Author: Stephen Holmgren

I have been an Episcopal priest for thirty years, having served in parishes and in academia. My interests include art and theology, liturgy and spirituality, and I love to go sailing whenever I can.

The Beauty of Desert Rest

The apostles have just returned from their mission, into which Jesus had earlier sent them. Naturally, they wanted to tell him everything they had done. Especially since Jesus had sent them out with his own power and authority. Surely, they had much to report. He responds to them by saying, “Come away to a deserted place… and rest a while.”

The wise Gospel teacher, John Shea, suggests that we should not misunderstand Jesus’ invitation to them. It’s not that Jesus was offering them what we would call R&R, or rest and relaxation. Shea helps us see how Jesus was leading them to something more profound. Jesus was inviting the apostles to go deeper with him, into the mystery of his mission. As we have often found, in the biblically sensitive work of the artist James Tissot, the image I share with you above portrays a key moment in Mark’s Gospel. Despite Tissot’s sensitivity, he titled his painting, “Jesus commands the Apostles…” And yet, in Mark’s Gospel, we clearly hear an invitation, rather than a command. Either way, Jesus was urging them to come away ~ a message we can take to heart, as well.

Shea points out two key biblical words in Mark’s story that should catch our attention. Consider first the role of ‘deserted places’ in biblical history. It was in the desert that Israel was brought into covenant with God, when they received the Law at Mt. Sinai. It was in the desert that both Israel and —much later— Jesus, were tested. Whereas Israel failed the test, Jesus prevailed. And it became the doorway to his public ministry, which made manifest God’s Kingdom in a new and personal way. As Jesus himself experienced, the desert was the place where angels ministered to God’s chosen people.

The second key word that Shea points toward is ‘rest,’ also a highly symbolic word. By inviting them to rest, Jesus was not really interrupting what he had earlier sent them to do. Instead, he was giving them an opportunity to fulfill their new vocation, and bring it to completion. Genesis tells us that on the seventh day, God rested. And it was not because God was tired, or somehow in need of restoration, after six days of creating everything. The seventh day represented the sabbath Shalom, the peace that fulfilled of all of God’s creative purposes. And so, by inviting the apostles into a time of rest, Jesus was inviting them to experience the deeper fulness of God’s mission, and its presence within him. This would best happen apart from the pressures and distractions of ongoing ministry.

In the desert, they would discover the beauty of sabbath fulfillment.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 22, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is of James Tissot’s painting, Jesus Commands the Apostles to Rest. John Shea is the author of the three volumes titled, The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers. Here, I reference his comments in the second volume, for Year B.

The Beauty of True News

 

It may be that I was the first American ‘paperboy’ in Japan, when I worked for the Japanese newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. At least that’s what they told me when writing their story. Like many kids in the States, then and now, with whom I had few things in common, I still shared what may be a universal desire. I hoped to earn money to supplement my small allowance. And I wanted extra money so I could buy a guitar.

We lived in a Japanese neighborhood, and our local contacts were almost entirely Japanese. Having grown up in Japan, and being fairly fluent in Japanese, this led me to a job in our local economy. That’s how I became a ‘paper boy,’ delivering—as I remember it—about 40 or 50 newspapers, every afternoon. Before delivery, I had to insert advertisement fliers in each copy. This could make the whole bundle rather heavy. I slung them under my left arm, using something like a Judo-belt.

Well ~ my plan worked. I was able to buy my dream, my first electric guitar. It was a brilliant red Japanese Gibson knock-off, which I wish I still had.

We all receive ‘news,’ and we count on it. Even when we are frustrated or angry about what we learn. The source of our ‘news’ may be helpful and encouraging. But often, it’s not. Rarely are our news-providers neutral about what they communicate. Various considerations, like politics and commercial interests, affect the results. Yet, in my case, as a 12 year old foreigner, I was delivering a Japanese language newspaper to neighborhood homes that were very different from mine. In the process, I was largely indifferent to what I delivered. And the recipients seemed largely indifferent to me, as compared with how they probably approached their newspaper.

Now, I share all this because what I have observed here may provide a significant clue. It might signal a small but important part of Mark’s Gospel account of when a certain King Herod hears news. And, he hears news that alarms him. Yet, those who communicated it may not have known the significance of what they had told him. And when we, in similar ways, neglect reflectively to consider what we hear, it doesn’t always work out well for us. Especially if we are not attending to nuance, or ideas, or subtle distinctions and other sensitive things that have a real bearing upon our life together.

