Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
June 2, 2019
Texts: 1 Kings 17:8-24; Luke 7:11-17
In his short story “Lazarus,” the Russian writer Leonid Andreyev presents a picture of a hollow eyed Lazarus returned from the dead to fully know that there is no life beyond the grave. Rather than being joyous at his return and full of life, he is a dark gaze that burns out the souls of those he encounters. What he knows is that there is no “There.” He does not confront the man who raised him and gave him the gift of a second life; indeed, he is almost totally silent, trapped in grief and horror at his knowledge.
Andreyev was a nihilist, believing in nothing that could not be proved. Although imprisoned by the tsarist regime after the failed Revolution of 1905 because his short stories were deemed to be anti-Christian, he supported the Russian war effort in World War I, opposed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, fleeing to Finland because he understood the limits and danger inherent in the messianic ideology of that revolution. Beyond the philosophical issues raised by the story, the question for us remains: What do we do with a second chance, an opportunity to live differently?
There are many different responses to this question, of course. Although people are not being raised from the dead in our world today, we can get some ideas from the expe-riences of people who have been wrongfully convicted and later released. What do you do after you’ve been exonerated when you’ve spent most of your adult life in prison?
Terry Harrington had literally been framed by prose-cutors in Iowa and spent twenty-five years in prison before being exonerated; he did get what seemed to be a huge settlement of $12 million, but half went to the Gerry Spence legal team and expenses, so he ended up with about $2 million. Others have not been as fortunate because they did not have family or social support or such settlements follow-ing their release from prison.
In 2014 New Jersey enacted legislation to compensate exonerated persons based on either twice the amount of the claimant’s income prior to incarceration or $50,000 per year for each year of wrongful incarceration. Should the amount exceed $1 million, then it is paid out over a 20-year period.
In addition, the person exonerated is eligible to receive certain other benefits such as vocational training, housing, and health insurance coverage.
When you consider all the wrongful or fraudulent pro-secutions we read about, as a note nationally only 44 prose-cutors have been subject to disciplinary proceedings, and out of the 44, only 2 were disbarred and 12 received some re-primand. This for destroying a person’s life. But there are some who think that punishing the prosecutor for fraud is terrible enough.
Some, like Nelson Mandela, released after 27 years on Robbin Island, used the new political power he gained through open and fair elections to begin a healing process in South Africa. If you never saw the movie Invictus, I highly recommend it because it shows not only how Mandela dealt with the future of South Africa following a horrible imprison-ment but how Afrikaners were also able to change attitudes. Mandela and Desmond Tutu were essential to the fact that South Africa did not have the virulent anti-white riots as did other post-colonial nations, such as the former Belgian Congo.
The question of what we do with second opportunities raises a host of other questions, such as, should second opportunities be given? It’s far easier to give those opportunities to people determined as innocent, but what about the guilty? I mean, the really guilty. As Christians, we are supposed to believe that no one, yes, no one is beyond redemption.
In 1924, two wealthy University of Chicago students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in their desire to commit the perfect crime. Extraordinarily brilliant students, they believed themselves to be Nietzschean supermen, needing no moral authority. As an aside, they both had planned to become lawyers. Hm-m…if the law teaches anything, it teaches that nothing is perfect, including crimes. One small set of eyeglasses sealed their fate. Clarence Darrow for the defense argued against capital punishment, stating that no one was above redemption, even these two who plead guilty to the crime. They used their education to teach literacy to inmates, secured a library, and after his release in 1958, Leopold became a dedicated expert on the flora and fauna of Puerto Rico. Although Loeb died in prison in 1936, during his time, he provided assistance to many others. No one, not even a murderer, is beyond re-demption.
The question for us as Christians is whether we really believe that. The corollary is what do we do with our second chances, our new opportunities in life? We all know persons who in their retirement have a new avocation, such as art or music, or working for groups such as Habitat or going and obtaining that degree they never had time for while working.
There is also new life for institutions, such as the church through new ways of looking at itself or new ways of thinking about itself or its mission. But whether it’s the church or our own lives, the process of transformation that enables us to seize the new opportunity is pretty much the same.
The first step may be the most difficult: letting go. This means letting go of what we presupposed in the past, in-cluding our images of ourselves. Because our identity is so tied up in who we have been, it is difficult to let go. We may have thought of ourselves as limited by our ability to get around. I’m not discounting the reality that our physical limitations can impose on us. The question there becomes how we get beyond those limitations to do something new or different.
A woman I know who was severely injured in a car accident uses her limitation as a time to write because she can at least sit at a desk in her wheelchair and use the computer. As long as we think of ourselves in an old model, we cannot move into a new one.
Secondly, pry loose the mental fingers and be willing to enter the unknown. Enter the void and, in the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, “live awhile in the question.” This is difficult to be sure because living the question may mean putting aside our previous beliefs and moving into uncharted territory. Those previous beliefs can constrain us, keep us from moving ahead.
The third step in the process is enlarging the vision, or as another writer said, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” All this sounds well and good, but what do we do with our uncertainty, our fear?
Grasping it and acknowledging it is very important because we are building something new. It’s much easier to stay on the old course, not to try something different, even when it fails. In all of this, it’s really important to maintain a sense of humor. Laughing at our mistakes is not always easy. I certainly know that. I’m sure most of you do as well.
I don’t particularly care for bumper sticker theology but the quote by Gandhi is important: You must be the change you wish to see. And it’s important to be grateful: grateful for family and friends, successes and even for mistakes, because we would not be anyplace without our mistakes. That is how we learn.
One of the more frustrating things about many of the stories we read in Scripture is that we don’t learn what happens after that second chance. In our reading from 1 Kings, for instance, we only hear the widow acknowledge that Elijah is a man of God in gratitude whereas previously she had used that language in anger. As one scholar noted in a commentary on this story, the two aspects of Elijah’s
mission – wonder-worker and prophesier-reprover – are interdependent, the former demonstrating to skeptics the authority of the latter.
The commentator noted that this pattern is picked up in stories about Jesus whose wonder-working activities attest to his authority. In the verses that follow Luke’s story of Jesus raising the young man from the dead, the disciples of John come to him and ask: Are you the one that is to come?
The question is, really, are you the Messiah? Most likely John and his followers expected an outcome, a final ending different from Jesus’ call for peace, repentance, and recon-ciliation. Messianic expectations for many at that time meant overthrowing the hated Romans and re-establishing the kingdom of David.
Jesus simply responds: Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.
As Luke’s Gospel tells us, the word about Jesus spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. Jesus’ authority to bring good news to the poor is tied directly to his ability to work the miracles cited in the Gospel.
Beyond that, though, I do wonder about the persons who gain new life through some miracle related in Scripture or the Gospels. What do they do with their second chances after they have been healed or raised from the dead.
Like many good writers, Luke simply stops at the point where the young man gains new life. The symbolism in these stories indicates that we can live our future differently than we have our past. Let us do so.
Let us pray: Transformer of lives and creator of new beginnings, help us to look at our lives, examine our past, and live a future that reflects your love for all people. In the name of him who transforms our lives, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.