A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, October 20, 2013.Come Holy Spirit,
and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Take our minds and think through them.
Take our lips and speak through them.
Take our souls, and set them on fire.
God never says, “This has nothing to do with me.”
God never says, “This has nothing to do with me.”
This week, I met an amazing man. A man who moved me to tears. A man who helped me see the deep beauty that will always come when we stop telling ourselves the comfortable lie of “this has nothing to do with me.”
His name is Nicholas Hitimana.
Ikirezi, a cooperative in their native Rwanda that helps widows and orphans of the Rwandan genocide extract and market essential oils from the plants they grow. It is an amazing social enterprise that helps these women restore their dignity, improve their livelihoods and rebuild their communities.
But that wasn’t what was most amazing about Nicholas.
Nicholas and Elsie were newlyweds in 1994 when the genocide broke out. The Rwandan genocide was a mass slaughter of one so-called ethnic group, the Tutsis, by another so-called ethnic group, the Hutu. I say so-called, because really the distinction is not genetic. Hutus and Tutsi are the same people. For centuries they shared the same religion, language and culture. It was only when Belgian colonists came that they separated the two groups into a privileged, aristocratic group of cattle herders – the Tutsi – and a peasant group of farmers – the Hutu.
And so even though anthropologists agree there is no real difference between Hutu and Tutsi, this division into privileged and not – and how each lived into that role – created a rift between the two groups. And in the early 1990s, that rift began turned into an earthquake, culminating in the slaughter of a million people – nearly 20% of Rwanda’s population – in a 100-day period.
Nobody knew how artificial yet real the distinction of Hutu and Tutsi was better than Nicholas and Elsie. If you asked them, they were husband and wife. But if you asked anyone else, Nicholas was a Hutu. Elsie was a Tutsi. And now they found themselves fleeing for their lives, driving north toward the Congo to escape the slaughter.
The hills and forests of Rwanda are some of the most beautiful parts of God’s creation. But as they sped toward the border, they saw this picturesque landscape littered with bodies by the side of the road. And suddenly, they came to a screeching halt. There was a line of vehicles being made to stop at a checkpoint. And as they got closer and could peer ahead they could see what was going on.
The Interhamwe Militia – the Hutu power movement behind the genocide – had set up this checkpoint. It was very simple. Everyone got out of their vehicle and stood next to a measuring stick. Tutsis were supposedly taller than Hutu. If you were shorter than the stick you lived. If you were taller than the stick, you died.
Nicholas and Elsie looked at each other. They knew Elsie was taller than the stick … but they also knew that Nicholas, even though he was a Hutu, was taller than the stick as well.
They prepared to die.
Then something happened that Nicholas only can call a miracle. As their vehicle was approaching the checkpoint, the executioners got word that there was a bus of Tutsis ahead on the road. They jumped in Nicholas and Elsie’s car and ordered them to drive. They were waved through the checkpoint, drove right past the measuring stick, and after dropping the Interhamwe off further on, they were able to continue safely into the Congo.
But Nicholas and Elsie’s journey was just beginning. The rift that had torn their people apart, that had nearly killed them both and that had killed countless people they loved, was tearing their marriage apart as well. Because as artificial as the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was, every time Elsie looked at Nicholas, part of her felt that his people had killed her people. That his family had killed her family.
Now if ever anyone had the right to say, “That had nothing to do with me!” it was Nicholas. After all, he was fleeing for his life, too. He would have been killed at that checkpoint also. If anything, he had helped save her. He wasn’t the bad guy here. It wasn’t his fault.
But he also knew it didn’t matter. He knew that it didn’t matter that he hadn’t personally done anything wrong. He knew that it didn’t matter that he in fact had tried to do everything he could to save his wife. Even though the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi had no basis in biology, it was still real enough to tear them apart. His people had killed her people. And even though he hadn’t personally picked up a machete or uttered one racist slur, even though in many ways the whole idea of being a Hutu was some sort of fiction, he was one, and he knew what he needed to do.
And so Nicholas took Elsie’s hand in his, looked in her eyes, and said:
“On behalf of my people, I apologize to you. I am so very sorry for what we have done to your people. On behalf of my people, I apologize to you, and I beg your forgiveness.”
These were not easy words. This was not “OK, I’ll apologize, whatever, can you just get over it?” Nicholas had had an epiphany. That wherever there is brokenness, God never says “this has nothing to do with me.” And neither should we. That the sins of our people, whomever “our people” are, are our sins, too. And the opportunity for reconciliation is ours as well.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells us of the unjust judge. The unjust judge hears the woman begging for justice, but it does not concern him. The unjust judge instead says “this has nothing to do with me.” And in fact it is only when she begins to annoy and embarrass him that he grants her justice just to get rid of her.
“OK, here it is, whatever, just leave me alone?”
That is not the kingdom of God. That is not how we as followers of Jesus are called to behave.
The God we praise never says “this has nothing to do with me.” The God we praise looked at a sinful and broken humanity and didn’t say “too bad, that’s not my fault.” but instead became human in Christ and took all that brokenness upon Godself. And in so doing showed us the way to freedom and peace and even deep joy.
