We Can’t Go On Like This

Last Thursday Lawrence O’Donnell had a segment on Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway play, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  In it, Atticus Finch is the lawyer for the black defendant, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman, however Judge Taylor knows that Tom is in fact innocent.  The judge implores Atticus to take the case. “In his small town in the nineteen thirties of Alabama, Atticus Finch is the lonely voice telling people we can’t go on like this.”  Jeff Daniels, portraying Finch’s address to the jury demands, “The sin, the crime against God, can’t go on like this.  We have to heal this wound or we will never stop bleeding…We can’t go on like this, we know that.”  Confronting the racism of her southern society, Harper Lee in her novel raised the voice of many, “We can’t go on like this.”  “We can’t go on like this.  That is how most Americans feel in 2019.  It is a recurring feeling in American society…” [1]

Republican congressman Justin Amash, a modern-day Atticus Finch, has warned this nation, “We can’t go on like this.” — Lies.  Deception.  Nepotism.  In calling for an impeachment investigation at a recent townhall in his district, Congressman Amash, — born of the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — is the lone voice of his tribe calling for decency and Truth.  As a nation, we can’t go on like this.  God, give us more Republicans like Justin Amash.  Though I would agree with Justin on little concerning policy, I salute him for his courage and his patriotism.   This Republican is God’s gift to our nation in this time.

The words might well be God’s — we can’t go on like this.  On Easter morning, the power of Love is again let loose in human history —  because we can’t go on like this.  God can’t go on like this.  From the Big Bang of creation, from Jeremiah thundering against the usurpations of a corrupt king, down to a miraculous birth in Bethlehem — through all ages, Grace has been God’s answer to the human plight, “We can’t go on like this.”  Truth will out.  Love will trump hate.  Grace trumps evil.  That’s Easter, folks.

So it is that Jesus imparts critical, final instructions to his little community:

The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.[2]

The Book of Acts of the Apostles is the continuation of this great love story.  Through the incredible happenings recorded in this first history of the Church, God’s intervention of Love continues.  “We can’t go on like this,” echoes down through our history — to which, Love is the answer.  In the most improbable ways.

This morning the lectionary gives us a rollicking good story of such improbable occurrences from Acts.  Few itinerant clergy have ever had the sort of excitement and misfortune as Paul and Silas.  They no sooner enter Phillippi when some addled, rag-a-muffin girl begins to follow them.  Exactly like a stray dog that once began to follow me home on the way from school — no matter what I did I could not shoo it away.  I didn’t want to walk too much further for fear the dog would become completely lost from whatever yard it had escaped.  But no matter how I yelled at it, or chased it, or stomped my feet, it wouldn’t leave.  I finally decided to stand still and ignore it.  The dog sniffed my pant leg and shoes, and after what seemed forever, it finally wandered off into the weeds.

So here is this young waif following Paul and Silas, all the time crying after them and making a nuisance of herself.  For days.  And days.  Yelling something about them being sent by the most high God.  Finally, Paul snaps.  In anger he wheels on her and casts out the evil spirit that had been troubling the girl.  Abruptly, it leaves her as she collapses to the ground. 

Her owners discover that she is now normal.  She’s of no use that they can no longer make money from the fortunes she tells. They drag Paul and Silas before the magistrate. This is certainly the point where no good deed goes unpunished.  The girl’s owner accuses Paul and Silas of being disturbers of the peace.  They are trouble makers.  One little exorcism, and what could possibly go wrong?  A lot, that’s what went wrong.  And next thing Paul and Silas are in chains and locked up in the furthermost reaches of the worst prison ever.

This place is a real hell hole.  It’s dark and dank, the smell of excrement, vomit and mold are overwhelming.  Definitely, not the Ritz.  Crowded with sweating, unwashed bodies it’s hot and humid.  Stifling.  Their new companions are less than desirable.  Downright argumentative.  Nasty wretches.  The worst thugs.  Within minutes their few possessions have been taken from them, and one prisoner has almost choked Silas to death.  Only the intervention of some huge guy speaking a language they didn’t understand had saved them. 

As they cowered in a corner, hoping to avoid notice, they eventually dozed off.  Terrible dreams.  Paul, dreamt of being back on board the little skiff that had landed them on the beach.  Gently rocking back and forth, when suddenly he came to.  Prisoners were shouting and running to and fro as the walls creaked and the floor buckled.  Silas grabbed his arm, drawing him near.  This was the end.  They commended their souls and bodies to God as the prison continued to rock.

Finally, the commotion subsided as shaking ceased.  Next, they heard the frantic guard come running into their midst.  They could barely see the sword he drew in the dim torch light. He raised it as if to impale himself, but before he could complete the fatal plunge, Paul had grabbed his arm.  The man pleaded with the two to let him die.  He would surely be held responsible for any escaped prisoners.  Death by torture would be far worse than a quick death here and now.  “You don’t know these people.”  He begged Paul and Silas to let him die.  Paul and Silas quickly looked around and a mental count revealed that, miraculously, all prisoners were accounted for.  “Don’t harm yourself, everyone’s here.  Several have injuries but no one’s missing.”

