Come

”Jesus said, ‘See I am coming soon…surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Revelation 22:12, 20

In today’s reading from the Revelation to John, the writer claims he has had a vision in which Jesus is saying, “See, I am coming soon…surely I am coming soon’ —to which John adds this exclamation: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

And, of course, as we move through the seasons of the church year, we are in the habit of reciting numerous prayers from the Book of Common Prayer that express the same sentiment — that voice an eager hope and expectation that the kingdom of God will soon come among us.

For example, on the Third Sunday of Advent, we pray, “Stir up thy power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let thy bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us…”

And there’s that phrase in the Lord’s Prayer — “Your kingdom come” — that we’ve said so often that we tend to mumble it on cruise control.

So concerning Jesus and his kingdom, it seems to me that we are repeatedly offering the same prayer that the author of the Book of Revelation utters in our reading — “Come!”

And we’re so accustomed to saying and hearing these prayers on automatic pilot that most of the time they tend to scoot right past us without even causing the slightest ripple on the surface of our consciousness.

Because we say these prayers for the coming of the kingdom with such numbing regularity, it becomes all too easy for these words to casually, mindlessly trip off our lips.

But maybe we ought to think twice, or maybe three or four times, before we pray for the coming of Jesus’ kingdom — because this short, simple prayer, “Come!,” is actually a dangerous prayer laced with TNT!

I’m not at all sure I’m ready to pray this prayer, because it seems to me this is a risky, unsettling prayer fraught with all sorts of complications and repercussions that might be a whole lot more than I bargained for.

Because to say yes to this prayer is to say yes to various interruptions, changes, and intrusions that will most certainly ransack our plans and thrust upon us obligations and assignments we never intended to take on.

To say, yes, let your kingdom come, is to open ourselves to a host of unimaginable surprises that will stretch, provoke, and remold us, that will overturn our apple-cart, that will challenge and rearrange the way we think and believe, that will propel us into pursuits and adventures we never dreamed of.

Like the grandmother in New York who had retired from four decades of teaching in the public school system and was looking forward to reading the stack of books on her bed stand, going to concerts, taking leisurely walks, and traveling — but when her daughter landed in prison and there was no one else to care for her two children, this grandmother did not hesitate to take them in — and as she watched the 6 and 8 year old girls playing in her living room, she said, “This wasn’t what I planned.” — but then she smiled and said, “But this is my retirement now — they’re mine!”

To say this prayer, come, let your kingdom reign, is to acknowledge that there are surprises in the pipeline headed our way that we can’t manage, manipulate, or control — which is a tough piece of reality for us pragmatic Americans to swallow who like to think that if we devise the right system we can manage anything.

And, of course, we don’t know if the surprises about to roll in on us are going to be welcome and refreshing like a gently spring zephyr or harsh and worrisome like a fierce Alberta Clipper — we don’t know if the surprises looming on the horizon will be reassuring or nervous-making, delightful or disturbing.

For, as we all know, surprises come in all sorts and sizes and degrees of magnitude — these are little surprises and big surprises — there are the mild agreeable surprises like waking up to a cloudless, achingly beautiful day and there are the monstrous, awful surprises when we feel we have been run over by an eighteen-wheeler — there are the thrilling surprises and the disappointing ones — and then there are all those moderate, in between surprises, pleasant and not so pleasant.

Now we hear folks say, I don’t like surprises — and I understand this — because I’m a person who relishes his routines — you know, like sitting down first thing in the morning with my bowl of Cheerios with three kinds of fruit and a pot of tea and the sports page spread out and the NPR news in the background — I like the day to proceed in a predictable, orderly fashion with minimal adjustments and spur of the moment detours.

But think about it — when we scan the years and survey our personal history, doesn’t it seem that almost every highlight and turning point of our sojourn on this earth, every memorable adventure, originated with a surprise?

Doesn’t it seem to you that almost all the critical incidents we recount when we tell our story came to us as surprises? — the friendships that have sprung up, the conversations we will remember for a lifetime, the events that precipitated a seismic shift in our outlook, the vacation that turned into a comedy of errors.

So probably more than we suppose, surprises have figured prominently in shaping the path we have trod.

More than we know, we depend on surprises to keep things interesting, to keep us on our toes — and, of course, not knowing what surprises are coming also keep us running a little scared.

The Kingdom of God is the kingdom of surprises.

And maybe it’s not too far off the mark to say that trusting in the kingdom is trusting that certain kinds of surprises will continue to startle, refresh, and renew us.

Trusting in the kingdom of surprises is trusting that our daily coming and going will continue to be spiced and seasoned with those small, scintillating, head-turning surprises that suddenly remind us that our everyday lives are full of wonders and revelations if we have eyes to see.

The other morning I was walking past the Biltmore and, as I approached the corner of 1st and Main, I noticed that among the cluster of pedestrians waiting for the signal to change was one of the downtown construction workers holding a two by four—when the light changed, everyone started to cross the street except the construction fellow in the hard hat—he stood motionless, stock-still—what in the world, I wondered, is he doing just standing there like a statue?—and then as I drew nearer, I realized that he was a statue, one of J. Sewell Johnson’s City Life statues that just that morning had been positioned at various spots around town—a Biltmore resident sitting nearby was highly amused at my being taken in and let out a snort—I gathered that I was not the first to be fooled and that this was his morning’s entertainment to which I was happy to be a contributor.

Trusting in the kingdom of surprises is to trust that certain surprises will come our way that will make the impossible possible.

When we are up against it, when circumstances have cast us into what the Psalmist calls “the Pit” and we’re beyond “getting a grip”—in fact, we can’t even get a toe-hold—when things seem impossible and all self-help measures have been tried and found wanting—when our hope has shriveled to a mere nothing and, in fact, is dead in the water, it’s precisely then that trusting in the kingdom of surprises means trusting that some surprise that we cannot for the life of us imagine will somehow resuscitate our hope and gladness and make the impossible possible.

When Alice Lesch Kelly was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer at the age of 41, she plied her doctors with all sorts of questions they tried to answer—but none of them could answer her most pressing question which, to quote her, was: “How in the hell did I get breast cancer?”—she had no family history of breast cancer and no major risk factors. She exercised regularly and ate healthfully. She did not smoke and had yearly mammograms. A surgeon told her, “You can do everything right and still get breast cancer. Unfortunately, you drew the short straw.”

Ms. Kelly continued to be obsessed with the question, “Why me?”—that is, until she found herself in a hospital elevator with a bald woman. Ms. Kelly relates that “I had no hair at that time, either, so we started to chat.”

“‘What have you got?’: she asked me. We were like prisoners in the same jail comparing crimes. ‘Stage 2 breast cancer,’ I told her. ‘I’m a Stage 4 ovarian,’ she said.

I could tell by the look on her face that I wasn’t doing a very good job of concealing the look on my face. We both knew that her prognosis was not good. But she wasn’t grieving. She seemed happy.

‘When I was diagnosed, the doctors told me I had two months to live,’ she said with a huge grin. ‘That was more than three years ago.’

We stood in the damp parking garage, talking. She is a single mother with two teen age children. She gets chemo every couple of weeks and works full time because she needs the money and the health insurance. As we chatted, I realized that if she weren’t bald I would never know she was battling a terminal illness.

‘How do you do it?’ I asked her. ‘How do you live each day with cancer hanging over your head?’

She smiled, understanding. ‘I treat every day as an adventure, and I refuse to let anything make me sad, angry or worried,’ she replied. ‘I live for the day, which is something I never did before. Believe it or not, I’m happier now than I was before I was diagnosed.’”

To trust in Jesus’ kingdom of surprises is to trust in surprises that make the impossible possible—it is to trust in the words of the 30th Psalm: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

And then there are those surprises that seem to carry the message, “Lighten up.”

These are the surprises that seem to say to us, “Don’t take yourself so seriously—and don’t wear your religion as though it were a prickly, scarcely bearable hair shirt causing you no end of misery.”

Preachers can take themselves very seriously—especially when they’re preaching.

Early in my ministry two incidents occurred in which two individuals, with perfect timing, dramatically upstaged my preaching—and I always thought this was God operating as trickster, jokester, demonstrating to me that when all is said and done, cosmically speaking, my sermons are no big deal.

The summer after my first year of seminary I was officiating at an evening service in the tiny hamlet of Cave Junction, Oregon—the chapel was set deep in the woods among spruce and Douglas firs—a beautiful setting that spoke volumes about the majesty of creation—and that night I would have been wise to let creation speak for herself—there were about fifteen people of varying ages sitting on wooden benches—I was just rounding into the heart of the sermon when I looked up and a teen age girl in the back row was in the process of throwing up all over the man in front of her—end of sermon and service—later the senior warden said to me, “Don’t take it personally—your sermon wasn’t that bad.”

