What would it take for you to believe in Jesus? Continue reading
Is there anything worse than sticking out in a group of people? Is there anything more humiliating than showing up for a party with an outfit that is far too formal or far too casual? Is there anything more uncomfortable than realizing that you don’t understand the jokes being told in a group, or that you can’t relate at all to the complaints and observations of daily life being made in conversation?
It is painful to be an outsider, to have that feeling in the pit of your stomach, knowing that you don’t belong. Like that Sesame Street feature: “One of these things is not like the others.” And yet, this is how Evelyn Underhill, the sister in faith whose example we remember today, spent most of her life. Continue reading
What a strange word “helper” is; a friend of mine from an earlier generation raised in the south hears the description of the domestic help that had a hand in raising her (hence the title). Continue reading
Preached Sunday, 1 June, 2014; Keenan Chapel @ Trinity Cathedral, 11:15am – you had to be there…
Who knows Rick Steves? Last night, Jordan and I were watching Rick Steves’ travel show–he’s a guy from the Pacific Northwest who makes sense for me of Jordan’s family living half in North Dakota and half outside of Seattle, Mr. Steves’ accent has strong Midwestern undertones, and his boisterous nature reminds me of my brother-in-law. Rick traipses around Europe with his camera crew, giving travel advice and showing off the great sights. We watched an episode he filmed in a French town named Colmar, where there’s a really beautiful piece of art, the Issenheim Altarpiece. It’s been one of my favorite artworks since I learned about it a few years ago.
Back in the Middle Ages, many altars–if the church could afford it–had a painting of Jesus behind them. Up in Cooperstown, New York, where I did my field education work in divinity school, there’s a painting of Jesus ascending (especially appropriate as today is the Sunday we celebrate Jesus’s ascension) behind the altar on the East wall. What’s notable about the Issenheim Altarpiece, as Rick Steves tells it, is that a religious order commissioned it to hang in their chapel, and this religious order maintained a hospital for people who suffered from skin diseases. They were much more serious than they are today, many people died from such diseases in Medieval times. The altarpiece it depicts Jesus being crucified, but his body is covered with pox marks and leprous wounds–he has the skin diseases that those who are looking at him suffer from too. This Jesus enters into the suffering of those who see him; he knows what they’re going through. Rick Steves–he’s Lutheran, you know–goes so far as to say that medicine and painkillers weren’t so effective back then, and that the altarpiece served as a sort of salve for these dear people, saying to them, “Jesus knows how much it hurts.”
In our reading from the book of Acts today, we hear the words of the two angels, “this same Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven will return the same way you’ve seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) This same Jesus. The same Jesus who has been appearing to the disciples the last forty days, who has nail marks in his hands, who suffered right next to his followers and those he healed–that human person is also God–he has been as close to people as he possibly can, and now he goes back to his Father, as our Gospel lesson puts it (John 17:1-11). Jesus, who sits with us in our sufferings, who knows what it is like to be human, is brought to God the Father, to draw us even closer too. Through Jesus, we are made closer to God, brought ever more into God’s presence.
And what are Jesus’ last words to his followers as he is taken from them? “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea, and all Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This verse is a sort of summary or table of contents of the whole book of the Acts of the Apostles–it’s the account of the early church’s development from Jerusalem, which is the first few chapters, out to all Judea which is the few chapters after that, and into Samaria–a wider reach than Judea–in the chapters following, and headed to the ends of the earth–to the edges of the known world in the first century–by the end of Acts.
But you know what? We’re at the end of the earth too–here in Columbia, South Carolina. This is our story. This is our mission, to be witnesses to God’s work in our lives through Jesus Christ. We are called to be witnesses, to talk about how God has change our lives, right here in Columbia.
Last week, Jordan and I went to see my brother graduated from college in New York City. We had some extra time the night before the graduation, so we went to dinner with a friend of Jordan’s who is also doing his graduate work, and lives in the City. I’d met him once, three years ago, and though he’d been married almost two years, neither of us had yet met his wife. It could have been a really awkward dinner–with us really not knowing each other well at all–but they were such holy, open people, we started talking about what God was doing in our lives within fives minutes.
You’re thinking, “that’s what a couple of preachers do!” aren’t you? Well, as the husbands were getting dinner ready in the kitchen, this new friend of mine told how God had been leading her in a very clear, specific direction in the last six months; I got into this business because I love to hear what God is up to in peoples’ lives, so I asked her how this happened, how did she know that God was speaking to her, directing her?
She told me about walking home from church one Sunday with her husband, talking as they always did, and soon the conversation turned, and as he asked her questions to help discern what she was thinking and feeling, it dawned on her all at once what she was meant to do. And she cried, right there outside in the middle of Manhattan (of course, it was Sunday morning, so there weren’t many witnesses).
I started to tell her how it was that I was called to be a priest; but I didn’t tell her the story I usually do–you see, I have two stories. One is about how I was doing a lot of reading and thinking and reflecting and talking the year I worked after undergrad, and how a conversation with my mentor became an “ah ha!” moment–but that’s not really when I knew, that’s not really when I was called.
The story I hadn’t told anyone except Jordan until that night was from earlier on; the summer I graduated, I lived in an apartment, and I was lying in bed one night–I’d just received my first Book of Common Prayer from amazon.com (I don’t recall what possessed me to buy one, but I did), and as I shut the book and lay there, clearing out my mind to go to sleep, the thought floated right into my head–like that game you play as children, pretending an egg is cracked on your head, with the innards oozing down your hair, into your mind–and like a flash, I knew it was true, “You will be a priest.” The realization made me gasp, and then cry, and then I fell asleep.
