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OUT OF ONE, MANY

A sermon preached by Brian Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, March 25, 2018

There is a tendency amongst the Gospel writers to use stories of David and portions of the prophets, Isaiah especially, as evidence that Jesus is the fulfillment of the ancient Israelite prophecies, and the true King of Israel.

This tendency, though understandable from any decent author’s point of view, is in fact impossible. The prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and so on never heard of Jesus because, at the time of their writing, he wasn’t born, and wouldn’t be for another five or so centuries.

But the best authors, those gifted with that rare thing we call genius, know how to mix history and poetry in a way that makes the imagined seem real. A good book can do what a movie theater tries to accomplish with light and sound: it closes the world around you to open up another one. It taps into that creative center of the soul and unlocks one’s imagination; and, when done well, you live for a time in a created world.

Jesus was a historical figure. That means the man we’re discussing this morning lived and breathed and ached just like us. He had parents and siblings, a childhood and adolescence, and just barely enough of an adulthood to call it that.

But in the brief span of time he breathed the same air as us he lived in such a manner as to inspire almost everyone he came into contact with, or so the Gospel writers want us to believe.

The Jesus movement began with a Messianic group of Jews who would eventually leave Judaism altogether. And yet it’s founder, if you can even call him that, never regarded himself as anything more than a Jew. With a history so rich and a character to intriguing, it’s no surprise writers who wanted to tell Jesus’s story dug deep into their artistic toolboxes to portray the man as someone extra special.

But all of us do this to some degree, don’t we?

So many of the stories my family has told over the years are filled with ever so slight stretches of the truth; some might even say there are parts of my family’s stories that are quite imaginative. For instance, my uncle probably didn’t jump the fence behind my grandparent’s house after my grandpa discovered him with defective pants in my aunt’s bedroom; and my grandma probably didn’t walk uphill through the snow to school both ways. I’m sure the snow melted every once in a while. The stories are certainly embellished, but the truth still remains.

Historians do this too. George Washington almost certainly didn’t cut down that Cherry Tree, and he most certainly told a lie. There is no record of Marie Antoinette ever saying, “Let them eat cake.” But it doesn’t mean she wasn’t a fan of brioche and disregarding peasants. And it’s unlikely Martin Luther ever nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. But that doesn’t mean the sale of indulgences wasn’t ludicrous. The stories endure because they tell us something true.

History tells us Jesus was raised on the wrong side of the tracks, or so the saying goes, in a hillbilly town called Nazareth. Historians and archeologists know the town existed, but there’s hardly a mention of it, all the more evidence to assume it was an otherwise uninspiring place. But it’s very likely that many of the people who lived there during Jesus’s lifetime would have come under the rule of the oppressive Roman Empire.

That means as a child Jesus would have grown up enduring great stress and anxiety, or worse. Even in the story of his birth we see how pervasive this oppression was. If you recall, following a decree by Caesar, Jesus’s father had to register the family with the Empire. And it was on that same trip Joseph’s wife, Mary, went into labor and gave birth to their kiddo in an animal’s shelter. Whether that’s true or not we’ll never know. But I’m certain the truth the Gospel writer Luke wanted us to come away with was the knowledge that this family was poor and down on their luck.

But the Gospel writers also wanted us to know that this little kid was pretty special. So, right from the beginning they tell us that people from all around came to honor this kid’s birth.

And isn’t that how it should be? Don’t all children deserve a grand welcome into this world?

I remember when I worked as a chaplain in the NICU at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, in St. Louis. I’d walk those halls and look into the rooms and see these tiny little kids surrounded by people who’d come from near and far to honor a child’s birth.

I remember once when I baptized a baby there was hardly any room for me to move. The child was so fragile the doctor asked me to clean the seashell with alcohol and use sterilized water to perform the ceremony. And once I started the ancient ritual I looked around and saw not only the child’s family but also most of the nurses and physicians from the unit standing just outside the door. It seemed everyone had gathered to watch this child be introduced to God.

