|The Death of the Virgin Mary, Chora Church, Istanbul. Image: University of Michigan Library.|
O Queen of Heaven, rejoice, for the son you bore has arisen as he promised. Alleluia. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Why are we here today? Why do we bother praising God?
I mean this as a serious question, and actually an urgent one for those of us who believe the church has good news to share, but aren’t quite sure how to share it.
After all, no less a Christian hero than Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, which has brought countless gang members out of the nihilism of street justice into truly hopeful and hope-giving lives, asked in a recent talk in Indianapolis, why we don’t quit doing the things that kind of make God want to go to sleep: namely praise and prayer. Now he might have just been talking about bad liturgy, in which case I’m 100% on board. But he was saying more than that.
Don’t tell God things God already knows, he suggests. God knows God is almighty, that Jesus’s sacrifice was really important and amazing, that the Trinity is a great and majestic mystery. God doesn’t need this information from us. Does singing: “Come my way, my truth, my life,” actually have any influence on whether or how Jesus shows up in our worship, let alone our lives?
Focus on what God really cares about, he says, works of justice and mercy. That’ll keep Jesus alert.
He was tongue in cheek. of course, You don’t give your life away to those the world would just as soon throw away in the way Father Boyle has without a deep spiritual grounding in prayer and worship. He is addressing a balance of priorities in Christian communities and in the whole of the Christian life.
But even in his exaggeration it’s a challenge worth answering – because it’s one I’ve heard from people inside and outside the church alike. If we’re getting something out of being here this morning, we have a duty to give an account of the faith that is in us, so that we can share it with others who may need what we’re getting here too.
There are probably a lot of answers to this question, but there are two that particularly stand out to me right now.
First – we want a relationship with God, right? If we believe that God just dispassionately set the universe in motion and then sort of wandered off, maybe checking in occasionally to see if anything interesting is happening, none of this matters.
But if we actually desire a relationship we need to act like it. On my good days I am an adequate husband. Which means that I recognize that I didn’t just make my vows to Frank and then move on, assuming that he not only remembers exactly what I said that day at the altar nearly six years ago, but also just knows that from day to day my heart remains unchanged.
At a bare minimum, if he, say, hypothetically yesterday, throws a going-away party for a beloved parishioner who is about to move to New Jersey and for the three days prior to the event I was at a monastery and the day of the event I was working in the southern part of the state and arrived home literally five minutes before the party started, the least I can do when someone praises my hospitality is say, “To Frank be the glory.”
I will not presume to know whether Frank particularly appreciates the glory (perhaps he will tell me later), nor whether my declaration gives him any information previously unknown to him, but I do know that my act is part of the constant recalibration of the direction of my heart to maintain my vows against all the distractions the world offers.
And I should not overly dwell on marriage as a metaphor for the relationship with God. The church has done that for centuries with occasionally useful results, but just as often strange and unhelpful implications for gender roles. Our friendships, work relationships, and other family ties are worthy of this kind of attention. And so is God.
The second reason to praise God is to remind ourselves of who we are in that relationship. That includes our ultimate humility, that no matter what, however much we might exercise, or moisturize, or take groundbreaking medications, we will all one day go down to the dust. So we praise God for what we have while we have it. The relationship also includes our ultimate worth. The sisters at Holy Wisdom Monastery outside Madison, Wisconsin use a paraphrased version of the Magnificat, the Blessed Mother’s great hymn of praise, and, not coincidentally, justice and equity. In that paraphrase, the phrase “he has looked with favor on his lowly servant,” is restated: “the Holy Mighty One acclaims my worth.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about the poor animals on that sheet in Peter’s vision – the four footed animals, the beasts of prey, the reptiles, the birds of the air.
To start, what’s the deal with the sheet?
When I was a kid, when we took our two cats to the vet, we only had one proper pet carrier. So one unlucky cat would go in that, and the other - even more unlucky - cat would be placed in a pillowcase closed up with a knot. That was about as fun to accomplish as you’d think it was.
Fortunately the vet was a short drive away, but let’s just say the cats had trust issues with bedlinens.
So I can’t help wondering about the demeanor of the animals on this sheet.
And as a former vegetarian who retains vegetarian sympathies, the “kill and eat” thing makes me a little uncomfortable
Neither of these are the point of the story, of course, at least not directly. The main point here is about how God’s grace leaps boundaries we set for ourselves, or maybe inaccurately perceive as being set for us by God. And we can either resist or play catch-up as the Holy Spirit races ahead of us.
And so it is appropriate that today, the psalm responds to the expansiveness of God’s grace in unified praise of God by the whole creation. The sun and the moon, men and women, young and old, mountains and hills, sea monsters (my favorite): they all praise God.
