Sunday, May 3, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "A Tempest in Their Sky"

Matthew 23:29-39

“How terrible it will be for you legal experts and Pharisees! Hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 You say, ‘If we had lived in our ancestors’ days, we wouldn’t have joined them in killing the prophets.’ 31 You testify against yourselves that you are children of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, complete what your ancestors did. 33 You snakes! You children of snakes! How will you be able to escape the judgment of hell?

 34 Therefore, look, I’m sending you prophets, wise people, and legal experts. Some of them you will kill and crucify. And some you will beat in your synagogues and chase from city to city. 35 Therefore, upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been poured out on the earth, from the blood of that righteous man Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you killed between the temple and the altar. 36 I assure you that all these things will come upon this generation. 

 37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you. How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. 38 Look, your house is left to you deserted. 39 I tell you, you won’t see me until you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name. (Common English Bible)

“The Son of Man: When Poetry Testifies to Christ,” Week Four

The photographer’s images range in mood and palette, from black and white to vivid colors, but the common element of each image is that it is a photograph of a house of worship of some sort, a church or monastery or synagogue, and so on.

And the photographer who is taking these lovingly painstaking portraits is, of all things, an atheist.  Why?  Because our images of faith and worship of a God not his still moves him.  I’ll let him—a Canadian photographer named Mark Schacter, explain from a piece of his from CNN’s BeliefBlog:

With the wonderment of an outsider, I try to understand the seemingly incomprehensible (to me, at least) pull that faith exerts over so many people’s lives.

As a photographer approaching this mystery, I am confronted by what might seem like a contradiction.  Photographs capture what can be seen, and yet faith is often invisible.

But even if personal faith can’t be seen directly, there are some tangible traces of its existence, and that’s where I point my camera.

In particular, I photograph houses of worship whose bricks and clapboard, stained glass and steel are often the largest and most visible manifestations of religious faith…

But is it the building itself that gives the space a sacred quality, or is holiness derived from the devotions of worshipers, present and past, who have occupied the space?

I don’t pretend to know the answer to that question.  But I do know this: Even an ardent atheist can look at a house of worship and see the signs of an invisible human longing that is common to us all, believer and unbeliever alike.

Far be it for us to believe that any atheist is incapable of such longing—indeed, it is a longing that Jesus spoke of and with, for Jesus was not speaking just to the converted; He was not preaching only to the proverbial choir.  Jesus sought to change minds and hearts, which means He surely valued the attention of nonbelievers as much as, if not more, than believers.  But do we do the same today?  Or do we tend to paint skeptics and nonbelievers--of whom I am sure we all know many and actually probably count as friends, family, and neighbors--as some sort of bogeyman?

This is now not as much a new sermon series for us, to go with the reality that Easter really isn’t a new season: we’re now four weeks removed from Easter.  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

As a part of my own work and ministry in proclaiming to the world a risen Savior, this sermon series will take a new tack for me: talking with all of you about Jesus as He is revealed in poetry, of all things.  If you’ll recall my sermon series from a couple of years ago that I centered around several of the writings of C.S. Lewis, well, this series will be structured fairly similarly, except instead of C.S. Lewis’s books, it will be around Khalil Gibran’s poetry about Jesus Christ, of which there is a great amount, in the volume Jesus: Son of Man, from which this series derives its name.  Gibran was a Lebanese poet during the early 20th century who was raised Christian but was also influenced by Sufi mysticism, and that mysticism, much like that of many Christian mystics throughout history, comes through in his poetry about Jesus.  Jesus: Son of Man tells the stories of the gospels, but in Gibran’s often soaring word choice, through the eyes of various supporting characters: the individual disciples, the female followers of Jesus, even some of Jesus’s opponents (although Gibran reserves his best poetry entirely for Jesus’s adherents).

We begin this series, then, two weeks ago with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray.  After skipping a week, we read from Gibran’s version of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, which Gibran assigned to the voice of the apostle Andrew, and this week, we arrive at Jerusalem itself, as Jesus preaches and Gibran, through the voice of Joseph of Arimathea (a member of the Sanhedrin but a follower of Jesus), transcribes:

“Nay, I shall not command Syrian flesh against Roman.  But you with my words shall wake that city, and my spirit shall speak to her second dawn.

