The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Easter VI, Year C
May 22, 2022
The picture on the front of you bulletin today is one by a new artist. He has broken free from all historical or established schools of painting. The labels of classical, baroque, rococo, neo classical, romantic, impressionist, expressionist, cubist, surrealist, and any other defined style cannot be applied to this freer expression. The painting is, really, fascinating. It suggests movement and life without specificity. Perhaps, we see body shapes, parts, trees and animals. The color is rich, but not exaggerated. The painting is eight feet high and twenty feet long. Its painter grew up in Wyoming, and moved to New York, working as a museum janitor. An art loving woman saw some of his work, spotted him 150 dollars a month to paint, and to offset her stipend, she kept or sold the paintings. In 1943, $150.00 a month was decent wage. Such a deal. I said this artist is new, but that is a relative term when it comes to art. The patron was a woman named Guggenheim, and she never sold this painting. She gave it to the University of Iowa, as long as they would pay for shipping. Its current estimated worth is 140 million dollars. The artist is Jackson Pollock.
This is such a great story of possibility, precarity, convention bending, rule defying, profligate spending, and potential. If Pollock were alive today, intellectual/creative property lawyers would have a field day, but the rules then were the rules. Pollock never sought further compensation. Once “discovered,” he made plenty of money with Guggenheim’s encouragement. Though valuable and revered, Pollock’s his art does not fall into any particular and defined style. The rule he brought about in his art is that there are no rules.
This is all well and good for art, but when it comes to the real world, we like to know the rules. Rules give us guidelines, standards, and structure. Rules tell us what to do, what not to do, and how to behave. Many rules are conventional, implied, and passed along from parents to children. Other rules have to be established, written, communicated, and enforced. Rules range from basic expectations to codified law. Consequences for breaking rules vary from social correction to sanction to specified legal ramifications.
Rules are great, except when they are inconsistent. What the younger child can do on weekends tends to be more liberal than the older child was allowed. In one of my schools, we did not have enough parking for all the students who could drive, so it was restricted to seniors only. There was more acrimony about that rule than just about anything. We like for rules to be fair, even though we all know that life is rarely fair.
Rules for landowning white people used to be different that they were for others. Rules for men were different than rules for women. Societal and legal changes are dynamic as culture changes. As law and some culture changes, those who benefit from and revere the old rules tend to resist and fight changes. Those in power like to keep it. We could go on about that, and have some really heated argument.
The Church is loaded with rules. Sure, we impose them on ourselves, but we band together hard to keep them. We worship with certain words, certain texts, decently, and in order. And hell hath no fury like Episcopalians reacting rule changes, to wit: the old fight over high church liturgy and low church liturgy, Prayer Book revision in 1928 and 1979, the ordination of women, and the ordination of gay people. All of these resulted in breakaway factions, new denominations, complete with a new set of rules in a so-called effort to be more faithful, more pure, more right with God than the apostate folks they left behind. At our worse, we litigate such matters in secular courts, at our best we laugh at ourselves, and accept difference and change as a sign of the Spirit moving us. Rules help keep us together and rules tear us apart. What do we do with that?
The last line of the Gospel we read today drops a crucial detail, and one we might miss on our way to settling in for a sermon about healing. It reads: “Now that day was the Sabbath.” The story is that Jesus goes to Jerusalem for a festival, enters at the Sheep Gate, and there is a spring fed pool there that bubbles up fresh water on a regular basis. Because sheep going to market are washed in that water, it is filled with lanolin, a natural balm and salve. People with all kinds of infirmities bathe in the water when it bubbles up, and the natural oils are soothing. There is a man there who is ill and has been there for 38 years. Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made well, which is a whole sermon for another day. Right there and then Jesus says Stand up, take your mat and walk.” The man does and we see this as a miracle. I have to believe there is more to the story.
Then, there is that last detail: “Now that day was a sabbath.” The religious rules were clear, fixed, and serious. The Sabbath was a day on which work was forbidden. All work. Picking up a mat would be defined as work. Healing someone would be defined as work. Even today, the strictest of the orthodox in Judaism will not turn dials on the oven to make the roast, or punch an elevator button to go up or down. It is a beautiful practice with some obvious down sides.
On the one hand, Jesus follows the rules. He goes up to the Temple for the festival. And on the other, he smashes the Sabbath barrier to heal and help. This is not the first time and it is not the last. He is clear and convincing in his explanation. The law is a human thing. Because we are apt to be selfish, inconsiderate, and wily, we need some order to live in community. The law is good where it brings grace. The law is an idol hinderance when it is wielded to subvert, separate, or prevent God’s blessing for all people, and even, the rest of creation.
We do not sit easy in interpreting this event. We like to insert psychological analysis, and theories of change in the man who sat for 38 years playing aggrieved victim. But what about the rules, Jesus, what about the rules? Jesus tells us that he comes to save us, and yet, he goes to the cross, looking more like one needing saving than a Savior. The Easter event, however, blasts us with fresh perspective, new thinking, and a completely broken old idea that death is the end. Rising from death to life defies the rules. We got that wrong. So, what else do we get wrong?
