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.

The Deep Well of Living Water

Art_Tissot_Samaritan Woman by the Well_Best

The middle of the day brings with it contrasts – both literally and figuratively. When the bright sun shines directly overhead, distinct shadows form around us, leaving sharp lines between light and dark. We often feel most-alive at mid-day, when we’re involved with projects or work. But at noontime, we can also be distracted by cares and concerns, bigger than we can handle by ourselves. Milder than in some places, the noonday sun in Samaria can be demanding, causing people to seek shade where it might be found. Even livestock move to the shadows under low tree branches until the respite of early evening. Though relief might come from cool water, a walk to the well is usually postponed until the daytime heat has passed. Especially if one plans on carrying jars heavy with water back the house.

In spite of this, and in fact because of it, she comes to the well at mid-day. This way, she can mostly count on no one being here. Back in ancient days, Jacob’s well was covered by a large rock. It was so large, it could only be lifted by several people working together. Therefore, no one could come alone, and take more than his or her fair share from the depths below. One could only satisfy a need for water in the presence of others, who would help lift the heavy stone cover. The Samaritan woman is glad it’s different now, for she can come alone to draw from this deep well.

On one noonday visit, under the hot sun, she finds an unexpected stranger by the well. He appears tired, and asks for a drink. She does not yet see how this moment connects with a larger pattern. He thirsts, just as he will thirst again on another hot noonday. Both now and then, he thirsts as he does the work of his Father. Paradoxically, just as will happen on that later hot afternoon, he thirsts while at the same offering living water to those who need it.

He seems to know more about her than she could ever have guessed. And his statements are provocative. Slowly, she discerns that he is saying something like this: “You have come here in the safety of noonday. For you assume no one else will be around, when you raise water from the depths of Jacob’s well. Yet, you have a deep well within you. How far into the depths of your inner well, are you willing to go with me?”

 

This posting is based on my sermon for Lent 3, Sunday March 19, which can be accessed by clicking here. In my sermon, I quote the David Whyte poem, “The Well of Grief.”  The image above is another one by the gifted James Tissot, and reflects an intentionally faithful, late 19th century, perception of what the study of archaeology tells us about ancient biblical sites.

 

The Beauty of a Gracious Opportunity

Art_Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Jesus_and_Nicodemus on a Rooftop_1899

 

It is night. Some things are easier under the cover of darkness. Daylight suggests accountabilitynot always welcome when we’re uncertain about our choices. Darkness provides room for indecision and exploration. It’s after dark when Nicodemus slips out of the house, and walks through the quiet alleyways of the city. A gentle breeze stirs the branches above him. Silently, he climbs stairs to the roof terrace where he is told Jesus is staying. To his surprise, he finds the country rabbi expecting him. And so, there is no hesitant pause, no time spent in small talk. Nicodemus goes right to the heart of the matter, but in a circumspect way.

Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher from God. For, if God wasn’t in you, you could not do all the God-revealing acts that you do.” Jesus unexpectedly responds to him with an invitation. He says, “Hear me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to — which is God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus hungers to see God’s kingdom. He wants to see it so much, he arrives in the middle of the night to talk about it. Yet, Nicodemus wavers, not only finding security in the darkness. He also hides behind the furtive safety of a rhetorical question: “How can a person be born who has already been born and grown up? Please tell me: what are you saying by this ‘born-from-above’ kind of talk?”

In the light of the moon, and that of a flickering lantern, Nicodemus observes a knowing smile spread across Jesus’ face. He perceives that Jesus is not talking about mothers and babies. He’s talking about God, and grown-up people, just like Nicodemus. But to acknowledge this, the senior Pharisee must concede an awkward fact. Having come by night, he will have to admit that—in more ways than one—he is ‘in the dark.’ He’s looking for a light he doesn’t yet have. So Jesus says to him, “I don’t think you’re listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to God’s original creation (—the kind of ‘wind hovering over water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—) it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. When you look at a baby, it’s just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within, is formed by something you can’t see and touch. The person within becomes a living spirit.”

