I grew up in the First Presbyterian Church of Macon, Georgia. We held church camp each year at Rock Eagle, the 4-H campground. I spent one week of my summer vacation there each year being indoctrinated in good Calvinist theology. Of course, the memories I retain of those summers has a lot more to do with swimming, fishing, and flag football than the particulars of predestination or the doctrine of the elect. One powerful lesson I did learn during one of those summer camps was the nature of redemption. I do not think that redemption was a part of the explicit curriculum; nevertheless, because of an incident that occurred there, my buddies and I learned a painful lesson that has stayed with me to this day.
On our last night at camp my friends and I had a little free time in our cabin before lights out. So we decided to get a little poker game going. We had each brought some spending money, but this particular year we had not gotten to go into Eatonton, the nearby town, to spend any of it. And as you can imagine, that money was burning a hole in the pockets of a bunch of 11 year old boys. Since we could not spend it, gambling it away seemed like the natural thing to do to while away a Saturday night. Ricky, the default leader of our little gang, just happened to have a deck of cards in his backpack. Interestingly, besides the wear and tear that you might expect on playing cards that had been tucked away in a backpack, these cards also showed evidence of some more deliberate damage. We would later discover that the aces were a little more dog eared on the corners than the rest of the cards.
Well, we had been playing for a couple of hours before someone noticed the selective abuse that this particular deck of cards had suffered. It did seem to us that Ricky was enjoying a particularly good run of luck on this night, as he had amassed about $15, which was most all of the money the rest of us had squirreled away to buy cokes, candy bars, baseball cards, and comic books. Well, when this discovery was made by the boy who was dealing the cards at the time, who also just happened to be the one of us who had lost the most money to Ricky, he accused Ricky of cheating, and a heated argument broke out. Ricky started claiming innocence, but was turning redder and redder by the moment. We were all getting lathered up to jump on Ricky and teach him a lesson he would never forget, when we heard the voices of the counselors approaching our cabin. Everyone scrambled to hide the cards, the bottlecaps we were using for poker chips, and all the other evidence of our improvised casino. I thought we had pulled it off, because the counselor came in, told us to go to bed, and turned out the lights.
I do not know if Ricky got any sleep that night. Once we were all in our bunks, and the counselor had retired to his bed on the other side of the cabin, the other boys started making whispered threats to Ricky. And they began to giggle wickedly about all the plans they were making to get their money back and extract a pound of flesh from Ricky to boot. This went on until the wee hours of the morning.
The next morning after breakfast we were to gather in the main auditorium for a worship service that concluded the week at summer camp. Apparently, our counselor had been tipped off about the events of the preceding night, because he walked into the auditorium with his arm across Ricky’s shoulder. Ricky’s face looked like someone who was just emerging from a confessional after lying awake all night in a fit of guilt. Ricky and the counselor came and sat on the row just in front of the rest of us who had been complicit in the illicit festivities of the previous evening. Ricky just sat there and kept his eyes front and center during the service.
Then came the time in the service when the collection plate was to be passed. When it got to the counselor who sat beside Ricky, we saw him hold the plate out in front of our contrite ringleader and encourage him to empty his pockets. Out came all our quarters and wadded up dollar bills from the poker game. Ricky became a modern day Zacchaeus, turning his ill gotten gains over to the Lord’s service, to the chagrin of all of his fellow campers. Though we dared not let out a sound, I could almost hear the groans all along that row. But what were the rest of us going to do? Any protest on our part would have been an admission of guilt, and the counselor would have reason to come down on us also, and possibly inform to our parents. And, now that Ricky no longer had the money, there was less of a reason for us to attack him to get our money back, since he no longer had any of it. That counselor had figured out a perfect solution to Ricky’s problem. Just like good counselors are supposed to do. He pointed the way to a more redemptive purpose for the fruits of Ricky’s work of the previous evening.
Who doesn’t love a good story of redemption? Les Miserables. It’s a Wonderful Life. The Shawshank Redemption. Field of Dreams. Think of your favorite movie, and at the heart of the story it’s likely to be a story of redemption. The main character is misunderstood, wrongly blamed, burdened by guilt, or is simply living an unfulfilled life. Then, something happens. Circumstances change, a confrontation occurs, a decision is made, valiant effort is extended, and the character undergoes an ordeal so that he or she can emerge a better person or in a better place. It’s an old, old story, one that’s been repeated in thousands of ways for thousands of years. But yet it’s one that we never tire of, especially as Hollywood continually manages to find ways to put new twists and new spins on it.