As followers of Jesus, we are invited to walk in the footsteps of Christ … and of Nicholas. To look at the deep brokenness around us and to absolutely reject the temptation to say “well I didn’t do it. This has nothing to do with me.” And instead to say, “on behalf of my people, I apologize to you, and I beg for your forgiveness. Can we move forward together.”
I mentioned that Nicholas moved me to tears. It wasn’t his story of the conversation with Elsie that did it, it was this:
I heard Nicholas’ story at a conference that Tom Manche, Celeste Smith, Betsy Clark, Tricia-Roland Hamilton and several others of us attended in Nashville this week – a national conference for Magdalene and Thistle Farms, these amazing ministries that take women out of lives of prostitution and drug abuse and help them find new life and new hope.
The vast majority of women who are prostitutes in America were first sexually abused between age 7 and 11, first began using alcohol and drugs at age 12 or 13 and began prostituting at age 14. They have all been beaten and raped and bought and sold. It takes a community to put a woman on the streets and a community to keep her there. And we live in a culture that allows it and even sanctions it.
This ain’t Pretty Woman, and Richard Gere’s smile and platinum card isn’t enough to magically make it better.
Nicholas had first met the women of Magdalene in 2008 when a group of them women had traveled to Rwanda to meet the women of Ikirezi. Together, they had shared some of the most powerful gifts they had – their stories freely told.
After telling us the story of his journey with Elsie, Nicholas said, “Oh, there’s just one more thing.”
And he asked one of the women from Magdalene whom he had met on that first trip to Rwanda to step forward.
He took her hand and he looked deeply into her eyes.
“My sister,” he said. “For most of your life, men have bought and sold you. Men have beaten and raped you. Men have used and abused you and left you for dead.
“On behalf of all men, I apologize to you, and I beg your forgiveness.”
That is when the tears came to my eyes. I began to weep because I knew I was watching Jesus. I was watching someone take the sins of the world on his back, and even though he personally had done nothing wrong and had done so much right, be willing to bear those sins for the cause of love.
We’ve been talking this month about how “we are Christ Church Cathedral” and what this means. At our best, I believe this is what it means. It means following Jesus in taking the sins of the world on our backs. It means acknowledging our privilege of race and class and education and sexual orientation and any other privilege we might enjoy, and recognizing that having the mind of Christ is realizing that privilege is not something to be grasped but rather to empty ourselves for the life of the world.
It is those of us who are white looking into the eyes of those who are black and brown who have suffered and are suffering still so much discrimination and pain and saying “on behalf of all white people, we apologize to you and ask your forgiveness.”
It is those of us who have homes and bank accounts looking into the eyes of those who have neither and saying, “On behalf of all of us who are the haves, we apologize to you who are the have-nots, and ask your forgiveness.”
It is those of us who are heterosexual looking into the eyes of those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered and saying “On behalf of all straight people, we apologize to you and ask your forgiveness.”
It is those of us who are men looking into the eyes of women whom we objectify and commodify every day in ways small and large, from the Maryville rape to the truck stops on Broadway to the covers of our magazines and the side comments in the company breakroom saying with Nicholas, “On behalf of all men, I apologize to you, and beg your forgiveness.”
As long as those of us with privilege say “this has nothing to do with me,” we are the unjust judge. But it is not the fear of being that unjust judge that motivates us. Neither is this act of contrition some unhelpful, self-flagellating beating ourselves up and wailing. It is a standing with and reaching across the chasm.
We take the hand and look in the eye and bear the burden and ask for forgiveness because as we do, we become the Body of Christ given for the life of the world. We do this because Jesus shows us that it is in giving our lives away in this way that we find the deepest beauty and the deepest joy.
We do this because whether we personally have done anything wrong or not, when we have privilege the real privilege is the opportunity to reach out in love across the chasms and rifts, to with Jesus take the sin and brokenness of the world on ourselves, and together to begin a future where there is no slave or free, no Jew or Greek, no male or female but one great fellowship of God throughout the whole wide earth.
As Nicholas asked the woman for forgiveness, a deep silence overtook the room. We knew we were in the presence of something amazing. And we knew we needed to be a part of it.
And as many of us wiped away tears, I looked at Nicholas’ face. And it was full of pain. These were not throwaway words. He was truly feeling the pain men had caused her. He was bearing the sin, and you could feel it.
But there was something else in his face … and it was deep joy. Because he was bearing the pain not out of a grudging sense of responsibility or a neurotic need to self-punish but out of deep love. Of deep love for a sister. Deep love for a sister that made bearing the pain not a chore but an honor. Deep love that gave his life more meaning that it had ever had before. Deep love that opened a door for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
God never says, “This has nothing to do with me.” And that is the life God invites us into as well. A life of bearing pain that we did not cause but is ours to carry nonetheless. Bearing it for the sake of justice. Bearing it for the sake of love. Bearing it for our own healing and the healing of the world. Bearing it for our own deep joy.
God never says, “This has nothing to do with me.” And this is the life God invites us into as well.