Preached on Sunday, March 30, 2014
A Sermon by the Rev. Janet L. Abel
This sermon is entitled “Know Me,” and I would start by saying I believe that to be known is nearly as deep a need as water.
Those of us who attended college were compelled to pick a major, usually in the junior year, in a field of study in which our knowledge would flourish. I picked economics but am not sure why. Perhaps because I thought it would be practical. My interests led me to English, literature, history, and religion, but my parents said I really should be practical. So I started out with biology but quickly changed my mind. Art is far more scientifically-minded than I am, and I knew enough to pick something else after taking several courses in science, so it was economics for me.
Going to graduate school required further, more concentrated studies, which led me to aim for a school that was focused on an area specific to my interests. I decided to go for a Master of Divinity degree. Although the name implies that those who go to seminary, like Art and me, will become masters of divinity, I don’t know that one ever masters anything like divinity.
Even so, how we come to know God and come to our faith is a unique story for every one of us.
Our Different Stories
Art’s story, as he’s told us, is one of math and science, that the beauty of mathematical equations led him into his faith. I traveled a far different path. I admit that I prayed a lot in math class to pass, among other things, but I didn’t quite see God in my study of math. I was more panicked. It’s numbers and I. I don’t even do Sudoku. Numbers just don’t speak to me.
My faith developed differently. Through people, to be honest, and animals. The need to take care of our pets at home. Visiting the hospital and the nursing home. Setting the communion table for church. My Sunday-school teachers, my parents. Learning the stories of people who lived long ago – David and Solomon and Joshua, Leah and Rachel, Moses, Jesus and Paul, Peter and John. Music also has a big part to play in my faith. And art, including photography.
As a little girl we always got National Geographic, and I loved looking at the pictures although at first I didn’t read it. I viewed Mutual of Omaha on television, watching animals get tagged. I remember men in particular sitting in the bush keeping an eye on other animals, taking pictures of elephants and tigers. And the movies. I admit that a great deal of my faith formation as a child came from King of Kings, Ben Hur, The Robe, and The Ten Commandments.
I know Art has quoted Einstein heavily in his sermons, and I have yet to do that. I don’t know that I fully understand E MC2, and maybe that is a blessing, but I have quoted names in Cabaret, and I’m working on others.
We do come to know ourselves and each other and God in different ways, and that’s okay. It’s a wonderful thing, really, and we believe differently as well. That too is okay. How do we keep learning, keep our knowledge growing? Many of us might watch a special on television or go to see a certain movie, and we’re compelled to learn more about a certain subject. You get the relevant books out of the library or order them and then read and reread, study and relearn.
As a kid, history bored me silly. It seemed to be a series of wars and dates empty of excitement. Yet now I love it and spend more time reading about people, events, and happenings. I read about Scotland and the year 1776 in our nation, about the Johnstown flood in Pennsylvania and about Alexander Hamilton. You name it. You have too, I’m sure, and my knowledge about these subjects, people, and events has grown some.
I enjoy biographies as well, having just read three very different books in a row: Steve Jobs, I Am Malala, and Joan of Arc. I realize that’s quite a list. It runs a gamut, in both age and people. Just now I want to talk a bit about Steve Jobs. It’s a new biography for Steve Jobs’ life story and the founding of Apple.
The Steve Jobs Story
It was an interesting read. I learned a little more not only about Steve Jobs the man but also about Silicon Valley and how personal computers really got started. This huge explosion of personal technology affects us all as we acquire smart phones, iPods, and the like. Jobs himself wanted a thousand songs in his pocket. Think how revolutionary it was when he and his team came up with the iPod, which has turned the music industry upside down and has changed how we browse the Web.
Jobs had a particular challenge, as his biographer put it, in coming up with products that we want before we know we want them. When products by Apple came out, people would watch and say, I want that. It’s sleek, and it’s cool-looking. Feels good in the hand. Product development at Apple proceeded in a room with a table filled with facsimiles of new products that Steve and his team played with. They would walk around examining prospective products, holding them and putting them up to their ears. They had to feel good as well as look good and be endowed with strong technical advances.
Steve was also a difficult person. As described by his biographer, he had a nasty edge that hindered more than helped him. He had more than an edge. He was truly offensive. Who knows why? Jobs was adopted, and he felt that keenly. However, he ended up meeting his birth mother and his biological sister, and he and his sister became very close.
He hurt a lot of people, often being devastating in business and distant at home. A factoid about Steve Jobs tells you a lot about the man. Every day he would go to work in his car without license plates. He refused to put them on and would park crooked in handicapped spots every day. That’s the kind of guy he was, and that’s before he got sick.
Knowing and Caring Are Divine Acts
So why talk about this? I have come to understand, thanks to our passage in thinking about it, that knowing is a divine act. It’s an act of love. It’s an act of God. Here in church we all talk a lot about love. (I do too.) God is love. We have to love one another as we love ourselves.
And sometimes it’s good to think about love in practical terms. How do we show love? How do we give love? How do we feel love? One of the facets of love is to know and be known. Knowing takes time. Takes interest. Takes study. Takes caring. You do have to care and take the time to get to know one another right here in church.
I’m going to tell you a simple story that I told the residents of the nursing home where I work as a chaplain. It’s called “Practical Magic,” and I’d like you to think about taking the time to know somebody. It’s by a woman, a granddaughter named Christy Caballero. The people on the corridor didn’t know. How could they? Nurses and doctors and orderlies, interns and patients, all in a rush to get someplace. While some hurry from point A to point B, others move in slow motion, measured steps, their grip on the handrail turning their knuckles white.
Glancing into the nondescript room as they pass by, people would have seen a gray-haired patient, looking like a grandfather in his 60’s, and they might have noticed a pretty young raven-haired woman sitting near him, about the right age to be his granddaughter.
