Letting Your Hair DownDr. Russ Dean 1 Kings 21.1-10, Luke 7.36-8.3 Year C: Proper 6 (11) - Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Timothy McVeigh scratched out these words of the English poet William Ernest Henley in longhand, and handed them to Harley Lappin, the Warden of the Federal Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. Then, without a word of apology, without a single expression of remorse to the 168 families whose lives had been shattered by a 7,000-pound homemade bomb, Timothy McVeigh closed his eyes and met a peaceful death. His message was loud and clear: “I am the master of my fate.”
Before his death Americans were captive to his story for more than six years. Weekly if not daily, we were assailed with the details of his life and his crime. Timothy McVeigh was the quiet child who became a decorated soldier, who died as the most infamous American “terrorist” in history. His final words, though borrowed and unspoken, no doubt reflect his belief that he was “undefeated” (the Latin title of the poem, “Invictus”) even by the U.S. Government which he sought to destroy.
As we read about Ahab and Jezebel we ought to make a connection. With the same stone-face and brazen glare, and without a thread of remorse, Queen Jezebel trumped-up the charges and paid-off the witnesses and good but poor Naboth died a senseless death.
Naboth’s land was his inheritance, and according to the religious code of ancient Israel, the land had been granted by God, and God prohibited that it be bartered or sold. So Naboth was not being hard to get along with or greedy when he refused to sell to King Ahab. He was only following his religious teaching. And Ahab would have surely known this.
Unfortunately Naboth’s story is still very much alive in our cruel world, today where the framing and manipulating and abuse and murder of the good but powerless is daily news. Corporations make decisions every day that cost innocent lives. Conscious decisions are made routinely, that will cost immeasurable suffering to nameless individuals.
The value of those nameless lives is measured by the costs of the law suits which will inevitably be brought, and that cost is weighed against the corporation’s “bottom line.” And in an office somewhere, someone with a name signs on the dotted line, and the fate of Naboth is sealed again and again and again. It’s the corporate corner office against “nobody.”
A number of years ago my pastoral responsibilities introduced me to a tragic story. After I met them I visited daily with the family of an 18 year-old Venezuelan girl named Erica. The pictures on that hospital room wall were stunning. I saw her beautiful olive skin and black hair. I saw the figure of a woman, and dark eyes that had once turned the head of every male she passed.
But the Erica that I spoke to, lying in that bed, did not speak back. In her crossed eyes and badly-scarred head, I could hardly detect the outline of her once-beautiful life. She was an invalid. Her 14 year-old brother was dead. And her parents were mired forever in grief and the frustration of litigation against two of the largest manufacturers in the West.
The cold and calculated violence of McVeigh’s “act of war” and the so-called “collateral damage” that it produced has been described as pure evil. (McVeigh referred to the children killed in the blast as “collateral damage.”) The evil which results from corporate greed may be more difficult to trace (because thousands also benefit from the profits and the products of the corporation), but systemic evil should be named for what it is, and it should be recognized as no less destructive, no less violent, no less antithetical to the nature and purpose of God in this world. Evil is evil!
So, when through our media presentations we are starkly confronted, as we too often are, with the unremorseful and inhuman actions of other human beings (dare I say of other children of God) how do we respond? If, God forbid, you had to look into the eyes of one who had taken away your own child in an act of war, in cold-blooded murder, or in corporate callousness, how would you respond?
Forgiveness seems an impossibility! Even for the preacher, extolling its benefits, forgiveness seems an impossibility. And I think it is! I believe that it is not always humanly possible to seek the well-being of, to pursue reconciliation with, or to desire the healing of one who has so grievously offended us. But I do believe in forgiveness. And I believe that with God’s help it is our only way forward.
After the fall of South Africa’s Apartheid government, the nation began a brave but difficult journey of healing. The trials of the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” brought together victim and victimizer, torturer and survivor, executioner and mother of the executed. To my knowledge no other country has ever attempted such an amazing process.
Why would a government seek such a difficult path to peace? Why not let just “bygones be bygones”? Because, as Bishop Desmond Tutu observed, “There is no future without forgiveness.” (Quoted by Gregory Jones in “Christianity Today,” April 5, 1999.)
Another theologian, reflecting on the necessity of forgiveness says, “The refusals of victims to let violence committed against them contaminate their souls must be one of the most difficult and most heroic [of human] acts…” (Miroslav Volf, “The Christian Century,” October 15, 1997.)
