The Beauty of Discernment

 

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me’.” Luke is so subtle here. This un-named man, who appears to want to remain anonymous, is perhaps a generic stand-in for all fallen human beings. For he is us ~ not some unnamed ‘other!’ Nevertheless, and as a sign of the same sin, this man wants a particular judgement tailored to his own personal circumstances. Yet, Jesus, as he so often does when teaching, responds with generic principles that apply to everyone and to every circumstance.

This matches my own experience. When, through prayer I ask God to solve a particular problem, I often find the Spirit leading me back to deep and abiding principles, just as Jesus did with the unnamed man. By this, God prompts us to engage in a searching process of discernment. This helps us understand what our questions are really about, so we can appreciate what what we are really asking for. The discernment that God encourages within us leads us to self-awareness and greater self-perception.

A man asks Jesus to solve his financial problems by making his brother share the family inheritance. And Jesus says to him, and to everyone else in the crowd including the disciples, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…” Those are words that apply to all of us, not just to the anonymous question-asker hiding in the crowd who wants his particular problem solved. Characteristically, Jesus then tells a story to illustrate his point.

James Tissot has left us with an evocative and cautionary painting illustrating Jesus’ parable about ‘the man who hoards.’ Concerning the danger of greed, Tissot’s painting focus’ on the spiritual warning that Jesus provides. The greedy man in the story is commonly referred to as the rich fool. As this troubled man sits among his many large sacks of grain and other valuables, he ponders how to hang on to his accumulating wealth. Having more than he needs, he considers replacing his present storage barns with larger ones. In the process, his avarice takes hold of him, gravely endangering his soul. Tissot captures the spiritual seriousness of the moment by employing a symbol representing the mortal threat at the heart of the story. Unseen behind the greedy man, the power of death is symbolized by the large figure unleashing a sword.

As the disciples and others begin to perceive from their Master’s sayings and stories, Jesus’ vocation as Messiah lifts him above having merely a local role as a teacher and guide for a particular community. For Jesus’ teaching applies to all communities at all times, not just to this or that community set within a single cultural context. So, when asked to settle the unnamed man’s case concerning inheritance, Jesus’ reply should not surprise us: “”Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, The Man Who Hoards. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 4, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

 

 

Seeing His Glory

 

(From a funeral homily preached today, on the Feast of the Transfiguration)

Martin, after death, is not closer to the Lord than he was before ~ even though he, himself, may now feel closer. This is at least in part because he now sees the Lord in a way that we do not. Yet, after Baptism, God is in us, and we are in him ~ always. And then, at death, this bud of truth comes to full flower. For, through death, our departed loved ones come to experience the Lord’s nearness in an especially profound way… and, in a way they have never really glimpsed before. We can imagine their joy at this moment. Suddenly, they are overcome by that same sense of startling nearness that our ancestor Jacob had, upon waking from his famous dream. “Surely,” he exclaimed, “the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!” And then he said, “how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” On Friday, July 26, this may have been Martin’s sudden and blessed realization.

Martin saw himself, in his life and work as a physician, as a tool in God’s hands. Martin’s self-perception about his vocation fits well with themes in John‘s Gospel. John boldly tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” The disciples knew from their own experience the power of these words, as this feast day of Jesus’ Transfiguration reminds us. Their experience was confirmed again at the Last Supper, when Jesus told them how he was the way, and the truth, and the life.

Jesus then said this: “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him… Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… [And] very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”

That Martin perceived his vocation as a physician to be a form of ministry fits well with Jesus’ words in John. For as the Word became flesh in Jesus, so too —through his gift of himself to us— the Word continues to become flesh in us. The Word becomes flesh in our lives and work, as well as in our relationships with each other. As this happens, the Word takes what at first may seem frail and weak, and builds it up into an expression of God’s own shining glory.

In this moment, Martin now knows these things better than we do. He knows how Jesus is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. And Martin now sees, in a way that we cannot, how Jesus is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, and the one who makes all things new. As the Lord attests through the words of Revelation, the dwelling place of God is now among people ~ even among those who do not readily perceive God’s nearness to us. We can journey forward, believing that —for God’s faithful people— life is changed, not ended. We are God’s faithful people. And, just like Martin, our lives have been changed by God’s Holy Spirit. Having been changed, we, too, are now ready to see his glory, and enter into eternity.

