He WAS the Sermon
Sunday fell the day after Halloween. Our Corps Officers were out of town for the week, and had arranged for a very competent officer couple to fill in and preach. Entering the back of the chapel, a hand extended towards me offering a neatly folded piece of paper. “Welcome… Good Morning…” To be honest I never really need the program, but it’s part of the ritual, so I took it and proceeded to find my place. As always, the uniforms were crisp, the preliminary music was wonderfully played, and the flowers perfectly arranged besides the Holiness Table. Everything was in place (as it ought to be). I made my way to my seat. Is it mine, you ask? Well, it’s the same one I sit in every week, so yes. I suppose it is. In fact, everyone has their own seat. Everyone has a place; everything has a time. It’s in the Bible, silly.
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Lamentations 3:22-23
A Sunday morning program at our corps is something akin to the music of Bach: ordained patterns provide the necessary structures around which the Body finds movement. Security is experienced in repetition, introducing differences only with appropriate authorization. And so here were our differences this week: The guest officers, a time of testimony; just enough to keep things interesting. Things went along in the usual order, and though I admit there were a few moments that I ‘checked out’, the visiting Captains spoke very well. The message was something like, although we may feel that much of our lives are routine, there is nothing routine about God’s grace and mercy, which is new every morning. Though it was obvious that much care and thought had been put into it (and by all accounts it was a very good sermon – if somewhat routine), I would not have remembered it but for what happened next.
As the band was invited back up onto the platform for the final congregational song, I made sure to take advantage of this transition between program items, turning my attention to something interesting on my phone. Then, I heard an unfamiliar voice speaking loudly from the front of the chapel. “Can I say something? I have something I want to say. I’ll be real quick OK… OK!?!?” Looking up, a man wearing blue jeans and a beige sweatshirt had begun to speak in a loud, rapid voice, gesturing dramatically with his arms. Beyond the initial confusion about what was happening, I felt an increasing level of anxiety throughout my body, and throughout the Body – when I looked around I noticed that others were sharing a similar experience. The longer the man spoke, the more palpable the tension in the room became. One could almost hear the little thought bubbles forming above people’s heads. (Pop!) Is this really happening? (Pop!) Please, when will he stop? (Pop!) How embarrassing for him. (Pop!) I think he must be on something. I quickly realized that these thoughts were in fact my own projections, and ignoring a quick, sharp jolt of guilt, managed to quickly self-correct, giving proper attention to the man. He spoke of the importance of allowing children to smile, to pretend, referencing Halloween in some way. He spoke of riding the bus, where everyone riding saw a deer in a parking lot; or was it a large dog wearing antlers, all dressed up for Halloween? I couldn’t quite tell, but he seemed for a moment to speak to a relationship between reality and fantasy, and the very insignificance of those distinctions, especially with regards to the meaning derived from (or inscribed into) our experiences. I admit that I struggled to make any clear sense of what he was saying, but it was the passion and intensity with which he spoke that held my interest.
It was when he spoke of his mother’s struggle with cancer that I felt a demand to pay even closer attention. Yes, here stood a homeless man speaking in riddles; that much had not changed. Perhaps nothing changed but my ability to pay attention. As in quantum physics where mere observation has the ability to change the state of things, perhaps there is a transformative potential in the very act of witnessing, of bearing witness. Regardless, in that moment he had become the sermon. His message was not contained in his words, but rather in the very act of speaking; a performative parable, a sacred rupturing of the programmable, a break with routine. That morning, he provided us all with a gift, a challenge, and a reminder that if we are truly to be the Body of Christ, then we must be a Body that fully identifies with all bodies that are homeless; a Body that suffers alongside all bodies that suffer; a Body that pours out endless grace, extends new mercies, and is absolutely anything but routine.