25 April 2011

Voice Recognition

John 20: 1-18
Resurrection of the Lord/ Sacrament of Holy Communion/ 24th April 2011

It’s love mixed with grief that sends her to the tomb.  It’s early; still dark.  The Greek suggests sometime between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. Alone, Mary Magdalene approaches the garden and discovers that the stone was removed.  Startled, she immediately runs for Peter (the leader of Jesus’ followers) and for the disciple whom Jesus loved, probably John.  She assumes, without looking in, that someone removed the stone and stolen his body.  That’s what she tells Peter and the other disciple.  Love mixed with curiosity sends them running back to the tomb. Peter gets there first.

            There’s something we need to know about these tombs.  They weren’t graves as we think of them, in the ground.  Joseph of Arimathea didn’t just place Jesus in a cave and roll a large boulder in front of it.  When John tells us the stone was removed, we have to imagine a large stone wheel placed into a groove, a stone wheel that was rolled down an incline, so that the weight of the stone and the force of the roll would have firmly lodged it over the entrance, leaving it in place. You would need a small army to remove such a stone.  Matthew’s gospel tells us the stone was sealed by Roman guards (Matt. 27:64). You don’t just push a stone like this out of the way.  Knowing this helps us see just how astonished they must have been to hear the news. 

            The two men bent down and looked in, peered in and to their amazement found that the body was missing. But that’s not all.  John is quite descriptive of what they saw:  “linen wrappings lying there.” And the cloth used to wrap Jesus’ head, “was rolled up in a place by itself.”  Now contrast this with the way John describes Lazarus coming out of the tomb earlier in chapter 11 (vss. 38-44).  Lazarus’ hands and feet are still bound with the burial linens and his head cloth is still wrapped around his head.  John’s description of what he found in Jesus’ tomb, literally in Greek, “the linens were still in their folds,” suggests that the body evaporated away in place, leaving behind the burial cloths.  When John saw that sight before him, he believed—the first to believe in the resurrection. Then the disciples return to their homes.

            And they leave Mary behind!  They guys leave her all alone, crying outside the tomb: missing the one whom she loved, missing the one who loved her unlike any person had ever loved her.  It’s a poignant scene; Mary weeping among the tombs.  As she weeps, she bends over and finally peers into the tomb—according to the text, her first look in.  She then receives her own revelation, her own epiphany.  As if all of this wasn’t enough, she sees two messengers of Yahweh dressed in white, sitting apart:  one was situated where Jesus’ head had been, the other sits where Jesus’ feet had been.  And in between the two of them,—nothing—and an absence there means a presence some place else.  “Woman, why are you weeping?”  “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where there have laid him.”  Then she turns around and sees someone standing there who asks the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”  Thinking this man, assumed to be the gardener, would know what happenedd, she enquires after Jesus’ body.   The tone here in Greek is very polite, “Please [kind] sir, if you have carried him way, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”  (As if she could carry dead weight all by herself.) But then everything changes when the gardener says, “Mary!”
            Don’t you wonder why Jesus asked about her tears when he knew full-well why she was crying?  Why did he ask that question when he knew full-well who she was looking for?  It looks as if he was playing with her. But put yourself in her place, how would you want to encounter resurrection?  Get it all over at once or receive it gradually? 

            I’ve come to believe that God always meets us where we are, the revelation is always particular, the encounter with Jesus always personal.  Peter’s way and John’s way of encountering resurrection was different, as it was for Thomas the Doubter, as it was for Mary.  While I don’t subscribe to some of the more outlandish stories about Mary’s relationship with Jesus, the gospels are pretty clear that they were close.  The enormity of her grief testifies to the dept of her love, the same grief and love which brought her to the tomb. What she was looking for and needed was different from all the rest.  Mary is in such a frantic state.  She asks the gardener, “Tell me where he is,” and then she obviously turns away from him without waiting for a reply and continues looking, because it is from behind her or away from her that she hears someone call her by name – and then she turns.