After I poured a few drops of water onto the infant’s head I bent down and whispered into her tiny ear, “May love always surround you, may no harm befall you, and may strong hands always be there to guide you.”

In speaking those very words, I knew full well that that innocent little child will one day know hate and harm and pain. But it doesn’t mean the words I prayed weren’t true. Who am I to say that here in this tiny child the cruelties of the world might not turn and pass her by?

So, it’s of no surprise to me that the Gospel writers have Jesus visited by a caravan of well-wishers.

And as the child grows we get a story about his precociousness. We read that one day after church he runs off from his mom and dad right back to the synagogue. By the time Mary and Joseph realize their hyperactive little boy isn’t in the back of the minivan he’s deep in conversation with a bunch of rabbis; and when they find him he’s being adored as all children should: for their innocent curiosity about this world and bugs and food and people.

Maybe those rabbis had a sense that growing within the child’s heart was a sense of wonder and truth and hope. Sometimes children are the only ones capable of reminding us adults just how much ordinary things really should matter.

I was reminded of this just the other day. I’ve long-since resolved myself to the fact I will die at a time and place to be determined. But that didn’t stop my daughter from saying to me at breakfast she wishes I’d live forever. She knows full well I won’t. But her wish is more a statement than a hope; a statement that aims to assure me the love we’re creating means something and, if I do this right, it always will.

I imagine the look on my face probably matched the rabbis’ when Mary and Joseph walked in to find their rowdy little boy lecturing those so-called “experts.” You know the look: slightly dumbfounded and slack-jawed, with tears welling in the eyes. What that look conveys is one’s total surprise at the occasional spontaneity of life, how painfully sweet it can be. How a child who still pees the bed and cries when shadows move has an ability to melt your heart and make you think that maybe, just maybe, one day everything will be alright.

And so, as Jesus gets older we learn in those same Gospels his gifts and talents lead him from a career in carpentry to the ministry. Most of Jesus’s childhood didn’t find its way into the Gospels, so by the time we really get to know him he’s already a traveling rabbi with a magical ability to heal people. And not just heal; but also perform miracles.

And it’s those miracles he performs that so many of us modern, rational people take issue with. Well, that and the whole Immaculate Conception and rising from the dead thing, but I’ll handle that next week.

Thomas Jefferson, Unitarian extraordinaire, disliked the miracles so much he edited his own version of the New Testament, removing every miracle and mention of the supernatural; and renamed it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

Question whether Jesus restored life unto the dead or delivered sight unto the blind all you want. But there’s no denying he dedicated his life to serving society’s outcasts. In Jesus’s lifetime it was common to think people born blind were that way as punishment for their parents’ sins; and those with mental illnesses were castaways, forced to live, literally, on society’s margins.

And rather than accept the world the way he inherited it, Jesus welcomed the outcasts back into the fold, he called out the transference of parental sin as absolute nonsense; and then he went to the hinterlands and gave affection to outsiders, lepers, and the sick and dying.

Only quite recently have we come to rethink sickness and disability. On the one hand there’s the medical understanding, the investigation of causes and symptoms, and the possibility of treatment. And then, on the other hand, there’s the unfortunate societal aspect of it, the side that strips people of their personhood, abusing them by regarding the person as the disability and disease.

In my years as an oncology chaplain I lost count of how many people told me they tired of being asked about their illness and how they’re feeling. I remember a burly farmer who asked me to pray with him one morning. He asked if I would hold his hands. When I finished praying I opened my eyes to see this big old tough guy crying like a child. He told me I was the first person who’d touched him without wanting a blood sample or worse, in more than a week.

What I learned in the years I spent in the hospital is that most people want to be treated with the same kindhearted indifference as everyone else. Some people are better at this kind of human interaction than others.

I can easily recall one of the hospital’s housekeeping staff members who also worked as a semi-professional blues singer. Whenever he’d slip in to switch out the biohazard box he’d pull a clean one from his cart and pretend it was a guitar; then he’d sing some Elvis of Marvin Gaye or Tina Turner. He couldn’t heal their disease, but he helped heal that extra layer of illness our culture forces on the sick and the dying and the elderly. He sung to them not because they were sick but because they were alive.