For Jesus says to us, “I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Goes Up Alone Onto a Mountain to Pray. This post is based on my homily for the funeral of Martin Landis, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Responding to God

 

Luke in chapter 12 tells us that “Jesus was praying in a certain place.” The disciples surely noticed that Jesus often prayed in private. Corporate worship is public, and it engages a community in various forms of prayer and praise. But, for the disciples, Jesus modeled a form of prayer that is typically private. Luke tells us that Jesus would often “withdraw to deserted places and pray.” Mark tells us about a time when Jesus got up very early, long before daylight, to pray in a lonely place by himself. Luke also tells us how Jesus went out to a mountain and spent the whole night in prayer before calling the twelve to join him. These stories tell us that, for Jesus, prayer was a way to feed himself spiritually. And through it, he re-grounded himself in mission.

And so, having set his face toward Jerusalem, Jesus is praying by himself. Perhaps his words are like his later prayer on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” In other words, in both living and in dying, Jesus was in the habit of saying to the Father, ‘I put my whole being into your hands.’

How fitting, then, that a disciple boldly says, “Lord, teach us to pray!” Well, who do we typically ask, to teach us things we want to learn? Of course, we ask someone who knows about the subject. Indeed, we are likely to ask someone who not only knows about the matter, but who actually lives it. On occasion, Jesus may have prayed like other rabbis. Yet the disciples noticed that he also prayed differently and, probably, more sincerely and more deeply. Luke, among the Gospels, is most clear that Jesus embodied and modeled a life of prayer, not just the occasional practice of it. Here, it’s helpful to remember what The Book of Common Prayer Catechism teaches us ~ that “prayer is responding to God.” The kind of prayer that Jesus lived and modeled was at least this, a genuine and intentional process of responding to God.

What a wonderful thing for them to ask, ‘O Lord, please teach us to pray!’ For prayer is something at which all of us are just beginners. Jesus honors their request by teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The contemporary form in our Prayer Book is based on how Luke shares it. Jesus teaches us to speak to God directly, as Father. In this prayer, we speak with Jesus, and through Jesus, as he shares with us his own relationship with the Father. Therefore, his Father becomes “our” Father. Jesus underscores the personal nature of our new relationship with the Father, by saying, “Father, hallowed be your name.” As Moses learned in the wilderness, the holiness of God’s name is directly connected with the holiness of God’s being. Through the prayer Jesus teaches us, we begin to live into a new personal relationship with God.

 

The image above is of Stanley Spencer’s painting, Christ in the Wilderness: Driven by the Spirit. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 28, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Being and Doing

 

As a preacher I have a periodic challenge ~ one that arises every time the Mary and Martha story is featured in the Sunday lectionary. Being married to a Martha, how do I explain why Jesus’ encounter with the two sisters does not really mean what the story seems to be saying? As if Jesus’ point was that ‘Mary’s who are busy praying’ are more noble than ‘Martha’s who are busying serving.’

To accept that common way of hearing the story overlooks several important aspects of the event. For we should remember at least two things about it ~ that Martha is mentioned first, before Mary; and, that Martha offers hospitality to the Lord. Therefore, and most appropriately, the Church has a feast day for Mary and Martha, commemorating them together with their brother Lazarus. This tells us something important – that serving and prayer are not an either/or. Both Mary and Martha surely served. And we know that Martha’s words of faith —spoken to Jesus when her brother Lazarus died— reveal a deep and prayerful spiritual perception. This insight is reflected in the painting of the two sisters by Jan Vermeer. Notice how the artist portrays both sisters attending to the Lord in an equally reverent way.

This ‘both—and’ perception of the relation between work and prayer is not unique to Mary and Martha. St Benedict’s Rule, and the Benedictine tradition in Anglicanism, teach us that prayer is holy work, and that work can be a form of prayer. Benedict tells us that the tools in the garden shed are to be treated with the same respect as the communion chalices in the sacristy. For both are made for holy work. This is significant because of our culture’s tendency to see things in parts rather than as whole. Perceiving how Martha and Mary’s roles intertwine and complement one another is to see how they are part of the wholeness of their family with Lazarus. Discerning how a monk does holy work when he is praying with his brothers in church, helps us also see how he can also be praying when he does his holy work in the monastery kitchen or garden.

