Let Me See Again

Sermon for Sunday, October 25, 2015 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52

letmeseeagainImagine with me the beggar Bartimaeus. He is remembering the fateful day when a large crowd passed his perch beside the road from Jericho. It started like every other day, with a certain memory dancing before his sightless eyes.

I was seven and a half years old when I got sick. It was the kind of illness you don’t usually recover from, but I did. Almost. The last image my eyes captured was my mother’s face – beautiful and distressed, a smile worn for my benefit betrayed by a furrowed brow. When I returned to the land of the living, if not the sighted, I could touch her face with my fingers and know the smile and the worry lines were still fighting with each other. I could hear her singing me to sleep. I could smell her bread baking, and I could taste it, too. But I could not see. With no new picture to replace it in my memory, the image of my mother hovering over my sickbed remained with me all those years.

I was remembering the way her hair always fell across one side of her face until she pushed it behind one ear, the way her tears ran over her cheekbones, the way her smile battled her furrowed brow, when I heard it – a large crowd coming down the road from Jericho. You might think the prospect of so many people passing me by would excite me, since my only source of income was the kindness of strangers. But large crowds rarely yielded much coin in my experience. People couldn’t really stop for fear of being run into; they usually were just paying attention to each other; and they always kicked up such a cloud of dust that I was probably as invisible to them as they were to me.

Or at least those were those reasons I told myself. To be honest, I think I made their excuses for them because of how disheartened I got when so many people passed me by without noticing me. It was as if my blindness struck them blind too. But not that day. The moment I heard Jesus of Nazareth was in the party, people would have to have been both blind and deaf not to notice I was there. This was my one chance. I had heard stories of him from other beggars and from people coming down from Galilee. I knew he had the power to heal me. I believed he could restore my sight. This was my one chance. And I took it.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” I shouted as loud as I could. But someone hit the side of my head and told me to shut my mouth. Other voices joined the first, a chorus of shush-ers. It wasn’t enough for them that I be blind; apparently, they wanted me to be mute too. But this was my one chance, and I was not going to be deterred. I yelled again, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And then something happened. The tremor of hundreds of feet stamping the ground just stopped. The sound of voices died away. I could hear the echo of my own shouted words fleeing for the hills. For a moment there was no noise, save for the grunts of pack animals and the laughter of children. Then I could feel next to me a looming presence, a hand on my shoulder, a few flecks of spittle on my face when the man spoke. He smelled of sweat and old fish. “Take heart,” he said. “Get up, Jesus is calling you.”

The vision of my mother swam in front of me. I could see her mouthing the words, “Take heart.” I could see the smile gaining ground on the furrowed brow. I jumped to my feet and clung to the man’s hand as he led me away from my beggar’s nest. I counted the steps I took in case I had to make my way back there if Jesus wouldn’t help me…or couldn’t help me. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Stop.

A new pair of hands gripped my shoulders, gentler but still strong. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. It was the most extraordinary question. He could have assumed I wanted my sight back. He could have assumed I wanted to leave the life of begging. He could have assumed any number of things about me. But instead of just mandating my cure, he asked me what I wanted. He engaged me in conversation. He let me take the lead.

“My teacher, let me see again.” Once more, my mother’s face danced in front of me, and her smiling mouth formed the word, “Go.” And as she spoke, her smile turned into someone else’s: a man’s smile, a man about my own age with piercing dark eyes and no furrow whatsoever in his brow. “Your faith has made you well,” he said.

I turned my head this way and that. Everything was so bright. Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach, dizzy, my balance gone. But as I started to fall, Jesus’ strong arms clenched my shoulders tighter, and he kept me on my feet. “Look at my eyes,” he said. “The vertigo will pass. Just at my eyes, nothing else.” For a long moment – a minute, five, ten, I don’t know – he anchored me with his gaze. And in that long moment, I memorized his face like I had memorized my mother’s. I had seen her face everyday of my blindness. Now I see his.

But not everyday. While he was still with us, I saw him in the flesh most days, but now that he’s here only in Spirit, I find it hard to see his face. My eyes work perfectly, but to see him now takes a different set of eyes. He said my faith had made me well. And now it’s the eyes of faith I need, the eyes that see beyond what’s in front of me, the eyes that see God’s reality swirling beneath the mundane.

And so I repeat my request: “Lord, let me see again.” Let me look again at your presence in the world around me. Let me notice again the people who are usually invisible. Let me see again your face in their faces. Let me serve again. Let me help again. Hope again. Love again.

Lord, I asked for mercy, I shouted at the top of my lungs for mercy. And mercy is all about second chances. Mercy is all about “again.” And so my first request remains the most fervent longing from the depths of my heart. I have made this my prayer for all time: “Lord, let me see again.”

Name the Stars

Sermon for Sunday, June 28, 2015 || Proper 8B || Mark 5:21-43

namethestarsImagine with me the thoughts of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, in the aftermath of his encounter with Jesus.

I have been afraid my whole life. When I was little, a scorpion stung my friend, and he died drooling and thrashing in his crib. So I feared scorpions. When I was thirteen, my father had a run in at the local garrison and came home a week later all black and blue. So I feared the Romans. When I met my wife, I feared I wouldn’t be able to provide for her. When I became leader of the synagogue, I feared I would have no wisdom to share. And when my little girl was born, I feared for her safety every minute of every day. I have been afraid my whole life.

And so when my daughter showed me the tiny puncture on her forearm, and when she bit her bottom lip to keep from crying out in pain, my world ended. I found the culprit and stomped its hard, scaly body into the dirt, and then I collapsed to the ground. My wife came around the corner and saw me rocking back and forth, the dead scorpion in pieces next to me. She dropped the washing and began checking me for signs of a sting. I could only find two words to say: “Not me.” She launched herself into the house to find our daughter.

Twelve years old, my little girl. On the verge of womanhood. My wife cataloging potential suitors. Me practicing my menacing glare for those same suitors. Twelve years old, and not so little anymore. She and I used to climb the hill at night, lie down in the scrub grass so that the tops of our heads touched, and name the stars. She always named them after the heroes of the great stories: David and Gideon and Deborah and Esther. “And that one’s you, Daddy.” She always named the brightest one after me. But at the

indefinable moment when she began her adolescence, she stopped wanting to climb the hill. I asked her why. “That’s kid stuff, Daddy.”

The night the scorpion stung her, I climbed the hill alone and screamed names at the sky – not the names of heroes, but blasphemous names I never thought I could utter. The darkness swallowed my rage, and I don’t know if my obscenities reached their intended target.

I stalked back home. The candle threw swaying shadows on the wall as I entered the room. All my fears were confirmed when I looked at my little girl. She was drenched in sweat, her neck twitched, and her eyes darted from corner to corner. I wrapped my arms around her and put my head on her chest. I could barely distinguish one heartbeat from the next. My wife wrapped her arms around me. Thus I spent the remainder of the night – embraced by and embracing the ones I love, but feeling only the heavy grasp of fear.

