On Friday I encountered Sylvia who could barely say hello before needing to tell me “I picked up the scripture reading from the office today and it’s terrible -- I‘ve got lots of questions about it!” At first I drew a blank, not recalling what the passage was, and wondering what problematic pronunciations Sylvia was worried about. And then I remembered. Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you … and on and on Jesus goes with these increasingly impossible admonitions. “Oh YES! I get it!” I said to Sylvia. “Well actually I don’t -- so call me, Sylvia, if by tomorrow you do.” Sylvia never called … so here we are.
This is how it goes sometimes … I’m sitting there stymied by what I’m reading in the bible, and in this case, I find this little scrap of paper tucked inside the front cover that I must have put there months ago, and from my own handwriting I read: “Frederick Buechner offers this advice about reading scripture: Don’t start looking in the Bible for the answers it gives. Start by listening for the questions it asks. When you hear the question that is your question, then you have begun to hear much.”
So I come back to this impossible passage in Luke’s Gospel and the question that’s there is “HOW?” How on earth can we do this? You might be able to do this Jesus, but we’re not you. How?
Then I began to recall this story from some time ago which I looked up again. It’s one you might also remember. Her name is Antoinette Tuff. At the time and maybe still, she was the bookkeeper at the Ronald McNair Learning Academy, in Georgia. She was in the school office when a young man came into her office, armed to the hilt, firing shots in the air, announcing he meant business. Antoinette instructed someone in the adjoining office to go and activate the lock down. The armed man, unnerved by the movement of other people, left her office to follow them, and it seems it was then that Antoinette called 911. And then what you can hear is the recording of the next half hour when the line remains open between her and the 911 dispatcher.
You can hear her wondering, when the man steps out of the office, wondering if she should make a run for it … but then, what if he sees her? In the end she calls him to come back into the office, and to let those others do what she’s told them.
Now and again you hear the voice of the young man … nervous, panicking. You hear him, aware of the police force outside, realizing that it’s all over for him … how there’s nothing to live for now, how he doesn’t care about his life or anyone else’s.
And then you hear Antoinette telling him how she wanted to commit suicide last year when her husband of 30 years left her … “but look at me now!” she says. And she tells him how her life, out of that despair, opened up in ways she never thought possible.
At some point he says he should have gone to the mental hospital instead of doing this. “I’m not taking my medication,” he says. “But it’s too late now.”
“It’s not too late,” Antoinette tells him. “I can take you to the hospital.”
“But they’re going to kill me,” he says.
“They’re not going to kill you. We’ll tell them you want to go to the hospital. I’ll walk out there with you,” she says.
“You tell them I want to go to the hospital then. Tell the police to back right off.”
And so you hear Antoinette instructing the dispatcher to tell the police to back off … to back right off. Which she does and they do.
At some point she asks him his name. “Michael Hill,” he tells her.
“Guess what?” she says. “My name is Hill too. My mother‘s name was Hill.”
And then he asks for one policeman to come -- just one.
She conveys that to the dispatcher. And the dispatcher comes back with an affirmative reply.
Antoinette asks him if he thinks he can put his gun down, over here on the table. And then she asks him if he can take off all the ammunition and put it on the table. And then if he would lie down with his hands behind his back.
Gradually, he does all of this.
“So now tell that policeman to come -- just that one.” Which she does.
And then he says, kind of panicking, “I need a drink of water. Can I drink some water?”
“Of course you have some water. He’s just having a drink of water,” she tells the dispatcher.
It’s taking the longest time for the policeman to come. Michael’s getting more and more anxious. Antoinette keeps talking to him. And then you hear her say,
“It’s going to be alright Sweetie,” she calls him. “I just want you to know that I love you, ok? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing you’ve given up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life. Everything’s going to be ok.”
And then finally you hear the police arrive. And you hear Antoinette breathe the biggest sigh … and the dispatcher say, “You were awesome!” … and Antoinette says, “I have never been so scared in all my life.”
Later in an interview, when she’s asked about how on earth she managed to do what she did, and they play for her a little clip of her speaking to Michael. First of all she says, “that was nobody but God’s grace and mercy. I can truly tell you I was terrified on the inside.“ And she goes on to describe how her pastor started a series last Sunday on being anchored in the Lord. “And I told myself,” she says, “on Monday morning I was going to get up and start studying that morning, so I studied on Monday and also on Tuesday. He had been talking about how you anchor yourself, not actually allowing life’s cares to overwhelm you, but allowing yourself to be anchored -- not allowing the situation you’re in to dictate your actions. And that’s what I was doing she says. I was praying, asking God to help me … to give me words to say.” She talks about feeling compassion for Michael … “I knew he was doing this for whatever reasons in his life, she says. And I knew that God sent people to me when I was in my time of despair, and now, I was there for him.”
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who live them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you. But love your enemies, do good and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great and you will be called children of the Most High … be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge … Do not condemn.” You might be able to do that Jesus … and yet, here’s Antoinette Tuff doing it. And what she’s revealed to us about HOW that was possible for her I’m guessing is exactly how it is possible for Jesus … opening to the flow of God’s presence that is Love; turning to, being rooted in… anchored in the reality of God with us, the reality of God’s presence that is Love and Mercy for all.
It’s not just a Jesus thing … it’s the thing, if we watch him, that Jesus, in the fullness of his humanity, shows us is available, possible for us all. And as Antoinette describes, it comes by way of a practice … this turning … this rooting, anchoring.
Give and it will be given to you, Jesus says. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be put into your lap. As if to say assume somehow a posture of generosity … of moving toward … and it will be followed by ever so much more than was yours at the outset.
Or as the writer of the Psalm encourages, instead of fretting, which only serves to pull us hook, line and sinker into the hurt or harm and occupy all the imaginative or energetic space we have, let that space --whether it’s your voice, your body, your vision, your strength-- let it be filled instead with Love’s presence and power, Love’s wisdom and Mercy.
It’s not just a Jesus thing.