I wonder: what would you say if someone were to ask you later today what church was about this morning? And let’s say it was someone who wasn’t a regular churchgoer, and you really wanted that person to understand what you find meaningful in this great story that we tell.
I’m guessing you wouldn’t start with that strange story in our first reading about the healing power of a bronze snake lifted up on a pole. That one sounds a little pagan to me, so that might be kind of awkward.
I think I’d probably go with the safe choice, which is said to be the most popular verse in the Bible, John 3:16: “God so loved the world.” That’s the one that you see on t-shirts. You see John 3:16 on signs in the end zone at football games. For some reason. I really don’t get the connection with football, but be that as it may.
BibleGateway, which is a website and an app, confirmed that once again in the year 2020, “God so loved the world” – when we so needed that love – was the most popular Bible verse again. And love itself is the most popular keyword search.
Well, I don’t have any pictures to go with this week’s sermon.
I changed my virtual background last time, from a picture of the altar in church to an image of the desert where Jesus went to face his personal demons.
Today’s Gospel is the story of Jesus cleansing the temple, driving out the animals and the money changers he found there. It’s a scene that’s been painted by a lot of artists; El Greco is perhaps the most famous of those. But today, instead of looking at someone else’s picture, I’d like us to paint our own picture, each one of us, our own mental image of this scene.
I’ve been reading a novel by a writer named David Bradley and I came across a line yesterday that said, “If you cannot imagine, you will never know the truth.” And I think that’s true. So let’s imagine this scene in the temple. What do you see in your mind, in your own mental image, when you picture this scene?
It’s right before Passover and people are going up to Jerusalem to get ready to celebrate God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The animals in this scene would be offered in sacrifice as a ritual of purification, to get ready for that celebration. So although they’re quite different from our customs, maybe you could say these preparations were a little bit like Lent for us, our time of preparation for Easter.
It’s not that we didn’t already know that “the church” is actually the people of God, the living body of Christ, and not the building where those people gather to worship. But that point has certainly been driven home for us during this past year of pandemic, and what a comfort it has been. It means that “church” can continue even when we’re not able to be together in our buildings, no matter how much we miss them. And it has opened new possibilities we could never have imagined in “normal” times—including my presence in the Ascension community this Lent and Easter. This blessing was never part of my plans back in the time when I made plans and fully expected I’d be able to live them out.
So many of our plans have evaporated during this past year. One of the plans I did have for 2020 was to join a 10-day group pilgrimage to the mountainside town of Assisi in Italy, home to saints Francis and Clare. I was looking forward to making photographs in Assisi’s clear light, spending time with its art treasures, getting to know Francis and Clare and my fellow pilgrims better, spending time in community and precious time alone in that holy and peaceful place, and enjoying good, wholesome Italian food and wine. It was all supposed to happen last May. And of course it never did.
And that’s exactly the thing about pilgrimage. It means letting go of our own carefully laid plans and putting one foot in front of the other, living life as it comes to us and opening our hearts to receive the grace present in each moment. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is the author of a titled Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage. He says that as pilgrims “we open ourselves to each event, each person, each sorrow, each suffering, and each joy that we discover, daily, on our path.” In doing so we find blessings where we weren’t expecting them, and we find that God has been there with us all along.
Well, first of all, I’m going to tell you that I’m not actually sitting in front of the altar at the Church of the Ascension this morning. Some of you have probably figured that out. Through the miracle of Zoom, you see me sitting in front of a picture of your church, but I’m really still at home in New Hope. And I’m going to change my background just while we talk about Jesus in the desert so we can see exactly what the desert between Jerusalem and the Jordan River looks like.
This is where Jesus went in today’s gospel. So what do you think of when you hear the word desert, when you hear that Jesus went out to the desert? You might think of rolling sand dunes stretching to the horizon, but this desert actually is not like that. It’s not a sweeping landscape of dunes. It’s not sandy, it’s actually rocky and hilly.
There are wild animals here, as the gospel mentions, but there also are flowing streams down at the bottom of those canyons. And sometimes there are flowers. So there are unexpected blessings, even in the desert. Jesus was in this desert for 40 days after his baptism and before he began his ministry in Galilee. It was a place where he could get away from the distractions of daily living and focus. And that’s exactly what Lent should be for us. It’s a time to take a good look at who we really are, to look at who we really want to be.
I’m very much a latecomer to this business of taking the things we used to do in church and trying to make them work somehow online, though I have been consuming these offerings for the past 11 months and so have done some thinking about it.