The jailer fell on his knees, grabbing Paul by the legs.  Paul and Silas began to testify to the goodness of God and gave God credit for their preservation.  Other prisoners began to gather around the two men and the jailer as Paul continued his witness.  Late into early morning Paul related the story of Jesus of Nazareth and how misguided men had killed him, but that the story had not ended there.  Out of the tragedy of a shameful death an incredible power had been let loose — a revolutionary Spirit of Love binding all together as one.  A new community. That is why Paul and Silas had not escaped and had pleaded with the others to remain.

That night the jailer took Paul and Silas to his house, where by candlelight he related to his wife, servants and children the wondrous events that had transpired.  He had the two men’s wounds cleansed and bandaged.  By this time all present were asking how they could be part of this miraculous family of Jesus’ followers.   On the spot, water was brought and all were baptized into a new way of life.  And that early morning the Church grew by just a little bit more.

Through gracious acts of love and self-sacrifice, the community of Jesus followers attracted more and more followers.  Soon, the entire town.  That all might be one!

And now, here we are.  This very same power of Love has been let loose down through the years and centuries – though we fail to recognize its origin.   This is the same Power that drove the Renaissance and Enlightenment.  The same Power behind and within the idea of our modern democracies.  It is born of the idea that everyone counts and that we are all bound together – that all are sacred vessels of One Divine Love.  That we all might be one!  Yes, even with the created order – thrips and opossums.

Even when we lose the vision and our unity is shattered, Jesus prays in the wreckage that we all may be one.  Even when the operating ethic is me first and if anyone else survives it’s mere coincidence — Jesus yet prays that we all may be one.  Love is the answer.

My Quaker friend Anthony has a bumper sticker on his car that proclaims, “War is not the answer.”  The imp in me always wants to subvocalize, “Well, what’s the question?”  Actually, it’s about the answer.  Love is the answer — if anyone cares to know.  Love is the answer.

The other day on the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff had a segment born of just such understanding.  It featured a Sacramento restauranteur who had become quite distressed over the several suicides of some of his colleagues.  This tragedy jolted his mind to the realization that the restaurant business is extremely stressful.  We can’t go on like this.  That was his realization.  We can’t go on like this.  And someone needs to care.  Love is the answer.  In my business we are family!

Amidst all the hubbub of his busy kitchen, he had not taken notice as to how his staff was coping.  He had no idea how his employees were doing.  Or not doing.

Who had had a girlfriend or a lover breakup, or an ill child?  Who was under financial stress or had received an eviction notice?  Who had come to work addicted or depressed?  He just didn’t know.  No one probably knew.  But these twenty-some people were his family.  He did care about them.  Love is the answer, but there was no time for that.  Not in a hectic kitchen or on a busy floor.

After talking with some psychologists and other helping professionals, he instituted a program among his employees called, “I’ve Got Your Back.”  Using a system of color-coded cards that folks drop into a box as part of their shift check-in, someone would know.  He now had an idea of how many had come to work sad or under stress.  How many were happy, or dealing with some really bad stuff? 

He also had some staff in each shift trained as peer counselors – people who were safe to talk to.  People to share even the worst news or feelings with.  These were employees trained to read body language, to sense who was not okay.  This man’s restaurant now, in fact, has begun to behave as a caring family.  Yes, Love is the answer.  You know that, just to hear his employees talk about what has changed at work.

This restaurant owner’s goal is to spread his program to restaurants all across the country.  But why only restaurants?  Why stop there?

It is my hope that we import this same gracious gift to House of Hope – San Bernardino.  We bring it to our staff.  Love is the answer, just as it was in that dank prison cell over two thousand years ago.  Born of deep subterranean tremors, Christ’s church will continue to grow in love.  Even on an intense recovery ward.

Love is the answer to the despair of “We can’t go on like this.” 

At St. Francis we gather weekly because we know that we can’t possibly go on like this.  No more.  The world can’t go on like this.  Our country can’t go on like this.  We gather to remember and to remind one another around this table that Love is the answer.  Self-giving, sacrificial love.  Love powerful enough to interrupt busy date books and impact checkbooks.  We come to remind one another that we don’t have to go on like this — a Power greater than ourselves has our back.  Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey – we’ve got your back.  That’s Jesus’ story and he’s sticking to it.  So are we.  Amen.

[1] Lawrence O’Donnell, “The Last Word,” MSNBC (May 30, 2019), Jeff Daniels plays Atticus Finch in Aaron Sorkin’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

[2] John 17:20-26

Year C, Easter 7, June 2, 2019

A Sermon Preached at
St. Francis Episcopal Mission, San Bernardino

Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Leave a ReplyCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.