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Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Devil and Mr. Jones


A Sermon for Lent II – February 25, 2016 
St. Martin in the Field, Selbyville
(the Rev’d Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton

Sometimes, what we see in front of us is not the end. Sometimes, what looks like the end is just the beginning.  Sometimes, we forget the fact that before there can be resurrection, something – or someone – has to die.

In this morning’s gospel from Mark, Jesus is telling his disciples how the story ends. He’s flipped through the pages of the book of his life to the last page and tells him that he is going to be turned over to the authorities, that he will suffer and be killed.

But, not to worry. He’ll suffer and die but there is a happy ending. He will rise again. Because the ending is not always the ending. Sometimes, it’s just the beginning.

Peter is understandably upset. He doesn’t understand. He’s confused. He has left everything behind to follow this man, and for what? For him to suffer and die? 

And, resurrection? What does that even mean, really? In those days, people who claimed to be the messiah and who promoted resurrection were a dime a dozen. All Peter could focus on was the part about suffering and death.

Peter suddenly comes to a startling realization: if that’s going to happen to Jesus, Peter’s own life suddenly doesn’t look so great, either. So, Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to tell him to stop saying stuff about death and destruction and all that foolishness about resurrection.

And, what does Jesus do? Jesus yells at him,
“Get behind me, Satan!”
That’s pretty harsh, right? I mean, calling one of his best friends and most ardent supporters and faithful followers, “Satan”?

Well, actually, the Hebrew equivalent of the word Jesus calls Peter is ha-satan, which doesn’t mean “devil” at all. It’s not even a proper name, really. It simply means “the accuser” or “the adversary.”

Jesus isn’t saying that Peter is the Devil or Evil. He’s not saying Peter is “Satan”. He’s saying Peter is ha-satan. Peter is being an adversary, an accuser.

So Jesus tells him, “Get behind me.” Put your protests aside. Don’t oppose me; I have to do this. This is what I’m called to do. Jesus is telling Peter to follow him and be a disciple, get with the program or get out of the way.

Sometimes, what we see in front of us is not the end. Sometimes, what looks like the end is just the beginning.  Sometimes, we forget the fact that before there can be resurrection, something – or someone – has to die.

This may come as something of a surprise to you but, long ago in another galaxy far, far away, I was once a registered nurse. Indeed, over the years I’ve become convinced that God called me first to be a nurse to prepare me for what it means to be a priest. And, a mother. And, in fact, a better Christian.

It’s a long story which I’ll share at another time but I want to tell you about the time I was a public health nurse in Maine. See also: long ago in another galaxy far, far away.

At the time, I was living and working in Portland, Maine. I was young and pretty full of myself. I thought I was going to save the world – or, at least, a little corner of the earth and maybe a few people along the way.

My title said it all: I was a High Risk Maternal and Infant Specialist. I worked with very young very new moms – teenagers – some as young as 12 or 13. I visited them weekly, teaching them the basics of childcare as well as providing them information about their own bodies so they wouldn’t get pregnant again – well, at least, not for a while.

I can’t remember the specifics but I think either my census was low or the overall census was high – whatever the issue, I was asked to help out on the medical-surgical team. I was not pleased. Most of the patients were old and dying and, remember, I was young and going to save the world. That’s why I put all my energy and passion into caring for young mothers and their babies.

I was young and arrogant and, despite all my education, quite stupid. I was about to learn a lesson in just how young and arrogant and stupid I really was.

I was asked to see an elderly man, one Mr. LeRoy T. Jones who lived over on A street – affectionately known as “The Alphabet City” – downtown, behind the old Greyhound Bus Station, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks.

His street address told me that he was an African American man who lived in the “shabby” section of town. I knew the neighborhood well as a few of my patients lived over in Alphabet City.

It was a hot morning in August when I pulled up A street in my car and I was rendered almost breathless at the corner lot of the home of Mr. Jones. While his home was small and modest, the flowers that surrounded it were an absolute riot of the luxury of color and beauty. It was really an amazing sight to behold amidst the rest of the shabby, almost shanty houses in the neighborhood.

I followed the path around the house and saw that the whole of the backyard was a vegetable garden, filled with corn and carrots, pole beans and tomatoes, potatoes and yams, beets and zucchini.

I stopped to put down my bag and wipe my brow and take in this amazing site when I heard Mr. Jones yell, “Ho! Is that the nurse? I’m over here, near the back steps, by the faucet.”

I looked, and sure enough, there he was. I can still see him. A wee little slip of a man, he sat upright on a wooden box, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and bow tie and a proper straw fedora on his head. A large pair of sunglasses completed his dapper summer look.

He greeted me warmly as he dragged another wooden box from behind him and motioned to it for me to sit down, all the while talking about what a beautiful morning it was and how lovely I looked.

This was all quite remarkable to me because, you see, Mr. Jones was blind. He was a brittle diabetic who had lost his sight years ago to the disease – no doubt because he had not gotten proper care, despite the excellent health insurance and pension he received as a former railroad worker. He also had crippling arthritis and had a difficult time moving around and, on bad days, walking.

