Sunday, May 9, 2021
During summer training for plebes at the United States Military Academy at West Point, there are only four acceptable responses to any question. They are: Yes, sir or ma’am No, sir or ma’am Sir or Ma’am I do not understand and No Excuse, sir or ma’am
Okay, depending on who you are talking to, there could be eight possible responses! Nevertheless, you recognize that words are at a premium for first year cadets, and there are NO excuses.
On the one hand, such simplicity and ownership of one’s actions seem rather refreshing. With the litigiousness of our society, hedging everything to maintain advantage, and the propensity to explain away responsibility for minor--not to mention major--issues at every level of our society, an honest, “No excuse,” catches most people by surprise. Try it sometime. See what kind of response you get. I’ve seen in certain situations individuals loaded for bear regarding a problem that they have with a school or church or business. When the leader of the institution forthrightly accepts responsibility from the get go, you can almost see the air go out of the sails of those who have an axe to grind. Yet, the acknowledgement that one is responsible is also received with relief.
Nevertheless, living life with only four responses can be downright exhausting. Particularly with regard to the “No Excuse” statement. It belies the fact that one must always be on top of every detail. For a cadet it means awareness of and accountability for daily news and standard information of the academy to class work and squad work. The hard truth is that, ultimately, no one can keep up. There is always something that eludes your ability to take care of it, and, eventually in life, there are excuses. Not the kind that we hide behind for convenience, but actual, real life excuses. Illness, accidents, surprises--good and bad--all impinge upon our ability to get the job done. While “No Excuses” works to shape a plebe’s understanding of responsibility, it overwhelms and suffocates much of life for the rest of us.
Meanwhile, Jesus offers a completely different alternative in today’s gospel. Not a world of scrambling to maintain position nor a system where every action is weighed, judged, and “no excuses” allowed. Rather, Jesus articulates the gospel in miniature: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. . . This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. . . You did not choose me, but I chose you. Basically, we are accepted before we can even accept God, and from that position, our actions in the world--to love as Jesus loves--emerges. Our call to engage in the commandment that Jesus teaches is not a test that only a few can complete, or a challenge that ends badly for those who fail. Rather, our call to engage this command emerges from a place of deep and abiding love. That we are known, accepted, valued, loved. It is fitting that we read this text on Mothers’ Day, for at their best, this is what mothers and mother figures offer: unconditional love that allows us to live into who we are and who we are to be. Or, as Julian of Norwich notes, “love is the meaning of religious experience, provided by Christ who is love, for the purpose of love.”
Now all this talk of love can get sentimental and sappy pretty quickly. If we think about love as simply an emotion, we rob love of its ethical and moral force for justice. Indeed, as Martin Luther King counseled, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” For those sitting around a Mothers’ Day brunch or dinner, I don’t expect the conversation to turn necessarily to how mom is the ethical and moral force for justice. Yet, again, when mothers and mother figures are at their best, they create an environment where we experience deep and abiding love in such a way that it shapes what we want to share with others and how we share with others. Namely, this type of love and engagement. It doesn’t mean that our relationships become familial. Rather, the recognition of our value and the beloved nature that we possess, opens to us a similar posture in dealing with others. That is, to see their value and their beloved nature. If and when we do this, there are very real things that happen in life.
In today’s first lesson, Peter recognizes the humanity of the Gentiles--non-Jews--around him, and, ultimately, sees that they are a part of this fledgling Jesus community as well. The barriers that we have set up throughout human history--proper pedigrees or proper bloodlines or proper races or proper ethnicities or proper sexes or proper tribes--no longer work. They are the worn system of guilt and shame that ultimately burdens us with “no excuses” because our worth, value, and purpose in such a system depends solely on us or the group that we are a part of and what we are able to do.
Jesus’ acceptance of his friends in today’s text is rooted in their being--being chosen, beloved of God. Furthermore, this acceptance is not a closed system, where they are the only ones who can participate. Jesus’ acceptance is the paradigm for his friends, for the early church, for Christians down through the centuries, and for us today. All of us being chosen and beloved of God. Thus, tribalism ends because what Jesus invites us into is universal. When you love as Jesus loved, the demarcations as to who is in and who is out become blurred, the lines that we draw to separate are erased, and the power structure that holds some worthy and others not is obliterated. All are children of God. And while this is true, the love that has been showered upon us allows us to acknowledge the inequities and systemic injustices that have existed over time. When all the responsibility rests on us, it is easy to deny and reject systemic realities. “That’s not my fault,” we say. However, when we recognize those marginalized and discriminated against as our beloved brothers and sisters in God, it becomes much harder to sweep these realities under the rug. They--and we--are connected. Family.
Richard Rohr mentions the insight of Thomas Merton.
Thomas Merton (1915–1968) taught there is that in us that is not subject to the brutalities of our own will. No matter how badly we may have trashed ourselves in patterns of self-destructive behavior, this innermost hidden center of ourselves remains invincibly whole and undiminished because it is that in us that belongs entirely to God.
No matter what anyone has done to us in the past, or is doing to us now, or might do to us in the future, this innermost, hidden center of ourselves remains invincibly established in God as a mysterious Presence, as a life that is at once God’s and our own. It is in being awakened to this innermost center of ourselves with God that we find the courage to continue on in the challenging process of healing, grounded in a peace that is not dependent on the outcome of our efforts because it is the peace of God, which depends on nothing and on which everything depends. 
No excuses becomes you did not choose me, but I chose you.