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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Preaching Class: Sermon #3

The sermon below is a little different. I didn't write it out-- preached it with out a manuscript, without notes, without a safety net. And in prepping it, found that the Spirit took me in a direction that I wasn't expecting to go. An amazing, unnerving, exhausting process.

Anyway, what you're reading is not a verbatim account of what I said-- I couldn't do that if I tried-- but rather a reconstruction, as best as I can manage. The propers are for the Feast of the Presentation.

Malachi 3:1-4
Psalm 84
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

Last week, Elizabeth began her sermon by asking us to move around the chapel, in response to a series of questions. In reading the scripture for today's sermon, I find myself hearing one of those questions again. "Have you ever had a perfect day?," she asked.

I think that was how Simeon must have been feeling. Here is a man who spends his life waiting, in eager anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah, the One coming to bring salvation to Israel. He clings to the promise given him by the Holy Spirit, that this will happen in his lifetime. That's his focus, his reason for living.

Then, in my mind's eye, I imagine the scene. One sunny morning, a young couple walks into the temple with their infant son, to perform the purification rites required by Hebrew law. Simeon steps forward, and takes the child in his hands, and suddenly, in that brief, shining moment, he knows. He knows that in his arms rests the Christ, the salvation of his people, the answer to God's promise.

And so he sings, "Lord, let your servant depart in peace; for these eyes of mine have seen the Savior!" I can die happy. It doesn't get any better than this.

But then, did you hear what happened next? It's a surprising thing, like a thread of a different color running through a piece of fabric. Simeon turns to Mary, hands back her son, and tells her, "this child was born to be a sign of opposition... and a sword will pierce your own soul, as well."

It's jarring to hear that warning, in the middle of the perfect moment. But that's the way human life works, isn't it? In our lives, there is no perfection without an element of sorrow, or struggle, or pain. That's part of why Jesus came to live among us, wholly human: so that we would know, that God knows, what it's like to live in that tension. This is why God Almighty, the master and creator of all that is, became a helpless baby w/ unfocused eyes, totally dependent. A boy with skinned knees and missing front teeth. A man with calloused hands, and dirty feet. An innocent victim, betrayed and abused and beaten and crucified.

As our reading from Hebrews says, “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

I spent the summer experiencing some of that testing, firsthand. I was a chaplain intern, part of the CPE program at the University of Chicago. The U of C is a big hospital-- almost 800 beds, I believe-- on the city's South Side. It serves a very diverse population, providing specialized care for people who come from all over the world, as well as being the local provider for a large, low-income, heavily ethnic population. It's also a Level I Pediatric Trauma Center, which means we get severe cases that other hospitals are not equipped to handle.

Yes, I saw plenty of testing, in my 3 months there. But the case that sticks with me was from a night I was on call, toward the end of the summer. I was doing rounds, and wandered down to the Emergency Room. It was packed, as usual-- people who had no regular doctor, waiting hours to be seen for one reason or another. I looked over, and noticed a young woman in a wheelchair, parked against the side of the hallway. She was all curled up onto herself, wrapped in a spare white sheet. And she was sobbing, uncontrollably. She couldn't talk. She couldn't move. She could barely breathe. Eventually, I was able to learn that she had been horribly abused, assaulted at a party the night before.

So I spent the night praying with her, and walking through the process of phisical exams, and evidence collection, and interviews with the police and the doctors. I searched desperately for something for her, for both of us, to cling to in that time.

And here's the gift. I could say to her that I have, in a small way, been where you are; but more importantly, God has been where you are-- in the pain, and the blood, and the terror. At the cross, a sword pierced God's soul, also. Jesus has been where you are, and holds out his hand, offering a way beyond it. In that message, there is good news. There is healing. There is redemption.

Jesus has led the way, living in the actual and showing what is possible. He has lived the truth, that not one of our joyful, perfect times is untouched by human failing; and because of that, he is able to be the holy life present in and among the most profane moments of our lives.

There is no better news than that.


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