Rules are stated with periods and exclamation points. We need that punctuation to be clear. Here, Jesus shows us the absolute value of the question mark. Do we have to break some rules to set things right? Jesus does. As we are not Jesus, we are better off seeing life as free flowing art rather than paint by numbers. Something beautiful can be recreated from old shapes and dynamic color. Jesus does that. God does that. The Spirit does not follow rules.
We, my friends, are God’s work of art. Amen.
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Easter V, Year C
May 15, 2022
There is this great scene in the classic western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They are outlaws, bank robbers, but for a reason I will get to later, we are rooting for them. Of course, the fact that they are played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford helps win hearts.
Butch and Sundance are pinned down with a posse in hot pursuit. Behind them is a cliff that drops off about a hundred feet into a rushing river. This is tight spot. Sundance keeps leaning on the rock they behind for cover, clutching his pistol, saying that they are going to have to fight. Butch keeps looking behind them, seeking escape. Quickly, he tells Sundance that they are going to have to jump. The law has more manpower and firepower. If they fight the law, they will die. Sundance will have none of it, he is in full panic mode. Butch says “what’s the matter with you.” Silence. Sundance? Sheepishly, he says “I can’t swim. I can’t swim.” Butch erupts in roaring laughter. You can’t swim? The fall will probably kill you. At that, Sundance and Butch turn toward the cliff and jump. It is leap of faith. Where they should have died, they live, and they are free again.
Prior to the movie, the legend of Butch and Sundance depicts them as ruthless killers, but this take humanizes them and helps us see their misfit, flawed, and quirky human nature. If we look hard, we can see that they are us: awkward, broken, but even so, lovable. Even so, Butch and Sundance remain prominent faces on “Wanted” posters. So, they go to Bolivia and rob banks there, because they are outlaws.
Jesus is no poster child for his people’s brand of the law either. The story we tell today is an Easter look back. Jesus is about to be betrayed, tried, and executed for insurrection and blasphemy. Rather than fight, plan, or scheme, Jesus has supper with his friends and tells them that in fact, this tragedy is really comedy, but that is a leap of faith that is hard for them to make. Jesus gives his gang what he calls a new command: that they love one another. It is not the kind of loving others he encourages lots of times in his ministry. This is a specific call to love “one another,” meaning the people in the room. Love the ones you know well enough to know how awkward, broken, and irritating thy are. Love them like Jesus loves them.
Notice that Jesus does not say this is a law. Religious folks are big on laws, and laws come in handy when we want to distinguish who is in and who is out. That whole lesson about Peter hanging out with Gentiles is a scandal to the law followers because Gentiles (the word for they) are not clean. Jesus does not give another law to be entered into the rulebook as he goes to the cross, Jesus gives them a commandment. The other commandments are the big 10 Moses got in the desert, and they are not so much about do’s and don’ts as ways being in right relationship. A commandment is a way to love God and love others. Run through the list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots and check me if I am wrong.
It is said that the job of a lighthouse is not to run around the island shouting at ships and telling them what to do. The job is to stand tall and shine. Jesus commandment is like that. Be the love God has for us, the love Jesus shows for us, and the law will take care of itself. We call that living under grace. It is easier said than done.
In case we forget grace, we have young Bo Webel among us today to receive the sacrament of baptism. Bo has not done anything for us, and yet we are recognizing his all-inclusive and unlimited membership in the household of God, prepaid and guaranteed. Bo has been born among us, and his parents and godparents have brought him here, where we get to hold him up and tell him that along with the rest of us, he is a child of God. His family is us.
Like I said, Bo has not done anything for us. He has not followed the law, or paid the fee, or recited a pledge in any way that would earn his place there in the front row. He does not have to be perfect when he is out there growing up. Nope. We are telling him that he has a home. He is welcome home, along with the rest of humanity, to remember exactly who he is and whose he is. There is no law he has to follow to earn this. Grace is not earned. It is given. When Jesus says “it is finished” from the cross, that deal is sealed: over, done, account closed. All we can do is be grateful, but not even that is required.
God’s grace is God’s leap of faith for humanity. All we can do is grab a hand, and jump in the baptismal pool where that water will break our many falls and give all of us outlaws a chance to live again. Amen
I remember when we used to answer the phone. Back in that technological Eden, we had the device connected to walls and cords, so they could not chase us wherever we went. When those phones rang, we answered, knowing that the voice on the other end brought us connection, conversation, and information that the caller knew we needed. Sin being what it is, ambitious marketers began calling when they knew we were home, during the dinner hour, and mostly, we learned not to answer as nobody we knew and loved would have the bad sense to interrupt sacred time. The amoral nature of technology gave rise to answering machines, caller identification, and we learned how to unplug the phone, or turn off the ringer. Over time, we learned that not every voice is friendly.
