Here's tomorrow's homily. The lesson is Acts 1:15-17, 21-26. I usually preach on the Gospel, but this week it's Jesus-as-talking-head pontificating in John, and I'd always rather preach on a passage where people are doing things. Narrative junkie, c'est moi.
Most of you know that I came to St. Paul’s after the closure of St. Stephen’s. St. Stephen’s might have gone under anyway; it was tiny, and like so many mainstream churches these days, it was struggling financially. But its demise was hastened by not one, but two clergy misconduct situations. In the first of those, I wound up -- through a complicated set of circumstances I won’t rehash here -- being one of the people who reported to the bishop. Although the situation was ultimately resolved correctly, the process took far too long. Procedural promises from the bishop and the diocese weren’t kept. I, and a number of other people, wound up feeling betrayed not only by the priest in our parish who was busy breaking every vow within reach, but by the larger church hierarchy.
Even now, twelve years after that first misconduct scandal and five years after the closure of St. Stephen’s, it’s difficult for me to talk about what happened without pain and anger. This history has made it harder for me to trust people at St. Paul’s, partly because I’m not sure I can trust my own instincts about whom to trust. I was so wrong before. Although I’ve been at St. Paul’s for five years now, I’m still wary. Except when I preach, I keep to myself. I stick to the small 5:00 service. I know that this isn’t St. Stephen’s. I know that the players are different, and I really do trust this set of players more than the first one. But part of me is still convinced that staying safe means keeping to myself and keeping quiet.
How do we move forward after betrayal? That’s the question posed by today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Judas, one of the beloved Twelve, sold Jesus to the Romans for thirty pieces of silver and then hanged himself. The twelve are now eleven. Jesus named twelve; he meant for there to be twelve. The empty seat must be filled.
The lesson makes this sound like a simple matter of reasoned discussion, prayer, and casting lots. Two men are chosen for an election. One wins; the other doesn’t. The empty seat is now filled, and the Twelve are twelve again. Mission accomplished. Meeting adjourned.
But anyone who’s ever suffered betrayal knows that it can’t have been that easy. And although very few of us have been sold for thirty pieces of silver, all of us have been betrayed. A spouse is unfaithful. An employee embezzles. A friend gossips about something said in confidence. Clergy misconduct, political corruption, student plagiarism: all of them damage our faith in other people. All of us have felt the pain of shattered trust, and all of us know how easy it is to shut down and withdraw so we won’t risk being hurt again.
“I’ll never remarry. All men are cheating so-and-so’s, just like my ex-husband.”
“Why even bother to vote? All politicians are crooks.”
“You won’t catch me in a church again, not after what that priest did.”
We’ve all heard people say things like this. And while we often think about betrayal in terms of big-picture issues -- family, country, religion
-- trust is essential to almost everything we do. An article in Psychology Today describes how thoroughly it permeates our lives:
Trust is the foundation of all human connections, from chance encounters to friendships and intimate relationships. . . . No one would drive a car or walk down a sidewalk, or board a train or an airplane, if we didn’t ‘trust’ that other people took their responsibilities seriously. . . . We trust that other drivers will stay in their lanes, that conductors and pilots will be sober and alert, and that people will generally do their best to discharge their obligations toward us. Culture, civilization, and community all depend on such trust.That dependence begins the moment we’re born. Psychologists believe that forming a trusting relationship with the world -- being able to count on love and security, food and shelter and nurture -- is one of the most crucial tasks of infancy. Babies who can’t trust their caregivers face significant challenges navigating the world as they grow older. And our ability to trust ourselves is every bit as important as our ability to trust other people. Do we believe that we can stay in our lanes, remain sober and alert, discharge our social obligations? Are we secure in our ability to care for others, to maintain intimate relationships, to be good neighbors?
This morning’s story about replacing Judas speaks to both sides of the issue. The believers choosing a new apostle must have worried about whether the person they chose would be trustworthy. After all, Jesus’ followers still faced persecution. The danger of being betrayed to the authorities remained very real.
Barsabbas, who wasn’t chosen as the new apostle, must have wondered why. “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” That was the beginning of the election prayer. Had God looked into Barsabbas’ heart, seen future betrayal or wrongdoing there, and guided the lots accordingly?
Matthias, who was chosen, must have wondered if he could be trusted with the great responsibility he’d been given. Yes, he loved Christ; but so had Judas, once. What had happened? How could Matthias be sure it wouldn’t happen to him, too?
And then there’s Peter, who called for the election. Peter also betrayed Jesus, although not as catastrophically as Judas did. Peter is the man who, in terror for his own life after Jesus’ arrest, denied his Lord three times after swearing to remain faithful. The most brash and self-confident of the apostles fell, and fell hard. Peter knows all about self-doubt.
But Peter has also seen the resurrected Christ. He has eaten fish his risen Lord cooked for him on the beach. He has heard the command “Feed my sheep.” He knows that he is forgiven, and he knows that he -- and the church -- have a job to do.
There’s a reason we’re hearing this reading during Easter. There’s a reason we’re hearing it on the last Sunday of Easter, the week before Pentecost, the birthday of the church. What initially sounds like a dull bit of bureaucracy, a first-century vestry business meeting, is really a resurrection story. The pain and mistrust created by Judas’ betrayal could easily have killed the church before it was even born. Instead, Jesus’ followers recommit to their mission, and to each other. Their resurrection is made possible by his.
“One of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” The resurrection is the ultimate proof that death cannot overcome God’s love, that our betrayals are forgiven, that we can trust God to care for us. The resurrection means that God gives all of us -- the betraying and the betrayed -- second chances. The resurrection means that our scars and wounds, like Christ’s, are no longer marks of shame, but proof that we have risen from our graves of failure and betrayal to new life. The resurrection means that God trusts us to be the church, to feed his sheep, even when we don’t trust each other or ourselves.
Getting from the betrayal of Good Friday to the renewed trust of Easter, though, can take longer than forty days. Sometimes it takes years. Sometimes it takes a lifetime. I have a hunch that there are other believers in the crowd who are still cautious: wondering whom they can trust, keeping to themselves and keeping quiet. They love God and Christ. They want to participate as fully as they did in those early days, before their trust was shattered. God, always patient and always loving, has never left them. The church’s job is to be as steadfast and trustworthy as the God it serves, to become a place that heals betrayal, a place God’s servants feel no need to leave.