“Playing the Part of Jesus”
A sermon preached on February 22, 2009 based upon Mark 9:2 – 9, and on the occasion of the baptism of Kylie Collins, daughter of BI and Nancy.
About thirteen years ago, an enchanting image began to show up in my imagination; a character actually: A little girl who could see Jesus. Misunderstood by most everybody, she derived great comfort from her friendship to Jesus, with whom she would talk over what was happening in her life.
I gave the girl the name Lydia, and soon thereafter a grandmother came along as well, an old woman wise with her years, who apart from Jesus, was the only person in Lydia’s life who really “got her.“
The grandmother, however, was dying, confined to a hospital bed in the living room.
I realized I had the seeds of a play, and when I sat down to write, late at night when, Bobby an infant at the time, was asleep, the words just flowed, as well as other characters. A single mother so stressed out she doesn‘t know which way is up, an angry older brother, a protective pit bull of a home health aid, a Methodist minister, stuck in the routines of his work life, a street person, befriended by Lydia.
As the story unfolded, all the characters undergo a life-giving transformation, brought on by their encounter with Lydia, or perhaps Jesus through the channel of Lydia, including the grandmother, who in the final scene undergoes the ultimate transformation from this world to the next.
As I wrote the characters, I thought of people to play the parts. My daughter Kate would play Lydia, my mother would play the grandmother, my best friend David would play Jesus, my wife Sarah would play the mother, Tim Booth would play the angry older brother, Gail Booth the home health aid, and, this was a stretch, myself as the Methodist minister.
There are times in life when everything seems to fall into place, where doors mysteriously open, where life flows unobstructed, and the presence of they holy spirit seems indisputable, and this was one of those times. The script was written within a month, and everybody I asked accepted my invitation to be in the play. We produced the play here at the
church, and the response was overwhelming. The DS came, and liked the play so much, he had us reproduce it 8 months later at Centenary College before the Bishop and the entire annual conference.
It was pretty awe inspiring, and the feeling I had was that something had happened through me, and not so much by me.
Ten years later, it seemed time for a revival, and with the help of David Cicchelli and the College of William Paterson, an altogether new cast was assembled, made largely of people from beyond our church family. There were, however, two people who were cast from our congregation.
Kayla Hook played Lydia, and for Jesus, I asked BI, who was new to the church to take the part.
As you would expect from anybody with some measure of humility, BI expressed feelings of inadequacy in regard to playing Jesus, but nonetheless he enthusiastically embraced the challenge of embodying the part, and he did a wonderful job. As you might expect, he played a different sort of Jesus from the one David had played, and should the play be reproduced a million different times, there would be, of course, a million different interpretatinos of Jesus, which is it should be.
Good things followed BI’s venture onto the stage. He fell in love with wonderful Nancy. And now a little more than two years later, BI and Nancy have their own enchanted little girl named Kylie.
And in certain sense, its dejavu all over again. BI embraced the role of father with that same mixture of humility and enthusiasm.
Such a gift, but also such an awesome responsibility.
There is a certain sense in which every father and every mother is called to play the part of Jesus for their child. To be our best possible self, to set aside our own needs — our own egos aside — and be there steadfastly, for the child.
There is also a sense in which every child plays that part of Lydia, the enchanted one who reminds the adults around her of unseen realities so easily missed in the daily grind of this world.
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus up on the mountain with the disciples Peter, James and John is one of my favorites. Unexpectedly, the disciples find themselves gazing into the awesome wonder of eternity, as divine light shines through Jesus. They gaze into what we call heaven, with Moses and Elijah appearing from the realm of those who have passed over. The disciples are filled with feelings similar to those that a parent feels at the birth of a child and the outset of taking on the responsibilities of parenting a child: Fear, a sense of inadequacy, but also absolute enchantment. Peter begins to babble, “Master, it is good that the boys and I are here, we can build three little shacks up here for you, Moses, and Elijah to dwell in, and we can stay up here forever!”
A holy cloud overshadows the mountaintop, even further intensifying the sense of the presence of God, and the disciples fall on their faces. The voice of the Lord is heard: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” The cloud passes, they look up, seeing only Jesus.
Jesus leads them back down into the valley to engage this broken world in his compassionate ministry. The words they have heard, “This is my beloved son; listen to him,” remain with the disciples. This is what life is about, following directions from Jesus, embodying his spirit in our own particular life.
The Transfiguration story says two truths simultaneously which need to be held together. First, heaven is real. There is another dimension beyond the ones we encounter with our senses that is eternal, where there is only love and no death. Trust the reality of this other dimension, especially when the inevitable decay of this world — the fact that all flesh is destined to pass away — tempts us to despair.
The second thing the story tells us is that this world matters more than we know. The disciples wanted to stay up on the mountain, but Jesus led them back down the valley into the world that God loves so. It matters more than we know how we live our life moment by moment in this world. We are here to practice love, which, in the end, is the only thing that doesn’t pass away. Sometimes the lessons in loving that life in the valley presents are extremely hard, involving great suffering. But in the end, learning how to love is all that matters, and we get to try again each time we stumble, and we surely stumble often.
Kylie is at the outset of her journey, and we can say with confidence that in the course of her travel through life she will lose here way, because this is what we humans do. But we are here to witness this day that there will always be a way back home, and to commit ourselves to being there for her to help her find the way back.
There are moments as we make our way through this life when we encounter what can be called “portals”, where suddenly we can see more clearly that which we routinely miss about what life is all about. The transfiguration story is the supreme example of a portal, but other moments come to us as well. The experience of both birth and death usually provide such moments. Kylie’s baptism is such a moment, if we have but eyes to see it.
What is the meaning of life? It is, in our own unique way, to play the part of Jesus.