Pent. 22

Were you to creep up to my house at ten o’clock at night and peek in the window, you would most likely find me in my big leather chair with my feet propped up, reading a mystery. Ben would be curled up on the floor next to the four filing cabinets. I didn’t have a clue about mysteries until I married Faye. She always had one going while we were courting and subsequently. Finally I decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. I started reading mysteries forty years ago in order to keep my wife company. Now I read them for escape and relaxation. After a day of dealing with the lives and problems of the parish I am so stressed by 9 p.m. that I can’t read theology or a treatise on parish development. So I let an author lead me into a world of imagination and complexity. From his perspective the author creates characters and conflicts, contexts and resolutions. Ben doesn’t care. He dreams of catching one of the deer who come around early in the morning to check out our vegetation entrees.

I talked at the Men’s Breakfast about the Bible and mystery stories. The Old Testament is full of legends, sagas, and odysseys. There are murders, thefts, embezzlements, adultery, fratricide, jealousy, envy, hate, vengeance and revenge - all the ingredients that end up on the front page of the newspapers. Jacob and David, Moses and Tamar find their counterparts in our lives today. When we turn to the New Testament there is murder (Herod), violence (Peter and the centurion’s ear), betrayal (Judas), conspiracy (the Sanhedrin) etc. What strikes me is that there emerges in the Gospels a new form, or a fairly strict form, of story. It is the form of the repeated stories about Jesus - those of healing, miracles, teaching and the parables. A scene is set, a problem is introduced, there are options and then a resolution and denouement. Often the solution is enigmatic and leads the reader to read another story. It is my thesis that this short, structural form became a familiar part of our Western cultural heritage as the Gospel stories were told and retold throughout the life of the Church. This kind of short, tight story is not found in other religions, although there are similarities here and there. In medieval times the morality plays told similar stories, but they had stock allegorical characters and were essentially dramas. The short, tight story with a conundrum or mystery to be solved was repeated over and over by the Church and eventual took hold primarily in England. Victoria’s England was eccentric enough, and dominated by the Church enough, so that the story form became a popular form with Arthur Conan Doyle and his stories of Sherlock Holmes. In these stories Holmes represents “scientific observation” as over against superstition and religion. Dorthy Sayers, Agatha Christie and others pushed the form farther and we now have a rash of mystery writers.

The great themes of our Judeo-Christian tradition permeate much of mystery literature: fall and redemption, judgment and forgiveness, despair and hope. Justice, righteousness and mercy are always involved. So are the motifs of appearance and reality, hidden and revealed, known and unknown, darkness and light. Now someone will ask, “why are you babbling about mystery stories?” Well, if you paid attention to today’s Gospel reading, you will remember that Jesus sits off to one side (like Holmes) and observes the scribes. He sees through their Deuteronomic hypocrisy and turns his attention to a widow. In her gift of two coins he ascertains the genuine reality of her dedication and commitment to God. He perceives that her giving out of her poverty is the kind of total trust that God asked of Israel in the commandments and throughout the ages.

You and I live lives of mystery. We don’t know where we are or where we are going. We live in a world of appearances and hypocrisy where politicians exploit the desires of the populace and where a little deception is not only often a good thing but often a necessary thing. Most of us truly do not know our spouse or our children. We know them well enough to be able to hurt them by a sharp word or subtle gesture. But we really don’t know what their deepest fears and needs are. Would they betray us in times of crisis? Would we betray them when the life boat pulls alongside our sinking ship? How easy it is to point smugly and to denigrate the scribes for their hypocrisy as they strut in order to intimidate and posture in order to maintain their positions of influence in a highly competitive society in which assimilation is an ever present threat.

Not long ago a priest preached a sermon to his congregation of Land Rover owners about our hidden fear of being “found out,” our deep sense of being a fraud or not worthy that we should gather up the invoices under the desk. A friend told me that this sermon hit the sciatic nerve of many of the congregants. I felt at the time that it hit mine as well. You and I often carry burdens of guilt which we seek to download during the general confession and at the altar rail. We carry a poverty of accomplishment, righteousness, love, grace, intellect, wisdom and imagination. We do not know what to tell our sons and daughters is the answer to many of the questions they ask, or should ask. And yet there is within the poverty of each of us a sense of reality, of truth, of validity, of honest character which forms the core of our being. It is what integrates us morally and psychologically. It separates from the outer values of the world of appearances and shadows around us.

Jesus perceived that the widow acted from that core of integrity and reality. He commended it, just as He asked again and again His followers to give up that which is fleeting and to pursue that which has eternal value. Out of His own integrity, the divine reality which created and redeemed the world, Jesus spoke to His disciples - and continues to speak to you and me.

Mystery stories, like much of literature, illuminate our human condition. They bring up the issues of justice and truth, judgment and forgiveness, appearance and reality. We are shown that these issues are not simple and clear. There are always complexities of character and circumstance, of motive and resolution. They remind us of the poverty of vision and motive out of which you and I act. Because they are stories, you and I can distance ourselves from our human condition and sort through the debris. At the same time, these stories remind us that there is light over against darkness, reality over against appearance, and truth over against falsehood.

Our daily lives are mysteries in and of themselves. The great themes of literature play in and out of our families. We struggle with appearance and reality, judgment and forgiveness. It is to our all too human condition, to our poverty, that the Gospel speaks. The Gospel offers hope and eternal life, vision and assurance, inspiration and motivation, opportunities and possibilities. Jesus sees through our layers of hypocrisy to the center of integration and integrity in our lives. He calls forth our response to follow the example of the widow in today’s story. You and I are called to give out of our poverty or fear and discouragement. We are asked to give not from our abundance of bluster and appearances but out of that center which is in the midst of all our poverty - our conscience, our image of God, our reflection of God’s faithfulness.

The next time you see a mystery book, you can tell yourself, “Hey, it’s talking about my life.” Indulge in some moments of escapism. That’s okay. But also remember to come and to reach out at the altar rail for the holy mysteries of the body and blood of Christ, those elements which relate to the ultimate source of meaning, creativity, forgiveness, affirmation and love. God’s gracious love for you and me (in the midst of our povety) is the most profound mystery of all. That is the real mystery in life. For that mystery of love today we give heartfelt thanks. Amen.