Tagged with Image Sermons

All Our Saints

Revelation 21:1-6a

In the book of Revelation, John of Patmos recounts what God has unveiled before him in visions and in voices. One of the most famous passages from John’s writings is the one we hear today: a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. In this new reality, John writes, God is at home among the people. There is no mourning or crying or pain anymore.  Even death has ceased to exist.  All things are made new, and God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

Is this what is in store for us? I have to say, I hope so. It is one of the more beautiful passages in scripture about what might come next.

People often turn to the church, and to scripture, when they are wondering about the great mysteries of death and dying, heaven and eternity. And it’s not only adults. In confirmation class, this is always one of the most popular topics. Children like to ask questions about it, too. We all want to know what will happen to us in the great beyond. We are curious, also, about what will happen, and what has happened, to those we love.

These questions are particularly prominent in this time of year. I often think of this as the dying time. Leaves are falling and plants are sinking back towards the earth.  People often find their way back to the earth, too, following the tidal movement of the season. This is a time when the barrier between the living and the dead feels thin, as we celebrate All Hallows Eve and The Day of the Dead and All Saints and All Souls. Today we’ll continue our series of visual sermons, focusing on what lies beyond.

When we think of the church’s view of what lies beyond, I am afraid that too many of us think first of the Last Judgement, an idea based around passages from the Gospel of Matthew and Luke. Here is Michelangelo’s depiction of God judging the people, sending some to heaven and others to hell. The idea is attractive because it is so concrete. Do good and end up somewhere good. Do bad and end up somewhere bad. Trust that God will mete out justice in the end to anyone who treats you badly. But what does this theology say about God?

Looking at the upper left hand part of this picture, you can see the people who are being elevated into heaven. This is the good news part of the picture. Everyone should look happy. But even though they are safe in the clouds, surrounded by light, they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves. Instead, they’re staring to the side in apprehension.

Maybe that’s because, right next to them, they see this: an absurdly muscular God making a threatening gesture, sending lots of other people down below…to flaming torment. I find nothing here that could be the will of a loving God.

Our scriptures and our church traditions were inspired by God, but formed and recorded by humans. Therefore, when an idea like the Last Judgement fails the test of demonstrating God’s love, it is best we look elsewhere for guidance. Thankfully, we have many other scripture passages that suggest an entirely different reality after death.

In the Gospel of John (Ch 14), Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. He tells them: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. I will go and prepare a place for you; I will come again and will take you to myself,so that where I am, there you may be also.”

In the book of Romans (8:38-39) Paul writes: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,  nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Throughout the scriptures, we learn that God loves us; that we belong to God; that we are made and remade in God’s image; that we are a precious part of God’s holy creation. It is fitting, then, that after our human lives are over, we would all return more deeply, more fully, to make our home in God, who is our beginning and our end.

This leaves, still, the question of saints, and souls. Where are those we have loved and honored? How can we visualize the great cloud of witnesses who are hovering around us?

Probably you have seen pictures like this: saints in gold, carefully posed. Most of our images of saints in the west are like this: white people, in fancy clothes, often with halos, lined up in orderly ways, as if for a photo opp. The saints knew how to stand in a line, apparently. These images are beautiful, but limited. Thankfully, some artists have tried to help us expand the way we imagine the saints.

Some of my favorite saint images are from the Catholic Cathedral in LA, where tapestries depict saints of all ages and cultures and skin tones, both famous and unknown, including children. These images help remind us that there have been holy people all around the world, and in every social location.

Another favorite is the work of Robert Lentz. He who writes icons and creates images that depict those who have not normally been recognized as saints: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Caesar Chavez,and Eve, mother of us all. Brother Lentz also depicts those who have been formally recognized as saints by the Catholic Church, but whom we may not be as familiar with, or choose to feature, including ancient Armenian saints Polyeuct and Nearchus,  and the recently sainted Josephine Bahkita., from the Sudan.

While I love to be inspired to by the images and stories of courageous people who have changed the world, I have to admit that the most powerful saints and souls in my life are the ones that I have known, and cared for. Each of us have our own group of those we remember tenderly; here are a few images of those who many of us remember from our shared life here.

