The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Recently I saw a very unusual film called <em>The Tree of Life</em>. My son, who works in film, recommended it to me. He said I shouldn’t expect a normal plot line, that watching it is like going to hear a modern symphony. A variety of things happen, and you just take it all in.
Mostly the film goes back and forth between cosmic images of the universe and a family in 1950’s Waco, Texas. One moment we’re watching Dad try to teach Junior how to box on the front lawn, and in another, we’re seeing nebula, the big bang, the emergence of amphibian creatures. Then back to the kitchen and Mom looking out the window at the wind in the trees.
The film took one little family, with all its dysfunction and repentance, tragedy and love, and placed it on the biggest possible stage. The weird thing is that rather than making the human seem tiny by comparison, it was enlarged and ennobled. There’s something beautiful and majestic about this family’s rightful place in the universe. They contribute to the vast sweep of creation and evolution. And you have the feeling that at some level, they know this. They, along with the audience in the theater, are both actors and observers in the grand drama of which they are a part.
It was the same feeling I sometimes have at funerals. In an old photograph in the parish hall display, we notice a quizzical look on a young, beautiful face. We see more depth or pain than we ever noticed in person. Viewing the whole of their life from a little distance, it seems poetic, almost epic.
While we are alive, in the close-up view, we worry our way forward towards things we want and things we’re obligated to do. But in death, everything opens up. All that is not important, all that is not love, drops away. Sins are forgiven, and there is empathy for the struggle.
This is what religion is supposed to do, especially worship. This is what our readings today point us towards.
Isaiah was writing at a time of real trouble for the nation of Israel. Their very existence was being threatened by attacks from without. Eventually they would be carted off into exile in Babylon. They felt great distress about the state of their world. In our own day, we too, look around us and sometimes feel the same way. And so to his day and to our day, to all the ages, Isaiah wrote this –
Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment, and those who live on it will die like gnats; but my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.
How is this supposed to help? By trying to transcend human life and waiting for pie in the sky? Not for me. I’m very aware of our obligation to make this world a better place for all of God’s people. We promise this several times a year in the baptismal covenant – to strive for justice and peace.
But I want to strive without fear and anger, with an underlying confidence in God’s goodness. I want to know that we are playing out the drama of human history on the stage of eternity. And Isaiah helps me do that.
In the second reading, Paul wrote to a community of Christians in the city of Rome. They were persecuted, tiny, powerless, in comparison to the great empire in whose capital they gathered. To this ragtag group he said -
You are the very body of Christ. As members of this body, you display all the diverse gifts of the Spirit – prophecy, faith, wisdom, compassion, and joy. So forget Rome. You are Christ, divinely gifted. See things as they really are. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
It is quite natural to see our little parish in practical, worldly terms. Ordinary people come together and have meetings, struggle over budgets, sing hymns, have a little coffee and conversation, and then go their separate ways.
When we see the church in this limited way, we can get caught up in whether we like this or that, whether we’ve got enough money or people to get things done. When change comes, as it has first in the departure of Fr. Daniel and now Fr. Christopher, we might get nervous, and understandably, we feel real loss. When things go badly in the church, we become distressed. In other words, we see our church as the world sees things, and whose ups and downs take us up and down.
Paul says to us as he did to the small church in Rome, Take the wider view. You are the very body of Christ on earth, divinely gifted, eternal, global. When we remember this, we can weather our ups and downs with patience and humor.
And we can also marvel, as we will next Sunday, at all the diverse manifestations of God’s own Spirit in the many gifts of ministry that will be on display. They ebb and flow, people come and go, we change - just as any body changes over time. But the body of Christ endures from generation to generation.
Finally, in the gospel, Jesus asks his friends Who do the crowds say that I am? “Oh, the usual – some religious nut, a trouble-maker like Elijah, Jeremiah, John the Baptist. Here today, gone tomorrow.”
But who do you say that I am? Peter took a deep breath and uttered what he had not yet dared to admit to himself, let alone say out loud. You are the anointed one, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. In that moment, I imagine that all the air was sucked out of the space around the campfire.
What did this mean to Peter? It would be centuries before the church decided that it meant Jesus was God incarnate. More than likely, Peter uttered these words only because in Jesus, he could see through the veil of humanity into another, eternal, realm.
The question behind Jesus’ question is really Who do you say that you are? Are you just your job, your calendar, or even your daily moods or perplexing problems? Look deeper, Jesus says. Peter had the right vision, the vision of faith. We are anointed, sons and daughters of the living God, divinely gifted, part of the grand sweep of evolution, playing out our little personal drama on the vast stage of the universe.
How is this supposed to help? Are we supposed to transcend our humanity? No. We will always feel partly like an actor who is caught up in a role. But we can add to that a wider perspective, sort of like peripheral vision – that is, the knowledge that there is a much wider field in which we struggle and play. We can be both actor and observer.
This helps us to be aware – aware of our tunnel vision, of our fear or attachment to things that may not really be so important. We can also be aware that all things shall pass, the heavens shall vanish like smoke, the earth shall wear out, but the goodness of the Lord endures forever.
And this makes all the difference in how we live in the here and now.