I awoke with a curse on my lips for having fallen asleep. I bent my ear to my daughter’s mouth, but the sounds of a commotion outside drowned out the low rasping of her breath. “Vultures,” I spat, and my wife woke up. I stabbed a finger at the window: “Here, no doubt, to console us with their wailing performance.”

I looked down at my little girl. I couldn’t just sit there and watch her die. I had to do something. I decided first to run the vultures off. I had enough grief of my own. I didn’t need to pay someone else to manufacture it. I squeezed my wife’s hand and kissed my daughter on the forehead. So clammy. I banged open the front door ready to unload on the would-be grievers. But the commotion was something else entirely. People were running up the street toward the shore. “Jesus of Nazareth is sighted off the beach. He’s coming here.”

Without thinking, I joined the throng. People recognized me as the leader of the synagogue and let me through. I reached the shore in time to see a fishing boat bump into the shallows. The crowd swelled around the vessel. Jesus’ disciples muscled a hole in the multitude and the man himself stepped off the boat. “Jesus, Jesus,” I cried. But mine was only one voice in a thousand. I feared there was no way he heard me.

But he turned and looked right at me. His disciples opened a path for him. I fell at his feet. “My little daughter, my little one is at the point of death.” I swung my arm back in the direction of my house. “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” I didn’t know where the words came from. My fear was grasping at the words in my chest, but something stronger than fear ripped them out of me.

We walked back towards my house, but the great crowd slowed our progress. I wanted to run, to sprint home with Jesus keeping up beside me. But then, he stopped. “Who touched my clothes?” he said. I looked at him in disbelief. I wanted to scream: “There’s a thousand people trying to touch you right now. My daughter is about to die.”

A woman fell down at his feet and started speaking. She probably spoke for less than a minute, but it was a lifetime to me. As Jesus responded to her, my eyes found my brother pushing his way through the crowd. “No. No. No.” I backed away, but he caught me in a tight embrace. “I’m afraid your daughter is dead.” I thrashed about in my brother’s arms. He let go but kept a grip on my hand. “Why trouble the teacher any further?”

I turned back to the woman who delayed me, who kept the teacher from coming to my house on time, and curses curled on the edge of my lips. But Jesus stepped in between us and grabbed my shirt in both hands. “Do not fear,” he said. “Do not fear, only believe.” The stronger something that earlier had ripped words from my chest reflected in his eyes. “Trust me,” he said. The curses died on my tongue, and I let myself be dragged home to face my own death in the still body of my little girl.

The vultures had come while I was out, but I had no ears for their wailing. Jesus looked around at everyone. “Why do you make a commotion and weep?” he said. “The child is not dead but sleeping.” A laugh erupted from my chest, but it felt utterly foreign in this house of death. Jesus echoed my laugh, and his sounded perfectly at home. I laughed again. It was not a laugh of disbelief, but of recognition. Did he really speak the truth?

Jesus took my daughter by the hand, brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she did. She walked up to my wife and me and we picked her up and the three of us held each other and turned in circles, laughing and crying at the same time. I looked at Jesus and realized what had ripped the words from me at the beach. Trust. Something about this man radiated trust. No. Not something about him. He, himself, radiated trust. Jesus stared back at me, and in his dark eyes I saw myself on the hill the night before. And I saw him standing there next to me. And I knew that hurling blasphemies at God meant that somewhere deep down I still believed. I knew that trust is something entirely stronger than fear. I knew that trust and belief are the antidotes for fear.

“She’s had a rough day,” said Jesus. “Give her something to eat.” He smiled at my daughter, who reflected it back at him, then at my wife, and then her smile rested on me. I dropped to one knee and pulled her tight. Twelve years old and still my little girl. “Daddy,” she said, “Can we go up the hill tonight and name the stars?”

“Of course,” I said, and I gathered her into my arms again. I had been afraid my whole life. But not anymore.

Image: detail from NASA’s astronomy image of the day, June 2, 2015: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap150602.html

The New Version of Me

A Good Friday Meditation; John 19:31-42


2015goodfriImagine with me the thoughts of the Pharisee Nicodemus on his way home from helping Joseph of Arimathea bury the body of Jesus. Nicodemus appears at the end of the Passion Gospel reading, as well as two other places in the Gospel according to John, both of which are referenced in what follows.

Two years ago, I knocked on a door. I waited until nighttime and wrapped myself in a traveling cloak with a deep hood so no one would recognize me. Was I afraid to be seen with Jesus, who my colleagues branded as a dangerous radical? Yes, but fear was not the main reason for my caution. I was ashamed. I was ashamed to admit that I didn’t have all the answers, ashamed that someone else’s words could make me feel so infantile, like a newborn baby. So I hid myself in darkness, not to protect against prying eyes, but to conceal me from myself. I hid from myself. I hid from the version of me that Jesus was beckoning to emerge from some long forgotten exile.

I used to relish my position on the council, my authority as an arbiter. I took pleasure in the blank looks of acceptance on the faces of my litigants. They invested me with the power to judge, and I failed to notice when that power mutated into self-assured complacency. Predictability became my idol. There was never a new problem to be solved, never something I couldn’t explain or interpret or analyze. Over the years, I forgot how to ask questions because I was always the person with the answers.

Until that night. Until my vestigial curiosity awoke that night. When I first opened my mouth, my council voice came out, and I made a grand statement about knowing who comes from God. I could tell immediately that Jesus was not one to be cowed by my position or impressed by my stature. “I tell you the truth,” he said, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

I didn’t know what to say. I remember opening and closing my mouth several times. I remember Jesus smiling at me – patient, eager. Then my breath forced an “H” sound from my throat, and I was surprised when the word “how” came to my lips. I was asking a question. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” The floodgates opened, and for the rest of the conversation, all I did was ask questions: “Can one enter into the mother’s womb a second time and be born? How can these things be?”

Ever since that night, I have heard his words carried on the wind. Since the wind blows where it chooses, my idolatrous reliance on predictability has vanished. Since I don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, my fantasy that I have all the answers has disappeared, as well. On my way to see Jesus, I was hiding from a new version of me. But everyday, I felt Jesus’ words drawing that new version out of me.

Last year, I reminded my colleagues to obey their own rules. No one on the council had discovered my secret meeting with Jesus, so my position was safe. The two versions of me occupied the same body, and, at that time, the familiar one dominated still. But I had begun to question and look past the veneer of institutional banality.

Jesus had shown up at the festival of booths and caused quite a stir. The chief priests had sent the temple police to arrest him, but they came back empty handed saying: “Never has anyone spoken like this!” I suppressed a smile. He escaped again. The rest of the Pharisees were outraged. One of them shouted: “Surely you have not been deceived, too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?”

