July 8, 2018, God Without Vestments; or, How Do You Wear Your Divinity? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000088
I’ll begin today with a little Show-and-Tell. Since this is an Episcopal Church, when I prepare to celebrate the Mass every week, I put on special clothes for the occasion. I begin with my clerical shirt and collar: by tradition, a black shirt, and a white collar that signifies my ordination. Then, over those clothes, I put on this long white robe. It’s called an “alb” which comes from the Latin word for “white”. Whoever is serving with me on the altar also wears an alb. It’s white, because white is a symbol of purity, but it doesn’t signify our purity. It actually signifies the opposite. We wear the white robe as a sign that we are covered by, that we are dependent on, the righteousness of Jesus Christ. It means that we aren’t up here because of any goodness or specialness of our own.
Then I also wear this long beautiful cloth called a stole. I always wear a stole that is the proper color for the Church season that we are in. I put the stole over my shoulders like a yoke that oxen might wear to pull a plow, to signify that I am a servant of Jesus Christ – like the verse where he says “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” I bind the stole on with this rope that we call a cincture. And then, when I am ready to come to the table of the Eucharist, I put the big cape-like thing over all. That’s called a chasuble. It also matches the liturgical color for the season. The chasuble is very beautiful and it signifies the holiness and solemnity of the meal we are going to celebrate together.
If anyone visits our church, even if they’ve never been to an Episcopal Church before, they would be able to tell right away, even though I am just a short little old lady, that I am the priest, or pastor, or whatever term they know for the person who leads the service. But on the day that we read about this morning in Mark’s gospel, when Jesus went back to his hometown and went up front to teach in the synagogue – probably the synagogue he had attended many many times in his boyhood – he wasn’t wearing anything special at all. No vestments. If you have been there as a stranger, Jesus would have been indistinguishable from every other Jewish man sitting there in the pews, or whatever kind of seating they had in the synagogue.
But for the people who knew exactly who Jesus was, he was something worse than indistinguishable. To his old neighbors and his family members he was nothing but a local boy. They were pretty sure they knew everything there was to know about him, and they weren’t all that impressed. He was the kid who grew up to be a common laborer like his father before him, before he left town and went God knows where to do God knows what. There were some lingering suspicions about his birth, though it was thirty years before – small town memories are very long, especially when it comes to remembering scandals. And besides, they passed his brothers and sisters on the street every day, and they were nothing particularly special.
To be sure, they had heard rumors about Jesus. People claimed that when Jesus visited other towns and villages, huge crowds of people came flocking to hear him teach. They said Jesus had been known to heal every disease you can imagine, to make lame men walk again and blind men see. Some people said they’d seen him cast out demons. There was even a very recent rumor that Jesus had brought a little girl back to life. The daughter of a very important man, it was said.
But that was clearly ridiculous. It really was all just a little much for them to accept. Jesus was too ordinary, too unimpressive. Too familiar. The whole idea that this bastard offspring of a peasant was claiming to be some kind of miracle-working prophet: well, frankly, they found that offensive. And when Jesus was unable to do more than heal a few sick people, because he found his hometown so utterly and depressingly lacking in faith, they were all the more convinced that all the hype about Mary’s kid was just fake news.
Everywhere else that Jesus went in his journeying from village to village people came out to him, usually in swarms, sometimes so many people that they were in danger of trampling one another. Very rarely were they the rich or the religious elite, people of high reputation, people with credentials and credibility. It was among the poor and the sick, the shunned and the shamed, the desperate and the despised, that Jesus found real faith – and it was among those, the last and the least of his fellow Jews, that his power was most astoundingly revealed. It was among those that his voice rang with true authority. And they kept coming out to him.
But at home, among friends and family and old neighbors, he just seemed to be an ordinary, all-too-familiar human being.
We might think that if God himself walked into St. Philip’s, if Jesus opened those front doors some Sunday morning and came in and sat down in one of our pews, that we would know him right away, that we would fall to our knees in worship and adoration and joy as soon as we saw him. But would we? There would be no halo, no mystical glow around him. We can be pretty sure he wouldn’t be dressed in the robe and sandals of a first-century Jewish peasant. How would we know him?
When Isaiah described the future Messiah about 700 years before Jesus was born, he wrote this: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
In the most non-human way anyone can imagine, God chose to come to us in weakness and unimpressiveness. Paul put it like this: “Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born as a human being” – but not a glorious, superstar kind of human being. He was born as a man who would be snubbed by his own family and friends, a man who would be rejected by the neighbors who watched him grow up as a little boy.
We know all this about Jesus, but I think it is a very hard thing for us to really grasp this concept: that the God we worship chooses to operate in the realm of human weakness. Our weakness.
It’s hard for us to get that, because just like our Lord’s old neighbors in Nazareth, we’re not so crazy about ordinary human weakness ourselves. And the truth is, we can’t know if we would recognize a hypothetical Jesus sitting in our pews. But here’s what we can know: do we recognize God in the familiar people around us? Do you see God in the person you went to school with, the person who lives across the street from you, the person you’re married to, the person whose flaws you know as well as your own? Or better than your own?
What if their sink is always full of dirty dishes; what if their lawn desperately needs mowing?
What if their kid is always getting in trouble of one kind or another?
What if you’ve seen them at the beach in a bathing suit?
What if you’ve seen them drink a few too many beers?
What if they’ve told you the same story a thousand times?
Can you recognize God without the vestments, without the credentials, without the beauty, without the status? Can you recognize God in a plain old unimpressive human being? Because that’s exactly where he chooses to be.
And sometimes it may be just as hard – or maybe harder – to recognize the work of God in ourselves, with our all-too-familiar and much regretted weaknesses and flaws? Do you ever feel like, do you ever believe, that you could be so much more useful and acceptable to God if you were better educated, if you were better at expressing yourself, if you were more organized or more talented or younger – or maybe all of the above?
Sometimes we get offended by our own ordinariness. Like Paul, we get sick and tired of those things we see in ourselves as weaknesses and hindrances to being all that we feel we really ought to be. Paul begged God three times to fix whatever his “thorn in the flesh” was. He begged God to make him what he, Paul, considered to be “whole”. But God wouldn’t do it. Instead, he told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul, in his characteristically extreme way, cried out, “OK, then I’ll boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” And Paul was right. Because that’s exactly how our God works.
We tend to have high expectations of seeing God at work in people we recognize as Giants of the Faith – Pope Francis, Bishop Love, Nigel Mumford. At Convention I noticed that people actually slipped out of their assigned route at Communion just so they could be in the line that received the bread from Bishop Curry. We are much impressed by great men of the faith. On the other hand, our expectations are not so high when we look in the mirror first thing in the morning, or when we look at the person across from us at the breakfast table, or when we look at the person beside us in the pew. Then all we are able to see is the ordinary, the all-too-familiar, and just like the people of Nazareth, we lack faith and we fail to see that the God of the Universe is at work. Right here.
God could have chosen to be born as the High Priest over Israel, or as the son of a synagogue ruler like Jairus. He could have chosen to be born to be the Pope, or Billy Graham. But he didn’t. He chose to be born a peasant kid. He chose to grow up in a place that was a lot more like Norwood than Jerusalem or Rome, a place utterly ordinary and unimpressive – remember what Nathaniel said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The answer, Nathaniel, is yes, the source of all good came from Nazareth. And his grace is sufficient, his power is perfect, in that one thing we all have in abundance – weakness. He did not despise the womb of a virgin. He does not hate anything he has made. He is not limited by our limitations. Because when we are weak, then he is strong. When we are ordinary, he is extraordinary. When God is familiar, then just think how blessed we are. Do not doubt, only believe.