Sunday, July 05, 2009

When people know Jesus

In 1985 when I was at the end of my thirties, I took a year away from the Episcopal seminary where I had been studying to work as a youth minister in a parish in a small town in Northern California. It was a big step forward, meant taking myself more seriously than I had ever done before and, by the middle of the year, it seemed to be going very well. I was getting good marks for the teaching, preaching and pastoral work I was doing, I was working well with colleagues and congregants, making friends and influencing people, I had even been going to the gym regularly, even faithfully, and was in the best shape of my life.

So when it came time to go back to Berkeley and report to my seminary for the mid-year review everything was working well, except for a broken transmission of my car, so I found myself on a long bus trip from the Northern California town to San Francisco to catch a BART train to Berkeley where this black guy, African American came up alongside of me on the subway platform and it seemed that he wasn’t walking too steady and his clothes looked a little rough and he might have smelled, though from work or dirty clothes or booze I don’t remember. And he said, “Where do I get the train to Oakland?” and he was standing right next to me.

So I looked towards the track to the right and said, “I think you’ll find it over there.” And he raised his voice a bit and said, “I don’t want to know what you think, I want to know what you know.” And I thought, “Well, here it comes” and I looked down and said, “It’s right over there.” And he said, “Look at me!”

So I took a breath and looked at him – and I saw a man who was probably a bit older than I, and tired, probably harder working than I had ever been, who had a few scars and some real serious dignity that he had likely had to fight for over the years. And I felt sorry, for him, yes, but more surprisingly, I felt sorry for myself, and I wasn’t afraid anymore. So I said, “The train for Oakland will be on this platform. He looked at me for a few seconds and said, “Thank you,” then walked away.

And I saw clearly something about me that I hadn’t seen before. Something about how narrow I had become, how snobbish, self-serving, and insulated by my own concerns in a way that kept me disconnected from a world that was big and unpredictable and unsafe and full – maybe – of messengers of God that I might have overlooked in my narrowness of vision. I saw that day that I didn’t see much at all. It’s been over twenty years since then, and I can still see his face. I never knew his name, never will. But I do have a strong hunch where he might have come from and why he spoke to me.

There are some similarities in the Gospel for today. The people in the synagogue thought they knew Jesus well enough. They could tell you all about his history, his genealogy, probably his prospects too, all the stuff that mattered, and there were to be no surprises there. And that’s the saddest thing, because they didn’t see him clearly, couldn’t be surprised, couldn’t see the miracle in the middle of who he was, and who he could be for them. Even Jesus was astonished at their lack of belief, “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”

Let’s link that up with two bits, pericopes that show up earlier in Mark: First, Jesus said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ That connects with last Sunday’s lessons with Mark’s story where the story of the healing of Jairus’s daughter and the unnamed woman who touched Jesus’ garments) are a world away from this insular little community. So what makes the difference? (and here I am quoting from the recent sermon of an American friend from those Berkeley days that I am back on touch with courtesy of Facebook).

“What brings these two people together [Jairus with his dying daughter and the woman with the issue of blood] is their shared desperation and pure, naked need. They have nothing to hide behind or to hide from. Nothing has worked for them, despite the fact that they have each played by the rules and done what they're supposed to do, according to their religion.

“What brings them together is a decision to step outside the boundaries of their society [and I would add their taken-for-granted reality and their religious conventions] and to go directly to Jesus... Interestingly, Jairus and the woman make no confession of faith, no expression of belief in Jesus as Christ. They simply both bring to Jesus their wounded selves, and he responds with generous grace.

"And this is what [is going to] bother... the authorities of the day. God's grace as expressed in Jesus seems nearly wild, it is so far outside of the boundaries of society and religion...That God wishes to touch each and everyone personally and collectively through Jesus Christ. God's grace cannot be limited, even by the structures of...religion... God's generosity, expressed in the grace of Jesus Christ, goes beyond anyone's expectations.”

Unless you already have him all figured out. Unless your structure is built so tight and strong, your scripture, your tradition, your community, unless Jesus himself is so well wrapped that there’s nothing to learn, to see, to surprise, and then it’s all boxed up safe and tight. There is nothing to be learned here unless you can break out of that situation by the new light of Christ.

To quote that wonderful film “The Philadelphia Story”, “The time to make up your mind about people is never!” And the same may be true in the life of faith.

For faith and Love both come in waiting in hope for the unexpected, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things”. That’s where Paul’s line about “power... made perfect in weakness.” makes sense. In the loss of old certainties, new versions, virtues and visions, possibilities and people can break through. The bad news is that they often crack open in crisis, in those dangerous opportunities where old ideas and understandings stumble and die and new possibilities bear forth new beginnings, and it can hurt like hell.

But to reach for God’s light in the moment when we’re caught in an old trap can also open new doors of perception, new understandings, new revelation and new relationship to the reality of God. And that’s a paradox, and a good one. To quote Paul again, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me... For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” For God can be new, amazing, surprising, revelatory when we see him anew, when new possibilities emerge, when the old road dies and leaves us newborn again on another way.

The man on the subway platform in San Francisco forced me to look at him, and in that moment I saw parts of myself that I had never seen before. But I also realized that when we were looking at each other, when he forced me to meet him face to face, that he forgave me. It took me a little longer to come to terms with the depth of my racism and classism and the shallowness of my egoism: all that took awhile and in some way it is still working its way out. But that was my problem and my possibility, not his. He had already forgiven me. It was both all over and all new at that moment and he had left me seeing a world that was somehow all new. And for that I was very thankful. I hope that unsought got surprise happened to some of the people who were left behind after Jesus left that rather self-satisfied synagogue and went on his way.

So maybe that’s why we come together as church sometimes, in this particular subway station of the sprit, in the midst of our disciplined travels and well-planned lives, to be surprised enough to look for God in those we overlook, to be forgiven by those we’ve never seen clearly before, including our Lord: to be renewed in a new vision of the neighbor, the stranger, our very selves. Sometimes it is not easy, but it can be wonderful. So we stop here on in the middle of the journey of our lives, to come to the table and take the nourishment, bread and wine, living water, the flesh and blood and love of God into our lives. So that we can see it all – the world, the friend, the neighbor, the stranger, more clearly when we meet them all face to face, here in the outer suburbs of the Kingdom of Heaven and so that we can continue the ministry of Christ, to be messengers of repentance, refreshment, forgiveness and renewal, enlightenment. To see the world in God’s light and God’s love and God’s life. All in the name of Christ.

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