Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow Sunday by Sunday, continues to take us in a sequential way through the Gospel of Matthew. We have listened for a bunch of weeks running as Jesus has told us short stories. And it is apparent that these stories have alarmed at least some of the religious and civic authorities who are listening. Because they decide today that they need to push back – more than that, that they need to trap Jesus. And their traps looks like this: They are going to ask Jesus whether or not folks like him and his followers ought to pay tax to Rome.

This is a question that has no good answer, especially when it is asked in public. If Jesus says yes, that is an insult to all of his followers, to everyone who is enduring the oppression of empire. To say yes to paying tax under occupation and within a system in which tax collection is corrupt (tax collectors are something like the Ancient Near East’s answer to the Mafia) is for Jesus to announce that he is okay with being a collaborator and with participating in a crooked system.

To say no, however, is to insult empire itself. And that, as anyone who has endured life within a dictatorship can tell you, is to risk getting disappeared in the middle of the night. When you are living in East Germany or modern-day China or Israel under the boot of Rome, announcing that you will not be giving your money to government is something that you do at your peril.

This is a gotcha question, a deadly question.

But if this question phases Jesus, if his heart starts racing when he hears it, we see none of that on the outside. Jesus tells them to bring him a coin. If this scene were happening right now, maybe he would ask them to produce a twenty-dollar bill.

And he asks them:

Whose head is this?

Although folks who know ancient Greek tell us that the question might better be translated a little differently. They suggest that the question that Jesus is asking would more accurately be rendered:

Whose image is this?

That’s a significant distinction. Because if you are even passingly familiar with scripture, then and now, you know that to ask about someone’s image is to evoke the Book of Genesis:

God made them, male and female, in God’s image.

It is after making humanity that God says that everything that God made was very good.

Whose image is this?

And suddenly it is the folks asking seeking to trap Jesus who are in a dangerous place, who have no right answer. Because to answer that coin depicts someone made in the image of God is to announce that there is an authority far greater the emperor. And in a time when the emperor controls life and death, when Rome says that the Emperor is a god himself, to suggest that the emperor is subject to anyone or less powerful than anyone is to engage in a reckless act of subversion. But to deny to this is God’s image is to engage in sacrilege, it is to declare that there are places and people to whom the power of God does not reach.

Maybe there is a moment of excruciating, expectant silence as the authorities weigh their answer. Jesus is giving them a holy opportunity to offer a daring response. And the authorities – well, they are suddenly wondering why they began this conversation in the first place.

And then, after pausing forever, at last they speak. And because the fear of Empire has beaten down their theological imaginations, they answer Jesus’ question literally:

That is the emperor’s image.

And Jesus lowers the currency. Like a magician done with his trick, he hands it back to whoever leant it to him.

Then,

he says to the authorities,

I guess you’d better give it to the emperor. And give to God the things that are God’s.

The authorities are, the text says, amazed. Although gobsmacked might get closer. Do they leave with their tails between their legs? Or do they leave with a crack in the armour, with an opening to something beautiful and new?

Today, McLeod has discerned a call to be baptised. Normally, this would be an occasion for many people to gather to celebrate. But we can’t do that in pandemic: there are just a few of us here in the courtyard. But we are trusting that there are many more of you on the far side of the screen, that there we are surrounded by what Paul wonderfully calls so great a cloud of witnesses right now, not only in heaven but also on the internet.

As McLeod enters into the baptismal waters, Jesus us will ask you and me the same question that he asks of the authorities. Jesus will introduce us to McLeod and say:

Whose image is this?

And in the pause before we answer, Jesus will speak again. He will invite us to look around us. If you are here in the courtyard, look at the other people with you in this place. If you are home, maybe look out the window. Perhaps there is someone walking past your home. Maybe, if you don’t live alone, there is someone sitting beside you or working in your kitchen. Jesus says:

Whose image is this?

And again, Jesus will speak before we can answer.  Jesus will show us the earth itself. The trees, the birds dancing across the arc of the sky, the ground beneath our feet. God’s first creation, what Augustine calls the first Bible. And Jesus will ask:

Whose image is this?

