Sermon preached at St. Andrew's and St. Francis House on the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B. These are the readings assigned to the day: Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48.
Of all the conjunctions in the English language - for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so being examples of the most common - the singular popularity of but is largely undisputed. With this one, tiny, seemingly insignificant, three-letter word, a speaker can qualify or negate almost all of what has come before it. “Stripes and dots are both lovely patterns, but - your jacket and tie still don’t match.” “This is an exquisite dinner you’ve prepared, but - I would have preferred that you had killed and/or cooked the squid beforehand.” “I would like to stay good friends, but - we both know this is getting too difficult.” Indeed, you may have had the experience of listening to a friend whose long litany of agreements with you only caused you to wonder, as you were listening, just when the crucial but would come.
Of course, but does not always mean “I don’t mean anything I’ve said before” or “I don’t agree with what you’ve just said.” Sometimes we use but when what we really mean is, “I’d like a turn to talk now.” Sometimes but simply signals that we aren’t fully paying attention to what the other person said. So, in the absence of paying close attention, we tell ourselves that the illusion of disagreement ‘but’ can provide will at least keep us from appearing boring or uninteresting.
Thankfully, not all buts are so cynical, and best of all are the buts that surprise us for the good, that arise precisely in the moment of an acknowledged disagreement or mutually recognized difficulty or other apparent impasse; in such moments, a well placed “but” can unexpectedly open up the possibility of hope. “Ordinarily, stripes and dots don’t go together (I’ll concede), but - you make that suit look good.” “I know things look bad - you may feel like you are alone - but - you are not alone; the rest of us are with you.” “I know this relationship is difficult right now, but - I’m not giving up on us.”
One of my favorite “buts” in Scripture is exactly a but of this latter kind. It’s a conjunction of unseen possibilities and hope. The moment of possibility is found in the book of Genesis, and the conjunction found there comes to frame the whole story of God’s love for God’s people. This conjunction of hope comes after Abraham and Sarah, and a bit before Moses. Sarah gives birth to Isaac; Isaac marries Rebekah who gives birth to Jacob, whom God names Israel. Israel fathers twelve sons, the next to last of which is his favorite: Joseph.
Joseph may sound familiar. He’s the one with the musical named after him: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph’s dad, Israel, has given him the dreamcoat as a sign of his being the favorite. The other brothers aren’t as keen on the dreamcoat. So Joseph’s brothers throw him in a pit before selling him as a slave to Egyptians. Fast-forward a bit in the story: Joseph has ascended to the position of Pharaoh’s right hand man; the brothers have by and large moved on; Israel assumes his favorite son has long ago been killed by animals - because the brothers had smeared animal blood on the amazing dreamcoat. Famine comes over the land, and Joseph, as the the top guy in Egypt - in part because he predicts the famine - is put in charge of securing provisions. Joseph is the one everybody in the land must come to for food. Eventually Joseph’s brothers also come to Joseph, bow down to Joseph, asking for food. Only they don’t know it’s Joseph. When, eventually, Joseph reveals himself to them, the brothers are certain they are dead men. That’s when Joseph squeezes in the but that changes everything:
“…you intended to do me harm,” he says, “but - God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So (another conjunction of hope) don’t be afraid…”
In Joseph’s remarkable response to his brothers, we discover what makes certain buts so big, so important; conjunctions like these embody a wrestling for control of the narrative: Joseph’s brothers live in a world determined by what they have discovered about themselves in their very worst moment, when they left their brother for dead and traded him into slavery. By contrast, Joseph lives in a world determined by what he has discovered about the God who never stops intending for good. By his unexpected conjunction, Joseph communicates the story of God’s action as the truest story about their lives. Joseph insists on the story of God’s ceaseless movement toward the flourishing of God’s people - and names his decision to live with his brothers in light of this story.
Put more provocatively, Joseph refuses a story defined by his brothers’ endless fascination and self-absorption with their own worst moment: their sinfulness, their brokenness, and their failings. Joseph names the narrative as belonging to God, and so the story the brothers see as ending in their deaths instead becomes the story of a startling forgiveness: “Do not be afraid.”
Today’s reading from Acts is a reenactment of this Joseph moment in the earliest life of the Church. The conjunction is different, but the hope is the same: Peter, in the days that follow that first Easter morning, is talking to the Jewish people - the same people symbolized and embodied by Joseph and his brothers, the twelve tribes of Israel. Like Joseph, Peter is confronting these people with the truth about themselves in their very worst moment. Though Pilate had decided to release Jesus, Peter says, “you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”
At the mention of witnesses, I confess I begin to grow anxious. For how long does Peter intend to further his uncomfortable prosecution of the crowd? What shape will retribution take? Peter’s audience is dead to rights, thoroughly exposed. This is when we expect a characteristically hot-headed Peter to close in for the kill. (To be clear: to exact justice on his own terms is not just what we expect of Peter; it’s what we would expect of us.) Peter does in fact go on, building his case, appealing to the healing power of the risen Christ before he throws down and drops the hammer.
He never drops the hammer. There is no throwing down. Instead: we hear one unexpected conjunction and three of the most remarkable words - in their context - in all of holy Scripture. Peter says this:
“And now, friends…”
And now friends.
With respect to the Christian’s call to love and charity toward her neighbor, these words are the whole Gospel. Speaking to a people living in a world determined by what they have discovered about themselves in their very worst moment, when they had left their brother for dead and shouted “Crucify!” with all their breath, Peter witnesses an alternative to a world so determined: he communicates a new story - the truest story - the story of God’s ceaseless movement toward the flourishing of God’s people - “in what you did,” Peter says, “God was acting, fulfilling the prophets” - and he names, Peter owns, his decision to live with his sisters and brothers in light of this story, a story determined by what he has discovered not about their failings but about the God who never stopped intending for good.
“And now, friends…”
And now friends.
Do you see how forgiveness, generosity, and mercy might be more than abstractly noble moral ambitions, but might form the heart of living witness to the risen Christ? Had a part of your soul longed for such a possibility from within the substance of what it means to be good?
Would you lean toward God’s desire and promise that forgiveness, generosity, and mercy would flourish in you as holy practices by which you name the story of God’s ever intending good, even when the world around you acts its worst?
Have you grasped, even at your worst, the truth that self-love is not self-indulgent because it names the Gospel’s refusal to let your worst moment define you? Do you hear, as if spoken to you, in Joseph and Peter, the invitation to trust the ocean-deep love of the risen One for you?
Would you discern, with God’s help and good friends, the outlines - if faint - of new possibilities for well-placed and unexpected conjunctions in our relationships with those we love and those we find hard to love - conjunctions that sing the song of resurrection? Where in this week, in whose lives, will you make the commitment to meet a soul loved by God, trapped in pain, determined to determine themselves by their worst, left for dead, and there squeeze in the but that changes everything?
Let us pray.
Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.