Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
On a Libyan beach a few days ago stood twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians. Behind them stood their executors all dressed in black, their faces covered. The beheading of these twenty-one Christians, and the subsequent images of this horrific event sent around the world on social media, reveals the cold brutality and cowardice committed by members of the Islamic State.
As I saw the picture I felt a confluence of emotions: anger, hatred, the desire for revenge. And I also felt helpless. What can I possibly offer as a fragile human being to bring any peace to a situation that is seemingly bereft of tolerance, love, and simple human dignity? These murderous acts are in immediate contradiction to the promises we make at our baptism – to respect the dignity of every human being, no matter who they are or what they believe.
I am personally struggling with this latest act of terrorism, and the evil that seems to consume much of the Middle East, because every urge I have to see those responsible face a similar fate is met with a small voice. It is the voice of Jesus. And I will admit to you it is not a voice I want to hear right now. The voice of Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.”
As a priest, I celebrate with joy the fact that grace and forgiveness are extended to people like you and me who don’t deserve it. That Christ died for us. But on a day like today, the very idea the same grace and forgiveness being offered to murderers standing on the beach that day is a hurdle for me. Are we brave enough to say that the love and grace of God is so radical that God not only died for you and me, but also equally for the butchers of the Islamic State? Did Jesus die for them?
Yes, he did. Jurgen Moltman, in his book The Crucified God, proclaims that God’s grace extends to all people writing that “the message of the new righteousness . . . is that in fact the executioners will not finally triumph over their victims. It also says that in the end the victims will not triumph over their executioners. The one will triumph who first died for the victims and then also for the executioners [Jesus], and in so doing, revealed a new righteousness which breaks through the vicious circles of hate and vengeance and which from the lost victims and executioners creates a new mankind and a new humanity.”
As followers of Jesus, we proclaim the good news of his transforming grace that extends to everyone who is undeserving of it. The cold reality of the killings on the Libyan beach present us with a question that our entire faith stands upon: do we believe in radical transforming grace for all people? It’s one thing to say that God’s grace extends to people like you and me who don’t deserve it, but does it also extend to those who deserve it the least, but need it the most?
If we believe in the radical transformative grace of God, then that means that same grace abounded on that beach in Libya in ways we cannot comprehend, or want to accept.
Today is Ash Wednesday. A day set apart for fasting, prayer, and the imposition of ashes upon our foreheads. The cross of ash we will bear today is not just a reminder of our mortality; it is also a sign of our redemption. Because underneath that cross of ash is the sign of the cross we first received upon our forehead at our baptism. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. Nothing will ever change that – no matter of dying or living can take that away.
The ashes we use this day are partially made from papers we burned last night. Upon those papers we wrote what we are giving up or taking on for Lent, and soon, we will literally bear those things upon our face. The cross of ash upon our forehead is a reminder to us that the grace of God abounds always and in all things – in burned ash and death, and in water and life.
All things of grace and beauty have their birth in grief and ashes. Today, Ash Wednesday, we proclaim the un-doing of death, the dismantling of suffering, for even in the midst of these things, the kingdom of God is present upon the beaches of Libya and it is present here, upon Heights Boulevard. AMEN.