Don't Sneeze Or You'll Miss It!

Luke 19:1-10
© Stacey Steck

Back when I was a young man riding my motorcycle through the backroads of north Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina in search of places named Cleveland, long rides which included coming to Rowan County, I would pass by towns so small that they define the saying, “Don’t sneeze, or you’ll miss it.” I might even have passed by Mill Bridge on one of those trips but I must have sneezed because I can’t remember seeing it. But you know the kind of place I mean, just a post office, maybe a gas station, a country store where old men trade stories, and perhaps a church and its cemetery, the only indication something is coming is a “Reduced Speed Ahead” sign a few hundred yards before you get to it. To their inhabitants, there is surely much to behold in such towns, and perhaps for others too if they took the time to stop and meet and greet; stories, history, natural wonders not found listed in even the best guidebook, amazing opportunities missed during the length of a sneeze, or maybe just simple indifference. I wonder what else we miss when we sneeze or snooze, or when we just don’t care. Life, I suppose. Or a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Or at least the answers to the questions that torture our souls.

The question “Then who can be saved?” is one of those soul-twisting questions. “Then who can be saved?” was the question asked by those who had witnessed the encounter between Jesus and an unnamed man whom we have taken to calling the rich young ruler. You will remember that a certain man approached Jesus and asked what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, and when he went away sad because Jesus told him he would need to part with all of his worldly possessions, Jesus responded by saying, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” to which Jesus replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God,” a true answer if not a very satisfying one at the moment. Those with that troubling question on their lips probably still had the image of a camel and a needle in their mind’s eye, thinking that if the rich, with all their benefits and advantages, all their education and better health, all their art and culture, all their well-built homes with servants to take care of them, if they would have a hard time squeezing through, how much harder would it be for those who were disadvantaged, who brought nothing to the equation except their misery? Why would they be wanted in the kingdom of heaven if they weren’t even wanted on earth?

I didn’t hear any sneezes while I was reading the Gospel so I am assuming everyone saw the camel pass through the eye of the needle. It did, you know. If you didn’t see it, it could be that you weren’t paying attention. The camel that passed through the eye of a needle was named Zacchaeus, a son of Abraham, a rich man who found salvation, a man who went away joyful rather than sad following his encounter with Jesus. “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” Yes, the story of Zacchaeus is the bookend to the story of the rich young ruler, bookends in the Gospel of Luke that enclose another pair of stories that are like a couple of small towns on a back country road, easy to miss if you sneeze, or just don’t care to pay attention. You see, in between the stories of the rich young ruler with its memorable image of the camel, and his more celebrated counterpart, the wee little man named Zacchaeus, is Jesus’ third and final revelation to the disciples about his upcoming death and resurrection, as well as the story of Jesus healing a blind beggar who called out to him from the side of the road, both of them stories which should be as important to us as to the people who lived them, since they proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ that makes possible the camel’s passing through the eye of the needle. The first of these two middle stories sheds light on Jesus’ wisdom that “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God,” for what else demonstrates God’s power like resurrection. With all of our science and technology two thousand years later, we still can’t raise the dead; there are still some things impossible for us. The second of these middle stories gives hope to the poor who asked the question “Then who can be saved?” If they were wondering how the poor would fare on the entrance exam for the kingdom, they found their answer as one of their own, a blind beggar, makes the grade in God’s eyes. The only ones left are the rich, and Luke wraps up that question too with the story of Zacchaeus, to show that God’s mercy doesn’t stop with the middle class, thanks be to God.

The sad fact of the matter is that it is so easy for us to live our lives like those journeys we’ve spent speeding through the countryside, never pausing to stop, or even slow down to see what a new place has to offer. And then we get to the end of that journey and realize that reaching the destination wasn’t really the point after all, and that it’s too late to retrace our route to revisit all we’ve missed. We can imagine the rich young ruler as a rich old ruler, sitting later on his throne ruing the fact that he wasted the opportunity to take Jesus up on his offer. How many similar stories have we heard? How many similar people have we known? How often have we wondered if that will be our fate too? Have we simply sneezed our lives away?