What makes some types of ‘news’ significant, as compared with some others? Does it make a difference, to consider the source of the ‘news’ we receive? The current rhetorical dismissal of some forms of the media, as ‘fake’ news, tells us something ~ that, just because something is reported, may not mean that it is true or reliable. Also, just because ‘news’ may be true, doesn’t mean it will be reported. And even if true news is reported, this doesn’t mean that we will attend to it, or properly value what it tells us. After all, the Gospel is literally good news, and meant for the whole world and all its people. And yet, consider the extent of our own engagement with it. Also consider how many, who are only somewhat familiar with it, remain indifferent to its meaning, and to its power and purpose.

And so we need to receive, and also attend to, news that is true.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 15, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The news story with photo above is from some time in the spring of 1968.

The Beauty of God’s Beckoning Kingdom

 

Once again, I invite you to join me in some reflective imagining. Doing such helps us live into the Gospels. Stories from Scripture, and the work of many artists, can enable us to engage the Word. So here is our opportunity: We are in Nazareth! Let’s imagine that we are in the little village of Nazareth, in about the year 30 A.D. We are gathered in our local synagogue for worship on the sabbath. And, without any of us expecting it, our young Rabbi with a messianic vocation enters and begins to teach us ~ just as James Tissot portrays in the image above.

Some of us in the synagogue begin to marvel and raise questions about our experience of him. Who is this, we ask. And where did he get this wisdom? After all, he’s from our village… and no one of any account has come out of this place. Don’t we know his family? And aren’t we familiar with his work as a local contractor? So what is he thinking, presuming to teach us, his peers and fellow residents? He then responds to us, sounding more philosophical than angry. He says that ‘wise people are not overlooked, except among those who think they already know them.’ And so he can do no deed of power here, unless perhaps to heal a few needy folks at the margins of our little community.

He looks at us with astonishment. Why? Because, through him, the mystery of God’s Kingdom is being opened before us. And he is beckoning us to enter. Except that we hesitate, and come up with excuses. We find all kinds of reasons why we cannot, or will not, step out of our familiar and largely self-decided assumptions and expectations.

And so, he turns away, and moves on toward a more fruitful field, in which he will plant his tiny seeds of insight. They are like little gleaming pebbles, dropped below the surface of a shallow stream. Unless we notice their glimmering nearness, and reach down to pick them up, they will only tantalize our curiosity. And yet, they 
won’t amount to anything of value until we collect them, and carry them with us. For these are the small smooth stones that have the power to knock down what gets in the way of God’s ongoing mission ~ as we learn from David’s encounter with the Philistine giant, Goliath.

Therefore, if —like some of our fellow villagers— we doubt him… if we hesitate to accept his teaching and overlook what he does, because we discount its apparently human source… we may miss the opportunity to enter, and live into, the beckoning mystery of God’s unfolding Kingdom. This is the Kingdom that is manifest in him, through what he says, and in what he does.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 8, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is by James Tissot, titled Jesus Rejected in the Synagogue at Nazareth.

The Beauty of a Gospel Challenge

 

 

Once again, I have gone back to a favorite source for helping us engage in imaginative reflection, through which we might —at least for a moment— feel like we were there, within the story. Through active imagination, we might sense that what happened then and there, can also somehow happen to us now.

James Tissot, who had first been a fashionable society painter, found that his life was turned around by the Jesus story, and then by Jesus himself. And so, he dedicated a good part of the rest of his life to helping us envision what we hear and read in the Gospels. These two images beautifully portray the pivotal moments in two stories ~ or, a story within a story, from Mark’s Gospel.

Look at Jesus walking through a narrow street, heading toward the home of Jairus. A woman raises her hand toward Jesus, in the bustle of a crowd that closely surrounds him. She reaches just to touch the edge of his robe. She wants, as we might put it, a sacrament of his presence.

Who among us has never felt isolated, different from others and, as a result, cut off from them in one way or another? Who has not imagined or experienced social ostracism, seemingly perpetrated by others because we are not like them? Whether rightly or not, we then feel unfit to be with those others, whose company we desire and whose fellowship we hope for. What might change this dynamic? What might transform all these broken or non-existent relationships, which could be so important to us?

Or, look at Jesus, gently reaching down to touch and grasp a girl, whose death has led to vigorous outward mourning. Agonized relatives, and concerned friends, are right at hand, or lurk in the shadows. They want, or at least hope for, a sacrament of Jesus’ presence.

