John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
Since the origins of drama in ancient Greece, playwrights have utilized the narrative convention of the unseen character. Through layers of references and descriptions established by the onstage characters, the offstage, unseen character begins to acquire a distinct identity and motivation within the mind of the audience. The absence of such a character works to advance the action of the plot as much as any of the characters present. The Wizard of Oz is the best example of this in popular film. If the unseen character does eventually appear onstage – as does the “great and powerful Oz” – it is after much anticipation, and the moment rarely unfolds as the audience has come to expect it will. Sometimes the unseen character dies, or departs, or simply never shows up. Samuel Becket’s play Waiting for Godot is a classic, twentieth century example. And sometimes, as in the plays of Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee, the audience may be tempted to question whether the unseen character is a projection, a symbol of an onstage character’s unresolved longings: an unseen male child, a lost mother, or a beautiful, young stranger. These characters are like messengers from another world, or magnets whose energy holds together a visible outer life and an invisible, unconscious world.
Acts 20:28-38; Ps 68:28-36; John 17:11b-19
Goodbye. What a simple word. What a simple, mundane, commonplace, disquieting, difficult, dreadful, shattering little word. Goodbye.
As a general rule, we humans are not fond of endings. Even when we ponder our plans for the future with genuine excitement, we can’t help but drag our feet at the threshold. We would like to step forth confidently on a new adventure with our left foot while keeping our right foot firmly planted on its old familiar turf. But life doesn’t work that way. Whether we like it or not, endings happen to all of us, and Goodbye is their calling card. Goodbye is what we say both to those we adore and to those we barely know when we walk out of a room or walk out of their lives entirely. Goodbye is the last turn of the key in the lock as we leave one home for the next. Goodbye is the acknowledgement of a distinct past and a distinct, separate future.
When these moments of change come, we are faced with the task of acknowledging the break in continuity. Speaking broadly, it is considered good manners to say Goodbye and not just slip out when no one is looking. But more often than not, when we are the ones taking our leave, facing our loved ones and saying Goodbye can be more than we can bear. How often have we heard someone say, “When it’s my time, I hope I go without warning. Just here one minute, gone the next.” This is frequently billed as the (quite rational) desire not to suffer or burden one’s family with a drawn-out illness. But there’s more to it than that. For many of us, actually leaving is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to say when we do.
Wisdom 7:7-14 & John 8:25-32
“All good things came to me along with her,
And in her hands uncounted wealth.
I rejoiced in them all, because wisdom leads them;
But I did not know that she was their mother.”
We all have an intuitive relationship with goodness, beauty, and truth. We come across things in the world that seem to reach out and grab us by the heart – perhaps a piece of art or music, a holy place, a human relationship, a piece of philosophy or Scripture that brings joy and light into our life. These things are good because they are from God, and we rejoice in them even before we know that God is their mother. We rejoice in them because they are like signposts, pointing the way back to Wisdom and helping us to desire and understand her.
But the things that lead us to God are not, themselves, God. All the truth and beauty we know in this life will inevitably disappoint us from time to time. We find that something beautiful no longer moves us, or that something true no longer convinces or reassures us, and we are left in the dark without any signposts to remind us that eternal Wisdom is out there.
When I was in eighth grade, I decided that, despite attending church every Sunday, being in the Church Youth Group, and being a pastor’s kid, I was not in fact Christian. As I saw it, there were too many beliefs, ideas, and propositions that I either couldn’t figure out or couldn’t get behind, so, with much thoughtfulness, sincerity, and all the wisdom of a fourteen year old boy, I set out to figure out my own religion: a set of beliefs, statements, and positions that I could fully get behind. It took me about an hour, and came out to a little more than one page, single spaced, in Microsoft Word. I picked a cool font, slapped a title on it in WordArt, and called it done.
That was about nine years ago, and while I hope that my relationship to Christianity has matured somewhat since then, I have to admit that I often find myself back in eighth grade, struggling with a complex faith, trying to figure it all out in my head, trying to make it work intellectually, to make it logical and comprehensible. It often feels like Christianity is a puzzle that I am trying to solve. Trying to somehow get it right.
In the calendar of the church we remember today an Egyptian monk named Pachomius, who lived years 290-346. Pachomius was born in a small village in northern Egypt to a family who worshipped the gods of the Pharaohs. As a young man Pachomius was conscripted into military service. His fifth-century biography, the Vita Prima, recalls that where he was billeted, he for the first time met Christians who did “all manner of good… treating [everyone] with love for the sake of the God of heaven.” Pachomius was smitten by the kind and generous camaraderie, the koinonia, of Christian believers, the very thing described in the Acts of the Apostles: “They were of one heart and one soul,” and who essentially practiced three things: these Christians lived together in community, they prayed and worshipped, and they served others. This experience for Pachomius was life-changing. He prayed to this Christian God, promising that he would live his life in the same way. When he was discharged from military service, he was baptized, and for several years was formed in the Christian life by one of the desert hermits.
Pachomius had a series of visions, something he had never experienced before. The visions were about his becoming a monk, but not alone. Christian hermits had already been living in solitude in the Egyptian desert for about 50 years, since the late 3rdcentury. But Pachomius’ visions were about his living as a monk in community. He had as a model the words which we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[i]And “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Sing to the Lord a new song. The Psalmist exhorts us to sing a song we’ve never sung before. Certainly, it may come to us in fragments—a gesture here, a motif there—and sometimes (if we’re feeling particularly confident) we may even begin to think we know how this strange new air goes. Yet this isn’t a song we or the world are used to hearing, and we may often feel ill-trained to sing it; but that’s probably because we are.