And then, three to four nights a week that same guy from housekeeping would sell out piano bars and cocktail lounges and sing those same songs with the same passion and joy. But this time his audience was couples who sipped wine and stole kisses off each other’s cheeks, holding on to this brief span of time we all struggle to make sense of; meanwhile, back in the hospital, oncology patients hummed “Love Me Tender” as they drifted off to sleep, awaiting in the morning yet another day of treatment.

So, maybe the Gospel writers wanted to covey what acceptance and love and healing looks like when it’s done compassionately, with the emphasis on the person and the now.

Maybe that’s why they portrayed Jesus as an itinerant preacher running like mad, trying to tell as many people as possible to love their neighbors like themselves; that the first will be last and the last will be first.

But what does that even mean, the last will be first? It doesn’t make much sense on the surface.

And therein lies the moral of the story.

Jesus wasn’t doing things that made sense. He wasn’t selling anything; he wasn’t trying to win a Nobel Peace Prize when he broke bread with tax collectors and the disreputable. He wasn’t even trying to make a name for himself as a preacher. After all, he preached the same sermon everywhere he went. But that’s what all ministers really do; we just don’t admit it in public. So, what’s the point?

Jesus was up to something few of us dare to do: to overturn the status quo, to bring oppressors to justice, to give healthcare to everyone, to spread peace, to love the hated, to mend the broken, to feed the hungry, and give rest to the weary.

He wanted to turn the world upside-down, make the sick feel well, move the out in, the in out, make the top bottom, and the bottom top. And right there, in the heart of the story, is the narrative device most of us don’t quite understand. If this were a movie we’d never seen before we’d probably get pretty excited the moment we saw him riding in to Jerusalem on a donkey, of all things, on a hand-me-down saddle. All of us would be wondering if this person who we’ve been assured has superhuman powers would finally use those superpowers to bring the mighty to their knees; to save all of us, just like Iron Man and Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and Thor.

The Gospel writers tell us that most of the people around him were wondering the very same thing. In the end people pleaded with Jesus; they asked, “Why don’t you save yourself?” They mocked him and said, “Surely if you are who they say you are, you can save all of us.” “Perform a miracle!” they demanded.

But he doesn’t. He lives like all of us have to from time to time, powerless and vulnerable; and with his final breaths he asks the same question so many of us desperately want an answer to: Why are some people forsaken? Why do bad things happen?

And then, in the end, the man we’d watch grow from an infant born in an animal’s manger suffers a humiliating death, with his mother and best friend looking on.

So why do we tell this story? Why has it endured for thousands of years?

We tell this story for the same reasons we tell any other one: because they tell us what’s true.

It’s true because all of us suffer. If we have love in our hearts we will suffer the injustices of this world. We suffer in these fragile and temporary bodies. We suffer knowing that at any moment the earth might shake so hard our ability to rise to our feet may never serve us again.

The story ends in tragedy because, as Peter Gomes once said, “we must suffer with him that we may be glorified with him [. . .] to share in suffering, to weep as Jesus wept at the brokenness of what is meant to be whole, to see a thing as it is meant to be and to experience it broken, fractured, and shattered, not just the Savior’s body but the body of the world; to suffer with indignity and inhumanity, to weep at injustice and crime, and violence and deprivation and depravity, to enter into the sorrows of another as if they were our own, because they are our own.”

We must do this because “Beyond tragedy is truth redeemed.” Looking beyond is not to disregard. Rather, it is to hold on to what is. But doing so demands we be courageous enough to yes to life all the same, to live, to fall in love, and fall deeper in love with loving.

That we fight for a new world, once of peace and fairness. That we continue to whisper into the ears of newborn children that we’ve loved them before we knew them, that strong hands will always be there to guide them, and that a magical world awaits them.

This story is true because in the end it tells us to Live, to Live and Live. Amen and Blessed Be.

[1] Peter J. Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998), 72.

[2] Ibid.