From the Pulpit
By George Sumner
Artists are odd. They look at the same world that we do, but they see it at a different slant, and pick up things we don’t. I recently had breakfast with an alumnus of Wycliffe, a friend of mine, who told me about two Christian artists he was encouraging. At a nearby college they were commissioned to produce paintings for the walls of the religious studies department. The first was given the assignment of a picture of the Incarnation, the birth among us of the God-man Jesus Christ.
Now the painter, it turns out, has a fascination with pavement and puddles. He walks around looking down. No one notices this stuff. He draws and paints them, including how they reflect the sky. They are simple things, easily overlooked. They are dirty, and trodden underfoot. The painting is called “The Great Mystery.” The baby Jesus lies on the hard and cracked ground. He is swaddled tight with a cord. He is confined. His tiny head is turned to look at two puddles, one on each side of him. In one a donkey has come to drink, in a second a lamb. In the puddles around him you can see a touch of the sky. Jesus is down at our level, bound like us, approachable like us. But we also are in God’s image, reflecting the heavens.
A second work was a sculpture called “Crucifixion.” The artist found the trash bin where the contents of the school’s vacuum cleaners were thrown out. It was full of dirt and dust, which is itself made up of flecks of skin and hair. Out of this detritus the artist formed the body of Jesus on the cross. The message is this: he took on our dirt, which means our sin. He was the Son, but consented to take on our very body. This Jesus shared the lowly body of the actual people at that college. And where is the divinity in it? That God in his purity and power would say yes to it. I was moved by both, but I was also impressed with this: one saw the birth of Jesus in a puddle, the other the saving death in a vacuum trash bag.
This in fact has everything to do with the message we read in the fourth chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians. We are all part of one body, who is Jesus Christ. We actually share one another’s chains, which means our suffering, our powerlessness, our fear, the condition of being sinners, and we share the same hope. And all of this is possible because there is one Lord Jesus Christ. Paul goes on to tell us what he has done. He has gone on high, which means to the very place of God, what Jesus in the Gospel of John calls the bosom of the father.
But Paul goes on to tell us that going up, for God, is the same thing as going down. His power and glory are in his lowering himself to share our lives as they really are. He has even gone down into hell, says this reading and the creed as well. This means he has shared your guilt and shame and separation and death, all without sinning, without losing his oneness with the Father. For us going up and down are opposites. But things are different for God. In fact, when the Son goes up, he brings with him all that he went through, all that humans suffer in this broken world. He carries all that up with him. The great hymn “At the Name of Jesus” says that he “bore it up triumphant, with its human light, through all ranks of creatures to the central height, to the father’s breast,” and what was borne up was our brokenness, us.
Going down is going up for God, and both together describe perfectly what it is to be our priest. For that is what we as humans want: a mediator, a priest, someone to guarantee us access to God. What we ourselves cannot provide, Jesus Christ has. He is, says Hebrews, the one and only, the sufficient priest for us all. And he has done so in a more mysterious and marvelous way. He has come down to our level, the level of the pavement and the puddles. He has taken on our dirt and our flesh, our status as bodies fit to be thrown away, and he has offered all that to his Father. He has raised all that, which means us, up.
Now the important thing as we read Ephesians 4 is that he has done all that. He comes first in the reading. And then Paul goes on to talk about how the news of this priest, and the present reality of this being lifted up, can come to human beings. It is through the Church. It is accomplished, says Paul, not in one way: someone must preach, someone teach, someone guide, another lead. All of it is to move the body toward maturity, toward life with God’s purpose for us in mind, turning steadily toward him and away from the mind of the world.
Priests are odd. They are meant to look at the same world as everyone else, but from a particular slant, so as to pick up things others might otherwise forget. To be sure, every single person in this room is called by God to be a witness for Jesus Christ. Priests are supposed to do so for the community as a whole. Priests are called to see God’s hand, his call, his gift, his warning, in the lives of the people he has given us to care for. The artists of whom I spoke saw things that seem ordinary. But they could see more there. They saw the work of the God who crouched down to where we live in Jesus Christ, and lifted who we are up to heaven in his resurrection. It is part of priests’ job to see ordinary and extraordinary things in these, the people God has put into their care, and to tell them so. In this, priesthood is a kind of artistry.
There is a tradition in the spirituality of Anglicanism of what one contemporary author has called “Easter in ordinary.” In the same vein, the Anglican poet George Herbert speaks in this way of committing the most ordinary acts to God:
All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean,
which with this tincture, “for thy sake,”
will not grow bright and clean.
As a priest, the things you are looking at are not odd, nor in reality is seeing things in the light of what is most real, most true. But to the world, to the way the world teaches us to see things, it seems odd. The things that shine with the light of the Holy Spirit, someone facing death with courage, someone raised up from addiction, someone challenging a wrong in a costly way, these seem like little things. The outsider looks at the Church in its flaws and humanity and sees things as lowly as pavement, as passing as waste. But it is not to be so with you. To accomplish this, you, like those artists, have to keep your eyes on things most do not look much at: prayer, the Scripture, the inner significance of ordinary things, the spiritual weight of suffering.
Now the trick of all this is that you do not do this from some height. God is on a height, but you his servant are not. You are down here with us, at the pavement, made up of earthly remains. You are as unlikely for this calling as we your charges are. I do not mean you are not intelligent, earnest, able; you actually are. But when it comes to witnessing to the forgiveness of sins and life out of death, we are unlikely indeed. There is no being up to the job. The unlikely source Woody Allen reminds us that 80 percent of life is showing up. The artist does not create beauty but witnesses to it. Likewise, for you, grace.
Something similar can be said of the parish. There is a spirituality of the parish, which must be of special concern to the priest. The parish too is a case of “Easter in ordinary.” The world thinks spirituality is all long silences and distant thoughts. And in this vein parishes are unlikely sources — in fact they may seem distractions from spirituality. But in fact it is finding the signs of the Spirit in the cracks and puddles on the pavement. I read sometime ago of ecologically minded Christians who called for the discovery of a new kind of Christian life more attuned to place, to face to face relations, to a more livable scale.
What they are trying to rediscover is the parish, even as parishes struggle to survive. Real spirituality takes place through, not around, the demands of concrete physical life, amidst conflicts in families and people, amidst hard histories, in the collection of individuals, seemingly thrown together, whom God calls in that place. Lord, what would you have this body do? Where, surprisingly, is the indelible image of you visible here? Remind me that here are grace and gifts sufficient. Show me here your eucharistic body, ordinary, broken, offered, in your hands a channel for your Spirit.
Because, finally, parishes are meant to be odd, at least to the world’s mind. Together they are meant to look at the same things everyone else looks at, but from a different slant. They are to look at them slantwise, from grace, forgiveness, resurrection. And when they do so, they realize they are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God’s own people. As God in his providential wisdom places you among us, a people, for this purpose, it does not seem to us odd at all, but good and right.
The Rev. George Sumner is principal and Helliwell Professor of World Mission at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto.