If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them: Bob Ebeling and House Bill 2

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Easter 2—Year C; Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31. Video.

We are a week out from that day, but we have to go back to that day because that day changes everything for us. There had been the news from Mary Magdalene, and Peter and the beloved disciple had confirmed her astounding news—the Lord was risen. Resurrection. A reality that blew their minds—it was real. You would think the disciples would be dancing in the streets, but they weren’t.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews…The disciples had locked themselves away in fear; they were afraid of the leaders who had crucified Jesus, and if they let their support of him be known, well, who knows what might happen to them. But locked doors can’t keep Jesus out.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side; he showed them his wounds. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Brothers and sisters, this is the Pentecost event in John’s gospel. This is the coming of the Holy Spirit. And it comes with peace, and it comes with power. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is it. This is our call. This is our work. And do not underestimate the power involved in all of this.

There is a story that has unfolded over the last two months that has grabbed my soul. The story first aired two months ago on January 28th as part of the coverage marking 30 years since the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. For many of us of a certain age, we can remember where we were when that explosion happened. Bob Ebeling was an engineer for Morton Thiokol, a NASA contractor, who saw the potential problem with the temperature and the rubber O-rings. He and four other engineers tried with all their might and persuasive power to stop the launch. They presented data upon data trying to convince their managers at Thiokol and the powers-that-be at NASA to postpone the launch, but the decision-makers were determined to move forward. He told his wife that night, “It’s going to blow up” and watched in horror the next morning as it did just that. Three weeks later, he and a fellow engineer spoke anonymously to Howard Berkes, an NPR reporter and told the truth about what they knew.

In January of this year, Howard Berkes returned to speak with Bob Ebeling, now 89 years old, who this time allowed himself to be identified. Shortly after the explosion, Bob Ebeling retired from NASA. For 30 years, he had struggled with depression and been racked with guilt, feeling responsible for the explosion and loss of life. He concluded he was inadequate and didn’t argue the data well enough. He is a religious man, and for the last 30 years, he has prayed about this. He told Berkes: “I think that was one of the mistakes that God made. He shouldn’t have picked me for that job. I don’t know. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me? You picked a loser.’”

In February of this year, Howard Berkes returned to Bob Ebeling’s home. You see, hundreds of people responded to that story in January. Listeners who wrote, “You presented the correct data and blew the whistle. You are not a loser; you are a challenger.” Engineers who spoke of how this was a case study in engineering school around ethical decision-making. Ebeling’s eyesight had gotten so bad that his daughter Kathy read him all these letters. It helped, but he was still all bound up.


You see, when Jesus talks about forgiving, we need to understand that the root of that word is deep—“afeame”—it means “to let go, to give up, to send away, to keep no longer.” And when Jesus talks about retaining, it’s root is equally deep—“krateo”—it means “to hold fast, not to let go, to continue to hold;” it’s the deathgrip—it literally means “of death continuing to hold”—it’s the death that won’t let go, and there is a powerful shadow side to this retaining“krateo” also means “to have power, to be powerful, to become master of, to lay hands on one in order to get him into one’s power.”

For 30 years, Ebeling had never heard from the people in power—no one from Thiokol, no one from NASA. True or not, he still felt his sins were retained. The NPR reporter got busy tracking down those decision-makers. Robert Lund was vice-president of engineering at Thiokol at that time. He wouldn’t agree to a recorded interview, and he didn’t want to relive it. At the time, Lund had been reassigned by Thiokol and was so shamed by the neighbors that his family was forced to move. But he called Ebeling and said, “You did all that you could.” If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.

George Hardy, a former NASA official involved in the launch, also didn’t want to go back over this event, but he wrote to Ebeling and said, “You and your colleagues did everything that was expected of you. The decision was a collective decision made by several NASA and Thiokol individuals. You should not torture yourself with any assumed blame.” He closed by writing, “God bless you.” If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.

Then word came from the spokeswoman for Charlie Bolden, an astronaut who had flown the mission before Challenger and the current NASA Administrator—“We honor [the Challenger astronauts] not through bearing the burden of their loss, but by constantly reminding each other to remain vigilant. And to listen to those like Mr. Ebeling who have the courage to speak up so that our astronauts can safely carry out their missions.” When Ebeling heard that, he clapped long and hard and shouted, “Bravo!” If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.

