Every life tells its own story, of course. But, for most parents, the birth of a child begins the story with a sense of wonder and gratitude and hope and promise. Then real life sets in and our idealism can be challenged. It is not too long before the terrible twos come along to fray our nerves. Then there is a bit of a quieter interlude before our lovely young darlings become teenagers. Good luck with that! Even after our children become independent adults, we still go through all the emotional ups and downs as we watch their growth and development. The pressures of their student and apprenticeship years. The roller coaster ride of the ecstasies and heartbreak of their first romantic adventures. Finding their way into the world of work and careers. Meeting Mr. or Ms. Right and settling into a committed relationship and beginning to raise a family of their own. Maybe aching with them as they deal with the stresses and strains of their intimate relationships. Perhaps having to feel the helplessness of watching them veer off track and getting themselves into hurtful and damaging territory in their lives. Maybe the pain of supporting them through accidents or illnesses or economic challenges or any of the many grievous twists and turns our lives can take. Hopefully, overall, the ups outnumber the downs and, as parents, we retain the wonder and gratitude of our children’s birth as their lives unfold. Perhaps the struggles and even the pain along the way actually help to deepen and lend character to our appreciation for our children as gifts from God.
I think what I am trying to get at here is that the through-line in it all is our love for our children. Any pain we feel along the way is actually a measure of the love we have for them. Frustration and disappointment, even, are the flip sides of love. Even if our children drive us near to the breaking point at times, in the end, it is our love for them that prevails.
Our very human experiences of love for our children help us to understand the love God has for humanity as the story of the bible unfolds. We need to understand that the biblical record is not something static and fixed for all time. It is something growing and changing and evolving as our human ability to comprehend more and more of God evolves.
We watch and listen this morning as Jesus takes an old teaching from the Book of Leviticus and takes it a step further. When we hear the phrase, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, it can easily sound to us like justification for violent revenge. But, in its origins in ancient Israel, it was actually a teaching meant to limit human violence in response to a wrong-doing. It was meant to make the punishment fit – not exceed – the crime. It was an expression of an ancient peoples’ growing appreciation for God’s love for humanity that did not want to impose unnecessary and unwarranted harshness upon one of God’s wayward children. From measured retribution for a wrong-doing – just an eye for an eye and just a tooth for a tooth – Jesus goes even further and asks for love that extends even to our enemies, even to those who have wronged us or threaten us or try to exploit us.
This teaching is not about a morbid passivity that allows ourselves to be victimized. It is an evolving understanding that there is simply no room in love for any kind of violence. All violence dishonours the inherent dignity of a human being as a beloved child of God. What we are being asked for here in this very radical teaching of Jesus is to mirror God in our first impulse in response to some violation perpetrated against us. And that first response is to desire the well-being, the redemption, the restoration, the salvation of the wrong-doer. Not our personal safety first. Not the desire for punishment or revenge first. But first and foremost, the desire that the violator will be called back to her or his true self as a Beloved child of God.
It is taking us generations, centuries, millennia to grasp how wide and how deep is the love of God. How God aches for each and every one of us, from the most to the least virtuous. How God imposes neither force nor violence to change or to punish people, but can only suffer patiently through all the pain we humans are capable of inflicting on each other, as God waits for the revelation of love to break through to us and call us back to our truest selves. Imagine the pain Jesus suffered in loving his enemies and resisting the temptation to protect himself or to strike back. Imagine the pain the Father suffered in watching his Son’s faithfulness to the way of non-violent, redeeming love take its course.
Do we dare to take such teachings seriously?
Let me tell you one story of someone who did. Perhaps it is a story you have heard me tell before. I do tend to repeat myself, I know!
It is the true story of two people, I believe in California. It is the story of a woman who regularly visited an inmate in a federal prison. The woman was the mother of the young man the inmate had murdered. Despite her grief for her lost son, despite her initial hatred for the man who had killed him, this woman was determined that two lives would not be lost. Three lives, really, if you consider how her own life could have been lost to bitterness and hatred. As an expression of her faith in Jesus and her faithfulness to the non-violent teachings of Jesus, this woman visited this man regularly in hopes to see him come to grips with his crime. Not so he would feel terrible about it but so that he might be redeemed as a human being. He was a hard case: a psychopath or a sociopath, maybe, who was not capable of true feelings or of understanding his own behaviour. She visited him regularly, even though she got very little response from him. There were times it felt useless and she was ready to quit. But one day, she relates, on one of her visits as she spoke to him with hardly a word back, she saw one tear form in the corner of his eye and run down his cheek. She caught a glimpse in that moment of the human being hidden within this apparent monster. It felt like a birth, she said; like another son had been born.
In our human societies, we take some forms of violence for granted. We think we depend upon it for our security and survival. It is the only way to fix certain situations that will inevitably arise in the affairs of humanity, we think. It is the way of the world, we assume. But, although some forms of violence seem to work in the short run, only non-violent love has the potential to save this world from destruction in the long run. It will take a lot of trust and courage to choose that way, as Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King and Archbishop Romero and others did, following in the footsteps of Jesus before them. They paid the price, each one, but they made a difference in making this world more humane and just than it would have been otherwise.
At birth, our children bring a lifetime supply of love with them. It is a love that will be tried and tested by time and experience. But, in the end and despite the pain along the way, it is only love that can bring out the best in our children and even redeem them when they get lost sometimes in the maze of life. We know that from our own experience. It also helps us understand our God who is pure love, and to choose to follow Jesus who faithfully walked the path of non-violent love for our salvation.
As we celebrate Baptism this morning, let us remember it is a covenant of love. Our love for our children as a gift of God. Our love for one another within the family of God. Our love for God. And, above all, God’s love for us: a faithful, loyal love that will stick by us, suffer with us, never hurt us, and ultimately heal us and save us no matter what story our lives write.
The Rev. Ted Hicks