By: David H. May, Rector
Bob Hetherington used a little phrase in his sermon on the day of Epiphany that has stuck with me over these past six weeks. Bob said the words, but as he always prays beforehand, I think God must’ve made them God’s words, at least for me. Bob talked about how we were entering into the season of Epiphany. And he said, Epiphany is the ‘season of revelation’. I’ve carried that as a hope that in this season, God would reveal to us what we hadn’t seen before and hadn’t known before of his loving purposes and couldn’t have seen or known if God hadn’t shown us.
Here’s a simple example of revelation. Maybe there’s someone in church you’ve seen right there in their pew. And you’ve seen them there for the three years or the thirty years you’ve been coming to this church. But the truth is, you’re not quite sure who they are or even, truthfully, what their name is. You’ve just never quite ended up in each other’s lives. Nothing intentional. You’ve just never really crossed paths.
But then one Sunday, you run into him in the narthex after church. You thought he was heading for the door but then he turns and there you are face to face. There’s a moment, a little recognition, a pause. Then he says to you, “Good morning.” And then, “when I come into church, I always see you in your pew there. I know we don’t really know each other, but it always makes me glad to know you’re there. Hope that’s not too odd a thing to say.”
That’s a revelation. Something you couldn’t have known on your own. Who knew? God is using you to give a blessing and you never even knew it. Maybe it seems like a small thing. Maybe it is. But maybe even a small revelation like that changes things in a bigger way. And maybe God is there revealing something bigger.
If this is the season of revelation, what is it that Jesus is revealing in his teaching this morning. What is he showing us that we just couldn’t see on our own? And how is seeing in this new way supposed to change us? And change us so that we can be his disciples too? So that we can speak in his name and act as he would on his behalf?
On the face of it, we might say that it sure looks like God is naming a list of winners and losers. On one side the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful and those who aren’t spoken well of. On the other side are the rich, those who’ve had plenty to eat, are laughing and are well spoken of. The first group are the blessed ones; the second are the woeful ones. Winner and losers.
The truth is, at least as the Bible tells the story, God does seem to be on the side of the poor and to have a soft spot for the hungry; God does tend to pick the runt of the litter and the ones we wouldn’t dream of picking to lead the team in a million years. God does seem to bless those with bad luck or no luck at all, the ones with the wrong name, the wrong past and the ones with no future they can count on.
And I think God does that, because maybe they’re the only ones who’ll listen to him. Not to put too fine a point on it but what would lead me to rely on God if I’m doing just fine on my own?
But maybe you can already see that it’s not a list of winners and losers. Maybe it’s more about those who know that if there is no God to take their part, well then they’re in even more trouble that they thought.
Some beautiful and good souls from our parish have been in Quito, Ecuador since this past Monday. They come home tomorrow. I don’t know but my guess is that God has been showing them things about what it means to be rich and poor, sorrowful and laughing, empty and filled up, and spoken well of and spoken of with contempt. And as I’ve thought about them this past week, my memory has been filled up with a trip I went on while I was in seminary. It was a revelation of blessedness and woe and a sign of where God’s heart is. I went with a group of about 25 juniors at Sewanee (modestly known as the University of the South!) on a mission trip to Kingston, Jamaica. These kids were the best and the brightest, for sure. They came from prestigious families in Birmingham, Dallas, Charleston, Savannah. They were studying at an elite institution with the best of everything. And they were also really good kids, strong in their faith and committed to making a difference with their lives.
Jamaica has some beautiful places that tourists travel to but Kingston is not one of them. Kingston is a tough, violent city. We were there taking our turn helping an agency that was there doing good work. One the things we did was go to a place there called Riverton City just outside of Kingston. Riverton City is not actually a city. It’s the city dump. Approximately 5000 people at that time lived there, because it was the only way they could figure out how to survive. They had built shelters there for homes and scavenged enough food to survive. Somehow over the years, they had built with kids like those from Sewanee a school, a community center and even a little health facility. We were there about two and a half weeks helping run a clinic, expanding the community center and leading a vacation Bible school for the kids.
What I remember most clearly are the children who lived there. They were beautiful, wild, joyous, exuberant little people. And they hung on all of us in great clumps of kid all the time. They couldn’t get enough of us and we couldn’t get enough of them. It’s so odd to say of a place like that – people living in the city dump – but to this day I am sure it’s the closest glimpse of the Kingdom of God I have ever been given.
And one glimpse in particular has never really left me. It was after lunch. We were all in the community center and it was nap time. I saw one of the young women from our group lying, leaned against the wall. She had three little girls of 4 or 5 years old, draped all over her, fast asleep. I stopped and whispered, ‘you ok?’ In response, she just smiled. It was a smile that I’m not sure I’ve seen before or since, not really. It was a smile of contentment and peace, beyond all measure, like she’d finally found the pearl of great price that Jesus talks about that you would give everything to have that sets everything right, eternally. It was some smile.
I couldn’t say exactly what God was revealing to her. Maybe just how near God’s heart was to her’s and to those three little girls.
It was hard to leave. Really hard.
A few weeks after we got back, I was walking across campus when I was startled by a shrieking voice. I heard someone screaming, ‘hey!’ I looked in the direction of the sound and saw that one of the kids who’d gone to Kingston was storming across the lawn. Towards me. It was the young woman who’d had those three little girls draped on her at naptime.
She was livid, crying and shouting at me. She said, “I can’t stand this. When am I going to feel better? All I want to do is sell my car and all my stupid clothes and go back. I’ve told my parents to take my tuition money for this stupid pampered school and give it to me to give to those girls. All I want to do is go back and see Sesi and Julia and Beebe and give them everything.” And then she said, “when am I going to stop hurting so much?!”
Rich and poor. Hungry and full. Weeping and laughing. Hated, loved. What is the blessing Christ is revealing and where is that blessing given? I think that young woman would say just at that place where are hearts are given to each other and they break, open. And we become disciples of Jesus, ready to listen to him, ready to speak in his Name, and act as he would on his behalf. Amen.