August 11, 2019
The Book of Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11:1-19; Luke 12:32-48
When Abraham went on his journey, called by God, he didn’t worry about missing his flight or how to get from the airport to the hotel or what the hotel would look like. He went, in faith. He didn’t even know where he was going, Hebrews says.
But I’m a nervous traveler, I worry about everything, more and more as I get older.
A few weeks ago I was at a deacon conference in Cincinnati, and my return flight left so early I had to leave from where I was staying at three in the morning to get to the airport in time. And I was panicked. I was using Uber, and I’m new to Uber, and I just couldn’t believe anyone would actually come.
So there I stood, on a dark, empty street, in a strange city, all alone, and I opened the app, and I called for a ride, and miracle of miracles, she came. She actually came. I was the master, contractually, and she was the servant, and she was ready when I knocked. But she was more than that, too. She was a thin, wrinkled black woman, in her seventies, I guess, with a calm, wise, steady way about her, and she seemed to sense how anxious I was. When I told her I was a deacon and had been at a deacon conference, she said, ah, I have a holy man in my car! God be praised. Because she was a deacon, too, it turned out, in her own church, and she knew, she said, that Jesus is always with us, always by our side, no matter how far away from home we are.
God is always a surprise, Pope Francis says. You never know where and how you will find him. You are not setting the time and place of the encounter with him. You must, therefore, discern the encounter.
I was the one who was surprised in this situation, and the Uber driver was the one who discerned: my need, my faith. The weakness of my faith.
You must be prepared, Jesus says, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.
Jesus is talking in part today about the end of the world, about his Second Coming, something the early Christians expected any minute. But when the end of the world didn’t happen right away, didn’t come, they had to rethink what Jesus meant, to internalize it, too, see it as a matter of our inner lives, and that’s in part what gave rise to the gospels. The idea of an inner coming, of an inner conversion, is what all the gospels are trying to convey.
We can think of the Second Coming as our own deaths, for example, how we can’t predict them, how we can never know when they will happen, and so we have to be centered, grounded in God, every day.
But even more importantly, we can think of the Second Coming as happening every minute, as Christ always coming, in all that happens to us, knocking softly, quietly.
The most important moment in early Christian literature is the moment when St. Augustine breaks down in a garden and starts to cry. This in The Confessions, written in 398. Augustine has been struggling to understand God intellectually and struggling to master his own pride and lust. He’s in his mid-thirties. But it’s not working, he can’t figure things out, the strain of it is too much, and he comes to this walled garden and he throws himself down underneath a fig tree and he begins to cry. He just sobs. It’s the end of his world.
But it’s also the beginning of a new world, of a new life, because beyond the walls of the garden he hears the voices of children. They seem to be playing some kind of game, chanting some kind of rhyme, and this catches his attention. It stops him. It sounds like they’re saying, take and read, take and read. He knows they’re not. He knows he’s hearing this wrong, that there isn’t a nursery rhyme like that, and yet he feels a pull, a call—take and read—and he stops crying, and he gets up, and goes over to where he left his Bible. He picks it up, and he begins to read, and the verse he happens to find seems addressed directly to him. It’s what he needed. It breaks the logjam. It opens him. Frees him.
But here’s the thing. Augustine didn’t hear the voice of God directly, as the patriarchs did, or as the prophets did, or as Jesus did, and some people still do. He heard the voices of children, and he knew they were the voices of children. But somehow he also knew that they were something more. I checked the force of my tears, he writes,and rose to my feet, being quite certain that I must interpret thisas a divine command to me to open the book and read the first passage which I should come upon.
This is one of the great, defining moments in our tradition, and it hinges on a children’s game, it hinges on something small, fleeting, ordinary that Augustine is ready to respond to.
This is one of the great, defining moments in Christianity and it hinges on an act of interpretation. He chose to interpret this, Augustine says. This wasn’t obvious. He had to read it. He had to look beyond it. He had to make a leap of faith.
God is always a surprise, and we must be ready to discern.
How many times have we heard the voices of children, beyond the wall, and walked away? How many times have we not heard the voices at all? How many times have we failed to interpret what is always already true: that God is with us?
But in Cincinnati, at three in the morning, my Uber driver the deacon was ready, she opened the door, and by the time we got to the airport, I was ready, too. I had experienced a Passover, to quote from the Book of Wisdom—I had passed over, from fear to trust.
And she turned around in her seat, and she asked me if I would pray for her, and she reached out her long, thin arms and took my hands in hers.
And I did, I blessed her.
She was the deacon, and she had called me to be a deacon again, she had given me the grace to be a deacon, or that grace had flowed through her, and when I had finished, she prayed for me, too, in her soft, smooth voice, with her rich Kentucky accent.
Lord Jesus, she said, be with my brother Chris and help him to catch his flight and get back to Or-E-gon. Help him to not be afraid. Help him to trust in you. Help him to catch his flight to heaven, where one day we will all be rejoicing.
Praise you, Lord Jesus. Praise You!