November 24, 2019
God is normally invisible to human beings, and also inaudible and undetectable to human taste, or touch, or smell. Angels are thought to have more sensitive receptors—but we are naturally blind and deaf to the One in whom we live and move and have our being.
Obviously, this is a gift.
Imagine how different life would be if God were always tapping on our shoulders and staring at us from the rear view mirror. “Take a left here, you’ll save ten minutes and reduce your carbon footprint.” Morally and spiritually we would be a world of Peter Pans, stuck in childhood. As things are, we can grow up and come into our own as beings in God’s image who can think for ourselves and do as we see fit, as though God had retired and moved to Florida. We call this freedom.
Obviously, it is also a problem.
Divine invisibility opens the gates for human error and confusion. We are governed by people no better or wiser than ourselves. We get lonely often, and in trouble sometimes, and would appreciate a reassuring touch or a helping hand from heaven.
Church is an answer to this problem. Here we surround ourselves with sights and sounds, and offer things to taste, touch and smell that have been blessed to stimulate our minds and open our hearts to God’s presence in our midst, and purpose for our lives––and to raise awareness of his almost palpable assistance.
Karl Barth said it: God “is never sleeping but always awake; never uninterested but always concerned.” [i]
And invisible does not mean inactive.
Allow me to be personal and specific. From beginning to end my time here has seemed to me to have been invisibly scripted in key respects. There were events around my coming, my staying, and now my going that have called me to do things that I had not planned and, but those events, would not have considered doing.
2013: “The dean is leaving: will you help us?” “No, I can’t do that.” Inaudibly, a still, small prompt: “Why don’t you just reconsider?”
2015: The new dean was on his way. They would be announcing it at any minute. Again, a prompt: “He ain’t coming. Are you going to leave them in the lurch?”
And then, last month, we learned the he school across the street, our friend and our tenant, is packing up and leaving next July. Financially that that is going to be a problem for the Cathedral. The prompt: “Is there something you can do to turn the minus to a plus before you go?”
More on that in the announcements.
Church taught me how to see and hear. Here is where we learn to notice “how silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” God the Holy Spirit comes stealthily into our minds as faith, our hearts as hope, and our words and deeds as love. The Word takes flesh again and dwells among us.
Church sights and sounds are not arbitrarily selected. They have been handed down from scripture through a venerable tradition refreshed and embellished from year to year, as each rising generation comes into its own adulthood and, in its own way, for its own time, walks faithfully, hopefully, and lovingly with God. The time has come for a new generation to do that here and take the lead.
Why should the Bible be our source? Because the Bible tells us of the wondrous gift. In Christ the script is beautiful but unexpected. The biblical cast of players and writers find themselves called to do and write things they had not planned and would not have considered but for events that they had now witnessed, of God made visible, audible, detectible in Jesus. Christ is God’s artful solution to the problem of divine invisibility. God hides in plain sight and the Holy Spirit gives us eyes to see and ears to hear him, while keeping our freedom.
Barth taught me that to understand Christ we need to always see him from two standpoints: above and below. Barth would have loved our altar: Christ above in glass, divine; Christ below in wood, a man. In Christ, the above and the below are interactive and both are changed. Earthly life acquires a heavenly dimension, and heavenly life an earthly look, and sound, and taste, and smell, and feel.
Our New Testament readings show us Christ from up and down.
In Colossians, we see Jesus from above, the all in all. Hear it in the word and see it in the glass.
He is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created . . . whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.
In Luke, we see him on his day of crucifixion. Imagine our wooden Jesus stripped of his robe and on the cross between two thieves. In wood, the thrones, dominions, rulers have him in their power. This was unexpected: God at last made visible on earth and to all appearances he is helpless.
But that was only half the truth. One of the thieves, seeing Jesus only in wood, had taunted him. But the other, through the wood sees Jesus also in the glass and prays or screams: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” From the cross, as though it were a throne, Jesus answers with divine authority. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
This means that to understand ourselves we have to learn see ourselves in glass and wood. From above: children of God, members of Christ, inheritors of his kingdom. From below: Eleanor Rigby, Clark Kent, Charlie Brown. On Ash Wednesday we come here to face the truth that out there no one wants to think about: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Through the wood we see the glass and know the dust conceals a heavenly dimension. And with ashes on our foreheads we walk out smiling.
In this church in all we say and do that is our task: to bring the invisible truth to light.
[i] Barth, CD III.3, 13