            On Maundy Thursday, I visited someone at Charlestown who also shares the name Mary:  Mary Lawrence Forkel.  For those who don’t know her, Mary is a long-time, beloved member of this congregation who has given heart and soul to the people of this church for decades.  She loves this church and its people and this people of God love Mary – deeply.  Mary is under hospice care and has been through a very difficult year.  The cancer is advancing.  She has lost her sight.  It’s very difficult for her to swallow and eat and even to talk.  Her cheeks feel like stone. Nevertheless, she welcomes visits and is grateful, immensely grateful, for the support she has received from this community of faith.  Someone in the church bought her a talking wrist-watch. She can just push a button and hear a voice that tells her the time. That works great.  This week Mary told me about a new phone that her son, Charles, bought for her.  It took about three hours to set it up.  It allows her to make outgoing calls all by herself.  She just picks up the receiver, says a name, a digital voice repeats what it hears and then dials.  It works remarkable well.  She showed me.  Mary reached for the phone, picked up the received and said, “Ken Kovacs,” and soon it was dialing my number. But it’s not perfect.  With her speech being what it is, the phone has difficulty picking up certain sounds.  When Mary says, “Steve Russell,” the phone says back, “Judy Kloetzel,” and then begins to dial Judy.  Mary showed me.  She said, “Steve Russell,” and I heard the phone say, “Judy Kloetzel,” and then it began to ring.  We hung up.  Then a few minutes later the phone rang.  It was Judy Kloetzel calling from about 6500 feet up in the mountains of California, wondering if everything was alright and I said, yes.  I put the phone back and then sat down to Mary’s right, put my left arm around her, and held her hand and talked into her left ear so she could hear me.  After a moment of quiet, shifting topics, Mary asked, “So, Ken, what’s your sermon title for Easter?”  And I said, “Voice Recognition.”  And then we both laughed out loud, long and hard.   

            It’s a poignant expression, isn’t it, of the power of the name:  to be able to say the name of another clearly and to clearly hear the speaking of one’s name. We know what it feels like to hear our name said by someone who knows us and loves us.  It goes right to the depths of our being, into our souls.  It doesn’t sound the same coming from everyone else.  It’s a powerful thing indeed, long after the death of someone dear to hear their voice in your inner-ear still evoking your name.  Perhaps the power comes with knowing that behind the voice saying our name is one who truly loves us.  It must not be overlooked that it was only upon the hearing of her name – Mary! – did she respond and “see” with the turn of recognition; it’s as if her ears searched and found Jesus before her eyes did, searching for what they could not see.   It was the voice she knew as the voice of one who loved her, the object of her love and her grief.  That’s what she needed in order to recognize resurrection.

            Peter and John saw the evidence of the resurrection and left satisfied.  Thomas, later on, wanted proof. He too, wanted to see.  There’s a little bit of Peter and John and Thomas in all of us, to be sure.  But most of us, if not all of us, I suspect, desire what Mary searched for and found —to hear our names said by someone who loves us profoundly, deeply, completely, unconditionally.  Hearing the voice is very importance in John’s gospel:  “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).  “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice…” (5:28).   Jesus as the good shepherd,  says he “goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice… My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me” (10: 4, 17).  As we heard on Good Friday,  Jesus said to Pilate, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (18:37).  It’s been said that the way to the human heart is through the ear.[1] It’s the voice that calls us and claims us and loves us.  As T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) once said, “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this / Calling/ We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”[2]

            It’s love that draws us to an empty tomb; it’s what sends us searching in the dark; it’s a love that’s found when we hear the Lord of the universe utter our name and know who stands behind that voice.  In fact, love is infused all through John’s resurrection story.  It’s the only way to read it.  We don’t approach it through blind-faith (because faith isn’t blind). We don’t believe in the resurrection through intellect (although thought matters), we don’t come to resurrection through reason (although that matter too).  Neither Mary, Peter, nor John reasoned their way to the resurrection. We don’t confess the resurrection because of speculation about what might be possible in an open-ended universe, and we don’t fathom the fact of the resurrection like an historian or a detective, looking for evidence and just the facts. These are all appropriate ways of coming to some forms of truth, but as the long history of Western philosophy and theology have shown us, they all lead to dead-ends, not to resurrection. 

