A Beautiful Day for a Surprise – Br. Jim Woodrum
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I don’t think I’d be too off base if I were to say that generally we Episcopalians don’t care for surprises. We pride ourselves on the order of our liturgies, can tell you what scripture we’ll read on any particular Sunday (thanks to a well ordered lectionary), and have a committee and/or guild for just about every function of the church. That being said, today’s gospel reminds me of a story about a particular Sunday surprise in my hometown parish church.
It was one of the most beautiful Mother’s Day Sundays in years and the church was buzzing with activity. Church school was letting out and the sanctuary was filling up with parishioners who were quietly but quickly getting seated for the festive Mother’s Day Eucharist that was about to take place. Children dressed in their Sunday’s best were sitting in between their parents in the pews that they traditionally occupied each week. It was not hard to spot the matriarchs in the congregation as all the Mothers and Grandmothers were sporting their Mother’s Day corsages. At first glance there was no indication that chaos was about to ensue. As the choir and sacred ministers lined up for the procession at the rear of the nave, a few noticed that there were two men who looked to be in their early 50’s sitting three quarters of the way back on the left side and who did not quite fit the congregational profile. They were casually dressed and while one of the men sat quietly listening to the organ prelude, the other was happily chatting away (and not very quietly) with a grandmotherly parishioner, who had a flower on her lapel, sitting next to him. He complimented her beautiful dress and flower, asked how many children and grandchildren she had, and enthusiastically told her about his mother who happened to be about her age. The lady graciously smiled and politely nodded as the man’s conversation continued past the closing strains of the prelude into the silence. There were a few glances over the shoulder at the confusion as the processional hymn began and the congregation stood. Certainly the visitors would notice the traditional decorum of the service and follow along accordingly.
And that indeed was the case as the processional concluded and the liturgy began with the invitatory sentence, the Collect for Purity, hymn of praise, two lessons with a gradual Psalm and then the Gospel lesson. The service couldn’t be more perfect and dignified…..that is until two minutes into the homily when the chatty gentleman raised his hand and waved to our priest saying “Excuse me, excuse me…I have a question!!!” At that moment it was as if all the oxygen had been sucked out of the sanctuary. Every head in the congregation looked down nervously and there were a few whose eyes darted to the person next to them, each with a bewildered look that seemed to express what was on everyone’s mind: “Doesn’t he know that the Baptist Church is two blocks over?”
I’ve never seen so many uncomfortable Episcopalians in one place and haven’t since! I was seated in the choir just in front of the chancel and admittedly was so enthralled in the speculation of what would happen next that I don’t even remember what his question was. What I DO remember was how amazed I was at how our priest paused and without missing a beat answered his question calmly and with great care before returning to the place she had left off. It was quite extraordinary. She was also a professor of Philosophy at a local University, and I speculated that she had had many surprising encounters with questioning students to prepare her for such an occasion as this.
The man seemed satisfied with the answer and you could almost hear a sigh of relief as the homily continued. When the homily was almost finished, just when everyone thought the waters were safe, the man raised and waved his hand a second time, “But, excuse me….,” and he asked another question. Again his question was answered gracefully and the homily concluded, but the congregation remained on pins and needles. God only knew if the congregation would make it to the end of the service without someone passing out. What do you think?
Luckily, there was no fainting, but during the prayers of the people there was some loud whispering in the back and the grandmotherly lady got up and moved to another pew further back. When the intercession was given to pray for the President of the United States (then George W. Bush) the two men got up abruptly and with much ado left the church. At that point you knew the dinnertime conversation was going to be centered around the stormy Eucharist on one of the most beautiful Mother’s Day Sundays in years.
Indeed, not just Episcopalians, but I think most people, aside from the occasional receiving of flowers, or an unexpected birthday party, don’t care for surprises. We want to be ‘in the know,’ because being caught off guard might cause an embarrassing situation and we would not want anyone to see the fissures in our façade. We keep a constant watch on the stocks on the internet. We check e-mail several times each day. Our mobile phones are always in our pocket or on our belt to assure that we don’t miss that important call. We even have our Facebook and Twitter updates sent to us so that we can also be in the know about the lives of those who are in our circles. The irony of all this is that surprises are unavoidable. They are not exceptional but in fact are the norm! And Jesus makes no illusions about this fact. He tells his disciples bluntly: KNOW THIS: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming (not might come, not thinking about coming, but was coming) he would not have let his house be broken into.
And Jesus practiced what he preached. He certainly had a way of surprising the people who surrounded him. Remember the wedding feast at Cana when He changed water into wine? And not only did he change it to wine, but this wine was the good stuff!!! When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:9-10) And then there was the feeding of the five thousand with only five loaves of bread and two fish. (Luke 9:10-17) If that wasn’t surprising in itself after the feeding of the five thousand Jesus sends his disciples ahead on a boat to Bethsaida while he dismisses the crowds and goes to pray. The gospel writer of Mark tells us: When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 49But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 51Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded….(Mark 6:45-52).
Jesus himself demonstrated that even He could be surprised. You may remember in Matthew when the Centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus wants to go but the Centurion tell him that he is not worthy for Jesus to come under his roof, but understanding Jesus’ authority knows that he only has to say the word and his servant will be healed. When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. (Matthew 8:5-13)
I think….God is to be found in the surprise. With Advent approaching in the not so distant future we will again relive the anticipation of God’s best surprise. God did not come to us as a mighty and royal king equipped to free His chosen from the oppressive power of Rome. But through the incarnation God entered into our flesh as a baby born to unwed peasants on the “wrong side of the tracks.” He entered into our condition, grew up and lived among us to show that the Way of God was not one of brute force and might, but one of gentle servitude. Jesus says: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.”
Jesus is telling us what every Boy Scout takes as his creed, “Be prepared!” Like my hometown priest who answered the questions in the middle of her homily, we cannot know about the unexpected, but we can be prepared when the unexpected happens; to be dressed for action. Throughout scripture God has always been at work in and through the most unlikely characters. Maybe you know something about this. Are you in touch with how God has been at work in and through your own life? Have you ever been through an ordeal that at the time seemed impossible, yet somehow you’ve found yourself on the other side? Chances are you didn’t get through it unchanged, but none the less, here you are. I would say light your lamps and shed some light on those moments and you might discover that one of God’s biggest surprises….is YOU. Father Benson, the founder of our Society once said, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”  How has God surprised you? If you’re not sure then light your lamp and be ready….it’s a beautiful day for a surprise!
 Benson, Richard Meux, The Final Passover, Vol II:2, p. 402
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Wonderful devotional. It is so great to hear how each comment reflected on surprise. I am often I admit not pleased with surprise. Yesterday walking I spotted a street preacher in a public place. He was preaching the end was near and no one listened. I prayed for him because he was not a surprise to those in the park and while his manner was unorthodox his message may hold truth and if so the result would be an unpleasant surprise for all of us.
Most surprises are unpleasant but there are moments when exceptional human kindness occur and the surprise is wonderful. Surprise is what God intends it to be, a way of jolting us out of inattention to Him in circumstance. Thanks for your surprisingly wonderful reflection.
This reminds me of a Christmas Day service at the National Cathedral a few years ago. Similar to that Mother’s Day service, everyone was dressed in their best outfits waiting for service to start. In walked an elderly gentleman in his Christmas Day best – polished black dress shoes, black dress socks, a dress and a knee length fur coat. He confidently walked down the center isle and sat in one of the front pews. Throughout the service he shouted “hallelujah” whenever moved to do so. I loved it! People were uncomfortable but he only cared about giving God praise. God of surprises.
I sent this sermon to my wife. Whether she will take the time to read it is an open question, but I think she will enjoy the story of the church assembling and the service beginning. I never thought about these parables in this way before. I wonder if I have been open to God’s presence in the way I ought to be.
Please Lord Most High, let all surprises be _pleasant_ surprises, for the Lord is light and there is no darkness in Him; so He cannot possibly have us suffer and will only give us surprises which are entirely good , benign, wholesome, pleasant and joyous.
Thank you for this sermon! God will surprise us in many ways including moments of awe and joy! If we are too preoccupied with bad surprises we’ve had we will not see these bonus moments of joy!
As anyone who has entered religious life of
any denomination the priest remained compassionate and respectful of the man as should be expected.
However the facade of the parishioners in disparaging Baptists since they would be thinking he belonged in a Baptist Church.Sadly even the older woman beside him moved her seat. Acceptance and kindness only for those “like us” is not what I hear in the Bible, Koran or other teachings. Sadly the message has too often been forgotten. We need to be mindful and vigilant to embrace and accept our differences.
