Pentecost, 24 May 2015
John 15,16 INI
As many of you know, little Longfellow was almost killed last Sunday – mauled by a couple of dogs. We were walking by a fenced-in yard we had passed many times. I knew there was a dog there – they’d traded unpleasantries before, as dogs do. My guy has small dog syndrome, and likes to challenge dogs who are safely behind a fence. But I didn’t know there was another dog that day, a rescue dog, who hated other animals.
He reached through the fence and bit down hard. So we were in a tug of war, with Longfellow as the rope. He won, and pulled Longfellow out of his collar and under the fence. I ran through the gate just in time to grab him, and get bitten on the thumb, but not before the dogs got his throat.
So I’m going down the street with a bleeding dog, yelling, and a woman rushed up, laid on hands and prayed over him, which was a big comfort. Her husband, a kind and godly man drove us to the vet, then the hospital. But while driving me back to get my car, he shared with me his own, far greater nightmare. It was his son.
A few years back his son was coming back from a fishing trip, with some friends, riding in the bed of a pick-up truck. The truck was heading west into the setting sun. So the driver was dazzled and didn’t see a jogger until the last second. Instinctively he whipped the wheel left then right to avoid the jogger. The man’s son is a big guy; all the whipping around threw him from the truck. He fell from and hit his head. He was comatose for a year. He’s now paralyzed on the left side, with short term memory loss. He lives in a wheelchair, cared for by his parents. Who has the real tragedy?
I won’t forget the sight of little guy disappearing under the fence into terror and the jaws of death. But that memory got me thinking about so many other people, like that kind man, who must also watch loved ones gripped by the jaws of death, who pull as hard as they can, and also can’t hold on. I think of men and women helplessly watching their spouses, kids, friends, pulled off in the grip of drugs, insanity, jail, disease, war, the street. How long and horrifying their anguish is.
In our world beauty and innocence can come under attack so suddenly. Much of the harm is done not by evil but by common people, maybe deeply harmed, whose own suffering may exceed even the great harm they inflict. Who knows, for example, what that dog’s life was like before his present owner gave him a second chance?
But we face a choice. We can pretend the world is not this way – try to escape it, avoid it, deny it. Or, worse, we can quietly go along with the powers that seek their gain by cruelty and violence. We can let them do the dirty work for us, and discreetly pocket our bit of the booty.
Or we can stand by a God who loves the world and all its creatures, who grieves over the destruction of life, and be determined to do what we can to prevent such terrible things when possible, and to bring comfort and healing to victims of disasters? In the words of confirmation, we can strive for justice and peace in all the earth.
Today we are confirming a group of our youth. In a common view, confirmation is just a rite of passage, an old custom we follow because our parents made us do it. It may mean that dad and mom won’t bug you about going to church anymore. Or it’s like graduation: you’re done. But in the Church’s early days confirmation was like completing military basic training. You said whose side you were on. You got prepared. Then you went on active duty.
They are on the side of the God of life, who created the world, loves the world, and put himself on the line to heal the world, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep, who died to make a difference in the fate of people who could not save themselves. They are on the side of all the powers that with God seek healing, that stand on the side of those who fall under attack, who want better than that the strong carry away their prey and put an end to the innocent.
Are they willing to get bit? Are they willing to spend an evening driving hurt creatures to get help? Are they willing, like those parents, to learn from their own suffering that the best thing they can do is to alleviate it in others when they can, to stay home with a badly injured child, and with the love and faithfulness God gives them, to give that child a life that he could not have without them? Are they willing, like the owner of the dog, to cover the costs to repair the harm that was done?
We know what side God is on because his Son still bears the scars of what he was willing to do. He is on our side, on the side of the human race, which he loves profoundly and tenaciously, and at great cost to himself. He is on the side of the injured and the vulnerable. He is even on the side of the guilty; for all of us, every one of us, even those who love God best, are also part of the problem God alone can solve.
And I know for certain that he will ask us what side we are on. He asks us now. He gives us his own Spirit so we can be his presence in the world. And the time will come when he assesses what commitment we have actually shown in our lives. We will pass judgment on ourselves.
All through confirmation I have urged our young people to be strong men and women who have God’s vision of the way the world should be, and who want to live with an impact on this world. They should be the people who live to make a difference. This will not always make life easier. It will not make life comfortable. But God will be with them, and there is nothing better that can happen to any human being.
It is our responsibility as their elders to set an example. To prepare them for challenges worthy of their powers. And to cheer them on.