            It was, oddly enough, the Jewish philosopher and mathematician, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who might be the most helpful here, for he points us in a very different direction.  He helps us get into the text and see what’s going on here in John 20. Wittgenstein was one of the great minds of the last century. Now, it’s not every day one hears Wittgenstein cited in an Easter sermon (or any sermon, for that matter).  I’ve surprised myself.  He’s notorious difficult and mystical, however, in a cleansing moment of clarity he wrote in his notebooks from 1937, these words that really struck me this week:   “What inclines even me to believe in Christ’s Resurrection?” he asks.  He then offers a long list of possible rationales and ends with faith, “And faith,” he insists, is a particular kind of faith; faith “is faith in what is needed by my heart, my soul, not my speculative intelligence.  For it is my soul with its passions, as it were with its flesh and blood, that has to be saved, not my abstract mind.”  Then he writes: “Perhaps we can say:  Only love can believe the Resurrection.  Or:  It is love that believes the Resurrection…redeeming love.”[3]

            Resurrection only makes sense when seen as a demonstration of God’s powerful love to restore and redeem. It’s the voice of love that we recognize when Christ calls us by name,  a “love [as] strong as death” (Song of Solomon 8:6), a love that  “wilt not let us go,”[4] that can’t bear to be apart from us, that will not allow anything, even death and loss, from separating us from God (Romans 8:39), for God so loved the world (John 3:16).  This too is what resurrection means. 

            As we approach the table of the Lord this morning,  when we receive bread and wine from a minister or elder and hear these words, “…the bread of heaven broken for you…the cup of salvation shed for you…” imagine that Christ himself offers to you and calls you by name.

            Maybe we will feel in the depth of our souls a love that calls each of us by name.  Hearing his voice we too might turn and recognize resurrection face-to-face.  A voice, a turn, a love which changes everything, when tears of sorrow become in time tears of joy!

Image: “The Risen Jesus & Mary Magdalene,” Fra Angelico (c.1385-1455), Church of San Marco, Florence.

[1]I remember theologian Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007) saying this in a lecture he gave at Princeton Seminary back in 1989.  It’s a theme that’s found throughout his writings.
[2] From “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets.
[3 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, trans. Peter Winch (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1980), 33e.  The Wittgenstein reference is found in N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope:  Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne, 2008), 72-73. Wright considers this an “epistemology of love.”
[4] Allusion to the hymn by that title, “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go,” by George Matheson (1842-1906).

21 April 2011


Mark 14: 22-31

Maundy Thursday/ 21 April 2011

I don’t think any of them could have imagined what the next 24 hours would be like – and how their lives would be forever changed in 36 hours.  They broke the bread, shared the cup, heard Jesus give a sermon – which they didn’t really get, especially Peter (he had his own agenda) – and then they left. They sang a hymn as they went, a well-known familiar hymn, I’m sure, sung without hymnals or a power point presentation displaying words on a large screen.  They knew their faith by heart.  But their faith, their religion, their spiritual practices were just as firmly in place after the meal as they were before the meal, without the slightest hint that the meaning of their faith was about to be radicalized.

            They knew something was about to happen, but they’re all a little oblivious to what’s going on right in front of their eyes. They didn’t know that night just how little time they had left with him.  By that same time the following night, he would be gone.

            One of my favorite contemporary writers is Anne Lamott.   She’s funny, quirky, wonderfully irreverent, edgy, smart, been to hell and back, in love with Jesus – and not afraid to tell you so.  She wrote a wonderful book on writing itself, two memoirs about her journey of faith (she was raised in an atheist household) and her son, Sam, a book about parenting, along with several novels.  She’s nurtured by St. Andrew Presbyterian Church situated in Sausalito, along San Francisco Bay. On Monday (April 18), Michele Norris from NPR talked with Anne about what Easter means, in a segment entitled, “Beyond Bunnies:  The Real Meaning of Easter.”   

            Norris asked her how the seasons of Lent and Easter have changed for her.  Anne said her life was changed when she was 38 when her best friend, Pammy, died.  They went shopping two weeks before she died.  Pammy was wearing a wig and in a wheelchair.  Anne said she was out looking for a new dress to impress a boyfriend she was seeing at the time. She tried the dress on and asked Pammy what she thought. She wanted to know if it made her hips look big.  To which she said, calmly, “Annie, you don’t have that kind of time.”

