Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Catastrophe, Chorus, and Comedy : How does God open our eyes?

This sermon was given by Kellogg Fellow Emily Garcia on the Third Sunday in Easter, 14 April 2013, at the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard. The readings for the day can be found here.

Dearest Lord, we ask that you would open us to you, so that the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts might be pleasing to you. Amen.

Friends, before I share some thoughts on the Scriptures, I hope you’ll allow me a short church-nerd lesson. You all probably know most of this already, but we have this opening prayer at the beginning of our service, and it changes every week. It’s called the “Cóllect of the Day”. (Just a tangent: when I first became Episcopalian I outed myself as a newbie by continually calling it the colléct.)

The name cóllect comes from the Latin collecta, whose foggy origins seem to mean “the gathering of the people”, the collecting up of many prayers into one. What’s reeeally interesting to me is that these Collects are paired with particular readings throughout our yearly lectionary.

So! The lectionary, at its best, places some of the myriad Biblical voices in conversation and counterpoint to each other. And the Collect acts as a kind of moderator, offering an opening remark to focus our attention. I’ve often found that the Collect raises questions in me, which find their answers or echoes in the readings.

I explain all this because tonight’s a good example, and I want to share some thoughts on the question the Collect raises. Here it is: O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work. Open the eyes of our faith that we may behold him. Open the eyes of our faith.

What are we asking for, when we ask to have the eyes of our faith opened? What are we asking for, or waiting for? And how does God respond—how does He open our eyes    to see Christ?

The authors of Acts, Revelation, and the Gospel of John all have very different answers to that question.

Caravaggio's Conversione
This scene in Acts says that God opens our eyes in startling, strange unexpected signs. Saul is approaching Damascus when, “suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, ‘Saul Saul why do you persecute me?’”. This light blinds him for three days, and he’s “led by the hand” to Damascus, where he prays until God sends the disciple Ananias to heal him and fill him with the Spirit.

I love all the paintings and drawings that have been made of this bizarre moment on the road. Sometimes Saul is shown flying off his horse, knocked by a blaze. Or Christ is leaning in from a cloud, and Saul has his ear turned toward him. Or Saul is falling forward before Christ in humility— or, like in the Caravaggio painting in your bulletin, Saul just lies there, stunned. Stunned silent, even, maybe still stunned long after the voice of Christ has left his ear.

Saul continues on where he’d been headed, but now he goes “led by the hand.” Later, he receives the power of the Spirit from Ananias, but only after he has been made powerless. God opens Saul’s eyes, but only only after they have been stunned shut.

When God opens our eyes in this way, it may not knock us off our path, but it’ll change the REASON we’re on that path. When we see Christ in this way, we might not turn around, but we walk on in a very different way than how we started. And, we might need a word and a prayer from someone who God sends to us, to explain what has happened.

This is one way God opens our eyes. How else does God open our eyes, to see Christ? In the Revelation to John, the narrator’s eyes are already privileged in one way,  because he has been taken into heaven, he’s seen the one seated on the throne who looks like carnelian, and the sea of glass, like crystal. But a crisis comes, and John weeps because no one can be found to open a scroll. An elder says, “Don’t weep, see, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered,” and he is worthy to open the scroll.

John looks up, and instead of a lion, and sees a lamb, literally, “a little lamb,” “standing as if it had been slaughtered.” I imagine John is confused for a moment—can this be Christ? But then the voices of the creatures and the elders sing that this Lamb has “ransomed for God saints from EVERY tribe AND language AND people AND nation.” Then, comes our reading—a moment when ALL THESE who have been ransomed and redeemed begin to sing—and there are myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands. And then, as if they could not help but join, “EVERY creature in heaven AND on earth AND under the earth AND in the sea, AND all that is in them,” sing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever.”

John had already seen God, had seen heaven, but couldn’t understand what Christ was, until it had been explained to him in the voices of myriads of myriads of saints. John’s eyes were opened by the voices of every people and nation proclaiming the truth of God, and by the whole chorus of creation singing the truth of Christ’s reign and redemption.

For many of us, God opens our eyes to Christ in the singing voices of others—in the saintly lives led by others, in the glory of the created order. We may think we have seen God on his throne, we may think we know the Lion who has conquered, only to have our eyes opened by another’s song, our ideas upended by the Lamb.

But how ELSE does God open our eyes to behold Christ? Our Gospel reading, interestingly, has a couple different ways God opens our eyes. In this story, the camaraderie of the disciples and their friendship with Christ is still evident. Peter decides to go out for a round of nighttime fishing, and his friends join him. At daybreak, after a fruitless—or fishless—night, a distant figure on the beach shouts, “Boys!” (The Oxford Annotated says this is a better translation than “children”.) As a master of understatement, this figure suggests they’ll find “SOME fish” if they throw their net on the other side.

The sudden absurd weight of fish in their net seems to be what opens John’s eyes to see that it is Jesus. He turns to his friend Peter and says, “It is the Lord!” And THAT seems to be what opens Peter’s eyes to Christ’s presence. The Gospel says, “When he had heard that it was the Lord,” he put on his clothes and impulsively dove in.

So God opens John’s eyes in this almost comical experience of abundance, and he opens Peter’s eyes through the words of a friend. And these aren’t judgmental or explanatory words—simply, “Look! It is the Lord!”

By the time the rest of the disciples get to the beach, and Jesus invites them to eat, their eyes have all been opened, and no one needs to ask, “Who are you?” God opened their eyes, they are beholding Christ, and they sit down to have breakfast on the beach at sunrise with the Lord.

So Acts, Revelation, and John tell us what it means to have God open our eyes to behold Christ. I wonder, then, how God has opened your eyes, our eyes? Perhaps he did this gently, in the breaking of bread or the voice of a friend? Perhaps he opened your eyes with a great light or a great catastrophe? Or with the holy lives of people you’ve read about, or with the singing beauty of nature? Perhaps he opened your eyes with a sign of abundance and plenty in your life, a loving family, a good friend? When has God opened our eyes? When have we seen Christ, and heard him say, “Tend my sheep. Follow me.”

O God, we praise and bless you for your mysterious ways. We look for you in the world, we try to understand you and how we should live, but we can’t do it alone. Open the eyes of our faith, so that we may behold your son, the risen Christ, in all his redeeming work, and know you.

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