Hansen, Eugenio. Alpha and Omega, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57533 Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Alpha_omega_uncial.svg.
It is not often that I am rendered speechless, but I was on Wednesday afternoon, when news broke of the events in Uvalde, Texas. Like all of us, I felt horror, sadness, and now anger. There’s a reason it took me close to 8 hours to figure out what to say to you all in the pastoral letter which you’ll find printed in your bulletin.
I’m not going to go into a political polemic about gun control right here and now. If you’ve talked to me for more than about five minutes you probably can guess most of my views on that, and well, that’s probably not why you came to church.
I’ll be happy to rant at you during coffee hour if you like.
To be honest, I don’t have much immediate hope right now; hope for our cities, our country, and our world. There’s a lot that will probably get worse before it gets better. Summers will get hotter, and weather events like hurricanes and wildfires will get more extreme. Wealth inequality will probably get worse and communities will get more disconnected from one another, with people having fewer and fewer friends and social connections. Our country’s politics will probably become more and more dysfunctional, as our government becomes less and less representative of what people actually want.
If this seems cynical, it is. I am especially so in weeks like this one, where evil is plainly clear not only in the tragedy of a massacre of innocents, but also in the church (not our church). The Southern Baptist Convention, the conservative denomination founded originally in defense of slavery, was forced to reveal that for decades, leaders kept a secret excel spreadsheet list of hundreds of ministers, deacons, and youth leaders who had committed sexual assault or other misconduct, and refused to share this list with churches or the general public.
So please forgive me if I don’t have a very high view of human nature right now.
Yet despite it all I do hold on to ultimate hope; that is that everything will one day be made right, even though the process will be terribly painful. I also believe in immediate miracles, where beautiful and good things happen and God’s fingerprints are all over them.
Our first reading today is the last in a multi week series Revelation about what our ultimate hope will look like when realized. Our passage today includes the final words in the book of Revelation, and as it’s the last book in our Bibles, the last words of the Bible.
This passage reminds us of a number of truths embedded into our faith; the sovereignty of God: God is the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End. That Jesus is both root and branch, divine and descendant of David. That all who are thirsty can come and drink, taking the water of life as a gift.
Yet there’s a flip side of this passage that’s escaped my attention on previous times I’ve preached on it: this is city is not without its price. Now, its price is not gold or silver, indeed, it’s free yet is so despised by our culture and society it might seem impossible to achieve. Accountability. “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.”
“Blessed are those who wash their robes.”
Self-examination, accountability to not only our God but a community is a key part of the Christian life. It’s one of the reasons we go to church instead of going to brunch every week. Just like every child needs a non-parent adult who can nudge them back onto better paths when they stray, so to do we need friends, communities, and well, God to help us from getting too self-involved, too focused on the wrong things. I had a member of my internship church tell me that she went to church because she needed her heart and moral compass reset on a weekly basis.
This is not to say that we should live bound by regret or self-incrimination, but rather that we should try to do better. There is always time for us to live better, to do better, to be better, to not cause quite as much harm in the world. This is sometimes really hard. Neuroscientists tell us that as we do things, as we think about things, different neural pathways are activated in our brains, and it makes physical, not spiritual, but physical changes in how our brains work, which make it easier to do the same things again. It is an act of conscious choice to change, one that is best done with support and community.
Indeed, I would call the breaking of habits, the transformation of our ways of being when it actually sticks a miracle.
This brings us to our second reading, a longer story from the book of Acts. It’s the dramatic story of a miracle living out Jesus’ first sermon in the Gospel of Luke, that the Good News is that captives and prisoners be set free.
The story itself is a little strange: an enslaved woman, used as a fortune teller, starts harassing Paul and his companions, following behind them and yelling, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” Paul gets annoyed and exorcises some sort of spirit from her, presumably the source of her fortune telling powers.
Her owners got mad and did the ancient equivalent of calling the cops on Paul and Silas. Interestingly, what they accused Paul and Silas of wasn’t ruining them economically; it was being of the wrong religion, disturbing the peace, and advocating for strange illegal ways of life that were incompatible with their obviously superior Roman ways of life. I’ll let you fill in the gaps on whether or not people have continued to use violence to enforce what they perceive as threats to their “way of life.”
Paul and Silas are almost lynched, and then thrown in prison.
At midnight, while singing and in prayer, an earthquake loses their bonds and shakes the very foundations of the prison.
The jailor, knowing what fate awaited him if the prisoners escaped- let us remember that violent systems inflict violence on everyone involved with them, not just those who are the primary targets of them- attempts suicide, but is stopped by Paul.
The jailor frees them, and does his penance, faces his accountability; he washes their wounds, the ones that he helped to inflict.
It is only after that that he is baptized.
This is a beautiful story and a miracle; not even the earthquake, but the change in heart of the jailor.
Unfortunately, this sort of miracle is a rare one; throughout history, Christians have been jailors, conquistadors and slave owners. We have committed terrible atrocities, many of them in the name of the church.
Yet, against the weight of history, against my cynicism, I still believe in miracles. I still believe that we can be washed clean, even if, like a child who just got a new outfit, we will sully ourselves again. I still believe in the power of human and divine connection, that we can hold ourselves and each other accountable, that our love of God can, in our most open moments, cause us to choose the better way.
This is the hope that the alpha and omega, the first and the last is not doctrine or dogma, idols or our human foibles, but our God.
This is my hope against hope, the hope I must have to be and remain a Christian, and indeed, probably a functional human being. That we can hold each other in accountability, and in doing so grow in love and goodness, and sometimes, miracles do happen.