Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nevertheless, Persist-- Sermon for Proper 24C, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost

She was used to waiting around for the left-overs, this unnamed, persistent, probably even irritating widow. 

Under the law of Moses, widows always got the left-overs. But if you know anything about left-overs, they are almost always an afterthought. In the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 24:19-21, Israelites were admonished to not harvest so thoroughly that there was nothing left. 

If they forgot a sheaf of wheat in the field, they were to leave it for the orphan and the widow; if they harvested olives, there were not to strip the trees bare. They were to do a good job but not a thorough job, so that the orphan and widow could pick what was left—you know, after you’d picked all the good olives, all the ripe ones, all the ones that weren’t already squishy. Same thing with grapes in the vineyards. You also weren’t to harvest from edge to edge of the field, but were told to leave the trees or vines on the perimeter less thoroughly harvested, but lots of landowners didn’t take that seriously. 

So basically, widows and their children—who were called “orphans” in those days even if they had a living mother, that’s how male- centered that society was—they got the crumbs, which they had to pick themselves, and often they might wait around all day to get nothing at all. And all this was because a widow was forbidden to make her living any other way. It was inconceivable for a woman on her own to work for herself without a man as the head of the operation to make the decisions and “own” the work of her hands. 

There was a word for this kind of higgledy-piggledy gathering of the leftovers from the various fields: gleaning. You can hear the word “lean” right in there. Lean pickings, based on the probable ruthlessness with which they landowners and the day-laborers they hired adhered to the principles of profit-margins. 

Even worse, if a widow’s husband died without children, especially a son, for her comfort and protection in such a male-centric society, the law stated that her husband’s brother should marry her. Later, that got stretched to include more distant kin. If that kinsman refused to “redeem” her, she was commanded to try to shame the brother at the city gates. Which of curse also broadcast HER shame at being alone and defenseless. 

Now, sometimes, it worked out. Ruth, even though a foreigner, insistently went back with her beloved mother-in-law, Naomi, to Israel after Naomi’s husband and sons died, and while Ruth was gleaning, she attracted the attention of the wealthy landowner named Boaz, who was her husband’s kinsman. 

Ruth ended up marrying him and having a son to comfort Naomi in her old age. That son became the grandfather of King David, and therefore Ruth became an ancestor of Jesus. 

The widow Judith, likewise, not only castigated the generals of Israel to their face when they failed to trust God enough to deliver them from the Assyrians, she worked it. 

She didn’t leave it there—no, she worked her considerable beauty, charmed her way into the trust of the enemy general, was taken to his tent, got him drunk, and decapitated him. Bam! Off with his head! And after she saved her people, she refused to marry any of her many suitors, and lived out the rest of her life as a widow. 

Probably to save herself from rolling her eyes a dozen times a day, given the shallow dating pool she had to pull from. 

Insistence, persistence, and bravery seem to be defining characteristics of Biblical widows. There are other widows who appear in scripture: the unnamed woman who fed Elijah the last bit of food between her son and herself and starvation based solely on his assurance that all would work out. She ended up not only NOT going hungry, but having Elijah pray her son back to life when he died suddenly, just as Jesus would revive a widow’s dead son in the Book of Luke. 

Jesus criticized his religious opponents for sucking widows dry of all their savings, and immediately watched a widow put two small coins in the temple treasury—all she had to live on—and he raised her up as an example of righteousness and faith. The widow Anna was a prophet who rejoiced when Jesus was presented in the Temple as an infant. 

So, we get a picture of insistence, persistence, bravery, boldness, and faithfulness. It’s remarkable how strong they are, given the way the deck is stacked against them. So when Jesus introduces this widow in his parable, I think we can see her in a long line of women who have been pushed around by virtue of their outcast status. Living without a male protector and provider, literally drawing her living from the margins of the fields and the margins of society, forgotten by all her married friends because she doesn’t fit in to a society based on large family units that were necessary for survival, she’s not beaten down. 

She’s enraged. 

She’s had all she can take, and she won’t take any more. 