And oh, by the way, so do wild beasts and cattle, creeping things and winged birds, all those critters that were on Peter’s sheet.
“Kill and eat.”
You know those barbecue joints where the mascot is a smiling pig with a fork – sometimes even a butcher knife? This feels a bit like that.
It’s spring, which means right now you can walk around in any halfway wild place and hear the great cacophony of creation perpetuating itself, while in constant peril.
Frogs in ponds chirping morning and night. I used to think they were the sounds of invisible creatures that put me to sleep on summer camping trips, but that was just me being impatient – stand still long enough by a patch of reeds and you can tune your eyes to find swarms of male frogs climbing over one another, knocking each other off perches, until they find a female that will have them.
A nesting pair of bluebirds guarding a box, whose song you think is about nothing until you get a little closer, learn that song was a warning that you didn’t heed, and they dive-bomb you.
“But I have vegetarian sympathies!” you want to say, even as you want to point to the actual predators, the big birds of prey, making wide circles far above.
As if the bluebirds care about your vegetarian sympathies when you look like a threat to their eggs. As if those sympathies are any comfort to the cow who bites it on the occasion you want a steak.
And anyway, pity the grubworm the bluebird finds to feed its young.
Do the animals praise God with the intention the psalmist poetically declares?
Probably not, and yet while it is humans who are created in God’s image, all creation bears the imprint of its creator. God looked upon the animals and saw that they were good, and by their very being, they respond, “Yes, we are.”
The relentless chirping of frogs is a song of desperation and reproductive imperative, but it is also a chorus of the name of God, “I AM, and will continue to be.”
And what is the cry of a dive-bombing bluebird but “Get away from my nest, you jerk. I AM and will continue to be.”
So non-human animals -- instinctively, involuntarily - songs of praise are just kind of what they do, never mind the odds of getting scooped up by a snapping turtle or felled by a hawk.
As for us humans, our ingenuity means that for the most part, we have overcome the Hobbesian Trinity of life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” that is, unless your name appears on our list of those killed by gun violence in this city, or you’re a child victim of yet one more school shooting because responsible adults refuse to take responsibility for our country’s children, or you’re a young mother who suffers the randomness of just going into a hospital with an infection and having a fatal allergic reaction to the antibiotic meant to heal you.
But for most of us, most of the time, things are pretty good. And in that context we can offer God praise for the beauty of the earth, the miracle of our pulse, the fullness of our breath, knowing that at any moment it might be taken away.
On the Western edge of Istanbul stands an ancient church called Chora, just inside the city walls built by the emperor Constantine. The church is best known for its spectacular 14th century mosaics depicting stories from the life of Jesus and Mary, his mother. The mosaics are incredibly well preserved – due to the four hundred years that the church served as a mosque. Because of the Islamic prohibition of human figures in art, the mosaics were covered in layers of plaster until the church was reborn as a museum in the mid-twentieth century.
The most striking image is a large scale scene of the death of the Blessed Mother. Mary is lying on a bier draped in red and black cloth. At her head stands St. Peter, honoring her body with incense using a three-chained thurible not unlike our own. St. Paul bows at her feet, and the other disciples as well as the women who stood watch with her at the foot of the cross, surround her in awe.
At the center of the image, bathed in an almond-shaped aura of light is Jesus, having descended from heaven, standing next to Mary’s reclining body. He carries an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. This baby is also Mary, whose soul he receives in his arms as she breathes her last.
This image brings up thorny theological questions about whether Mary died a normal death, and waits to be raised at the last day, or received some sort of special treatment in the form of the doctrine of the Assumption, or its cousin, the Dormition.
But such theological arguments are beside the point.
The great mosaic at Chora Church is less a statement on the finer points of theology than a brilliant allegorical take on the descent of heaven to earth, God making a dwelling among humankind in the New Jerusalem, God’s ultimate desire in the Incarnation.
It is a portrait of Jesus Christ the beginning, the Alpha, the one through whom all things were made, including the infancy, childhood, and motherhood of Mary, that bore him into the world in flesh and blood.
And it is a portrait of Jesus Christ the end, the Omega, who at the end of Mary’s earthly pilgrimage receives her as she received him, in swaddling clothes. He removes the sword that pierced her soul, and wipes away all her tears.
We praise God because we have being. We praise God because we finite creatures desire a relationship with the infinite source of that being. We praise God for acclaiming our worth even in our smallness. And we praise God because in the Resurrection, swords are broken and death is destroyed, and that now and at the last, we are held in the arms of Jesus Christ, our beginning and our end.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon delivered at the Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis, on the fifth Sunday of Easter (May 19, 2019). Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Ps. 148; Rev. 21:1-6; Jn. 13:31-35.