A small voice inside me murmured: “I do.” Then a louder voice: “Careful. Careful.” When I spoke, I tried to defend Jesus without giving myself away. “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” But they were implacable. That’s when I noticed something I would never have seen had Jesus not awakened my curiosity. These colleagues of mine, the keepers of tradition, the self-proclaimed protectors of the Law, were breaking their own rules. I could no longer be party to such bankrupt ideals and blind action. That day, the small voice grew louder, the voice attached to the new version of me.

Today, I buried my Lord. Two years ago, I went to see him at night to cloak my own shame. But today, the sun shines down, unaware that its brightness mocks the darkness in my soul. The sun shines down, and I walk out under its beams so the world can see where my allegiance lies. When first we met, Jesus said to me, “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” It took two years, but here I am. Here I am in the light.

See, all you who pass by: I am one of his. I am not the person you knew. I am a new version of me, the version Jesus called out of me. See, all you who pass by: I am not ashamed any more. I feel the wind on my face, and I know his words are true. See, all you who pass by: is there any sorrow like my sorrow. My Lord is dead. It took his death for the old version of me to die. But will my new version survive with him gone? Will I have another chance to walk in the light? Has the darkness won? When will the light return?

Updated from a piece I wrote for Good Friday, 2009.
Art: Detail from The Descent from the Cross by Rembrandt, 1634

Christmas Sonnets

ChristmasSonnetsOne

The greatest story ever told began
When God breathed deep and bade the light to shine;
Creation burst from Love and Word, then ran
Away and grasped at purpose less divine
Than God would wish or yearn for it. For God
In foolish wisdom wove with freedom’s thread
And gave creation chances to be flawed,
If chance there were to choose the Lord instead.
This freedom came to earth when Eden’s dust
Was poured in human form, but right away
The fruitless choice was made, and broken trust
Turned Eden’s joyful hues to shades of gray.
The freedom God had granted first abused,
When fear and shame were learned and love refused.

Two

With love refused, sad separation reigned:
We littered earth with broken covenants
And chose dark paths to walk and then complained
To God that we were lost beyond all sense.
In longing God would call us to return,
And for a fickle time we would repent.
The cycle thus unleashed: we’d grasp then spurn
The love of God, but God would not relent.
We showed no willingness to come to God
So God in mercy chose to come to us,
As shepherd, comforting with staff and rod,
To teach us sheep again to love and trust.
As love so often does, this love began
When Mary felt a tremor ‘neath her hand.

Three

Her hand leapt up to shield her dazzled eyes
When Gabriel, awash in radiance,
Appeared to her, and much to his surprise,
He saw no fear in Mary’s countenance.
Confusion showed instead on Mary’s face:
She wondered how she ranked as favored one
When her humility would grant no place
As high, yet humble love would bear the Son.
Now God entrusted Mary to decide
If God’s design to walk upon the earth
Would flow through Mary’s womb, thus God relied
On human freedom to approve the birth.
But God chose well: the humble maid said, “Yes,”
And through her love this broken world was blessed.

Four

The world was blessed one night in David’s town,
But so few saw the miracle arrive
That we might wonder whether it came down
At all, or if it simply failed to thrive.
The savior people sought was not a child,
Who nestles helpless at his mother’s breast.
They sought a fighter who like Samson piled
The bodies of the foes he sent to rest.
They sought a soldier who like David led
His troops to bloody victory with ease.
They sought a muscle-bound Messiah bred
To root out rank imperial disease.
So when the unexpected came that night
The people waiting all ignored the light.

Five

The light was fading fast in Bethlehem
When Joseph, hand in hand with Mary, passed
the final house, which closed its doors to them
Like all the rest had done that day. At last
The months of waiting ended with a burst
Of pain that echoed through the darkling gloom;
She knew the birth would now be unrehearsed
And cried to Joseph, “Please go find a room.”
But Joseph would not leave her in the street,
So heaving Mary to his arms he veered
Off down a dusty trail and heard the bleat
Of sheep and goats, and knew a stable neared.
For once, thank God, a door stood open wide,
And breathless, weak, the couple dropped inside.

Six

The couple dropped inside a stable stall,
And Joseph gathered up the fresher hay
While anxious Mary paced from wall to wall
Until the urge to push would not delay.
The universe contracted to the here,
The now, the pain, the prayer, the ancient swell,
The final push, the crystal cry so clear,
The Word made flesh was born — Emmanuel.
The universe expanded once again
As light ascending from within the child,
Reflected in the nighttime sky, and then
The light ignited in a star most wild.
The brilliance shone on heaven and on earth,
Proclaiming God-with-us, the Savior’s birth.

Seven

The Savior’s birth took place, yet no one heard
Until the herald angels praised his name
To shepherds (“lowlife rabble,” many slurred),
And yet for outcasts such as these He came.
When eastern wisdom read the star’s good news,
The magi journeyed west toward the flame;
But Herod welcomed them with bloody ruse,
And yet for immigrants like these He came.
For all creation was the Savior born:
Yet not for wealth, nor fortune, nor for fame,
But for the broken, lost, abandoned, scorned,
And Yes — what Joy — for you and me He came.
The greatest story ever told endures
Oh God, keep telling it till we are yours.

Say “Yes”: A Christmas Pageant

Performed at St. Mark’s in Mystic, CT on Sunday, December 21, 2014

SayYesThis version of the Christmas pageant employs two sets of main characters, one younger and one older. The older versions sit on stools flanking the main action. They stand up to deliver their monologues. During the monologues the younger versions pantomime the action and speak at the end of each speech.

Prologue

NARRATOR

Before the universe existed, there was God. There was no time and no space, but there was God. Then God spoke and Creation came to be. One of the things God created was freedom, which was the ability to say “yes” or “no” of your own free will and not be compelled to answer one way or the other. God yearned with all of God’s heart that the Creation God made would say “yes” to a deep relationship with God its creator. But more often than not, parts of that Creation said, “No.” People said, “No.” We said, “No.”

Saying “No” to relationship with God led people down some dark paths. They dominated each other instead of serving each other in love. Fear ruled the day. And yet God did not give up. God decided to send God’s own Son into this wayward Creation to show us the path back to the God who never broke the relationship like we had done. All God needed was someone to say, “Yes.”

Scene 1: The Annunciation

While the OLDER MARY speaks her monologue, YOUNGER MARY and GABRIEL pantomime their conversation.

OLDER MARY

Until that day, nothing had ever happened to me. I grew up like everyone else in my town. I worked my father’s farm with my brothers and sisters. I watched the sun set. I watched the sun rise. That was life. Even getting engaged to be married to Joseph was just another day. It was expected. I always did what was expected.

Then Gabriel appeared to me, and every day since has been more unexpected than the last. He told me not to be afraid, but there was no need. His presence wasn’t frightening. It was exciting. From the moment he spoke, I felt a quickening in my gut, a hum, a desire finally to discover the person I longed to be.

The angel told me of the son I would have, the heir of David’s throne, the flesh and blood of the Most High God. It all sounded impossible. But Gabriel said nothing is impossible for God. I thought for a moment: I’ve never done anything in my life. I’ve never been anywhere. I’m not special in any way. Why would God choose me?

And that’s when it hit me. God chose me because God knew I would say…

YOUNGER MARY

Yes.

Scene 2: Joseph’s Dream

NARRATOR

Mary said, “Yes,” to the angel. She said, “Yes,” to God’s dream for her life, and that dream became a reality. And as the dream was growing inside her, the angel made another stop.

YOUNGER JOSEPH is fast asleep when GABRIEL stands over him pantomiming speaking.

OLDER JOSEPH

My namesake was a great interpreter of dreams. He saved Egypt during a seven-year famine. He saved his own family, too. I always wondered what it would be like to have that kind of gift. Then one night I found out. My dream didn’t need interpretation, however, because the angel stood before me plain as day, and when he spoke, the words tasted true.

Everyone around me, society at large, even my own father, urged me to get rid of Mary, to dismiss her quietly so as not to cause a fuss. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Then the angel told me why. Somehow I knew, even before the angel told me, that the child was special. I didn’t have the words to describe the way I felt until the angel called my son, “Emmanuel.”

GABRIEL departs, and YOUNGER JOSEPH rises from sleep. He join YOUNGER MARY and puts his hand on her pregnant belly.

OLDER JOSEPH

Yes, the joy I felt came from that place, that place of nearness. When I looked at Mary and felt the baby kick, I knew…

YOUNGER JOSEPH

God is with us.

Scene 3: Arrival in Bethlehem

As the NARRATOR speaks, YOUNGER MARY and YOUNGER JOSEPH make their way to Bethlehem.

NARRATOR

Mary spent the first few months of her pregnancy with her cousin Elizabeth. But as the time drew near for the baby to be born, the Empire called for a counting of all the people in their territories. Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to be registered because his ancestors hailed from there. Mary went with him.

OLDER MARY

The waves of pain began weeks before Jesus was born. At first I thought I was going into labor, but Elizabeth assured me it was normal. I learned to live with them, even though they got worse as the day drew near. But that first night in Bethlehem, a different pain hit me, and I knew it was time.

YOUNGER MARY AND YOUNGER JOSEPH pantomime the story being told: breaking into the room, being surrounded by ANIMALS.

OLDER JOSEPH

In desperation, I broke into the backroom of a house to get us out of the cold. The owner’s animals were huddled there. It stunk to high heaven, but at least it was warm. When Mary started to cry out in pain, I thought that we were done for, that the people of the house would drive us back into the night.

The FARMER comes in with a rake. Then the MIDWIFE enters.

OLDER MARY

But they didn’t. The farmer came in brandishing a threshing rake, but he took in what was happening right away and called for his wife. We asked if we could stay, and she said, “Yes.” Turns out she was a midwife. What a blessing from God. Joseph was beside himself. He didn’t know what to do. But she calmed him down, directed him.

OLDER JOSEPH

She put a blanket in my hands and guided them.

OLDER MARY

One last thunderous wave of pain washed through me, and then…

YOUNGER JOSEPH holds the BABY JESUS in his arms.

OLDER JOSEPH

I held my son Jesus in my arms. I held God. And I knew God was holding me.

Scene 4: The Shepherds

The SHEPHERDS and SHEEP cluster in the center aisle.

NARRATOR

The light of the world shining from the baby wasn’t the only light shining that night. In the fields outside Bethlehem, dawn seemed to be breaking impossibly early.

The ANGELS and GABRIEL stand on the first pew and pantomime talking to the SHEPHERDS.

OLDER SHEPHERD

The light grew slowly at first, so we didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. But then the field was awash in brilliance. It was like an eclipse in reverse. But what I remember more than the light was the song. The angels sang a song of peace. Of peace! How could you sing a song of peace in such a war-torn age? And yet that is what they did.

The SHEPHERDS and SHEEP walk to the Nativity scene and join it. The ANGELS gather around behind the Nativity scene.

We went to find the One of whom the angels sang. And we found him in the dirt, among the animals just like my own children were born. The song of the angels rang in my mind and I sang it for the baby, a lullaby of peace for the Prince of Peace. And I knew he was one of us. And he was here…

YOUNGER SHEPHERD

To make us more like him.

Scene 5: The Magi

The MAGI begin their trek slowly from one side aisle of the church around the back and up the other side aisle. At the side of the church near the lectern, the MAGI meet HEROD, who pantomimes a conversation.

NARRATOR

Not only did Jesus’ own people seek him out. Immigrants from a far off land arrived guided by a star in the heavens. They first met King Herod in Jerusalem, but they knew Herod was not the king they sought.

The MAGI move to the main group and present their gifts.

OLDER MAGUS

We had been searching the stars for a sign of the One who was to come. And when we found the celestial body streaking westward we knew we had to follow. We didn’t know where it would lead. What we didn’t expect, though, was for it to lead us not only across the desert, but deeper into our own hearts. When we met our true King the first time, we felt the inadequacy of the gifts we had brought – the gold, the frankincense, the myrrh. The infant gazes at us, into us, into our hearts. And we knew the gift he truly wanted. And so I gave him not just a box of gold…

YOUNGER MAGUS

I gave him myself.

Epilogue

The OLDER CHARACTERS move to join their YOUNGER SELVES.

NARRATOR

And so God sent God’s only Son to teach people to use their freedom to remain open to God, to say “Yes” to that deep relationship. A few decades later, he would die for his convictions. But then he rose again to show that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love.

OLDER MAGUS

So when you are searching for God…

OLDER JOSEPH

Know that God is always with us…

OLDER SHEPHERD

And when the Prince of Peace calls to you…

OLDER MARY

Say “Yes.”

*  *  *

The Players

(*=tiny speaking part; **=big speaking part)

Little Children
SHEEP
ANIMALS
ANGELS
(BABY JESUS)

Children/Tweens
GABRIEL
YOUNGER MARY*
YOUNGER JOSEPH*
SHEPHERDS (1*)
(HEROD)
FARMER
MIDWIFE
MAGI x3 (1*)

Tweens/Teens
OLDER MARY**
OLDER JOSEPH**
OLDER SHEPHERD**
OLDER MAGUS**
NARRATOR**

*Artwork: detail from “Birth of Christ” by Antoine Pesne (1745)

10,000 Talents

Sermon for Sunday, September 14, 2014 || Proper 19A || Matthew 18:21-35

10000talentsImagine with me the Apostle Peter in prison in Rome near the end of his life. He is talking to his cellmate, a new convert to the Way of Jesus Christ.

I’ve been thinking about what you said last night – about getting arrested at your first ever gathering of Jesus’ followers, about wishing you had had the chance to talk to your mother before being thrown in this cell with me, about feeling guilty for having lied to her as to where you were going. You seek forgiveness, and you’re not sure you’ll ever have the chance to ask for it. For both your sakes, I hope you do. Son, there’s nothing as precious as forgiveness for making a life worthwhile. I wish I had understood that when I was your age.

I understood so little back in the days when Jesus was with us. I was headstrong and curious, but I was curious about the wrong things. If I had known then what I know now, I would have asked different questions. Instead of asking Jesus about quantities and statistics, I would have asked about values and purpose. I remember this one time, I asked about forgiveness. Well, not about the practice of forgiveness, but about how often I was obligated to forgive my brother or sister. And knowing Jesus to be the generous sort, I shot high. Seven times seemed a bit excessive, but still reasonable. Seven is, after all, a number that, in my culture, evokes completion.

For once Jesus answered the question I asked rather than the one he wished I had asked. And yet, as he always did, he answered it in his own unique, unexpected, and unrelentingly gracious way. I remember him raising his eyebrows and tilting his head to one side. It was his, “Seriously, Peter?” look. Bartholomew used to do a spot on impression of it. “Not seven times,” Jesus said. “Try seventy-seven times.” Now, he could apparently see me doing math in my head, so before I finished my multiplication table, he made his outrageous hyperbole clear.

He told a story about a slave who didn’t understand forgiveness, and this slave owed his master 10,000 talents. You don’t use talents where you’re from? Let’s see: 10,000 talents is equal to…about 150,000 years worth of wages.* You see what I mean about Jesus’ hyperbole. This slave had a debt that neither he, nor the next hundred generations of his family could ever hope to pay off. You wonder how he ever accumulated that much debt, but Jesus never went into that part of the story.

But his master forgives it all. Just waves his hand, and the slave is forgiven. If it were me, I think I’d about float away with such a weight lifted off my chest. But this fellow doesn’t float. No, he sinks. He goes out and demands the 100 denarii another slave owes him. That’s only about three months wages – a laughably tiny amount compared to his own forgiven debt. Makes you wonder about the nerve of some people or their lack of compassion or just plain lack of decency. But don’t be too quick to count yourself out of such a group. I’m in it. We’re all in it some of the time.

This story has stuck with me all these years. It reminds me of the prayer Jesus taught us. You might have said it at the gathering before you were arrested. Do you know the line I’m thinking of? “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Now what’s the line right before it? “Give us this day our daily bread.”

I prayed Jesus’ prayer for years before I ever saw a connection between these two phrases. I always said them in isolation. I prayed for my daily sustenance. Then I prayed for the capacity to offer and receive forgiveness. It must have been fifteen or more years after Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to guide us when the two lines finally joined for me. There was a big council of the various groups that had sprung up around Jesus. People came from all over. Paul was there – you may have heard of him. I don’t want to bore you with the issues we discussed, but suffice to say tempers got heated. There were arguments, rancor, vitriol spat back and forth. I gave as good as I got, I’m sorry to say. I left the council with the taste of bile in my mouth. And for days and days after, that’s all I could taste. Any food I tried to eat made me so nauseated. I didn’t eat for a long time. I started wasting away.

During those days of unintentional fasting, I continued praying Jesus’ prayer. I had my daily bread, but I couldn’t stomach it. I had been forgiven by our Father in heaven – to the tune of those 10,000 talents in the story. But I had not practiced forgiveness myself. I had not let it flow from my heart, as Jesus taught. Instead, I had relished the anger I had for my opponents at the council. For those first days, the bile I tasted was like a war wound proudly worn.

But as food continued to turn to ash in my mouth, I realized that my stubborn refusal to forgive was the cause. When the desire to forgive finally returned, so did my appetite. And the return of my daily bread gave me the strength to ask for forgiveness from my opponents and grant it, too. From then on, the two lines of Jesus’ prayer have gone together: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those you trespass against us.”

You see, my young friend, forgiveness is not just something we do occasionally. Like our daily bread sustaining us each and every day, forgiveness is a posture that we can employ all the time, an attitude that leads to open, trusting, caring, and fulfilling relationships. Forgiveness is an act of grace, a gift given or received whether or not it is deserved.

That’s why Jesus told me to forgive 77 times. He didn’t mean exactly 77. He didn’t mean for us to take out our accounting ledgers. No. Just look at the number. Two sevens. Two instances of completion. A beginning and an end. A life made complete by the grace-filled act of forgiveness.

So if you ever get out of this cell, my son, I hope you reunite with your mother in order to ask for her forgiveness. But don’t stop with just that one instance. Make your life one in which you never grow accustomed to the angry taste of bile in your mouth. As your daily bread sustains you, remember that offering and receiving forgiveness are parts of your sustenance, as well. And through them you partner with God in nourishing this hollow and starving world. We all have a tendency to sink in the mire, like the wicked slave in the story. But God has already forgiven our 10,000 talent debts. In response, make such outrageous and extravagant forgiveness one of purposes of your life. And instead of sinking, you will float on the wind of grace.

* The calculation about the 10,000 talents comes from this article by Karl Jacobson.

A New Dream

Homily for Maundy Thursday || April 17, 2014 || John 13

MaundyThurs2014Imagine with me the Apostle Peter at night in his prison cell in Rome near the end of his life.

It all happened so long ago. Thirty years or more now. And yet sometimes – like tonight – I wake up in the cold wee hours of the morning gasping for air because my dreams drag me back to that week. One moment, I’m being suffocated by the crowds pressing in on me, buffeting me, shouting for blood. The next I awake in my prison cell, take in great swallows of stale air.

My cellmate – another follower rounded up here in Rome like I was – he says, “You were shouting in your sleep again.”

“What was I shouting?” I ask, though I already know the answer.

“Something like, ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about,’ ” he says.

Yes, of course. The same old dream. I always wake up when the rooster crows.

Why can’t I dream of the happier times? Lugging the huge catch of fish onto the beach. Talking with Jesus around the campfire. Sharing a meal with him in our hideout in Jerusalem.

“Perhaps you still feel guilty,” my cellmate says. “We’ve all heard the story: how you denied you knew Jesus when he needed you most.”

“But Jesus forgave me,” I say. “I told him I loved him. He gave me a mission to feed his sheep. He knew I couldn’t live with myself, so he told me to live for him instead…And I have…”

My voice trails off. I used to give this defense with more fire.

He might have forgiven you.” My cellmate again. “But have you truly accepted his forgiveness? Have you ever forgiven yourself?”

I want to say, “yes.” I want this fellow in my cell to know that I am one of Jesus’ most fervent followers, that I remember everything he ever taught, that I apply it constantly to my life. But it’s all a lie. A front I put on so others will be encouraged. If they knew the doubts that assail my hearts, they’d be less eager to follow, I tell myself. I do follow, but…fervently?

His question lingers in the stale air: “Have you ever forgiven yourself?” I want to say, “yes,” but something about the dank prison cell drags the truth out of me instead. Must be the hardness of the floor, the right angles of the walls, the smoothness of the stones. In Rome, even the prison cells are plumb. “No,” I say. The word rebounds off the wall. The echo indicts me.