She reminds me of a meme that made me laugh a couple of weeks ago: it showed a beautiful night scene, but in bold white letters it said. “Never pick a fight with a woman over 40. They are full of rage sick of everyone’s … um, nonsense.” 

Even though she knows the judge over her case is corrupt, contemptuous, and evil, not caring about any of the responsibilities of his office, she doesn’t quit. Even when shushed and dodged and told to shut up, nevertheless, she persists. She persists in speaking truth to power. She has a claim, her claim is just, her situation is dire as a widow, and she will not—cannot—give up. 

And finally, just like a raindrop and its kindred will wear down even the most solid rock, or the way a delicate flower will shoot up through the minutest crack in the pavement until it causes the entire sidewalk to buckle, she wears down this judge who just doesn’t give a damn about anyone but himself. The story states that the judge tells himself he didn’t want her to “wear me out”—but the actual translation is “give me a black eye.” I like that—her persistence scared him a little, or maybe a lot. Kablam! Good! She uses his own sense of self-importance against him, and for love of his nerves, he gives in and grants her justice. 

Now let’s get something very clear right now. The dishonest and unjust judge is NOT a metaphor for God. Instead Jesus is using this story in a method of argument known as via negativa—the “negative way.” But the unjust judge is not EQUATED with God. Jesus uses the unjust judge to describe what God is NOT. Via negativa. God is GREATER than the unjust judge. 

The promise embedded here is this: if even the unjust judge can be moved to acceding to the widow’s demands, how much more trust can we have in God when we ask for justice? It is the job of a judge—and of God-- to fulfill the demands of justice. If a judge who is arrogant before God and the people will eventually give in to the demands of a persistent widow, surely God can be depended upon to do even more. 

In fact, here’s an interesting twist. Consider the scope of scripture, with God constantly urging us to do justice, love mercy, and walk in humility with each other and God—and most of the time we flat-out refuse. What if we saw the persistent widow as God, and the unjust judge as the community? That may be the sermon I preach the next time this comes around in three years. Think about it. Because prayer is a conversation between us and God, that reversal also works, and also teaches us a lesson about prayer as a two-way conversation with God

It is unusual that this parable—which only occurs in Luke—begins with a statement about what it is about. That is not normally the pattern. But prayer is something that most of us do at various points throughout our week and our lives. Of course, most of us have experienced the feeling that our prayers are seemingly not heard, much less answered. That’s what happens when we think of prayer as a laundry list of demands that we hurl at God like the widow’s unceasing cascade of demands for justice. 

Prayer will not succeed when it is simply a way for us to do all the talking. Prayer is certainly not going to work if it is merely seen as a way for us to demand what we think we want and cannot get unless we beg, plead, or wheedle endlessly in some sort of superstitious loop. The point of prayer is that it is a conversation with God. It is only in the silences between our words that we leave any space for the movement of the Spirit in that conversation. 

Prayer is opening ourselves to the possibilities of God’s will, which of course is a scary proposition. We like to be in control, and do what we want. The first verse of this reading actually tells us the real point: we need to pray always in order to keep our hearts grounded in God. Prayer is not just a demand for satisfaction but a conversation, in which we need to listen, not only speak. Prayer is a means of building a relationship with God, of seeking out our own heart and to open it up to the voice of God in our lives. Prayer is a means of strengthening our trust in God and God’s promise of never-ending love. 

As our gospel reminds us, prayer is a way to enter into the presence of God, to be surrounded by the presence of God. This is the kind of immediate experience needed to maintain faith, more than anything else, so that when Jesus returns, faith will be found on the earth. Jesus urges us to be persistent in prayer, to be persistent in being grounded in God, just as Jesus is depicted repeatedly engaging in prayer himself. Being persistent in prayer will also lead us to be persistent as faithful people if not always in faith, and indeed will carry us through those times when our faith flickers, which happens to everyone—even saints. 

When I was in seminary, I once got pulled into a discussion about pastoral care. Whatever you do, I was told, DON’T pray. Several people nodded sagely around me, but I tried not to let my chin hit the floor. Why not? I asked, incredulously. In response, I was told that if you prayed for someone to be cured and they weren’t, it could cause them or their family members to lose their faith. To my mind, that made just about as much sense as arguing that a surgeon shouldn’t operate on someone in case their condition might worsen. 

