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Sunday, October 01, 2006

Exaggerating to make a point

“Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:38-50
Pentecost XVII – October 1, 2006
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
The Rev’d Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Sometimes you have to exaggerate to make a point. That’s exactly what we hear Jesus doing in this morning’s gospel. Seems to me that’s part of Moses’ lament in the lesson from Numbers.

On the surface, the gospel seems like anything but “Good News.” The imagery is actually quite violent, isn’t it? Talk of tying a millstone around an offender’s neck and being thrown into the sea – cutting of offending hands and feet, plucking out eyes – as the kids would say, “Euuww!”

At our weekly Bible Study at staff meeting, it was Tim Wong who questioned the passage at the end of this chapter. “What the heck does this mean?” he asked. I had to spend some time with the Greek and Hebrew translations before I understood it myself. It is Eugene Peterson’s translation that provided the best help. Listen to what he writes:

“And if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away. You’re better off one-eyed and alive than exercising your twenty-twenty vision from inside the fire of hell.” Peterson has kept the exaggeration to make the point, but the point is made much clearer, I think, in this translation. Here’s how he ends the chapter, which is the question Tim raised and the point I want to speak about this morning: “Everyone’s going to go through a refining fire sooner or later, but you’ll be well-preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.”

Everyone’s going to go through a refining fire sooner or later. Sometimes it is life that exaggerates to make a point. I don’t know that there’s anyone in this church who hasn’t experienced the refining fire of life – those tests and challenges that life seems to place in your path at precisely the wrong time. Except, years later, when you’ve made it through and look back and reflect on the experience, you think to yourself, “Hmm . . .yes . . . I see now. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but I learned so much from that experience I never would have learned any other way.”

Sometimes, life exaggerates to make a point. Of the four elements in life – earth, water, air, and fire – nothing exaggerates more boldly than the element of fire. Scott Sanders, in his book, “Writing from the Center,” talks about the unending supply of images which nature provides for the stories we tell. He writes, “Earth is stubborn, conservative, and slow, with a long memory. Water is elusive and humble, seeking the low places. Air is a trickster, fickle and shifty. Fire is fierce, quick, greedy and bold.” Ask anyone who has experienced loss of a home or belongings in a fire. They will be quick to agree.

Everyone’s going to go through a refining fire sooner or later. It’s life’s way of exaggerating to make the point that you couldn’t have gotten any other way. In November of 2002, the Sunday after my first Thanksgiving here, there was a terrible fire here in town. It was just a month after the house across the street from it had burned in a fire. Indeed, on that very morning, the husband of “Family #1” was at the old apartment, sorting through the burned out ruins of his former home, looking for trinkets and tokens of his former life, when he heard the eerie sound of fire trucks. At first, he thought he was having 'dejavu all over again' until he noticed the flames of fire licking at the window of his sister’s apartment.

Known as “Family #2” they were actually all part of the same family of immigrants who had moved here from their native land of Columbia, the way hundreds of thousands of people have come to this country for its freedom and democracy. They had come to this country for the same reason the early pilgrims came – to enjoy a new way of life which values initiative and creativity and free spirit.

I was called into the situation to speak to one of the men who was burned out of that dwelling. Actually, he had lived in that very apartment for 12 years, but gave it up several years ago to allow his friend and his beloved and their son to move in while he and his wife and son moved into a larger apartment closer to her place of employment.

His father had just died in July and he and his family returned to Columbia to comfort his bereaved mother. He had just returned at the end of October without his family to try and save up enough money to have them return. He moved – temporarily – into his old apartment with his friend and his family, just until he could get on his feet again and bring his own family back to America.

And then, his world turned upside down. A chauffeur by profession, he was driving a couple from the Newark Airport to their home in Mendham that Sunday morning when he got the call that his apartment was on fire. He didn’t say anything, but took the Chatham exit and drove into the nearby gas station to see for himself. The couple naturally raised concern and question about why they had taken this detour. As he began to drive them back to Mendham he said only, “See that apartment? It is where I live.”

Later, in my office, he showed me a letter that couple had sent him with, commending him for his professionalism and courtesy, and sending him a $100 check. As I read the letter aloud to him (he can speak but not read English) he burst into tears and said a most amazing thing. Wiping the tears from his eyes he sobbed, “Their kindness is too much for my broken heart.”

I suspect it was the first time he had really allowed himself to cry. He wept and he sobbed for what seemed like a very, very long time as I held him and rocked him in my arms. It became very clear that he was crying for all the losses in his life. He cried for the losses the fire – all of his clothes, his pictures, his jewelry – the stuff of his life. He also cried for the loss of his father – just four months prior, but just now being felt more deeply than he thought he could bear. He cried for the loss of his country, which, he said, was no longer his home. “I’m an American now,” he said. “I just need to become a citizen.”

He cried for the loss of his family – his beloved wife and his eleven-year-old son. He cried because he said he wanted to be with them on the “Day of Thanksgiving.” He cried because he said that without them, he had never felt so alone. And he cried thinking of the one thing lost in the fire that he would never be able to replace – an antique watch, which once belonged to his grandfather, which had been given to him by his own father just five hours before he died.

He cried until his tears put out the fire in his heart. He cried until there were no more tears and then he slumped in the chair, exhausted and spent in the emotion which had been welling up in him for four days. He rested a bit and then we prayed together before he had to chauffer another client from Newark airport to Morristown. Strange, isn’t it? How one person’s kindness could be the vehicle of such healing.

As I was heading out of the office later that day, I ran into my friend in the parking lot. He came running toward me, jubilant and excited. “Look!” he exclaimed, opening his hand to reveal a small box. As he moved closer to me, the smell of smoke on that little box was surprisingly strong, but the scent of memory and love that emanated from that box when it opened was enough to overcome the stench of the flames of destruction.

A little miracle had occurred. It was his grandfather’s watch! He had spoken with one of the firemen and asked if he could go back inside the apartment to get some of his things. The fireman said no he couldn’t but if it were really important, he would go up and look for what he wanted. His description of the location of the watch was so good, the fireman found it in no time flat. My friend thanked the fireman profusely and then immediately came to the church to show me.

“I came to say thank you to God for finding my grandfather’s watch,” he said. “I came to say thank you to God for the things I still have – my life, my health, my family. Even though we are apart, I know now that we will one day soon be together again. I came, only to say this: Thank you God.”

Sometimes you have to exaggerate to make a point. Sometimes, it is life that exaggerates to make a point you couldn’t have learned any other way. “Everyone’s going to go through a refining fire sooner or later,” Peterson translates Jesus, “but you’ll be well preserved, protected from the eternal flames. Be preservatives yourselves. Preserve the peace.”


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