This understanding provides the horizon for our spiritual maturity, especially as we come to live together as a community of disciples. Discipleship involves our being and our doing. In the moral life, we know that doing shapes being. What we do shapes who we are and who we become, just as who we are is then reflected in our doing. Too often, we assume this is practically true in our spiritual growth – as if, by pursuing certain techniques, practices or disciplines, we can shape our own spiritual progress. Yet, it is Christ Jesus who shapes our being. He re-shapes our being from its bent form to its God-intended mature, whole, and complete shape. As Paul helps us see in Colossians, when the fullness of God in Christ Jesus comes to inhabit all of our being {our hearts and minds, and souls and bodies}, the fullness of God in Christ Jesus inhabits our doing, as well. This is true for us as individuals, and it is true for us as a community.

And so we come back to the community within that house at Bethany, where Jesus loved to go for refreshment. Nurtured by his presence with them, Mary and Martha came to exemplify the unity of being and doing — and especially how changed being leads to changed doing. Centering ourselves on our new life in Christ Jesus, we become icons of his transforming presence. Through us —through what we do, but even more through how our being is changed by him— people see more and more of God.

 

The image above is of Jan Vermeer’s painting, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 21, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking hereOther homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

On Being a Neighbor

 

Luke records how a self-justifying lawyer seeks to test Jesus. When he asks Jesus to tell him who his neighbor is, Jesus offers one of the most familiar stories in the New Testament. His story about the good Samaritan is shaped by the dramatic contrast between the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan.

Another contrast within the same passage is rather subtle. This is the contrast between the lawyer’s question about who his neighbor is, and Jesus’ recasting of the same question. For even though the two forms of the question sound remarkably alike, there is a significant difference between them. So similar, that we might not notice how subtly Jesus re-phrases the lawyer’s question. Here’s how we can observe the difference: The lawyer, after receiving Jesus’ affirmation regarding his summary of the law, still wants to engage him. So he asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Naturally, we hear Jesus’ ensuing story as shaped by the lawyer’s question. As if Jesus wants to show the lawyer whom we should recognize, and regard, as our neighbor.

But notice how Jesus inverts the question! The man asks, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus asks, “Who proved to be neighborly, or, who acted like a neighbor?” In other words, Jesus’ story is not an illustration of how we recognize who is our neighbor. Jesus’ story is about how acting like a neighbor toward other people helps them become our neighbor.

Like the lawyer, when we look at folks wondering who is, or who might be our neighbor, inevitably, we pursue the question with some criteria in mind. And that’s the rub! We might pursue the question by assuming that a neighbor is someone who lives nearby; or perhaps someone who shares my community values; or maybe someone whose kids go to the same school that my kids do. It puts us in the position of making distinctions among folks based on their attributes. And it’s always possible that we misperceive another person’s identity. We might blindly overlook his or her genuine status as our neighbor.  In each case, our effort will involve trying to gain greater precision in our discernment about who does, or does not, qualify as our neighbor.

By contrast, suppose I go through each day trying to live out a different approach. I will remind myself that I can choose to act neighborly to everyone I meet, not just to some of them. Neighbor-status is therefore something I enable by my approach to another person, and not by my evaluation of his or her qualifications. This is what Jesus was getting at in his story. His re-phrasing of the lawyer’s question establishes a distinction with a clear and significant difference. Charity, in its basic biblical meaning of God-like love, is something we practice and extend to others. It is therefore not something evoked by qualities we apprehend in another person. Being a neighbor is an entrée into a relationship, a relationship that we offer to other people, rather than something we recognize in them. This applies as much to folks in our community and church, as it does to people everywhere.

 

The image above is Sadao Watanabe’s woodcut, The Good Samaritan. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 14, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

His Continuing Mission

 

One of the most familiar aspects of the Gospels is Jesus’ choice of ‘the twelve,’ whom he appoints as his disciples. All four Gospels mention the twelve. Luke alone (in chapter 10) records a second sending out of Jesus’ followers in mission, which numbered seventy of them.

Whereas the ministry of the twelve becomes associated with the ordained ministers of the Church, the ministry of the seventy represents the ministry of the laity, the whole Body of the Church, and of all the baptized. Like the seventy, we are all sent out as bearers of the Kingdom and of the Kingdom’s Risen Lord. And so, we are able to say, to all those we meet, “the Kingdom of God has come near to you!” This is not a theoretical statement. It specifically refers to the Lord’s presence within every baptized person. For every one of us becomes a moving temple of the Holy Spirit, wherever we go, and whatever we do.

At Baptism, we are all appointed and commissioned as ministers of the Gospel. Commissioning is comissioning – we are joined to the Lord; we are joined to the Lord’s Risen Body; and therefore, we are joined to the Lord’s ongoing mission. The Lord’s ongoing mission is something more expansive than simply providing worship, formation and care, in and to the local congregation. The Lord’s ongoing mission is to the whole world, and it involves announcing the real presence of God’s Kingdom.

God’s Kingdom is made present in and through each one of us by the Lord who commissions us. We are not only sent out in his name. We are sent out with his Spirit. Perhaps, we might have occasion to marvel that “even the demons are subject to us.” The truth of this statement does not rest on any attribute of ours. Demons are subject to us only because we bear the Lord’s Spirit-transforming presence. For Jesus is Lord over heaven and earth… and, therefore, Lord over every spirit not in accord with the Holy Spirit.

Notice the Lord’s words to the Seventy upon their return. He says, “do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you.” Jesus does not dispute that evil spirits will submit to us. They are indeed subject to us. But only subject to us in so far as we ourselves are subject to the Lord. He just does not want us to focus on how or whether they may be subject to us. For —in our human pride— we misunderstand and misrepresent the source of his power. We should remember his words to the seventy: “See, I have given you authority… over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” And this is this is true because of the reality in which he wants us to rejoice : We are part of his Body, the Church. Therefore, in him, we have an ongoing mission to the world. Through us, his mission continues.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Christ Sending Out the Seventy Disciples, Two By Two. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 7, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Challenging Beauty of Our Vocation

 

Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. For him, it represents both unconscious momentum and conscious decision. Intuitively aware of the probable result, he goes anyway. The disciples only discover this along the way. They never quite understand the ‘cost’ of following Jesus until payment is demanded. It is at Jerusalem ~ called the city of God, where the divine glory dwells in the Temple. It is also a place of looming adversity and conflict. Why? Because Jesus is not a threat to spiritual religion if it is truth-seeking. Yet, he is a threat to worldly power. Because, confronted by his genuine spiritual authority, worldly power appears as what it is ~ empty, yet falsely alluring.

On his journey, Jesus senses what lies ahead. For him, Jerusalem will mean one thing ~ challenge ending in death. For others, a journey to Jerusalem need not be anything like what it will bring for him. But for him, it is his vocation, his calling. He must walk the Messiah path toward the holy city, to fulfill the prophet’s words that God will come suddenly to his Temple. Walking this path will expose him to conflict — conflict brought by those who attach themselves to the periphery of holiness… to the accessories of religion.

Like an immense rock, Jesus is so grounded in himself, and in his calling, that he cannot be shaken, or lured from following it. Centered in his godly identity, his presence and words have the power to shake everything else. He is like the brilliant summer sun, splaying its dazzling rays upon wax candles and dark chocolate, causing them to melt. Jesus has this effect on some people, who shy away from him… at least until they gather enough courage with like-minded others, to try to do away with him.

The Spirit-of-God-power working through him has been for the good: healing infirmity; casting out demons; bringing sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf; releasing lepers burdened by pain and isolation. These are signs of the Kingdom breaking into the world with new power. The message about these things comes to be called Good News. And yet, this Spirit-of-God-power in him will soon challenge more than outward symptoms of fallen humanity. Soon he will challenge the foundations of another kingdom, the kingdom of darkness. This is why the demons cry out at him, “what have you got to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Indeed, what have you to do with us, Jesus?

So Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem. Luke wants us to notice how Jesus’ vocation becomes the template for our vocation. Jesus shares with us and with everyone his own calling. This is his vocation to walk through this world as someone beloved by God, as God’s holy one. The Father’s words to him at his Baptism signaled this. And our heavenly Father says the same thing to everyone who accepts the gift of Jesus’ vocation at Baptism – youyouyou are my chosen, my beloved, upon whom my favor rests. As we follow him, Jesus shares with us the purpose and power of his vocation.

 

The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, He Went Through the Villages on the Way to Jerusalem. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, June 30, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Encompassing Love

 

 

Deliberately, Jesus goes into a region where Gentile’s live. To the people of Israel, pagan societies like those of Greece and Rome signified a culture of death rather than one of life. We should not be surprised, then, that Jesus encounters a demon-possessed man who dwells among the tombs of a cemetery. Quite aside from the demons inhabiting him, the possessed man is unclean from living in a place for the dead. So then, is it merely a small detail or a coincidence that the the demons are called “Legion?” For this name refers to a cohort of pagan Roman soldiers! Or that, after they are released from the possessed man, the demons enter into what for Jews are the ritually unclean and forbidden swine?

In the image above, we see one of the beautiful Magdeburg Ivories. Jesus is commanding the demon to come out of the man who is held by friends, with the swine at his feet. The expelled demon looks like the fallen angel that it is, emerging from the possessed man’s mouth.

Notice how Jesus, in Luke as well as in this image, engages the possessed man directly. He shows no concern for his own safety, or his spiritual defilement from contact with a demon-possessed Gentile. Luke describes how the demons defer to Jesus and his implicit authority. They beg him to spare them from a return to the abyss, the realm of the dead symbolized by the depths of the sea. Jesus might have responded by ordering the demons to simply leave the man. They would then have remained among the tombs as a continuing danger to the nearby Gentile city. Yet, he permits them to leave the possessed man and enter a herd of pigs, which immediately rush down the hillside ~ ironically, right into the dreaded sea!

Surprisingly, Jesus responds positively when the unclean demons twice beg him for something. And yet, when the newly-healed man begs to stay with him, Jesus responds negatively! This helps us discern one of Luke’s main themes. When Jesus tells the healed-man to return home instead of following him, Jesus also instructs the man to declare to others how much God has done for him. Obediently, the man goes back to his Gentile community. Not surprisingly, he proclaims how much Jesus has done for him. God’s kingdom power continues to be manifest in the mission and ministry of Jesus.

 

The image above is of one of the Magdeburg Ivories, Christ Healing the Possessed of Gerasa (ca.968 A.D.), now located at Darmstadt, Germany {from a series of hand-carved ivory panels donated by Emperor Otto the Great to the Magdeburg Cathedral}. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, June 23, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

Pentecost!

 

“… they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house… Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

We have a challenge imagining this moment. Because our culture emphasizes the particularity of personal experience and our differences, rather than what is shared between us. We hear talk about diversity and inclusion, which might reflect a positive regard for community. But it may also reflect an assumption that, apart from our efforts to bring people together, we are separate and disconnected. We hear that, on the day of Pentecost, some people in that room dramatically experienced God’s power. Yet, we may be surprised to hear that all of them did, together!

This may be because we don’t appreciate how community is vital to individual human flourishing. We often want freedom for ourselves without personal accountability to others. And, we desire private opportunities without public responsibilities. Being in community with other people may seem occasionally beneficial, especially when it is on our terms. But we tend not to see it as essential to our lives.

Evangelical Christians rightly emphasize a personal relationship with God, through Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And many in the broader Catholic tradition rightly point to how we grow in our relationship with God through community. So, we may think of this as an either/or choice. Yet, the New Testament treats our relationship with God as both personal and communal. Scripture encourages us to see how God is at work nurturing the lives of particular persons as well as transforming the health of whole communities.

We have lost at least one insight by moving from the King James translation to modern versions of the Bible. It centers on the difference between “ye” and “you.” Except in the American South, in modern American English, we don’t distinguish between you, plural, and you, singular. And so, when Jesus says, in the King James version of Mt. 5:48, “be ye perfect,” the contemporary NRSV translation has it as simply, “be perfect…” (meaning whole or complete). In other words, “you, be perfect!’ A modern ‘Southern’ translation would say, “y’all be perfect,” making clear that Jesus is not just speaking to individuals.