In religion, redemption comprises its very essence. It’s the very life or the eternal soul or spirit of the practitioner that’s at stake. In Christian theology, redemption is forgiveness from sin so that the individual is made whole and acceptable to God, something known as atonement or at-one-ment. In Judaism the Jewish people are understood to be in exile. So the basic story that shapes Judaism, the stories of the Torah, God works to restore the people to the promised land. As Judaism is expounded and preached, parallels are made between this metastory, the Israelites redemption from exile, and the redemption of the character of the individual through following God and God’s laws. In Buddhism, redemption involves giving up our attachment to the things of this world and, ultimately, by finding peace in giving up our attachment to life itself.
Today is Easter. A time, according to the Christian tradition, of celebrating the redemption of humankind from sin through the vicarious suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Various systems of understanding the great mystery of the human situation and human sin have been worked out by Christian theologians through the centuries to explain how this all works. I won’t get into the tedious specifics of these various theories of atonement but just say, for most Unitarian Universalists, these theories are not a big part of our faith because, according to them, human beings are rendered helpless and passive in relation to our existential situation and our existential guilt. The idea that everyone’s sinfulness is so terrible that there is nothing we can do to redeem ourselves, or that there is no price we can pay to restore our right relationship with God – these ideas are generally non-starters for us. Yes, we are grounded enough in reality to recognize that humanity often misses the mark and is capable of doing some pretty terrible things. No one need look any further than the headlines of the newspapers to realize this. Human beings are often sinful and are sometimes capable of evil. But at the same time, we are also a faith that prefers to look at the other side of the paradox. That human beings are also capable of goodness, and of creating great beauty, and of doing great things. Our forebears rejected the idea of the inherent depravity of humanity, and preferred to focus on the possibility of our inherent goodness. It’s sometimes called redemption or salvation by character, this idea that we can discover and foster the growth of our better nature. That’s why I became a Unitarian Universalist. I needed a faith that made me an active player on the stage of life. Our tradition affirms and promotes each person’s ability to come to an understanding of what redemption might mean to them, of each person’s worthiness of it and ability to strive for it, as well as each person’s responsibility to better our world and contribute to the redemption of others.
Redemption can come to us in many different ways. It that little escapade at camp that I began with today, it came to Ricky, as he “gave up” something that was separating him from the rest of us boys and prevented him from being in the good graces of our counselor. So it follows that the dynamics of redemption may involve giving up something that separates us from the fullness of life or separates us from our community. Sometimes redemption is an experience of finding greater value in something, as when you “redeem” a coupon you have clipped from a magazine to obtain a product at the grocery store – the product is worth so much more than that little piece of paper you exchanged for it. We find the spiritual counterpart to this form of redemption when we commit our lives to something greater than ourselves or when we take a leap of faith and discover a path with greater meaning and value.
Like most Unitarians, I don’t see redemption as coming from any particular doctrine, or from an outside savior, but by having the courage to recognize what captivates me in life, what draws me towards others in service, and what brings me more fully into the presence of the divine – then, fully to fully commit myself to THAT. Often it is, as I throw myself into such endeavors, that I find redemption. Just as Ricky found redemption in throwing those coins into the collection plate, redemption may come to us as we let go of something secure, so that we may be open to receive whatever new and unknown challenges life may have in store for us. Being in a spiritual community such as this affords many opportunities for us to throw ourselves into cause and endeavors that can become redemption for us. There is an ocean of need within this community and in the community at large. Challenges await – challenges from which each of us can emerge as a better person an in a better place. Redemption is available.
Many of these opportunities require us to give up something. Some of our precious spare time or some of our limited energy. That giving up may be an experience of pain as well as grace. The painful part is easy to understand. My buddies and I experienced a moment of intense pain as we watched our money disappear into that collection bucket. Boys WILL be boys, you know. It was quite difficult seeing our stash of dollar bills lost to us forever. Eventually we did acquire the eyes to see Ricky’s vicarious act as grace and even a story we enjoyed telling and laughing about, but, I must confess, it took us some time to reach that state of grace. But by the next week, when we got home and got back in school and into our routine, it was not long before we were all playing together again as if nothing had happened. Grace did come to us in our relationship with each other, since in some ways kids are more open to it as they do not carry grudges nearly as long as adults seem to.
May we always be given the courage, strength, and wisdom to redeem our times of difficulty and may we be given the grace to give up and let go of that which we cherish so that we may be open to some new possibility. MAY-IT-BE SO. Amen.