But none would understand the miracle taking place in this drab world. It was subtle and easy to overlook, mistaken for a typical visit between a patient and a visitor, probably a family member. Yet it wasn’t typical. It was magic of a potent, all-too-uncommon kind, far too important to detect in a passing glimpse. As the moments passed by, the frail man painted pictures of his lifetime. His words were his brush strokes, and that was only half the magic.
The real magic was that the woman listened and heard him. The clock of his life was winding down. He struggled to walk across the room, but his words still had power. So it was with words that he whisked his visitor off to times long past and places that were half a world away. Times and places that he hadn’t been able to take anyone to for a very long time now.
His family didn’t mean to keep the man in a box. They were just too busy or too preoccupied with his illness. Take a break and meander into the room along with the staff. They already knew his stories backwards and forwards, but they didn’t understand that he had to share his memories so that in sharing them he could feel alive again.
The Patient Spreads His Wings . . .
As the woman sat in the sturdy, no-frills hospital chair, she listened. The man stood in the footprints of a lanky high-school boy, ashamed that he hadn’t ever left the state of Oregon. On his eighteenth birthday, there was only the lazy Columbia River between him and the state of Washington. He dove in and swam hard enough to reach the other shore. After collapsing and resting for a while, he swam back. He rooted about in his memories and found every treasured arrowhead over again. And he lived the rescue of a long list of injured animals.
As the minutes passed, the man turned into that tender recruit who went to World War II in military service. On the day two of his buddies were drafted into the army, he decided he wanted to determine his own destiny, and he enlisted in the navy. The only obstacle was the 60 miles between him and the recruiting station.
It was a bitterly cold winter day, and he turned his face toward Portland. He climbed aboard his bike with big fat tires and pedaled. And pedaled all night. The hours passed by as he froze. Stopping in a Portland diner, the young man counted his change and ordered a chili. It was the only thing he could afford. His navy stories were rich and vivid, full of Australia, a country he came to love. And the visitor saw him at his best, the way he was before the world wore him down.
The patient saved his most precious story for last. He sank back into a day in Norfolk, Virginia, walking along a street, making his way back to his submarine to ship out. He suddenly spotted a woman who instantly took his breath away. He didn’t even know her, and he didn’t get the chance to meet her. But somehow she made his heart ache. His heart ached for that lovely stranger for another decade until the night he met that same woman face-to-face at a dance in Alaska, half a world away. He decided that very night he was going to marry her and told his best friend he was going to do just that. Six weeks later, they said their “I do’s.”
The young woman beside the hospital bed sat and listened. The magic grew stronger. Because she listened, he was transformed. Because she was interested, he managed to sleep behind the tubes and the monitors and the pain. Because she heard what he had to tell, he was able to make a journey of his own. The old man stepped out across time, and for a few moments he could feel the cloth of a younger man’s shirt on his back. The arms of a young sailor holding his bride.
. . . Until the End
He received a great gift that day. His closest family members hadn’t stopped by on that particular day and so weren’t present to provide this chance for their beloved relative to relive his life, simply in its telling. Yet he wasn’t the only one gifted; the listener also received a treasure of the retelling of a life.
The patient died soon after that special visit. But in the chilly twilight hours of his life, he had more than hospital linen to keep him warm. The event seems quite ordinary, but he had found the strength to share himself one more time. That man in the hospital room was my grandfather, and I wished I had been the young woman in the chair.
The Story of the Woman at the Well
Jesus was sitting by a well somewhere in Samaria, which was a country between northern and southern Israel. As you’ve heard before, the Samaritans and the Jewish people didn’t get along very well. The Jews looked down on the Samaritans. They didn’t go to temple. They weren’t really part of the faith. They had intermarried.
The disciples went into Sicar to buy food. It was noon but noon is not the time people in those days went to the wells. They were mostly women with their big water jars, first thing in the morning, when it was cooler. Of course, that’s when they would also see their neighbors and friends and catch up in these days before mass communication. Or they went in the cool of the evening as the sun was setting and dinner was done. Then they’d go back to the well and talk some more.
What’s this woman doing, going to the well all alone? We’ll be told later in the story, but Jesus surprises her deeply. He surprises his disciples too. He breaks basically every taboo that existed at the time. You didn’t talk to women, especially women to whom you aren’t related. And you certainly didn’t talk to Samaritans.
But of course he does. He takes the time. He demonstrates that he knows her very well, yet he welcomes her and talks to her. They actually have a theological conversation, and she gets it. Come see a man who’s told me everything that I have ever done. He cannot be the Messiah, can he?
Take the time to welcome, to come, to know ourselves and each other and God. Some of the residents where I am chaplain sit all day, saying over and over, “God bless you.” I imagine they are saying, “Know me.” Stop a minute. Stop a second. Look into my eyes. Treat me like the person I am, even if I can’t talk to you. Take my hand. Take the time. Know me.
Bumper-Sticker People Ask for Notice
Why do people put bumper stickers on their cars? Have you noticed the latest stick figures? Mom and dad or mom and mom or dad and dad. Three kids, two boys, and a girl. A dog and a cat. Even sports: soccer balls and baseball bats, you name it. Why do they care what I know about them? They want to be known.
And why do people put memorial stickers on the back of their cars? Actually, for people who have lost young persons. We no longer as a society wear black clothing to show the world that we’re in mourning. The black veil or armband is occasionally worn for funerals but is no longer de rigueur.
What we want is that we desperately need people to know what’s happening in our lives. To know what we’ve lost and who we love. Find the people who write blogs on their computers. What if they go on “Judge Judy” and “Doctor Phil,” for goodness’ sake? They’re desperate to be known.
We all need to be known and to know. It’s an act of love.