            Lent and Easter – this night – are about being real, honest, and authentic about time and about the state of our lives in this marvelous, yet scary universe.  It exposes things we would rather not face or acknowledge, so we get lost in bunnies and bonnets and chocolate and tulips and spring-time renewal, which, we must admit have little to do with what we’re talking about here to night, which is death and resurrection.

            That’s what changed Annie life, she said, that moment:  “You don’t have that kind of time.”  Lamott said,  when she really stops all the zaniness of contemporary life, stops all the diversions and avoidances that hide the truth, when she sets aside her own agenda, she remembers and hears, “…you don’t have that kind of time.”  Instead, Lamott says to herself, “you have time only to cultivate presence and authenticity and service, praying against all odd, [you] get your sense of humor back.”[1]

            So what do we have time for?  To cultivate presence, authenticity, service, laughter.  To discover what a life is for and why we live it.[2]  To learn or relearn, discover or rediscover that our lives mean something and—what is more—that the very sinews of our being, the very thing that allows us to be and sustains us with every breath, every second in existence is participating in the very being of God.  It’s too much to all take in in the moment.  In time the disciples came to the realization who he really was—and remains to be. That the one who breaks bread with us and shares a cup with us, who shares this table with us this night, who gives us his presence in this meal, is the same one in whom the entire universe coheres and has being and meaning.[3]  It’s a staggering, mind-boggling thing we do here tonight and every time we gather like this.  It’s too much to take in.

            That’s why Jesus gives us this meal – to help us grasp these things, so that we make time for the things that matter.   Cultivate presence. Authenticity. Service. Laughter.

            At the end of the interview Norris asked Lamott what she will do on Easter.  Go to her little church for worship, which will have “a huge crowd that day of 60,” for worship, help with church school, and, she said, “cry out of joy that this is the truth of our life together. And then I will go home,” she said, “and I will have 25 people—about 15 relatives and 10 riffraff, i.e. my closest friends—and we sill sit down, and we will eat, the most sacred thing we do.”

[1] Hear or read the full interview with Anne Lamott at the NPR website: http://www.npr.org/2011/04/18/135517274/beyond-bunnies-the-real-meaning-of-easter-season.
[2] James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit:  Human Development in Theological Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998).  These are the two critical questions that Loder explores in this text.
[3] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1989): “Perhaps only those who have been partially blinded by the Truth—whether suddenly or gradually—come to the breath-taking realization that the One who sits at table and breaks bread and drinks wine with us is the One through whom and for whom all ten billion light years of creation, including our own come-lately, here-and-now existence, have their being.”

18 April 2011

Embracing the Vision

Palm Sunday/ 17th April 2011

Matthew 21: 1-17

From the Mount of Olives, down to the Kidron Valley, and then up again to the southern gate Jesus processed with this disciples.  Soon the crowded streets of Holy Jerusalem—overflowing with people in town for Passover —get caught up in the disciples’ praise.  “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  They spread out their cloaks on the road, others cut branches from the trees–maybe palm branches (Matthew doesn’t say). It’s their way to mark the royal way for a royal son who comes in the name of God, to the city of God – the navel, the axis of the world. The city is already full and  frenetic. The Roman legions, based in Caesarea Maritima, were transferred from their garrisons along the coast here to ensure that everything remained peaceful.  Jerusalem during Passover was a powder keg, just waiting to explode with religious and political zealotry against the Roman occupation. Adding to the turmoil and increasing the tension, Jesus and his followers organize a demonstration, a spectacle on a donkey, religious, political theatre, all designed to make a point.

            And what’s the point?  As we hear this story, which we probably know well, maybe too well, I think it’s important to wonder if Jesus, entering Jerusalem that day really knew what the rest of the week would be like. From our vantage point, knowing about Good Friday and Easter morning, it looks as if the reason Jesus was heading to Jerusalem was to die on a cross, as if that was the plan all along – to die on a cross.  We have come to believe it’s all about the cross and the empty grave—and it is, but not exclusively so.  We have come to believe it was about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, taking our sins upon himself and offering in exchange forgiveness and new life—and it is, but not exclusively so, at least not for Matthew.  You would be hard-pressed to find these understandings of the cross in his gospel.  In fact, we generally focus so much upon the cross and the empty-tomb that we believe that’s what it’s all about—and it is, but not completely. 