Silence replaces the echo, and we listen to each other breathing in the dark. “I’d always heard you were stubborn, Peter,” says my cellmate. “But that forgiveness. That love of his. It was a free gift. You didn’t need to earn it. Your denial didn’t make you unworthy of it. Do you not see that?”

A recent convert, this one. I can always tell by their zeal. This one is mouthier than most.

He presses on. “It’s the footwashing all over again.”

“The what?”

“The night before Jesus went to his death on the cross. We’ve all heard that story, too. Jesus knew he was going to God and so he wanted to show you all the importance of service. Of love. The fact that service and love are really the same thing. So he took off his robe, got down on his knees, and washed the feet of his friends.”

“I remember. I was there.”

“But…but when he got to your feet, you didn’t want them washed. You didn’t feel worthy of that either.”

This I have to answer. “He just looked so small,” I say. “Crawling on his knees, pushing the wash basin before him. It felt so wrong for him to humble himself like that for my sake. His humility made me feel even more unworthy.”

More silence. Again, the truth tumbles out.

“It still does.”

And what does my cellmate do? He starts to sing:

“Being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.

“I heard that the day I was arrested,” he says. “We sang it at a gathering.”

“So?”

“It says Jesus humbled himself and became obedient. Don’t you see, Peter? How can I, who is so new to the Way, be the one to teach you this, you who have the keys to the kingdom? Humility and obedience go together.”

I shift on my cot. I don’t want to hear this, but his voice has taken on a new tone, one I remember Jesus using: excitement and insight mixing together to form revelation. I sit up and feel the hairs raise on the back of my neck.

“When he washed your feet he demonstrated humble service. And what did he do next?”

“He told us to love each other.”

“No. He commanded you to love each other. It wasn’t a request. Jesus gave you a direct order, a new commandment. To obey you had to love. To show love you had to serve humbly. To serve humbly you had to obey – to listen deeply for his call and act on it. I found my church – my new family – because I watched them loving each other, serving each other, and I knew I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to follow Jesus’ commandment.”

“And yet here you are, in prison with me.”

“I believe I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to do.”

“And what exactly is that?”

He takes a deep breath. “Helping Peter find a new dream.”

I grunt my derision, but the memory of the rooster crowing still hovers behind my eyes. I’m listening, in spite of myself.

“Look,” he presses. “You can dismiss everything I say as the ravings of convert’s zeal. But just because I’m new doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Those words you said in fear that night still haunt you. Let them go. Tell me now. Say it aloud. Say you know him.”

His words awaken the same ones in me. I open my mouth. My voice catches in my throat. But I force them out. “I do know the man.”

“Say it again.”

“I do know him.”

“Where is he?”

“He’s here in this cell. I hear him speaking through you.”

“What is he commanding?”

“He wants me to let go, to let his forgiveness wash me clean, to release my stubbornness and pride, to hear and obey.”

“ To hear and obey. To love and serve in humility?”

“That is his command. Loving and serving. The command and the gift, both at the same time.”

He reaches across the divide between our cots and grasps my hand. I can feel his blood pulsing. And for the first time in God knows how long, I feel the fire blaze in me again. He squeezes my hand and holds it fast. “Peter, my friend, there’s your new dream.”

*Art: detail from “Columbus in Prison” by Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)

The Midnight Letter

Sermon for December 22, 2013 || Advent 4A || Matthew 1:18-25

 

Imagine with me a letter written by Joseph to his father on the night Joseph had the dream of the angel that today’s Gospel reading narrated.

HolyFamilyJoseph, eldest son and protégé, to Jacob, my father, mentor, and confidant: Blessings and peace to you, my mother, and my brothers and sisters.

By the time you read this letter, I will have left home. I awoke in the still hours of the night to write it, and I imagine that when I leave, the sun will be many hours from rising. I hope someday you will welcome me back into this house. I know it will not be tomorrow or the next day. But someday, I hope.

By the fact that you have found this letter on my workbench instead of finding me there, you will have concluded that I changed my mind. You are correct in that deduction. I know we agreed on my course of action. I know what you said yesterday – what you’ve been saying for weeks, really – is still the correct decision. But now, as I sit watching the swaying light of a guttering candle, as my mind empties of all the noise and my heart fills with every new possibility, I find that our agreement is not the correct decision. It is simply a correct decision. But there is another, and this is the one I choose.

I know, father, that reading those words will make you want to tear up the rest of this letter at once, but I beg you to keep reading, because I must explain myself. I need you to understand how my heart has come to change. I need you to understand that disgrace is a small price to pay to do what I feel God is calling me to do. I need you to understand how my agony has turned to joy. In the simple of act of choosing the better of two right answers, I find a weight I didn’t even know I was bearing has lifted. I feel free. I feel like I am making the choice that truly reflects the man I want to be, the man God dreams for me to be.

Let me start at the beginning. I know I came of age years ago, but until the day you entered into terms with Mary’s father and she and I got engaged, I never knew the weight of true responsibility. What I didn’t expect was to discover my duty to wed Mary deepen into the love I now have for her. Though from that first meeting, we’ve never been alone, just Mary and me – still, whenever we’re together, I feel like we’re the only two people in the world. Everything fades except her strong, sturdy, quiet presence. When I think about the prospect of life without her, all I can feel is the absence, the ragged hole her disappearance would leave.

And now I can hear in my mind your argument begin again, father. What about you duty to your family? What about your love and respect for your mother and me? What about the marriage prospects of your own brothers and sisters, your own flesh and blood, if you ruin our reputation? Believe me, I am aware of the implications of my choice, hence my decision to leave home and spare you the humiliation. Nazareth is a week’s journey from our home in Bethlehem. When Mary and I move there, we will be far enough away to keep you from public disgrace. Disavow me as your son and make my brother your heir. Then your legacy will be safe.

As for me, I will take Mary for my wife. I do this not despite her pregnancy, but because of it. I now know my life’s purpose – to take care of Mary and her child. To love them, cherish them, and provide for them, come what may. The boy – yes, it’s a boy – will call me father, but he will know who his true father is. No matter what I said to you yesterday, I now believe Mary’s story. I’ve always wanted to believe it. I had been trying to believe it since she first told me because I knew in my heart a false word has never escaped her lips. But now I truly believe.

You once said to me, father, that believing means setting your heart on something. It’s not just thinking or acknowledging something is right or true. Believing means taking all that’s precious within yourself, all that makes your blood flow and your lungs fill, all that keeps you alive, and placing it in other, worthier hands. I learned that from you, and I’ve found something worthy of my belief – the unborn child in Mary’s womb and the power who placed him there when she said “yes” to the angel.

You might be wondering what changed my mind. You had convinced me yesterday, after all. I was ready to have the hardest conversation of my life. But something told me to sleep on it, to give it another day. You know I’ve always been a heavy sleeper; I’ve never remembered a dream in my life. I didn’t think I had them, which is ironic considering whom you named me for. That Joseph could interpret dreams. He saved Egypt from famine. He saved the family who had sold him into slavery. And all because he listened to the special way God spoke to him.

