Thursday, September 07, 2006

Recognizing Christ: Sermon at the Memorial Service for Felix Premawardhana

"Bappa" during his visit to New York last year
with my wife, Dhilanthi and daughter Amali

I preached the following sermon at a Service of Praise and Thanksgiving for the life and witness of my uncle, Felix Premawardhana on September 1st at the Cinnamon Gardens Baptist Church, Colombo, Sri Lanka. The service was attended by over 300 persons and many from the Sri Lankan arts community.

“Recognizing Christ”

Swamini! [Lord!] Swamini! [Lord!] Swamini! [Lord!]

So begins Minis Gathiya one of the first plays Bappa directed back in the early 1960s. Noah is calling out to God. Softer at first and getting progressively louder so that those of us in the audience at the edge of expecting an audible answer. I was a little kid then, but I so vividly remember my father playing Noah when one day a heckler in the audience did provide an audible response. Swamini – aah!, Swamini – aaaah, Swamini – aaaaaah!

Andre Obey’s play “Noah” was called “Minis Gathiya,” because it is indeed a commentary on the behavior of human beings so alienated from God that they are incapable of hearing God’s voice or understanding God’s ways. In contrast to them stands Noah, one who hears God’s voice in the oddest of places and is audaciously obedient. Imagine building a house boat in the middle of a jungle during a drought! Village people thought he was crazy. Frankly, most of us would have. I mean, imagine getting all the animals two by two in to his ark! I think Bappa liked Noah – not just the play, but the man. When he felt that God was asking him to do something – and he heard that voice in the oddest of ways, despite what anybody thought or said, he would do it. And although the villagers thought Noah was crazy, he would finally be vindicated. After getting the animals and his family in the ark and Noah closed the door, it started to rain. And it poured as if from a waterfall.

Archetypes are those ideal people who give our lives meaning and purpose. All of us have them and they are the heros by whose example we try to live our lives.

You may remember the time when Bappa played the unsuccessful hunter who let a deer he shot get away. He became the accidental storyteller to two young people about their archetypal mother, Kuveni. The dialogue and songs of Henry Jayasena’s masterpiece are forever etched in my memory and and I sure yours too. Kuveni is the story of the colonial subjugation of the native people of this island and how this powerful archetypal woman with wit, charm and shrewd political negotiation won concessions for her people. But she was subjugated again by the colonialist storytellers who framed Kuveni as a witch. Henry Jayasena resurrected this archetypal woman – Kuveniya mai ekama geheniya, eda upnath ada upannath! [Kuveni is the only woman, whether she was born then or born today]

Mr. Jayasena’s casting of Bappa in his role as hunter/storyteller was perfect. Some 14 years earlier he had named his own daughter after that archetypal heroine. In my youthful innocence I once asked Bappa why he gave his two children such awful names: Kuvera, a tyrannical yaksha of wealth and Kuveni, a witch who did nasty things to people. No, he explained, these were strong leaders of an advanced culture that existed in this island in very early times. We need to reclaim the original stories of Kuvera and Kuveni, these are archetypal heroes of the original Sri Lankans from the colonial misinterpretations, he said.

If Noah and Kuveni were archetypal heroes, they were no match in Bappa’s life to his most significant archetypal figure, the supreme ideal one upon whose life and teachings he based his life, Jesus Christ. The one regret he had is that he didn’t get to produce Jesus Christ Superstar. He wanted so much to communicate to our modern world the story of this most powerful archetypal man. I told him that his life of discipleship – of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God on the one hand and his generous hospitality was the most powerful communication of that story. You’ve already heard wonderful tributes to this great human being. My job is different. Based on my reflection on his life and witness – not perfect, but forgiven, it is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Let me explain it this way.

Two people walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus are downcast and despondent over the death of their beloved guru. They had hoped that he would be the one to deliver them from the brutal Roman occupation. But now their hopes are dashed. As they are walking a stranger joins them. They don’t recognize him as the risen Christ, and they tell him about how their beloved teacher had been arrested and killed. But the stranger who seems to know a lot about what the scriptures say about this, explains it to them. You might think that after such an explanation, they would recognize him. But they don’t. Their understanding of Jesus was limited to their memories and images. He was confined within their theology and worldview, bound by their lack of faith and imagination. They could not fathom a risen Christ unbounded by time and space breaks through culture, language, race and class structures that keeps us bound. This Christ we cannot put inside our theological or structural boxes. This Christ appears to us in all kinds of odd places.

The travelers don’t know who he is. But they invite the stranger to stay and eat with them. I want you to notice, how crucial the invitation is to this story. If it wasn’t for the invitation, the stranger would have continued on his way and remained unrecognized. It is the invitation that leads to a meal and in the simple of act of breaking bread, to a recognition of who he is. . The text says: "Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” Resurrection itself is not enough -- you still need the invitation. You need exposition of scripture and the experience of breaking bread together; you need people who come together in community, who invite each other to their homes and share meals; otherwise divine presence remains unrecognized and human eyes remain unopened.