            What I’m trying to say is that the cross and the empty tomb cannot be severed from the rest of Jesus’ life, from his ministry, from his teaching.  The cross and the Easter message make no sense apart from what transpired from the moment of Jesus’ birth right up to the day before he rode into Jerusalem.  In fact, I’m beginning to wonder and maybe even believe that Jesus wasn’t born to die on a cross.  I’m beginning to wonder and maybe even believe that Jesus wasn’t born to atone for my sin, to die for me, “to bear the dreaded curse for my soul.”[1]  At least not in the conventional way we think about these claims.  These are some of the ways the church attempted to make sense of what they experienced, crafted post-resurrection, after we’ve had time—about 2000 years or so and still counting—to reflect upon that fateful week.

            What am I getting at?  Where was Jesus going on that Palm Sunday?  What was his destination?  If it was to a cross, that could have occurred any where.  Why Jerusalem? Jerusalem was not the exclusive crucifixion zone for the Roman Empire.  Instead, maybe Jerusalem was the destination and not the cross, but to the Temple Mount—the holy temple of Yahweh. That’s where he was going.  He went right to the heart of the religious establishment—the site where Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, the resting place for the ark of the covenant, the home of the Holy of Holies,  the dwelling place of the holiness of God, the setting of Solomon’s temple and then the site for the second temple.  And this was no ordinary temple—it was enormous, one of the wonders of the ancient world, it was covered with gold and reflected the sun with a brilliance, symbolizing a God of “light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”[2]  It was the center of the religious life, the economic life, and the political life of Israel, staffed by scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees and other religious officials who were all in collaboration with the Roman Empire.  That’s one of the reasons why there were money-changers in the temple—where they shouldn’t have been.  Money with the image—the graven images of Caesar— on it in the very home of a God who has gone on record, in stone, about how he feels about graven images; money with the image of a Caesar who claimed and demanded worship like a god.  That’s where Jesus was heading—to the nerve-center of the collaborators, to dismantle and undo the system.  His goal: to take on the abuses of religion that get in the way of authentic worship and service to a God who alone is worthy of worship and service and even our lives.  That was Jesus’ goal on the last week of his ministry; that was his mission on the first week of his ministry.  That was the message behind the parables and all the preaching about the kingdom— or we can even say, the empire—of God (same word in Greek). 

            Jesus was thoroughly committed to his calling, thoroughly faithful to God, and to the kingdom. Because the kingdom is the pearl of great price, he gives anything, even his life, in order to buy the field where that pearl is buried.  What mattered most to Jesus was the kingdom of God, a kingdom of justice and peace and righteousness, a realm of salvation and mercy and love.  Because these mattered most to Jesus—and because the religious authorities were perverting the message and standing in the way of justice and peace—Jesus takes on the entire system.  Because this is what mattered most to Jesus he was willing to give and even sacrifice his life. 

            As we enter Holy Week, perhaps we can then think of the cross in this way:  to see the cross as the consequence of Jesus’ faithfulness to the kingdom of God, the result of Jesus being faithful to God’s vision for his life, which he first discovered in the wilderness of Judea.  Jesus’ vision wasn’t shared by many of his contemporaries, particularly the religious authorities and certainly the political authorities.  In fact, they were intentionally against it.  It’s been said that limited or even false-visions have a way of creating crosses for people.  This is not to say that Jesus’ vision was wrong, but that when people are short-sighted, can’t envision another way, think their way is the only way, can’t admit their limitations, resist the way of love and justice, then people suffer and get hurt.  That’s one way of seeing what happened to Jesus; it still happens today, sometimes even in Jesus’ name.  When the church and its people have limited or false-visions of what the church is supposed to be about, people get hurt, people suffer, and we crucify God’s children again and again.

            When the vision of God is put first, as we see in Jesus, when we get our priorities straight, when we are willing to give our lives for it, suffer for it, and maybe—for some—even die for it, then God will justify such a life, God will resurrect such a life, God will raise up and redeem, honor and bless such a life—as God did with Jesus.  In other words, focusing on God’s vision, what God desires for all God’s people, and then aligning ourselves with the vision— embracing it—is crucial because it’s the royal way that leads to life.  I beginning to believe this a significant dimension of what’s going on throughout Holy Week and a part of the Easter message.

