Shown, Not Told

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11


“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

-often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but of uncertain origin

The late New Testament scholar, John Pilch, noted that Jesus, as rendered in the Gospel of John, “tends to get a bit long-winded.” All those extended discourses, repetitions, and interlocking phrases stand in stark contrast to Mark’s rustic efficiency, to be sure, and if it seems like Jesus has been saying goodbye to the disciples for weeks now, you’d be right. This is the fourth week in a row in which the lectionary’s gospel reading comes from John – unless you’re celebrating the Ascension this Sunday, in which case you get a synoptic reprieve. And yes, this is the third consecutive week culled from John’s multi-chapter Farewell Discourse.

Those lost in the Johannine word-cloud might be forgiven for missing the clues in today’s gospel that Jesus has stopped talking to the disciples and is now directly addressing the Father. In other words, Jesus is praying, not preaching. Or is that a misleading distinction?

Perhaps a more helpful terminology comes from the first principle of good writing: Show, don’t tell. In what is sometimes called “The Great Intercessory Prayer,” Jesus stops telling his clueless disciples how to serve, love, and live peacefully with one another. He stops telling them that the Father and Son are one in the unity of the Holy Spirit. He stops telling them they must turn from the world’s ways in order to experience true joy. He stops telling them these things, not because the disciples already know and understand – their behavior over the next several days will destroy that illusion – nor does he stop because the lessons no longer apply. He stops telling them in order to show them. Read more

Come and Look

Easter 6, Year A

Acts 17:22-31

John 14:15-21

Do you have a dog and do you walk her?  Or a child?  A walk with a child or a dog can be an exercise in frustration.  Dogs and children don’t walk in straight paths, they meander, zig zag, go up and down, stop and start.  This can be a problem if you have a destination in mind, if you want to get somewhere, but if you want to see?  A walk with a dog or a child can open up whole new modes of perception.

This is the truth that Alexandra Horowitz writes about in her book On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to Observation.  Horowitz, a cognitive scientist by trade, takes walks with eleven experts, each one helping her to see the journey in a different way.  From a geologist and a sound designer, a dog and a child, and a host of other curious observers Horowitz learns to see her Manhattan neighborhood in whole new ways, noticing what she’d long ignored, seeing what she’d never been able to perceive, all because someone came alongside her and showed her what had always been there.

On those walks Horowitz writes: “I would find myself at once alarmed, delighted, and humbled at the limitations of my ordinary looking. My consolation is that this deficiency of mine is quite human. We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object. We see the signs, but not their meanings. We are not blinded, but we have blinders.”

Horowitz sounds like the prophet Isaiah when he proclaims the message of God:

‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’ (6:9) Read more

Look, I See the Heavens Opened

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

 One way of reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” is to understand it as a story about theological imagination, and how it is we come to envision the world rightly.

At the center of this story is a nameless child who, being rather remarkable in her imaginative capacities, manages to see beyond the ordinary around her to a world shot through with importance and the work of the Spirit.

In one particularly poignant passage, she’s considering freaks in the freak-show at the fair, and understands them to be martyrs, supposing that what the adult tents contain must be about medicine. She decides she’ll be a doctor, but then reconsiders, thinking she’ll be a saint, but even that doesn’t fit, for she knows her sins. As the story goes,

“She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick. She could stand to be shot but not to be burned in oil. She didn’t know if she could stand to be torn to pieces by lions or not. She began to prepare her martyrdom, seeing herself in a pair of tights in a great arena, lit by the early Christians hanging in cages of fire, making a gold dusty light that fell on her and the lions. The first lion charged forward and fell at her feet, converted. A whole series of lions did the same. The lions liked her so much she even slept with them and finally the Romans were obliged to burn her but to their astonishment she would not burn down and finding she was hard to kill, they finally cut off her head very quickly with a sword and she went immediately to heaven. She rehearsed this several times, returning each time at the entrance of Paradise to the lions.”[1]

This kind of imaginative vision stretches beyond herself to the world around her. Where some see freaks, she sees temples of the Holy Ghost. Read more

What Wishes Pentecost to Be?

Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34
John 14:8-17

The UMC Lectionary Calendar suggests a framing question for Pentecost, which curiously doesn’t mention the Holy Spirit at all: What can you do to make Pentecost the day that you as a congregation witness about Jesus Christ to your neighbors who do not yet know his saving love?

The question is not without merit, but it may be getting ahead of itself. Among the dangers in approaching Pentecost with a question that directs us to focus on what we do to a subset of other people is the assumption that we can identify the needy neighbor. Once you’ve pegged somebody who “needs,” it’s remarkably easy to fall into the us-versus-them trap of thinking that we, the God-knowers, “have” God to offer, that we mediate God to the world.

This week’s lectionary passages, which all highlight the Spirit as a person of what Richard Rohr calls the “eternal flow” of the Trinity, speaks otherwise. Read more

The Advocacy of the Spirit

Pentecost Sunday
Acts 2:1-21
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Although this piece is about Pentecost, I am writing it on the Feast of the Ascension. This fact along with the Pentecost reading from Acts 2 brings Elijah to mind. Like Jesus, Elijah ascends into heaven. Unlike Jesus, he does not conquer death prior to his ascension. Like the followers of Jesus, Elijah has powerful experience of the Lord’s presence.

In 1Kings 19 Elijah has just accomplished the most powerful act of his prophetic ministry. On behalf of the one true God, Elijah has challenged the prophets of Baal, who enjoyed the favor of the king and queen. God vindicates Elijah’s bold fidelity and Elijah purges the prophets of Baal. Ahaz and Jezebel vow revenge; Elijah flees. He is now a fugitive from royal justice. This is an incredible reversal of fortune. This is not at all what Elijah anticipated or what he thought God had in store for him. Read more