Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

Article | December 3, 2023

Sermon – An Opera Singer Named Jennifer Lopez

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the Sermon on YouTube.

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1).

1. ‘A hui hou. Stay awake. Stay awake. In 2004 my best friend was an opera singer named Jennifer Lopez. Jenn is not the famous actor known as J. Lo (although the two were born a year apart). In her early forties doctors diagnosed Jenn with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. She returned to her parent’s house in California to die.

I visited her every Wednesday. The first question she would always ask was, “How is your family?” and the second question would be about a sick person in the congregation or my dissertation. She understood what mattered to me. Jenn was the perfect confidante. I could speak honestly to her about my frustrations with my dissertation advisor or the church leadership without worrying that she might think less of me. Jenn always gave people the benefit of the doubt.[1]

Jenn learned to sing in our church and I can imagine her as a girl first beginning to realize her great talent. On some visits we would watch videotapes of her operas. I loved watching her sweep down the stage in a flowing dress singing so powerfully. Her face in those performances showed so much emotion and sensitivity.

Once I confided to her that sometimes when I watched an opera singer or listened to a musician like a cellist, I almost secretly fell in love with the performer and tried to imagine what their life was like offstage. “Well this is it!” she joked as she gestured to her wheelchair. We spent hours laughing together.

Strangely enough my favorite images of Jenn come from her family photograph albums. Because the colors in those pictures seemed brighter than real life they were particularly appropriate for her spirit. Images from band trips, graduations, summer parties and family gatherings were a wonderful collage expressing her youthfulness, energy and all-around zaniness.

Over time Jenn lost the ability to speak, but because we spent so much time together I could understand her. More than most Jenn loved life and there were times, as it was withdrawn from her, that she despaired. Sometimes I still can hear the moaning sound that at the end of her life was the only way she could express this disappointment. But Jenn never complained, never lost interest.

Above all the two of us loved Jesus. Before she got sick she had begun the process of getting ordained as a priest. If only we could have had a long career together serving God’s people! When I think back to those Wednesdays I realize that we talked a lot about death. But my overwhelming memory is how awake we were – awake to the simplest joys of life and to tragedy. We were awake to the way God’s invisible love surrounds us like a thick blanket on a winter night.

2. The darkness we experienced together is the darkness of Advent. Today we celebrate the first Sunday of the new year. The church calendar could have started with the joy of Easter, or the newness and vulnerability of Christmas, or the fiery energy of Pentecost. But instead we begin in the shadow of war, hatred and sorrow. We begin in darkness: waiting, singing and praying for new light. Yesterday hundreds were killed as war returned to Gaza. We pray for the end of violence in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine. We refuse to turn our eyes away from the suffering.

In America as the secular world prepares for a consumer Christmas, Christians could hardly be more out of step. We are awake, waiting for Christ to come in glory at the end of time. The older I get the more I treasure our Advent hymns. We sing, “Zion hears the watchman singing; her heart with joyful hope is springing, she wakes and hurries through the night…” (Hymn 61).[2]

On this first Sunday of the church year, as we await the advent of Christ, we begin a new story about Jesus. The principle way we know about Jesus is through the four gospels. The word gospel means good news. Because three of the four gospels share so much in common and look so similar we call them the synoptic gospels. Each of our three year cycle of Sunday readings is based on one of them (with the Gospel of John filling out the rest of each year).

Matthew uses five sections (like the Torah or the five books of Moses) to show that Jesus is a new Moses. Luke describes Jesus as the Lord’s royal servant who brings God’s light to the nations of the world. John explains how Jesus reunites us with God in a way that we could never accomplish on our own.

3. Today we are entering the year of Mark. Mark explains how humanity comes to have a new start. He writes about how a new reality called the Kingdom of God comes into history and transforms it. Mark uses a simpler vocabulary and grammar to form powerful, compact sentences. His favorite word in Greek is euthus. It means immediately. It comes up so often that sometimes translators just leave it out.

Mark presents the hearer or reader with a choice about who Jesus is. The only time Mark is really direct about his own position is in the first sentence of the gospel when he writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1).

