Category Archives: Life in the church

Unsettled by the Visit of the Magi

I must confess regret that for my 30-some years of pastoral ministry, I have not made a big enough deal about Epiphany. Liturgical purist that I too often have been, if it didn’t fall on a Sunday, we didn’t celebrate it. As I do, I looked back through my preaching files, and found no sermon from the last 20 years on the Epiphany gospel from Matthew. That’s really too bad. Because there’s so much in the story of the Magi coming from a distant land to worship the newborn king.

Scholarly consensus holds that the Magi were wealthy and educated, members of the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion. Early Zoroastrians paid particular attention to the stars. This priestly caste gained an international reputation for astrology, which was at that time highly regarded as a science. So these Wise Ones from the East were scientists and practiced another religion and God used their faith and knowledge to bring them to the Christ. They came to worship, bowing the knee and bringing valuable gifts. In one of the greatest ironies of the story, God used these scientists who practiced another religion to let King Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes in on the news that their Messiah had been born.

God seems to do whatever it takes to reach out to and embrace all people. God announces the birth of the Messiah to shepherds through angels on Christmas, to Magi via a star on Epiphany, and to the political and religious authorities of God’s own people in through visitors from the East.  From a manger, where a child lies wrapped in bands of cloth, God’s reach, God’s embrace in Christ Jesus, gets bigger and bigger and bigger.  Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners. Jesus touches people who are sick and people who live with disabilities. Jesus even calls the dead back to life. Ultimately, Jesus draws all people to himself as he is lifted up on the cross. In Jesus, no one is beyond God’s embrace.

As a pastor in the church, pushed by this story to contemplate God’s radical grace, I find it a little unsettling. What could it mean that God led ancient scientists who practiced another religion and lived far outside the geographical limits of Judea to come and worship Christ? What could it mean that God used these outsiders to announce the good news that comes to the world in and through Christ? What, then, does it mean to have faith?

I have been trained and conditioned to think that there is one pretty narrow and formulaic way to come to Christ. For me, it’s always been through the church — preaching, Word, liturgy, sacrament. I’ve always held that the local congregation is the body of Christ through whom God gets God’s work done in the local community. Those are things that I hold dear. Yet the Magi came seeking the Christ after studying the night skies. As someone who holds on to favorite, cherished ways that God uses to proclaim the gospel and bring people to faith, it’s both wondrous and unsettling to realize yet again that God’s own work of embracing all people is more “mystery” than “formula,” because God’s ways are always bigger than my understanding.

When I think about it, I can see that God has been reaching out to embrace me in new ways. A new call and a new setting, learning how to be a good pastor in a very different context. Trying to keep my mouth shut and listen to my siblings of color who are helping me to see my blind spots about race and privilege and who are teaching me what it means to be a neighbor. I’m learning from Asian and African and South American and womanist and LGBTQ Christians that my way of reading the bible is not the only way to read the bible, and certainly should not be the privileged way to read the bible. As always, I learn much about truth-telling from reading classic and contemporary fiction. I’m learning that the whole world, all peoples, all cultures can be the places where God is at work, revealing God’s self and God’s truth to me, to us, to the church, and to the world. While I love to bask in the starlight that I know as the church, I am led to wonder about the implications of the Magi coming to faith apart from the church or outside our formulaic approaches to how faith happens.

I’m still learning to be less suspicious and judgmental about people whose experiences of faith are different than mine or different than what I might think is normal. It’s has been challenging for me. I wonder how many people’s experiences of God over the years I have shattered and slaughtered because they didn’t fit my patterns, practices, and perspectives.

I’m guessing that it will continue to be a struggle and a challenge for me (and the congregation I serve) to proclaim God’s ever-expanding embrace in the midst of my own need to protect and preserve. One lifetime seems far too short to figure these things out. Still, I’m grateful to be on the journey.

(Thanks to Bishop Craig Satterllee and his essay on WorkingPreacher.org for the inspiration for these reflections.)

O King of All Nations — December 21

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

A strange king, the king we worship, the king whose coming we soon celebrate, the king whose first cradle was a feed trough.

The king wore no crown of precious metals and jewels, but  crown of thorns. He sat on no gilded throne, but was nailed to the throne of the cross. That unkingly ascension transformed all of history – divided it into before and after, made possible the transformation of our lives from slaves to sin, lost, condemned – to children of God, free to serve God and serve our neighbor, subjects in a kingdom of grace and love.

