Readings: Luke 14:1,7-14; Mechthild of Magdeburg’s “The Flowing Light of the Godhead”; Hebrews 13:1-3
Listen to the sermon here:
Earlier this week I was reminded of the fact that one of the most basic parts of my job of being a pastor is pointing out the sacred. Most of what I do revolves around noticing when we are in the presence of the Holy, the Mystery, the One who is so much more that we are, the Love that lies at the heart of all that is. My job is to point to the sacred Oneness, the Love that many call God and say “there,” or “here,” or “now,” “don’t miss it.” All too often we find ourselves in the company of angels, messengers of the LOVE that IS God, and we don’t even notice it.
For the most part we humans can’t quite grasp the magnitude of the Mystery that lies at the very heart of reality and so we do what humans always do: we personify this ONEness, or we use symbols and metaphors to indicate the presence of the sacred in our midst, and we tell stories. Stories that include burning bushes, ladders into the sacred realm, shepherds, lost coins, all sorts of symbols and metaphors that point to the ONE who IS. We have told some of those stories so often that the Reality of the Mystery that these stories were created to bring down to earth, seems ever so distant and far away, lost in the mists of time. The Reality that so many call God has been cast out there far away beyond our reach. So, week after week, I try to bring the stories, symbols and metaphors a little closer to the world that we inhabit so that you might be able to see in your own stories the angels that you have entertained without even knowing it. This morning I’d like to tell you a story that I’ve told twice before. It’s been about seven years since I last told this story, so some of you may not have heard it before and those of you who have heard it before; well we’ve been on quite a journey here at Holy Cross, and you’ve all helped me to understand my own story in a completely new way.
The story takes place back in October of 1977, when I was twenty years old. I was young and adventurous. With a rail pass in my hand, a back pack slung over my shoulders and several hundred dollars worth of American Express Travellers cheques in my pocket, I boarded a train in Zurich, Switzerland, bound for Athens, Greece. I was tired. Several months of back-packing in Northern Europe had left me weary. In just five days my rail-pass would expire, so I decided to head for Greece, where the living is easy, where the warm sun, blue skies and equally blue waters held the promise of rest and relaxation.
As the train made its way through the Alps, I remembered a similar trip which I had made the year before and I tried to calculate whether my remaining funds would allow me to return to the village of Chania on the island of Crete. I knew that on Crete I could find work. So, I planned to mix a lot of rest and relaxation with just a little work and try to live out the winter on the Mediterranean. As the train rattled through Austria, towards what was then called Yugoslavia, it began to get dark. I was disappointed that my journey through Yugoslavia would be completed in darkness. I remembered my previous journey, by car, through Yugoslavia and how at the time, I had marvelled at the diversity of this strange little country. I remembered men and women driving oxen as they ploughed their fields in much the same way as their ancestors had done. I also remembered my surprise at entering the ultra modern city of Belgrade; the showcase of what was then Tito’s communist regime.I fell asleep pondering the sharp differences between the lives of the poor people in the villages who appeared to live without any modern conveniences at all and the lives of those who inhabited the city of Belgrade with its towering sky-scrapers and streets filled with automobiles. Several centuries seemed to co-exist in Yugoslavia.
I was awakened from my dreams by the sound of people shuffling to find their papers as the train conductor instructed us to get our passports and visas ready for customs inspection. When the Yugoslavian custom officials, with their rifles over their shoulders boarded our train they were preceded by men guided by vicious looking German shepherds. Even though I knew that I had all the right papers and that my back pack contained nothing more offensive than some dirty laundry, the sight of the dogs, guns, and uniformed officials struck fear into my heart. I nervously handed over my precious passport to an official who looked younger than my twenty years. He carefully read over the Visa which I had obtained in Zurich the day before; a visa that I could not read because it was written in an unfamiliar language and an unfamiliar alphabet.The young man handed my passport over to an older official and before I knew what was happening, I was being escorted off the train. I was shaking so badly that the young men on either side of me had to hold me up. I am not sure that my feet even touched the ground. After a long lonely wait in a drab windowless room, a woman entered. In broken English she told me that my visa was not in order. I gathered from what she was trying unsuccessfully to explain to me, that my passport contained the visa from my previous visit to Yugoslavia, but was missing an official exit stamp. She demanded to know why there was no exit stamp in my passport. Needless to say, I could not explain. I told her that I had only spent a little over a week in Yugoslavia the year before and then gone on to Greece. I told her that I didn’t know that an exit stamp was necessary and that I couldn’t understand why the Yugoslavian consulate would have issued my current visa if my paper work was not in order. She kept insisting that I needed an exit stamp. After several fruitless attempts to try and get her to tell me what I was supposed to do, I found myself in a small room. Its only window was reinforced with bars.
In the darkness of a Yugoslavian holding cell, I sat down and I began to cry. I cried like I have never cried before or since. I was terrified and my sobbing was uncontrollable. After a while I became conscious of a sound that did not come from me. “Susssssssssh.”
I realized that I was not alone in the darkness. Someone else was in the room with me. In the shadows, I could make out the shape of a woman. My sobbing began to subside as she continued, “Shussssssh.” The woman began to pace back and forth in our tiny room and gradually her shusssh turned into humming. She hummed unfamiliar tunes that somehow managed to calm me. Occasionally her humming would turn to singing. She sang softly and quietly and my sobbing began to ease.
