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The Rev. Debra Metzgar Shew The Rev. Debra Metzgar Shew

The Rev. Debra Metzgar Shew is Canon for Community Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, and formerly was vicar of Emmaus House, Atlanta, GA.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

Emmaus House, Atlanta, GA


Losing Your Voice for Love's Sake

John 10:11-18

Fourth Sunday in Easter

May 11, 2003

A reading from the First Letter of John, chapter 3:

"We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

In 1965 Hector and Susie Black heard a voice:

"How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and
sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?" asked the voice.

"Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

They heard the voice and they listened, so they packed up those worldly goods, along with their daughters, and headed to a South that was racially tense. The Black family, who happen to be white, moved to Vine City in Atlanta, one of the poorest neighborhoods in that town, where their girls' arrival meant the first integration of the neighborhood school. Informed by their Quaker roots, they began reaching out to their neighbors and weaving their lives into the fabric of this new community.

"Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action," said the voice, and they listened.

Nowhere did the warp and woof of that fabric get woven as strongly as it did with a small girl named Trisha, who one day showed up on their doorstep and announced her presence. She walked into their house and then into their hearts, forever--became their fourth daughter, in a family where her darker skin meant only that the fabric was richer and more cherished.

The civil rights movement beckoned, and both Trisha and her family became active, in part through a place called Emmaus House, not a 10-minute drive from their home. A rambling old house in a run-down neighborhood, it became a beacon of hope to all who entered. Children were tutored, court cases won, babies fed, seniors welcomed, landlords fought, and marches organized.

"Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

In time, Trisha would go off to college and graduate with honors--travel far from the place she had come. But she returned to Emmaus House, returned to the place where she had found grace and began to share it with others. She studied to be a librarian so she could help kids, like the child she had been, reach out for a brighter tomorrow. Godchildren and neighbor children and a gaggle of girls that she mentored had lives changed forever because of her actions. The church choir, the altar guild, the outreach at Christmas, the ministry to family of prisoners--all these and more bore her indelible imprint.

"Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

But in November 2000, another kind of action took place. This action would wrench open the hearts of Hector and Susie and all at Emmaus House. Two days before Thanksgiving, two days before heading off for the holidays with her beloved Black family, Trisha failed to show up for work. Calls were made, and anxiety grew, and the worst fears realized when a trip to her home found police cars and crime scene tape and TV cameras already in place. She had been brutally murdered and raped.

To say that her loved ones reeled is to reach for the place where words fail. The crime was unspeakable, the grief wordless, and its pain continues today. An arrest was made, of a man who was mentally ill and addicted to crack--a life of one who had not, as Trisha had, made it up and out and away. The district attorney was hell bent on the death penalty, and at Emmaus House, which had always opposed it, loved ones lurched haltingly into the awful shift from abstract principle to the wrenchingly intimate specific.

But Hector, in the midst of his grief, in the midst of his feeling that God might have abandoned him, began to hear a voice. "Let us love not in word or speech, but in truth and action." All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle, and in the darkness, a movement began stirring. He wrote to the man who had murdered his daughter and began to establish some contact. He found others who had faced similar grief, and like him, had begun to oppose the death penalty. He moved forward, even when not everyone agreed.

"Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

In January of 2002 Hector and Susie and close friends from Emmaus House attended the sentencing hearing of the man who had done this unspeakable thing. They sat, with hands held and tears streaming, as the ghastly details were recounted. Hector would say later that his deafness was a mercy. But then Hector rose to address the court, with the so-called "Victim Impact Statement" he had carefully prepared. He showed pictures of Trisha to the judge and described the joy her life had brought to his family, told of the anguish and despair and the questions. He glossed over nothing.

And then he continued, "I know that love does not seek revenge. We do not want a life for a life. Love seeks healing, peace, and wholeness. Hatred can never overcome hatred. Only love can overcome hatred and violence. Love is that light. It is that candle that cannot be extinguished by all the darkness in the world. I know," he said, "that 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us' were not meant to be empty words." And he turned to the man who had taken his daughter and looked him in the eye with a face of compassion.

"Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

There were few dry eyes in the courtroom that day, and afterwards, when the priest gathered the group for prayer in the courthouse hallway, she had a hard time finding her voice. I know, because I was that priest. The murder of Trisha and the grief that it caused is one of the hardest things I have ever encountered. It haunts me and many I love to this day, and it always will. But it also proved to me that today's Scripture lesson is true--that words are cheap, but actions are powerful. In the person of Hector, Christ was there, in the courtroom that day, and the grace that it birthed continues. It was the most courageous act of grace I had ever seen, and it loosed a power that was palpable.

"Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

The words are cheap, and the grace they carry is too, while the grace that action brings is costly--sometimes more costly than we think we can bear. But it's a grace that changes everything, that brings life where there once was just death, brings the One who is the Word of God into the living and active present. Jesus, the Logos, the Word of God, translated God's speech into incarnate action, and he calls us now to do the same. It is never easy, but it always brings life. It begins in the daily, more ordinary acts that build up over a lifetime. It is decades of practicing, decades of hearing that voice and choosing to obey it, that gives the Hectors of our world the capacity to do not merely the ordinary but the absolutely extraordinary. Hector would blush to hear it, but it's unassailably true. He had started listening to that voice decades before, the voice that had first brought him Trisha, and the years of practice paid off.

"Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action," says the voice. And if we listen, if we open to its grace, then the One who speaks it will render us speechless and launch us instead into action, will remove all our words and replace them with courage. And when that happens, our silence will shout louder than words ever could, and our actions will let loose a torrent.

Let us pray.

O God, who sent Jesus to translate your love from word into action, give us grace to hear your voice and to obey what we hear, that our lives might be actions, not speeches. Amen.


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