So how do we guard our souls against the contamination of hatred and revenge? How do we forgive the unforgivable? We begin simply. We learn to forgive our spouse’s sharp rebuke. We practice by forgiving our co-worker the thoughtless gesture. We develop the capacity to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5.39) – one degree at the time. We pray for those who injure us. It is no easy journey, but it is our only way forward.
In the story that Luke tells, a woman, known as a “sinner” (perhaps a prostitute), appears at the dinner table of Simon the Pharisee. She approaches Jesus, weeping, and as her tears cover his feet, she reaches behind her head, and in a sultry cascade, her dark hair falls in silken streams onto her shoulders, into her lap, and spills into the floor. With her hair she dries her own tears from his feet, as the dinner conversation becomes a hushed silence. A woman in this culture never approached a man unless summoned. And letting down one’s hair was culturally inappropriate because of its sexual innuendo. She may as well have disrobed in their midst.
She no longer had honor to honor, however, so she let down her hair in an inappropriately extravagant display of love. Jesus’ words make it clear that this one who had been un-forgiven, perhaps by society and by self, had at long last known the fresh breath of forgiveness and it had been grace. Amazing Grace, indeed!
Forgiveness is the most difficult act of our humanity. I offer you no easy answers. But this I believe: If we have not known forgiveness, we cannot offer forgiveness, and we cannot know true love until we do. I am not suggesting that we need to hurt others – in order to know their forgiveness – I am saying that we must be aware. Aware that deep within each of us lays the capacity for the greatest good and the darkest evil. Timothy McVeigh and Jesus Christ both shared our humanity. And we must be aware, daily aware, tangibly aware, that we are proof that God offers forgiveness and unconditional love.
Bud Welch lost his only child in the April 19, 1995 disaster in Oklahoma City. Julie was 23 years old and full of promise. She was dedicated to a life of serving others. Welch calls her his best friend. Shortly after her death, though, he turned from hatred and revenge and began speaking out against McVeigh’s execution.
America today is a culture that is in bondage to hatred and revenge. You can see it on the faces of family members who want to see someone die. That hatred is not about justice. It is about revenge – but the death of one more person, regardless of who they are and what they have done, will not bring “closure” to pain and suffering and loss. Only in forgiveness can we move forward. In this kind of society Bud Welch’s words and actions are frequently disparaged as inappropriate. So they are.
One day he parked his car in front of a small house in upstate New York, and at the door, introduced himself to Bill McVeigh. Two grieving fathers embraced. And God smiled. Forgiveness was offered, and a human relationship, however difficult, however strained was born. And relationship through forgiveness is our only way forward.
So today, I challenge you:
Because one day you may be called upon to let your hair down.
To practice inappropriate forgiveness.
To live extravagant love.
And when you are called,
you must respond, because forgiveness is our Christian work.
Love one another, for God has first loved us (1 John 4.19).
May it be so.
About the writer: Russ Dean is a native of Blackstone, VA, but calls Clinton, SC home. He is a graduate of Clinton High School, Furman University, Southern Seminary, and he earned the Doctor of Ministry degree from the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.
Russ and his wife, Amy Jacks Dean, came to Charlotte in October 2000 to become the Pastors of the Park Road Baptist Church. Together, they share all of the duties of the pastorate, including preaching and worship leadership, administration, outreach, and discipleship.
Russ has been actively involved in ecumenical and interfaith work, having served on the Governing Board of the North Carolina Council of Churches, and serving two terms, and including two years as the president of Mecklenburg Ministries. He has also served on the board for the Counseling Center at Charlotte and for his neighborhood association.
Russ and Amy have two boys, Jackson (15 years old) and Bennett (13 years old). When he is not in the office Russ enjoys barefoot water skiing and woodworking, but, he spends most of his time watching his boys play baseball, or camping, skiing, biking, and playing together.
Scripture and Music
1 Kings 21:1-21
2 Samuel 11:26-27-12:10, 13-15
Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed
Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy
Jesus, Lover of My Soul
I Love You, Lord
Psalm 86 (Carl Nygard)
Offertory (John Ness Beck)
Love Crucified, Arose (Michael Card)
Forgiven (Buryl Red)
Seek Ye the Lord (Roberts)
O How He Loves You and Me