The past few weeks have taken us through what we’re calling the Cycle of Gratitude. But while that’s the title of this year’s stewardship theme, the main point of the Cycle of Gratitude is that it is ongoing and never ceasing. We happen to be taking the time to notice it more this month, but it’s not in fact confined to a single season. The point is to sustain our attention to what is always the case, that is, what we say every week at the Offertory: that all things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.
So far, we’ve meditated on this cycle as it pertains specifically to the people that we are grateful for in our lives, the things we take for granted, and even those hardships which we can now see as the source of growth. This week, the final week, we are turning to this parish to consider those things about Emmanuel itself, this particular space, this particular congregation, that cause us to give thanks to God for his good gifts. We’ve got purple slips this week, a color that represents the last color of paper available in the supply closet for me to chop up. And as with the previous weeks, I want you all to begin thinking through those things about Emmanuel Memorial which lift your hearts in thanksgiving. It could be something large-scale, such as our privilege to worship in a beautiful Gothic Revival sanctuary, a space that speaks to a lasting history inextricably tied to downtown Champaign. Maybe it’s our established liturgy that you know will always be here for you, even on those days when the most you can do is pray on auto-pilot. But it could also be that as you look around the room, what you see are the faces of a congregation without which you could not have made it through a hardship in your life.
Today is the third week in our focus on the Cycle of Gratitude at Emmanuel. If you came in through the Great Hall you may have noticed the chain that we are making is growing. It is hanging over the edge of the balcony and now has two colors of loops in it. The first week we used blue strips listing names of people for whom we are grateful. Then last week the salmon colored strips were for naming things we had taken for granted but now realize our thanks. In case you were not here, or did not have time to fill out those slips, there are extras on the tables in the Great Hall and you may still do those.
Today we will be doing an exercise that might require a bit more reflection. On the yellow strips in your pew write something that was difficult when it happened, but now for which you are grateful. Something that was difficult that now I am grateful for.
This morning fellow parishioner, Nancy Suchomski will speak to this topic, giving us her reflections on gratitude that comes over time and through reflection. Nancy.
Thank you, Nancy.
Remember, it is ok to write while I speak, so pick up one of the yellow papers and jot down your gratitude for something that was difficult but now upon reflection has brought you growth, or understanding or peace.
Perhaps your something was failing out of a certain university and then you chose a new major that brought a fulfilling career.
Perhaps your something was finding you no longer could do a hobby that brought you much joy but then you found a new interest that you had not had time for before.
Perhaps your something was the end of a particular relationship or even a divorce but now you have found a new person with whom you experience much joy, or perhaps decided being single is ok.
Perhaps it was a political candidate you supported who lost and now you have realized the importance of getting more involved in government.
Perhaps it was a stage of life when you were too busy to spend time with your own child and now are grateful for the chance of time with your grandchildren.
Perhaps your something is an illness that prevents you from doing all that you once did and now you are grateful for the time to reflect and pray.
Perhaps… use the yellow papers to write your own answer.
Today, I want to talk about what baptism demands of the Church, as we’ll soon be baptizing little Rylie into the Body of Christ. But I also want to talk about the Gospel passage appointed for today, as is our responsibility every Sunday as preachers governed by a lectionary. We don’t get to pick the readings -- clearly, considering today’s Gospel -- but it is nevertheless our job to receive it with humility and sincerity and preach the truth contained therein. What does the Spirit have to tell us in this Gospel, for this situation in which we find ourselves as this particular parish? That was one of the main questions asked by one of the lecturers at the conference I attended last weekend in Dallas and it’s stuck with me since. Today is the momentous occasion of a baptism, and while our Gospel may not initially appear to harmonize with it, we’re going to dive in anyway! God’s truth always coheres in Scripture, so here we go!
After our meeting on Monday, a few of Emmanuel’s vestry members were talking about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the movie about Mister Rogers. I don’t know how many of you got to see it when it was at the Art Theater; but it is so moving to spend 90 minutes with the straightforward goodness of this man. I was a regular viewer of Mister Rogers Neighborhood growing up, and I always felt like he was talking right to me. I had no idea that he chose and emphasized the word “neighbor” because of the unique way it’s used in the Bible, but I liked very much the idea that he proactively was seeking me out to be his neighbor. “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you. Please won’t you be my neighbor.”
I even wrote Fred Rogers a fan letter, and he – or actually WQED-TV in Pittsburgh, I’m sure – mailed me back a postcard with his face and signature on it. Of course I was a little kid, and it went completely over my head that in addition to putting on a zippered cardigan and having a cute trolley, he was also dealing on a personal, compassionate child level with issues like racism and the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the Vietnam War. But I’m sure that the way Mister Rogers helped preschoolers feel valued and listened to in the middle of those tumultuous events had an effect on me without my knowing it. The movie goes behind the scenes: the low-budget studio, some outtakes, and interviews with the adults who worked with Fred Rogers talking about how this unassuming man just simply loved them for who they were, and how soaking up that compassionate individual attention still has effects in their lives.
After a brief summer break we are back into the gospel of Mark. Today’s passage occurs at the mid-point of this gospel. The first half of Mark contains the stories of Jesus using his marvelous gifts. He is a teacher and a healer and a worker of miracles. These are wonderful, amazing stories. This half of the book also describes the mounting tension between Jesus and the established religious leaders of the time. Then the second half of Mark is the story of the road to Jerusalem, Jesus’ passion and resurrection. In the first part Jesus is quite public with what he does and speaks to large crowds of people. In the second, Jesus speaks primarily to his closest followers to prepare them for the time when he will no longer be with them on this earth. Today’s reading is right in the middle of the two sections; it is the hinge or turning point that connects the two parts, finishing the focus of the first and moving ahead into the focus of the second.
Specifically there are three things going on in this particular passage. First is how Jesus is perceived by others, including the famous question answered by Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” The second is Jesus predicting his future passion and the third describes the life of a disciple as a paradox: those who want to save their life must lose it and those who lose their life for Jesus will find it.
I want to take a closer look at the reading commenting briefly on three perspectives of it. The first is as one of the original disciples might have experienced it. The second is as someone in the community for which Mark wrote the gospel might have heard it and the third is as we hear it today.
I got a number of questions last Sunday about the hangings and vestments we have up now. We use this set regularly in the fall here at Emmanuel, but it made me realize it’s been a couple of years since we talked about them and about the message they were created to embody, and in any parish a couple of years is a long time. So I thought I would tell the story again.
All this fabric art that adorns the space was given as a gift to Emmanuel and commissioned from the Sarum Group, the workshop of an artist from England named Jane Lemon. She came over and lived and prayed with us to learn who we were, and out of that came this set of vestments and hangings, which are meant to be an artistic statement of our vocation as a parish, a picture of Emmanuel’s unique call from God. She also made us a purple set for Lent, but I’ve never heard of another parish that has a set like this one, a piece of liturgical art that deliberately holds in front of us who we are meant to be and how to get there.
So let me unpack it a bit. Take a look at the altar – and if it’s too far for you to see well, there are postcard images of it in all the pews today as a gift to you. I’ll say more about that later, but for now let’s look at the art. As you can see, the life of God streams down from the tabernacle where we keep the Holy Eucharist, the real presence of Jesus among us. You notice the rays of Jesus’ power coming forth, glistening with bright life. Where do they land? They land on us, the people of Emmanuel, pictured as that field of wheat below. The art reminds us every time we look at it: For us, everything flows from Jesus and his presence; we have to start by drinking in that presence; to start anywhere else is to fail before we begin.
You also notice, though, that that divine life Jesus is pouring out to us has competition. The field is studded with red poppies, which Jane Lemon intended to be symbols of passivity and indifference. Christ is trying to share his love and power with all of us, but the field also has sleepy poppies who aren’t awake to it yet. Still, slowly, as Jane Lemon wrote in her artist’s statement, “The wheat overcomes the poppies.” Jesus gradually does his work.
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rule of St. Benedict contains an entire chapter on “The Restraint of Speech” which includes the instruction that “speaking and teaching are the master’s task; the disciple is to be silent and listen.” Here, the master in question is the abbot, the head of the monastery, and the disciple is the monk, but this instruction comes straight from the original relationship between Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament. Jesus was the Word made Flesh, and as such, it was fitting that his life on earth would be characterized by speaking and teaching -- by words -- and those who followed him being characterized by receptive listening -- by silence.
So one of the basic ideas of Christianity is that, in a very real sense, Jesus, as the Incarnate Word of God, has said all that there is to be said, indeed, is all that there is to be said. What remains for Christians to do is as simple as it is nearly impossible: basically, we’re called to be a massive collective of people across time whose shared life together in the Church amounts to one big “what he said… no further comment.” All the introverts are like, “Yes, I have found the true religion.”
Here we are about to wrap up Ephesians! Lots of you have commented that this time we’ve spent together on this epistle has been very meaningful. A couple have even told me this series was the deciding factor in their making it to Mass on a particular Sunday. It just goes to show that when we open up Scripture and pay specific attention to what the text says, people discover how powerful and useful it is. I’m telling you, the Bible is really worth your time. We’re near the end of the Epistle today, with this famous section about what makes for spiritual strength. I do want to unpack this passage a bit, but I also want to give a quick recap of where we have been together.
You’ll remember that Ephesians is like most of Paul’s letters in that it falls into two major sections. The first is a section setting out in some way what God has done in Jesus Christ. Paul wants to get us situated up front in the truth of what has happened to us, who is the God who has done this, why he did it, and so on. What is true? What is reality? Paul starts with telling us or reminding us of things like that, because he knows all too well that most of us base the way we approach our lives on some other reality than Jesus. And when some other reality is the lens you’re using as you read, you won’t really be able to receive what the text is getting at. You’ll see it colored through some other lens and miss the point. Now, of course Paul lived 2000 years ago. The other lenses taken for granted in his day were things like the crushing power of empire, the availability of a smorgasbord of spiritual options, entrenched economic injustice, deep ethnic divisions – you know, all the usual stuff we’re still dealing with. So he starts by saying: No, remember, that’s not ultimate reality. What God has done in Christ is ultimate reality. In Ephesians, that section is chapter 1-3, and we were there for three weeks.
And after Paul has made that point very clear, only then does he go on to say: Given that what God has done in Christ is ultimate reality, here’s how it looks when that reality works itself out in your life and your church and your neighborhood and your culture. Here’s what will be different if you – and we – live as if Christianity is real. And that’s the second half of the letter, chapter 4-6, and we’ve been here for three weeks too.
There are two more weeks, counting this one, in our journey together through Ephesians, and we’re continuing in the section that Deacon Chris two weeks ago called the Therefore: the second half of the letter. Everything in the first half, Ephesians 1-3, is trying to help us grasp the extent of God’s action Jesus and to begin to receive the benefits of his work. Everything in the second half, Ephesians 4-6, assumes that we have grasped what Jesus has done for us, have received it, and are now grounded in it as the root of our identity and the meaning of our lives, and then it says, “So, given that, now what?”
There’s always room to take in more of the first half, of how what Jesus has done grounds and defines you, of course – but Paul is assuming here in the second half that his readers are in Christ already and thus already have a new force motivating them and guiding them. So none of what Paul writes is general advice that you could just follow regardless of whether you are a disciple of Jesus or not. No, all the “therefore” sections of Paul’s letters are essentially a picture of what the life of Jesus looks like as it works its way out in those who are rooted in it, those in whom he dwells. Your roots are in Christ, his life is living in you, therefore….what does it look like?
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Aristotle said that art, being the imitation of nature, represents the form and order of the world in order to get at something perfect, timeless, and beautiful. Art takes all the varied and changing experiences from life and simulates them into a single whole -- whether a painting, a poem, or a play -- and in so doing, mysteriously transcends those particular experiences. What results is not a duplicate world, but an object that unveils some deeper reality of the world we already have. At its best, art touches the sublime. It’s about the closest we get to approximating God’s original act of creation from nothing. So imitation is one of the most basic human activities because it is one of the main ways that we grasp for what is beyond us.
It makes sense that humans would do this kind of thing. Being “rational animals,” we’re unlike the living creatures that surround us on earth in that we possess the faculty of reason and imagination but we’re unlike the angels in that we possess bodies. And that makes us peculiar creatures. We’re stuck mid-way between heaven and earth, so to speak. And so we have this insatiable drive to gather our experiences of earth so as to reach a touch of heaven. We imitate the forms and rhythms of the cosmos because we have this deep intuition that doing so will put us into contact with transcendence. This is why we worship according to a liturgy, moving our bodies and shaping our words according to ancient forms. And yet it turns out that our desire to touch heaven through imitation is simultaneously what makes us human and what has made us sinful. After all...
What is sin if not the presumption to be like God?
What is salvation if not the struggle to be like God?
But what determines the quality of our imitation? What is the criterion by which we become the imitators of God as his children or the imitators of God as his impostors?