Sermon for St Marks, Pentecost VII
“I am involved in mankind”
“All mankind is of one author and is one volume.” Do you know it? Here’s more, “When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language.” Familiar? Did Jesus say it? More of a clue: “No man is an island entire of itself… Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
Recognize it? You will now. “And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Ernest Hemingway? Actually, it is a poem by an Anglican priest, John Donne. (Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions)
No man is an island – not even Jesus. Today’s reading from John is part of a long personal prayer between Jesus and God the Father. Their relationship startled some in its time, shocked others, amazed still others. But it is undeniable – what lasted the whole length of Jesus’ life, to the moment of his death, was an intimate relationship with God. If you ask, “Is Jesus God?”, at some level I need to say “No”, because his praying to God indicated the other, a Holy Other, Someone else, Someone beyond. No man is an island. There is Someone beyond whom we seek. So it was for Jesus. So it is for us. And so it is for us with Jesus.
As a child, I knew Jesus from Sunday School. I remember flannel boards with figures – Jesus, sheep, Jesus helping people, Jesus with his mother. I remember singing hymns in the junior choir, hymns about Jesus. He died on the cross, though the cross as object was foreign to me, as was death. There were flowers and new clothes and happiness on Easter morning, and by then, Jesus was OK again.
There were pictures of Jesus in those days. I saw that Jesus was a white man, brown long hair, clean clothes, kind face, who prayed a lot. Sometimes in the pictures Jesus looked earnest, sometimes intense. That was Jesus. I never saw a picture of Jesus grinning until I was in college. I heard Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so. I heard Jesus would be unhappy if I did bad things. I could not see Jesus because he was in heaven. And heaven was somewhere up there.
In adolescence I went to church with family, joined youth group, never was acolyte and didn’t think much about Jesus. There was a 7:30 service at church, and my folks went at 11:00. I discovered that if I got up early and walked past the church to the downtown donut shop I could have hot chocolate and donuts, and could tell the folks I had “already been to church”, and my morning was free. Never got caught, but soon abandoned this scheme out of fear of being caught. I did not realize that my image of Jesus was fading. At university, I did not have to go to church, so I didn’t. When on holiday at home I did, but was happier when it was over.
The folks were surprised, then, as were my friends, when as a college senior, I felt drawn to seminary. I checked out this new urge with mentors before I went public, but felt generally supported, though a few friends remained confused. All in all, though, looking back on 45 years, it was the right call. But it was not about Jesus. In seminary, it was about understanding the Bible and church history and doctrines and preaching. Then newly ordained, it was all about church, and leading services, learning to meet everyone’s expectations, and then years later, learning NOT to meet everyone’s expectations. There were career ladders to climb, from assistant to rector, then to rector of larger parish, maybe to bishop? Thank God that never happened! But truth is, I was more engaged with church than Jesus.
There were moments, though, during those years, when Jesus became intensely real, a Jesus I did not recognize, but could not dismiss. One such moment was in guided meditation, in which we were invited to see Jesus. We were to look at him in stages – dress, shoulders, posture, hands, feet, face – and while all the images were vivid, I could not see his face.
That invisibility troubled me. One colleague said, “Sometimes you cannot see for the darkness, other times you cannot see because the light is too bright.” Now see I did not know an adult Jesus, so I could not recognize his face. There were other times when interventions of Spirit comforted me, humbled me, or rattled me, but afterward I could immerse myself in church again, and things settled out well enough.
Over time, and often through painful and disorienting times, I came to know this new Jesus. This Jesus is spirit; this Jesus is companion and mentor. This Jesus is predictable, and unpredictable; a mystery and an anchor. This Jesus is close as our breath, but does not impose. This Jesus is wise, and loving, and laughs: at kittens chasing their tails, at mistakes made and remade; laughs with me, and sometimes laughs at me. Jesus also weeps, and knows grief and pain and heartbreak. This Jesus is God, and is not God, and brings me closer into God and into all that is holy. This Jesus opens my mind, shows me beauty in people I would easily have called stranger. This Jesus stretches my understanding, teaches me to see, really see, the hand of God in the world about us, and has diminished my fear of death. I don’t know what it will be like on the other side, but I know already I belong, there is welcome there, and as Scripture says, we will recognize each other.
Enough about me and Jesus. J. B. Phillips, another Anglican priest, is best remembered for translating the New Testament during World War II. His audience was people in their 20s and 30s who wanted to understand Jesus, but could not wade through the King James language. Early in the 1950s, though, he published a book entitled, Your God is Too Small. That has been the story of my relationship with Jesus, and with God the Father, and with Spirit. My images and understanding were too small; God is more than I can imagine, increasingly more. If that is your experience, that your God may be too small, you are on the path. Bravo and brava! If you feel you have it all together, and need nothing more from God, that sermon is for another day.
“All mankind is of one author and is one volume… No one is an island entire of itself… Any person’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Jesus could have said that. This spiritual life of ours – what we have and what we seek – is all about relationship with Jesus: not so much believing things or debating facts about Jesus, faith is trusting in Jesus’ guidance, walking in Jesus’ way, welcoming Jesus’ presence. Perhaps that is why the more intimate language in Eucharist – “On the night you were betrayed, blessed Jesus, you took bread, said the blessing…” have struck a chord with us in St Mark’s. There really is something here. There really is Someone here, and relationship is what faith is about. Belief about Jesus and understanding accurately have their place, but trust gives faith its substance, and a sought relationship leads to deeper intimacy.
The last words Jesus spoke on earth are these: “Be assured, I am with you always, to the end of time.” (Matthew 28.20). Be amazed as you grow in faith, but remember, you have heard it all before.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.