Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
March 14, 2021 Worship Sermon - "Broken Image"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Shawn was furious when he heard that a man named Abramson was moving in next door. The prospect of sharing his driveway with a Jewish neighbor, of having to acknowledge him day after day… no, that was not something that Shawn was at all happy about.
Even before the pandemic, Shawn had been anti-Semitic. He grew up in a household where stereotypes were reinforced in conversations around the dinner table. But once the Covid-19 lockdown began, Shawn’s network of relationships shrank to include only the chatrooms and social media feeds that spoke to him through his cellphone. The constant steam of messages on Parler and Gab schooled him in conspiracy theories and resentment. His biases solidified and intensified until what had been a casual dislike of Jewish people became a bitter hatred.
One Friday, a moving van pulled into the driveway. Shawn peered through the curtains as the movers unloaded furniture and boxes. Standing in front of the house, directing the workers, was a middle-aged man with a yarmulke on his head. Shawn concluded this was Abramson, and he was incensed to have his fears confirmed concerning the identity of his neighbor. By early evening, the emptied moving drove away. Abramson also drove off, leaving the house unattended.
At around 11pm that night, Shawn poked his head out of the window to spy on the house next door. It was dark and no cars were in the driveway. Abramson must be spending the night somewhere else, Shawn thought. And then, from somewhere in the tangle of his brain, there sprang a sinister idea… an idea for a house-warming gift with which to welcome his new neighbor. He fetched a can of black spray-paint from his basement and snuck across his back yard to the rear entrance of Abramson’s house. He punched his gloved hand through the window and reached in to unlock the door. It swung open and Shawn let himself in.
With only the dim light of his cellphone to see by, he scanned piles of unpacked boxes. In the living room was a sofa, a couple of chairs, and - leaning against a fireplace - there was a large painting. It was hard to see in the darkness, but he could just barely make out the image of a woman. He shook the can of spray paint several times, pulled of the cap, aimed at the portrait, and pressed the nozzle. As the paint hissed out, Shawn traced a line from the top of the painting to the bottom. Then he drew a horizontal line across the middle. Even in the darkness, he could see clearly the black cross scarring the woman’s face. Then, at each end of the cross, he added smaller lines to create a perfect swastika. His mission accomplished, he hurried out of the living room and returned to his home, where he tried to get some sleep; but after a few fitful hours, he spent most of the night scrolling through the memes and posts on his phone.
The next morning, Shawn heard Abramson’s car pull into the driveway. Fifteen minutes later, he saw the flashing red and blue lights of a police car in front of Abramson’s house. The police were with Abramson for less than half an hour. After they left, Shawn wondered what his new neighbor was thinking. He wondered whether Abramson would regret his decision to move in. Would he regret it enough to move away? Would the moving van reappear and carry Abramson off to some other neighborhood? Shawn hoped so. But that evening, when Abramson lugged piles of flattened boxes to the curb, Shawn realized that his neighbor was unpacking and had no intention of moving away. Against the pile of boxes destined for the garbage truck, Abramson laid the vandalized portrait of the woman. This surprised Shawn. He wouldn’t have expected anyone to publicize his victimization like that. He would have expected Abramson to dispose of the painting discretely, so as not to draw attention to what had happened. But there under the streetlamp lay the painting that Shawn had destroyed.
At around 9pm, Shawn decided that a couple of martinis might help him to get some sleep. He walked toward the bar at the end of his block, passing the pile of boxes and the discarded portrait in front of Abramson’s house. The light from the streetlamp was shining directly over the painting and now Shawn could see the details clearly. Underneath the spray-painted swastika, was the face of a stunningly beautiful woman. Shawn looked into her eyes and it seemed like she was gazing right back at him. Her eyes carried an expression of pure, graceful love. And then, Shawn’s focus shifted from those love-filled eyes to the cross that scarred them… the cross that he himself had painted… and the sight of such an ugly mark on such a beautiful face pained him. “How could he have done this?” he wondered. What kind of twisted thinking led him to destroy such beauty? These questions jabbed at him, and in the light of that streetlamp he began to glimpse the answers. He saw how the hate, and the fear, and the isolation had marred him just like that spray-painted cross marred the portrait in front of him. His eyes burned with tears.
“She was my wife,” a voice spoke to him out of the darkness. Shawn turned to see Abramson standing behind him. Abramson noticed the tears running down Shawn’s face and assumed that Shawn was empathizing with him. “I loved her so much,” Abramson continued.
“What happened to her?” Shawn asked. By this, he meant, “What happened to the woman?” But Abramson understood the question to be, “What happened to the painting?” So, he replied, “Some hateful person did this. Someone destroyed this beautiful painting of the woman I loved. I have no idea why. I just moved here. I haven’t harmed anyone. Why would anyone do this?”
Shawn knew the answer to Abramson’s question. And he also knew that speaking the truth was the only way he could begin to recover from the lies and the twisted thinking that had led him to commit this vandalism. “I did it,” Shawn confessed. He could barely get the words out. “I did this to the painting of your wife.”
Hearing this, Abramson’s face became rock hard. Every expression of friendship and kindness vanished as he realized that the man standing in front of him had perpetrated this act of hate toward him. He spun around and rushed into his house. As he fled, Shawn cried after him, “I’m sorry! I was wrong!”
Instead of going to the bar, Shawn went back into his own house and spent another sleepless night. This time, though, instead of paging through hate-filled posts, he prayed. All through the night, he prayed, repeating again and again just two words: help me… help me.
When the morning sky finally brightened, Shawn heard someone knocking. Expecting it to be the police, he hesitated inside the closed door. The knocking continued and Shawn considered what could lay ahead of him. Certainly, his story would be all over the news. Quite possibly, he would go to prison. This possibility filled him with dread, but he knew he had to accept the consequences of his actions. He had already confessed his crime and there was no way for him to pretend otherwise. His hand trembled as he reached to turn the knob and open the door.
It wasn’t the police; it was Abramson. He stood at the door holding the vandalized painting in front of him. “I should turn you in,” Abramson said. “You broke into my house. You destroyed my most precious possession. Before you even met me, you tried to terrorize me. Maybe you thought you could intimidate me into running away. You’re not getting rid of me, though. I won’t be intimidated. And I’m going to trust that you were sincere when you told me that you were wrong and that you were sorry. I’m going to trust that you don’t want to be someone who is capable of doing such awful things. So, I’m not going to press charges. But just so that you will never do anything like this again, I want you to take this painting that you have destroyed and keep it. I want you to look at it and see how destructive hate can be.” Having said this, Abramson lifted up the portrait and offered it to Shawn.
Shawn took the painting in his trembling hands. He looked at the woman and, once again, he saw the expression of love in her face. As he pulled the painting toward himself, he felt tremendous relief and a glimmer of hope that something new was being born inside of him. “Thank you,” he said to Abramson. “Thank you for being my neighbor.”