Beautiful, aren’t they?

Many of us experience fear or anxiety in thinking about death. All of us experience grief at the death of those we love. As we stand on this side of the mystery, God offers us at least two gifts. First, the promise that she is not only our beginning, but also our end, that she will provide a loving home for us. And also,  that we will have with us in that home each person who has made our time on earth better: legions of saints and souls, a cloud of witnesses, also safely in God’s care, and accompanying us into eternity. Thanks be to God.

Beautiful Jesus

Mark 10:35-45

The disciples still don’t get it.

If you were here a few weeks ago, as we were working our way through the gospel of Mark, you may recall that the disciples spend time arguing with each other about who is the greatest. Jesus tries to explain: Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.

Later, the disciple John tries to get praise from Jesus by reporting that he tried to stop another healer from healing in Jesus’ name. Jesus tries to explain: anyone who is not against us is for us; there is no hierarchy among those doing good.

As the Gospel continues from there, the disciples try to keep children from coming to Jesus. Jesus tries to explain: it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs: not to rich or important adults, but especially to children.

But the disciples still don’t get it. They are still struggling to understand that with God,  social hierarchies are tipped over and turned inside out; no one is left out and everyone is invited in, everyone is precious.

Now James and John come to Jesus saying, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

What a set-up. Jesus is no fool. He asks: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

James and John say, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  In other words, promise us the best seats in heaven.

And Jesus tries to explain — again. “You know that among others, those they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life for many.”

The realm of God doesn’t have a throne room, apparently, or a long rectangular banquet table, in which chairs are arranged in order of precedence. Greatness comes not through placement, or abuse of power, but through service, and sacrifice, and generosity.

This month I am using images to help us reflect on scripture. Last Sunday, we used images to explore who God is and how God works, according to the second story of Creation.

Today we turn our attention to Jesus.  How do we imagine this Jesus, this Son of Man —  someone who is glorious, highly acclaimed, and yet preaches and lives a way of service?

Have you seen this Jesus? He is #1 on the google Jesus search. Friends, was the historical Jesus a pale skinned, blue-eyed man? No!Jesus probably looked something more like this: darker hair, darker eyes, darker skin, different features; a Jewish man from the ancient near east without a pervasive pastel glow.

But we needn’t be limited to images of the historical Jesus. It’s natural for people in all times and places to imagine that Jesus looks like us. Jesus is the human one, a way that God gets close to us, we want to see ourselves in him.  So, if you look hard, you can find images of an Asian Jesus, a Native American Jesus, a Jesus of African origins.

It is comforting to imagine Jesus looking like us, like our family members, like our friends: familiar, relatable. It’s also important as we imagine Jesus into all sorts of different skin tones and cultural identities and social locations that we notice how these identities impact how we understand the image and story of Jesus; and how the image and story of Jesus impacts how we understand people with these identities.

What kinds of people do we imagine in the Holy Family, and how does that impact which families we imagine as holy?

How do we portray a powerful Jesus? What does that say about which humans have power, and the kind of power that Jesus has?

Which kinds of human figures might best express the terror and tragedy of the crucifixion, as we experience it in our world today?

Images of Jesus are powerful: powerful in reflecting our identities and beliefs, and also powerful in confirming or challenging them.

When the statue on the right, a female figure on a cross titled “Christa” was first displayed in the 1980s in St. John the Divine Cathedral in NYC, the suffraganbishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York called the statue “theologically and historically indefensible” and ordered the artist, Edwina Sandys, to take it away. But why was it so very troubling, to see a female figure on a cross, when we have imagined Jesus in so many ways that do not match his historical identity?

What should Jesus look like if Jesus is for all of us? The artist Janet McKenzie tried to answer this question when she created this image, called Jesus of the Peoples: a Jesus who is perhaps between cultures, even between genders.

But maybe it’s best if we have lots of different images for Jesus: familiar and unfamiliar, comforting and challenging. Just as we use many names for God, using many images for Jesus may be more accurate, and more helpful to our faith, than using only one.

