Sunday, July 9, 2017

Windows - A Cloud of Witnesses

In the Name of Jesus.  Amen.

In 1911 a young man, Roland Bainton entered Yale Divinity School.  He would never leave it, first a student, then professor, then church historian of international reputation.  He wrote the definitive biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand.  He was in his mid 80’s when I arrived.

Every year, first week of classes, we gathered in the dining room, and Roland Bainton told us stories of the portraits that hung all the way round, starting with Jonathon Edwards and rehearsing the history of Yale through its deans, the other portraits, and their part in the spiritual and political history of the nation.

He would end with the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

So in the days to come, glad days, weary days, occasionally heavy-laden, we ate our breakfast, lunch and dinner, in communion with a cloud of witnesses who had faced glad days, weary days, heavy-laden, who ran with perseverance the race that was set before them, and now looked down from their place on the wall, to urge us to do the same.

We, too, are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses.  Bainton had an hour for his sermon, and I don’t.  So my tour of our witnesses is in three parts, today Philip and James, Mark and Matthew.  August 4th to finish.

Philip was a deacon, chosen by the community, back when they held all things in common, to help with distribution.  The word deacon comes from the Greek word for servant or waiter. 

Our window shows Philip at work, waiting table.  If you go to the Book of Acts, where the community first decided it needed deacons, you discover there is more to being a deacon than serving food.  Deacons also serve justice.  It’s not so easy to distribute.  It seems the non-Jewish widows were getting overlooked.

Deacons are the kind of people who notice the people that the rest of us overlook, in Philip’s day the non-Jewish old ladies.  Today, well, walk down a street with Janet.  If you have a destination and a schedule, you’d better leave extra time for her to stop, because she sees people.  And she doesn’t turn away.  She greets them, talks with them, she addresses what needs she can.  Those needs are not always material; sometimes it is the need to be seen.  She blesses them.  And she blesses the person walking with her, who learns from her how to see people.

Later in the Book of Acts, Philip saw a rich man, an Ethiopian.  Despite his wealth, others turned away, because he was a eunuch, a sexual nonconformist.  But Philip did not turn away.  And the Church of Ethiopia traces its origin to that encounter.

Deacons are icons of ministry.  They show us how it’s done, so we can do it, too.  Sometimes I walk through a street or a supermarket and try to see with Janet’s eyes.  It takes longer to get done what you’re there to do.  But try it yourself sometime.  You will find yourself blessed.

James, patron of pilgrims, he looks over my shoulder.  In the New Testament, he is a fisherman, son of Zebedee, brother of John, one of the first to follow Jesus.  But the story in the window comes from later.

Last month I told the tradition of how the disciples divvied up the known world into mission fields.  James went to Spain.  Unlike Thomas, whose Church of India endures to this day, James [mmm] was not a spectacular success.  After years, he made six disciples.  Maybe preaching wasn’t his call.  He returned to Palestine, and Herod beheaded him.

Then, according to legend, angels placed his body in a boat which floated without rudder, across the Mediterranean Sea, through the strait of Gibraltar, up the coast of Iberia, and landed on the northwest corner.  He was buried in what came to be called Compostela, Field of Stars, because in the 9th century, a shepherd, guided by a star, found the spot.

Eventually, Santiago [Saint James] de Compostela became a pilgrimage site, rivaled only by Rome and Jerusalem.  Francis of Assisi walked the Camino, the Way.  John XXIII did, along with millions through the centuries seeking healing or forgiveness, working off some judicial sentence, expressing thanks, fulfilling vows, or even just the exercise.

A year ago, Helen and I had prepared to walk the Camino, the most popular 500-mile version of it.  We had our staffs, our modern-day water bottles.  Our Camino mentor had sent us the shell that pilgrims carry to identify our claim to pilgrims’ hospitality.  Then, as many of you know, our pilgrimage took a detour through the halls of the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics and Helen’s diagnosis of kidney cancer.

We did not vow to walk the Way if she was healed.  Which she was, by the way – all of her numbers for her one-year check-up are just marvelous.  I don’t know if we will take up our old ambition again, not in the same way.  Now we live even more deeply into the Way of Saint James.  This is how:

See, his plans changed.  What he thought was God’s way for him on that bright Pentecost morning took a detour.  Yet he continued in a new way.  So the artist who fashioned these windows put him in pilgrim’s garb, staff, water bottle, shell.  And he stands there behind my shoulder, reminding me, whatever twists and turns, surprises, disappointments and changes of plan, El Camino continua – the Way continues.

These windows are not the twelve apostles.  Another James is not here, nor Judas.  Instead, the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Mark and Luke were the next generation, disciples.

I’ll do Mark first.  His was the first gospel written.  So he holds a pen and book.  It is a common artistic convention to portray younger men without facial hair.  Mark is thought to be the younger companion to Peter, and Peter is thought to be the source for Mark’s gospel. 

I’m not sure why his clothes look so heavy.  It’s ironic, actually.  Mark is not named in the gospels.  But there is a story that suggests he was there.  It was that last terrible night in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In the chaos of the arrest, Mark records that a soldier grabbed a young man by the robe, thinking to haul him in for questioning.  But the young man wriggled out of it and escaped.

Matthew and Luke use Mark as their model, but they don’t mention the streaker.  Why does Mark?  Scholars surmise it was his own peculiar way of saying, I was there –  I got away.

I’m not sure why he has male pattern baldness.  Maybe it is the artist’s portrait, his own peculiar way of placing himself in the picture?

Matthew’s place in the picture is solid.  His story is a well-attested part of Jesus’ ministry.  Everybody knew it – Jesus ate with tax collectors.  That’s what Matthew was.

Now, we’re not talking about the IRS here.  These taxes did not pay for schools or health care or Social Security.  These were Roman taxes.  They paid for two things.  First, the cost of the occupation.  The people of Palestine had to pay to be oppressed.  Second, the wages of the tax collectors themselves.  Tax collectors decided their own salary, usually substantial, and had the force of the Roman army to back up their collection.  Their countrymen did not thank them for their service.

There are people who have jobs like that, jobs that others don’t appreciate, that require them to go against maybe even their own values. Somebody is going to do it, and they have bills to pay, but… It doesn’t sit right, not with their neighbors and, truth be told, not with themselves, either.  I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate, Paul said. 

Matthew placed himself outside the community, against it.  And Jesus placed himself outside the community by associating with Matthew.  Yet he despised the shame, as the Letter to the Hebrews said.  He did not let reputation stand in the way of his mission.  He created a new community. 

It was not a reputable community.  Over the years, some Christians have chafed at the reputations of Jesus’ disciples, tried to make the neighborhood more respectable.  But here Jesus stands, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 

Here Matthew stands, as well.  He recorded his shame in his gospel.  He offered it up, his burden, in the form of those money bags.  Then he let Jesus carry it.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Whatever your burden, whatever your struggle, or secret, or shame, you belong here.  The windows themselves include you.  Whatever it is, lay it down.  Let Jesus take it.  Don’t let it interfere, because we have places to go, you and I.

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.


Photo of Roland Bainton from Yale Divinilty School library
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, Fresco of the Seckau Apocalypse by Herbert Boeckl (1952 – 1960) in the Angel's Chapel at Seckau Abbey, Styria, Austria, Used under Creative Commons license
Detail from the Small Door at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Used under the GNU Free Documentation license
Photo of Roman Imperial Eagle in public domain
Photos of windows by author, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Prineville, Oregon

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