The Unopened Present

Pastor Jim
Romans 12:6-17

Do you know of folks, for whom getting a gift is a problem? My brother prides himself on still having unopened Christmas presents from 20 years ago. That picture of leaving the gift in the box. Does it hold the same kind of sadness for you as it does for me?

Maybe you’ve got a similar resistance to being given gifts. Perhaps you recognize in someone you care about a gift that remains profoundly unopened, a skill that’s remained a hidden hobby, a talent that never blossomed into a professional calling, but could have been a blessing to the whole world.

Or could it be that you see yourself, when you look in the mirror, as an unopened gift, a person no one wanted to hire, the right suitor no one wanted to marry, a leader no one wanted to be led by.

Jesus has shown us the heart of God in Bethlehem, Nazareth and Galilee. He’s healed the outcast, confronted the oppressor and shaped the disciples. On the cross he took into himself the brokenness of the world. In his resurrection he restored creation to its God given purpose. Dismantling death and opening the wonder of eternal life. Now he’s returned to the Father’s side, what is going to happen to this indescribable gift?

With the disciples battening down the hatches and nailing down the shutters, it looks pretty certain the present’s going to be left in the box. The whole of God’s story, the whole story of the church, the whole of salvation history lies in the balance in those Pentecost days.

The disciples left Jesus in the tomb as surely as my brother left birthday gifts in the box and without Pentecost, my guess is, that’s where he’d still be.

And let’s not pretend that this process hasn’t taken place in different ways throughout the history of the church, and doesn’t still take place. Some folks haven’t examined their faith since Sunday School when they attended as a child. Yet they run into life and they get made because they have left their faith in a box hidden all safe and tucked away, like a Bible full of clover.

The 2008 film The Reader is set in post-war Germany. It tells two parallel stories of how Germans faced up to the horror of what they and their parents had done in perpetrating the Holocaust of six million Jews.

The first story is that of Michael, a teenage boy in the 1950s, who grows up to become, in the 1960s, a lawyer. As part of his training he observes a trial of some women who had, during the war, let 300 Jews die when they were locked in a burning church.

The second story is that of Hanna, a tram conductor, who in the 1950s befriends and then seduces Michael while he’s still a boy, before suddenly disappearing. Much of their relationship involves Michael reading to Hanna from great works of literature.

To the adult Michael’s astonishment and horror, ten years later Hanna reappears as one of the defendants in the case of the murder of the 300 Jews in the burning church.

Thus the film revolves around two mysteries: one, why does a tram conductor embark on a relationship with a boy 20 years her junior, and two, why in the trial does she admit to a greater role in the murders than she really had, and thus face a life sentence in prison?

The answer to the two questions and the metaphorical centre of the film turns out to be the same.  Hanna can’t read; she can’t bear for anyone to know she can’t read; and yet she craves the world that reading opens up for her.

She goes to unimaginable lengths to hide her illiteracy. And yet somehow she cannot or will not learn to read, despite the real and metaphorical prison her illiteracy brings upon her.

Hanna’s illiteracy is a metaphor for the moral illiteracy of those who brought about the Holocaust. Michael becomes a metaphor for getting seduced by a regime that promised power and the past, seduced by an evil man.

But Michael suffers a different kind of prison. The intensity of his teenage liaison with a much older woman inhibits all subsequent intimate relationships; and he becomes emotionally crippled by the past. His literacy, and understanding of deeper meanings and consequences, cripples him, while Hanna’s illiteracy, in a different way, imprisons her.

Michael acquires a tape recorder and begins to make recordings of the books he used to read. He sends the recordings to Hanna in prison. She finds the appropriate books in the library, and, by listening to the recordings, teaches herself to read. Eventually she reads a survivor’s account of the sufferings endured in a concentration camp and, overcome by guilt, days before her release from prison, she hangs herself.

There’s no reconciliation with Michael, and no release for Michael of his crippling emotional cross; but there is a sense that Germany, 40 years after the war, is just beginning to become literate on what it was and what it did. It is just starting to open the box.

As an account of Pentecost, you may be thinking, this has to be as depressing as it gets.

But the theological point is this. Just knowing something isn’t enough. That’s like keeping the present in the box. It’s not enough for Hanna and Michael to be aware of the Holocaust as a historical phenomenon, whether they were involved in it or not. What changes everything is the ability to read. Without that ability, everything remains paralyzed.

When Hanna learns to read, she for the first time stops contorting the truth, imprisoning herself, and abusing those around her to get what she needs. For her it brings about her suicide; but the irony is that those last days in her life are the first time she’d been truly alive.

When we take that entering the truth, that opening of the box, as a metaphor for the work of the Holy Spirit, we can see how vital the Holy Spirit is in our understanding of faith and of God. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s decision never to be except to be with us. Ok, but so what? Jesus is the full glory of God looking us in the face and the utter fragility of humankind looking God full in the face.

Sure, but what comes of that? Jesus’ cross is the utter manifestation of God taking on the consequences of our failure and folly.

Jesus’ resurrection is God bursting open the everlasting glory of eternal life. Fine, but I’ve still got to pay the bills and there’s a ballgame at Wriggly tonight.

We create a hundred reasons not to open the present. We’re frightened of getting carried away. We’re used to things more tangible, more immediate, and more… simple.

We deal with forgiveness by trying to forget and death by attempting to distract. The truth is, left to ourselves we would never open the box. If we were the disciples we’d never come out of the upper room unaided, however sensational the gospel of Jesus was.

And that’s why God sends the rushing wind and tongues of fire. Here comes the wind that hovered over the waters at creation and the fire that consumed everything at the giving of the law to Moses. The wind of God, that pushed the disciples out the door and the tongues that gave disciples words to say. Jesus changes everything, but for most of us, most of the time, we can’t see the difference.

We’re like my brother who won’t open the box, like a middle-aged woman who can’t read.

Seven hundred years before Christ, the Greek poet Hesiod wrote a poem called Works and Days, in which he told the story of Pandora. Pandora was the first woman on earth and all the gods clothed her with fine gifts. When she married she was given a box that she was told she must never open. But she did open it, and out came all the evil in the world. This story is not in the Bible.

The trouble is, we treat it as if it were. We leave the gifts of ourselves sitting in the box. We bar our windows and shut our doors and batten our hatches as if Christ were not raised from the dead. We live in illiteracy and do a thousand drastic things to hide our reality rather than risk opening our eyes.

But here’s the good news. If we won’t open the box, then the rushing wind of God’s Spirit will send us, like the disciples, out of our locked rooms into our communities and our world.

Tongues of fire perhaps to transform us into living flames of love, to give us words of gentleness, wisdom, and truth, to burn away our fear and distraction and forgetfulness and feel our hearts burning within us.  So God sends the Holy Spirit in wind and fire to open that box, empty that tomb, burst us out from whatever locked doors whatever room and coax us into that new day.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

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