Sunday, September 25, 2016
Reversals in Ripe Season
The gospel reading from Luke is about radical reversals. It contrasts a rich man and a poor man who live in the economic extremes during their lifetimes. One experiences the luxury of great wealth and the lavish lifestyle that comes with it. The other lives in the streets in abject poverty and misery, with dogs licking his sores. It is interesting that the poor man gets a name in the story told by Jesus, but the rich man remains anonymous. The poor man named Lazarus has more definition. With their divergent lifestyles, both men eventually die.
The story moves on to the afterlife where their roles are completely reversed. Lazarus is in heaven with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, while the rich man suffers in agony in Hades, or Hell. The rich man petitions Abraham: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” Abraham explains that the two worlds are separated by a great chasm; heaven and Hades are forever cleaved from each other. The rich man then petitions for Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his family. Abraham rebuffs this request, saying that Moses and the prophets have provided adequate warning for the Jewish people to achieve salvation.
I have experienced radical reversals in my lifetime, both up and down. Let’s start with the upward reversal, with a personal story that took place during the Christmas season twelve years ago. Just after the holiday, I took my mother to a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. We were sitting up in the mezzanine level, the cheap seats, in the very top row. The game between the Knicks and the Charlotte Bobcats was about to begin. As the players were finishing their warm-ups, with music blaring through the arena, I noticed a man dressed in black was staring at me, a little too intensely.
He slowly made his way over and sat down right next to me. He sat there silently, looking at me and my mother. In his approach, I noticed the New York Knicks employee identification card. His official status with the Knicks organization made me relax just a little, but my first reaction was that I must have done something wrong. After a swift moral examination, I could find no fault with my behavior—I hadn’t done anything wrong. I hadn’t even yelled at an official or an opposing player-not yet anyway. Not that anyone would hear me, up in the rafters.
The strange man in black explained that we had been chosen as the Poland Spring upgrade of the game. If we would follow him, we would be given courtside seats. Our upgrade would include waitress service at our seats, video monitors, and statistics for the game by quarter, and also a group photo with myself and the New York Knick cheerleaders. The cheerleaders were very nice, a most comely group of Christmas elves. I only wish I had my clerical collar on in the picture. Or perhaps my Christmas vestments—that would have been simply fabulous. But who was I to complain?
Oh, and we also got a year’s supply of Poland Spring water. The fun part of the situation was my mother could hear none of the conversation; between myself and the mysterious man in black.
I said, seriously, to her.
“What is it?” she asked, a little concerned.
“I think we’re in trouble,” I told her. “Big trouble.”
She didn’t ask any more questions. She has known roughly since my birth that she can’t always get a straight answer out of me. As we made our way down through the levels of the Garden on the employee elevator, I whispered to her.
“I think it’s a new security procedure. We’ve been profiled. Dangerous white people…”
As we exited the elevator, we were each given a bag full of New York Knick paraphernalia, hats, shirts, the works. I don’t even like the Knicks, but who cares? It was free stuff. We entered the Garden at floor level through the players’ entrance. We were given Poland Spring hats and shirts that we were told to put on.
At this point, my mother was coming to the giddy Christmas conclusion that we were not in trouble—though maybe I should be. Another Knick employee told her that we were going to be on the scoreboard, so we should be ready for the TV timeout; when we would be announced as the Poland Spring upgrade of the game.
I prepared myself, contemplating a dance move, or two, to celebrate the big moment: on the big board at Madison Square Garden. I think they call it a Jumbotron. But then the moment came. There we were in front of 20,000 people. I stared at myself in the ridiculous Poland Spring hat and shirt, and all I could manage was a shy little wave. We looked like complete idiots. We appeared huge with the extra large shirts over our winter sweaters, and I had just a moment of disdain for our great benefactor Poland Spring water. I was their poster boy for a day. Me and my Mama. During our painfully long moment on the scoreboard, when not one of my mighty dance moves came to the surface, I was struck with a terrifying thought: what if a Kent student is here?
Hey, isn’t that? Yes, it is. Man, he looks bigger on the screen, he looks huge. He must really eat during the Christmas holidays. I still don’t know why it was terrifying, as a thought, that one of you might be there. It must have been the big shirts and silly hats; and the dizzying turn of events when our afternoon was turned upside down in front of 20,000 people in New York City.
As soon as the camera was off, I ditched the Poland Spring stuff and settled in for some NBA basketball on the day after Christmas. My mother was instantly on her cell phone, telling everyone her new upgrade story. Even when I went to the concession stands, I was spotted.
“Hey, it’s the upgrade guy.”
I just gave everyone the thumbs up. There are worse things to be. My own Christmas story is a story of reversal; of what it means to be surprised; of what it means to be given a gift when you least expect it. But I couldn’t help but wonder who in the world deserves an upgrade more than me—and more than any of us. I thought of what the world could be like if we dedicated ourselves to giving upgrades to those who deserve it most.
Radical reversals are part of the gospels. In Matthew, Jesus says that the poor will receive the kingdom of heaven and that the meek will inherit the earth. These are mighty promises for the future. Mighty reversals will come if you watch things go full circle. Is there any evidence for this? Maybe not.
Yet Jesus maintains there will be justice in the afterlife.
In Greek literature and history, radical reversals are a major theme. This gospel reminded me of the story of King Croesus and Solon in the history written by Herodotus. Croesus is the king of Lydia in the sixth century B.C. who ruled for fourteen years; he was fabulously wealthy. He met a wise man named Solon and asked him: Who is the happiest man in the world? Croesus believes he knows the answer: himself. Or Donald Trump. Solon sees the situation differently. Instead he speaks of a man who died fighting for his country and two brothers who got their mother to a religious festival before they both died suddenly. The last thing they did was a good deed. Croesus can’t be the happiest man in the world because he’s not dead yet. The king is stunned by the wisdom of Solon. He is baffled.
Reversals can still happen. Fate and fortune are fickle and mercurial. Here at Kent, you can go up, go down, and sideways all in one day. What happened to Croesus after meeting with Solon? His son died suddenly, his wife committed suicide, and the Persians destroyed his kingdom in 546 B.C. He became a prisoner and wise man to the Persians led by the great King Cyrus, and he does grow spiritually. He learns wisdom at the bottom of reversals, and he shares it.
The bottom is where faith becomes a very interesting question. Though I have been to the pinnacle in Madison Square Garden, my most important work has come at the bottom of life’s reversals. What you overcome is more important than what you achieve. I believe that.
Forty-one years later, my story is still hard to tell. When I was nine years old, I was diagnosed with cancer. My childhood was shattered; it was a forlorn tour of duty. It all started with a broken leg and a tumor on the back of my head. The broken leg happened during a soccer game, and the tumor was initially thought to be a harmless cyst. When my local doctor tried to remove it, he sewed me up and sent me to Stanford Children’s Hospital. There were other potential tumors in my body. I was to undergo chemotherapy and radiation treatment for two years. I had cancer. I hated that word with every fiber of my being. My life had a radical reversal. I was down, on the bottom of life. I was like the poor man Lazarus, yet God came through loud and clear. God came through people. My people. God was a spirit of help, and God came through my mother who attended every chemotherapy appointment but one. My father did not go to any. God came through my Asian doctor who calmed and comforted me with her skill and compassion. I did not survive by a miracle, though I do believe in them. It was pure science, and yet it was still deeply spiritual. I began to understand a suffering God. One who was deeply beautiful and present at all times.
I identified with Jesus, deeply, in my suffering. Jesus got nails in his wrists on the cross; I got chemotherapy shots in the same place, where a bruise would emerge after a treatment. Jesus wore a crown of thorns. I got to wear a large rubber band around my head, so that I would keep my hair as long as possible. It didn’t work. Jesus was speared in the side by a Roman soldier. I got a large needle inserted into my side, directly into the hip bone, to extract bone marrow for chemical study. The first time this happened, I tried to scream but no sound came out. I related to Jesus, and he related to me. He came to me, in strange and diverse forms. When you have been to the wall yourself, your attitude changes towards those who suffer. You want to bring them hope because hard times come to everyone. You want to give them upgrades. I went into remission at the age of eleven; remission is a word I will always love.
God is in the ups and downs. From the gospel and the Greeks, the message is to be humble when things are going well, and to be faithful when they aren’t. When I was on top at Madison Square Garden, my thoughts went out to the truly poor in the world who really deserve a break. When I was down, I learned that I can help others just as people were there for me.
Let us help increase the upgrades in our world. For what we do to help others will eventually come back to help us. In the full circle of a God who pulls us forward; that we may no longer live for ourselves, but for the love that saves us. Amen.