only as good as the community’s decision to own and honor them. That is the case for all human constructs: That is why democracy works, and it will discontinue to work if we stop believing in its legitimacy. That is why our courts of law work; that is why our free press works; that is why our monetary system works, and they will discontinue to work if we stop believing in their legitimacy. They are human constructs.
But love is different. Whether you believe in the power of love or not has no bearing on its effectiveness. For love can do all things; she renews all things, and in every generation, she passes into holy souls, like the Bishop’s, and in this way people become friends of God and when God is your friend there are no dead-end streets.
That is what Jesus was trying to get Peter to understand in today’s Gospel. Here is the setting: Jesus and his disciples were traveling around the region of Caesarea Philippi. And Jesus asked: “Who do people say that I am?” Some say this, others say that…then Peter chimed in and said: “You’re the Messiah.” “Right on,” Jesus responded and then follows up with, “which is why I will be heading to Jerusalem, where I will die on a cross.”
Now here was where Peter found himself on a manmade dead-end street. For Peter the Messiah was a political role that gathered all of the Jews of the world under one rule and then conquered the world by military might. Big task, but from what Peter had seen, one easily within Jesus’s strike zone.
Jesus’s understanding of the Messiah was different. It was built upon the rock of God’s love; or to quote the Bible: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him should have eternal life.” (John 3:16 para) This love, God’s love, is a love that comes from beyond this system, into this system, to save this system.
Now Peter doesn’t fully comprehend this until the Resurrection. Then, and only then, does Peter see the power of Jesus’s love. In the Resurrection encounter, wisdom takes up residence in Peter’s soul, and he became a friend of Gods.
With this new wisdom ensconced in his heart, Peter now instantly sees that any friend of God’s was a friend of his, and Christianity spread like wild fire, because there are no people for whom God does not desire friendship…including gang leaders. Which is why the Bishop accepted the Christmas dinner invitation and why he approached these people with love. But by the time the Bishop had arrived with his love, he was late to the party, because God’s love had already arrived.
As the gang leader stood there in front of the Bishop and Noah, flanked by his posse, he said: “Bishop you have greatly honored and respected us by accepting our invitation to Christmas dinner. No one else has ever done this. I would like personally to apologize for having those two boys shot in your church, and no one will ever be killed again in this neighborhood or in one of your churches.”
Then all of the other gang members, one by one, came forward, apologized and took the same oath. Then they broke bread, shared wine, and celebrated the birth of Jesus.
In the Kingdom of God there are no dead-end streets. There are only friends of God and people God is waiting to befriend; and ours is the privilege of showing and sharing this love of God that comes from beyond. In fact, it is our duty to do so, particularly when we find ourselves in the presence of fear or when we find that fear has gripped our own hearts….It is then, I pray, we keep our mind firmly fixed on the reality that it is love, and only love, that is going to save the world.