What we have here, I thought, is a failure to communicate. I remarked that we Episcopalians don’t have a Book of Common Prayer for nothing. We are a praying people! Now, of course, being present with people and listening to them is a vital part of caring for them rather than quickly offering up a rote prayer and going about our business, but to not pray at all? As Episcopalians, prayer is what we do and how we are formed. The law of prayer is the law of belief, after all. 

Of course, prayer is NOT a cure-all, and many of us would very careful about couching our prayers in the language of seeking a “cure.” To be relieved, to be brought to comfort or peace, to be granted resilience and endurance, to feel supported, heard, and known as beloved, yes. But the fact is, as Mahalia Jackson sang, I believe that prayer changes things. 

Prayer changes things-- starting with the person who does the praying. Prayer changes things by giving the one who prays a chance to both speak and listen to the presence and support of God in that person’s life. Prayer is not a wish-fulfillment system, but a mostly-intentional conversation between ourselves and the Almighty. 

I say “mostly intentional” because we’ve all had those times of calling on Jesus when a child or a deer or another car darts out in front of us when we are going full-speed down the road. You know the ones: something like 


But even then, I think that prayer is part of our longer conversation with God. Sometimes—more often than we like to admit, probably-- that conversation calls us to silence and to opening ourselves to the movement of the Spirit in our hearts and minds. 

Sometimes prayer comes in a torrent of words. Sometimes prayer centers on the same word repeated dozens of times. Sometimes it comes in praying with someone who is ill and reminding them that they are not alone, physically or spiritually. Sometimes prayer comes with the click of one prayer bead sliding against another on a rosary, or a deliberate footstep on the path of a labyrinth. Sometimes, prayer is just the name of Jesus, or, as Anne Lamott noted, “help,” or “thanks,” or “wow” prayed on each breath. 

And as we have learned a lot recently, sometimes it comes with praying through selections of scripture that do not seem to be all that congenial at the moment. Sometimes, one of the greatest aids to our prayer life is to realize that we have to get over ourselves, and get out of the way of God. 

Certainly, there are times when it is difficult to pray, or to know what to pray. I’ll tell you one thing, though: when in doubt, there’s never been a time I have regretted praying when choosing between that and not praying. 

So let us ever persist in prayer, that our hearts and minds may be tuned to the presence of the holy alongside us and within us. 


Preached at the 505 on October 19, and at 8:00 and 10:30 am on October 20, 2019, at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, MO.

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Prayer 2455: 19th Sunday after Pentecost

Holy One, we gather in your courts, 
and offer our morning praise to you, 
our hearts overflowing with gratitude
for your grace and mercy that upholds us. 
Mighty Counselor,
lead us deeper into your truth,
that we may serve as beacons of your wisdom and love, 
and be a light to those who seek You. 
Teach us to persist in prayer, 
to remind us of your steadfastness and love, 
remembering that You never stop seeking us
and offering us the blessings of your presence
in times of both darkness and light. 
Illumine our hearts, O Spirit of Holiness, 
and anoint us with the power of Christ's love,
which nurtures and sustains us always. 
Blessed One, grant us your peace, 
and pour out your compassion upon all for whom we pray.


Saturday, October 19, 2019

Prayer, day 2454

O Holy One of Blessing,
my heart lifts in gratitude
as I rise to think on your love
and everlasting lovingkindness.
I lift my eyes to the morning sky,
and stand amazed at your wondrous works:
the galaxies that lace the heavens,
woven on the loom of your wisdom;
the clouds that sail like mighty ships,
bringing shade and comfort at midday;
the hummingbird that flits from blossom and branch,
fulfilling her purpose in your web of life.
You have set us within this glorious creation
 providing all we need,
and tending to our every moment, O God.

Let my heart be stirred
to embody your love today,
Most Blessed Savior,
that I may walk in integrity and compassion
with all living beings,
upheld by your steadfast grace and peace.