And then once more – I know that jokes and parables tend to feature things that happen three times, but Jesus is asking us a fourth time this morning – Jesus will show us that in the baptismal waters we can see our own reflection. He will point at that reflection and say:

Whose image is this?

How shall we answer? This question maybe isn’t frightening in the same way that it was in Jesus’ day: the secret police aren’t going to come get us if we answer in the wrong way. But I want to suggest that it remains a life and death question. And it remains a question to which this world, to which the powers and principalities, to which what Dorothy Day called the Dirty Rotten System invites us to give theologically unimaginative and dangerous answers.

This System invites us to look at our fellow human beings and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: That is a consumer. The primary value of this person, maybe the entire value of this person, is in their capacity to spend money, to buy stuff. And the world is very clear about who someone who no longer has money. That person is a loser.

The System invites us to look at creation itself and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: This is a resource to be used up. The primary value of this earth and the creatures upon it is the goods and the services that creation can yield to me.

The System invites us to look at ourselves reflected in the waters and to answer the question Whose image is this? by saying something like: Here is someone who is inadequate. My skin is not great, my tummy is too big, my hair is kind of sad. I am difficult to get along with. I may be unlovable.

Notice that all three of these answers are about money, about the love of money. Jesus is still holding a coin as he asks us about them.

And each of these answers to Jesus’ question is a God damn lie. Each of them is heresy, a rejection of what God has told us about our neighbour, about creation, about ourselves. We know that there is a better answer, a holier answer. We know what the answer is. So let’s offer it.

Now, I know that Episcopalians don’t like shouting stuff out, and I know that it is kind of weird to be at home and shouting stuff at the computer screen (although I actually do that fairly often) but I’m going to challenge us to see if we can put down out academic reserve a little bit and to shout out our answers this morning. The question is Whose image is this? And the answer is, This is the image of God!

Do you want to do a practice run? Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

As McLeod gets ready to step into the waters of baptism, we look together at him. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look around the courtyard at one another or out the window at our neighbour or at our family members or roommates, people whom we have maybe seen slightly too much of these past few months. Jesus show us each of them and asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look at creation. The fragile wonder of it. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the ground which holds us up and to which, one day, we will return. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

We look at ourselves. This one, for some of us, will be the hardest. Our hands. Our feet. Our lungs breathing in and out. Our faces. And Jesus asks:

Whose image is this?

This is the image of God!

If we take the answer to Jesus’ question even passingly seriously, it cannot help but change us. If the man lying on the street is the image of God, dare we ignore him? If the earth is the image of God, dare we abuse it? If you are the image of God, dare you speak to yourself with anything less than love? We are the Body of Christ. We are, somehow, not only followers of Jesus but participants in Jesus, members of Jesus. His story is our story. And remember what Jesus discovers in baptism. It is what you and I discover in baptism. We are the image of God. In the waters, the dove descends upon us, descends upon you. And the voice of the Father says, This is my child, the beloved. In whom I am well pleased.

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Jeanne Kaliszewski

October 27, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 14:7-10,19-22
Psalm 84:1-6
2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18
Luke 18:9-14

From the moment we enter this world we are quantified.

Newborns are whisked away from their parents and weighed and measured. They are scored 1 minute after birth and then again at 5 minutes on this scale called the Apgar scale, which from 1 to 10 rates how healthy they are when they are first born.

And this comes from a very good place, I think. This comes from an intention to protect something so vulnerable and new in the world.

But it keeps going, doesn’t it?

I remember as a new parent going anxiously to the pediatrician, at 3 months at 6 months, and given graphs showing where my child fell on the growth curve. I was given scores every 3 or 6 months of how well they were measuring up against the developmental milestones they were expected to be achieving every 3 or 6 months.

And this keeps going and going. When they enter school they have to know a certain number of sight words by the end of kindergarten and are ranked in their reading level compared to their peers in their grade. Assessments are given, standardized tests, college rankings, what major you should choose based on what you will earn…on and on and on. Our lives are quantified by mathematical formulas.

