Sunday, May 04, 2014
Seeking and Finding Jesus
A Sermon for Easter III - May 4, 2014
All Saint's Rehoboth Beach, DE
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton
I think, of all the stories in the Easter Season, this story about the Road to Emmaus is my favorite.
This is my very own Emmaus story. It’s a fairly unorthodox story, as one might now expect from this particular preacher. This is a sermon about finding Jesus when and where you least expect him.
I was a newly ordained priest at my first call as Chaplain at University of Lowell, in Lowell, MA. One of the first mission projects I created was to establish a weekly Eucharist at the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center.
I had carefully trained a handful of students in how to lead worship and, together, we had decided that two of them would come with me to the Center, on a rotating basis.
The third floor of the Center was a 'locked unit' - pretty much a human waste basket for all those people who had been released from psychiatric facilities - where they would stay for a few weeks, be released to the streets for a few weeks and then, readmitted again after a brief stop over at the Lowell Police Station and the City Jail for some obtuse, vague charge as 'disturbing the peace'.
I had secured permission to provide a service of Holy Communion, as it would be advertised, making sure the staff knew that I would be bringing in bread (or, hosts, if need be) and wine.
"Nope," they said, "can't bring in anything - not hosts, not bread - from the outside. Especially not wine."
"Okay," I said, "Can you provide me with a few slices of bread and some grape juice?"
"No bread," they said, "We had a 'suicide-by-stuffing-bread' last year. No bread on the ward. And, no peanut butter. That's even worse."
"Okay," I said, "No problem with the peanut butter. How about some saltine crackers and some grape juice?"
"Deal," they said, "We keep them in packages of two - no 'stuffing' - and you can just open up as many packages as you need."
Imagine my surprise when I appeared for that first service and found, waiting for me, some graham crackers and grapefruit juice.
"It's all we had," they said without apology, adding, "It's the end of the month. Supplies are low."
In I went, to the locked "Recreation Room". I heard the door lock behind me and realized that I was alone in the room with two terrified students and about 25 people who were in all sort and manner of 'altered states' of consciousness.
People were walking around nervously, pacing, smoking, muttering to themselves, occasionally shouting out obscenities.
I set the table, yelled out what was about to happen, and asked people to take their seats.
No one did.
I started anyway - said a few, abbreviated opening words, one of the students read the first lesson, the other led the psalm. I went right to the gospel and then said a few words about it.
To my amazement, some of the folks actually sat down and were listening to me. The room was not exactly quiet, but the din had certainly decreased a few decibels and was now a dull buzz.
As I started to say the Eucharistic Prayer, one woman in the front - Helen, I'll never forget her - spoke up.
Helen's eyes looked like the last 20 or 30 years of her life had witnessed some pretty rough roads. Makeup clung to the deep wrinkles and lines in her face, her eyelids were a bright blue with a crooked line of mascara outlining them, and her lips were a misshapen bright cherry red.
She looked like a tragic clown in a very painfully human circus in this "Recreational Room".
"Hey, are you allowed to do that? I mean, being a woman and all," she asked in a gravely voice.
"Yes," I assured her, "I am an ordained Episcopal Priest."
"Yeah, sure you are" she said, taking a drag from her cigarette, "Well, I can't take communion. Divorced, you know."
"Sure you can," I said, "Everyone is welcome at the Lord's Table."
She looked at the oblong utility table where I had set out the starched, white corporal, and had the shiny silver paten and chalice, raised an eyebrow of suspicion, shrugged her shoulders, and lit another cigarette from the one she had almost finished.
I got through the Eucharistic Prayer and marveled as most of the people in the room seemed to be paying close attention to what I was doing. Perhaps a memory from childhood or an earlier day was awakened, and they recognized this as a holy moment.
Even after the words of institution, the mood in the room remained solemn. As I prepared to distribute communion, Helen called out, "Hey, shouldn't we be singing something?"
"Sure," I said, "Why don't you lead us in singing one of your favorite hymns?"
So, she did.
She leaned back her head, closed her eyes and started singing in the most reverent tones I've ever heard, "She'll be comin' 'round the mountain when she comes. She'll be comin' 'round the mountain when she comes. . . ."
By the third verse, about a dozen or so people joined her. "She'll be be driving six white horses, she'll be drivin' six white horses (big finish) WHEN. SHE. COOOMMMES!!"
You know what? In that moment, when the absurd met reality, and the profane intersected with the sacred, I knew that Jesus was already there, in that locked Recreational Room, on the third floor of the locked ward of the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center, in Lowell, MA.
And, not just in the graham crackers and grapefruit juice.
We had only just brought the church to Jesus.
I wasn't taught that in seminary, but that's what I've come to know is closer to the truth of that wonderful and sacred mystery of Jesus and His body we call 'church'.
I believe Jesus is already with us, here in this church – and I suspect he’s well pleased with what he finds here – but I also believe that we find the face of Jesus in the face of others – many of whom would never darken the door of a church of a Sunday morning.
I believe that Jesus is very pleased when we bring the church to Him – wherever He happens to be – and meet the people of God right where they are – on the road, in their homes, at their jobs, in nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities and hospitals and soup kitchens, and thrift stores and . . . everywhere outside the church walls.
Helen was someone's mother - and sister - and daughter and friend. Helen, and all the other residents of the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center, are children of God and bear the face of Jesus in their faces.
I saw the face of Jesus in Helen’s face.
I hope she saw the face of Jesus in mine.
I hope, when you leave this church this morning, you will be the face of Jesus for others.
I pray that you will see the face of Jesus in others.
This is my Emmaeus story. I believe we all have them – if you think about it. These stories are, by their very nature, unorthodox if not unusual.
But, they shouldn't be.
If we open our hearts and suspend judgment, we will all be able to find Jesus when and where we least expect Him.
And that, my friends, is the Gospel truth.