Bless the hands that heal and comfort,
bless the strength of those who fight for right,
bless the journeys of all who wander,
and bless the witness of your children
who preach your kingdom by their loving action.

Envelop within your steadfast embrace
all those whose needs we lift before You, Blessed Jesus,
as we humbly pray.


Friday, October 18, 2019

Prayer, day 2453

Most Holy God,
who has upheld us by your hand
throughout our resting and our waking,
we offer our praises and prayers to You,
trusting in your goodness and tender love.

Our hearts sing with joy
amidst the susurus of pine
and the basso chorus of oak and maple boughs
resounding upon the warming breeze;
all things have their origin in You, O God,
and they are sustained by your delight.

Give us the empathy to see your face
in every face we encounter, Lord Christ,
and the courage to love each other
as you entreated us to do.

Strengthen us in a spirit of wisdom and charity,
that we may walk in integrity and holiness
wherever our paths take us this day.
Draw us into your embrace, Blessed Jesus,
and bestow your peace and relief
to those whose hope rests in You.


Friday, October 11, 2019

Prayer, day 2446

Beloved Savior,
rest your hand of blessing upon us today,
and lead us in the way of grace and hope.

Help us join in the wonder and awe
of the trill of the sparrow at dawn
as she sings her praises to You, O Creator.

Give us gentle hands, Lord Christ,
as we reach out to each other,
and tend to the delicate work
of reconciliation and healing.

Help us to leap free
from the gravity of resentment
and the weight of pride
to stand upright and joyful before You, O God.

Give us rest at day's end, O Spirit,
and guard us as we sleep,
that as we surface between dreams,
we sigh our thanks and dive deep again.

Gather into Your embrace
all your children, and bless them,
cradling those whose cares and hopes
we lay before You.


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Prayer, day 2444

Beloved Savior, we come before you
seeking your grace and compassion this day:
we long for the weight of your hand upon us
as we seek to live into your witness of reconciliation.

Awaken us to your presence within us, Lord Christ,
that we remember that in your incarnation,
you remind us of our true nature and work:
to heal the sick
to stand alongside the oppressed
to reconcile the lost
to honor the least of these
to walk humbly and ever closer with our God.

Blessed Jesus, you taught us to pray and to listen,
to embody wisdom, peace, and virtue,
breathing forgiveness and mercy
in the renewal of life, holiness, and hope for all:
Today, may we set our feet firmly in this pilgrim path.

Bless and strengthen us in determination, O Messiah,
as we seek to emobdy your light and truth,
and in your compassion pour out your comfort
upon those whose needs we bring before you.


Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Prayer 2443

Holy One, 
we give You thanks and praise 
for your grace and love that sustains us always. 

Steadfast Redeemer, 
lead us into all wisdom and truth, 
teaching us to live in humility, kindness and wisdom, 
walking gently with each other 
upon this beautiful earth of which we are a part. 
Bring us to new awareness, O Lord, 
of the web of life that sustains us, 
from the smallest bacteria to the teeming oceans. 
Make us steadfast witnesses, O God, of your abundant love, 
and make us bold in living out your gospel 
in all that we say and do this day. 

By the power of the Holy Spirit, 
anoint us to the service of hope and healing today, 
and grant your peace and comfort to those for whom we pray.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Prayer day 2442

We come before You in humble prayer, O God,
and ask that You rule in our hearts.

Drive far from us all fear and anger:
fill us with your light,
that we may walk your path
of righteousness and love.
May our footing be sure,
and our feet never slip:
may we open our eyes
and be mindful of each step we take in your name.

Strengthen our hearts,
that we may be loving to those who hate us,
and generous to those who are angry.
We thank you for the blessing of community,
and rejoice in the gift of all who love us.

