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.
The Silence of True Religion
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.”