“You are a masterpiece in the making”
I remember counsel from one of the church’s master preachers, Fred Craddock. He was a theologian, a story-teller, a practical Christian, and wise elder. One of Dr Craddock’s maxims is that the preacher should not use sermon examples which the people could not experience for themselves. “The last time I had lunch with Pope Francis…”, for example, is not helpful to the people if they have not dined with Francis. It separates preacher from the people. Risking that maxim, I have a story in which the location may be unfamiliar, but you can take up the practice in the story and make it yours. If you do, may it be a benediction for you as it was for me.
Nancy and I take pilgrimages together, to be with each other, to experience holy places and to deepen our encounters with God. Sometimes they are distant pilgrimages, sometimes close to home, but they are journeys seeking the presence of the holy, and journeys finding ourselves. Six years ago we traveled to Egypt with a group from St George’s College in Jerusalem to study the early Christian fathers and mothers who went to the desert to practice their faith. These were Christian people who found the marriage of religion, wealth and politics of their time stifling, so they sought solitude as an avenue to God.
One of those early Christians was a man named Anthony. In his 20s, he left the opulence of Cairo, and great personal wealth, to practice Christianity in quiet service. He believed the task of Christians is simple and formidable – to become a lover of God by resisting evil and yielding to Christ. Faith practice in the cities of Egypt was impossible for Anthony, so after stages of seeking solitude, he landed in the Sinai Desert, and chose a cave for his dwelling. He was there for most of his long life. He responded when called on for wisdom from other monks, from church leaders and statesmen, but he held to his solitude and grew in grace and wisdom there.
One stop on our pilgrimage, then, was St Anthony’s monastery in the Sinai. His cave is not on the desert floor, but a fair distance up the side of a mountain. Because there have been so many pilgrims over the centuries, the monks of St Anthony’s have built steps for those who wish to climb to Anthony’s cave. There are 1200 steps. Nancy and I made that climb, though I was physically too large to enter the cave which was home to a much smaller Anthony. But the story is about the climb, not the cave.
If this was to be a spiritual moment for me, I thought about how to use it. I determined that as I walked up the 1200 steps, I would remember my sins, specifically confessing each, one for each step. I was 65 so I had years to remember. One sin confessed for each step, and every four or five steps, I would recite the ancient prayer, “Jesus, be with me in mercy.” On the way down, my plan was to remember my blessings, the good people and moments which had also been part of my life, those I deeply love, and what I had learned from them. I can tell you the day was hot, and the sun unrelenting, and I made my pilgrimage up and down those steps, along with hundreds of others. I had a short time at the top, in the shade but not in the cave, and then I changed my focus to blessings and headed down. It was a moving, deeply moving and healing experience. But let me share three surprises:
+ first, two times on the way up, young people passing by me (I was moving slowly in my prayer) reached out and held my hand, and greeted me warmly, though without words. I probably could not have understood their speech, but I understood the benediction in their eyes, as their sweaty hands clasped my sweaty hand over my walking stick. What an uplift.
+ second, at the top, where the shrine is, I had time to rest and cool down. After a while, I headed back down for the blessing art of my journey. The surprise was that walking back to the steps, I passed a Coptic priest who was coming up to the cave, and he greeted me with a benediction. I was not dressed as priest, but I sensed he recognized a fellow priest, and gave me his blessing. As far as I could see, he was not offering it to everyone. A bit of mystery.
+ third, as I made my descent, recalling blessings, my heart lifted, and when I reached the bottom, 1200 hundred steps later, I had not run out of blessings. I still had more to recite. For several minutes the recall of specific blessings continued. Imagine that, 1200 steps were enough for sin, but not enough to recount my blessings. What might your discovery be?
Why am I risking this much story in which I am a player? What would Dr Craddock say? I believe Fred would forgive my example because you can have such an experience. There is an impressive set of steps just down on the corner on Eugene and 9th, and there is another even longer set near Big Horse Brew Pub, I believe. You can confess your sins, if you have that many, and recall your blessings, or use the practice however you choose. In all the distractions and stress of these days, it is good to discover we can be released from our burdens, and overwhelmed with awareness of our blessings.
My ulterior motive, though, is to lift up the Gospel today, but as a recognition of the good you are doing, and the persistence with which you pursue your Christianity. Understanding Jesus’ expectations can be disheartening at first reading. Oh, I fall short in so many ways. But Jesus is not one to crush people, but to lift us up. As you consider Jesus’ expectations -- Do not resist the evil doer, turn the other cheek, give to everyone who begs from you, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you – “Be perfect, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5.38f) – be aware of how you are ready to resist evil, see how you first choose non-violent options. Notice how you forgive as you have been forgiven, remember your generosity and pray not only for those who you love, but for those who trouble you as well. Friends, this is personal. Jesus is speaking to your heart. This is not about rule-keeping and shining behavior. Here is Jesus speaking to your heart, bidding you not to welcome violence to your heart, not to give in to fear, not to be silent when justice asks you to speak. Here is Jesus encouraging you – seek the company of your God, and welcome those who cross your paths, give thanks in all things. This way will not always be easy; you will not always receive welcome when you offer it. You may forgive, and have it rejected or ignored. Your non-violent resistance may receive ridicule, but your heart will be saved, and you will be called children of God. Jesus’ insistence is not to make you feel ashamed, nor to whip you into shape, but to touch your heart, and spare you becoming the violence and hardness of heart which you confront.
This Christian journey is a blessing journey, though it will be full of challenges. Don’t ever lose sight of that – a blessing journey. And here is an echo of Jesus from another wise elder and holy man, Desmond Tutu: “You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect. You are a masterpiece in the making.” (The Book of Joy, p 92) Amen.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.