Face Time

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, July 2008
– PDF version –

Our parish community marks time differently than most. We flip on the same light switches whether we celebrate the Sundays of Lent or the day of Christmas in our windowless urban chapel. The simple swags of liturgical color in the sanctuary are lost among the dark rain-soaked clothing worn by the homeless waiting in line outside our chapel doors. Changes of seasons pass us by since we have no gardens of white spring tulips or walkways of yellow autumn chrysanthemums.

We mark our seasons with people’s personalities. Autumn is the time fresh-faced nursing students arrive in our daily hospitality center to wash the dirty feet of our neighbors. Christmas is the time we look out for serious depression even among our daily volunteers. Summer excites us because new student interns now move beyond book learning and interact with real people living in poverty, and this dry season keeps our homeless friends from bone-cold nights.

Even members of our parish staff mark their time of employment and ministry by the number of years of Sam’s sobriety or when Joe finally got housing. The senior members remember the days when John showered weekly. He has not showered now in nearly five years. Marking the liturgical years reminds all of us of God’s investment among his marginalized people.

We also release from the pages of the Lectionary the faces that give our community hope. These summer stories of Scripture speak well across the generations to offer us both challenge and consolation. There is nothing run-of-the-mill about how the characters from the Gospels help us keep track of time, celebrating our lives of faith.

The furrow-browed Canaanite woman unleashes her worry about her daughter in her verbal battle with Jesus. Her brash and strong stance advocates to Jesus about her daughter’s health and life. Like any caring mother, she jumps over cultural barriers that even Jesus was reluctant to cross. He draws a line in the sand that reminds her that his love is out of her reach. She storms his conscience and she changes his opinion. Her daughter is healed. The cultural and spiritual walls tumble down around them.

Our parish community depends on this prophet’s gumption. Her honesty empowers us to advocate not only on behalf of those we know and love, but also those who line the outside walls of our church building waiting to be noticed. Her marginalized status empowers her voice which continues among us who serve people who are down and out. Her integrity invigorates our days when we tire of thinking life could be different.

Her love for her daughter and her love for Jesus scream out across the centuries and well beyond my proclamation of the Gospel or my preaching. I find her fire in serving those who need the essentials of life. I mark my days among strangers whose pain is transparent and lives are inconsolable. Her story empowers me to believe that those who need Jesus the most will find among us some morsels of compassion and love. I must not tire, but if I do, even leftovers of Jesus’ presence will still feed me.

Peter’s unselfconscious act of stepping out of a storm-thrown boat also speaks to our community in summer days. Jesus invites him to trust beyond the scope of common sense. His logic and his faith lock together in a single moment and he starts to sink into the raging water. Jesus is there to simply catch Peter and to ask him why he doubted.

Most of us in our parish community reach out daily from our fear to the hand of Christ. We sink into depths of uncertainty when we realize we cannot change the systems that keep people poor. We drown in their sorrow and in our own when people refuse to take their medications for schizophrenia when we know they could walk on steady ground. We lose ourselves in the storms of people’s old age, recent strokes and relapsing on drugs.

Our parish knows also from Peter’s example that we must continue to leave our safety and walk toward Christ.  People need us to not only provide toothpaste and clean socks but to be with them through storms of loneliness and self-loathing. Real people need us to accept them when they smell, and pray with them when they are soaked in grief. Peter motivates us to get out of our boats of safety so to find the real purpose of our ministry and the joy of the Lord’s presence.

The real goal of worship, no matter the time of year, is to see the face of Jesus for ourselves. These Gospels also open to us and to every parish community Jesus’ invitation to rest our weary bodies exhausted by his mission. He reminds every community that the work of faith and the church is not ultimately our worry. He confronts our controlling attitudes that we can satisfy other’s pain or doubt. The face of Jesus unveils itself when finally all Christians yield to his call to rest our exhausted spirits in his meekness, in his humble heart.

I never pray in summer without counting myself among those who search for the face of Christ. There is no vacation from our seed-throwing work among the poor and invisible. I gain strength for the journey, no matter walking among thorns or rocky places, when at last I entrust people into the net of God’s Kingdom. The personalities of the summer Gospels form us all into the Body of Christ, the face of love for all seasons.

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