I loved the comment about Trinity Church in CT. That to me is what our faith should not only hope for but demand from ourselves, congregation and priest.
If we would but heed the call to be childlike we would be more readily open to surprises. Tapping in this morning and receiving your message has been a bright surprise. Thank you! Blessings!
The Incarnation is the biggest surprise of all! That God Himself would come to earth to dwell as one of us! The Christian Story is one of paradoxes.
Surprises, galore! Thanks for this good homily.
This has been helpful to me. Thank you, Bro. Jim!
Thank you for your wonderful words!
LOL. Every Sunday should be a surprise. My spiritual healing began on Good Friday, 1981 at Trinity Church, Hartford. I worked across the street. At 3, I decided to walk in. I sat with a scattering of people in this large, gothic stone cathedral lit only by candles at the end of each row of individual well-worn rush seat chairs. Mostly empty. No pews. A large wooden celtic cross surrounded by a circle hung as if floating from the high beamed ceiling over the altar. Magnificent. Growing up in a Pentecostal church an Episcopalian service was all new to me but when a couple of people decided to stand up, stretch and walk around during the sermon, and the Rev. did not skip a beat, I assumed it was a normal Episcopalian thing and actually felt right at home. The Good Friday message left me weeping and shaken, someone offered tissues…at the conclusion, the Rev. held my hand with tremendous warmth and asked if I would read part of the lessons that next Sunday. Seriously? Easter? Two years later I was confirmed in that church by the Bishop. In attendance were homeless, poor, the not poor, academics and the academically challenged… a small sea of all colors. Sundays without surprises were the surprise. But God moved in wonderful, loving, inclusive ways to open eyes to the needs of the ” angels” in our midst. By the time I needed to move away Trinity had swelled with more sorts of people, great programs, a sublime choir. I needed healing.. how thankful I still am for being surprised by a loving physician in that wonderful church.
I like your ability to tell a good story, Jim- it stays with me and gives a positive message. Thank you!
What a great message Mr. Woodrum. With an economic collapse in this country just around the corner I think we better be ready for just about anything. I hope that if there is a currency collapse there will be a foreseeable return to temporal prosperity. I don’t think that I’m ready for the day of God. I don’t think that I’m ready to stand before
god in my present state.
“Just as I am, though tossed about with many a conflict many a doubt, fightings, and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, i come” hymn 693 vs 2
Thanks for your insight. I am saddened by recently leaving my Episcopal Church as my children were among 5 remaining children in the congregation and their needs were being neglected. My 10 year old sat alone under the ping pong table in the coffee area and my priest showed no interest in addressing this gap, so we stopped coming.
I would have talked with my priest more about it, but she already put me in my place by telling me my intensity is off-putting. On one hand, it’s not all about me and my family, but on the other hand, it’s not NOT about us. Perhaps our needs are unique: single parent, ADHD diagnosis, not a cradle Episcopalian, or are such differences the norm?
How do we accommodate a society with inherent surprises? How do we act as living Episcopalians vs. Episcopaleontologists? Somehow we need to bring this question to the forefront as our survival depends upon it.
I am sorry, especially for the sake of your children, that the parish did not embrace you.
Me too, Anders. Keep reading, and contributing to, these dialogues. Your contributions for a long time have helped me. May God bless you and your family.
That was so funny. I sat here laughing because it brought back an incident in the church I go to. On Wednesdays at noon, a small number of people gather for the Eucharist. As Br. Woodrun writes: we know what is going to happen. During the homily a newcomer suddenly disagreed with the priest and everyone turned around to see who this was. I happened to know of him. With that he got up and left. But, he returned in time to partake of the elements.
The priest, unperturbed, just continued on and never missed a beat. // The man told our priest afterwards that he was comfortable with us as he felt he could get up and leave and return when he had calmed down. He didn’t re-appear until this past Sunday. (Two and a half months to calm down?)
Thank you for these wise words..for the most part, however, I love the unexpected surprises with which the Holy One often blesses me.
Thank you for your originality and imagination. This was a surprise!!
… and here I thought that ‘it would be revealed’ that the two men were sons of the woman, who no longer remembered who she was and they were taking her to church for mother’s day… perhaps a denomination *she* was familiar with but they were not….
Thank you for your words and thoughts.