And I think this comes from the same place as it does at the beginning of our lives: to protect us from being a human being in this world, and unpredictable and scary world where we are so vulnerable. And so we hold onto these things we can quantify, these solid numbers that tell us “yes, our children are going to be ok, yes, we are  ok.”

And so in this morning’s Gospel when we hear the Pharisee go to the temple and begin to pray to God (and perhaps to those who are surrounding him) and share how he is measuring up in his life of prayer, in his righteousness, in his justification before God. He prays “I fast twice a week when only once is expected, I give 10% of my income.” I suspect that this impulse in the Pharisee is coming from a similar place, an attempt to guarantee his righteousness and holiness in front of God.

And before I go on I just want to make a quick note about the Pharisees, because it is easy, especially when we spend a lot of time in the Gospel of Luke, to kind of equate Pharisee with hypocrite or corrupt official. And that has more to do with the writer of the Gospel of Luke and the context in which he was writing than it does with the tradition of Pharasaical Judaism which is a rich, important and valuable tradition in the Jewish faith. In fact, there are many scholars who believe that Jesus himself was raised up within the Pharisee tradition. So just a sort of caveat as I go on in this sermon and any time we talk about the Pharisees, please know this is Jesus offering a parable, a character and not something we should use to judge this entire tradition within Judaism.

All that being said, Jesus is very, very critical of this Pharisee in today’s parable. He is critical of the way the Pharisee is attempting to quantify his righteousness and prove himself to be justified in front of God. But perhaps even more so Jesus is critical of this Pharisee when, in temple, when he is praying and the Pharisee looks across and sees a tax collector also there, praying, obviously deeply hurt and in pain, beating his breast, the Pharisee’s reaction is “Thank God, I am not like him.”

That image of the tax collector beating his breast is quite an arresting one, it is almost as if in the presence of God he is trying to break his own heart open, and present it to the Lord.

The academic and sociologist, Parker Palmer, suggests that there are two images we can keep in our mind’s eye when we think about a heart being broken. The first is imagining the heart as a brittle and fragile thing, that when it breaks it breaks like a wine glass dropped on the hard kitchen floor, smashing into thousands of pieces, shards flying everywhere, never to be made whole again.

The other image he suggests we use for a broken heart is that of a fist. A fist in the middle of our chest that when it is broken opens up like a hand, fingers splayed wide, to hold our own hurt but also to hold the hurt of the world in the palm of our hand.

I would suggest today that the tax collector in today’s Gospel, when the Pharisee saw him, was trying to do that very thing, to break open his heart like a hand to recognize in that moment that whatever hurt or anguish or pain had brought him to that place that day, he was ultimately and completely at God’s mercy, vulnerable before God reliant entirely on God’s grace and love.

What’s also interesting about this image, this gesture that the tax collector uses in the temple that morning, this gesture that Jesus refers to in describing him, this beating your breast or chest is one reserved for women in this culture that Jesus lived in. And more specifically women who were grieving a deep and painful loss.

There is perhaps no more powerful emotion in our human experience than that of grief. And perhaps within that spectrum of grief nothing more overwhelming and painful than a parent’s grief at losing a child. The image I imagine for this kind of grief is that it is like being dropped into a dark ocean, angry and stormy, with nothing to hold onto and no land in sight, trying desperately to keep your head above water.

I have some friends, Mary and Dustin, who I think are in this deep abyss of grief right now. I don’t know if y’all had heard of this story by there was a young man, named Owen Klinger, who went missing a couple of weeks ago and his parents were searching for him along with a lot of us as well. Owen was in kindergarten with my daughter and we have known Owen, and Owen’s parents, since those early school days. We did not know Owen well, I do remember Owen as a joyous, athletic, funny, musical kid who was always there. He was really a beautiful boy.

And so last week on Tuesday, at the University of Portland where Owen was in his first year, the community there had a mass to come together and grieve the loss of Owen who, after being missing for two weeks, his body was discovered in the Willamette River. It was clear that the deepest fears of his parents and those who knew him had come true, that he had died.

