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Philomena

Read: Luke 14:1, 7-14

As infuriating as it might be to some people, my wife and many of you include, I’m a bit of a planner; I like to plan ahead. I like to know what I’m doing next week. I like to know when my next trip is going to be. I like to plan way ahead on the year of worship, the sermons I’ll preach, the classes I’ll teach, and the books we’ll read as a church at Advent and Lent. In fact, I’m searching right now. I’m searching for Advent. And not just the book for Advent, I’m searching for the season of Advent and all that comes with it.

Because here we are in a season of the Christian Year that some people call The Season after Pentecost, and others simply call Ordinary Time – it’s a season in the church in which we are called to reflect upon the life and story of Christ Jesus. During the other seasons, we have a job to do. We must tell the story – the seasons of Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter call us to tell the story of Jesus’ life, from birth to death, resurrection, and ascension, again. Yearly, we tell his story. But in this season after Pentecost, we are called to reflection. And, to me, the horizon of that story of Jesus just. feels. so. far away right now. I’m tired of reflection. I’m searching for action.

But I’m searching for Advent. I wait in eager anticipation of the story of Jesus that Advent points us to. In the weeks leading to Christmas, I can’t wait to hear from the prophet Isaiah calling us to the mountain of the Lord. I can’t wait to hear him prophesying that one will come and keep us safe from harm upon that mountain, to hear him say that though we walk in the wilderness now, a highway will appear before us, making a way for us, leading us to the savior. I can’t wait to hear him share about that coming savior and all he will mean to us.

I’m searching for Advent because I’m searching for the nearness of the savior. I’m searching for the hope he brings. And so I read dozens of books, searching for the right one, so we can be ready for the hope that will arrive just a couple of short months away. 

The book I’m reading right now is called In the Shelter and it’s written by an Irish poet and theologian called Padraig O Tuama. Padraig is telling the story of his adult life and his search for meaning in God and the surprising places that he finds God along the way, along that journey. And each time he feels that sense of surprise, he uses the word, “hello.” Like when he’s visiting an unknown city and he finds himself standing in front of a small gospel choir, and he feels the Spirit of God in their words and in their movement, he says, “Hello City.” And when he reflects on how similar he is to the disciples in their locked upper room, the risen Christ’s feet already upon the ground, on his way to greet them, he says, “Hello to you in the locked room.” And when he feels the grief of loss of a loved one close to him he says that the math is mysterious because 4 minus 1=3 plus grief. And when he feels that grief so intensely, he says, “Hello grief.” Because even in grief he experiences God. Hello. It’s a greeting and a reminder that you are in the presence of something. 

If, like Padraig, we’re meant to say hello in the places that we find God, then let me say for myself, “Hello Philomena.” Hello to your hope. Hello to your pain. Hello to your forgiving spirit. Hello Philomena.

Philomena is the movie from our current sermon series. It’s the story of a woman who was sixteen when she became pregnant and her Roman Catholic father told her that he couldn’t even stand to look at her, and he sent her to live in the convent. In due time, she had her child, and for a couple of years, she was able to see him just one hour per day. That is until the nuns adopt her son away and she searches for him but comes up empty. Hello, emptiness. 

Let’s hear the story from Judy Dench, the starring actress.

Watch: Judy Dench on Philomena’s story

One of the things that stands out the most in Philomena’s story is her humility in the face of something that could have been justified righteous indignation. Shortly into the movie, we find out that the nuns were selling Irish babies to America for $1000 each. It’s not right and, yet, Philomena won’t blame the Church. I sat there the whole time thinking that she should. But maybe that’s because I’m a bit more like the journalist in the story, Martin Sixsmith. I’m always going to be a bit more skeptical. It lives in my blood and my brain. 

It’s Philomena’s humility that stands out even in daily situations, even just a simple breakfast with Martin.

Watch: Breakfast with Philomena

This last week someone encouraged me to listen to the story of Jesus, as I read it in the Bible, not as the holy scripture that I have always known, not to read it like I already know the story, but as if I am reading it for the very first time, (much like the way we just met Philomena in the movie). And the encouragement was that I should just read him and listen to him and let the fact of just how wild and intense this Jesus is wash over me. Just let Jesus wash over me as if for the first time and let him be wild and untamed. And I should ask myself, “What is he saying to me?”