Two weeks ago, on the Monday of Holy Week, Bob Ebeling died. He had been suffering with cancer. His daughter Leslie said, “It was if he got permission from the world. He was able to let that part of his life go.” For the last three weeks of his life, he was light and at peace. In his thank you to listeners, he said, “You helped bring my worrisome mind to ease.” If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them.

Brothers and sisters, we can help one another to let go, or we can hold power over and aid in death continuing to have its hold. And here’s what Bob Ebeling teaches us, we can’t do this work of forgiveness alone. We need each other to proclaim these truths to us, to help us tease apart what is our sin and what is not our sin; we need each other to proclaim the peace of Jesus that knows no fear; we need each other to stand up to those who hold their power over others and proclaim to them that, when they just won’t let go, they are in death’s grip, too; and we need each other to throw open our locked doors and move in the power of the Spirit to all those places where Jesus would send us, confronting the powers-that-be, just as Peter and the apostles did before the council and the high priest when they proclaimed, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Which brings me to House Bill 2—AN ACT TO PROVIDE FOR SINGLE-SEX MULTIPLE OCCUPANCY BATHROOM AND CHANGING FACILITIES IN SCHOOLS AND PUBLIC AGENCIES AND TO CREATE STATEWIDE CONSISTENCY IN REGULATION OF EMPLOYMENT AND PUBLIC ACCOMMODATIONS filed, read, debated, voted upon, and signed into law over the course of one day. This is not the time or place to walk through this in bill in detail, but

  • as a follower of Jesus who comes to the disciples huddling in fear behind their locked doors,
  • as a follower of Jesus who proclaims “peace,”
  • as a follower of Jesus who sends us to all the places that the Father sent him—to the lepers and prostitutes, to the tax collectors and the women, to the vulnerable and the powerless and the poor, to the stranger and all those considered “other,” to all those considered taboo,
  • as a follower of Jesus who sent Philip to proclaim the good news of the gospel and to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch, the non-normative sexual identity of that time,
  • and as a follower of Jesus who breathes the Holy Spirit upon us granting us the awesome power to forgive, to set one another free, and who reminds us that we, indeed, have the power to keep one another bound up in guilt and fear and a living death
  • as a follower of this Jesus, I must stand against this statute and the discrimination it enshrines.

John’s gospel goes on today. It’s the Thomas story. He wasn’t there that first evening. He won’t believe until he sees the wounds in Jesus’ hand and touches the marks of the nails and puts his hand in the wound in Jesus’ side.

A week later, Jesus returns and says to Thomas,Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”


Brothers and sisters, what if we are Thomas, and what if Jesus is asking us to touch the wounds of our transgender and gay and lesbian and bisexual brothers and sisters? What if Jesus is asking us to come to deeper belief by seeing in the marks of their nails the marks of his nails and to know that when we touch their wounds, we’re touching his? What if Jesus is inviting us more deeply into what resurrection life is really about by seeing the new life that radiates through the journeys these brothers and sisters have had to make from death back into life?



I beg of our legislators to touch these wounds. I beg of our legislators to do as I did yesterday morning and read the record of violence against gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual brothers and sisters that has taken place over the last 45 years—read their stories, learn their names.


I beg of us to do whatever we have to do to proclaim “peace” to those who are longing to hear it and who now have a high likelihood of being subjected to violence for using a bathroom.


I beg of us to throw open our locked doors, as Peter and the apostles did, and, in the power of the Spirit, forgive, set free, let go, and, in the power of that same Spirit, challenge any power who wishes to hold that power over another.


And as we do this work, may we seek the transformation of those who just won’t let go, because salvation won’t be salvation until all of us are made whole, until all of us are reconciled, until all of us know the depth of peace that our Lord has proclaimed.


Receive the Holy Spirit. Proclaim peace. Forgive. Let go. Touch wounds. Believe. And then go out into the world to all the places that Jesus sends you. Amen.



The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC

April 3, 2016