And this community gathered in the chapel of the University of Portland and mourned the loss of their friend, of their brother, of their son. And after that service Mary and Dustin went out to the press that had gathered in front of the chapel and spoke to them.

And in that moment Mary, most especially, embodied a heart which has been broken, not like glass on the kitchen floor but like a hand put forward to the world. She shared that when she had dropped Owen off at college a couple of months before, she had said to him “Owen, I want you to make a difference, I want you to impact this community.”  She said she had wondered whether he was listening to her. But she said that morning just leaving from a service grieving her son, she said she realized that he had been listening to her. She said that even in his death he had made an impact on this community, that he had brought  people together from all over the city who had looked for him, who had cared for him, who had prayed for him and who held him in prayer and love.

In that moment, her heart was broken open like a hand and she was saying, I think, that the value of his life could not be quantified in the too few years he had spent on this earth but in fact in the love and spirit he had embodied when he was alive and he continued to have in his death. In that moment, God held Mary’s heart and God held Owen’s as well.

I think, sometimes, we think of Christ’s divinity primarily in Christ’s strength, in the miraculous strength it took to overcome death and the power of the resurrection, in the joy we find on Easter morning. And my friends, that is real and there is true joy in the world and there is power in that image.

But I would also suggest that Christ’s divinity is found in his deep vulnerability, perhaps no more than when he was on the cross when he cried out in pain and anguish “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”. In that moment Christ is at his most human and most divine. And the good news is that even in that awful place, that there is no pain so deep, no grief so wide that Jesus or overwhelming that we human beings experience that Jesus is not there with us and always will be.

And we know that, I think, because every Sunday we gather at this altar and we remember Christ’s body broken and the blood poured out for us. And we offer up our hands and a piece of Christ’s heart is put in them and we take that piece of Christ and we bring it into ourselves. And we are called, my friends, to be brokenhearted people and sent out into the world, a world that desperately needs more broke hearts. Hearts broken open in sadness and grief, but also hearts broken open in joy and love.

I would like to leave you with a poem by Mary Oliver:

 

Lead

Here is a story

to break your heart.

Are you willing?

This winter

the loons came to our harbor

and died, one by one,

of nothing we could see.

A friend told me

of one on the shore

that lifted its head and opened

the elegant beak and cried out

in the long, sweet savoring of its life

which, if you have heard it,

you know is a sacred thing,

and for which, if you have not heard it,

you had better hurry to where

they still sing.

And, believe me, tell no one

just where that is.

The next morning

this loon, speckled

and iridescent and with a plan

to fly home

to some hidden lake,

was dead on the shore.

I tell you this

to break your heart,

by which I mean only

that it break open and never close again

to the rest of the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by Rachel Sanborn

Oct. 7 2018

Lessons:

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16

Worship in Pink

The chance of winning the Powerball lottery is 1 in 175 million.  Yet people play.  A LOT of them play.  We take our chances.

The chance of being struck by lightning in a lifetime is 1 in 14,000.  Yet people walk in the rain, attend sporting events in the rain, and go storm watching. We take our chances.

The chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident is 1 in 88.  Yet people drive, even some without seat belts or too fast (not something that is advisable).  Sometimes good or bad, we take our chances.

For women, the chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer is 1 in 8.  Over 41,000 people in the United States alone die of breast cancer yearly.  Yet many women do not get screened with exams or mammograms.

My name is Rachel Sanborn.  I am a medical oncologist at Providence Cancer Institute.  The term “medical oncologist” means that I am the type of doctor who helps coordinate chemotherapy, immune therapy, and other systemic treatments for cancer.  My specific subspecialty is in treating lung cancer and working with early phase clinical trials for people with advanced cancers.  Basically, as a group, we recognize as specialists in this field that we are the doctors no one ever wants to have to see.

In times past, there were no methods for treating cancers, let alone screening for them.  Cancers were diagnosed when very advanced, and almost universally became a death sentence.  History can become folklore, folklore can become pattern, and pattern can lead to sometimes unshakeable perceptions. 

Times have changed.  Science has changed.   Treatment options for cancer have changed dramatically over the last decades.  Many cancers, if caught early, can now be cured.  Even when not curable, most people can live longer and with better quality of life having their cancers treated.

The term “cancer screening” means attempting to identify a cancer when it is still small, when potentially more easily treatable, and when the chance of cure is greater.  The goal of cancer screening then is to find a cancer at an earlier “stage”, meaning before the cancer has had a chance to become large, or to send seeds in the body to other more distant locations.  Smaller tumors in general can be more easily removed, and have had less time to send those seeds in the body to spread.

The first paper describing the use of xrays of womens’ breasts to identify breast cancers at an earlier stage was published in 1959, and thus mammography came to be.  Today, mammography uses ultra-low-dose radiation to generate very high-quality and sophisticated images of breast tissue, with the images looking for small calcium deposits where they do not belong, pointing out areas of potential problem. 

The fact is, most abnormalities identified on mammography are benign, meaning, not cancer.  Cysts, scars, and other non-cancerous findings may show up on a mammogram, which may require further evaluation and testing, such as ultrasounds or biopsies, in order to make sure.  This is the case with any screening test; in looking for the real problems, other abnormalities may be found, but you need the test to be sensitive enough that real problems are not missed in the process.  In general overall concept, and to use an analogy we are used to hearing in church, with a screening test like a mammogram we will still need to separate the wheat from the chaff.  But we don’t want too much wheat to escape.

The United States Preventive Services Task Force has found that mammograms have reduced mortality, the chances of dying, from breast cancer.  The amount of benefit from mammograms can vary by a number of factors, such as age, family history, and a woman’s general health status.  This has led to different organizations making slightly different recommendations for timing of having mammograms, but the overall message is that mammograms are important, and for a woman it is important to talk with their doctor about recommended timing of mammograms and breast cancer screening.  For a relatively quick test that has been around for almost 60 years, there are some estimates that 1/3 of eligible women don’t get tested.  In some groups, this number can be even higher.

This is particularly important when we look at the fact that in the US, African-American women are disproportionately affected by breast cancer, meaning that breast cancers are diagnosed more often at more advanced stages, with more aggressive cancers, and African-American women have higher mortality rates with breast cancer.

Why do women not get screened?  The answers to this question can be many and complex.  There is fear:  the test might hurt, it might be embarrassing.  There is nihilism:  finding the cancer won’t change the outcome, I don’t want to know.  There is lack of awareness.  There is concern for cost.

The last part of that issue is a challenge in every society worldwide, and our relatively affluent country is no exception.  Many people in the US are without health care coverage, or fit into a category we call “underinsured”, which can make the out of pocket costs for mammograms and other basic health screening prohibitive.  

For the last part, at least, there is good news.  There are services that can provide financial help or even free mammograms for women without adequate insurance coverage.  There are people and organizations willing to help.  Having a mammogram does not need to be financially out of reach for a woman who may be recommended to be screened.  In the coffee hour today, there will be information provided specifically about resources in Oregon and Washington to help cover the cost of mammography for women who need it.

Chances of surviving 5 years with stage I breast cancer, the earliest stage, is close to 100%.  Chances of surviving 5 years with stage IV breast cancer (cancer that has spread to other areas of the body) is about 22%.

If a woman has a mammogram, there is a chance something will be found.  There is a chance she will need more evaluation.  There is a chance she will even need to see a doctor like me.  There is a chance the news will be bad.  There is a (pretty good) chance that in most situations, she may still be able to be cured with treating the cancer, and will be able to live the rest of her life cancer-free.  It may be scary, it may not be easy.

        How do YOU want to take your chance?

 

 

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

October 22, 2017 image

Lessons:

Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

When I visit with people in their homes, in the hospital, at coffee shops, on the street, or even here at church, there are certain subjects that come up over and over, certain questions that come up time and again. One of the biggest questions or themes right now has to do with maintaining hope.

