Year B, Proper 22: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 (Mark 10:2-16)
October 4, 2009
Father Adam S. Linton
Note: This was Father Adam’s inaugural sermon as Rector of Church of the Holy Spirit.
The anonymous letter to the Hebrews is an enigmatic piece of writing. We’re not even sure that it’s really a letter, as such. Some have thought that it might be a very early Christian sermon. Frankly, much of it now seems rather arcane; its imagery distant. But its central message is enduringly relevant, speaking very directly to our hearts and our condition. We’ll be hearing portions from Hebrews as Sunday’s Second Lesson for the better part of the next two months. Today, we begin with the beginning:
“Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son.”
So Jesus Christ is what God has to say to us: God’s primal, fulfilling, and final Word. The content of this speaking is who God is—in glorious perfection as creator, redeemer, savior. This speaking also addresses who we are: persons on a great journey, beginning with creation. Our journey also includes deliverance from sin’s captivity. Yet we’re still travelling with a long way to go, with so much in store. And this is a pilgrimage now very much bound up with suffering.
The key message of the letter to the Hebrews is that on this journey, we are not travelling alone. Jesus is the meeting place; the meeting place of who God is and who we are—and who we are becoming. More than this, Jesus, the Son, has travelled our path—on our terms—as our brother, and we as his sisters and brothers. So he shares our suffering and has shared our death. Through this, he becomes the pioneer (we might say, the trailblazer) of our salvation. We are not travelling this journey of ours alone, and now “by him and with him and in him,” it’s a journey with a purpose.
As we proceed on the way, our text invites us to ponder this present in-between reality of ours. Sometimes we sprint. Much more often, we trudge along with a few pauses now and then to catch our breath, and sometimes as well a questionable detour or two. God can handle all of it. More than this, God in Christ Jesus is with us through all of it.
It doesn’t matter if our recognition of God is imperfect or sometimes even minimal. It doesn’t matter so much, either, if we question from time to time whether God is indeed present with us at all. Unlike us, God isn’t too troubled by not getting due credit—and I believe it often pleases God to work anonymously. God’s presence, God’s grace, God’s purpose; these are greater than all our stuff. That’s what—that’s who we meet in God’s Son, Jesus.
Now to heighten our focus a bit more specifically, I’d like to ponder the curious phrase in our text, “But we do see Jesus.” This is an assurance after the candid recognition of all that we do not presently see while we’re on the way—all the “not yet” of God’s good purpose for us. Experience leads us to acknowledge that in this present life we see plenty of things distinctly counter to our hopes for the “not yet.” The author of Hebrews says in response, “Nevertheless, we do see Jesus.”
This is a curious phrase, because by every evident, present recognition of ours, we don’t see him. By every usual perception, Jesus is now gone. Even this morning’s passage references the mystery of Christ’s Ascension:
“When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high.”
Christ is risen. Christ lives. But somehow in ways that human language, even human sacred language, can barely begin to indicate, Christ’s present life has been translated out of the sphere of our present perception.
As with all metaphors, thinking of heaven as “up there” has its limits. Don’t get me wrong. I delight in metaphor. There’s no other way we humans apprehend anything (in science as well as poetry). Nevertheless, we have to be very careful, I think, with a too exclusive reliance on “up” or “upwards” to indicate heaven. I don’t think that “up, up, and away” is an adequate description of Jesus’ relationship to us. The heavenly reality can just as well be indicated in metaphors of deep within, or close alongside—just out of sight.
But how does this help us take hold of our text’s assurance that we do see Jesus? We’re talking about a different kind of perception; a Spirit-given, Spirit-enabled perception—manifested to us in unexpected forms. How do we see in this way? How do we encounter the unexpected company for whom we’ve been awaiting all along?
First of all, it’s a gift. A gift, not an achievement. Grace is a keyword—maybe the keyword—in our spiritual vocabulary; and “by the grace of God” is the indispensable concept. This vision is a gift to be received, never a conjuring up. As grace is really grace and God is really God, so grace can mercifully exploit the slightest fissures to penetrate our best and most hardened defenses. Thanks be. More than this, I believe that divine grace can create its own fissures to get past our well fortified layers of delusional security. The concept of grace is so important, because in the end, if things ultimately depended on our own good sense, we’d all be in big trouble.
Of course, it is also a healthy, practical, spiritually productive thing to hold ourselves—to grow—so to be better receivers of the gift. At least provisionally, we can either impede or welcome the unexpected vision of Christ. What impedes? What clouds over our spiritual sight? Habitual irritation, pervasive anxiety, indulging in the pursuit of control. All those sorts of strategies through which we seek to manage and protect our existence.
And what might serve to welcome the sight of Jesus? A well-spoken saying comes to mind. “Let go, and let God.” There’s a powerful liberation in store for us when we realize that we no longer have to try to carry out God’s job description. “Let go, and let God.”
Welcoming the vision of Christ means, then, a willingness to receive, a willingness to be led, recovering the capacity for surprise, embracing the reality and freedom of not having to have things all figured out, bearing with (and even learning to delight in) paradox. We’re speaking here of a spiritual adventuresomeness; getting past our resistance to launching out into the risky depths. Above all, we’re speaking of the growing capacity of seeing what we did not expect to see.
But we do see Jesus. Notice the present tense. Here and now on this side of the great divide between the “already” and the “not yet.” Maybe this is a vision given through our everyday seeing of one another. Those dear to us, those who warm our hearts, but also those who frustrate us, those who get in the way of what we think we want and need. This vision is given in the sight of both those who comfort us and also those who stretch us far beyond our comfort zones.
It goes without saying that the frustrating and the uncomfortable people are very often those who need the help we are in a position to give. Sometimes, that’s a simple and as difficult as really paying attention.
“ ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you?’…‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.’ ”
Now to take this yet another step, still to be named—though we name it with all due caution. Occasionally, we are given brief, partial, and paradoxical glimpses of Jesus even in our own poor selves. And lest we be swamped, utterly swamped by this, we remember again that such a vision is no desperate conjuring on our own part, no strained forcing out of our tired eyes.
Remember grace. Remember the giver. Through all our growth and all our evasions, through progress and interruptions, grace will lead us home. Surely now, we see dimly. By grace, then we will see face to face. We will come to see fully even as we had been fully seen. As it is put in one of my favorite Christmas hymns, “Once in Royal David’s City,”
“And our eyes at last shall see him through his own redeeming love…
…he leads his children on to the place where he has gone.”
Meanwhile, our Lord incrementally accustoms our perception to greater measures of his light. That incrementalness can be a challenge for us—but we need to bear with what we often deem to be God’s inefficiency. All or nothing thinking is both unrealistic and colossally unhelpful, and we are usually being called to greater measures of patience: patience with one another, with ourselves, and with God, too.
It has been mentioned that I have a particular love of poetry, and so I do. One of my favorites is Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Nineteenth Century English poet who was also a Jesuit priest. There’s a particular poem of his that speaks to me on this occasion, and I’d like to share it with you now. As we are carried in its rich imagery, I hope that its aptness will become evident.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
May God bless us—in our common service; in our new fellowship which we celebrate today. Together, in purposeful, joy-filled, and generous Mercy, may both perceive and participate in the Godly Play of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.