My words shall be an invisible army with horses and chariots, and without ax or spear I shall conquer the priests of Jerusalem and the Caesars.

I shall not sit upon a throne where slaves have sat and ruled other slaves.  Nor will I rebel against the sons of Italy.

But I shall be a tempest in their sky, and a song in their soul.

And I shall be remembered.

They shall call me Jesus the Anointed.”

And indeed we have, in calling Jesus since time immemorial the Christ.  “Christ” isn’t Jesus’s surname—it isn’t as though his Nazareth Pre-K teachers could find his name under “C” on the class roll sheet.  No, “Christ” comes from the word “charism,” which, in the ancient Greek, means “anointed.”  When we say “Jesus Christ,” we are literally saying, “Jesus the Anointed.”

As He is.  Which we well know, for the man was baptized after all, and baptism is itself an anointing, springing from the older Hebraic tradition of pouring oil upon priests and kings alike.

But Jesus is different.  His anointing is unlike any of ours, or any of anyone else’s, ever.  Nobody before or since as had their baptism marked with the voice of God Almighty proclaiming, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  I mean, we hope that God is pleased with us, as we are indeed God’s children even as Christ is the one true Son, but…well, if the one true Son’s diatribe, both according to Matthew and according to Gibran, is any indication…maybe not so much.

Let’s unpack Matthew first: this is the tail end of a chapter-long rant against the scribes and Pharisees for a multitude of sins: tithing dill, mint, and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of the law such as justice and mercy and faith; devouring the homes of widows; taking for themselves all the seats of honor at any and every occasion, and so on.  They act, in short, as though they themselves are God’s chosen and anointed, not Jesus, and it shows.  It shows to everyone who has ever had to interact with them, because they are treated so blatantly unfairly and heartlessly.

Which is why Jesus weeps for Jerusalem.  It isn’t enough to simply take that second half of today’s passage, that reflection on the Holy City, in a vacuum.  All of chapter 23 leads up to this lament, it is why Jesus is in such grief: Jerusalem time and again chooses to follow not the authentic prophets of God, but the false teachers who fatten themselves up on what they take from the common people.

The normal recourse against such unjust treatment would be to go to war…it is, for instance, how we got our independence from England after all.  But it is, of course, not what Jesus envisions, and that is where Gibran’s voice, and the voice of our atheist photographer, come in.

“You with my words shall wake that city, and my spirit shall speak to her second dawn,” says Gibran’s Christ, and that ends up being a prophecy fulfilled by the words of Peter that convert thousands in Jerusalem on Pentecost Day, which is coming up just three weeks from now.

With Christ’s words, we too are called to continue to wake our cities and our towns from their slumbers, and when they do awaken, to share with them the spirit, the essence of Christ: to love God and love each other, but also to be furious and demanding in response to moments when love is not shown and displayed to one another.

And, if we are honest, what Jesus shows to the scribes and Pharisees isn’t really love, at least in the sense we tend to think of it—He’s basically cussing them out by this point in Matthew 23.  But what He does do—is doing, really—is speaking not merely to the scribes and Pharisees but to all who are listening to his screed, us included.  And to the rest of us, it ought to be heartening that someone else, God’s Son, in fact, is going to the mat for us against those who would hate us and do evil to us.

That’s what churches are meant to represent, that is what houses of worship can be.  The word “sanctuary” literally means “safe place,” and we need to be a safe place for those who are hated, for those to whom evil is done, and to in turn rebuke the evildoers.  Great houses of worship that do this are revered, images of them are remembered, and stories of them are handed down.

Do you not think that our atheist photographer, despite his skepticism, feels safe at church, even if only to photograph it?

May we, then, speak to nonbelievers similarly, that they may feel safe in our own spiritual home, rather than in the spiritual homes of the scribes and Pharisees who would seek to condemn them first, and love them a distant second.

Here, though, that order is, and must be, always reversed.  Then may our love, and the love of God through us, seep through the condemnations and color anew their experience of the one true God.

And in so doing, may that continue in the spirit of how Khalil Gibran ends this particular poem:

These are the things He said outside the walls of Jerusalem before He entered the city.

And His words are graven as with chisels.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 3, 2015

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