Here is this stream of news – a stream of mostly bad news – flying into our homes via the newspaper, via the TV, via the radio, via social media. And it’s overwhelming. Here is another natural disaster, here is another shooting, here are nations with nuclear bombs trading insults like a couple of kids raging in the schoolyard (You’re a loser! No, you’re a loser!), here are real questions about whether our neighbours can expect to have health insurance this time next year.

What do you do with all of that?

One possibility is to join in with the rage, to join in with the frenzy. Twitter and talk radio alike offer us endless opportunities to yell at our fellow citizens, to throw barbs that prove to the world our cleverness and our ideological purity. Another possibility is to engage in denial and avoidance and self-numbing, to respond to the reality of suffering and injustice with booze, with cupcakes, with shopping, with binging on Netflix, all the while shouting, “La, la, la! I can’t hear you!”

In many cases, we oscillate between the two, moving back and forth from self-congratulatory rage to self-soothing numbness, both of which leave us feeling equally isolated and worn down.

And so the question that comes up in my visits with folks, the question that we ask one another is:

Is there another way? Is there a different choice, a better choice, a more hopeful choice, a holier choice available to us?

Well, let’s go check in with Jesus and then come back to that question.

Jesus is teaching and healing and telling stories when this group of people comes up to him and, as Matthew puts it, tries to entrap him. These folks are coming at Jesus with a question designed to throw him off balance:

Is it lawful, they ask, to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

This is a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” kind of question. If Jesus says “yes,” then he is betraying his people, he is collaborating with the occupying forces. If he says “no,” then he is defying the emperor and risking the violence that comes with that.

Jesus asks for a coin, holds it up, and as he so often does, he responds with a question of his own. The translation that we read this morning renders it this way:

Whose head is this? And whose title?

The inquisitors respond: “The Emperor.” And what Jesus says in response is one of his most famous lines. Many of us know it best via the King James Translation:

Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

Now, over the years I have often heard Jesus’ words explained as an entreaty to good citizenship and to good church membership. “Render unto Caesar,” means pay your taxes, it means, “Render unto Uncle Sam.” This is the responsible and orderly thing to do. Similarly, “Render unto God” – well, we are in the middle of a financial stewardship campaign – so that means make a tithe to the church.

Amen!

Actually, let’s have a little more. While the responsible citizen/responsible steward interpretation of this passage is a defensible reading, and while maybe it is a good one, I want to wonder with you if there is another reading possible, a reading that has something to teach us about hope in a divided and a stressed-out age.

I want to notice with you that, in other translations of this passage, when Jesus holds us the coin to the ones who are cross-examining him, he asks not, “Whose head is this?” but rather, “Whose image is this?” Indeed, while a coin tends to have nothing more than a profile on it and, thus, you’d figure that the word “head” would make the most sense, a good number of scholars argue that “image” is the more defensible translation.

That one subtle change in wording changes Jesus’ question in a big way.

Because for Jesus’ followers and for the ones to whom he poses this question and for you and me who read the Bible today, the word “image” immediately evokes…

The Book of Genesis:

So God created humankind in God’s image,

in the image of God, God created them;

male and female God created them.[1]

All of a sudden, this is a serious theological question.

Whose image is this?

Amazingly, Jesus holds up the image of the one who oppresses his people – the one who oppresses him, the one who oppresses his friends, the one who oppresses even the critics who ask him this question; everyone in this conversation is living under occupation, everyone here is living with the Emperor’s brutality – and he invites all of them to see the face of God in their oppressor. To be clear, he invites them not to understand the Emperor in some kind of Roman cult way, where the Emperor more or less equals God, kind of like a modern celebrity, but in a way deeper and way harder way in which they see the genuine spark of the Divine in the Emperor, the same spark that is in themselves.

This is a staggering invitation that Jesus extends.

And like you and me most of the time, his critics can’t or won’t say “yes” to it.

So they answer him literally: “Yeah, that’s the emperor.”

