A Sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast
The first time I stepped into a pulpit to preach, my knees knocked together so hard I thought I was going to fall over.
I was a brand new, first year, over-achieving seminarian at Christ Church, Hyde Park, Boston, MA. Christ Church was a small, struggling congregation in a neighborhood which was once home to some of Boston’s elite but now found itself in the midst of a rapidly changing demographic.
Stop me if you’ve heard this sort of story before. Sounds familiar, right? Sounds like the story of lots of churches – Episcopal and other main line denominations as well as Roman Catholic churches – across the country over the last 30-40 years.
I went there specifically because that church was in an interim transition and my supervisor would be a laywoman who was Sr. Warden and the Executive Director of the newly formed Neighborhood Food Program which was part of the church’s ministry. I thought it would be a helpful model with which to have experience because, the more I read, the more I became convinced that this type of ministry was something that would be replicated in many congregations.
The first Sunday I went to visit to see if this church would be a good fit for me, there was supply priest who was filling in until the interim arrived. A rather portly man – "a corpulent cleric" – he actually waddled up the aisle in his green chasuble. When he got to his place in front of the altar, one of our little ones whispered – in that loud whisper kids have – “Mommy, why is that man dressed up like an avocado?”
A few people moved uncomfortably in their seats. I hushed her and got her to color something with the crayons we had brought along. The preacher was about 15 minutes into what turned out to be a 30-minute, rambling something that the bulletin said was a sermon, when that same child sighed loudly and said, “Mommy, I want to see Jesus. Where is Jesus?”
There were chuckles and giggles all around us. Right. It’s all fun and games until it’s YOUR kid who says something like that.
A month later, I found myself preaching for the first time in that same pulpit. As the organ played and the choir sang the second verse of the Gradual hymn, I climbed the stairs that led into the pulpit.
The first thing I noticed was there was a small clock built into the left hand side of the railing. It was stopped at 1. Maybe the message was, “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”
On the right hand side was a built in, pullout ashtray. No joke. An ashtray.
Apparently, it was once the custom for clergy to smoke as they preached. I couldn’t imagine such a thing but then I remembered that all the men in my family smoked during their meals or while changing the oil in the car or as they raked leaves in the lawn. It was just what they did.
But, what hit me hard in the pit of my stomach and almost brought me to my knees was the small, tarnished gold plate in the center of the pulpit. It said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:21). Suddenly the weight of responsibility of preaching was almost too much to bear. I felt singularly unqualified for the task and completely overwhelmed.
Well, I’m here today as proof that I made it through but I learned some very important things. At the end of the service as I greeted folks at the door, several remarked that I needed to slow down – that I talked too fast – which they kindly understood as my understandable anxiety.
But it was one man who startled me when he said, “That was a good, solid sermon. You’ll need to slow down, but I must say that I was struck by all the feminist imagery.”
Feminist imagery? What the heck was he talking about? I asked my beloved and she shrugged her shoulders. I read my sermon over and over and over again and couldn’t find anything that could be even vaguely construed as “feminist imagery”.
Bright and early Monday morning, I walked over to 8 o’clock chapel and positioned myself to snag Sue Hiatt, one of my professors, at the end of the service. Sue was one of the Philadelphia Eleven – the first eleven women to be ordained in the Episcopal Church – and one of the wisest women I’ve known.
I shoved a copy of my sermon in her hands and pleaded, “Please read this and please tell me where you see ‘feminist imagery’.”
Sue chuckled that low chuckle of hers and said as she handed my sermon back to me, “I don’t need to read your sermon to answer your question.” I’m sure I looked completely bewildered as she said, “It’s YOU, Elizabeth. YOU are the feminist imagery.”
She put her arm around me as we walked to the refectory for some desperately needed coffee, “I’m guessing you are the first woman they’ve ever seen in the pulpit. Their eyes need to adjust. They are used to seeing what they think is the "alter Christus - the image of Jesus.”
“You thought you were there to learn, and you are. But you are also there to teach. What you are there to teach them is to see the Jesus in themselves and each other and then they’ll be able to see the Jesus in you when you stand in that pulpit. That’s the task of servant leadership – to help others find the holy in themselves so they can recognize it in others who don’t match their expectations.”
