Rev. Timothy B. Tutt
United Church of Christ
Sunday, November 23, 2014
“Martin and the Stolen Bible”
This sermon is a contemporary re-telling of Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “Martin, the Cobbler,” also known as “Where Love Is, God Is.”
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Not far from here, near the corner of Albemarle and 41st Street, a man named Martin lives in a very normal house. Martin is a retired lawyer. Each morning he walks to the Starbucks on Wisconsin Avenue, buys himself a cup of coffee then walks to the post office. Most days for lunch, he buys a cup of soup at Whole Foods. And the Italian place down the hill serves a nice house wine that Martin likes in the evenings.
Martin passes kids walking to school. He recognizes the bus drivers that drive the 30N Bus and the 31 up and down Wisconsin Avenue, but they probably wouldn’t recognize him,
Martin is retired from the government, Department of Health and Human Services. On the wall above his favorite chair, there hangs a picture of Martin with the president in the 1970s. The picture was taken after Martin gave the president a briefing about some policy matter.
What Martin remembers most about the photograph is that it was taken exactly one week before his son died, a teenager, killed in a car wreck on a Tuesday afternoon in March.
The son was the only child Martin and his wife had. For months after the boy’s death, Martin railed against God. He found God silent in response. After his son was killed, Martin quit going to church. He’d been confirmed a Lutheran as a child in Iowa. Married a Methodist in Chicago or Detroit. Moved together to DC and became good, faithful Presbyterians. Until their son was killed, and Martin stopped going to church. After a while, Martin’s wife stopped going to church also. Church was too lonely for her without Martin and their son.
Years passed. Martin at his job, his wife at hers. Retirement came. A little golf, some travel, stamp collecting became a hobby for Martin.
His wife was diagnosed with cancer. She died on a Thursday a couple of year ago.
Martin met with the staff at the funeral home, signed papers, made decisions. After the meeting he picked up a pile of papers from the desk and placed them in his briefcase.
They buried his wife in a simple graveside service.
Three weeks later Martin saw the briefcase in the corner of his living room, where he had forgotten it after the funeral home visit. Martin sat down to sort out the paperwork. Receipts. Copies of her death certificate. Paperwork about their burial plot. A glossy brochure from the funeral home. A thick folder from his insurance company. And there, at the bottom of the stack, a Bible.
That’s odd, thought Martin. He remembered that a Bible had been sitting on a side table in the funeral home. He must have picked it up by accident. “I will return it in the morning,” he thought. “That will be a good task for tomorrow.”
Martin owned a Bible of his own, of course. He had even been the lay reader from time to time at the Presbyterian Church before their son died. He remembered his own mother, on cold winter nights in the Midwest of his childhood, reading her Bible.
Then, surprising himself a great deal, Martin sat down in his favorite chair and opened the funeral home Bible. The stately poetry of Genesis, the certainty and doubt of the psalms. Esther, Ruth. He had forgotten those books even existed. For an hour or more, Martin read.
The next morning he intended to take the Bible back to the funeral home. But as he picked it up, instead of walking out the door, he found himself sinking into the chair. For another hour he read. The prophet Micah about “doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly.” The prophet Isaiah about “lions and lambs lying down together.”
On the third day, Martin didn’t take the Bible back to its owner either. He began to think of it as his stolen Bible. And he chuckled as he opened it. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he read. “Blessed are the merciful. Love one another. God is love.” The words tumbled all around him and over him and in him. Day after day, sometimes first thing in the morning, sometimes late into the night he read. Sometimes he would tuck the Bible in his pocket as he walked to Starbucks and the post office. Sometimes he would just sit on a park bench right by the busy traffic of Wisconsin Avenue, with buses roaring by and students from American University tossing a Frisbee past him, and he would read his stolen Bible.
Something happened to Martin. He felt lighter somehow. Oh he’d even gained weight after his wife’s death and he stopped playing golf, but he felt lighter. His path was the same, walking to the Post Office or to the soup aisle at Whole Foods, but his step was bouncier he thought. The house was the same with the same photographs on the wall, but the walls themselves seemed more expansive, more open.