I guess I didn’t learn my lesson–several years later I was serving as vicar at a new mission church in Eugene, Oregon—we were holding services in the junior high cafeteria with wall to wall windows facing the parking lot and walkway into the building—we’d been meeting for some months when Jackie made her debut—

Jackie was a tall, glamorous, statuesque blond in her late 30s with a striking figure and her clothes always accented her assets—on a certain Sunday just as I was launching into the sermon, Jackie pulled into the parking lot—all heads turned toward the car door now opening—all adult eyes were riveted on Jackie as she got out of the car, walked the length of the windows to the entrance, and then unhurriedly strolled down the center aisle and, and taking her time, slowly got herself situated in the first seat, second row, right hand side—this performance was to be repeated at regular intervals and never failed to elicit a kind of rapt attention that preachers could only dream of—if I had gone on in Pig Latin, no one would have noticed.

To trust in the kingdom of surprises is to trust in surprises that turn our grimness and glumness into peals of redemptive laughter to which Richard Maxwell bears witness.

He writes, “I was walking up Broadway in the low 90s enjoying the warm air and bright sunshine—stopping for a traffic light, I noticed a couple of women on the opposite curb, also waiting for the light to change. When it did we all started to cross the street.

A fast moving car appeared from nowhere, speeding toward us. We all froze as the car screeched to a halt only a few feet from us.

One of the women I had noticed earlier wheeled to face the driver. I expected to hear a few choice epithets—

Instead, with a hand gesture worthy of the Supremes, she sang, ‘Stop, in the name of love!’ Without a thought I sang the next phrase, ‘Before you break my heart.’

Startled by our spontaneity, we stared at each other for a moment, and then sang together, ‘Think it o-o-ver.’

We laughed, high-fived, and continued on our ways.”

Amen

The Rev. Robert Dwight
7 Easter
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
5/20/07

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The Other Part II

“The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, ‘because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’”

Exodus 2:5-10

You might say that today’s Exodus lesson is all about Moses—his birth, his escape from Pharaoh’s wrath, and the launching of his career.

But, to my mind, the leading character in this story, and the most intriguing character, is Pharaoh’s daughter.

Some of you fellow seniors who were around when radio was in vogue might recall that when the Lone Ranger would gallop off in a cloud of dust, inevitably some dazzled bystander would shake his head and mutter, “Who was that masked man?”

Well, if we shine a light on the exploits of Pharaoh’s daughter in this lesson and how she pulls off an astounding intervention, we might well ask, who is this mystery woman?—who is this amazing, audacious woman who suddenly outshines and surpasses everyone else in the story and yet is not even given a name in the text?

Pharaoh’s daughter’s appearance in the text is brief indeed—her part in the story is only five verses long, and then she is gone, never to be heard from again.

But these five verses are packed with significance.

In these five verses, this Egyptian princess does the unthinkable.

In one stunning moment of humaneness and mercy, she makes a fateful choice—she chooses to rescue this wailing alien child adrift in the reeds rather than obey her father Pharaoh’s command— by so doing, she embraces an allegiance to this child that is stronger and deeper than her allegiance to her nation, her family, her ethnicity, and the customs and conventions of her society.

This is really a staggering thing Pharaoh’s daughter does—by claiming as one of her own a child who belongs to a tribe the Egyptians despise and mistrust, she performs an act of daring, breathtaking hospitality—

For surely she knows that by taking this child under her wing and ignoring her father’s decree, she runs the risk of being charged with high treason.

And we learn from how the story unfolds that the investment of Pharaoh’ daughter in the welfare of this child is not a momentary whim, that she is not just a flash-in-the pan—she obviously keeps tabs on the boy as he grows and matures, for we are told that years later she adopts him and receives him into her own inner circle of privilege and royalty and gives him the name Moses.

The story of Moses’ rescue might be called “Saved by an Enemy”— but, of course, Pharaoh’s daughter turns out be a “beloved enemy” who crosses over a seemingly impassable boundary of strife and animosity between the Egyptians and Israelites to spare a child.

Now this story was probably written in its present form around seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus.

But when we consider how the motherly mercy of Pharaoh’s daughter reaches across a seemingly unbridgeable gulf of tribal conflict, difference, and otherness and claims this marooned little orphan as one of her own, I think we can say with assurance that she is looking at this child through the prism of the gospel.