It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine Zacchaeus asking himself that question, and deciding that indeed he has missed what life really has to offer. And so he runs ahead and climbs that tree, and places his hopes in a man he has never met, and may never even get to see, given the disadvantage of his stature. Perhaps he realized the truth in what Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel has said, that “because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies.” But this will be his one chance, Jesus’ last visit to Jericho, and so he makes a decision that changes his life, and hears the surprising yet welcome words, “Today, salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Today. Not yesterday, and not tomorrow, but today. The same day Zacchaeus made his decision to seek Jesus is the day Jesus made known his decision to receive Zacchaeus, and every day after that would be different than those that came before. There will be no more sneezing and missing, no more indifferent days. There will now be the real faces of those he has defrauded whom he will pay back fourfold, and the real faces of the poor whose lives he will bless with the wealth he will give. He will reenter the life of his community, and his heritage, and his faith. Those who grumbled when Jesus decided to eat in his home will be transformed into friends, and the Romans with whom he was in business will become enemies. And it all begins today.

And once life really begins, it becomes all the more precious, but also all the easier to let it slip away if we’re not careful. At a retreat center just outside New York City, this time of year back in 2001, just a few weeks after 9/11, when the whole nation was cherishing their loved ones and mourning for those who had lost theirs, I received the gift of hearing a Presbyterian musician named David m. Bailey, a guy who knew how precious life really is. He sang a bunch of great songs for us, but one of them grabbed me by the heart, and has never let go. If I could play the guitar and sing like he did, I’d perform it for you myself, but I’ll just have to let Mr. Bailey speak for himself:

Don't let the grass grow beneath your busy feet
Don't let the grass grow above you when you rest
You've got one more day to get to where you're going
One more day to give your very best

Don't let the clouds forever block your sunshine
Don't let the sunshine blind you on your way
You might have years of tears put behind you
But right now you've got one more day

One more day when you can hold your children
One more day you can hold your wife
One more day when you can watch the grass grow
One more day when you can live your life

Don't let the cynics tell you they know better better yet,
Don't let them talk to you at all
You've got one more day to prove that they know nothing
One more day to find your private call

Don't let your loved ones ever doubt your passion
Don't let your passion ever start to fade
I know how it feels to be so frightened
But right now, you've got one more day

One more day, when you can hold your children.....

David Bailey lived his life believing in “one more day” for a very long time, from the time doctors told him his Glioblastoma brain tumor would kill him in 6 months until he finally did die fourteen years, for all those years having written and performed songs that inspired the world. Although he survived far longer than the doctors expected, he knew he would not survive forever. And so he went about observing and chronicling in song all that he had learned from God was precious, not only his family and those who loved him, but also the sights and sounds of everyday life around him, and he was the richer for it, and so we continue to be, if we are not indifferent to today.

A hundred and fifty years earlier, there was another artist whose devotion to God and whose attention to detail led him to write some of the most famous and beloved poems of the nineteenth century. Gerard Manley Hopkins never let his attention wander, and he was rewarded by seeing beauty where others might have seen nothing. As an example, from his journal on June 5, 1873 he writes simply, “The turkey and hens will let a little chick mount their backs and sit between the wings.” It is not that Hopkins was a scientist trapped in the body of a poet that led him to detail in his journal the mundane and the magnificent, and then share it with us, but rather that in the details he saw God’s grace in his life, and in the life of the world. Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, but by all accounts not a very good one, a fact which led him to no small amount of despair. In his own lifetime he was not even recognized as much of a poet, rarely published and never celebrated. But he never stopped reflecting on his todays, in all their glory, and so it is that since 1918, when his works were first published some thirty years after his death, the world has been blessed with a way of seeing which gives witness to both mortal beauty and God’s grace in words such as these he wrote in 1877:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is smeared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod

And, for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastwards, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

One biographer of Hopkins has said, “Of the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins it might be said that he’s difficult only if you try to understand him.” I prefer to simply delight in his combinations of words that I could never put together myself, and which reveal a God you and I both desperately need to see. Perhaps the same should be said of Jesus’ curious statement about that camel passing through the eye of a needle. It is only difficult if you try to understand it. But if you simply celebrate the fact that it really happened, and happens still today, you can live in the today that Zacchaeus was given, and that we are given, and rejoice in the grace of a God who didn’t sneeze when passing by that tree in Jericho, but stopped to meet and greet, and remind us all of the salvation offered to us today. Amen.