Take the story today. Jesus is eating with Pharisees, people much like Martin, who have lost the mystery of faith, who have lost their senses of wonder.  These are the ones who would become Jesus’ enemies, and Luke says of this interaction, that Jesus “was being carefully watched.” Then, in the part that we didn’t read, those verses 2-6, Jesus heals a guy sitting at the table. Even in a fantasy book, that is an interesting development, to say the least, but what happens next is perhaps even a bit stranger than the first development, and even more interesting, because Jesus picks a fight. He sits to dinner, heals a man, picks a fight, and then starts teaching at the table. .

Minimally we have to say that Jesus’ behavior is erratic and rude, but the fight that he picks is that he sees the guests at this party, the guests at this dinner, jockeying for positions of honor around the table. Maybe Jesus saw them pushing and fighting to sit next to the host of the meal, or maybe they pushed and fought to sit next to the guest of honor, Jesus himself, or maybe they even pushed and fought not to sit by a boorish guest, who is well-known for his long-winded and meandering stories that go absolutely nowhere. Even that part reminded me of a bit of Philomena. Let’s watch:

Watch: Philomena and the Page Turner

Maybe these men around the table were fighting and trying to get away from someone who was going to relay the whole story of a book to them. But Jesus sees them fighting for position, and gives his own version of that, and he picks a fight. When we read this story for the first time again, what do we think about a guest of honor who scolds the other guests? If we don’t know who Jesus is, we probably think poorly of him from this story, because this just isn’t done. When we look at Jesus from our own experience, we meet him again for the first time.

Soren Kierkegaard says that this is always how we should experience Jesus. He should never become past tense to us. He should never be domesticated. He should never become a well-known tale of the past because Christ never becomes past tense. He never becomes something that has happened. He only happens. That is to say that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus always are. Kierkegaard asks the question, “Can anything be known of Christ from history?” And his short and simple answer is “no.” 

Because when he reflects upon the need to meet Jesus Christ anew with each generation, he comes to the conclusion that Christ can only be believed. And he asks another question, “Is, then, Jesus Christ not the same?” Generation to generation, is Jesus the same? And he answers his own question: “He is the same today and yesterday, the same as he was 1800 years ago.” And, yet, we must meet him anew, not just every generation, but every time we stand before him in scripture. Every  time he is new. Kierkegaard tells us that we should seek to experience Christ in the same way as the disciples did, walking beside him, hearing his story, and experiencing his goodness, as if no time has passed since the resurrection, and, yet, looking forward to his return. Just like those disciples staring at the sky, Jesus’ feet almost still visible in the clouds. That’s how immediate Christ’s presence is meant to be for us.

We say it this way often in our communion liturgy: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” Not Christ has risen. Christ never becomes past tense, something that happened, that now we can ignore. Jesus Christ never becomes past tense. We are in the ‘is’ of that statement. Christ is risen. We are in that transitional space of that story of Jesus, a story that we probably need to tell as passionately as Philomena tells the story of her book. It’s a story that could be summed up for us with one statement: “Christ is risen,” but usually begins with “In the beginning” and ends with the lamb on the throne and the world restored to him. 

One of the most important American theologians of the 20th Century, Robert Jenson, once had children ask him theological questions for a radio program. One of the children asked him, “If Jesus is alive, how come I can’t see him as I see you and you see me?” Robert Jenson, in a voice of comfort, said to the child, “That’s where you’re wrong. You can see the risen Christ. Because he looks exactly like the bread and wine on the communion table. Every time you eat and every time you drink it, you experience him again.”

For a planner like me, this is so much comfort because I know that I will experience Christ in that bread and in that cup. He is reliable in his resurrection. So, as we stand before Jesus again, and see him for the first time again, may we say “Hello Jesus.” Hello. May we see him fully, in his recklessness, in his wildness, in his being untamed, and maybe even badly behaved, in his extreme giving of his body and his blood… may we also witness that he is the character and truth of God made known to us. Hello bread. Hello cup. Hello resurrection. Hello Jesus. Amen.