In your compassion,
draw all who mourn within the enclosure of your love.
Heal our infirmities and soothe our spirits, O Loving One,
and keep us in safety today,
as we pray for the needs of our loved ones.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

Singing the Lord's Song on Alien Soil: Sermon for Proper 22C, the 17th Sunday after Pentecost

We’ve had a lot of really hard readings the last few months, and today is no exception. In the four readings for this weekend, we get comparisons of Jerusalem with adultery. Our psalm speaks of mourning, rage and finally vengeance, ending with a wish that the children of Jerusalem’s invaders have their heads bashed against rocks. Our gospel selected by the great people behind the Revised Common Lectionary once again omits the verses that would HELP preachers make sense of these four random sayings of Jesus. 

It is so bad that, and I don’t know about Sally, but I have broken out in a cold sweat every time I have struggled with how to find the good news in some of these passages. Of course, not everything always has to be good news—we’re not children. There is something to be said for the fact that Psalm 137, for instance, is brutally honest in expressing human emotion in the face of an overwhelming, catastrophic loss.
We NEED scriptures that help us work through our own times of grief, despair, and yes, even anger and rage. We need to know that, as Shakespeare said in Sonnet 59, by quoting Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and that all things will also pass. There are terrible things going on in the backgrounds of these readings, and our own lives are full of bad news and injustice and being treated with contempt and a hundred little things that could erode our faith in ourselves, in each other, and in God. 

Let’s face it—that’s exactly the narrative some people are pushing all over the world as a path to “power.” I am convinced we live in a time when those who seek power more often do it through a strategy of “divide and conquer,” rather than working for the noble notion of the common good. We live in a time where “fear and rejection” has replaced “E Pluribus Unum” in too many hearts, that great Latin motto of our country that means “From Many, One,” reminding us that coming from many races and religions and nationalities we are strong because we join together as one people. 

When our Psalm writer mourns, “How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?” perhaps, though, people of faith all know what that’s like. 

In all of our readings, people are trying to live in times of loss and challenge, a time when keeping the faith can seem either foolish or impossible. Our gospel omits the preceding verses where Jesus warns his disciples about creating stumbling blocks for new Christians that might cause them to lose faith. Jesus outlines the serious responsibility we all bear as disciples who claim the name of Jesus for our identity. As disciples, we have extra responsibility to first of all model the utmost charity and gentleness to those they lead, and cruelty or haughtiness that causes the “little ones” to stumble when they make mistakes draws harsh condemnation from Jesus. 

As people of faith in a faith-scorning time, we know what it is to be on alien soil. We struggle to find our voice and sing the Lord’s song. When the face of God that is presented most commonly by people who claim to be Christian is one that declares God to be a God of vengeance and smiting, we KNOW that in many ways we are in an alien land. Maintaining the Christian community and singing the Lord’s song requires that members treat each other with ethics, love, forbearance and integrity—which are now viewed as being countercultural. Jesus reminds the apostles that they can’t be good leaders if they seek any opportunity to break the hearts or the faith of those who are learning from them what being disciples means. In our Greek manuscripts, the term translated here as “stumbling blocks” is skandalon, or scandal. 

Thus all of us as disciples are warned against calling ourselves Christian and yet behaving in ways that scandalize the gospel of Christ. Jesus then states that if anyone DOES sin publicly so as to cause a scandal, they should be approached and led to repentance. However, here’s the catch: if someone DOES repent, we are called to accept that repentance and forgive, even if it happens seven times a day. No wonder the disciples then begin our actual gospel passage for today with a plea for Jesus to “Increase our faith!” They very much doubt that they are strong enough and faithful enough to be able to do this much forgiving every day. Jesus insists there are no limits to this requirement of forgiveness—even if the offense is repeated. 

We can never give up on the one who offends, for that is exactly how God treats us, and the entire point of being a disciple is to emulate as much as humanly possible the example set by our Savior himself. Thus the apostles here are asking for the faith to forgive even if the offender continues to offend, and so that they themselves will not become stumbling blocks to others through error. 

I think we can all understand that the apostles felt the same disbelief that we feel contemplating the breadth and depth of forgiveness that is required. “No way!” the apostles instinctively react, and they ask for more faith in response. How much do we struggle with this, if we have anyone in our lives for long enough that their habits, quirks, and flaws begin to irritate us or provoke us to forget any good qualities they may have? 