Leaning back on the cushion against the low wall of the terrace, Jesus raises his hand in a sweeping gesture. “Don’t be so surprised, my friend, when I tell you that you have to be ‘born from above’ — from out of this world. Listen to that breeze, stirring through the branches of the trees above us. We feel it and know it’s there. But who can say where it’s come from, or where it’s going? That’s the way it is with everyone ‘born from above’ by God’s Spirit.”

 

This image comes from Henry Ossawa Tanner’s 1899 painting, Jesus and Nicodemus on a Rooftop. As an African American artist who lived well before the Civil Rights era, Tanner moved to Paris, a context he found more congenial for the development of his significant talent. This posting is based on my sermon for the second Sunday in Lent (referencing John 3:1-17), which can be found by clicking here. Please note: the text of this posting, as well as of my sermon, contains many quotations from John’s Gospel that involve a mixture of source material from the NRSV translation, as well as that of The Message translation by Eugene Peterson, some of which has been adapted for this context.

The Beauty of Self-Possession

Satan Tried to Tempt Jesus James Tissot, 1895

 

Here is an image worthy of Lenten reflection: James Tissot’s 19th century portrayal of Jesus’ Second Temptation. Hovering over the Jerusalem Temple, we see starkly contrasting figures ~ the bodiless tempter, with an anger-filled face; and the serenely embodied Jesus, whose focus is within.

If you are the Son of God…” Why would those words have any power over Jesus? Perhaps it’s because they echo something said earlier in the Gospel. For we hear essentially the same words at his Baptism. “Just as he came up from the water… a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the beloved…’” A voice from heaven declares that this man, born to a village carpenter, is in fact God’s own Son.

We need not have grown up in modern times to consider this claim improbable. Many of Jesus’ own contemporaries considered the statement far-fetched, and even blasphemous. Jesus, himself, may have wondered at this. He probably had had strong youthful premonitions, that God had marked him for a special vocation. But, it’s unlikely he would have imagined there was something unique about his personal being, rather than more simply a difference in the kind of activity to which he was being called. And so, as he came up from the Jordan waters and heard those now-familiar words, he may have wondered what was really being said.

Then he finds himself alone in the desert… It must have felt like “now or never!” A childhood and young adult life shaped by a genuine piety, and full of Spirit-prompted intuitions. And then, in the wilderness, all is tested. And not for the last time!

The voice in the wilderness probably said other things to him: “Hello, my friend. Yes, you recognize my voice. I come in peace. Indeed, I’m probably the only one who believes you and those strange words from the sky. So, you see, I’m on your side! Let’s suppose it’s all true. In fact, let’s prove it! If you’re the Son of God, you’ll change the world sooner than you think. Do yourself a favor ~ make these stones into bread-rolls. Then, you won’t be hungry and, soon, you’ll be very popular! Or, even better, as I lift you to the top of the Temple, see how great everything looks. Jump! Everyone loves a wonder-worker. Besides, if you are God’s beloved, what can go wrong?

Tissot’s image captures a self-possessed Jesus, and we can assume it’s a faithful portrayal of his character. A significant part of Jesus’ self-possession stems from the fact that he is not captive to others, and not captive to possessions. Self-possession is focussed within; possession by things and by other people happens when we are distracted by what is around us. And so, self-possession is an antidote to being possessed by our possessions.

Self-possession makes possible self-giving. This is why we distinguish self-possession from self-absorption. For self-possession and self-giving are natural and spiritual corollaries. In his vocation, and especially in his Passion and Death, Jesus exemplified self-giving.

 

This blog is based on my sermon for Lent 1, the text of which can be found by clicking here. The James Tissot image comes from the archive of his biblical artwork, which is physically maintained at, and digitally available from, the Brooklyn Museum. Observers may note what appears (by contemporary standards) to be a culturally insensitive rendering of both the Tempter and of Jesus. Taking this point into account (while also appreciating the artist’s effort to depict matters historically and contextually), we can still benefit from Tissot’s biblically faithful work.