Who among us has never experienced the demise of some aspect of our lives? Who among us has never had a failed dream, a blown opportunity, a bottomed-out investment, whether of ideas and emotions, or of money and time? However these kinds of events may have impacted us, what might help move us forward, and lead us to recover our sense of confidence and efficacy? What might transform how we look at everything, even if our outward circumstances don’t change right away?

Mark’s two stories, about Jairus’ daughter and the woman with an infirmity, are stories about us, just as much as they are about other people from long ago, in faraway place. And they are also stories about how God’s Spirit, through Jesus, can transform us and our lives.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 1, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The two paintings above are by James Tissot; they are titled: The Daughter of Jairus, and The Woman With an Issue of Blood (late 19th century).

The Beauty of Coming to Ourselves

 

In his novel, The Last Gentleman, Walker Percy offers an interesting observation, prompted by the experience of hurricanes. It recurs as a theme in his later writing. Here is how one observer captures it:

At one point, Will (the main character) recalls a date with a girl… The date is a disaster until the two are caught in a hurricane. “Though science taught that good environments were better than bad environments, it appeared to him that the opposite was the case. Take hurricanes, for example, certainly a bad environment if ever there was one. It was his impression that not just he but other people felt better in hurricanes,” Percy writes. The hurricane, it turns out, saved the day: “The hurricane blew away the sad, noxious particles which befoul the sorrowful old Eastern sky and Midge no longer felt obliged to keep her face stiff. They were able to talk. It was best of all when the hurricane’s eye came with its so-called ominous stillness. It was not ominous. Everything was yellow and still and charged up with value…”

In [another book, Percy] asks, “Why do people often feel so bad in good environments, that they prefer bad environments? . . . Why is a man apt to feel bad in a good environment, say suburban Short Hills, New Jersey, on an ordinary Wednesday afternoon? Why is the same man apt to feel good in a very bad environment, say an old hotel on Key Largo during a hurricane?”

This has come to be called Walker Percy’s ‘hurricane theory.’ In a moment of crisis, ‘we come to ourselves,’ and discover our connection with others. Percy’s theory helps me address a lingering question, prompted by Mark’s story about a storm on the Sea of Galilee: why did Jesus go to sleep in the boat? I love the way that Sadao Watanabe so beautifully portrays the scene. Notice how he depicts Jesus’ arm, casually resting upon the edge of the boat, with his eyes peacefully closed, while the disciples look about in alarm.

Jesus —in this image— seems to know what they have not discovered: that he rests in the Father’s hands, as do they. And so, when he says, “Peace! Be still,” he may also be speaking to them, as he clearly is to the storm. In this storm, for at least a moment, they come to themselves.

 

This post is adapted from my homily for Sunday, June 24, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image of Jesus and the Disciples in the Boat is by Sadao Watanabe (1981). The observation about Percy’s ‘Hurricane Theory,’ is by Brett Yates, as quoted by Michael Potemra.

The Beauty of Kingdom Potential

 

What has Jim Janknegt depicted with his painting? Right away, we can see that he portrays the Kingdom mustard seed parable in Mark’s Gospel. With his focus on this parable, we should remember that the Gospels include two kinds of mustard seed teaching. One is in Jesus’ parable ~ about the huge potential of what God can do with apparently small bits of the Kingdom. Jesus’ other teaching is about the tremendous potential of what we might accomplish through personal believing, especially given how personal faith can otherwise be deficient or defective.

To help recognize this difference, between Jesus’ Kingdom parable and his other teaching referring to the size of our personal believing, consider what we see in Janknegt’s painting. In the foreground we see things we usually think of as being big ~ like big cities, their large buildings and the businesses they house. Dwarfing them is a great tree, which may represent the ‘Tree of Life.’ Like the small mustard seed, the great tree that it becomes represents what the Spirit is doing with God’s Kingdom.

Notice the community for which the great tree provides a place of habitation ~ a community characterized by many birds, including both a beautiful peacock and a spoonbill, an owl and a descending dove. In traditional mythology, birds represent communication between the realm of the sky and the realm of the land, or between the heavenly sphere and that of the earth. The Tree of Life provides a context for this communication, and for the Kingdom community that God’s Spirit nurtures between the two.

If we ever worry or despair about the smallness of our faith, we should remember Jesus’ emphasis upon the huge potential of God’s Kingdom power. The seed of this Kingdom potential is planted within us at our Baptism.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, June 17, 208, which can be accessed by clicking here. Jim Janknegt’s painting, Worlds Smallest Seed, is used here with his permission.

The Beauty of Knowing Who We Are

 

 

Walker Percy’s second novel, The Last Gentleman, begins with this apparently unpromising start: a nameless young man is lying on the grass in New York’s Central Park. He is referred to anonymously, as “the engineer,” and as a man who is lost in thought. How odd that the author does not identify him in any concrete way. We also might notice a curious fact; that this man is resting his head upon his jacket, which is folded inside-out. Given this small detail, that his jacket is wrongside-in, we may infer that the young man himself is in some way ‘outside-in.’ Unknown to us— he may also be unknown to himself. The mystery of his exterior personhood reflects the probable mystery of his interior identity.

Having bought a very expensive telescope, our young man oddly finds himself looking at other people in the park. Through the eyepiece, the engineer becomes an observer of others by means of a scientific instrument. Nevertheless, this approach to learning about other people, and therefore about himself, will never bear much fruit. For the self that he seeks is not accessible through scientific inquiry.

Walker Percy presents the young man as a cypher ~ that is, at first, he is a secret to us, as much as he is to himself. His life is like the proverbial blank canvas with its endless possibilities. But he has no freedom. Freedom only comes from knowing what you have to do, and then choosing to do it. And he does not yet know what to do. Instead, he has become a master at conforming to what other people think and do. A wise grandmother or mother will tell us, ‘remember who you are!’ Yet, struggling with bouts of amnesia, the engineer at times cannot remember who he is. And so he does not know what he has to do. For when we do not remember who we are, we cannot remind ourselves of what we are called to do.

Like all of us, in one way or another, this young man is on a journey ~ he is a kind of wayfarer through life. He is seeking to ‘get home.’ Getting home will require coming to know who he is.

 

This posting is based on my homily for Sunday, June 10, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. My focus on this book by Percy was inspired by my recent attendance at the Annual Walker Percy Weekend in my former community of St. Francisville, LA.

The Beauty of Being on Pilgrimage

Paul Elie Cover photo

 

I have been reading and learning from a wonderfully perceptive book. It’s about the converging lives and work of four modern Roman Catholic authors. In it, Paul Elie explores the writing of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy and Flannery O’Conor. The book’s subtitle is, An American Pilgrimage. This theme of pilgrimage provides a meaningful metaphor. For, as we grow up, we gradually discern that we are on pilgrimage ~ both to find ourselves, and, to find the God who has already found us. And all the while, we seek to find our place in the world.

In one fashion or another, we are all on the road to Emmaus. We are like the earliest Christian pilgrims, not knowing that we have been found, and joined, by the One who is at first not seen nor recognized. With those first two on the way to Emmaus, we ponder the meaning of the mysterious Passover events in Jerusalem, and our apparent place within them. Regardless of whether we’re physically traveling or not, we are on Camino-like journeys. Our pilgrimage takes us from the partial to the whole, from brokenness to healing, and from darkness into light. We are therefore always on the way. We are on the way towards something whose meaning may not yet be clear. Yet, it still draws us onward.

Have you seen Martin Sheen’s evocative movie about the Camino de Santiago? It is called The Way (which refers to the Way of St. James). The title has layers of meaning. To be on the way to some place, is to journey toward it. Journeying is something that we do. This is the first meaning.

Yet, a “way” can also be a thing in itself, and not just the means for getting somewhere. A way is something we can be part of. In Acts, we find several references to what Luke calls “the Way,” spelled with a capital “W.” For example, we learn about the pre-conversion Paul, who was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” and asking for letters from the hight priest. This was “so that, if he found any who belonged to the Way,” he might arrest them. Then, we read of a man named Apollos, who “had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and [who] spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” And later, when Paul is under arrest and brought before the governor Felix, we are told that even Felix was “well informed about the Way”!

The Way was and is what Presiding Bishop Michael Curry calls ‘The Jesus Movement.” It’s more than a set of beliefs and a body of teaching, for it is something to which we can belong. The Way is a community of pilgrims, united by a common vision and a shared spirit. We travel through this world together on a path shaped by grace.

 

This is based on my sermon for Sunday, May 14, 2017. I make reference here to Paul Elie’s book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own. You can access my sermon (“Our House of Pilgrimage”) by clicking here.