            It just so happens to be similar to the focus of our new capital campaign, Embracing the Vision, which we kick-off today. We’ve used this word “vision” a lot lately—and we’re going to hear a lot more of it over the next six weeks!  It’s crucial.  All analogies and metaphors are inadequate, as we know.  I’m not equating our plans for this campaign with the purpose of Jesus’ life.  I’m not saying that Embracing the Vision will cost us our lives; hopefully it will cost us something, however.   It will cost us something if we consider what the vision of this church is worth.  Because the visions matters, the cost will be worth it.

            Embracing the Vision campaign, as we know, is primarily about retiring, vanquishing the debt occurred from the last campaign which collected funds to support a long-overdue renovation of our church facility.  In order to do what was needed then we had to incur good debt —just as we might have good debt for a home mortgage or for student loans, that’s good debt.  But very soon for us (July, actually) the good debt will become bad debt, bad debt that will hinder our ability to live into the future God has planned for this people of God.  The vision part of the campaign slogan is not retiring the debt.  The vision is the health and strength and direction of the overall ministry of Catonsville Presbyterian Church.  The vision is ministry— what we are doing and can do to embody God’s love and justice in this community.  The vision is people, being kingdom people in Catonsville and ensuring that nothing hinders or hampers us from embracing it.  With this debt eradicated, we will be free to expand the ministry and mission of the church all the more. 

             At one level, yes, this campaign is about dollars, it’s about money.  But to say it’s only about dollars and debt is too crass and far too literal and completely misses the point.   How we spend our dollars and work our debt to the benefit of the kingdom matter to God.  Money is a powerful symbol of what matters most in life, which is why Jesus was furious with the money-changers in the temple, because they were making it about the money and not about the worship and service to God.  The campaign is not only about the dollars and debt, but about the people—and over the next couple of weeks you will hear stories about people who have witnessed God’s love directly as a result of what we were able to accomplish through the renovation and taking on this debt.  But now the debt needs to go away.

            If the ministry and witness of this church matter ultimately to God and to us, then we will want to do whatever it takes to ensure that it thrives and can be all that it can be.  If the future vision of this ministry and witness mean something to you, then you will want to do whatever it takes to allow the ministry to thrive and prosper.   Today we enter into a season of prayerful discernment, leading up to Commitment Sunday on May 29, when we will make our three-year pledge.  Between now and then we are asking everyone to take stock of their lives, to think about what this ministry means to you and those you love, and then ask God in prayer, what your part will be in helping us embrace this vision.

            Now if you’re not a member of this church or maybe here for the first time, let me say, this is not the usual fare coming from this pulpit.  But whether one is a member of this church or not, the vision God has for the church and for each of our lives is of ultimate significance to God.  Realizing, reaching, embracing God’s vision or will is never easy, it’s a struggle, but a struggle that is worth it all for the joy one receives knowing that one’s life is participating in the work of God.
            So here are some things to consider this Holy Week: What can I do to help accomplish God’s will—for this church, for my life, for the world?  What commitment can I make that is meaningful to me?  What can I give that demonstrates my faith, my devotion, my love for God’s will? Is something new being asked of you?  What is the vision worth to you?   What cost, what sacrifice am I able to make or, perhaps, called to make? What will it cost to know such joy?

            And, finally, what matters most this week is that we fix our eyes upon Jesus.  As the letter to the Hebrews urged us:  “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, NIV).  Did you notice the order here?  It’s important.  “…who for the joy set before him endured the cross….”  That’s how one embraces the vision.

[1] Cf. the hymn, “What Wondrous Love is This,” written by William Walker (1809-1875).
[2] Cf. the hymn, “Immortal Invisible, God Only Wise,” written by Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908).

