A sermon by the Rev. Craig Lemming for St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
Sunday, November 14, 2021 – Proper 28
In the name of God who destroys our false perceptions of people and places so that we can see Christ in others and ourselves more truthfully. Amen.
I arrived in the United States of America on August 21, 2001. After three airport layovers, my sleepless 32-hour journey from Harare to Johannesburg to Cairo to London to Boston culminated with the joy of making a friend as we disembarked at Logan International Airport. I discovered that Anders – a tall, handsome, blond saxophone player from Denmark who looked like he walked out of GQ magazine – was also an incoming student at New England Conservatory. I marveled at the holy synchronicity that this new friend on the same flight from London to Boston was also going be my classmate. I was relieved when Anders offered to help navigate the subway system once we got through immigration and baggage claim. Anders produced his very regal burgundy Danish passport. I produced my humble, green Zimbabwean passport. Anders was whisked immediately to his immigration interview and after 5 minutes he was ready to head to baggage claim. Seeing that the Black and Brown people in my line would take much longer to process, I gestured to Anders to tell him to not wait for me, but to go on ahead; I’d see him at the Conservatory in the morning. After over an hour of standing in line, my turn to be interviewed came. I proudly produced my visa and documentation and despite being sleep-deprived for 34 hours, I was eager to move as swiftly as Anders did through my interview. Three hours later, after three different interviews, by three different immigration officials, I finally said to them that if they brought me my luggage, underneath my clothing they’d find certificates from the Royal College of Music to help them understand that yes, a Brown Zimbabwean like me could in fact be a student in their country’s oldest and most prestigious Conservatory; the alma mater of Coretta Scott King. Tipping out my clothing that my grandmother and father had so carefully and lovingly packed, they rifled through my certificates with their grubby fingers, and finally it was when they found my score of Handel’s Messiah, with an inscription on the inside cover in my father’s perfect penmanship that reads, “To Craig Lemming, with love, Dad and Mum (Christmas 1995)” and the ink stamp in the bottom corner from Più Mosso music store in Harare that they finally recognized that I was actually the person that I was.
Our ways of perceiving who we and others are have been warped by a colonial way of seeing, thinking, and being. Today’s sermon will explore how both Hannah and Jesus disrupt, disobey, and decolonize the sad, sick, and twisted misperceptions we project on to ourselves, on to places, and on to other people.
In today’s Old Testament Lesson Eli perceives a woman in the temple who is deeply distressed, who is weeping bitterly in prayer to God, and Eli chooses to interpret her as a drunkard saying, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” Really, Eli? Now, there’s a reason why Hannah’s Canticle is the prototype of Mary’s Magnificat: these women do not suffer the ignorance of these male fools. Hannah says to Eli,
I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.
Eli’s misperceptions are disrupted and he finally sees Hannah and blesses her. Hannah teaches us how to disrupt the misperceptions, projections, and delusions that are projected by us onto those the colonizer has taught us to interpret as worth-less. Hannah teaches us to speak truth in love to ignorant people who have way too much power and whose misperceptions dehumanize all of us, including them.
Today’s Gospel story offers an apocalyptic way of seeing the meaning of Sanctuary anew. To understand the context of this Scripture, we must go back to about 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus; to The Siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, which resulted in the complete destruction of The Temple: a calamity so cataclysmic it is impossible for us to imagine. According to Josephus, 1.1 million men, women, and children were massacred and 97,000 were captured and enslaved by the Roman Empire. This catastrophe is placed in Jesus’ mouth in today’s Gospel. As he exits the Temple with his disciples, Jesus says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” And in 70 CE, they were. The Temple: that ultimate symbol of faith, a place of sanctuary, a place of identity, a place of Ultimate Concern, the place Hannah poured out her soul to God, was gone; utterly destroyed by the Roman colonizers. The devastating loss of The Temple for Jews and Jewish Christians is unfathomable. This Gospel passage forces us to do what poet and theologian Christian Wiman invites his readers to do when he writes, “In the end the very things that have led us to God are the things that we must sacrifice… In the end these gifts must be given entirely away. This is a struggle. To feel the loss of letting go of old ways of seeing, thinking, and being takes courage. To sit with that despair in the midst of grief requires Hannah’s resilience. Resilience and courage to speak the truth in love that disrupts, disobeys, and dismantles those imperial misperceptions of people and places, so that new life can be conceived in a womb that is no longer barren but is filled with the promise of God’s wild and untamable and liberating love.
The Good News today is that we can be human temples of sanctuary with and for each other and for every Hannah still being misinterpreted in the world. As Baptized followers of Jesus we are sanctuaries with and for God’s love because, as today’s Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us – we have confidence to enter God’s sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for all people through the curtain, that is, through his flesh broken open for all people to enter in, and since we have this great high priest of love in this sanctuary of God who is love, let us approach God’s Sanctuary in you and in me and in every person and creature of God with a true heart in full assurance of faith.
This is the reason why the chorus that reduces me to tears every year when I listen to Handel’s Messiah is not the Hallelujah chorus nor the Amen; it’s that first chorus in A Major, the key of love and cheerfulness and trust in God. That first chorus that my old music score my parents gave me, that saved my life at Logan Airport, naturally opens to. The chorus that reminds us that when our perceptions are disrupted by God’s love, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh, ALL flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it!
So, friends, let us provoke one another to love and good deeds, encouraging one another to continue to see and to be seen as sanctuaries of God. Amen.
- Josephus, The Wars of the Jews VI.9.3.
- Mark 13:1-8
- Christian Wiman, “Nimble Believing,” in A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith. Edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler (North Adams, Mass: Tupelo Press, 2012), 254.