Proper 6, Year B, RCL
17 June 2018
When I was growing up my family used to have a subscription to the National Geographic magazine, and I always looked forward to seeing the maps and pictures of artifacts and amazing vistas from all over the world. I would pore over each new issue looking for glimpses of the world beyond what I could see by walking out my own front door.
But some of the articles were not simply fascinating; they gave me a frisson of sympathetic horror — underwater photos taken of debris from the Titanic, bones in ancient tombs, glyphs and monuments of civilizations destroyed long ago. One image has stuck with me: I can still call it vividly to mind. It was from one of the articles about the city of Pompeii, destroyed by an eruption of the volcano in whose shadow it lived. Archaeologists had not only uncovered the city interrupted in its daily life and preserved in all its detail like a fly in amber; they had also found the remains of people caught in their very attempt to save themselves. One such cluster of bones had been preserved so perfectly that you could see exactly what their last moments had been like: a large skeleton, curled shieldingly around a smaller skeleton, curved still more protectively over a tiny one.
Of these three people there is nothing for us to know, except this. Only their bones are left to testify to us about their lives and deaths. Their names, their occupations, their experiences, are all hidden in the flow of ash and time that exiled them from us living in the present.
Bones don’t seem like much of a testimony. But to the twentieth-century scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, bones and fossils built up in him a deep, unshakable conviction of the hidden presence of God in our material lives. Teilhard became a priest on the strength of this conviction, and testified in his prayers and writings of the blazing compassion and involvement of God in every detail of the world, whether we could observe it or not. And more than that, he believed that we as Christians are charged with the responsibility of not just testifying to, but helping to mediate the growth of the universe into what God desires for it.
The scriptures today are all about the hidden dimensions of our lives. In the story of David’s anointing we hear that Samuel has gone to Bethlehem in obedience to God’s secret command to identify a new king for Israel. Jesse shows all his sons to Samuel one by one, and though to Samuel’s eye they are all likely-looking men, God says to Samuel, “I can see what you can’t. I am looking at their hearts. And none of these will serve.” Samuel finally asks Jesse if he has any more sons to look at, and Jesse has the youngest pulled in from from his work watching the flocks. This is a recurring theme in the Hebrew scriptures: the unlikely younger son becomes God’s chosen, to further the divine plans for the world. The story tells us he was good-looking from the outside point of view, and more than that, God saw that he was ready and responsive to bear the charge of the Spirit.
Even Samuel, who was called “the seer,” was not able to see that.
Yet we don’t have to see everything at work in order to work with it, even guide it. Jesus’ parable of the farmer and the grain shows that whatever we may know or not know about agriculture, we have figured out enough to sow the seed, go about our work, and let nature do its thing. Even now, in the age of GMOs and high-tech cultivation, there is a point at which our work leaves off and the work of the earth takes over.
The mustard seed is a tiny seed. But the action even of biological life works upon that tiny morsel of genetic code and activates it, and it sprouts and grows and becomes something everyone can see on the horizon: a great tree, full of singing birds.
“Above all,” says Teilhard de Chardin, “trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We would like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet, it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stage of instability—and that it may take a very long time. Above all, trust in the slow work of God.”
It is hard, though, sometimes, to trust in the slow work of God when it’s so easy to see the very quick work of human destruction. Right now there are many echoing enactments of that huddled moment in the shadow of Vesuvius: two parents attempting to shield a little child to no avail. They have no names, just an insulting, dehumanizing description. Unlike the volcano, which is an unconscious part of nature doing its thing, we have people deliberately trying to erase other people, to define them as out of the realm of our care, to disqualify the testimony of their humanity.
But, as Paul tells the Corinthians, we do not see people from a human point of view. Jesus Christ came into the stream of our history, rose up visible to all on the cross, and descended into the earth, only to rise again and knit us — all of us — by our very strands of DNA to the purposes of God. If anyone is in Christ, Paul says, there is a new creation. Not just that we are made new, that we are redeemed and renewed by grace. But that as far as we are concerned, the old order of everything has gone. A new one has taken its place. The hidden kingdom of God resides in us, and it is our task and our responsibility to testify, to co-create, to disclose and complete the work of that kingdom. As Paul says further on in this same passage: “All this is the work of God. God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has enlisted us in this ministry of reconciliation.”
And that starts with holding before our minds the truth. Whether we are at home or in exile, whether we are living or dying, it is Christ we are accountable to. It is Christ who defines the human, who Names us and holds that name eternally spoken, who sees our heart and the heart of every other person we lay eyes on. Who has work for us to do whether we fully understand it or not. It is Christ who is the Lord of the new creation. The old creation, that looks so powerful to us, is struggling mightily because it knows it is passing away. Tiny, puny as we are in ourselves, we are agents of the living God. We are part of that slow work, seeds purposefully sowing ourselves to grow a crop of abundance and overwhelming love.
We pray in our collect today that God will give us grace to proclaim God’s truth with boldness, and minister justice with compassion. Today I pray also that we be anointed with the Spirit, to feel that fire of the new creation, to have our eyes opened to the hidden kingdom so that waking and sleeping, living and dying, we judge and act rightly. That we be agents and workers of the living God, and give a good account of ourselves to our true Lord.
As Teilhard de Chardin wrote and our presiding bishop recently quoted: “Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire.”