04 April 2011

The Search for the Face

Joel 2:12-17& 2 Corinthians 2:1-6

Fourth Sunday in Lent/ 3rd April 2011

Two images are placed before us in these two texts.  They hold up two, different, but related and important images.  The face and the heart; a movement of the heart and a turning of the face.  Heart and face.  The Joel text calls us to turn to the Lord with all our heart.  In scripture, the heart was understood as the center of the personality, the core of our being; all that you are is represented with the heart.  If your heart was not right with God, then something was wrong.  If our hearts are devoted to gods which are no gods, instead of the Living God, then our hearts have betrayed us.  Because the heart is the center of the self, the health of one’s hearts is dependent upon that which pumps life into the heart, is contingent upon one’s relationship with God.  God wants our hearts—meaning, God doesn’t just want a part of our lives, God doesn’t want our empty religiosity, and weak attempts at trying to be “good” or moral; instead, God desires the heart of our lives, the center of who we are, all that we are.

            This is at the center of Christian discipleship.  When the founder of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791) affirmed his faith (24th May 1738, in Nettleton Court, off Aldersgate Street, London), said that his “heart was strangely warmed.”  And it might even come as a surprise to some that our own beloved John Calvin (1509-1564) had a heart—a head maybe, Mr. Cerebral Theologian that he was, but not a heart.   When we actually read Calvin, howver, we discover a different story.  His conversion experience was very similar to Wesley’s.  In fact, later, Calvin developed a personal logo or symbol which was the shape of a heart with a flame above it, resting on an upturned, open-faced palm.  He gave the passion of his heart, a heart set on fire, the core of his being, to God. [1] Both Wesley and Calvin are rooted in the Biblical understanding that the desire to seek after God is first an experience of the heart, at the core of the self.  God wants our hearts.  That’s why Joel says, “rend your hearts, not your clothing.  Return to the LORD, your God, for [God] is gracious and merciful” (Joel 2:13).

            Heart-to-heart, that’s what God wants.  It’s why we were created:  to be in communion with God.  The heart isn’t the only image that captures this idea of relationship.  We also have another idea that runs through scripture: the image of the face.  There’s a text, Psalm 27:8, that beautifully holds them together:  “Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!  ‘Come,’ my hearts says,’ seek his face!’ Your face, LORD, do I seek.  Do not hide your face from me.”  The psalmist captures one of the most important claims of scripture:  Not only does God want our hearts, but we learn the converse is also true, the human heart longs for God.  Indeed, the deepest desire of the human heart is to see the face of God, of finding ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with the Living God.  As St. Augustine (354–430) confessed long ago:  “our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O Lord.”  The heart’s desire is to see the face of God.

            Why is this so important?  There are many reasons, but one in particular is this:  to look at another and to be seen by another creates a bond, a connection, a communion.  And when God is looking upon you, looking at you, staring you in the eye, we need to remember that God is looking at you with delight, with eyes of love, a look that pierces your soul, your heart of hearts, a look that draws you into communion with God, a look that tells you, no matter what, you belong to God.  This is especially true throughout the psalms where the worst possible judgment of God is not some tragic event, but the withdrawal of God’s gracious glance.  To not be seen by God is the worse possible judgment because only from the perspective of God’s face can the psalmist and Israel see who they really are.  The price of sin is the face of God veiled, covered from God’s people.  Psalm 88:14:  “O LORD, why do you cast me off?  Why do you hide your face from me?”  The sign of redemption, of forgiveness is the turning of God’s face toward us with the look of love, with unveiled faces.  Listen to Psalm 80:3:  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”[2]

            The truth is we’re all searching for a face.  Child psychologists have taught us that right from an early age, an infant finds his or her place in the world through the face of a parent.  Psychologist René Spitz (1887–1974) has show in his classic work The First Year of Life, that the primary means through which the personality is shaped is through the facial mirroring between parent and child.  By three months an infant seeks and responds to a particular face for security and identity, the infant seeks that face and smiles.  The work of two psychologists, the objects-relations theorist D. W. Winnicott (1896–1971) and Erik Erikson (1902–1994), who trained with Anna Freud (1985–1972), have both identified the need and the power behind this drive to find a face. This is especially strong from twelve to eighteen months.  The look of that face tells the child who he or she is.  “The face, then, is the personal center that is innately sought by a child and the focus of the earliest sense of one’s humanity.”[3]  Through the relationship, through the face-to-face interaction a child finds a place in the world and is confirmed as a self.  In fact, the round shape of the face is also a symbol of wholeness and completeness, particularly for followers of Carl Jung (1875-1961).  The face is an archetype of wholeness; it connects with something deep and primal within us.  The four points of the face actually bears the imprint of the cross.  Justin Martyr (c. 100–165), writing from the second century in his Apologia said, “The Cross is imprinted upon man, even upon his face.”[4]

            But as we grow up, the face in which we seek our identity starts to turn away.  Instead of one or two faces that center our lives we encounter many.  We see the faces of other children:  some that smile at us, some that don’t smile; some that tell us we’re liked, some that tell us we’re disliked; some that tell us we’re ugly or stupid or poor or don’t fit in or the wrong color the wrong gender.  We see harsh faces, angry faces, judging faces.  We see faces that won’t look at us or won’t notice us. We never outgrow the need for the face.

