The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
Earlier this summer I was visited – someone came in to my office, a parishioner and he brought to me an image on his cellphone that was giving him a kind of motivation, a kind of strength, a kind of ability to move and take on the next day. It was a painting that was done by a young woman who was eight years old at that time. Her name is Akiane Kramirik and she was raised in rural Illinois. And at eight, Akiane had this incredible spiritual experience where she saw Jesus and she dedicated herself to somehow painting this enormous canvas on what she could with incredible realism, the likeness of the image that she saw.
And over the course of about a year, she worked on this canvas. And when she completed it, it was remarkably real. She was a self-taught artist. And since she painted that incredible canvas, it has had a kind of life of its own. People have been captivated by the story, and captivated by her experience and captivated by the fact that this eight-year-old girl could somehow paint this incredible canvas. And people have wondered if this was, in fact, a revelation, a moment in which someone actually saw the real Jesus.
And others have noted that the figure that she painted looks startlingly similar to the Shroud of Turin, another image that tells us of the real Jesus, at least reportedly. And this parishioner showed it to me because he found it incredibly comforting. And he thought, what did I – as someone who likes art, what did I think of the portrait? And I stood back from it for a bit and I thought, and it is a pretty portrait, but I thought to myself, I know that this portrait is real for her but I’m not sure if this is the real Jesus. And then I thought a little bit harder about that whole exchange of the image with me. And I realized that the reason why the parishioner was showing me that portrait of Jesus, that portrait of the real Jesus, is that he was hoping and trusting that Jesus was in fact real.
How do you know you’re seeing the real Jesus? That’s the question I want to pick out a little bit today because you and I are often in times in which we are struggling to know that the Jesus that we meet in the gospels and the Jesus we meet in church, the Jesus we see depicted in many different ways, is that a representation of a real relationship and a real person that we could know? And can we trust that real Jesus in the midst of all the things that challenge us?
And we have a reason to ask that question because today’s gospel is incredibly interruptive. The people who paint portraits of Jesus do not usually include the passage we have today from Luke where He says, “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” “Who is not willing to let go of all possessions is not worthy to be my disciple,” Jesus says. And this Jesus we don’t always see in the portraiture of Jesus we meet when we go to church.
And usually when we depict Jesus, He looks incredibly gentle, incredibly sweet, as if like a lamb would just come up and sniff His hand just instinctively as He walked through Jerusalem gently. But in fact, today’s gospel represents to us an incredibly challenging image of Jesus. Do we see Jesus in today’s gospel?
And I want to suggest to you that we do see this Jesus. And some people have said that the way we see this Jesus is by heightening that disruption by placing Jesus into the full stature of what He is as a prophet. And some people have tried to imagine Jesus as something very much unlike who they are in order to kind of enter into that disruptive gospel. They’ve imagined Jesus as being of a different ethnicity or race, or different class or representing a different place, representing a prisoner, representing someone who is suffering, representing a patient in order to somehow trigger us to see Jesus more really in our life.
And perhaps, one way to look at this gospel is to say this is an attempt to kind of spur our imaginations, to have us think a little more deeply about all that’s keeping us from Jesus. Soren Kierkegaard said that all of our faith comes down to a moment in which we let everything go and take an incredible leap of faith. And there’s nothing that could prepare us for that. It’s just a jump into something that seems like absurdity.
And more recently, Peter, Paul and Mary and the great Mandela have a refrain from their little folk song in which they say, “Win or lose now, you’ve got to choose now. If you lose your life, it’s only your life you’re losing.” But I want to suggest that there is a more grace-filled way to see today’s gospel because we need to keep in mind that every choice we make for Jesus and every sacrifice we could claim for Him, any attempt to make ourselves justified on the basis of our own works, as His disciple is in fact a response to the love and sacrifice that Jesus has always, already shown us.
Today’s gospel takes place as Jesus has already set Himself toward Jerusalem where He will die. And the context of the statements He’s making are of someone who has already poured himself out for us. We love, it says in 1 John, “Because Christ first loved us.” The Jesus who speaks the interruptive truth in today’s gospel is actually one who has already given Himself fully to us, so that whatever we do and whatever we can give, whatever we can let go of, whatever we can claim, whatever we can call our own is in fact an echo of God’s greater love and sacrifice for us.
Today’s gospel is, in fact, an invitation of relationship with Jesus. And there is a bedrock and foundation and love in that invitation for us to place Jesus at the center of our lives. Because when we do choose Jesus, we choose life itself, we choose love itself. We choose a way of being that we can scarcely imagine on our own.