Because Jesus chose to wear a thorny crown and not a kingly crown, it tells us not only about Jesus the king, but about God. Because we have come to know God in Jesus suffering, death, and resurrection, this is what we know about God:

  • God loves us. Period. Doesn’t depend on how we feel or on the strength of our faith. It doesn’t depend on what we do or who we are. We aren’t excluded because of what we’ve done or who we aren’t. God loves us. Period.
  • God is with us. Yes, God is with us in the joys, the pleasures, the successes. That’s not hard to believe. What’s harder to believe is that God can also be with us, even bringing us blessing in the times of our grief, our pain, our suffering. God has come to us. God has chosen to meet us in the messes of our lives, the tragedies that come along, the disappointments, the failures, the broken relationships.
  • God is even now bringing all things to the fulfillment of God’s purposes. Through Christ the servant king, all the contingencies of human history are moving along toward the fulfillment of what God intends to accomplish.

O King of all nations and keystone of the Church:
come and save man, whom you formed from the dust!

O Radiant Dawn — December 21

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

I’m a morning person. It’s my best time of the day. I live in the woods and in these short days and long nights here in the north, I get up in the dark. I make a cup of coffee and go to my desk, surrounded by windows and sit in the quiet. It’s my prayer time, my quiet time, my thinking time. And it’s also a time to watch the day gradually dawn.

The day doesn’t explode into light. It’s a gradual transition from darkness to light. Even though the weather app on my phone tells me the precise time of the sunrise, in actual experience, there’s not a precise time when I say, “ok, the night is gone and the day is here.” Gradually the light overtakes the darkness and almost imperceptibly, the day is here.

During these days of advent, we have stood with the prophets who waited patiently for the coming of the Morningstar, the One which today’s O Antiphon calls the Radiant Dawn.

In the darknesses of my own life, the Light has come. Often slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, but always relentlessly, irrepressibly, the light comes. Into the dark corners of my heart, my life, and into the dark corners of a fear-ridden world, the Light comes.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

O Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
come and shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the
shadow of death.

O Key of David — December 20

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

In Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, there’s a scene in which Barrister Jaggers’ clerk, John Wemmick, walks through a London prison. “Wemmick walked among the prisoners much as a gardener walked among his plants.” Wemmick was highly popular among the prisoners, personally recognized each of Mr. Jaggers’ clients. Wemmick inquired about each of them, taking note of their condition since his last visit.  But it was clear that he was not there to bring them the deliverance the prisoners were hoping for. When a prisoner might ask for something that Wemmick could not deliver, his reply was, “It’s no use, my boy; I’m only a subordinate. . .don’t go on that way with a subordinate.” At the end of the scene Pip and the clerk come to the end of their walk through the jail, they come to a man known only as the Colonel; the Colonel speculates that he’ll be out of jail by Monday. As they leave the jail, Wemmick instead reports that the Colonel is to be executed on Monday.

The Key of David is no subordinate. Indeed he cares about those locked in their deathly prisons, those of us — all of us — sentenced for our rebellion. The One whose birth is near, was born to die and in his death and resurrection he has opened the prison doors, set the prisoners free, and invited all into Life and Freedom.

O Key of David,
opening the gates of God’s eternal Kingdom:
come and free the prisoners of darkness!

O Leader of Israel — December 18

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

In the O Antiphon for December 18, Christ is called the Leader of the House of Israel.

Call to mind the great leaders of the nation of Israel: Moses, who let God’s people out of slavery, through the long wilderness wandering, and into the promised land. Deborah, the prophetess who masterminded the assault against Jabin, king of Canaan and his military commander Sisera. David, the great warrior king who got his start as a young shepherd boy who slew the giant. Esther, the Jewish queen of Persian who foiled the plans of Haman to have all the Jews in the land killed.

The Messiah was to be the great leader of God’s people all rolled into one. “He will lead his flock like a shepherd,” Isaiah proclaimed.

The shepherd who himself was led to slaughter. The shepherd who became the Lamb. The shepherd who was stripped, beaten, crowned with thorns, and led outside the gates of Jerusalem to the place of the skull where in his mighty cruciform power he rescued all creation.

O Leader of the House of Israel,
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
come to rescue us with your mighty power!