The Beauty and Danger of Anticipation

Art_James Tissot_The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem

 

Look at this crowd: in James Tissot’s painting, excited people await and greet Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Two things are obvious about his arrival in the city. We notice the huge and enthusiastic crowd. And, we notice the object of their attention, Jesus riding on a donkey. At first, we naturally assume an affinity between these two things. The crowd is joyful about Jesus precisely because he is the answer to their questions, and the apparent solution to their concerns. Who he is seems to fit neatly with who they are, and with where they want to go. After all, who wouldn’t be happy when long-nurtured hopes and expectations are about to be fulfilled.

As Matthew describes the scene, the crowd responds to Jesus’ arrival in two ways, both of which evoke historic precedent. We learn from 2 Kings about the followers of Jehu ~ when they learn he has been anointed king, they spread their cloaks for him to walk on.1 And in 2 Maccabees, we learn how Judas Maccabaeus was greeted upon arriving in Jerusalem, after defeating Israel’s enemies. The people honored him by waving palm branches in the air. To clinch the point, Matthew want us to know this: that when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowd’s dramatic response was a fulfillment of God’s word through the prophet Zechariah: “”Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” 
And the people shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

In other words, as Matthew describes Jesus’ arrival in the city, the crowd’s greeting of him suggested a similar hope, that he might vanquish the repressive powers causing God’s people to suffer. This Nazarene might be the one to make God’s Kingdom present in their time. These observations can help us appreciate how Jesus was greeted when he arrived in Jerusalem, and how he was viewed soon after. For, like many leaders in history, he was the object of an immense amount of hopeful projection.

Consider again at the crowd in Tissot’s wonderful painting of Jesus’ arrival. How many of them are looking directly at him? And of those, how many actually see him, and for who he is rather than for what he represents among their pre- existing desires? Notice how many in the crowd are carried away by the moment. They are excited by imagined possibilities, rather than by the Kingdom concretely at hand. This situation is not merely of historical interest, nor is it primarily about other people, living at another time. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is also about us, and about why we are drawn to worship during Holy Week. For his arrival invites us to consider our intentions this week, as we greet with palms our Lord’s arrival. And it prompts us to consider how we might best walk with him through the rest of the week.

 

This image is from James Tissot’s painting, The Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem. I am indebted to N.T. Wright regarding the specific references to earlier biblical precedents for the way Jesus was greeted upon his arrival in Jerusalem. This reflection is based on my sermon for Palm Sunday, which may be accessed by clicking here.

Holy Week and the Good Samaritan

Art_Tissot_The Good Samaritan

In telling his story about the Good Samaritan, Jesus was answering the question, “who is my neighbor?” At first, it may seem he was teaching us about how to live in God’s Kingdom. Cautioned by the negative example of the priest and Levite who pass by on the other side of the road, we should follow that of the charitable Samaritan who provides hospitality. But we can also hear the story as telling us something essential about God’s own charity and hospitality, and about Jesus’ role as God’s Messiah.

We are like the traveler in Jesus’ story who has been set upon. We often feel injured by life’s misfortunes, and the bad things that have happened to us through no fault of our own. Yet, God has not left us alone, to try and sort everything out. Instead, God in Jesus has come right to our point of need, and has ministered to us personally.

The mystery at the heart of Holy Week is this: God did not bypass the world’s need and suffering. Instead, in Jesus, God deliberately and willingly entered into the heart of the world’s darkness to offer the gift of light. God in Jesus took on every limitation we experience, and every pain we can endure. Why? So as to transform these real things from within.

Because God in Jesus did not bypass our world’s need and suffering, we shouldn’t bypass the way God entered into these everyday challenges. In God and with God, we have the holy opportunity to experience how the Spirit transforms our hurts and sorrows, and the emptiness of much of our lives. We see this particularly vividly in our services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

Let us be with Jesus as he walks into Jerusalem to receive praise, and face scorn. Let’s be with him as he reclines with his friends for their last meal together. We can be with him as he enters the garden, prayerfully shaping his final resolve to live and die within God’s will. And we can be with him as he allows himself to be put to death on the cross for the sake of the world’s need and suffering.

As we walk through Holy Week with our brothers and sisters in Christ, we can rediscover how God has entered into, and transformed, our needy world.

 

The Good Samaritan image above is by James Tissot. Notice the figure in the upper left corner, who bypasses the traveler in need. Holy Week will be observed in most Western Christian churches this year during the week of April 9-15.