            We’re all searching for that face, you see, that will tell us who we are.  We’re looking for a face that will look at us and not turn away in shame.  We’re looking for the face that will look at us, dead in the eye, and see to the depths of our souls, who will see who we really are, really see us and not through us or past us.  We’re all looking for that face that will look at us and in whose eyes we will find unconditional love and acceptance. 

            The great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) said that if you want to see the power of sin in the human heart, look at a city street and all the people who are afraid to look at one another.  That face-to-face interaction is what we desire, and yet, because we have all been hurt, we find it extremely difficult to look into another’s eyes without turning our hearts.  “The longing for the face that won’t go away persists” throughout our lives.  My mentor and former professor at Princeton Seminary, James Loder, put it so well when he said we are all looking for that experience, for that face in whose eyes “one is given a place in the cosmos, confirmed as a self, and addressed by the presence of a loving other.”[5]

            The loving other can be your husband or wife, your partner, a friend, your anam ċara or soul-friend, as the Celtic Christians used to say.  But even the best marriages and partnerships and friendships and even the best soul-friend cannot meet this deepest need, cannot fill this desire, cannot satisfy this hunger.  They cannot meet this most basic human need.  To look to another human being to completely satisfy this need puts too much strain on the relationship. 

            The deepest desire of the human heart, we ache and long for this, cry and pray and hope for this—whether we’re conscious of it or not, religious or not, Christian or not—is to be addressed by the presence of a loving other, a Wholly Other Who is God.  We long to see God, face-to-face, and to be known by such a face, to know ourselves in the face of the One Who is love, the one in whose eyes we are given life, given meaning, to see ourselves as reflected back from God’s face, affirmed for who we are and loved infinitely.

            For me, the place where all these images of heart and face come wonderfully together is in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”  Why?  Because “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord….  For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of the darkness,’ who has shone”—where?—“in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God”—where?—“in the face of Jesus Christ.”

            Jesus Christ is the face of God.  When we look at him we see God; when Christ looks at us, it is with the face of God, the face we are all searching for.  The face of mercy and grace.  The face that looks at us and will not turn away. The search for the face is satisfied in him.  When we look at him and dwell in his presence, when we sit at table with him and commune with him, we will know who are.[6]

            What do we see in his face?  The only one who can tell us who we really are.  He looks at us and sees us, looks us dead in the eye and sees us for who we are.  He doesn’t look through us or beyond us.  We’re not invisible to him.  At times the look might be one of judgment, a look of “No!” but only “No!” so as to allow us to see his glorious “Yes!” His affirmation.  In Christ, God turns God’s face toward us and we find in his face unconditional love and acceptance. 

            That’s what this table symbolizes, it’s what the symbol of this table means, it attempts to capture and make real for us the claim of the gospel:  here we commune with the living God, heart-to-heart; here we gather and experience the grace of God, face-to-face.

[1] See the new biography by Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2011).
[2] A theme found throughout Paul S. Fiddes, Past Event and Present Salvation: The Christian Idea of Atonement (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1989).
[3] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, 2nd edition, (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), 163.
[4] Jolande Jacobi, Complex, Archetype, Symbol (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1959), 172n.
[5] Loder, 165, 166.
[6] Cf. T. S. Eliot’s (1888-1965) poem “Ash Wednesday” from 1930.  “For those who walk in darkness/ Both in the day time and in the night time/ The right time and the right place are not here./ No place of grace for those who avoid the face./ No time to rejoice for those who walk among/ noise and deny the voice.”  The Complete Poems and Plays:  1909-1950 (New York:  Harcourt, Brace & World, 1962), 65.