The Impact of Bit Players

It’s one of those jokes I throw out there every Lent: yes, you can sign up for the exciting role of Servant Girl 2 in our yearly Passion Reading.  Some people prefer those small roles; it means reading only one or two lines in a poorly lit nave like ours.  But sometimes those one or two lines can define something pretty significant.  There are people that play bit roles in our lives, and so without further adieu…

Palm Sunday 2012—Mark’s Passion

I am struck by the bit-parts that take center stage in our Passion reading each year.  The one or two lines spoken by the seemingly insignificant players that we have a tendency to overlook.  And yet I know in my own life sometimes it’s the one or two lines from a person I met only briefly that stick with me for a long time.  Sometimes these bit-players take a major role.

We heard it this morning.  Peter had followed Jesus under the cover of darkness on that cool night to the place where the council had assembled.  He stood in the courtyard, warming himself, when one of the servant-girls came by.  She took one look at him and recognized him.  “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth,” she says to him.  Peter looks at her stunned, recognizing that he might be the next one hauled in to a fake trial.  His declarations a few hours before promising that he would never desert Jesus crumble immediately.  “I don’t know what you are talking about,” he said.

But he stays there warming his hands over the fire pit, and the servant girl a little later said once more that Peter was one of the Galileans and was with Jesus.  He again denies it.  One of the bystanders, hearing the words of the servant-girl begins looking suspiciously at Peter, and either because of the twang of his accent or because of his appearance, says, “Certainly you are one of them, you are from Galilee.”  Peter began cursing, and swore an oath that he wasn’t, the he had no idea what they were talking about, that he didn’t even know this Jesus of Galilee.

And the rooster crowed.  And Peter remembered what Jesus had told him and he ran off.

This is Simon Peter, remember; Peter being the name Jesus himself gave to him.  It meant Rocky, and Jesus said in Matthew’s gospel that he would build his church on that rock.  But the rock couldn’t even stand up to a bit player, to a servant-girl and a bystander.  Never mind if he had the fortitude to stand up to the high priest, he couldn’t even handle questions from someone with no authority, and so he threw Jesus under the bus.  “I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said, this Rock that would serve as the foundation of the church.

In 2000, Melissa had an opportunity to travel to Morocco for three weeks through a fellowship from Boston University.  I was able to join her for 10 days on that trip.  Through the contacts of a friend, Melissa and I were able to stay with a Moroccan national and his family.  Abdellah loved showing us the sights and engaging us in conversation—he taught English in a local high school—and we were delighted to have him and his teen-aged son as our guides.  Our trip took place in August, and I can say that the Sahara desert in the summer was hot, easily a 115 degrees most days, and some went well above 120.

We often used public transportation to explore the country.  In the mornings before we left, Abdellah would pack each of us large one liter water bottles, and he always brought an extra one.  Riding next to him on the bus he explained it to us like this: As a Muslim, he said,  I am commanded to give a cup of water to anyone who asks for it.  Your Holy Book says the same thing.  So whenever I travel, I always bring an extra bottle.”  Not too long after this, someone got on the bus, visibly thirsty.  He saw us drinking water, and asked for a drink.  Abdellah handed him the extra bottle.

Later during our time we spoke more about this, and Abdellah, not confrontational but certainly provocative, said, “If America is a Christian nation, how come there are so many homeless people there?  I don’t understand how so many Christians ignore the words of your Scripture”  He had visited America on a Fullbright exchange, and had seen the homeless in Boston, New York and Washington DC.  I remember talking about how many people aren’t really practicing Christians, and that they don’t all take the call of Christ seriously.  But then I thought about my own life and the fact that I would never have thought about carrying an extra bottle of water, never mind my inclination to pretend as if the poor and homeless I meet don’t even exist.

I was deserting Jesus by my actions.  I might not have said out loud that I wasn’t associated with him, but my actions told a different story.

I’m not sure who the Abdellah or servant girl or passerby is in your life, but I bet you’ve had an encounter with one of those seeming bit-players and will again.  They may ask a challenging question, or make a statement that stops you in your tracks:  “Do you really believe that stuff about Jesus?  I thought you were more intelligent than that.”  And then you hem and haw, and stammer out something that makes you appear as to not really care about the way Jesus lived and continues to live in our midst.  Or maybe, like me, sometimes you just live your life in a way that exhibits that while you may talk a good game, your actions clearly deny Jesus and his invitation to follow him.

We gather on this day to remember that we all take our part in crucifying our Lord.  And even though we desert and deny and disgrace him at times, he still loves us and offers us forgiveness.  That is the power of what happened on that cross.  That Jesus, even in the midst of horrible suffering, never stopped loving us, no matter what we have done to him.  He stretched out those arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that we each might come within the reach of his saving embrace.  May we, like Peter, find our way to those outstretched arms.  Amen.