January 31, 2021
4th Sunday after Epiphany, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
In September 1995, the Dali Lama visited Emory University, where I was just beginning some graduate work after my first call. I saw an announcement in the student paper to request an audience with the Dali Lama, so never shy, I sent in my request. I could not believe my good fortunate when I got a reply saying my request had been granted. I was issued a ticket, which seemed a little odd to me, but I didn’t know how these things worked. I would probably be in a line of people who had only a moment to say hello. I wondered what he would be like; what I would say to him; how I would introduce myself.
On the day of the audience, I dressed up and headed to the PE Center. As I went, I noticed trickles of other people moving in the same direction. The nearer I got to the PE Center, the wider the stream, hundreds of people headed in the same direction. I discovered that I was one of 4000 people who had been granted an audience, all at the same time. I ended up near the top row of the bleachers in the gym. It wasn’t’ “an audience.” I was IN the audience. Everyone who asked got a ticket.
He was a bit late. There was a kind of pre-concert buzz in the gym. Through the door in the corner, some of the university dignitaries started to come in. At the end of the line was the tiny, saffron-robed Dali Lama, an incarnation of compassion, the spiritual leader of Buddhism, a refugee from Tibet. When he came through the door, the crowd fell totally silent and in what seemed like one movement, all stood and watched in silence as he came to the podium. In my entire life, I have never experienced that feeling. I’m not sure I can even describe it now. Sacredness. Awe. Wow. Anticipation.
He entered the room as one having authority. It shut us up and brought us to our feet.
As I think back now, I can hardly remember his words, although I remember commenting after his speech how simple it really was: love for the other, compassion as a way of life, service to all of humankind as our common goal, all delivered with a sense of humor. His eyes twinkled as he spoke.
That singular experience has helped me understand the scene in the synagogue as Jesus enters and speaks to the incredulous crowd. His words were simple, “The reign of God is at hand, even within you. Turn around and trust this good news. And to that one disruptive voice, that one who recognizes this power of love to overturn every power of violence, greed, injustice, and human smallness, “Shut up.”
In the body of Jesus, in his very presence, was the love of God so palpable present, so intimately available, and so compellingly spoken. Jesus’ presence commanded silence and awe. Not demanded, but compelled—invited–no doubt joyfully and laughingly luring the people to see something new, to touch a new way of being human beings; to touch God.
Christianity has described this experience by saying Jesus was the Son of God. The pure channel of the divine. Over the centuries, we’ve gotten a little tripped up over “the” Son of God. I’ve come to see that confession of faith—I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord—or the one that comes at the end of Mark’s gospel, “Surely this was the Son of God,” by the Roman centurion, not as some kind of exclusive claim, as if there is only one child of God, but as a template, a new teaching, about the capacity of human beings to be a channel for compassion and love. Jesus was fully what we are all intended to be. Of course, most of us spend a good bit of our life trying to cast out all those demons inside and around us that keep us from being that pure stream of starlight.
It’s funny that when you begin to understand this new teaching, you begin to see the little bubbles of its incarnation all over the place, perhaps not with the stunning and dramatic force of a Dali Lama or a Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr, or Dorothy Day, but in the everyday saints that inhabit our lives life.
In this time of pandemic, almost anyone who says, “You’ve got this. God’s got this. Crying lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” is truly the presence of the Holy Spirit in the anxious living of these days.
I can think of so many incarnations of compassion,
I remember a pastor telling me when I was young that the best thing he did was get the coffee ready and set up the chairs. Somehow that deep sense of reverence and welcome shaped me more than the knowledge he ever taught. I’ve seen notes of love and care written to the crabbiest and most disagreeable church member when death touched their family. I’ve seen people, with such long to-do lists and only a marginal personal interest, show up at the protest march because, “I want them to know they’re not alone. We’re truly all in this together.” Back when we could get together, I saw it when a disheveled and wild-eyed visitor showed up for worship, and an usher sat down next to them to point out how the hymnal works. I’ve seen it when a fearful, yet somehow impowered teenager, says, “No, be quiet,” to the bully. I’ve seen it when the most loquacious among us decides that maybe there’s more to the story and decides to listen. I’ve seen it when the strong decide to become weak, and the weak decide to become strong.
We’re living in a time when so many opinions rise to the level of righteousness, when so many are convinced that they’re right and “the other side” is wrong. They argue louder; they stamp their feet; they strategize to win. I fear that nothing will change when self-righteousness is considered the prophetic word.
Yet, when those with the “right” answers are also filled with love and speak with compassion and understanding, something shifts, some tiny demon gets cast out. No one ever changes because they were judged into it. All of us grow and change when we are loved into it. This is what Paul is getting at in that first lesson when the Corinthians were fighting about eating meat offered to idols.
The authority of Jesus was the kind of sacrificial, self-emptying, compassionate love that turns dying into living. My friends, love still has the power to bring us to our feet. It has the power to silence our demonic habit of being at the center of everything. Love has the power to remake us into who Jesus was. For some us, it might take until our death day to get there. But love sets us on the journey.
You may be astounded to discover that you have received a ticket to the event; you have been given an audience. You travel under the star, by the sign of the cross, and you truly are a child of God.