The Importance of Minor Characters

A Palm Sunday Sermon

If you asked me on any given day who my favorite author happens to be, I’d say it’s Frederick Buechner.  Mr. Buechner is a Presbyterian minister whose vocation has been to write.  His books range from collected sermons and memoirs to reflections on faith and novels.  Sometimes he writes about his craft and how it works both in his art and also in his life.  This week I’ve been reflecting on something he wrote in his collection of essays entitles, The Clown in the Belfry.

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He writes, “The word fiction comes from a Latin verb meaning ‘to shape, fashion, feign.’ That is what fiction does, and in many ways it is what faith does too. You fashion your story, as you fashion your faith, out of the great hodgepodge of your life—the things that have happened to you and the things you have dreamed of happening. They are the raw material of both.

“Then, if you’re a writer like me, you try less to impose a shape on the hodgepodge than to see what shape emerges from it, is hidden in it. You try to sense what direction it is moving in. You listen to it. You avoid forcing your characters to march too steadily to the drumbeat of your artistic purpose, but leave them some measure of real freedom to be themselves. If minor characters show signs of becoming major characters, you at least give them a shot at it because in the world of fiction it may take many pages before you find out who the major characters really are just as in the real world it may take you many years to find out that the stranger you talked to for half an hour once in a railway station may have done more to point you to where your true homeland lies than your closest friend or your psychiatrist.”

The minor characters of my life have been filling my thoughts this past week.  Like the Swazi man who had leprosy that I would pass on my way to the market during one summer in college.  He sat in the same place on the sidewalk many days, simply asking for help.  Many of his fingers had been lost to the disease, and he dressed very simply.  One day I made eye-contact with him, and his hands shot into the air as I placed a couple of dollars into his outstretched palms.  His grateful cry of “Thank you” carried on much longer than I thought it could, and it carries on still in my mind twenty-seven years later.  I never learned his name, but his voice and his gratitude for something so small impacted me in a great way.  Even though he played a minor role, he’s reached deeply into the arc of my life’s story.

Perhaps you noticed it this morning.  It was a quick blip there in Mark’s Passion; you wouldn’t be criticized if you didn’t notice.  Mark tells us that as they led Jesus out to crucify him, the compelled a passerby who was coming in from the country to carry his cross.  It was Simon of Cyrene, and then—in a line that only appears in his retelling of the crucifixion—Mark writes, “he was the father of Alexander and Rufus.”

There’s really only one reason that I can imagine that Mark would put in this detail, and it’s this: His readers would have personally known Alexander and Rufus. There would be no other reason to designate Simon than the one from Cyrene—his part in the narrative would have been known well enough.  Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for Jesus because it became too much for him to bear alone, and the Romans wanted to get on with it.  But to add that he was the father of Rufus and Alexander, well then he would become more real.  Rufus and Alexander were likely part of that worshipping community in Rome who received Mark’s gospel.  You can imagine someone telling a newcomer hearing the story for the first time, “The guy who carried Jesus’ cross, that was the dad of those two right over there.” It made the connection so much more real and palpable.  The man from Cyrene wasn’t so far removed from them—they were only one degree away from him and Jesus.

But what this this line tells me even more is that something significant took place in Simon on that day that he traveled in from the country to Jerusalem.  He happened to be walking along, minding his own business when the Roman guards saw him and forced him to carry that cross.  He’d never met Jesus before this, the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. He presumably did his small part, carrying that means of execution to the Place of the Skull, but rather than just getting on with his intended journey, something changed in him.  Mark doesn’t clue us in as to what it was or when it happened—Simon is just a minor character in this drama—but something took place inside him.  That encounter altered his life’s trajectory.  He traveled to Jerusalem one way and left another.  We don’t know if it was sudden or happened over the course of many years, but we can surmise that he became a follower of Jesus on the Way.  His sons, Alexander and Rufus, were personally known to that community of Christians in Rome. That family became disciples.

Sometimes I think we like to have the grandiose plots and characters play out in the dramas of our lives.  We look for those moments when we uncover the truth for which we’ve been diligently seeking after for many years, those people like our best friends who have influenced us for so long.  And yet sometimes it’s just those minor bit players who come in and say something that sticks with us long after that person has exited the stage of our lives.  But those minor parts—those glimpses of grace—stick with us and get into our hearts and do their work to bring about change.  I think too often we expect encounters with Jesus to be large and grandiose with music swelling in the background, but I think he shows up in many unexpected ways and places, sliding on and off the stage before we even notice.  But those moments stick with us.  The minor interactions becomes significant moments in the story of our lives.

No matter Jesus’ role in your life’s story up to this point—whether he’s been a major character in many acts or whether he just recently showed up and then sidled off before you knew it—may you see the influence he brings.  His love and grace and forgiveness shown in so many ways can get in to the script of your life and set that narrative on a different tract. This week we’ll walk with Jesus on this tremendously powerful drama of his life, and we’ll see him once more for who he truly is.  And while we’re watching him along this way, he’ll enter into our lives too. Because whether we realize it or not, he’s the one who points us to our true homeland. And even more, he is indeed that very place, that homeland we all have been searching for.  Amen.