Using many images for Jesus is even more important because most of us still have something like that first image embedded in our subconscious. We’ve just seen this white Jesus so often that without good reminders we may fall back on the assumption that Jesus is white. We may cling to this Jesus, especially those of us who are white ourselves, just as the disciples clung to their ideas of hierarchy; hoping that our cultural biases and desire for precedence need never be disturbed by God.

I think it will do us all good to seek out and spend time with images of Jesus that are not white. As we meditate, all of us, on diverse images of Christ, these Images can serve as icons, as arrows pointing towards the holy human one who is so far beyond our limited understanding, and who calls us to transform our relationships with the humans around us of all skin colors and cultures and social locations.

We, like the first disciples, will probably never truly get it: that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last, and that the kingdom of God belongs to the least of these. But we will at least discover more about this Jesus who does not rule as a tyrant over us; this Christ invites all people into communion in his church, and around his table. May it be so.

In the Beginning…

Genesis 2

In the book of Genesis there are two creation stories. In the first story, God cries out into the chaos and Creation responds: light divides from dark, land from the waters, sky from earth, day from night.A beautifully constructed order emerges over six days. On the seventh day, God rests.

It is a beautiful story. There is another story, too.The second story of creation in Genesis has something entirely different to tell us.

When you think of the second story of creation in the book of Genesis, you may think of Michelangelo’s beautifully muscled, bearded God, creating a beautifully muscled, graceful Adam with only a gesture. Or you may think of the Tree of life, the snake, the forbidden fruit, and the end of Eden. But that’s not the part of the story that I’m interested in today. I invite you to notice something different about this creation story.

This story begins with dust. There is nothing on the earth but dust, dirt, earth. Earth and water. And the first thing God does is form that earth into a human form, and fill that human form with breath, with life.

There is so much water flowing around that dust, that dirt, that earth, that I wonder if the forming of that first human body may have looked a bit like a potter working with clay. If you’ve ever worked with clay before, imagine that feeling of clay on your hands, on everything you touch: maybe God’s hands were like that.

God formed a human out of wet earth. It must have made a mess.

But that didn’t seem like enough, somehow, something felt unfinished. So God planted a garden in Eden, in the east. God planted every tree that was beautiful, and bore good fruit. And now the human had a home, and the human had a purpose:a garden to tend and to till.

But that didn’t feel like enough somehow,something still seemed unfinished. God said: It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make this human a helper as a partner.

Strangely enough, God decided that the best way to find a helper and partner for the human was to make animals out of the earth: animals of the field and birds of the air. How long did all this making take? The story doesn’t tell us. Imagine all that wet earth, the shaping of each animal of the field and bird of the air. It could have taken weeks, or years.

However long it took, the human enjoyed the process, watching God form these magnificent creatures. The human delighted in giving the animals names. Naming has been a human gift from the beginning. But the human did not find among these animals any that could truly be a partner.

So God tried again. God caused the human to sleep deeply, and removed a rib from the human’s body, and closed the body. And with the rib, God made another human: Bone of bone, flesh of flesh, an equal helper: a true partner.

In most of the artwork I can find, the second human is lifted whole out of the side of the first, but that’s not what the text says. This making must have been messy, too: Blood and bone, instead of dirt and clay.

Let’s take a moment to let this really sink in: that God could have such a hands-on approach to the making of human bodies, to the making of all creation.

Surely God must have a special tender care then for each physical part of this creation. God must care very much what happens to the special holy gift of each of our bodies. We are a precious gift, each one of us — handmade by the best.

God must be intuitive and experimental, too:to understand that we get lonely, and to know, once it had been tried, that a rhinoceros was not enough. To work so hard, and try so many times, before finally making a helper who is a true partner.

This God, who loves our bodies, seems to be figuring it all out right alongside us: trying to meet creation’s needs again and again, getting it wrong sometimes, and getting dirty in the process.

The God in the Second creation story does not have it all figured out. This God does not direct things from afar through voice or strength of will or superior muscle tone.

This God is hands on, and works with clay.

God, when I am helpless or hopeless, teach me that I am precious. Work with the messy and holy material in and around me for as long as it takes until we can make things better. Find me true partners so I will not be alone. Amen.