After we exchanged pleasantries I mentioned the beauty of the garden and how fortunate he was to live in the midst of it – flowers all around and vegetables in the back. He threw back his head and laughed in absolute delight that I had noticed. 

“Whose garden is this? Is this your garden, sir?” I asked.

Again, Mr. Jones threw back his head and laughed. “Whose garden is this?" he roared.

"Why, this is MY garden, of course,” he said.

“Your garden?” I asked. “My, my my!” I exclaimed in wonder. “But, excuse me, sir,” I asked. “Who tends your garden?”

Well, now Mr. Jones could hardly contain himself. He practically fell off his wooden crate, his little body was shaking so hard with laughter.

“Who tends my garden? Who tends my garden? Why child,” he said, “I do. I tend my garden.”

I was momentarily relieved that he was blind and couldn’t see the embarrassment on my face but then suddenly realized that you don’t have to have eyes to see. Still, I pressed on.

“But, Mr. Jones,” I said, “How can you tend your garden? You are blind, sir,” I said almost in a whisper. “How can you tell a weed from a sprout? And your body and hands are all crippled up! How do you manage? Shouldn’t you be taking it easy? I mean, a man of your age and condition?”

(See also: young, arrogant and quite stupid.)

I suppose Mr. Jones could have been angry and yelled at me. Instead, he laughed again and took pity on me, poor young, arrogant stupid soul that I was.

“Well now,” he said with a chuckle “This is when Jesus said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’ By which he didn’t mean, devil,” Mr. Jones explained, a far better biblical scholar then than I would ever be. “When Jesus said ‘Satan’ he meant, ‘accuser’.”

Mr. Jones reached behind his wooden crate and pulled out a few old burlap bags. “See these?” he said as he held them up. “Well, I just throw one of these down on the ground there. Then, I just throw myself on top of it. It helps me to glide better through the rows. I suppose I look funny but I can’t see myself so it don’t matter much to me,” he chuckled.

 “I feel around the rows for weeds, and I probably pull a sprout instead of a weed every now and then, but you know,” he chuckled again, “mostly I do alright.”

“See, child,” he said, leaning himself closer to me as if he were going to tell me one of the great secrets of the universe, “this is the work that the Lord has given me to do, now. I used to work on the railroad so products and fresh produce could be delivered to the people of the city."

"Now, I grow beautiful things for my neighbors and I give away most of my vegetables so the children here can grow up strong. Maybe I look like a fool to the folks who don’t know but that don’t matter. It may just look like flowers and vegetables to you, but it’s much more than that.”

“This world can be an ugly place,” he explained, “filled with ugly people who do mean, ugly things. But, the world can also be a beautiful place, filled with flowers and trees and butterflies and bees that make food for the eyes and the soul as well as the body.”

“I want the people here to know that once there was a man who lived among them who chose beauty over ugly, food over hunger, hope over despair. That means I have to die a little bit to myself every day. Got to let my pride die in order to do this work that the Lord has given me to do. Got to suffer a little bit of pain in order for beauty to grow and flourish.”

He lowered his glasses and his cloudy eyes looked straight into mine and asked. “See?”

“Yes, sir, I do, sir.” I answered, “I believe I do. I stand accused.”

“And you have been found guilty,” Mr. Jones said, putting his glasses back over his eyes before he broke into a serious, wide grin, “of having a kind heart,” he laughed.

“Guilty as charged,” he roared, laughing so hard he almost fell off his wooded crate.

And, I laughed right along with him.

If I close my eyes, I can still hear his laughter, and mine, that hot sunny day in August in Alphabet City, over on the other side of the tracks, behind the Greyhound Station in Portland, Maine.

Sometimes, what we see in front of us is not the end.

Sometimes, what looks like the end is just the beginning. 

Sometimes, we forget the fact that before there can be resurrection, something, something inside us – or someone, the person we thought we were – has to die.

Something inside me died that day. I think it was a bit of my youthful arrogance. I came to understand that it had to die in order for something new to be born in me. A new understanding of my life. A new understanding of my vocation. A new understanding of what God was calling me to do.

And, the passion I had was resurrected and transformed into greater compassion.

Before there can be resurrection, something has to die.

Sometimes what looks like the end is just the beginning.

That’s how new life begins. 

That’s how ugly becomes beauty. 

That’s how despair becomes hope.

And, that’s how the accused become disciples.

Amen.

5 comments:

Linda McMillan said...

Now, THAT, my friend, is a sermon! I want to spend a little time thinking about that one. Thank you. One of your best, I think.

Ann said...

Yes -- The truth.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

THANKS, LINDY.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

THANKS, ANN.

THAT STORY HAS STAYED WITH ME ALL THESE YEARS LATER. TRUTH HAS A WAY OF DOING THAT.

Grace-WorkinProgress said...

Sometimes when I feel alone and lonely I think about how Jesus must have felt that way most of his life. Every one wanting something or looking for him to have the answers and of course he did didn't he. Who could he go to a shoulder to lean on.

I admire the man in your story and the way he made to most of his situation. It is hard to know when we experience death in our lives especially the death of our spirit sometimes whether it will be resurrected. With the miracle of time it does return.