As the ear of our prayer adjusts in the fullness of time, we begin to realize that this new song, from our vantage, requires a kind of virtuosity for which we alone lack the dexterity of heart; and we realize we will not learn this song on our own. And still, there comes also a sense, somewhere deep within noisy mystery of ourselves, that we have known this strange song we’ve never sung before.
Sing to the Lord a new song.
Sermon for The Feast of Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1416)
I’d like to address my comments to the middle school students and their chaperones who are with us this afternoon from Hilltop School in Brattleboro, Vermont. Of course, it’s okay if the rest of you want to listen in. Nothing I’m going to say is secret. But I want to speak mainly to these young people because I think the message we have today is especially important for them to hear, to learn and to remember.
Today we are celebrating the feast of a very interesting woman who lived in England in the 14th century. Her name was Julian, and she lived in the city of Norwich, so she’s usually referred to as “Julian of Norwich.” I’ll tell you more about her in a minute, but first let me say that she was born in the year 1342 and that it was a very difficult time to be alive. In the 14th century, Europe suffered through a terrible plague called the Black Death. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was highly contagious and deadly and it swept through towns and villages killing all kinds of people — rich and poor, old and young, it didn’t matter. No one was safe. In the end it was estimated that somewhere between 75 and 200 million people died from it, which was about one-third of the population of Europe at that time. Can you imagine a disease so terrible that it took the lives of one out of every three people?
As you listen to these words there are ten thousand miracles, at least, within easy reach.
Easy, if only we accept Jesus’ invitation and abide in the Love of Christ. Then, God’s Truth dawns upon us, and we taste the peace and joy of Christ surpassing all understanding. And with Christ’s joy within us, and our joy would be complete. You would think it would be an easy sell for Jesus, since it’s hard to argue with the appeal of complete joy. After all, we’re all looking for happiness. In fact, right there in the Declaration of Independence it gives as a self-evident truth that we’re all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, examples of which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And we’ve come up with limitless ways to pursue happiness.
Maybe in the pursuit of happiness we pursue an iPhone X or the latest smartwatch. Or maybe we have our eye on a new 65-inch, 4K, Ultra HD, Smart LED television. Or maybe a new car will do the trick. Getting a new job could bring us happiness, or perhaps an exciting new love interest. Maybe losing ten pounds of fat will bring the happiness we seek or adding ten pounds of muscle. Our smile filled with freshly-polished, sparkling white teeth might make us happy, or getting a new haircut, or just getting rid of the grey. Maybe a new theology or a new kind of spiritual practice will bring happiness to our door. Or maybe the next self-help book will be the one, the one that uncovers the “secret” of happiness. And then our pursuit will end, because we’ve found it, we’ve caught this elusive creature, happiness.
The Acts of the Apostles is full of radical change, divinely inspired and enabled. Sent by the Spirit, Philip goes to the excluded Ethiopian eunuch, explains the scripture and baptizes him.[i] Saul, notorious persecutor of the church, meets Jesus and radically changes into Paul, famous evangelist.[ii] The Spirit sends Peter to the centurion Cornelius. Though unlawful to visit let alone eat with Gentiles, Peter does both, proclaims the gospel and the household follows Jesus.[iii]
The Spirit reaches further and further. Gentiles receive the Spirit in the same way as the Jews. It is an unsettling time for the Jewish followers of Jesus. They hotly debate inclusion of outsiders. Leaders gather in Jerusalem to respond to this crisis. James, Jesus’ brother, leads the gathering to affirm huge change, to welcome Gentiles, all people, as equal followers of Jesus. James discerns that the present crisis fits the grand narrative promise: all people may seek God.
Doing so fits with Jesus welcoming all kinds people outcast: women, foreigners, the sick, and children. Many people cling to labels like Gentile and sinner, but not Jesus. Jesus loves everyone no matter what. Jesus invites everyone into more. Jesus changes and keeps becoming more.
Saint Philip and Saint James, Apostles
In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Philip and Saint James, both of whom were chosen by Jesus for his original circle of twelve Apostles. But here I must make a disclaimer. We know almost nothing about them. This Apostle James is not James, son of Zebedee, who, with his brother, John, had lobbied Jesus to sit at his right hand and left hand when Jesus came into power in Jerusalem.[i] Nor is this the James, the brother of Jesus, the brother traditionally known as the author of the Epistle of James and the sometime-Bishop of Jerusalem.[ii] This is James #3, son of Alphaeus, whom we know nothing about.[iii] This James is often called “James the Less,” which is not exactly flattering, but helps avoid some confusion with James #1 and James #2, about whom we know more.
As for Philip, he came from the same town as two other Apostles – the brothers Andrew and Peter – and that was Bethsaida, alongside the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel according to John, we read that Jesus “found” Philip.[iv] Like with the other Apostles, Philip took a long time to understand Jesus. In the Gospel according to John, we read about the multitude of hungry people listening to Jesus teach. Jesus then asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” We are told Jesus already knows what he is going to do, and so this is a test for Philip. Philip essentially fails the test. He answers Jesus, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Jesus then feeds the multitude with a boy’s five barley loaves and two fish.[v] On another occasion Philip fails the test again. He says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus answers Philip in exasperation, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”[vi]