Martin read: “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to them the other.” The Good Samaritan tending to the beaten traveler. Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. The woman washing Jesus’ feet with oil. All of this rolled around in Martin’s mind.
“Washing someone’s feet,” Martin thought, “how silly.” And he thought of his former colleagues at HHS, the legal department and the policy office and the public affairs people. He thought of all the earnest workers he saw getting on and off the buses headed into downtown in the morning and home to the suburbs in the evenings. He wondered what would happen if he showed up at the bus stop one day with a bucket of water. Or if he showed up at his old office with a jug of water and offered to wash everyone’s feet. “How silly they would think I am,” he thought. “How foolish it is to wash feet, how unsafe it is to turn the other cheek, how wasteful it is to love without counting the cost.”
And much to his surprise, Martin felt hot tears running down his old cheeks.
He shifted in his favorite chair, neatly closed his stolen Bible and thought: “I wonder if that’s how they thought, the woman with the oil poured on Jesus feet, fishermen talking about love, a tax collector welcome to dinner, the people with the dirty feet that Jesus washed? I wonder if they were as embarrassed and confused and as hopeful as I am? I wonder if they were as trapped in their own minds as I am? I wonder if they cried? I wonder if they were as lonely and as in need of love as I am,” Martin thought.
And he leaned his head back against his favorite chair, and before he could wonder anymore, he was asleep.
“Martin!” He suddenly heard a voice, as if someone had breathed the word above his ear.
He roused from his sleep. “Who’s there?” he asked.
He looked around the room. No one was there. He asked again, “Who’s there?” Then he heard quite clearly, “Martin! Walk up to Wisconsin Avenue tomorrow. I’ll meet you there.”
Martin rubbed his eyes. Was he dreaming or awake? He went to his bedroom, turned out the lights and lay down to sleep.
The next morning Martin was awake before dawn. He dressed quickly, pondering the day before. Had that happened? Over and over he asked himself, Did that happen?
Before much traffic was in the streets, before the lights were even on at the Whole Foods, he made his way out into his Tenleytown neighborhood. A bread truck was backing up to a loading dock. He could see the driver. The 30N Bus came slowly into sight. And there, near the Metro stop, he saw a worker sweeping the entryway. Martin did a double take. For a moment, he thought the woman sweeping the Metro sidewalk was Jesus. Martin laughed at himself. “I think I’m losing my mind. A Metro worker sweeping the sidewalk, and I thought she was Jesus.” Martin looked at the woman again. She looked tired and cold in the early morning light.
And Martin heard himself saying, “Ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but that Starbucks across the street is just about to open. May I buy you a cup of coffee?”
“Oh, mister, that’s the nicest thing anyone has ever asked me. I’ve been working the night shift cleaning Metro stops for 15 years and no one hardly speaks to me at all. My back is aching and I can hardly keep my eyes open, so yeah, I’ll let you buy me a cup of coffee.”
They walked across the street and ordered. In silence, Martin and the metro worker sat and sipped their dark, rich coffee.
Ever so often, Martin looked out the window. Finally the Metro worker asked, “Are you expecting somebody?”
“Expecting somebody,” Martin said. “Well …” And before he knew it, the words tumbled out. “Something happened last night that I can't get out of my mind. Maybe I had a dream or I was hallucinating. You see, I was reading the Bible, about Jesus and how we cared for people and how the people around him cared for other people. And it dawned on me that maybe those people were embarrassed and how embarrassed I am to tell people that I read the Bible. And I began to think that maybe Jesus is all around us. But we’re too busy or too embarrassed to see him. And then I thought I heard someone call my name. I thought I heard someone say they would meet me on Wisconsin Avenue. And I know that sounds crazy. But I showed up here this morning expecting to meet Jesus, and, well, you were the only person I saw so I bought you a cup of coffee.”
The Metro worker lifted her coffee to her lips and drank the last bit of the warm liquid. “Thank you, mister,” she said. “That coffee warmed my body. And my weary old soul.”
Martin watched the Metro worker walk back across the street and pick up her broom. She went back to work. Two cyclists passed by, huffing in their lycra, a man in an over coat headed toward the Metro. Cars zipped by.
Then a woman came into view passing by the window of the Starbucks. She was ragged, the kind of person Martin saw sitting on the sidewalk asking for money. He focused on her, and saw that she held a baby in a tattered blanket. “Surely not,” thought Martin, “not in this cold.”
He hurried to the door. “Miss, miss,” he said. The woman turned to face him. “Miss, come inside. Bring that baby in here.” And in a flurry, he settled her in a chair, went to the counter, ordered a bowl of hot meal and a hot tea, then found himself holding her baby. It had been years since he had held a baby.
He heard himself humming a song that he didn’t even remember he knew. And as he sang, the woman talked. She talked of a man who left her, a job that she might get, a check that was due to her next week, a shelter where she might stay. Her story didn’t sound true, but Martin didn’t care. He sang, she ate and talked. And then it was time to leave.
“Here,” Martin said. “Take my coat. Wrap the baby up in it. Or you wear it. I don’t care. Take it.”
The woman looked at the coat, then looked at Martin. She burst into tears. “God bless you,” she mumbled, “God bless you, God bless. God led me to you I know, I just know it.”
“Maybe so,” Martin said. “Take this, too.” And he pressed two twenty dollar bills into her hand.
Martin was cold now. And could feel his own tears starting to match the woman’s.
Confused, happy but confused, Martin decided to head back to his house.
More cars were on the streets, the trash truck was squeaking a few blocks away.
Just a block from his house, a group of laughing junior high students on their way to school passed him on the sidewalk. He heard yelling and looked up. He saw one of his longtime neighbors standing on her porch. She was wearing a jacket over her bathrobe.
“Martin, Martin,” she yelled. “Stop those good-for-nothing kids. Stop them.” Martin looked back at the students. They stopped and listened. “Martin,” said his neighbor. “That tall kid with the blue back pack walked right through my yard. Does it every morning. He’s trampling down my grass, Martin.”
Martin looked at his neighbor. He looked at the kid who was standing on the sidewalk with his mouth open.
“Forget it, Nell,” he said to his neighbor. “Let the boy go to school. Forgive him for Christ’s sake.”
“Let it go, Nell. And forgive the boy, for Christ’s sake.”
“Kids these days,” she began again. “Somebody ought to teach him a lesson…”
“You’re right, Nell. Somebody ought to teach him a lesson…the lesson of forgiveness.”
Nell walked back into her house. Martin smiled at the teenagers on the sidewalk. They smiled back. And he headed again toward his house.
Inside, Martin realized he was exhausted. It was only 7:30 in the morning. And he needed a nap. He sat down in his favorite chair. And picked up his stolen Bible.
Before he could open it, he remember the dream of last night.
And there in his house he heard footsteps. Martin stood and started toward the door. In the corner of the room he saw a motion, a movement.
In the early morning shadows he thought he saw someone. But who? Who was in his house?
“Martin,” a voice said. “Martin,” the voice whispered in his ear. “Martin, don’t you recognize me?”
“Who is it,” Martin asked.
“It is I,” said the voice. And out of the dark corner, stepped the Metro worker, holding her broom. She smiled and vanished like the morning fog.
“It is I,” said the voice again. And out of the darkness stepped the woman with the baby in her arms. She was wearing his coat. She smiled and the baby laughed, and they too vanished.
“It is I,” said the voice a third time. And Nell, the grumpy neighbor and the tall kid with the blue back pack stepped out. They both smiled. And then they were gone.
Martin sat with a thud in his favorite chair.
And Martin’s soul grew glad. He sat very still for a long time.
Then he opened his Bible and read, “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
And Martin smiled.
“Things like that don’t happen in Northwest Washington,” he thought. “Things like that don’t really happen, do they? Or maybe they do. Maye they do.”