It’s a truth in this life they we often only see what we are looking for. Once we concentrate on the flaws of others in the community, on times perhaps when they have let down their guard, and their weakness or broken humanity is put on display, sometimes that’s all we can see. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look for people to fail, and that’s all you will ever see them doing. Even if it looks like they are succeeding, the observer looking for failure, for sin, for imperfection will find some flaw or error or mistake to obsess about. And that is a terrible, terrible place to get to in your own head and your heart, friends. 

The response disciples make when dealing with forgiveness and repentance is crucial in modeling God’s kingdom-- founded on true, steadfast love, forgiveness, and above all grace. It helps if we pause and honestly assess our own flaws and failures first—and remember how good God and others have been to us in offering us grace. For those of us who have not felt showered with grace from other in our lives, though, this can be a reminder to break the cycle of retribution under which we have lived, and as children of God to determine to take a different path. 

“How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?” 

Here’s a story that illustrates what I mean. Bo Jean was a dutiful son who left his native land to gain an education and a chance at a successful life. So he left the tiny island of St. Lucia and came to America. The son of a pastor, he chose a small evangelical Christian college for school, where he excelled. He was a leader in his church as well as in school, and when he graduated, he worked as an accountant for a huge, well-known accounting firm in Dallas. Neighbors often heard him singing gospel hymns or songs by Drake. 

Bo was sitting at home late one night after work, eating a bowl of ice cream and watching TV, when suddenly he heard his front door open. There was shouting, and confusion, and within seconds, he had been shot in the chest as she stood in the hallway—a wound that would later prove fatal. I doubt he ever knew what had happened to him. The person who shot him was an off-duty Dallas police officer coming off of a long shift, who claimed she thought she was entering her own apartment one floor above, in a building known for its confusing layout. 

Three days after Bo’s death, this officer who killed him, Amber Guyger, was arrested but released on bail in a few hours. Three weeks later she was fired by the Dallas police department for her failure to follow procedures, such as calling for backup. Last month she went on trial on charges of murder, and she was found guilty. 

It’s a terrible tragedy- an unarmed young black man upon the cusp of success, 26 years old, college graduate, living in a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood, shot and killed by a confused person with a badge and a weapon who was an intruder in his own home. 

We’ve seen too many times when these kinds of incidents end with being swept under the rug, or with the victim later being turned into an accused criminal somehow deserving of their fate. Thanks be to God, that did not end up being the narrative that prevailed, although it was attempted. 

Yet it’s not the trial and the conviction that has me telling this story right now. It’s what happened at the sentencing phase that I want to talk about. 

Numerous people spoke on behalf of Bo Jean and of Amber Guyger, including close family. The bereaved family explained what impact Bo’s death was having in each of their lives. However, it was when Bo’s younger brother Brandt took the stand that things took a turn. Visibly grief-stricken and tugging periodically at his collar, 18-year-old Brandt Jean talked of his brother, and then profoundly about faith. He stated that his brother had loved everyone, and it was clear he saw his brother as a role model. Brandt then stunned the courtroom by saying that he wished no ill to his brother’s killer. He stated that he loved her, and hoped that she would find Christ. He then turned to the judge and asked if he could hug the defendant. The judge granted permission, and the brother and his killer embraced and held each other, whispering and coming apart occasionally to embrace again.

It was an incredible scene. It showed a depth of forgiveness that most of us have to be honest enough to admit that we probably could not embody ourselves. And that’s a caveat I want to put into this. This young man was at a stage in his grieving and in his spiritual life where he felt he was ready to forgive. He felt that’s what his brother would do, and what Jesus would have done. It was a beautiful thing. 

However, I don’t think any of us, if we were really honest with ourselves, also wouldn’t have understood if Brandt had reacted as our psalm writer did at the end of Psalm 137 to shocking loss and betrayal, by wishing for the destruction of those who had stolen all that was precious from them. But he didn’t. 

