Saturday, May 28, 2011

Seen and Unseen

Here's tomorrow's homily. The Gospel's John 14:15-21.

I had trouble with this one; for one thing, John's my least favorite Gospel, since Jesus' speechifying there sets my teeth on edge. Yeah, he speechifies elsewhere, too (Sermon on the Mount, anyone?), but to me -- and I know this is probably heretical -- John makes him sound like a pompous stuffed shirt. I like him much better when he's feeding and healing people. So sue me.

In my old parish, we always had an agape meal on Maundy Thursday, and while we were gnawing our fruit and nuts, one of our priests would read the High Priestly Prayer -- John 17 -- which even our clergy took to calling the I-Am-the-Walrus prayer, since "As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us," sounds a bit too much like, "I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together." So one priest would solemnly read John 17, and we'd all say Amen, and then another priest would say, "Coo coo ka choo," and we'd all laugh.

But tomorrow's Gospel reading's from John, and also it's Memorial Day, and also we're doing a baptism (for a baby who's the grandchild of a parishioner but lives elsewhere). So this is one of those hodge-podge homilies that's all over the map. It's short, but that works with a baptism, and Atheist Gary has given it his seal of approval.

Speaking of clouds, it's snowing now. Ick!


For a little over a year now, my sister and I have been orphans. Our father died in March 2009; our mother, divorced from him many decades earlier, died in April 2010. Our parents are no longer with us in the flesh.

I miss them terribly. I miss their delight in the Reno landscape, my father’s love of music and my mother’s love of hand-crafted jewelry, the meals I shared with them. I miss hearing their voices on the phone.

At the same time, though, I am surrounded by reminders of them. Whenever I see quail, I remember how Mom and I watched a mother quail and her approximately seventeen hundred tiny chicks cross the road during a drive to Virginia City. Whenever I see a dramatic Nevada cloudscape, I remember how Dad loved to watch the changing colors of the sky. I wear my mother’s earrings and use the dining room chairs she gave us when my husband and I bought our house. Artwork we inherited from both of my parents hangs on our walls. When I sit on our back deck, I remember how much Dad loved sitting there, too.

In the months immediately after my parents’ deaths, these reminders were exquisitely painful. Everything reminded me of them, but I couldn’t touch them or hear their voices or ask their advice. The process of working through my grief, though, has gradually transformed each source of pain into a source of comfort. I can’t touch my parents, but I can touch things they touched. I can no longer hear their voices on the telephone, but I can hear them in my head whenever I want or need to, and occasionally even when I’d rather not. I can’t ask their advice, but years of knowing them has left me with a strong sense of what they would say. When I need the comfort of memories not my own, I can talk to other people who knew and loved them: my sister, my husband, cousins and friends.

My parents are no longer in the flesh, but they are everywhere in the world. They both dwell within me and surround me. The world no longer sees them; other people who look at clouds and quail see only clouds and quail, not my parents. But I see them. Technically, I am an orphan, but I have not been left orphaned. My parents live on in memory and in tradition.

This coming Thursday, June 2, forty days after Easter, the Christian church will celebrate the Feast of the Ascension. Jesus, who has been walking around breaking bread and cooking fish and generally carrying on like somebody who never died, is going away again. He’s going to live with his Father.

The Gospels of Mark and Luke describe the Ascension, although very briefly. Mark says that Jesus “was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” Luke tells us that while Jesus was blessing his followers,“he withdrew from them and was carried up to heaven.” Matthew and John don’t describe the Ascension at all. Because our three-year cycle of Scripture readings – the lectionary used by the Episcopal Church and many other churches – is focusing on John right now, the editors have had to do a bit of fancy footwork. This morning’s reading comes from the instructions Jesus gave his disciples before the Crucifixion, before Easter. But they work just fine before the Ascension, too.

In a little while the world will no longer see me, Jesus tells his friends, but you will see me. I will not leave you orphaned. I will ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.

That Advocate is the Holy Spirit, who will descend upon the disciples at Pentecost, forty-nine days after Easter. This year, that’s June 12. On Pentecost, the Spirit arrives in rushing wind and tongues of flame, bestowing gifts of healing and prophecy. This astonishing and joyous event transforms Jesus’ rag-tag collection of followers into the church, the body that still keeps Jesus’ commandments alive in memory and in tradition, even though he is no longer present in the flesh.

Our faith assures us that Christ is alive. He will come again, in God’s good time; we will join him someday. But right now, he’s sitting at the right hand of God, dwelling in a far country we can’t reach via car or airplane. Telephones, e-mail and Skype don’t work there. Prayer works, but sometimes there’s static on the line: we aren’t sure what we’ve heard, or if we’ve been heard. The Spirit blows through us, bringing us messages, but sometimes we wonder if those are just our imaginations. The Gospel message of love, forgiveness and eternal life stirs our souls, but those words were written so long ago, and sometimes we find ourselves doubting or questioning them. We want Jesus with us here, now. We miss him terribly, just as the disciples must have missed him after the Ascension.

Our life in the church, the life we begin at baptism, teaches us to look for him even where others cannot see him. The church is a family of people who love God as much as we do, a family related by the water of baptism and by the bread and wine of the eucharist. We are all the beloved descendants of that first rag-tag group of followers.

We welcome Esten into this family today. We pray that one day he will welcome others. We trust that he, too, will learn to see Christ even where others do not.

We pray for Esten to know that although our Lord is no longer with us in the flesh, he is everywhere in the world. We pray for Esten’s church family to teach him to see Christ in bread and wine, in water and wind, in the faces of those he loves, and in the faces of strangers, even when those strangers are enemies. We pray that Esten will learn the discipline of seeking Christ in “the least of these:” in the hungry and homeless, prisoners and the outcast, those who are ill and those who are despised. With Esten, we promise to do Christ’s work in the world, striving for justice and peace.

Jesus, like everyone we honor this Memorial Day -- all of those we love but see no longer -- both dwells within us and surrounds us. We can hear him in our heads whenever we want or need to, and sometimes even when we’d rather not. When we need the comfort of memories not our own, we can talk to other people who know and love him: clergy, fellow parishioners, our brothers and sisters in Christ. We find him in creation even as we carry his name and his legacy into places of woundedness and destruction. In the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”

All of which is simply a long way of saying what we’ve said for several weeks now, the words we will repeat every Easter season until we ourselves go to join the Father, trusting that those who love us will see us, too, shining in the world around them. “The Lord is risen. Alleluia, alleluia!”


  1. That was beautiful Susan.
    Snowing? Seriously?

  2. Thank you!

    Yes. Seriously.

  3. Anonymous10:19 PM

    Very thoughtful, as always, Susan. Thank you for sharing it.

    I'm glad to hear the grief is letting up, and I hope the weather cuts you some slack soon.


  4. Anonymous6:23 PM

    Lovely--reminds me of some yahrzeit liturgy I'll send along to you.



  5. Actually I used to feel that way about the Sermon on the Mount until my current pastor preached it from memory sitting on a stool in our brand-new sanctuary after the old one burned in a terrible fire. It felt like he was putting our ideal behavior in the ethos of our new worship space so that it would surround us without smothering us. It was amazingly effective. And really, what else could he have done that would have been as good? (I've preached on several occasions so I know how difficult it can be.)


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