I think the most powerful part of Bappa’s testimony is that he was able to recognize the risen Christ in unusual and odd places. I think this was the case because he was always very generous with his invitation: his table always ready for the breaking of bread with a stranger. I have been at his house when some of the most distinguished public figures as well as the beggar down the street or the lowliest workman received a warm welcome. His heart strangely warmed by friends who visit and unknown people on the road with whom he would crack jokes. And the door of his mind was always open to new ideas and new ways of looking at life. I have been with him at many events where although he may have been in the oldest person in the room, often his was the youngest voice. Perhaps it was because of he was trained as Christian communicator to find the presence of Christ as he critically viewed dramas and movies. Perhaps it was because he often related with people outside the church, often with the arts community. In the innovative idea, in the strange twist of a plot, or in unlikely relationships he often found the risen Christ.

I wanted to highlight this part of his life and testimony, because as we read in scripture tonight, this is the central part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In this story of the Last Judgment when the Son of Man comes as King, he will separate people of all the nations gathered before him as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. To those on the left side he would say “Away from me you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels.” These people are flabbergasted. Why, some of them may have been devout Christians. “I was hungry, you would not feed me. I was thirsty, you would not give me to drink. I was a stranger but you would not welcome me in your homes. I was naked and you would not clothe me. I was sick and in prison and you would not take care of me.” And they answer, “When Lord, did we ever see you hungry, or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and we would not minister to you.” These people are totally surprised. Why, Lord, if we ever saw you hungry, we would have given our own food to you. The problem was that they did not recognize Jesus. They were expecting Jesus to fit into their image, their theology and their religious structure. They do not understand that the risen Jesus is always above and beyond the limitations they impose. Now, here’s the kicker: Whenever you did not do it to one of the least of these my sisters or brothers, you did not do it to me.”

The same surprise was in store for those who were on the right side. They too said, when Lord, did we ever see you hungry. These were the people who as they lived their daily lives as a matter of daily attitude and practice, opened their hands and hearts to anyone in need -- a neighbor who needs child care, a colleague who needs a helping hand, a poor person who needs food or shelter, someone sick in hospital or jailed in prison. And they didn’t do it thinking that if they didn’t they would end up on the wrong side on judgment day! They did it because loving their neighbor is a part of their character. And in doing so, to their great surprise they found out that they were serving their King.

I hope you hear this clearly. Recognizing Christ in the stranger is not a social gospel, it is not a part of the gospel – it is the gospel. If my job is to do anything, it is to prepare you to meet the King, so that when the question is asked you would be on the right hand side with the sheep. And the question is not about what you believed. The question is not about whether you came to church faithfully. The question is not about whether you lived a moral, upright life. The question is not even, are you saved. Although all these things are important, in the text the question is simply this: I was hungry, did you give me to eat? And which of us wouldn’t give him to eat if we recognized him? So my point is simply this. If Bappa’s testimony means anything, it is that, he recognized the risen Christ in the least of these my brothers and sisters. The question is do we recognize Christ in such unusual places? Now let me bring this home.

There once was a little boy who wanted to find God. He knew it would probably be a long trip, so he decided to pack a lunch, a couple of maalu paans and a can of Sprite. He set out on his journey and shortly came to a park. On one of the park benches sat an old woman looking at the pigeons. The little boy sat down beside her and watched the pigeons too. They watched for awhile, and when he got hungry, he pulled out a maalu paan. As he ate, he noticed the woman watching him, so he offered her the other one. She accepted it gratefully and smiled at him. He thought she had the most beautiful smile in the world. Wanting to see it again, he opened the can of Sprite and offered some. Once again she smiled that beautiful smile. For a long time the two sat on that park bench eating, drinking, smiling at each other and watching the pigeons. Neither said a word. Finally the little boy realized that it was getting late and he needed to go home. He started to leave, took a few steps, turned back and gave the woman a big hug. Her smile was brighter than ever before. When he arrived home, his mother noticed that he was happy, but strangely quiet. "What did you do today?" she asked. "Oh, I had lunch in the park with God," he said. Before his mother could reply he added, "You know, she has the most beautiful smile in the world." Meanwhile, the woman left the park and returned home. Her son noticed something different about her. "What did you do today, Amma?" he asked. "Oh, I ate maalu paans and drank Sprite in the park with God." And before her son could say anything at all, she added, "You know, God’s a lot younger than I had imagined."

And let me add this: during my entire lifetime, I too feel that I have seen something of God. And you know what? He’s much funnier and than I thought, and wears an impressive moustache!


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