That forgiveness also was instantly controversial in some quarters—as people who had previously held that his death was justified suddenly held up the brother’s forgiveness as being beautiful. So let us be clear: Brandt Jean’s forgiveness does not ameliorate the consequences of those terrible actions of that September night when his brother was killed. And it’s impossible to praise Brandt’s forgiveness of his brother’s killer after first remaining silent on the terrible wrong she has done. You can’t be silent about the crime of the death of Bo Jean, and then praise the act of forgiveness. We can’t have it both ways. 

One of the issues that brought them to that courtroom and to that sentencing was the fact that his brother’s killer, while expressing regret, also believed she was justified in what she did—even though she violated department policy which would have avoided this entire terrible event. At its basis her defense maintained that she was, even as an intruder, legally allowed to shoot an unarmed man in his own apartment even though what brought her there was her own confusion and mistake. 

Brandt Jean forgave Amber Guyger even though she has not yet moved from regret to repentance. He has faith in her ability to get there—and that’s a gift far too many defendants and even suspects do not get in our current justice system. He forgave her so that she could be urged along that journey. But he also forgave her as a gift to himself, because ultimately that is what forgiveness is—it’s a gift to yourself that allows you to be true to your calling as true disciples and witnesses of Jesus. It frees you from allowing those who have wronged you to live in your head and heart, rent-free.

No one should ever demand that this young man or others in his situation, laboring under thousands of acts of oppression and aggression and anticipated injustice throughout their lives, should be expected to dramatically forgive someone who has taken something precious from them, especially so soon in their grief. And Brandt Jean’s forgiveness does not take away from the fact that since this was a shooting by a police officer on yet another unarmed black man that justice was far from certain to be served. 

His forgiveness doesn’t mean that she still does not have a debt to repay and consequences to face personally besides her sense of remorse. The path to repentance begins with understanding how our actions and our roles in systems of oppression have led us to hurt others and to literally turn aside from that path. That’s the gift Brandt Jean is offering Amber Guyger-- and all of us. Even as she admitted that she killed Bo Jean and claimed it was justified, Brandt Jean saw that she was still beloved by God—and she is. 

As everyone is, inside and outside the criminal justice system, even if they don’t know it yet. 

That mercy and that incredible grace was Brandt Jean singing the Lord’s song on alien soil. 

Beloveds, I want to call those of us who celebrate and hold up this brave young man’s example of Jesus’s command to forgive to not do it cheaply. I call on us to realize what great spiritual strength he has displayed in the midst of a great and terrible loss that occurs to all too many families all over this country every single year. Brandt Jean displayed mustard seed faith, and Bo Jean displayed mustard seed faith, and Brandt ordered that tree of vengeance right into the sea.

This is all the more remarkable because they displayed that faith and lived that faith—all the while in a system that all too often jumps to fear and suspicion of them as young black men. 

Psalm 137 asks, “How can we sing a song of the Lord on alien soil?” Brandt Jean shows us how. As he stood on the foreign soil of grief and mourning, he sang the Lord’s song anyway. He sang it with tears streaming down his cheeks and his heart breaking. He sang his song out of his deep faith, and sings it so that we can see and be awed by that faith, and try to emulate it: to try to see everyone, even those who have harmed us, those who are different from us, those who approach us in need, those who ask us for shelter, as beloved, precious children of God. WITHOUT FAIL. Without asterisks. 

Singing the song of the Lord on alien soil is the challenge of the Christian life, especially in our current time which too often elevates devious behavior, lying, contempt, and talking advantage of the weak and the poor for profit. We are called to sing that song of the Lord even in the face of evil, as an act of resistance to the soul-sickness that pervades too many in our time. Let us be brave enough to embrace each other in a spirit of repentance and true kinship. Let us be brave enough to sing the Lord’s song wherever we are. 


This sermon was preached at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville at the 505 on October 5 and at 8:00 and 10:30 on October 6.

Lamentations 1:1-6
Psalm 137
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

1. Overview of the Botham Jean case from Time Magazine here.
2. Photo from NPR.
3. Painting by Gebhard Fugel, "An den Wassern Babylons"
4. Illustration by Ephrem Moses Lilien, "By the Rivers of Babylon."
5. Photo from CNN.
6. Video from Abcnews.go.