Enter the world of the mobile phone. It used to be a luxury, and opportunity to move around and still connect. The expense of the phone and the cost per minute tempered their use. Now, of course, mobile devices are a necessity for participating in the world of the living. Even in the poorest corners of Haiti, arguable the most destitute, corrupt, and dangerous nation in our hemisphere, if not the world, a place where 63% of the population lives on less than one dollar a day, and get this, 63% of their population has a cell phone. That is more than one phone per household, showing that modern inconvenience is for everyone.
Being a clever lot, we have adapted to avoiding useless intrusions. With incoming caller identification, we can avoid calls that come from places where we know no one, reject calls, and block pesky repeat callers. As telemarketers and scammers have become wilier, our discernment and defenses are heightened. Email has become so saturated with spam folder avoiding intrusions, that younger folks have quit using it altogether. Uninvited voices now send texts through mined data extracted and processed from every bit and byte of information we consume. A recent documentary we watched concluded that if we are not paying for it, we are the product and not the consumer.
All of this is a long way of saying that I do not answer calls from unknown sources. If you call me, I identify your number, save it, and know it is you. I expect that many of you do the same. We were not designed to hold and process so much information or to feel all of the feels that others want us to feel for their gain. Unfriendly voices can sound attractive at first, and that goes back to Homer’s Odyssey where sirens alluring songs that luring ships to wreckage and plunder.
It is now an important life skill to limit and filter the siren voices we hear, and this has a direct connection to the Word Jesus brings in this morning’s gospel. Spinning a message for nefarious purposes is not a new thing. Controlling the narrative was as important in the first century as it is now. When Jesus challenges to the religious monolith of the day, he encourages the faithful to hang up on curated messaging that leverages political power and keeps the shekels flowing inward and not outward. While the Church is slow to change, it has always provided fertile ground for manipulation, ego feeding, and positive cashflow. Of our leaders are holier than us, invulnerable to questioning, or more focused on power than the poor in material or spirit, it might be good to block that voice.
Recent surveys reveal that when asked about their religious affiliation, Americans who check to box labeled “none” are rising at an exponential rate, especially among young men. Many in the big “C” Church believe the sky is falling. I do not. I see this as the freedom from cultural strictures that brings more honesty to the table. Every threat is an opportunity to refine our approach to living this love life. If Jesus is to have a voice in our world, it might be good for us to listen for his voice. And that may be easier said than done.
Aside from being Mother’s Day, (more on that at announcement time), today is known in the Church as Good Shepherd Sunday. We harvest various and fertile messages that play on the metaphor of sheep, shepherds, and the ubiquitous love for babies. Lambs are so innocent and cute looking. Protecting them used to be important for sustenance. If we are not as agrarian in our experience, we must know that shepherds are known for benevolence and caretaking qualities. Their voice is the voice of safety and security, and any sheep that wants to survive and thrive knows that voice. A voice is such a particular and unique thing, that it is hard to imitate. When I say treat to our dogs, in that particular way, they come running. It doesn’t work as well for the dog sitter. Hers is a different voice.
And here is the obvious place where I tell you how to hear the voice of God, of Jesus the Good Shepherd of all of us, the Holy Spirit that moves like the wind, breathing well-being joy or peace or belonging into us, or like a raging fire that moves us to act and speak truth in love. Here is where I might tie all of this up into a neat little pastoral package and keep The King of Love my Shepherd is resounding as an earworm tune, set on repeat in your brains. And yet, I cannot. Try as I may, Jesus voice is not my voice. It is not yours either. It is not to be crafted or contained in a message, text, email, podcast, book, or even, gasp, the Bible. We are so painfully human, so necessarily defensive, and so conditioned by our own self-styled desires that Jesus voice gets garbled, or stuck in our inbox, waiting for a quieter space for us to hear it clearly.
How can we hear God’s voice? I am not all that sure. What I believe from experience is that I believe I know it when I hear it, but I cannot prove that. What I believe from experience is that when I hear God’s voice, it doesn’t sound like my voice, but I cannot prove it. What I believe from experience is that when I hear God’s voice, energy and hope and healing that does not come from me, washes through my being, but I cannot prove it.
I do know and can prove what God’s voice is not. If is not a cacophony of messaging (notice the root of that is phony). It is not about anger, entitlement, ego inflation, blaming, shaming, and name calling. It is not about scarcity, fear, and revenge. It is not about legalism, destruction, domination, material excess, and any form, fashion, or feed that leverages feelings that we are not worthy, beloved, beautiful, capable, and important. I wish that we had a good scam filter for such cacophonies. They are legion as we are vulnerable in our insecurity. To hear Jesus’ voice, the good start is screening out and hanging up when we feel less than enough.
All I can say is that like those who describe jazz, great barbecue, moments of birth, bone crushing grief, and, even, a mama’s love, we know it when we taste and see - know our Good Shepherd’s voice in our knowing places - and move with the Spirit in a harmony we cannot make alone. This why we come here, and seek other spaces for holy listening, to feel with God and for God, forgetting formulary thought and the burden of proof, to flow out of us and into God. When Love’s voice speaks to that unutterable peace of our being, hang up on all the discordant clatter, and take that call. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood