First Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 18, 2018


Genesis 9:8-17

1 Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15

Psalm 25:1-9

This is a Gospel story. It is a Gospel story that takes place in an apartment building.

My friend Darcy is a residential property manager. His job takes him all across Canada, to apartment buildings in the North of British Columbia and in the South of Ontario. At these apartments, Darcy works with his staff of local building managers – with what another generation called superintendents – to make decisions about maintenance and renovations and interactions with the city and about the thousand and one other things that make a building into a place that people want to live. And at these apartments, Darcy meets with those especially attention-getting residents whom the building managers have saved just for him.

One of these residents was something of a legend. He was the source of constant complaints from his neighbours: the thumping music and the shouting at his almost nightly parties kept the whole building up well into the wee hours of the morning. He was selling drugs out of his apartment. And he and his many guests had damaged the building on several occasions, pulling doors off of hinges and kicking holes into drywall, although no one could say if the damage was a consequence of something as deliberate as vandalism or, rather, if it flowed out of plain-old drunken carelessness.

As many of you know, eviction is really hard. It is an expensive and time-consuming pain. That made Darcy wonder if there was another way. And so he decided that what he was going to do was to metaphorically “stand beside” this tenant. He wanted to see what would happen if the two of them could look at the horizon from the same perspective, if there was a way that they could discern a path that they could walk on together.

Looking at the world from his tenant’s perspective, Darcy immediately saw that this man’s goal was pretty clear: he wanted to party all the time. Darcy said, “I don’t understand that. I can’t understand that. And I don’t have to understand that. What I have to do is to reconcile his goal to party all the time with my goal that the party happens somewhere else.”

And so Darcy got on the internet and found a house for rent, all by itself at the end of a lane, perfect for parties. Then he went to a couple of contractors who were working on the apartment – they had a truck, now empty of the lumber and other equipment that they had installed – and he said to them, “If I keep you on the clock, would you mind helping someone to move?” The contractors said, “You bet!” And then Darcy knocked on tenant’s door. And he said:

“I’ve found you a place to live, I’ve got a truck and a couple of guys ready to move you. If I give you $300, will you move out right now?”

The guy said, “Okay.” And, just like that, he was gone.

Now, that story kind of amazes me. I think I’m amazed because most of us – myself included – when confronted with someone who was behaving like that tenant would probably say: That son of a gun. I’m going to fight this guy. I’m going to win. He’s not going to get a nickel out of me. I’m going to teach him a lesson. 

But Darcy didn’t do that. Instead, he took an action that saved him a heap of time and his investors several thousand dollars. Think of the cost of eviction, the rent that the tenant might have defaulted on during a protracted legal battle, the damage that he and his friends might have continued to do to the building, the ill-will that another three or five months of all-night parties would have created with the other tenants, the stable tenants who would have refused to move in when they heard that the apartment was party central For $300 and a couple of hours of overtime, Darcy solved his problem. That was an extraordinarily shrewd entrepreneurial move. But, more than that – and this is why I’m telling you this story this morning – it was a Gospel move, it was a Kingdom of heaven move.

Notice. Notice that Darcy’s interaction with the tenant was not predicated on win/lose model. When the tenant said “yes” and moved out, nobody lost. Everybody won: Darcy got a quiet apartment in which the doors stayed on their hinges and the drywall stayed undented and the tenant got a new venue and enough money for several kegs of beer. Notice that this “yes” flowed out of empathy. Darcy stood beside his tenant and looked with him at possibility. Notice that the empathy that Darcy extended was unilateral. And notice that his empathy was one step ahead of where the tenant was.

It is that unilateral and one step ahead empathy that really gets into Gospel territory. Darcy somehow figured out how to let go of all of the complaints of the playground: It’s not fair; He started it; Everybody thinks that he’s mean; I’ll only say I’m sorry after he says that he’s sorry. Darcy decided that, even if his tenant wasn’t going to move an inch towards reconciliation and a common solution on his own, Darcy was going to move towards him.

So. It is the end of the flood and Noah and his family step out of the ark and onto the miracle of dry land. We tend to concentrate on the earlier part of this story. And we tend to tell that story to children: countless picture books feature a boat overflowing with cute animals. In many ways, that is a strange choice. The flood is a hard story, a disturbing story, a story that demands that we ask: does a tale that features God killing everyone tell us something true and real about God?

But that’s another sermon.

Today, I’d like to focus on what we might call the moral of the story, the moment when God places his bow in the sky. This is not a cutesy rainbow, not a rainbow that has a bowl of Lucky Charms at its end or features My Little Pony dancing across it. This is the bow that is part of God’s bow and arrow – it is a weapon, like a sword or a dagger or a club. God places it in the sky, God hangs it on its rack like a rifle, in order to announce: I will never turn violence on humanity again.

What is extraordinary about God putting away the bow is that humanity doesn’t have to do anything to get God to behave this way. Humanity doesn’t have to apologise, to make a sacrifice, to go church, to write a cheque, anything. God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s empathy is unilateral and it is a step ahead of humanity.

God hopes that we will respond with empathy of our own. God wants us to respond with empathy of our own. God calls us to respond with empathy of our own. But God is going to give us this gift, God is going to hang up that bow, God is going to engage in unilateral, one step ahead empathy whether we reciprocate or not.  

God knows that extending this kind of empathy is a risk. Sometimes, when God unilaterally extends empathy to us, we don’t respond – or we respond with hostility. We remain as selfish as ever. And sometimes when you and I unilaterally extend empathy to another, we are greeted with cynicism or apathy or anger.

The story of Jesus’ life is that of unilateral, of radical empathy. And the story tells us that this empathy will not always be welcomed, that sometimes it will be greeted with violence. That violence comes because those who are invested in the status quo, those who like things pretty well the way that they are, find unilateral empathy to be profoundly threatening. In God’s empathy, all of the labourers in the vineyard received the same wage no matter when they begin their workday and the first are last and the last first and prodigals are welcomed home with parties.

To participate in the Gospel empathy is a risk. But the promise of the Gospel is that the risk is worth it.

Darcy’s story has an epilogue. I don’t think that it is an epilogue that he ever expected.

Months after he found his tenant a new home and, thereby, found quiet in the apartment building, Darcy ran into someone who knew the tenant. “Have you heard about Mark?” the mutual acquaintance asked, “You know Mark, the guy you got to move out?” Darcy said he hadn’t heard anything about him.

“Well,” the mutual friend said, “When you got him to leave, something changed for him. Mark was shocked, I think: no one had ever talked to him the way that you di before.

“Mark has stopped drinking. He’s stopped dealing drugs. He’s got a honest job doing roofing.

“He’s going to church now.”

We can’t know. When we engage in unilateral, one step ahead empathy, we can’t know what seeds we might be planting. We can’t know what new covenant we might be inviting into being. The Gospel tells us that this empathy might lead us to the cross. And it promises us that it will lead to resurrection.