Last week, I visited New York City for the very first time. I was there for work, but I was able to stay an extra day to explore the city with my best friend since middle school, who moved to Brooklyn a couple years ago.
We did all the things that you do when you visit New York—we ate great food, walked a ton, and explored different neighborhoods. We also went to a Broadway show, “Falsettos,” a revival of a musical that first appeared on Broadway in the early nineties and has now returned for a short run. Like all good theater experiences, this one has really stuck with me, and I found that I especially couldn’t shake it as I was thinking about All Saints Day, baptism, and today’s tough gospel reading.
“Falsettos” is a family drama, set in New York in the late seventies and early eighties. The second act of the play centers on the family’s young son, Jason, struggling to decide whether or not to have a bar mitzvah. He’s not especially religious, and bar mitzvah’s—as you may know—require a ton of hard work to pull off. He’s nervous about who to invite, about messing up the complicated prayers in front of all the girls he has crushes on. His divorced parents don’t get along, and their pressure to go ahead and plan the party just adds to his resistance. He’s on the fence about it, and he won’t budge.
Suddenly, his father’s partner, with whom he’s especially close, gets mysteriously ill. Jason decides to wait to have the bar mitzvah until the man recovers. What the audience knows, and what Jason’s parents are just starting to realize, is that this young man won’t get better. Like scores of other gay men in New York at that time, he’s been diagnosed with a disease that will soon be known as AIDS, and he’s going to die.
Jason departs the room after announcing that he wants to hold off on the Bar Mitzvah, leaving his parents to have a conversation that I think all parents are familiar with—is it better to tell him the truth, or protect him from it? Bar Mitzvah’s are about becoming a man, but he is still very much a little boy. What is the healthiest way to get him through this, whole?
In one of the most poignant moments of the play, Jason’s step-father asks, “Why don’t we tell him that we don’t have the answers, that life rarely goes according to plan, and this is the start of becoming a man?”
Today’s gospel reading is from the Sermon on the Plain. We might be more familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, which appears in Matthew: “Blessed are the meek…blessed are the peacemakers…” Luke’s version, which we just heard, is a lot grittier, and honestly probably less memorable because it might make us a little uncomfortable, tempting us to forget.
Here, the blessings that Jesus bestows are strictly literal: “Blessed are the poor,” he says, not “the poor in spirit.” Luke’s version also stands out because Jesus’ blessings are balanced with curses, basically: “Woe to you who are rich,” he says. “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” The fact that Jesus preaches this sermon on a plain instead of a mountain tells us something too: Here, Jesus stands on level ground with the people who seek him out; he meets them where they are and takes his place within the complicated and often painful equilibrium of their real lives. “Blessed are you,” he says.
In the Sermon on the Plain, suffering is balanced with rejoicing. Blessings are balanced with woes. Jesus points toward a kingdom that has not yet come, but is near enough that we are blinded by glimpses of its glory. It’s a mess, and God became a human precisely for this reason: to share with us in suffering, and to share with us in joy. To be in the midst of our brokenness, and to point us toward ultimate restoration, perfect unity with the Creator.
Jesus even gives good advice on how to live here: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
I am more and more convinced that this is what it means to be a Christian—to stand on the plain with Jesus and with the whole host of humanity. To hold all of it—the blessings and the woes, the kingdom that is now and is not yet now—to hold it all, and to stand there. To love even in the midst of such brokenness.
Like many of you, perhaps, I find myself a little anxious this week. This presidential election has pulled back a veil in our country, and has revealed to us a nation that is far more divided than I think I realized. We are learning more about each other’s prejudices, seeing first-hand each other’s pain, discovering where we stake our identities, and the lengths that we will go to affirm that we are right and others are wrong. As a country, we have behaved badly in this election.
The thing that disturbs me most of all, I think, is how this political season—more than any other I’ve witnessed—has pulled us like magnets to opposite poles, making us stare across the divide and point fingers and shout curses. Relationships have been broken, if not severed completely. Families have been divided. People are terrified, and angry, and exhausted. This is simply not Christian. This is not what Christians do.
I wonder if the space between those poles might be the plain where Jesus stands. I wonder if it’s where we’re being invited to stand in the coming weeks and months. As Christians, we have practice being there. We know the terrain. As a country, we have to learn how to live with each other going forward, and my prayer is that those of us who can will abandon our poles and walk into the plain.
Today, we are baptizing two souls into the Body of Christ. All Saints Day is a particularly beautiful occasion for a baptism, because it reminds us as powerfully as ever that we are not alone in this messy world. We are united with one another, with Christ, and with all the saints in heaven as we seek to hold our ground, as we bravely take our place on the messy plain of humanity.
Baptism, like all things Christian, balances the here and the not yet. Initiated into the Body of Christ, we can expect the glory of resurrection and an eternity with God. But we’re also powerfully equipped to live the life we’ve been given, here on earth.
As a priest in baptism, there’s one prayer that always stops me short, chokes me up, and confronts me with what it really means to follow Jesus. You’ll hear it in a moment: “Heavenly Father,” we pray, “we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed on these your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of grace.” That’s the coming Kingdom part. But the prayer goes on:
“Give them an inquiring and discerning heart,” we ask, “the courage and will to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” That’s the standing on the plain part, and I can’t imagine a better hope for our children, a better hope for ourselves. The prayer says it all.
So, what about Jason? What about his family, and his dying friend, and his growing realization that life rarely goes according to plan? Well, Jason decides to have the Bar Mitzvah, but he decides to hold it in his friend’s hospital room rather than the event hall that his parents had rented. He only invites their family and two close friends. He turns a small hospital table into an altar, wears his prayer shawl, sings his prayers with abandon. He becomes a man in his religious tradition that way, in the midst of brokenness, pain, and grief. It is a beautiful impulse, coming from a child. To honor love, community, relationships, and hard, messy spaces. To hallow a place when so many would rather run away.
That is my prayer for all of us as we walk into what might be a rather difficult week: may we choose the plain, knowing that God is there.