Becoming complete in LoveEmbed from Getty Images
“Shoot me first.”
A young Amish girl named Marian uttered those words on Oct. 2, 2006, while being held captive by a gunman who had barricaded himself in the Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Penn.
At 13 years old, Marian was one of the older of the 10 girls held captive that day. Two other girls followed her selfless and courageous example.
Her younger sister, Barbie, followed, saying: “Shoot me second.” Another girl, Anna Mae, echoed the sisters, saying “Shoot me next.”
Charles Roberts, 32, a non-Amish local resident, reportedly distraught and seeking revenge against God for the death of his own daughter, shot all 10 girls. Five, including Marian and Anna Mae, died. Barbie was among the five who were wounded, but lived. Roberts died at his own hand.
Barbie later recounted her sister Marian wasn’t stoic in those last moments. Her face was overcome with anguish and fear. Yet, she overcame that fear, and poured herself out for those around her — an insurmountable beacon of light in the darkness of evil and hate.
Looking at Marian, we can see, in the harshest of terms, what it means to take up our cross.
As Christians, we know complete love looks like the cross, where Jesus poured out his blood, his very life, out of a boundless, uncompromising love for us, in all our imperfection.
We can look at the cross, in all its pain and victory, all its gruesome beauty, in all its surrender and victory, and see love. Love is the only thing that can explain the cross.
But the path to the cross — the path to which we rededicate ourselves in Lent — that’s a little harder to see. And much harder to follow.
As humans, we want a clearly defined path. We want clear instructions: do A, B and C, and you will receive Z.
Our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy 26 gives us something close to this formulaic A-to-Z road map.
Deuteronomy is characterized by covenantal promises of fidelity between God and the Jewish people. Our reading today, Deuteronomy 26:16–19, can be read in three parts: Moses’ call for the Jewish people to be obedient to God; the Jewish people’s proclamation of obedience; and God’s promise to cherish the Jewish people:
Moses’ call to obedience, verse 16: “This very day the Lord your God is commanding you to observe these statutes and ordinances; so observe them diligently with all your heart and with all your soul.”
Israel’s proclamation, verse 17: “Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him.”
God’s proclamation, verses 18-19: “Today the Lord has obtained your agreement: to be his treasured people, as he promised you, and to keep his commandments; for him to set you high above all nations that he has made, in praise and in fame and in honor; and for you to be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.”
In this formula, we’re called to obey. We promise to obey. God promises to be our God in return. The path is set before us. All we have to do is follow it. Simple enough. Just stay on the path, and all will be happy.
As the psalmist tells us:
“Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord! Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts! Who never do any wrong, but always walk in his ways.”
Just be blameless and you’ll be happy. Just follow, flawlessly, all 613 commandments of Mosaic law, and all will be just grand.
But, of course, there’s a hitch. Who can say they are blameless? Who can say they’ve never done any wrong? Who can say their feet always are firmly planted on the way of God?
None of us are flawless. We are flawed. We are sinners. We are in need of redemption in the midst of our flaws. God answered that need by sending Christ to embrace us, in all our flaws, in his outstretched arms on the cross.
At the cross, Christ lifts us above the impossible legalism of the Old Testament. But, we’re not relieved of our call to take up the cross, or the hard path over which we must carry it.
In our reading today from Matthew 5, Jesus gives us the radical and world-senseless call to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”
Jesus follows with something that runs equally against everything this world teaches: God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
In other words, God pours out grace equally on us all, no matter how well we may have measured up under the old Law, or under contemporary standards. It pours out equally on evil and good, righteous and unrighteous.
Just like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son, we have a hard time accepting when our sense of superiority is stripped away, and we see gifts being poured out on those we see as undeserving. That can be especially hard when we feel wronged, and burn with a desire for revenge.
If that weren’t hard enough, Jesus follows with this seemingly impossible demand: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Be perfect? We already know we’re not, and this seems an even more impossible stumbling block than the 613 Mosaic commandments.
But, as is so often the case, there’s an issue of translation at play in this verse.
First, consider the wording in the parallel verse in Luke 6:26: “Be merciful just as your Father is merciful.”
That hints at the original meaning of the word translated as “perfect” in Matthew, which is used repeatedly elsewhere in the Bible to mean “mature” or “complete.”
Taken together with the reading from Luke, then, Matthew’s verse reads not as the impossible stumbling block of perfection, but as Christ’s call for us to be mature, or complete, in our love. Be complete in love, as God is complete in love, pouring it out in grace for those who don’t deserve it — which is all of us.
The examples of Marian, Barbie and Anna Mae show us complete love. But, perhaps even more so, we see the completion of love in what their families and neighbors did next.
On the day Roberts shot those 10 defenseless girls, members of the Amish community in Nickel Mines collected food, and took it to his widow. They attended his funeral, and grieved beside her. They passed on donations they received to the killer’s family. They befriended his grieving mother, who, 10 years later, was still attending Amish gatherings at their invitation, visiting with the survivors and families of those who perished at her son’s hands.
In response to the unthinkable, in response to horrific evil and violence, the Amish people of Nickel Mines poured themselves out in radical, senseless love. They poured themselves out in complete love. In love that looks like the cross.
This is no easy kind of love. It’s not easy to achieve. And it’s not easy to keep.
Linda Fisher, Marian’s and Barbie’s mother, told The Guardian in 2016, 10 years after the shooting, how hard it is to live that kind of love.
“It’s not a once and done thing,” she said. “It is a lifelong process.”
Could I follow the Fishers’ example? Could I offer food and comfort to the family of my daughter’s killer? Could I follow Marian’s example, and join Jesus at the cross? Could you?
Lent calls us to reflect on these questions, to seek out those places within our hearts that point away from this hard path, and to resolve to rejoin it wherever we’ve gone astray. We strive to become complete in our love.
Lord Jesus Christ, give us the strength and courage to follow you to the cross. Give us the courage of Marian, to be steadfast and loving in the face of evil and hate. Give us the strength of grace, to pour out light into the darkness. Help us, oh Christ, to become more complete in our love. Amen.