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
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Easter VII, Year A
May 24, 2020
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
The scene opens with a misty, wooded landscape. There is a castle in the background. From a distance, there is a lone horseman riding through the fog and we can hear the clip clop of hoofs the rocky road. The figure emerges with chain mail armor, a steel helmet, and a royal tunic. But then, the scene broadens and the knight figure is, simply skipping along as if he is riding a horse. There is a scruffy attendant behind him clapping coconuts together to make the clopping horse trot sound.
If you have a certain sense of humor, you recognize this as the opening scene of Monty Python’s Holy Grail, and what follows is a hilarious spoof of the whole story of Arthur gathering his knights to Camelot. But first, he has to explain to one knight where in the world he found the coconuts, as England is hardly a tropical region. The whole plot digresses from there, and the film is the stuff of comic legend.
I have to admit that this troupe of comedians, known collectively as Monty Python, are comic heroes of mine. Their keen sense of irony and their farcical look at historic events have, forever changed how I think of certain events. Their follow up film called Life of Brian is genius, if not very close to heretical. In that story, Brian is born in a stable next door to Jesus and spends the rest of his life being confused with Jesus as people mistakenly follow him, supposing him to be the Messiah. It is an amazing critique of blind faith and the irony of religious followers trying to exclude other religious followers as not following the true way to whatever they perceive salvation to be.
Naturally, when the film premiered, fundamentalist religious groups decried it as blasphemous, which is, of course, the whole point. Those protesting the film’s content only bolster its point of view. Thus, the joke is on all of us.
My particular take is, and has always been, that if we cannot laugh at ourselves, life becomes way too serious, and we are lost to way too stuffy piety. This is not to say that the tensions of good and evil, sin and salvation, or judgment and grace, are not real and serious business. But somewhere in all of that we have to take into account that all of our religious understanding and interpretation is mediated through the limited cloud of human knowing and being. We can count on the Holy Spirit for guidance and revelation, but we do well to be careful in proclaiming that we know absolutely anything beyond the basic fact that God creates us, Jesus loves us, and all of life is about living with, and discerning, how these facts lead us in becoming closer to being One with in God.
Of course there is much more to living a life of faith, but we have to approach the whole exercise with what some call a low anthropology. That is, we ought to accept that we are limited, culturally conditioned, subjective, and woefully self-centered. As Mark Twain once said: God created people in his image, and people have been returning the favor ever since. God is not of our creation, possession, and does not work at our direction, much as we would like that to be.
In this week’s Gospel, we meet with Jesus and his disciples for another farewell sounding monologue. In John’s telling, we overhear Jesus’ prayer for the world beyond where he stands in time and space. Thursday was the feast of the Ascension. In the Catholic tradition, it is a holy day of obligation. Nevertheless, you cannot find Ascension Day cards at the CVS, and nobody goes home to celebrate that with the family. The significance of that day, when we remember Jesus being taken into heaven, is not about some magical jump into the sky. It is not about where heaven is and how Jesus gets there. It is about affirming that Jesus moves beyond time and space, and is not limited to being with a very few first century people. Jesus continues to live among us and reveal God to us, not matter where we are and when we live. This is an important reality. Or, as one brilliant humorist summarizes: Now, like many of us, Jesus is working from home.
Jesus closes his prayer asking God to be with them, meaning us, so that “we may be one” as He and God are one. The Holy Spirit is part of that one too, but that is a matter for next week’s proclamation. I have to admit that that statement is a bit haunting. God in Christ prays, desires, and insists that we be one, one with God and one with one another. So far as I can tell, that is not the case.
This is not where I insert the Universalist interpretation that all religions point to the same God and that we are all about the same thing. That is not the case. The God of Jesus comes to us as generous, creative, and sacrificial love. You don’t get that in any other narrative across the pantheon of religions. At the same time, we are not the be all and end all of religious experience and influence. Our faith needs to be broad enough to trust God’s work in the hearts and minds of others. Our best mode of living God’s love is to promote what we have been given, rather than condemning others through some sort of holy exclusion policy.
Even among those who call themselves Christian, we are not one. The world is full of denominational divisions, great schisms, and doctrinal lines in the sand. Wherever two or three are gathered together, someone has a different experience, opinion, or preference. This yields the old joke that on a tour of heaven, you have to walk by the Catholic, Episcopalian, and Baptist rooms quietly, because each group is sure they are the only ones there.
If we hear Jesus prayer for us to be one as a command, an order, or God’s sovereign law, we are in big trouble. But let’s remember that this is Jesus message, not his blueprint. He is telling us that despite everything we do to divide, judge, include, exclude, and proclaim pure piety, we are all gathered into one anyway. In the vast span of life eternal, we are all brought together and we all are together in God, of God, and for God. This is of great comfort in a week where our parish and community has experienced deep loss. This is of great comfort in this time when we are feeling isolated, weary of cancellations, and frustrated with how many of God’s people are acting out. This time is not the only time. Our lives are not the only lives. Our world is not ours, exclusively. As the Psalm 24 affirms: “the whole earth is God’s, and all of its fullness therein.”
We may not be united and of one mind on just about anything, but that will never separate us from being one in God. And here is where the tragedy of our petty division becomes the great comedy all time. Whatever heaven is, and however we are gathered in, I cannot imagine that it is not full of holy laughter as we come to see the fullness of all, the love of all, and the oneness of all that is or ever will be.
We may not have all of the answers. We may not have all wisdom and knowledge. We are definitely fallible and foolish. But in Jesus, we have a clue as to who to follow, who to thank, and who to believe. It is the comedian who is most free to speak the truth. As Mark Twain said, “I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God's fool, and all His works must be contemplated with respect.” So, on we go, rejoicing. Amen.
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood