Sunday, December 29, 2013

Presenting Jesus

 This sermon I preached at the Celebration of the New Ministry of The Reverend Clare Fisher-Davies at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Providence, Rhode Island, on February 2, 2006.  
The strangest compliment I am paid when I do something in my priestly line of work is, “You missed your calling…  You should have been an actor.”  Well, perhaps that is right.  I am here tonight largely because I am friends with one who did not miss her calling but who heard her calling correctly to be both a priest and an actress.  Clare is a priest and she is an actress.  And, though I am not her agent and cannot speak for her (or charge for her), I am fairly confident in saying that while these roles are not confused for her, she would be the first to argue that they are not discrete departments in her life, utterly distinct one from the other.  Never was I so aware of this as when I saw her perform at a diocesan convention several years ago.  Being a priest and being an actor run together not only for Clare and for me but for many of us.  One of my favorite stained glass windows is in the refectory of the Cathedral College, formerly the College of Preachers, at Washington National Cathedral, which bears the inscription quoting its founder and patron, “If you do not dramatize the message, they will not listen.”  Those who do not particularly like theatre, especially what they would view as pulpit theatrics—and they are many—will want to stop and argue this point, and I want to press on to something bigger.  I want to suggest that Clare’s vocation, and St. Martin’s vocation, and indeed the vocation of all Christians, is about a presentation of Christ to the Church and to the World.  Shakespeare’ Jacques says in “As you Like it” that “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”  Who am I to disagree with Shakespeare?  Yet I would say as well that this whole world is a theatre, and the women, men, and children in it an audience.  Our ministry, and this new one we celebrate tonight, is about articulating, and, if you will, dramatizing the message so that the indistinct “they” out there will listen, and ultimately be drawn into the play about redemption which is the best, if not the only, living theatre in town.

What kicks up this topic, or at least this connection for me, is the fact that someone—Clare or the Bishop—chose this date to be the time to celebrate this New Ministry.  It is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple.  But some of you may remember that it went by another name in former days, now relegated to alternative status in the Book of Common Prayer:  The Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin.  In some ways the whole story of the Church can be told in those two titles competing for dominance in the naming of this day.  One stresses Law and the other Grace. 

Most commentators that I have read appropriate the event narrated in our gospel reading as Luke’s way of telling how the holy family were scrupulous in keeping the Law.  Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, and presented in the temple with the required sacrifice of the poor (the birds sufficed when a lamb was not affordable) as directed by the Law.  Indeed Luke returns to the Temple for the setting of this story, where he begins his gospel with the account of the annunciation to Zechariah of the birth of John the Baptist. 

But there is an inescapably dark side to this trip to the Temple, despite the good intentions of our Holy Family in keeping the Law.  That darksome dimension lies in the fact that St. Mary the Virgin was considered impure because she had had a baby.  Even when we make allowances for ancient mind-sets that associate bodily discharges with uncleanness; even when we have cut the Book of Leviticus some slack; even when we thoroughly understand the origin of the concepts of clean and unclean we are left with the fact that human beings are excluded from social contact, not to mention religious community, simply by being, well human: by discharging blood or semen; by ingesting the wrong sorts and combinations of foods; by touching a corpse.  Luke will show in the succeeding pages of his gospel how Jesus’ ministry was largely about setting people free from such binding strictures.  He will tell us the story about the healing of lepers, who were ritually impure.  He will tell us the parable of the Good Samaritan who, himself an outcast, risked even further isolation by stopping to inspect a body which might very well have been a corpse.  He will impress upon our memories the figure of the Prodigal Son, who had made himself impure in all sorts of ways, not least by feeding with hogs.  And in all of this Luke will reveal Jesus as the one who breaks down barriers of separation and who redefines purity with a radically new moral teaching, which he talks of in terms of God’s Reign.

Now there is nothing wrong with being clean.  And there is nothing wrong with being ritually pure.  Both are good ideas.  But there is something fundamentally flawed about seeing human beings as unacceptable, even if temporarily, simply because they are carrying on perfectly natural bodily functions.  I admit that the text makes no issue of this matter.  But taken in its larger context, it seems to me inescapable that this story signals an end to the old regime run by those whose regulations, attitudes, led to oppression.  Since he was in the temple, Simeon is presumed to be pro-priestly and pro-levitical.  We imagine that he had been praying all those years for the liberation of Israel from Roman clutches.  It would be absurd to think that Simeon would have known what true messianic liberation would look like as it was to take shape in Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But Luke knows.  Luke knows about the issue of table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles that threatened to rip the infant Church apart.  Luke knows about the legalism that his companion and possible mentor Paul fought.  Luke knows the gospel that “to freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

            The question that intrigues me is why this impulse to purification, and its shadow side the avoidance of human contamination, so compelling for religious people.  We are not living in a primitive, taboo-laden, society driven by undifferentiated fears, are we?  Yet an enormous amount of energy is invested in trying to keep the Church or society unpolluted.  When I was a child in the South the issue was race.  Then it was women.  Now it is sex.  Around each of these things, people have energetically built walls to keep other people out, in one sense or another.  The impulse to Puritanism is not about to disappear.

            But there is a Messiah, come to save us from all this.  And the wonder of this Feast of the Presentation is that the Messiah is brought to the Temple.  He is presented.  Interestingly enough, there is no requirement in the law that the boy be presented in the temple, only that the mother be purified.  So, in a sense, we can say that presenting Christ is a voluntary act. 

            That is the vocation that Clare and the people of St. Martin’s have been issued:  a call to volunteer to present Christ.  The question is how are you going to present Christ.  How are you going to speak the message? How can you dramatize the message so that people will listen?
            Take a cue from Luke.  Simeon announces a messianic theme when he tells Mary and Joseph that the child will be the cause of the falling and rising of many.  Jesus is not some sentimental wimp that is basically about making people feel good.  Jaroslav Pelikan in his fascinating book Jesus through the Centuries demonstrates how each age gives Jesus a makeover in its own favorite image, so that we have in the Constantinian period Jesus the Emperor and in the Middle Ages Jesus the Monk who Rules the World.   We will never get it exactly right nor ever do him complete justice.  But it is fair to say that Jesus is not your favorite drinking buddy, the enforcer of upper-class snobbery, the one who hates the other political party as much as you do, the cheerleader for American causes, or the endorser of your resolutions at diocesan convention.   And it is also fair to say that there is some variety in the portraits of Jesus in the New Testament.  If we are going to present Jesus to the Church and to the world, we need to give ourselves to studying the character.  While my view is certainly not definitive, here are some things that strike me about the Jesus I would present:

·      I see Jesus as a person of authority, whose authority comes from his own sense of who he is and what his life is about.  He inherited a 400-year-old script that called for Messiah to be a military hero.  Instead I believe  he drew from a little noticed passage in Isaiah that inspired him to be a suffering servant.
·      I see Jesus as courageous, never once willing to capitulate to the forces that  would have squelched him and his message
·      I see Jesus as compassionate.  Never once do I read a story of his saying to someone who is distressed or beleaguered or sick or fragile or psychologically vulnerable, “You know, it is a good idea for you to be weak or sick or frightened or distressed.  It will do you good.  Buck up!”  Instead I hear him asking, “What do want me to do for you?” and “Do you want to be well?”  and,  “You give them something to eat.”
·      I see Jesus as taking no foolishness when it comes to caring for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized.  A study of his parables shows that well over half of them are on the theme of inclusivity.  A study of his teachings in general reveals that the subject most on his mind was wealth and poverty.  A study of his miracles reveals an astonishing concern for those without effective medical care.
·      I see Jesus as a light to enlighten the Gentiles—the nations. One of my life texts is from St. John’s Gospel, “The true light that enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”  I have no trouble believing that the Light that is in Christ is in fact what dwells in and enlightens everyone, which leads me to conclude that the Chinese man and his American compatriot who rode with me on the train to Providence today have something to teach me.  And when Renaldo begs money from me on Newton Street in Washington, I dare not forget that when I give or refuse, a man bearing the image of God and the Light of Christ has come into my circle.
·      I see Jesus as the glory of his people Israel, the one who is utterly dedicated to the God the Creator and God the Liberator.

If you don’t like my portrait (and this is not all of it), I challenge you to create your own.  More than that, figure out what kind of life you have to live in order to present Christ to the world so authentically, so dramatically, so compelling, that those who see you will actually listen. 

            Theodore Dreiser’s character Sister Carrie is a girl of modest means from a little Midwestern town who makes her way to Chicago.  She refuses to sink into financial ruin, as does the man she is married to.  Carrie is a survivor.  She is a scrapper.  Little by little she gets first one part and then another on stage, incrementally building for herself a career.  She meets Ames, who befriends and encourages her.  Ames says to Carrie,

“The world is always struggling to express itself—to make clear its hopes and sorrows and give them voice.  It is always seeking the means, and it will delight in the individual who can express these things for it.  That is why we have great musicians, great painters, great writers and actors.  They have the ability to express the world’s sorrows and longings, and the world gets up and shouts their names.  All effort is just that.  It is the thing the world wants portrayed , not the portrayer or writer or singer, which makes the latter great.  You and I are but mediums, through which something is expressing itself.  Now our duty is to make ourselves ready mediums.”

            The thing the world wants portrayed, is dying to have portrayed, is in fact the Light that enlightens the Gentiles and is the glory of Israel.  The world wants to hear about hope, not damnation; to see compassion, not selfishness; to experience generosity, not greed.  We in the world—and in the church—crave to see someone, some people powerfully present a Christ who is not psychotic or neurotic or precious or unreal, to whom they can relate, whom they can follow, and who will call us to a higher, truer life.  You and I, Clare and St. Martin’s, are but the actors through which the Divine Character is expressing himself.  Our challenge is to make ourselves ready to dramatize the message not only with our lips but in our lives.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2006

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