Earlier this summer, I had another moment in which somebody told me about a meeting with Jesus. It was another moment of vision. This has been a summer of visions for my congregation. It was a moment – it was kind of a daydream that happened while he was swimming an open water race. He had decided to do the one-mile open water race on the Detroit river which goes north for a quarter of a mile and turns around a buoy and then goes down south with the flow of the river for about a half mile, and then turns again and does a final quarter mile back to the beach.
And he had trained for it by swimming in his community pool one mile. And he thought that would be enough. And then he got into the race and he made it through the first buoy, and then down and then at the third turn he experienced this incredible exhaustion. And he seemed to be only going one foot at a time with each stroke. And he began to lose heart a little bit.
Until finally, one of the race organizers came alongside on a kayak and said, “You’re moving sideways and the river is going against you. Your body is like a sail catching the full stream. Turn into the river and you’ll make it.” And so, he turned into the river, but by that time he was completely spent and he was trying to think about and imagine when this would be completely over.
And then suddenly, he had this incredible daydream in which Jesus came on a paddle board. Jesus was wearing board shorts and a tank top and had a ponytail, and came alongside him on the paddle board and said, “You can do it.” And then in his mind, he was arguing back with Jesus saying, “You’re on a paddle board, man. I’m swimming.”
And so then, Jesus threw the paddle and just dove into the water next to him and began swimming next to him. And then he still argued. He said, “Yeah, but you’re the son of God. You could walk on this water if you wanted to. This is not a challenge for you.” And then, Jesus made this noise like an exasperated parrot. He said, “Ha.” And He leaps out of the water and like a ghost inhabiting a body, he jumps right into his body. And suddenly, when Jesus entered him, he found the strength to keep swimming. And when he touched the shore and made his way onto the beach, Jesus disappeared.
And as this parishioner told me this story, he said he had tears in his eyes because he realized in this strange kind of fable, this make-believe moment that was also a kind of revelation, he suddenly realized that he had a deep relationship with Jesus. That all the challenges he was facing, they had to be placed in the context of this deep relationship with Jesus that he had.
And I suppose, this is what all of us learn when we try to imagine the Jesus we follow. We discover that this Jesus is real. And we learn to look for the ways in which we might find Jesus even in moments of disillusionment, even in moments in which we have no images, even when we discover that the images we have fall from our eyes like scales, and we see a reality that is deeper and darker than we want and we find that Jesus, out of His incredible compassion and mercy, is willing to give us one more image of Him again. And it’s that willingness to be with us even as we imagine Jesus on a paddle board that shows that kind of willingness to lead us along so that we might find our way deeper into an intimate relationship with Him.
When the parishioner showed me the image, and when the other parishioner told me the story of meeting Jesus while he was swimming, I thought of the Celtic Christian practice of the lorica. It’s a prayer of protection that you say when you are facing incredible odds, and you pray Jesus surround you as you are facing difficulty or you fear attack, or you’re facing some kind of suffering that is unavoidable. And it’s a prayer that comes to us in that incredible hymn St. Patrick’s Breastplate. Of course, this prayer is older than the story of Patrick himself. And it is this:
Christ beside me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ within me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ in breath,
Christ in length,
Christ in height,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.”
That lorica is an assurance to us that whatever we can say or do in our relationship with Christ, one of the things we can let go of, Christ is always already around us, and in us and working through us. And this is why St. Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me,” because the Jesus who is real doesn’t want a relationship that is merely external or beholden to the eyes. Jesus has come for a real relationship within us.
So where do you see Jesus? What is the Jesus you see? One of my favorite images of Jesus that I see is from the mural that is on the cover of the bulletin that you have before you today. This mural was painted by Daniel Cascardo in 2018 to begin the celebration of the 90th anniversary of this parish. And that’s Jesus of the Resurrection. And all of the little figures there, those are not imaginary figures even though they are abstract. Those were the people that were around Daniel on that day as he painted that incredible mural free-hand during the sermon.
And this is a memory of the past but it’s also a vision of the future because the Jesus we will see is always the Jesus who is resurrected, the Jesus who calls us into our future, even while we are in the midst of our present. Where do you see Jesus? What does Jesus look like for you? This is the question we embark upon this program year. And may God give us eyes of faith, and hearts of hope and works of love so that we might see that Jesus more really each day.