Tonight I discovered I’m more like our ancestor than I imagined. I had a dream, but before you say it was “only” a dream, know that it was realer than anything I’ve ever experienced in my waking years. The angel who stood before me, the brilliance of his gown, the fire in his wings, the music in his voice – they made the real world seem dull and counterfeit by comparison. The angel gave me permission to make the choice my heart has longed to make, the choice that you and our neighbors and this society says is wrong.

Again, I can guess your mind, father. What makes you so sure of yourself? How can you discount your family and your culture so blithely?

Please know there has been nothing casual about this decision. I have been in agony since Mary first told me, and I know she has too. The decision I was going to make yesterday – to dismiss her as you wished – is correct by any measure available. But so is standing with her, remaining faithful, being true to myself and to my promises. Surely, you can see that, father. Choosing between right and wrong is simple for the most part. But choosing between right and right? That’s the harder challenge.

In making this choice, I listened to Mary, whose honesty even you once said is beyond reproach. I listened to my own heart, which lifted from agony to joy the moment I changed my mind. And I listened to God, whose power and presence has been weaving in and out of this mess from the beginning. I can do no more than try to follow where these promptings are leading me.

I hope you can see that, father. I hope when the scandal dies down, you will be able to welcome us back home. Know that you will always be welcome at our home in Nazareth. Know that Mary and I desire with all our hearts for Jesus – that’s what we’re going to call him – to meet his grandparents. My prayer for you, father, is that you will do the same soul-searching I have been doing this night by the light of this nearly spent candle. Listen to those you love. Listen to your own heart. Listen to God. And perhaps you will find that what you believe, that thing you set your heart on, has shifted without you realizing it.

This is my hope for you. In the meantime, know that Mary and I are safe. We await the coming of our son with joy (not to mention some anxiety). He’s not even born yet, and Jesus has already saved me from walking down the wrong path. Perhaps the right path will lead us all back together again someday.

With sadness and joy, I remain

Your loving son,

Joseph

With My Arms Spread Wide

(Sermon for Sunday, February 24, 2013 || Lent 2C || Luke 13:31-35)

(Most sermons are better if you listen to them rather than read them. This one is especially so.)

Imagine with me a letter written by Simon the Pharisee some years after the events described in this morning’s Gospel reading.

henSimon, a servant of the Lord God, to Judith, my dearest sister and confidant: Peace to you and your house.

I know it’s an inside joke between us that I only write to you when I am vexed or need to process something, but in this case, I write with a more urgent need. Yesterday in the marketplace something happened that has shaken me to my bones. Not only that, but after all these years, this event has caused me to let go of a secret I had been holding onto so very tightly. I need to tell you the truth about myself before you hear others slander me. I hope after you read these words you do not think less of me; rather, I hope you might consider joining me in my new-found freedom. But I get ahead of myself.

Here’s what happened. I was walking with my colleagues, Eli and Reuben, when we witnessed a strange scene. A small boy, no bigger than your grandson, snatched a loaf of bread off a baker’s cart. The boy must have been on his last legs because as soon he turned to run away, he dropped to his knees, nearly fainting. The baker had the boy by the arm when a woman picked up the loaf of bread and handed it back to the hungry child, saying, “Go and eat your fill, young one, and may the blessing of the Lord Jesus Christ be upon you.”

Then she reached into her purse to pay the baker for the bread. But before she could pull out a coin, Eli and Reuben rounded on her. I’ve never known them to be the most zealous persecutors of the followers of the Way, but something about this exchange riled them up. They dragged the woman to the ground, hollering the whole time about her blasphemy. Her trial, conviction, and sentence were the work of a moment, and before I knew what was happening, Eli had a chunk of rock in his hand ready to throw.

I didn’t plan to do it. I didn’t mean to do it. But in the instant after I realized what Eli was about to do, I found myself standing between him and the woman, arms wide, protecting her with my body. It was too late for Eli to stop, and I took the impact of the stone on my left shoulder. “If you’re going to stone her,” I yelled at them, “then you’ll have to stone me, too.”

What I’m trying to tell you, dear sister, is that, for these long years, I have been a follower of the Way of Jesus Christ. But until yesterday, my fear of being disowned by everyone I know convinced me to hold tightly to the secret. Now that my true devotion lies unmasked, I feel suddenly free to share my story with you – and not just free, but full of joy.

You see, you never know on what day your life will change. If you did, then you might be more prepared. You might wear a clean shirt or wash your face beforehand. The day my life started to change was a day similar to yesterday. I was out in the marketplace with a couple of colleagues. Jesus and his disciples were making a scene: throngs of people were clamoring for his attention, and talk of miraculous healing was in the air. You might recall I had met Jesus previously when he came to dinner at my house. That first meeting troubled me because he was so different than the country bumpkin I expected. This second meeting replaced my uneasiness with the seeds of new conviction.

At the time, we Pharisees were tired of Jesus upsetting the apple cart. He had been in our region quite long enough, and we wanted him gone. So we concocted a story about Herod wanting to kill him. The tale seemed plausible enough; after all, Herod had beheaded Jesus’ cousin John and then just continued on eating his dinner. Perhaps Herod did want Jesus dead. Either way, that’s what we told him. And I was completely unprepared for his response. Maybe he was calling our bluff. Or maybe he had no fear for his own life. He told us his plans – and they did not involve fleeing – and then told us to go tell Herod.

But his bravery wasn’t what enthralled me. It was what he said next. A haunted look played across his face as he lamented Jerusalem. I’ll never forget what he said: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Before I could arrange my face into the shocked expression appropriate for a Pharisee, my heart commandeered my body. It was the strangest sensation. Something deep inside me fluttered at his words, like one of the chicks in the hen’s brood. The fluttering stirred up three words that echoed in my depths. “I am willing.”

From that day on, I kept track of Jesus. My three words – “I am willing” – played over and over again in my mind. But I didn’t make the leap yet because I couldn’t chase his image of the hen and her brood out of my mind. What an odd animal to identify with. Why not something bigger? Something with teeth and claws. Something worthy of his fearlessness. Why a defenseless hen? A chicken, for God’s sake?

Later that year, I got my answer. I watched as he was crucified. I heard the dull thud of the hammer striking the nails. He was raised up on the cross, chest bared, arms wide. And as I watched and wept, all I could see was that mother hen, defenseless, spreading her wings wide to protect her brood, giving her life for theirs.

I was his from that moment on. I believe that he rose again and that his Spirit is with us to help us live a life full of God his Father. It feels good to write that down. Dear sister, it has taken me all these years to say it, but the words are there on the page now, never to be erased.