O Wisdom — December 17

Since the 8th century, during the last seven days of Advent, leading to the Christmas celebration, the Christian Church has been singing a set of antiphons that were written as introductory prayers for the singing of the Magnificat at Evening Prayer. They are popularly known as “The O Antiphons” and serve as the basis for the well-known hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Each day uses a name for the coming Messiah drawn from the messianic hopes of the First Testament. They proclaim the coming of Christ as the fulfillment of God’s promised salvation.

They say that wisdom comes with age and experience. I wonder.

While I hope that my blunders are fewer and that have learned a few things along the way, I still manage to do some things that in hindsight are pretty dumb. And with age and experience comes the possibility (the probability?) of making mistakes that are more costly, both economically and relationally, and have deeper lasting consequences.

In the O Antiphon for December 17, Christ is called the Wisdom from on high, the one who brings divine knowledge.

Throughout the gospel of John, the gospel writer is nearly obsessed with the theme of Christ as the one who has come so that we might know God. Except contrary to the way western theology has typically been ordered, the truth about God that Christ came to bring is not propositional truth; it is relational truth. God comes to us, dwells with us, takes up residence with us, hangs out with us, so that we might know God in God’s unimaginable, never-ending, limitless love.

Certainly there is a certain practical, utilitarian wisdom that smooths the skids of daily life; it may or may not come with age and experience. The greater Wisdom comes to bring life; that wisdom is rooted not in facts and figures or the school of hard knocks, but in divine love, Love Incarnate. Only when we acknowledge that we cannot know God — and therefore, cannot know real Life — except by God’s grace, God’s invitation, and God’s enlightenment, do we begin to know true wisdom.

St. Matthias, Patron Saint of Ordinary People

Actually, I made it up that Matthias is patron saint of ordinary people. But he should be.

Today is the feast day for Matthias, Apostle. If you’ve never heard of him or taken note of him, there’s no shame.  You’re probably not alone. He was the one chosen to replace Judas after Jesus’ ascension. Coincidentally, yesterday in church, we read the few verses from Acts that tell the story of his election. If you want to call it that. There were only two candidates, Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas, aka Justus. The one qualification was that they had been a part of the larger band of those who followed Jesus from the beginning. Luke reports they both filled the bill. But there doesn’t seem to have been any search committee, any careful study of their curriculum vitae, no checking the references. There was no vote. They simply flipped a coin, or the first century equivalent. That’s it.

And then we never hear of either one of them again. We can speculate that both of them went on to serve in some capacity in the early church. Matthias now carried the authority of an apostle. But there is never any report in the canonical scriptures of where he went or what he did.

Not even the tradition agrees about Matthias. The Greeks say that Matthias did missionary work in Cappadocia and on the coasts of the Caspian Sea. Nicephorus records that he first preached the Gospel in Judea, then in what is modern day Georgia and was there stoned to death. Still another tradition has him in Ethiopia. I know enough about geography to know that both of those traditions are probably not true. Take your pick. What seems more clear is that Matthias was an ordinary guy who became an apostle, and went about doing his work faithfully. Ordinarily. Not even 15 minutes of fame. More like 5 verses of fame (Acts 1:21-26).

For a long time now, I’ve gotten to work with ordinary people in the church. Like the couple who shows up early every Sunday to make sure everything is set for the service, even if it’s not their job. More often than I’d care to admit, we have no ushers assigned, so they step in. Because someone needs to do the job. I hear frequently that she has offers to give someone else a ride to Green Bay to the doctor or shopping or whatever. That’s a 3 hour round trip. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

One of my colleagues got up yesterday and gave eloquent testimony, sharing the stories of the people who are struggling in our community. She challenged the rest of us to see them and to be the hands of Christ for them. She is kind and generous, passionate about serving others. She knows everyone in Door County, it seems. I think she is extraordinary. Yet, she is probably not known outside of northern Door County. I’d be surprised if anyone at the denominational headquarters has ever heard of her. There have been no articles written about her service. The church is ordinary people. She is church.

I’ve heard over and over at funerals the sentimental notion that our loved ones will be remembered forever. While I get it that we want our lives to count for something and for those we love not to have lived in vain, the truth is that very few of us will be remembered beyond a few decades after our deaths, if that long.

Yet, the work of the church, the work of the kingdom, could not be done without the countless ordinary followers of Jesus, thousands of whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. I think about you today as we celebrate Matthias. I give thanks for what I’ve learned from you and for the profound gift that our lives have been graciously intertwined.

You ordinary followers of Jesus, I honor you and celebrate you. Lift a glass to yourself. We could not be church without you.

An Odd Day, an Odd Faith — a Sermon for Ash Wednesday When It Falls on Valentine’s Day

This is the text of the sermon preached on Ash Wednesday, February 14, at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin.

What an odd, odd day. Ash Wednesday is odd enough in itself, but when it falls on Valentine’s it’s even more odd. Many of my clergy friends have been making the most of this strange calendric convergence.  One posted on Facebook this imaginary conversation: “So, what are your Valentine’s Day plans?” “Oh, I have to work and remind everyone that they’re going to die.”  Another toyed with the idea of plastering the sign of the cross on her parishioner’s foreheads with melted chocolate. I, on the other hand, have been threatening to make an ashen heart on your foreheads.

While Valentine’s Day takes its name from two separate Christian martyrs who were both executed in the 3rd century A.D. by the Roman emperor Claudius II, the holiday has come to extol romantic love — it’s the day to send chocolates or roses to your true love, or to the one you hope will become your true love.

Ash Wednesday, on the other hand, seems to be the exact opposite. It’s not a party, but the definition of a non-party. The Old Testament lesson from Joel blows a trumpet to announce the darkness of sin and suffering. Joel urges the ancient people of God and us, all of us, from nursing infants to the most aged among us to come before God and pay attention to those things that are most important — our sin, our mortality, our need for divine forgiveness, and the accompanying assurance that God is merciful.

Ash Wednesday calls us to face the harsh and precious reality that each of us was molded by the hand of God out of the elements of creation and each of us will once again become those elements. Yet we don’t speak of this reality in a cold or clinical way like we might approach a cadaver in a morgue. We do so with a sense of wonder, and again, with a eye to the promises of God. The ashes we allow to be inscribed on our foreheads are understood as symbols of our frail mortality and certain death. The ashes point beyond themselves to a hidden life-giving power.

For a few years before moving to Door County, Sheryl and I volunteered at the Nachusa Grasslands Nature Conservancy Prairie Preserve. It’s a project in western Illinois that now encompasses nearly 4000 acres and is being returned to its original state as a biologically diverse grasslands. Key to that restoration is the annual controlled burning in the spring of the year. Regular burning is a necessary step in the health and vitality of the prairie. The heat germinates certain seeds and clears the way for others to sprout and grow.

Here is the paradoxical truth of Ash Wednesday. The loving presence of God is hidden in the dust and ashes that dominate this day. Far deeper than the romantic love of Valentine’s Day and chocolates and roses, God comes to us with a love that rescues us from our violent ways with each other, from the limits of our mortality, and promises life that endures beyond our death.

See, the season of Lent that we begin today is going somewhere. Where? We’re headed to Easter, that grand celebration of death that gets turned into life. There’s this part of the communion liturgy we call the Proper Preface. It comes right after the opening sentences. You’ll recognize it because it begins, “It is indeed our duty and delight that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, almighty and merciful God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And then it goes on in poetic language to tie this eucharistic celebration to the themes of the church year. I kind of miss the old one for lent; they changed it in this new hymnal; the old one proclaimed that where death began, life will be restored and that the Evil One who by a tree once overcame will likewise by a tree be overcome. That infamous apple tree of the Garden of Eden will be superseded by a cross-shaped tree on a gruesome hill outside Jerusalem; there the possibility of life with God was born. Indeed, dear church, because we are so truthful today about our mortality, the promise of resurrection is all the more sweet.

This is an odd day, this Ash Wednesday, made all the more odd by the juxtaposition with Valentine’s Day. But then ours is an odd faith, a faith that began in the dust and ashes of a borrowed tomb, a grave, a place of death. That womb of dust and ash and death was the resting place of Christ who loved the world all the way to death on a cross.

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These are the words that will be spoken over you in a matter of minutes. Your life is fleeting. The clock is ticking. But the mark of the cross reminds you that there is so much more. Death gives way to the life that was promised at your baptism. Ashes are not forever. Endings always call up new beginnings. Now, even now, in the midst of dust and ashes on this day of love, it is a day of deep grace, the day of our salvation.

Neither Delusional nor Pretending

This past weekend, I had the honor of preaching at the Door County Service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Here is the written version of my sermon for that service.

As Nazareth is to Jerusalem, so Door County is to cities like Chicago or New York. Here we are in the relative boondocks holding a service to celebrate and pray for Christian unity. The irony is not lost on me that we do so at a time when in our national life we are so sharply divided that we are almost unable to talk to each other.

And while we’re at it, we might as well put it right out there that even within the Christian Church — perhaps even among the pastors and congregations represented here — our divisions are sharp and deep. We have sliced and diced our traditions, theologies, and practices every which way, Catholics, mainliners, evangelicals. And to you Moravians in the room, I have no idea where the you fit. Pro-life, pro-choice. Some ordain women, some don’t; some embrace gay marriage some don’t. Some of us think the current administration is saving the country, and some of us think he’s driving it off a cliff. Some of us embrace our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, some of us believe their only hope for salvation is conversion to Christianity.

I’ve long been curious about how good people, faithful people can read the same sacred texts and come to such different conclusions. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about that in his fascinating book, The Righteous Mind. Haidt makes the case that we don’t make our moral decisions rationally. Rather, we make them in our gut, emotionally, intuitively; then we scan the landscape of religion and politics and culture to find substantiation for the decisions we’ve already made in our gut. It makes a whole lot of sense to me in explaining what I see and experience in the church, but it leaves me a bit troubled about the extent to which we as people of God are really listening to the voice of God in our sacred texts.

So, why would we even bother in this context to get together to talk about unity? Are we delusional? Or worse, just pretending? Here’s what I mean about the pretending part: maybe we have this sense, thus burden even, that we really should be unified — after all, Jesus prayed that his followers should be one — but we know deep down that we are not suspect we never will be. But we just go on pretending anyway.

Listen to this passage from Philippians 2. It’s the great hymn to Christ, a grand poem that you likely have heard many, many times. Pay particular attention how Paul introduces the hymn:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

   did not regard equality with God

   as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

   taking the form of a slave,

   being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

   he humbled himself

   and became obedient to the point of death—

   even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

   and gave him the name

   that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus’

   every knee should bend,

   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess

   that Jesus Christ is Lord,

   to the glory of God the Father.

One of the powerful lessons from this grand Christological hymn is that our unity is not a goal to be achieved; it is a gift that has been given. Our unity lies in the reality that we have been given divine life through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Too often I admit, that reality is hidden; nevertheless we are one in Christ by divine gift. That divine gift frees us from having to pretend and allows us the joy of celebrating everywhere and always the unity we have in Christ.

The challenge is to live out that unity for the sake of witness to the world. Here’s where Paul’s grand hymn is so helpful. The hymn of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation not only reminds us that our life is in Christ’s death and resurrection, it gives us also the pattern for our own life as church. For Paul, living in Christ means living in surrender for the sake of others. That is only possible when Jesus is Lord and where people call on his name. Only out of the foundational event described in Philippians 2 can community be formed and divisions overcome. Our back-slapping appeals to solidarity, urging us to just be friends, to get along, to acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood are inadequate. The sibling rivalries — our various ideologies, and self-righteous certainties in our own versions of the truth — they’re just too strong.

But if we can live from the dying and rising of Jesus, then we can become something new in the world. Then the differences that normally destroy a community will become our treasures, our wealth. See, there really are differences between us, and not to acknowledge them again is to pretend. In theology, practice, tradition, culture, we are not the same and we don’t want to be. But from our differences, through the power of the Holy Spirit can arise a living community that bears witness to the God who so loved the world that God sent God’s son.

Over and over again, Paul describes our differences in terms of different gifts for ministry. In the Christian community of Door County and beyond, there are a variety of gifts. Some communities have the gift of serving as an entry point for seekers, some care for one another really well, some are places where those with doubts and questions will find a home, some are places where the faith is expressed with more emotion than reason, others with more reason than emotion. Some are seedbeds to meet the needs of the people in our community who struggle. To each is given gifts according to the Spirit.

We are the people of God. We are the the Body of Christ. Even in the midst of our differences, our differing gifts, what binds us together in agape love is something that is not possible on our own, but a gift of the Spirit, that same Spirit released through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The agape love that God has demonstrated for us, that we have for one another is also our posture towards the world. “Let each of you look not to you own needs but to the needs of others.”

In our unity, we become the place where the rich come to the aid of the poor, where the laughing console those who weep, the healthy minister to the sick, those who live in families become companions to the lonely. And we discover in the practice of that love that the converse is also true, something that is more than a mere social institution can muster: the poor teach the rich what it means to trust God; the sick teach the healthy by demonstrating joy in the midst of suffering; the weak have a sensitivity to the needs of the community that they share with the strong.

