This is a tough Sunday for me to preach.
On the one hand, it’s been a big week for me, personally. I graduated on Thursday, my husband and I move on Tuesday, and this is the last time I am privileged to address you in my current capacity. I feel the need to mention and mark these realities. One the other hand, a preacher ought to hold up the world through the lens of the scripture and see what is illuminated that week, and while my own person incarnates the Good Word—hopefully—it certainly shouldn’t be all about me, either.
As I struggled to write this homily, I decided to reach out to a mentor of mine, one of my hero priests. I explained my struggle, and he said, “When I leave a place I have served —” (and, being close to retirement, he’s served in many places) “ — I always ask for forgiveness for all my failures and shortcomings before I go.” And I thought, Well…maybe I’ll look at the appointed readings again and see if they inspire something else. I read them through, and this time it stood out to me that Judas is mentioned in two of the three readings, and I thought, perhaps I should be talking about my failures and shortcomings. But first let’s talk about Judas.
It had to be hard for Matthias to fill Judas’ seat on the Council of Apostles.
Given human nature, we tend to ascribe the shortcomings of the predecessor to those who inherit the role. I’m thinking of the German people, who have inherited a huge amount of shame and responsibility after the horrific actions of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents in the second world war. Closer to home, I’m thinking of those Americans whose families, like my own, enslaved other human beings as chattel, buying and selling children, dividing families for profit. And all Americans, we all live on land stolen from the Natives who first lived here. We all, as if by chance, by the casting of lots, have come to inherit the chairs of our ancestors, to take on the shame and responsibility their failures, and are ourselves implicated by them. I just named some big examples, but I think this is borne out in small, everyday ways, too.
The grace in this is twofold, I think.
First, human beings are community beings. When I was about 15 and getting really serious about my faith (which means, probably, that I was becoming insufferable!) I had a cold or a cough one Sunday and began to sputter a bit during the Creed. I had the thought that I had to keep saying the words—this was my only chance for the week to publicly profess my faith, as was my bounden duty as a Christian, and if I missed a single word I was failing in that duty. But I just kept coughing and had to drop out. As I recovered, I heard the people around me continue together, reciting the Creed. I had a small epiphany: this is one of the aspects of what it means to be a Church. When I have to drop out, for whatever reason, there are others who can carry on, for my sake and their own. We were in it together, for one another. When I have to drop out now, during the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer, or whatever, I am warmed by this thought, listening to you all carry on.
There are lots of roles and offices that we fill. Husband, wife, parent, child, boss, employee, mentor, student, customer, friend, stranger. When we fail in these roles—and we do, we all do in big and little ways, every day—we can take comfort in the knowledge that human beings are community beings. Where we fail, others will inherit that role and succeed. When I have failed to give a friendly smile to the stranger on the train, for whatever reason, I can hope that the next stranger she passes by will return that smile. When I fail as a brother, I can take comfort that my brother’s friends might fulfill that role in my stead, on that day. And I can take comfort that every day, I am redeeming the failures of others, too, perhaps without even knowing it. Our actions as human beings are not just simple equations, but a calculus of interaction, a complicated web, as Winnie preached back in November. A web, which — by God’s Grace — leads us all toward mutual redemption. When we sputter out, others carry on, and when others drop out, we can carry them forward through our own witness. The comfort here is that we are never, never alone.
The second grace is that — God willing, and if we’re lucky — life is long. Not only are our failings able to be redeemed by others, but we get lots of chances to redeem ourselves. When I have failed as a husband, or a brother, or a citizen, or a friend, I will almost certainly get the chance to try again, to fulfill the ideal of those roles. That’s just a part of what life is, our little failures and successes with one another, and sometimes our big failures and successes with one another. We have time to reconcile, to rebuild, to find restitution, to recover, to rectify. The comfort here is that our God is a God of second chances.
One of many things I love about C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia stories is the character Edmund. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Edmund betrays his siblings and the lion Aslan, taking on the persona of Judas in the beautiful allegory Lewis created. He sees the error of his ways by the end of that story, but what interests me is his role in the other books of the series. In A Horse and His Boy, my favorite book of the Narnia Chronicles, Edmund is portrayed as a wise, wise figure, because he knows what it’s like to have failed, and has gained humility and perspective thereby. C.S. Lewis redeems the Judas figure, essentially, imagining what might have been possible for Judas in this life, and not just the life to come. It’s beautiful.
And so, I think my mentor was right: I do ask forgiveness for my shortcomings and failures among you. I look forward to worshipping with you again someday. And I leave you with this hope: We are all Judas, in a way, but we’re all Matthias, too. Rather than merely lamenting the lot that was cast to us, the roles and systems we were destined to inherit, as if by chance, I hope that we can see the calculus, the web of our mutual redemption, and work toward it together. We are Church — capital “C”. We’re in it together, working together — through Jesus Christ, our God of second chances — to redeem one another…and our world.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog