Make me hear of joy and gladness, that the body you have broken may rejoice.
The writer Grace Paley published a collection of short stories in 1985 title “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute,” from which I’ve taken the title for today’s sermon. If there is a thread tying together our readings this morning, it is this: God’s dramatic intervention in the lives of God’s people. In Exodus, God changes his mind about disaster and punishment. The author of Psalm 51 moves from deep awareness of sin to a vision of sin redeemed and transformed, a clean heart and a renewed spirit. In the letter to Timothy, Paul writes about his own experience of conversion and redemption. He was a man of violence and sin, whom in a single encounter God raised up as a leader and teacher, apostle and evangelist. Enormous changes at the last minute.
Jesus comes at this theme from a couple of different directions. There is the enormous change in paradigm—welcoming sinners and eating with them—and the stories of rejoicing over finding what has been given up for lost, rejoicing that even something insignificant is important in God’s eyes. Enormous changes at the last minute occur when God intervenes in business as usual, or when we do, to do God’s work of seeking out the last, the least, and the lost.
About nine or ten years ago—I think it was a Tuesday—I celebrated early morning mass at the parish where I served and settled in for coffee and pastry in the parish hall afterwards with the 3 or 4 faithful souls who made that mass happen each week. One of the most faithful, cheerful, lovely ladies said: “well, Sara, do you remember where you were on September 11?” I responded as I always did to such questions: “Yes, and I don’t want to talk about it.” Then I told her I was about a mile or two away, well within smelling distance for weeks, but that I really didn’t want to talk about it. And I never really have talked about it publicly, partly because there isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said.
But I wonder whether 9/11 is a twenty-first century parable about enormous changes at the last minute. I wonder whether as a collective experience there are lost bits to be found.
Fifteen years ago on this day I was in seminary in New York City, in lower Manhattan, and the experience around the seminary was as surreal as anywhere else. My husband was on a business trip on the west coast; our son was in preschool, and had no clue what was happening, only that he was surrounded by extremely stressed out adults. There was a special chapel service held that night and I took my kid because there was no one around to watch him, but he was being his usually loud, chatty self at church and on that one occasion I decided I had to take him out. We sat in the seminary playground all by ourselves. Everyone else was in chapel. There were no cars on the streets around us, no sirens, no horns honking, no airplanes in the sky.
It took me a long time to sort out the complexity of corporate and individual emotion . It helped me to collect other people’s stories: The woman who received a phone call from her husband rushing to an important breakfast meeting on the top floor of the World Trade Center, saying he was so worried he was going to be late, and then calling her just before entering the building saying “I’m going to be on time after all!” Those were his last words to her. The couple who was flying home from Russia with a child they’d just adopted, watching the little flight-path display on the seat-back in front of them, as the plane turned around halfway across the Atlantic to land in Iceland. My classmate whose mother got into her car that very day and drove from Atlanta to New Jersey and then walked the rest of the way across bridges and up the Hudson River to fetch her daughter and take her home. I’m sure many of you collected, consciously or unconsciously, similar stories. It’s what we do. It’s how we connect.
Everywhere in New York, spontaneous altars sprang up in parks and on street corners, reminders that people cared about gathering, praying, hoping, and offering some light and beauty amid all the dust and fear, amid the smell that just wouldn’t quit. These offerings were lost and found coins, the treasured sheep among many.
The experience I think we all had—wherever we were on that day—is of sudden transformation in the twinkling of an eye, not just the transformation of the city but our own perceptions across the nation. Our notions of safety shifted. Perhaps we began to empathize with countries more often under attack than ours. Perhaps some of us understood for the very first time that we had enemies who hated us enough to target what they thought we stood for as a nation. Perhaps this event or some other enormous change at the last minute gave us new ways of looking at our own life and purpose.
What I also saw was the overwhelming urge to help that so many people had. People who perhaps hadn’t ever done so suddenly acted on their impulses to do good. People sought out ways to help and engage the suffering and grief among them the way a shepherd goes after lost sheep. I was reminded that the human condition is to do some good, however small it may be. Everyone wanted to touch New York in some way. At the seminary, people from all over the country sent cookies. Boxes and boxes of cookies. Whole cities organized trips to New York to support the hard-hit theatre business. Department stores were empty during the height of the holiday shopping season but craft stores, knitting stores were packed with people wanting to make things, wanting to learn something creative, to give of the work of their hands.
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I began by saying the title of my sermon was “Enormous changes at the last minute.” But actually, it’s “Enormous changes at the last minute…or over a lifetime.” Transformation happens in the twinkling of an eye or so slowly you don’t even know it’s happening. Who knows how long the psalmist plead with God for forgiveness, or how long it took to hear God’s answer? Who knows how many times that shepherd had to go after that lost sheep?
Both kinds of transformation happen every week when we take the ordinary stuff of bread and wine and God transforms them into holy food and drink for our own journey and for our corporate and individual transformation. This usually happens imperceptibly unless we are knocked around by dramatic events of life: the time when you got that horrible diagnosis, or your partner died or left you, or you had to put a child in treatment, or had to end the life of a beloved pet. That time when the world seemed to change forever. At these times, perhaps this table can be the place we go to remember other moments of loss, fear, or joy.
If there is anything in terrible experiences that is worth finding and rejoicing over, it is our shared awareness of goodness and generosity, of stories remembered and broken open. When God gives us the grace, the strength and wisdom to look in these events for the lost, the last, the least, the forgotten and outcast bits of our own selves, our community, our nation, I pray that we will find those missing, broken bits over which Jesus rejoices, and rejoice with him.