In fact, it is easy to imagine Jesus using this story of Pharaoh’s daughter the way he used the story of the disreputable Samaritan coming to the aid of a traveler who had been assaulted—as a parable of how an outsider to our own religious tradition can teach us a thing or two about the spirit of gospel hospitality.

I think it’s very, very hard for us to appreciate just how shocking Jesus’ practice of hospitality is— in episode after episode in the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth passes over religious, ethnic, and social boundaries to acknowledge and befriend strangers and aliens of various kinds and claim them as his own.

And again and again Jesus of Nazareth urges his followers and us to be more hospitable to strangers and outsiders, those who are unlike us—but alas, for us more easily said than done.

Because, of course, there is this ferocious instinct in our species to exclusively associate with those who are like us and to avoid or disparage those who are conspicuously different from us, who are noticeably other—an instinct reinforced by powerful social pressures and taboos.

Remember that song from “South Pacific”?

“You’ve got to be taught
  To hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught
  From year to year
It’s got to be drummed
  in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught
  To be afraid
Of people whose eyes
  are oddly made
And people whose skin
  Is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught
  Before it’s too late
Before you are 6 or 7 or 8
  To hate all the people
  your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught”

Or there’s Anita in “West Side Story” singing”

“A boy like that will give you sorrow,
You’ll meet another boy tomorrow,
One of your own kind,
Stick to your own kind!”

How deeply Jesus’ sense of hospitality cuts across the grain of our natural impulse to only cultivate the company of those who are like us!

So here’s the question—when we tend to be so captive to the reflex of “sticking to our own kind,” how can we ever begin to follow the examples of Pharaoh’s daughter and Jesus of Nazareth who so gracefully passed over boundaries to acknowledge the stranger, the alien, the other, as one of their own?

Because what I need is nothing less than a new mind, a bigger mind, a mind that is vastly more generous and compassionate—along with new eyes and ears—and yet I know I’m quite incapable of performing such a wholesale make-over on myself.

Here’s the good news—we don’t have to refurbish and renovate ourselves—we don’t have to do a remodeling number on ourselves—we don’t have to struggle and strain to fashion a new self.

The good news is the opposite of that—the good news is we just need to let ourselves be transformed—we just need to entrust ourselves to the Spirit who is closer to us than breath or hands or feet and is ever wanting to grow in us a new, more spacious, bountiful, curious, merciful mind—we just need to let it happen to us

Because, as Paul suggests in today’s Epistle, what is impossible for us, the Spirit can accomplish—he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God…”

The Spirit can do what we cannot do for ourselves—bring forth in us a new, lively, inquisitive, generous mind that is able to leap over the constraints of like-mindedness and perceive the stranger, the alien, the other, in a new light.

To have our minds renewed and illuminated by the Spirit is to be able to imagine what it is like to be someone else, the stranger, the other.

To have our minds enlightened and enlarged by the Spirit is to be able to cross over all sorts of boundaries to claim the other as one of our own—the way Pharaoh’s daughter and Jesus of Nazareth and Huck Finn crossed over boundaries.

After Huck Finn has struck up a friendship with a slave named Jim and helped Jim escape from his owner, Huck starts worrying about something he’s heard, that anyone who helps a runaway slave is going straight to hell.

So Huck writes a note to Jim’s owner, Miss Watson, telling her where Jim is hiding.

But then as Huck thinks about Jim being caught and once again being deprived of his freedom, he begins to imagine all the good times he and Jim have shared, how they floated along on their raft, talking, singing, and laughing—he imagines how they passed the days and evenings together, fishing and cooking, sitting by the fire and telling stories, and how much he treasured Jim’s company, how much they helped each other.

And he suddenly realizes that Jim is the best friend he’s ever had—and in a heartbeat he decides, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and he tears up the paper.

To have our minds transformed by the Spirit is to be liberated from the shackles of preconceived bias so that we begin to imagine the actual reality of the other.

Oh, that our minds might be enlightened and enlarged by the Spirit so that we can begin to imagine the reality of the stranger, the other— so that we might be able to discern the mystery and majesty of God hidden in the face of the stranger, even if that face is scowling and scornful—so that we might be able to do the impossible, to cross over seemingly impassable boundaries and claim the other as one of our own.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Pentecost 15
10:30 a.m.
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
8/24/08