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Originally published in sermon form, for the Trinity Institute in January, 2006
"The Anatomy of Reconciliation"
The Prophet Habakkuk 1:1-4
How long, O Lord, have I cried to you unsanswered? I cry "Violence!" but you do not save. Why do you let me see such wrongdoing, why countenance oppression? Plundering and violence are before us, the law has lost its grip, the wicked outwit the righteous, and justice comes out perverted.
What do you see in the dark?
I know the theme of this conference is reconciliation, but you can't get to healing without looking at wounds. So, as we begin these days of work together, let's sit first with these words of the prophet, and open our eyes to the reality of the darkness that presses in on us. A darkness so large and unfathomable that it might almost be shaped like God.
Look at the nations: The wicked outwit the upright. Here's Iraq, full of captives, captors, terror, rage. Here's Haiti: beaten, robbed, starving, washing away. Here's Israel with her children blown to bits and Palestine with her children blown to bits and Jerusalem a desolation. Plundering and violence are before us. Every day, you can see one more son of man kneeling in the shadow of empire; bound, crowned with a hood, mocked, bleeding; with duct tape slapped on the wound where the spear has pierced his side. How long will we cry, while you will not listen?
Let me tell you about what I saw in the darkness once. It was just a few blocks from this church, in the housing projects nearby, where I deliver groceries to homebound people. When I knocked at Mrs. Johnson's apartment, I heard footsteps and a child's high voice screaming. A few minutes later, Andre unlocked the door.
Andre had been sick with AIDS for years. A slight man in his early thirties, he was badly wasted, often bent over with weakness, and his brown skin had turned almost grey over the bones in his face. Some days when I came by Andre would be collapsed on the couch. Once, as he lay there huddled in an overcoat under two blankets, he grabbed my hand and placed it on his hot, dry cheek. "I'm burning," he said. "Burning."
Mrs. Johnson is eighty and demented, and her son Andre sick unto death, but their place has a kitchen, so it winds up being a last stop for everyone in the big, damaged family when they've got nowhere else to go. A great-granddaughter, Sandra, leaves her kids there sometimes. Her oldest boy was born when Sandra was twelve. Honesty, a girl, was born a year later. The newest baby weighed three pounds at birth and lives in the ICU at the General Hospital. Sandra lives in a van with a trick who buys her drugs.
This day Andre was ashen, and carried a belt, doubled over, in his hand. He walked up the stairs slowly ahead of me. Honesty was curled up in the living room, limp and sobbing. I followed Andre into the kitchen, where Mrs. Johnson was sitting stolidly. A bowl of Cocoa Puffs lay upended on the table, and the floor was splotched with spilled milk. "She's bad," Andre said. "Look at all the work she makes me do." I glanced back at the crying three year-old. "Kids spill things," I said. "They can't help it, they just make messes." Andre was breathing heavily, still holding the belt. "Nah," he said, "She did this on purpose. She's bad.."
Lord, why do you make me see wrongdoing? Why do you countenance oppression?
You know this is where we are. In the dark. Right here, with the dying man beating the baby. And what does it take to see in the dark?
Well, first it takes actually being in the dark. Getting used to it. Not just switching on the light. Not pretending. Not trying to cheer up and forget and move on. It's not about looking on the bright side, but looking honestly at the dark, letting your vision adjust, keeping your eyes open in the wreck and hurt of this human life to see what else you might glimpse, moving there.
In the darkness you struggle with what to do. You desire justice, as I found myself in Mrs. Johnson's kitchen yearning for some law, some authority, that would fix it. But what was I going to do? Call the cops? The law has lost its grip, and justice comes out perverted.
When you can't find justice, you want comfort — perhaps telling yourself that things eventually will turn out better in the long run. But you know that one afternoon is a long time in the life of a toddler. A day is a long time for a sick man. Most people live and suffer and die in the short run, in the dark. When there's no justice and no comfort, what do you see? When your heart is breaking, what do you see? When you're lost and grieving, what do you see?
Look at it.
I want to refer you to another prophet, Isaiah, who speaks of "the treasures found in darkness." The thing about prophecy is that it's not about the future. It's all happening in the present tense — the despair, the violence and the reconciliation. The treasure, as literal as a piece of bread, or a kiss. There, in that kitchen, I found myself needing to be on my knees. There wasn't anything else to do. I reached for some paper towels, and knelt down on the cracked linoleum and started wiping up the milk. I stayed there looking at injustice, the wound of these abandoned lives in the projects. Looking at the times I hit my own daughter, raged at her, broke down in hopelessness. I reached over and touched Andre, and he breathed on me, and after a while I got up and held Honesty on the couch. She breathed on me, too. You know, any human body, even the most messed-up and helpless, reflects a tiny bit of the Creator, and that's why it's a good thing to touch other people when you're hurting. To just feel their breath on your skin, in this present darkness.
Where we are. And where God is.
My friends, draw near. Draw close, close together. Reach for the incarnate love settled, however imperfectly, in your neighbors. Breathe a little peace on one another. And open your eyes, that you may behold God, in all his reconciling work.