I’ve come to know the great wisdom in Sue’s words.
This morning’s Gospel begins to set the stage for Palm Sunday and Holy Week, which are coming upon us fast in just a week from today. Jesus and his disciples have been visiting the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany where Jesus has raised his good friend Lazarus from the dead.
In many churches but especially in Orthodox Churches, the Sunday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Sunday. All day Saturday, many women in many kitchens were making Lazarakia Bread – a sweet, spicy bread, flavored with warm spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and cardamom and fashioned to look like a mummy, with cloves for eyes and a mouth. Next year, I’ll teach you how to bake it.
The first part of the 12th Chapter of John’s Gospel (vs. 9-11) tells this part of the story, noting that “a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.”
The very next day, this crowd made their way toward Jerusalem for the celebration of the Festival of Passover because they had heard of the wonders and miracles and teachings of Jesus. Numbered among the crowd were some Greeks who came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Those are the very words which were inscribed in that pulpit at Christ Church, Hyde Park, MA. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” What I’ve learned is that there is great wisdom in the words of another of my professors who said that, just as people are hungry and thirsty for the real presence of Jesus in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the wine, so are they also hungry for the Word of God to be broken open so they might feast and be nourished and fed by scripture.
What I’ve discovered is that this is both the longing and the destination of the Christian journey: To see Jesus.
Here’s the thing, though. Our destination is as close to us as our next breath. Because of our baptism, Jesus lives in me and Jesus lives in you.
Indeed, in our baptismal vows, we promise “to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving (y)our neighbor as (y)ourselves.” (BCP 305). Having made that promise, the next vow follows naturally, we will “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
When we find Jesus “in all persons,” it is no longer a task to work for justice and peace. When we “love our neighbor as ourselves” it is not a struggle to “respect the dignity of every human being.”
My work in this sermon and in every sermon is to break open the Word so that you can see Jesus, who is the Logos, the Word of God in scripture, the Word of God among us, the Word of God within us. Every sermon is a response to the request of the Greeks, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Every Palm Sunday, I look at the characters in the Passion who make me most angry, or disgusted, or for whom I feel the most empathy. I pick one and look at what parts of my own soul they reflect. It's not an easy meditation, but it makes for an amazing Easter.
This quote from Carl Jung in his book “Memories, Dreams and Reflections” is always helpful to prepare me for the experience:
“The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life. (NB: Read that sentence again. Let it sink in.) That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues.
What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ.
But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself – that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness – that I myself am the enemy who must be loved – what then?
As a rule, the Christian’s attitude is then reversed; there is no longer any question of love or long-suffering; we say to the brother within us, “Raca,” (which means, literally ‘empty head’ or ‘foolish’ or ‘worthless’) and condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world; we refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.”
What if you honestly believed that Jesus really lives in you? How much more effective would you be as a baptized minister of Christ if you first understood yourself to stand in need of the alms of your own kindness? How might you be able to love your enemy if you saw the enemy within and loved him or her first?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but what if, when we saw someone new walking into the church, we saw the sign of the cross rather than a dollar sign (and, if we tell the truth, that’s exactly what some of us see, isn’t it)?
What if we recognized something in them because we knew it in ourselves? And, we were finally honest with ourselves about that.
Not to lord over them but to stand with them in solidarity and empathy. To say, 'Welcome to the Church of All Sinners and Saints. We’re broken, too. But, we are healing and you can find healing and hope, too.'
Might we stop looking at the externals of a person – beyond the outer images of old and young, rich and poor, male and female, race and creed – and begin to see them as God knows them: by what is in the essence of their humanity because we know that essence in ourselves?
At the end of today’s gospel, we hear Jesus say, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
As Desmond Tutu once preached, “All means . .. all. Old, not so old. Young, not so young. Straight, not so straight. African. Asian (and Pacific Islanders). Native American. European. All. All. All. All. All.”
All is an embrace wide enough to stretch out our arms and find them, like Jesus, on the hard wood of the cross and know for ourselves the suffering of Jesus for the whole world.
Oh, one last thing: If you ever feel your knees knocking and you feel like you’re going to fall over? Don’t worry. You won’t. It just means that Jesus is very near - as near to you as the words about to come out of your mouth.