I might have said “I am willing” on that day of our second meeting, but as they say, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. So what made me abandon my well-worn lie yesterday? I had gotten comfortable living as his secret follower, even though I knew that meant I was cutting myself off from so much of what being his follower means. Something about the events yesterday brought to my mind the image that so haunted me.

Eli raised the rock, ready to strike the woman who had helped the little boy, and I found myself getting in the way. If I had had time for rational thought, I doubt I would have done it. Perhaps my long years as Jesus’ secret follower finally spurred me to action. My brain didn’t have time to get in the way, so my heart interceded. And since my heart belongs to Jesus Christ, he propelled me to take a risk, to take a chance, secure in the knowledge that I am always and forever standing under the shadow of his wing. In that moment, I knew Christ was alive in me. He used me as the mother hen, defenseless, chest bared, arms wide, ready to absorb the blow. If I hadn’t known I was secure under his wing, I wouldn’t have had the strength to protect someone under mine.

And so this is my prayer for all my days hence: Lord Jesus Christ, sustain my faith so I can be vulnerable. Be my sheltering wing so I can take risks. Help me spread my arms wide as you did on the cross so I can fully and truly embrace others with your love.

My sister, I bare my heart to you in this letter not to convince you to become a follower of the Way like I am, nor to make you worry for my safety. I have written these words simply because I am not afraid anymore. Jesus Christ is alive in me. Therefore, I am resolved to live my life under the shadow of his wings, with my arms spread wide.

* Special thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor for her words about this passage found here. They unlocked this sermon for me.

Make Your Face Shine

(Sermon for Sunday, November 27, 2011 || Advent 1B || Mark 13:24-37; Psalm 80 )

Imagine with me the Apostle Peter, who is imprisoned in Rome near the end of his life, talking to his cellmate about the day when Jesus spoke about his coming again.

We were used to hearing Jesus say strange things. He would get this faraway look in his eyes, like he was seeing another place and time, or perhaps every other place and time. When we noticed him go distant like that, the twelve of us would gather around close because we knew he would have something to say when he came back to us a moment later. More often than not, the faraway look meant something strange and sometimes unsettling was about to come from his lips. But, as I said, we were used to Jesus saying strange things, having traveled with him for months or years. In fact, I suspect that a few of us – Bartholomew especially – followed Jesus precisely because of those strange things he said.

But this one time was different. I think Bartholomew was just trying to bait Jesus into saying something memorable when he pointed out the architecture around us and said: “Teacher, look! What awesome stones and buildings!”

I don’t think Jesus was in a mood to banter with Bartholomew because his response was short and clipped: “Do you see these enormous buildings? Not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

I remember seeing the smile drain off of Bartholomew’s face. The conversation ended as quickly as it had begun. But Jesus’ words had unsettled me. I knew that the temple had been demolished in the past by invaders, but if the Romans had wanted to destroy such a grand building, wouldn’t they have done so already?

Later that day, we were sitting on the Mount of Olives, and James, John, Andrew, and I went to Jesus privately to ask about what he had said. The temple rose out of the city across from us, and Jesus gazed at those old stones for several minutes. But he had that faraway look in his eyes, so we knew he was seeing something other than Jerusalem’s skyline.

We waited patiently, and finally he came back to us. He spoke in low tones for a time, as if the sky and the trees around us weren’t prepared for what he had to say. He spoke of wars and earthquakes and famines. He spoke of deceivers and false prophets. He spoke of stars falling from the sky and the sun going dark. I had hoped for something comforting after his clipped response to Bartholomew, but what Jesus had to say troubled me even more.

Seeing the distressed look on my face, Jesus squeezed my shoulder and said, “But after this they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.”

He meant the words to be reassuring, but my mind was still filled with images of famine and falling stars. All I could think to say was, “When will this happen, Lord?”

Jesus shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “No one does but the Father. That’s why you need to keep alert. Think what happens at a house when the master goes off leaving the slaves in charge. They don’t know when the master will return – in the evening or at midnight or when the rooster crows or at dawn – so they stay awake.” Jesus fixed his eyes on each of us in turn and said: “The same goes for you: keep awake.”

A week later I failed to do what he said. It was the most important week of Jesus’ life, of my life, and I failed to keep awake to the great power and glory of God being revealed in the world. Even during his trial and crucifixion, even during that pivotal moment, I could not keep awake and alert. Did Jesus know? When his eyes went faraway on the Mount of Olives, did he see me falling asleep in the garden at midnight? Did he hear the rooster crow when I abandoned him? Did he see me sobbing when I realized my betrayal?

After such total failure, I vowed from then on always to keep alert for the Lord’s coming. And over the years, I discovered three things. Very quickly, I discovered just how easily the distractions of this world can lull me to sleep. There is always something other than God clamoring for my attention, something immediate and important. And yet this something doesn’t necessarily lead me astray from following God. Rather, the things that clamor for my attention simply make me walk with my head down so I don’t see God’s glory all around me. The distractions win out much of the time because God doesn’t clamor. God whispers. God nudges. God invites. I don’t know about you, but keeping awake and alert is the only way I ever notice God’s subtle movement.

I also discovered that Christ still comes to me even now – again and again – but like God’s movement, subtly. Now, I know what you’re going to ask. Before you do, the answer is yes. I do believe Jesus when he said the Son of Man will come again in great power and glory. But I also know that I saw him in the face of the woman who brought us fresh clothes, and I see him in you. I know this sounds like a paradox – how can Jesus be present with us here in this rotten prison and still be coming again? I wish I could explain, but I’m no theologian. But Jesus taught me how the truth tastes, and this seeming contradiction tastes true.

Thirdly, I discovered that the best way to keep awake was to keep a light burning. Yes, I know they don’t allow us candles in this stinking cell, but that’s not what I mean. Many years ago, I wandered into a synagogue somewhere in Galilee and found the scroll of the book of psalms open on a table. I glanced down and read the first few lines of the eightieth psalm. And one of them has been with me ever since, rising unbidden from my consciousness whenever I begin to fall asleep. The verse reads: “Restore us, God! Make your face shine so that we can be saved!”

“Make your face shine!” God is the light that shines to keep me awake. Now, my friend, I don’t think you know the history of my people. Well, the psalm was written when Israel was in exile. That’s why they prayed, “Restore us, God!” But what they discovered in exile was that God was there with them even though they assumed God had stayed in Jerusalem. So they prayed: “Make your face shine” so they could see God more clearly when they were far from home. And I have taken up their prayer.

I am far from home. I have been distracted by many things clamoring for my attention. I don’t always notice Christ’s subtle presence in the people I meet. But when this prayer to God springs to my lips – “Make your face shine” – I become more alert. I notice Christ’s face shining in the faces of those I meet. I look up from all the immediate and important things and notice God’s glory shining all around me. I may be far from home. And the Son of Man may not come in great power in glory for years, even centuries. But I have tasted the truth that Christ’s face shines in the darkness of my life. I failed to keep awake during Jesus’ own dark days. But because his face is shining light on my path, I will not fall asleep again.