A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Susan Allison-Hatch
I've been thinking all week long about Mary Bjorndahl, a girl in my grade school class. A girl I never really saw. A person I rarely noticed. Someone I never really knew. Mary was different from all the other kids in the class. More than quiet. She was timid. Or was it a quiet strength she had that I just didn’t understand. Who knows.
I googled her this week. Not a lot there. Only a picture of our 7th grade homeroom. Turns out Mary was in my mid-school homeroom! Then she disappears from sight. No trace of her. Except the questions that still linger in my mind.
Why was she so quiet? What was going on with her? What kept me from asking? After all, we were in school together for nine years. She lived next door to my good friend's grandmother and across the street from the school. What kept me from linking my arm in hers and saying, "Let's go play"? Then I might have found a window into her life. A window shedding light into the world we both shared.
When I have my dark nights of the soul, my mind often returns to Mary Bjorndahl. Sometimes I focus on the other kids in the class. Did they know her better? Did they, like I, look past her? Or did they see her and get to know her? Did they bully her? Or disparage her? Or ignore her? I don’t know. I probably never will.
On my darkest dark nights I wonder what it was like for Mary. How did it feel to go school every day with people who didn't even see her? Did she know, deep in her heart, the grace she had? The gentle goodness? Was invisibility a cloak we draped over her or was it a strategy she adopted in the face of our indifference? Likely I'll never know.
It's a parable we didn’t hear this afternoon that makes me think of Mary Bjorndahl once again. A parable known as the parable of Lazurus and Dives, the beggar and the rich man. The way Jesus tells the story, there was a rich man who lived high on the hog. He had all he needed and more. There was a beggar named Lazurus who lived by the gates of the rich man's house. The beggar lived on the crumbs he scavenged at the rich man’s gate. His body was filled with sores that the dogs licked. One day, the beggar died. He went to heaven where he was loved and treated tenderly. The rich man also died. He went to hell where his torment was great. One day, he looked up to heaven, saw Lazurus there and asked Father Abraham to send Lazurus to him to relieve his suffering. You can imagine Father Abraham's response. "No way," said Father Abraham, going on to point out that in their lifetimes Lazurus had plenty of sorrows and the rich man had plenty of comfort.
I bet that rich man never even saw Lazurus begging at his gate. I bet he passed by him every day never even wondering "Who is this man begging at my gate?" "How are we connected he and I?" Just like my classmates and I did to Mary Bjorndahl so many times over so many years. We didn't see her, so we didn't see the things that made her happy, the things that made her sad, the things that troubled her, the things that gave her joy. We surely didn’t ask why Mary fell outside our line of sight. In our blindness, I think we missed a part of her and a part of us as well.
I suspect those Saint Anthony Park Elementary School kids of so long ago are not so different from folks today—you and me, our neighbors and our friends, our fellow inhabitants of the planet Earth—for we, too, often fail to see the need and pain and wondrous possibilities before our very eyes.
And yet seeing and responding to the need and pain and strength before our eyes lie at the core of what it means to be Christian. In a few minutes, Jagand will stand before us all for the sacrament of Holy Baptism. He will make vows and we will together reaffirm our Baptismal vows. We will all promise to seek and serve Christ in all people, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
Doing that is hard work. It doesn’t come automatically. It comes with God’s grace and our own sustained practice—practice scanning the horizons of our worlds and the close-at-hand as well in order to see Christ in and respond with loving kindness to people others overlook or ignore. Practice training our eyes. Practice training our hearts.
What would life be like for us--as individuals, as Live at Five, as St. Michael's--if we trained our minds and eyes and hearts and ears to be mindful of the people we usually overlook, pass by, ignore? What would life be like for us and for the Mary Bjorndahls in our lives if we trained our eyes and hearts to focus on the unseen? What if we together adopted a Mary Bjorndahl practice of going through our days--one in which we not only saw but also included the Mary Bjorndahls in our lives? Maybe then the invisible would show us the way to the reign of God. Maybe then our prayer, “Thy kingdom come on earth”, would take on new gusto not only as a petition but also as a call to action. A call to live out our baptismal vows.
Shortly before he died, my father wrote a prayer. Please pray with me:
Our Father, we pray for the qualities which can help build thy kingdom on Earth. We ask that we may be given the wisdom to see thy will, courage to do it, strength to resist our own desires which might cause us to put our will before thy will, humor that we may be acceptable to others and not foolishly pious, and kindness because we know that thy will must be done through love. Amen.