I’m one of those who actually finds it painful to sit through “Eucharist” on the screen, because to me it just isn’t that. I’ve learned that there are some folks who find it life-giving just to hear those words even if they can’t receive the Eucharist, and others for whom it just hurts too much, and I’m definitely in the second group.
And sure you can do “spiritual communion,” but I struggle with that, too. I trust that God is always coming to me, with or without that wafer, with or without some special prayer that only emphasizes the full experience I’m missing. All of that said, I’m glad to be leading online worship in a community where the decision has already been made to do Morning Prayer, not Eucharist, online.
Last night we did Ash Wednesday online only without ashes. I’ll say here that another thing that’s really been confirmed for me over this past year is that different individuals and different communities have different needs. Good on you if you and your people needed ashes and you made sure they got them, somehow or other. But from my perspective, all the convoluted ways of sending physical ashes out to be placed on the physical foreheads of people who are sitting in front of their computers at home amounted to a huge distraction.
Photo from yesterday’s walk up Mechanic Street. I love the late afternoon sun on the old stonework, and the windows. So many opportunities to see out, but despite all the windows the opportunity to see in is quite limited. I haven’t decided if the way the trees obscure the building adds to the image or detracts. I think I like the idea of the trees, but I wish I could rearrange these particular trees.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” ~ Luke 24:30-35
And so today we come to the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus rises and his followers reclaim the joy of believing even as they struggle to understand. In reflecting on the previous 23 chapters I’ve tried to bring a fresh eye to the text. This has been an opportunity to ponder passages that aren’t usually read in church, or to dig deeper into the meaning of stories we churchgoers have heard preached again and again. Today I find my heart drawn as it always is to the story of the Walk to Emmaus, which is the centerpiece of this chapter. It’s one of my favorites, always has been, and there’s so much going on here that I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of it no matter how hard we dig. As N.T. Wright, New Testament scholar and retired Anglican bishop of Durham, says, “If Luke is an artist, this is one of his most sublime paintings.”
The whole story runs from verse 13 through verse 32 so it’s relatively long, but I think it’s worth getting out your Bible and reading through it again a few times. Cleopas and his unnamed companion are on their way to a village outside of Jerusalem. They’re discouraged, weary and heartbroken. They had put so much faith in Jesus, and his death seems to have destroyed all their hopes. It’s late in the day on the first Easter, and they’ve heard that some in their group visited Jesus’ tomb that morning and came back with the news that he was alive, but most of them have dismissed this report as unbelievable. Jesus joins these two travelers on the road, but they aren’t able to recognize him. They confide their disappointment, and this stranger proceeds to interpret the scriptures that should make everything clear, but still they don’t get it.
As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. ~ Luke 23:26
I grew up thinking Simon of Cyrene was a white man. Why wouldn’t I, considering that it is only the very rare artistic representation of this scene that portrays him otherwise. And anyway, I thought Jesus was white, too. He’s got blue eyes and blond or light brown hair, right? At least that’s how he looked in the pictures they showed me. Now I know better. Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jew, and Simon came from a city in the North African country we now call Libya. Neither was a European white man.
If you’re white, you might wonder why this matters. I would say that if in your mind’s eye you picture the Gospels populated by men who look like the figures in the religious art that’s most familiar to us, you might easily misunderstand. Christianity isn’t a white religion that generously invites others to come in and join us. We’re part of something much bigger than that. Esau McCaulley, author of a book titled Reading While Black, says the idea “that Christianity is fundamentally a white religion … is simply historically false. The center of early Christianity was in the Middle East and North Africa. But deeper than the historical question is the biblical one. Who owns the Christian story as it is recorded in the texts that make up the canon?”
Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” ~ Luke 22:19
These past weeks have been filled with rich memories as images of my parents, my childhood, and the house where I grew up have been popping into my waking thoughts and filling my dreams. No doubt this flood of scenes from the past has been provoked to some extent by having our little granddaughters with us this month as we prepare for Christmas. Looming as it does as a reminder of my own mortality, Covid-19 has also surfaced thoughts of relatives now gone. So many of them lived through the flu pandemic of 1918, though they never spoke of it to me.
Our memories make us who we are, both in church and in the world. Memory forms our identify. Recalling the stories about where we came from provides a matrix for making sense of who we are now. These stories remind us that we’re connected to something greater than ourselves, that we’re part of a bigger story. There’s a difference between honoring past memories and living in the past, because our remembering brings the past alive in the present. My parents will be with me when I fill the stockings and place the presents under the tree on Christmas Eve. In my mind I’ll always hear Luke’s Nativity story in the voice (and New York accent) of my childhood pastor.