The Gospel of Mark has three sections. The first takes place in Galilee and the last in Jerusalem. The middle section occurs as Jesus travels between the two places. In the first section the world wonders who Jesus is. Mark quotes Malachi (3:1) and Isaiah (40:3) describing Jesus as a kind of messenger from God. At Jesus’ baptism a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved” (Mk. 1). Jesus heals people, casts out their demons and forgives their sins. He tells them about God’s kingdom using stories about a sower casting seeds, and about a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great plant.

In the second section of Mark, Jesus’ friends are struggling to understand who he is. Jesus asks, “but who do you say I am.” Peter boldly calls Jesus the Messiah (Mk. 8). At the time Peter still has in mind a conquering military hero who will overthrow the Roman authorities. Jesus subverts the whole idea of a messiah. He teaches them that the Son of Man did not come to be served but to be serve others. On the mountain two of Jesus’ friends see him talking with Elijah and Moses. From an overshadowing cloud a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him” (Mk. 9).

The final section of Mark shows how Jesus becomes king. A royal procession takes Jesus into Jerusalem where he teaches in the temple. Mark writes, “a large crowd was listening to him with delight” (Mk. 12:37). Later sitting on the Mount of Olives four of his friends ask him when the end will come. Jesus answers with the words we just heard. No one, not the angels nor even the Son of Humanity will know the time. He says literally, “keep on being awake.”[3] Mark uses the word grēgoreō like the name Gregory. It means to be alert or awake, literally woke.

Jesus becomes the Messiah or king by being crucified. A Roman centurion seems to be the only one who understands. He says, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (Mk. 15). When the women go to the tomb an angelic young man in white tells them that Jesus has been raised. The gospel ends abruptly as they flee, “… for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Mark confronts every person with this question. Who will Jesus be for you? The twentieth century monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) writes, “This is the most complete revolution that has ever been preached: in fact, it is the only true revolution, because all others demand the extermination of somebody else, but this one means the death of the [person] who, for all practical purposes, you have come to think of as your own self.”[4]

4. In this season of Advent we have the chance to prepare a place in ourselves and in the world to receive Christ. There is so much in the Divine plan that we cannot understand, dark places, unmapped territories and worlds to discover. I invite you to encounter Jesus in our present moment. Let me close with a poem by Steve Garnaas-Holmes called “Longing.”

“Unsuspecting at first, of course, / you only gradually begin to feel / an urge, a leaning, / slow to become a promise, / a yearning that will become / its own gift, given from beyond. / It grows from a tiny seed, / a grace that is not your doing, / a single cell: / a change of season, / a subtle turning of the heart, / until by some grace you will know. / But now you do not yet, / you are still longing. / But know this, you are Mary, / and Gabriel is near.”[5]

On my very last visit with Jennifer before going out of town, we both knew that we probably would not see each other again in this world. I prayed so hard for a miracle that would instantly make her whole and healthy again. What I discovered was someone who was truly awake – who loved Jesus. That night in a dream her grandmother Margaret, who had died when she was eight years old, kept pulling her hand.

At the end of our visit, I asked if there was anything she wanted to say before I unplugged her laser pointer for the last time. She pointed out the letters for “Mahalo,” or thank you in Hawaiian. I told her ‘a hui hou which means until we meet again. She was so tired and she shut her eyes as I read evening prayer with the Song of Simeon. It goes, “Lord you now have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised.” I closed my prayerbook, looked into her face and said goodbye. She opened her eyes, smiled back at me and mouthed the words ‘a hui hou.

‘A hui hou. Stay awake. Stay awake. Come Lord Jesus.

[1] We spent those mornings talking about our families, dreams and worries. We talked about the most ordinary things and the profoundest. We talked about politics, art and our love of Jesus. Her commentary on the family and friends in those photographs was priceless. She was smart enough to recognize all of our crazy inconsistencies, idiosyncrasies and frailties, but kind enough to love us even more because of them. Above all Jenn forgave the people around her for the rough edges that make us human. I like to think that she cared for us oddballs more than the normal people.

Mem Jenn Lopez (8-14-04).

[2] Hymn 61, 1980 Hymnal (NY: Church Publishing Company, 1980).

[3] Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989) 202.

[4] Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions, 1961) 144.

[5] Steve Garnaas-Holmes, “Longing.”

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