And so Jesus says: Okay. If you are going to subdivide the world in that fashion, a fashion in which you look at some places and some people and say, “God is somewhere else,” then Okay. Here’s an answer that makes sense with a bifurcated or subdivided world. Give to the Emperor what belongs to the Emperor: give to God what is God’s.

And – again like you and me a lot of the time – Jesus critics go away confused and amazed. They go away haunted by the sense that they have just missed something big.

It doesn’t have to be that way. They don’t have to walk away from Jesus having missed the point. We don’t have to walk away from Jesus having missed the point.

I just read Brené Brown’s new book, Braving the Wilderness. Brown is a researcher at the University of Texas, she is likely most famous for her work on shame and vulnerability, but in many ways she writes and talks like a theologian or even a mystic. (Maybe there’s a clue to that in the title: to my ear, Braving the Wilderness can’t help but evoke the stories of the Bible.) And Brown says that, in her research, she has found that people who know joy and know meaningful connection in this life are the ones who have, as she puts it, zoomed in.

To zoom in is to focus on real world relationships with real people, including people who challenge us and confuse us and maybe even frighten us. To zoom in is to talk to and listen to the homeless guy outside of Lloyd Center, to the guy with the massive and slightly intimidating beard at the coffee shop, to talk to your uncle or your neighbour whose political opinions and lawn signs strike you as strange and maybe even unhinged.

And then after inviting us to zoom in, Brown says something amazing. She says:

It’s hard to hate close up.

I think that Brown is saying much the same thing as Jesus today. Jesus is saying: Get close enough to your neighbour to see Divinity, get close enough to see the image of God. The image of God isn’t somewhere else. God isn’t somewhere else. God is right here, if we are willing to look.[2]

Let’s go back to our question. Is there a more hopeful way of being in the world? A way that is neither rage nor numbness?

Yes.

But it’s hard. It’s hard because it means getting close enough to another to give up our easy stereotypes about them. Actual human contact will not allow us to sustain the comfortable and lazy story that “All conservatives are like X” or “All lefties are like Y.” These stories are seductive idols, and we have to decide whether or not we are willing to give them up.

I believe that giving them up is worth it. I believe that zooming in is worth it. It’s worth it because it makes for a better world. And it’s worth it because it gives you and me a lighter heart, a more hopeful heart. You may not be able to see the image of the Divine in Caesar right away – doing that is Varsity Level discipleship – but zooming in will transform you.

Zoom in by limiting your diet of that which is zoomed out: the Evening News and Talk Radio and Twitter are designed to get us wound up and angry and afraid. I’m not saying to bury your head in the sand, to engage in denial. Zooming in is not numbing. I am saying go easy on the screens and other electronics, the heavy use of which leaves us agitated and anxious and depressed.

Zoom in by praying, by being mindful, by allowing quiet into your life. Since the Catechumenate last spring, I have found that I am falling more and more often into the prayer that is neither petition nor argument nor praise but, rather, is just breath. This is the Jesus prayer: I breathe in while internally saying the words, Lord, Jesus Christ. And breathe out saying, Have mercy on me. It keeps my mind, for at least a moment, from being somewhere else. It keeps me here.

And then zoom in by listening – really listening – to those whom you struggle to understand and struggle to like. Zoom in to those folks in real life, not online, not on the TV. Zoom in close enough to see the pores in their hands, to see the spark of Divinity that you and they share.

If we zoom in like this for long and deliberately enough, it will change us. It will lead us into hope. It might even lead us to a place in which we will meet Jesus. A place in which Jesus will hold up a coin or a photograph. Here is a picture of someone who has hurt you or disappointed you profoundly. Jesus will show you the coin or the photograph and he will ask:

Whose image is this?

And you just may surprise yourself by saying in response:

Oh my God.


[1] Genesis 1:27.

[2] When I gave this sermon, I added a reflection here about James and Deborah Fallows – although I am embarrassed to confess that I made the twin errors of forgetting to mention Deborah and of referring to James as James Parker! You may find out about their work, here.