My new friend put it well, she said something like, “when you come face to face with Truth, what can you do but cry, and submit?” There aren’t good words for what happened to me that night as I was falling asleep, or what happened to my friend as she was walking down the street. They were moments beyond the realm of the explicable.
Which takes me back to Rick Steves.
At another moment in his travelogue last night, Rick was at the Louvre. He was describing the Realist movement, the style of painting in the mid-1800s which sought to portray scenes as accurately as possible. Many artists got quite good at this, studying light and details, using paint to make what looked like a photograph–there are plenty of them featured at the famous Parisian museum. Then along came the Impressionists, who not only let their brushstrokes show on their “finished” canvases, but eschewed this idea that paintings should look like photographs all together. They favored, instead, to use paint to give life to a scene–like Renoir’s depiction of a cafe in Paris, where you can almost hear the people talking, the music playing, and the dancers’ feet tapping. The sense of movement and life captured in Impressionists’ work continues to amaze and delight. They knew there was more to life than the bare facts, the scientific and certain lines and boundaries of a body or an instrument or a street scene. Impressionists captured wind and breath and emotions in a way that Realists never could, a way that science and sociology and anthropology never can.
Today we celebrate the Ascension; next week is Pentecost, and then we spend the next several months in Ordinary time. Nothing to interrupt us, nothing to catch us off-guard, nothing to jazz up the green vestments and altar-hangings, from here till December. But isn’t a lot of life that way? Not just that it’s our longest church season, but that we spend most of our time taking kids to school, making dinner, going to work–banal, common, ordinary stuff (of course, the church season “Ordinary” means “counted”–not “common,” though perhaps it should). Our challenge is to witness to Jesus’ work in our lives, to notice God in the common, ordinary, everyday things.
Then again, what was my experience going to sleep at night back in that apartment in Durham, North Carolina, and what was my friend’s experience walking back from church with her husband, except ordinary and common? Jesus meets us in the ordinary and the common, Jesus finds us and stays with us in our suffering and in our “normal;” God is eager to reveal himself to us in the everyday. We have only to watch, and then to witness; even if it is an experience that is more of an Impression than Realism.
Around many tables this afternoon, probably at the table where you’ll be sitting, a moment will come when each person will be asked to reflect and recount the things for which she or he is thankful.
Some people do this all year round, a friend of mine thinks of three specific things he’s grateful for before he lets his feet hit the floor in the morning. I know a few people who keep gratitude journals, jotting down events, or people, or moments during the day. The journals let them look back and remember these treasured moments in the following weeks and months, which makes them feel grateful again–because they’ve probably forgotten those little fleeting gifts in the interim.
It seems that for us humans, it’s often much easier to remember negative things than positive things. Look at the ancient Hebrews–I don’t mean to pick on them as exemplary in this area, because they certainly aren’t–the Bible is made up of common life examples, situations in which any person would do the exact same thing. As God’s people are wandering around in the desert, they complain to Moses–do you remember those stories? They’ve just seen God’s protection of them at the Red Sea, cutting off the Egyptians from pursuing them, and with the image of the great waves crashing over the heads of their enemies still burned into the backs of their minds, they turn to Moses and say, “Are we there yet?! We’re going to DIE out here!! This is absolutely HOPELESS. We should go back to Egypt. Let’s take a poll–who wants to go back to Egypt??” It sounds a little like the back of my mom’s minivan on the way to summer vacation.
Do you remember what happens next? Our Gospel lesson alludes to it; God provides food for them in the wilderness by raining down manna on them. The manna is something that can be baked into bread which the Hebrews gather up every morning when they wake up–it falls and rests on the ground overnight, like dew, the Bible says; maybe something like the frost we experienced on our lawns this morning. The word “manna” in Hebrew translates as, “What is it?” Its substance is mysterious, we don’t know exactly what it is, even today. But in another way, we, as well as the Hebrew people, know exactly what it is–it’s a blessing, it’s a witness to God’s love and care. So the Hebrew people gather up these little scraps that remind them how much God loves them and cares for them.
What is our gratitude except Manna? The journals my friends keep are proverbial baskets full of manna, pages and pages of reminders of God’s goodness and love toward us. Our greatest gift which God sends from heaven as a symbol and reminder of his love is Jesus Christ, his only Son, God incarnate. In today’s Gospel lesson, some people ask Jesus, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?” (v.30) Do you recognize the skepticism? Maybe first-century people aren’t so different from people today. “How can you prove that God exists?” “How do you know that Jesus is God?”
Jesus responds to his interlocutors that it was God who was behind the manna their ancestors ate, as they well know; and besides, God has provided for them the true bread which is standing right in front of them. They’ve already seen signs–their ancestors witness to them about the manna provided in the wilderness. The actual eyes beholding Jesus in first-century Capernum didn’t see the manna falling, or ingest it into their own bodies, but their very existence was evidence that their ancestors hadn’t starved in the wilderness, but that they’d been sustained by something–by manna, the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren were told. And so, these children generations later knew and trusted that the manna had fallen and had been a tangible testament to God’s care for His people.
It’s the same for us. We haven’t seen Jesus in the way that the people in our Gospel lesson today did; we haven’t seen Jesus the way that Paul did on the way to Damascus or Jesus’ disciples did after his resurrection. But we know Jesus came, and lived, and died, and rose again because we have our ancestors’ witness to those events. We stand on the shoulders of our great-grandparents in the faith, trusting their testimony about the God made human in Jesus Christ. Further, because we exist as Christians and children of God, we ourselves are witnesses, we are a testament to God’s love and power.
Our great-grandfather-in-the-Faith, G.K. Chesterton said, “The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts or toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?” (Orthodoxy)