Funeral Homily for John Steele

Psalm 46, Romans 8:31-39, and John 14:1-6, 25-27
(c) Stacey Steck

Too soon. The deaths of those we love almost always come too soon. We want more – more time, more memories, more laughs, more love. The death of John Steele came too soon, too soon in an age when we expect to live well into our seventies at least, too soon after the deaths of his parents in the last two years, too soon for the people who served with him, much too soon for Joyce, and Mary Margaret and Vann and June, and for all of us. And too soon for God too, if I may be so bold to say. Too soon for the God of life who knows us better than we know ourselves, who knows the number of the hairs upon our heads, who knows that “too soon” leaves behind too many broken hearts. And it’s too soon to think the sorrow will go away any time soon, and too soon to stop being angry at what leukemia has taken from us too soon. It’s all too soon.

But it’s not too soon for some things. It’s not too soon give thanks to God who gave us John. It’s not too soon to remember him and tell our stories about him. It’s not too soon to be here together on this day in this place. It’s not too soon to depend on all God’s given us to help us cope with our thoughts and our feelings, this community of faith, our prayers and words and songs, and maybe most of all, words of promise from Scripture. You see, the Psalmist tells us that “Our God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.” We will not fear though our lives, like the earth, should change, though our knees, like mountains, shake, though our tears, like waters, roar and foam, though our voices, like mountains, tremble in their tumult, we will not fear, “because the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” We are not alone and it is never too soon to celebrate God’s abiding presence in our lives, and in John’s life.

That same promise that God is with us is echoed as Jesus talks to the disciples and reassures doubting Thomas, and as Paul writes to the Romans. “Jesus, you’re going away too soon. We’re not finished with you yet,” Thomas is saying, when he asks Jesus, “How can we know the way?” But Jesus reassures him the same way the Psalmist reassures the people of Israel, “Peace, I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” That’s easier said than done, Jesus. We have a lot to be afraid of. Like Thomas, we’re not sure we are up to the task of going it alone without the one we love. Yes, it’s hard to make that leap, to put away that fear. But Jesus shows us the way – the way, the truth, and the life – to trusting God to see us through times like these. You see, God too lost someone too soon, but it’s that same someone who is comforting us, and letting us know that even though things won’t be the same for us any more, God will be the same -- the same presence, the same comfort, the same love.

And Paul? He brings us the same promise that God is with us through thick and thin, through the worst we can go through and the worst we can imagine, and that nothing can change that fact. Nothing can separate us from God in Jesus Christ. That’s true for John in death and it’s true for us in life. And that promise too is premised on the fact of God’s gift of Jesus Christ, through whom the promise was delivered on Good Friday and opened on Easter morning. “God did not withhold his only son, but gave him up for all of us.” God was present then, and this is the same God who is present with us now as we gather to say goodbye, and in the weeks and the months ahead when we remember and struggle, and also when our pain begins to diminish, as it eventually will, and when we are ready to meet new challenges that God has in mind for us, and when we are there for others who follow in our footsteps saying, “It’s too soon.”

Tomorrow morning, the Men of the Church here at Thyatira will gather for their monthly breakfast, and it will feel too soon to meet without our President. But it won’t be, because there are bacon, eggs, and biscuits to eat and good news to bring to our Mill Bridge, Mt. Ulla, and Bear Poplar communities that we can only do together. The next time John’s fellow volunteer firefighters head out on a call together without him, they may feel it’s just too soon to leave his gear behind. But it won’t be, because there are lives to save and cats in trees to rescue for desperate little boys and girls. Each of us will greet tomorrow morning without John being present with us in the ways that each of us have known him, and it may feel too soon to think of life without him. But it won’t be, because the love and caring and friendship he showed us simply must be shared with others who need it. He wouldn’t have it any other way. And he’ll be with us as we do all those things.

You see, we are not really without him. It’s hard to imagine, I know, but our faith tells us that he’s in that same house with many dwelling places that we are, only now behind a door that is closed for a little while until it opens up again in God’s good time. This is the promise of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the hope that unites us in life and in death. Maybe that day can’t come soon enough for us, but do not be afraid, because it’s coming. “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

Let us pray: Grant rest eternal, unto John, O Lord, and may light perpetual shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, rest in peace. Amen.