This can help us notice a paradox. We know how Episcopalians and other mainline Protestant Christians are sometimes uncomfortable when our brothers and sisters in Christ talk about ‘accepting Jesus as our personal savior.’ And yet, many of us along with other ‘mainline Christians’ assume that religion is always a personal and private matter. In other words, both evangelical and non-evangelical Christians often privilege the same assumption, that our faith is largely private, even if we don’t speak about it differently from each other.

All this is important as we celebrate the feast of Pentecost. Just like the feast of the Resurrection, Pentecost is first about God’s missional community before it is about the experience of individual members.

 

The image above is Bonnie Van Voorst’s painting, Pentecost. This post is based on my homily for Pentecost Sunday, June 9, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

 

Bonnie Van Voorst offers these thoughts regarding her evocative painting, Pentecost:

“At the bottom of the painting, blues, browns, and greens represent humanity. Above, blue, gold, and red symbolize the Trinity–blue for Christ’s immanence, gold for the Father’s transcendence, and red for the work of the Holy Spirit. “And the Father, as he had promised, gave [Jesus] the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us, just as you see and hear today.” (Acts 2:33) The red descends to earth, settling on God’s people as they are filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Her painting has the evocative quality of many of those by Makoto Fujimura.

 

The Beauty of a Map and a Compass

 

 

Two college students drive into the mountains for a weekend hiking trip. Perhaps because they were up late writing term papers the night before, both of them are tired. During the long afternoon drive, even cups of coffee fail to keep them fully alert. As the road winds in and out of canyons, rising rock walls deflect the low sun and create deep shadows. Coming around one particularly sharp turn in a switch-back, the SUV skids on gravel, and the vehicle veers off the road. Down an embankment they slide, and slam into a tree. Suddenly everything is white and dusty – the airbags have exploded, saving them from serious injury.

Now they have a real problem. They are in a remote area where cell phones don’t work; the SUV is ruined; and it’s getting dark. Of course, they could just stay where they are, surviving on their packed food and water, and could sleep in what’s left of their vehicle. But neither of them wants to do that. The alternative is to walk out, and try to find a way back to a main road. Aside from food and bottled water they stuff into their day-packs, they have two things that can help them. They have an accurate map, and a working compass, the right tools for them to hike out safely.

But this is where things go from bad to worse. In this moment, each of them has a strong idea about the right way out of this remote place. The problem is, they do not agree about the way forward. Being tired and stressed, and having contrasting personalities, they respond to their situation in very different ways. As a result, they head off in separate directions, one with the map, the other holding the compass.

Initially, this seems like a sensible solution for two people who disagree about their predicament. But the decision proves near-fatal for both of them. Of course, a good map and a working compass are valuable in a situation like this. But, paradoxically, neither tool is of real use without the other. This is why: A good map shows where everything is, including ways in and out of the area. But it does not tell you where you should go. Whereas a working compass always points to magnetic north, and therefore provides direction. But it won’t tell you where you are.

Most of all, refusing collaboration with the other person reading the map or holding the compass diminishes each of their prospects. For both of them are likely to remain lost while, on their own, trying to interpret what can be learned from a map or a compass.

At the Last Supper, Jesus gives his disciples something like a map, a map formed by the memory of his sayings and his works. He who is The Way, gives them a map of The Way. This map reminds them of their relationship with him, and of his relationship with what God has been doing through both him and them. Their challenge is to connect this map of his sayings and works, with the unfamiliar terrain of the new world around them.

But as he has promised, Jesus also gives his disciples something like a compass, which is the guiding Holy Spirit, who always points in the same unwavering and godly direction. Like a compass, the Holy Spirit will help them follow a straight path. But, they still need to know The Way on which they are to head, and the route they need to follow.

And so, like them, we need to rely upon the teaching Scriptures, as well as upon the guiding Holy Spirit, in order to find our way forward in life. For Jesus has given us two intertwined and inseparable gifts that come together as one: this is ‘the Scripture-shaped Tradition of Spirit-guided reasoning.’

 

The images above are James Tissot’s paintings, The Last Sermon of our Lord, and The Last Supper. This post is based on my homily for Easter 6, May 26, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.