No, friends, we are not delusional; we are realists; and we are Christians. We understand that what binds us together is not our intentions nor our frail and weak-kneed actions, nor our mealy-mouthed pronouncements. What binds us together, what gives us unity, what makes us one is nothing less than Jesus’ death and resurrection, the life we have in him, the community that has been formed by his love.  Now we are called to live that love. And dear God, does the world need to see and feel and be shown that love, especially at a time when hatred and fear and sexism and racism and xenophobia are bearing such miserable fruit. Our unity is in Christ. Our calling is to love. It’s really that simple.    

With Gratitude for Those with Burning Hearts

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610
The Supper at Emmaus
1601
Oil and tempera on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm
Presented by the Hon. George Vernon, 1839
NG172
https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG172

I walked into the gallery and immediately was struck by the size. Seeing a painting in a brochure doesn’t prepare you for a confrontation with a near life-sized painting. The Michelangelo Caravaggio “Supper at Emmaus”  was on loan from The National Gallery in London to The Art Institute of Chicago.

There’s the calm, peaceful countenance of Jesus at the center, his eyes serenely closed, his right hand extended in blessing. And I love the different reactions of the three sitting at table with Jesus. For the guy standing behind him, everything is reduced to a profound sense of wonder. The guy seated across from Jesus leans forward trying to believe the unbelievable, ready to reach across the table to verify with his hand what his eyes are telling him. The guy seated at the side of the table is retelling the story with his wild, broad gesticulating as if in the retelling it will make more sense.

The one detail that consistently grabs me is the dish teetering on the edge of the table. At the Art Institute, the crowd studied the painting from a carefully demarcated viewing area, stanchions separating the humans from the painting. I had this urge to reach across the divide and push that dish away from the edge.

For me that dish is the locus of tension. Is the dish going to hold or fall of the edge? One little bump on the table — which I can assure you I would have done inadvertently had I been there — and it goes crashing to the floor. Maybe it’s a visible sign of the tension still in the hearts and minds of those disciples. Was the Jesus sitting across the table real? Was the story he told them really true? Those questions and that tension are palpable in their postures and gestures. I can only imagine how acute the tension must have been when shortly after the moment captured in the painting  Jesus vanished from their sight.

I know that tension. I experience moments of extraordinary clarity, when God’s presence and God’s goodness are so real I can reach out and touch God’s wounded hands. And I experience moments when I wonder whether any of it is true,  when I feel acutely God’s  absence.  In those moments, I wonder if it will all hold together. Or will it go crashing to the floor? Is the resurrection life that Jesus promises more than just wishful thinking? 

Luke tells us that after Jesus disappeared, their hearts were burning within them, as if he became more real in his absence than in his presence.

I have my own version of Cleopas and his companions. They accompany me on the road with the risen Christ, who, by the way, is there whether we recognize him or not. Sometimes the road is only 7 miles; sometimes it feels like a lot longer. I’m grateful not to have to walk the road alone. Companions hold me up with their excitement at seeing the risen Christ, telling me how their hearts burn within them, even when whatever it is that I possess feels more like a flicker than a flame.

I met this week with a couple of nonagenarians whose faith had the quality of a fine, aged wine. They have endured the trials and can see God’s goodness and presence with the sharp-eyed vision of an eagle. They are the very incarnation of what last Sunday’s second lesson (1 Peter 1:3-9) described as an inheritance that is “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” faith that has been refined by trial and has come out the other side as pure and precious as gold. I also had coffee the other day with a guy who told me of his deep prayer life and how God was answering his prayers and about the opportunities for ministry that came out of those prayers. The burning quality of his faith was contagious.

I don’t very often experience my faith with that kind of sharp clarity. My experience is more like Paul’s metaphor of seeing through a glass dimly. More like a dish teetering on the edge of the table and about to fall off. Why is that, I sometimes wonder. A function of temperament? Personal defect? Not trying hard enough? I never come up with an answer.

Which makes me all the more grateful for those with burning hearts. My fellow pilgrims and their witness are often the proof of the presence of the risen Christ. I’m grateful that my faith is not just a me and Jesus thing. My fellow travelers have seen the risen Christ, and that is enough encouragement to keep walking.