In the shadows I could not tell how old she was. Her hair was long, dark and curly. She wore a plain cotton dress, ankle socks and a beaten up pair of shoes, whose laces flapped back and forth as she paced. It took only a few hours for my travelling companion to contact the British Embassy, sort out the mess and secure my freedom. The sunlight was just beginning to find its way into our room when my captor arrived to release me. As I left, I took a close look at my roommate. I smiled, hoping that she would understand my smile as gratitude for her kindness. Her tender sounds had calmed me and helped me through one of the darkest nights of my life. She returned my smile and added a wave of her own. Then the guard roughly escorted me out into the bright lights of the customs house.
Before I boarded a train that would take me safely out of Yugoslavia, I thought that perhaps I should try to help my roommate. Maybe I should try to find out why she was being detained. Perhaps I should try to help her get out. But this was not a place that welcomed questions and the warm sun of Greece beckoned me. And so, I boarded the train and I left. My few hours of captivity – I chalked up to just one more adventure on the road and I rarely thought of my room-mate again.
Twenty-one years later, I sat in the comfort of my living room and watched the evening news. I paid very little attention as yet another deadline was imposed against the Serbs. Over the years I’d lost track of who is doing what to whom in what was once called Yugoslavia. As the reporter droned on about the massacre of an entire village, the camera zeroed in on an old man who was wailing. The old man rocked back and forth as he tried to explain to the reporter the atrocities which had just been committed. He pointed to a body that lay in the bush behind him. The camera angle widened and the lower half of a woman’s body became visible. She wore a plain cotton dress, ankle socks and a beaten up pair of shoes.The old man tried desperately to get her story out. The voice of the translator explained that she had been forced to watch the execution of her sons, then she was raped, stabbed and finally shot in the head. The old man went back to his wailing. He rocked back and forth, tears streamed down his face as he wailed. From somewhere deep inside of me there came a sound. Shusssssh
For the first time in years, I remembered the woman whose compassion had soothed my pain. For the first time in years I wondered what had become of her. I do not know whether she was Serb, Croat or ethnic Albanian. I do not know if she was Muslim, Christian or Jew.
I don’t even know her name. Nor do I know if she has escaped the horror of ethnic cleansing. I do know that the young woman I met when I was just a young woman myself, the woman who wore a plain cotton dress, ankle socks and a beaten up pair of shoes. I do know that that young woman that I meet was an angel. For what are angels but messengers from God? I don’t mean some far off distant God in the sky, who sends messengers.I do mean that in each and everyone we meet the Reality that is God, lives, breathes, and has being. In each and everyone we meet, the LOVE that is God takes on flesh and walks among us.
We need not look up toward the sky to see angels, the angels are all around us and yes we ourselves, we too are indeed, angels. Each and everyone of us are messengers of God, embodiments of the LOVE that IS at the Source of everything.The sacred is here, now, all around and within us.
The other day, on the streets of Waterloo, Carol and our Granddaughter Nina encountered a man begging for food. I didn’t have any cash in my purse, so I promised to give him something on my way out of the store. Our granddaughter is just nine years old and she was filled with questions about why and how someone ends up on the street with no home and no food. We talked a little about how easy it is to fall on hard times. Even though she’s just a little girl, Nina has already heard the arguments against giving people on the street money. As we walked around the fair-trade store designed to help people in distant lands, called 10,000 Villages, I thought about the faraway angels who had crafted the goods before me and I found myself running my hands over some plain cotton cloth and remembering the long lonely night that I spent in a Yugoslavian jail and the hospitality that came from the angel in a plain cotton dress that comforted me. I remembered that I had some grocery vouchers in my purse. (We give out grocery cards here at the church, and I carry a few in my purse.) So as we left I gave the angel sitting on the sidewalk a ten dollar grocery voucher so that he could buy lunch.
I can tell you now that he was an angel sitting on the sidewalk, but at the time I must confess that I didn’t really recognize him as an angel. For if I had of recognized this angel for who and what he is, I would have invited him to lunch and I would have been extravagantly generously hospitable!
There are burning bushes all around us. Angels are everywhere. The earth is crammed with heaven. The sacred is waiting in patient expectation to be noticed. The LOVE that IS God, lives, in, with, through, and beyond those who touch and comfort us, just as surely as that LOVE lives and breathes in us as we touch and comfort those we encounter. Recognizing the sacred is a beautiful thing, but remember each and every encounter with the sacred puts us in a sacred place where the ordinary is threatened by the extra-ordinary. For once we recognize the sacred in the ordinary, nothing can ever be the same again. The sacred changes us, angels move us, because recognizing the sacred is the process of understanding those we meet, and growing into the angels we are created to be. Embodying the LOVE that is God is a sacred task; a sacred task that takes us into sacred places where the LOVE that is God lives and moves and has being in other angels… so watch out for those burning bushes, those sacred places where angels dwell and in the words of the letter to the Hebrews: “Continue to love each other as sisters and brothers. Don’t neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing so some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”