Friday 6 April 2012

Wackos: A Good Friday sermon

A sermon by Kim Fabricius

An Amish boy and his father were visiting a mall for the first time.  They were amazed by everything they saw, but especially by two shiny, silver walls that would move apart and then back together again.  The boy, Eli, asked his father, Amos, “What be this, father?”  The father replied, “Son, I have never seen anything like this in my life.  I don’t know what it is.”

While Eli and Amos were watching, wide-eyed, a homely, bent old lady with a cane slowly walked up to the moving walls and pressed a button.  The walls opened and the old lady walked between them and into a small room behind them.  The walls closed, and Eli and Amos observed small numbers light up, red, above the walls, one by one. They continued to watch as the numbers then lit up in reverse direction.  Suddenly, the walls opened and out stepped a stunningly beautiful young woman.  Amos turned to Eli.  “Son,” he said, “quick, get your mother.”

The Amish.  What a strange lot of people.  Wackos, really.  You may have seen them portrayed in the 1985 film Witness starring Harrison Ford.  The Amish are a strict Mennonite sect that emigrated to the US in the 18th century, living mainly in Pennsylvania, and still speaking a Swiss German dialect known as Pennsylvania Dutch.  There are about a quarter of a million of these rustic oddballs.  They all seem to have old biblical names (like Eli and Amos), they make their own clothes, wear plain dress, and live simply, very simply, to the point of refusing to adopt many of the labour-saving conveniences of modern technology.  So they limit the use of electricity, don’t like telephones, and ride around in horse-drawn buggies.  (You’ll see some with stickers on the rear: “I pray for higher gas prices”.)  They run their own one-room schools and discontinue education at the eighth grade so the kids, just turned teens, can go work in the fields.  So they’re a bunch of dumb hicks, really, and because the gene pool is so small, some have inherited illnesses.

But if you really want to see these wackos at work, you’ve got to go back to the autumn of 2006 and the Amish community of Nickel Mines.  On the morning of October 2nd, a milk-truck driver named Charles Carl Roberts IV walked into the local schoolhouse with a 6mm pistol and, barricading the doors, took the class hostage.  He lined up the girls against the blackboard before allowing some adults with infants and all the boys to leave.  Then, execution-style, he shot ten girls, aged 6 to 14, five of whom died, before killing himself.  The Deputy Coroner, Janice Ballenger, later said, "There was not one desk, not one chair, in the whole schoolroom that was not splattered with either blood or glass. There were bullet holes everywhere, everywhere.”

So how did the Amish community respond to this massacre?  The Amish take the Sermon on the Mount very seriously, and not just as a set of sublime ideals but as commands of Jesus to be obeyed.  They place the highest value on humility, mercy and purity of heart, and reject all violence and vengeance.  But pacifism and forgiveness have got to have their limits, right?  And surely the line has got to be drawn at murder, and particularly at the murder of children, right?

On the very day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered girls said, “We must not hate this man.”  A father said, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul, and now he’s standing before God.”

Well, a couple of old crazy people, no doubt still in shock, even denial.  But wait till the loss, the devastation begin to kick in, right?  The third stage of grief – it’s anger, isn’t it?  There’ll be an explosion of fury, won’t there be, and sooner rather than later in such horrendous circumstances?  And like a rock thrown into a still pool, it’ll stir the water into waves of hatred and hostility and an overwhelming demand for retribution, right?

An Amish neighbour of the Robertses knocked on their door.  They opened it with trepidation.  It was a courtesy visit; the neighbour came in and comforted the killer’s family.  More, he acted mercifully.  It was only the beginning.  Other local Amish folk visited and embraced the family, and not only in its guilt but in its own grief.  For heaven’s sake, thirty of them attended the killer’s funeral.  And Mary Roberts, the killer’s wife, was one of the few outsiders invited to attend the funeral of one of the victims.  And there’s more: these Amish wackos actually set up a charitable fund for the shooter’s family.

Mary Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbours, thanking them for their unbelievable grace and kindness: “Your love for our family,” she said, “has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need.  Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe.  Your compassion has reached beyond our family … and is changing our world.”

Well, it was too much.  The criticisms poured in.  “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”  Forgiveness?  And particularly forgiveness when the murderer, dead, could not express remorse, let alone repentance?  The man was evil, evil. Not even a man, really, but a monster.  Nor did the killer’s family ask for forgiveness, let alone beg for it.  No, the Amish community itself, including the families of the murdered children, took the initiative.  But note well: for the Amish, loving the enemy does not deny the reality of evil and wrong-doing, rather it acknowledges the darkness of sin even as it begins to dispel it by lighting a way to a future with a promise of hope.  The community of faith envisioned by the Sermon on the Mount was not a pious utopia but a visible reality, the commands of Jesus enfleshed as habits of the heart.

But hang on.  Get a grip.  The Amish are a weird cult, aren’t they?  As I say, a bunch of wackos.  Look at them with their overalls and pitchforks and funny way of talking and eccentric customs.  They’re from another world, aren’t they? 

Yes, they sure are.  And that’s the point.  They’re from another world.  They see reality altogether differently from their surrounding culture.  And, sure, a lot of the trappings seem bizarre and unnecessary.  But the heart of the matter, the kernel not the husk, the way they act, behave towards one another – and more, towards outsiders, people who dismiss, mock, abuse them – isn’t that the way all Christians are called to live?  Isn’t that the way our personal, social, and political imaginations are supposed to be structured?  Shouldn’t that dissident, nonconformist vision be our defining reality?  

In his last moments of excruciating suffering and torment, not only physical but mental and spiritual, Jesus pleaded for the forgiveness of his killers.  And when he was raised from death by the Father, he didn’t go searching for his murderers, in bloodlust for revenge.  Come to think of it, didn’t he act like one of those wacko Amish?  Act like there is no cause worth killing for, act like everyone is worth dying for?  Act like everyone is a child of God, act like no one is beyond redemption? Act like however far people stray into the abyss, God calls us to seek them out and fetch them home?  That Jesus of Nazareth, yes, what a wacko. 

My friends, Good Friday calls us in the most focused and urgent way of all the days in the church’s calendar to ask the question that lies at the core of Christian faith: Which world is the real world?  The world of Wallmart and Westminster, of wallets and wars, of what we wear and worry about, of how we calculate and control, of payback and perdition?  Or the world we see through the crosshairs of the cross, where self is slain, slayers are forgiven, the excluded are embraced, and peace is not a pipe dream but a way of life, a world where we may hope that all will be saved, even Charles Carl Roberts and that impenitent murderer at Jesus’ side?  Luther said crux probat omnia – the cross probes, plumbs, tests all things.  The cross alone defines what is finally right, true, eternal.  Once again, Good Friday presses us with the overwhelming question: are you willing to take up the cross and count yourself among those the world calls wackos?  Of the crucified Nazarene – are you a follower or a fan?

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