Selling Jesus on EBay
As many of you know, my wife and I have a vacation house in Pennsylvania (I don’t want to make it sound too lavish—although now that most of the bats have left and the mice and chipmunks seem under control, it may have increased in value). In one of the rooms upstairs (I won’t say which one in a polite sermon), right under the claw foot of the bathtub (whoops!), I noticed just this summer there is a linoleum tile with a pattern in it. “Hey!” I said to myself as I stared at it, “that looks like the profile of a face!” And then it dawned on me: It wouldn’t take much imagination to realize that that looked like Jesus’s face! I was struck with awe, remembering how many stories there are about Jesus’s face appearing in the patterns of trees and fungi and food and coffee foam. I had a pious thought: “I could dig up this tile and—after holding a news conference, of course, sell it on EBay and donate the proceeds to the endowment fund!”
Then when I thought about the work it would take to remove that tile, I next wondered if people would pay to see a PICTURE of that pattern. So I took a picture with my phone and for the paltry cost of one dollar, you can persuade me to show it to you after the service!
Before anyone visiting this morning leaves in disgust, I hasten to assure everyone that the pattern is certainly NOT the face of Jesus; it’s no shroud of Turin, and I have no intention of doing anything with it besides showing it to those interested at an extremely discounted rate as a no-tax, back-to-school special (just kidding).
But it did make me think about patterns in Jesus’s ministry. In looking at them, the first thing to be cautious of is our human propensity to SEE patterns everywhere. There’s a scientific term for it: Pareidolia—“the tendency of the human brain to see familiar shapes-especially faces–emerging from random patterns” (TIME Aug. 3, 2015). Those of you who are devotees of “everything bad happens in threes” and “everything happens for a reason” know what I mean. When we are confronted with something that doesn’t make sense – maybe like a painting at the Museum of Contemporary Art, or a piece of modern music with no discernible melody, or even the sounds from the white noise machine that puts us to sleep at night—we seem to have two choices. Either get irritable and reject the piece that seems to be assaulting our senses, or to use it like a Zen Koan to quiet our minds and reduce our stressed out spirits to a meditative silence. [Bernadette has become a fan of ZenTangles for this very reason].
I won’t soon forget attending a Youth Orchestra or Choral Concert in which one of my children was performing, and some Neanderthal started coughing and sneezing at one of the most sensitive parts of the piece. When my wife—who tells me her radar that reads my tension is calibrated to a fine precision after 39 years of marriage—when she sensed my getting all upset, she whispered that I should make the coughing a sneezing a part of the music. “Just let it be,” she might have said.
That’s like letting construction delays be a part of your trip, standing in grocery lines where people who had had a half hour to pull out their wallets, can’t find their credit cards when their cart full of purchases are rung up…be a part of the shopping experience—nothing to get angry about, as wise young people say: “It is what it is!” That’s like letting millions of dollars of political attack ads wash over you without flinching but merely, peacefully, noting that everything these days seems to be for sale.
Which brings me back to Jesus. Just being near him caused Zacchaeus the tax man to promise restitution. He caused the money changers in the Temple to scurry around the floor if they wanted to recover their coins. He caused his own followers to ponder the meaning of “the last shall be first, and the first last.” He caused the man born blind to stand up to the religious leaders who were outraged that he was cured on the Sabbath. He caused a woman who had been through five marriages to rush into her town proclaiming the wonder of meeting a man who would not only talk with her but see right through her without intimidation. He saved the life of another woman who was about to be stoned, and let a woman in Bethany use a fortune’s worth of perfume on his feet. He healed those persons who could not quite get through to him because of the crowds. And when he washed his followers’ feet, he taught them that this was the new pattern. He gave this outrageous example of service that matched his words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor; Happy are those who mourn; Blessed are the meek; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice!”
Labor Day is coming. On it, we celebrate work? Workers? We perhaps remember to pray for those who are unemployed or underemployed? We have such an ambivalent relationship with work. Work is a flashpoint. –From “Arbeit Macht Frei” as the motto above Nazi concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz, to “Ora et Labora” as the mantra of the Benedictine Monks and other religious orders. Elizabeth Gilbert has a recent blog in which she interviews former pastor Rob Bell about the dilemma of a call center worker, who had to spend 8 hours a day reading a script for an insurance agency over the phone, and was punished for any deviation from it. And Rob answered with a story about monks doing menial, repetitive work that freed their spirits to commune with God in awesome silence (Mindfulness); he talked about the energy that could be accumulated in seemingly meaningless tasks, energy that could explode into something wonderful and creative in the future. Elizabeth’s husband said to tell the call center worker that her first novel should be titled: “The Call Center.”
Jesus has a pattern about work. He tells the famous parable about the workers in the vineyard. They were unemployed until the owner hired them. They agreed on a wage, but then his story repeated his pattern that upends and contradicts how we relate to each other, about how we have constituted our society, by ending this parable with the news that those who worked one hour received the same wage as those who worked all day. Until we can understand that, we cannot sell Jesus on EBay!
And now Jesus is gone. The New Testament author says he was taken up; disappeared into another reality, as so many of our friends and relatives have. We can no longer contact them, but we have learned from their patterns of thought and behavior. And sometimes we feel called to enter a strange new land, and to repeat their patterns, just as we sometimes feel called to repeat the strange, off-the-wall, idiosyncratic, crazy patterns of Jesus. When everything in us cries out for us to retaliate, to revenge a wrong, to go to war, to drop bombs, to obliterate a whole race, we now have a new and different pattern, a new paradigm that we can choose to implement.
Easy? No. Definitely not. But possible? Yes. There have been holy ones before us who have done it. There is this idea in Christian circles of a Spirit, Jesus’s spirit, working. Working in us. Working to create something good. Working to bring us to compassion and forgiveness for a flawed universe and a sinful humanity. Working. We can celebrate that Spirit’s working on Labor Day. The pattern is there. Paul of Tarsus discovered it, tasted it, felt it even when he could not see: “All creation groans…Romans 8:22…And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God…8:28.” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2: “…we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom whih God predestined before the ages to our glory; the wisdom which none of the rulers of this age has understood; for it they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor. 2:7-8).”
Richard Rohr quotes the priest-paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, who died in 1955:
Teilhard wrote, “By virtue of the Creation and, still more, of the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see. On the contrary, everything is sacred. . . . Try, with God’s help, to perceive the connection–even physical and natural–which binds your labour with the building of the kingdom of heaven; try to realize that heaven itself smiles upon you and, through your works, draws you to itself.” [The Divine Milieu]
Dr. Natalie Weaver is a theologian at Ursuline College, and she posted a blog recently that might be titled “How I spent my summer.” She spent it being sick, being tired, and trying to recover without ruining the summer of her kids and her husband. She wrote:
- There are times when little can be done; even though
- there will always be more to do; which means
- there will always be much left undone.
- Sometimes, one must merely “be.”
- Pain and weakness are not necessarily enemies; and
- one’s body is not the antagonist or the stranger but oneself.
- Children do not always need to be entertained; especially because usually
- the ice cream truck will make a musical manifestation all by itself.
- Sometimes one should just talk on the phone all day;
- or commiserate with the mailman;
- or watch birds.
Jesus knows about all things human. He knows that sometimes we are so productive, and sometimes we are anxious about summer ending and school or work starting, and health issues and aging, and a million other things. But he also knows that he has set a pattern, a pattern of caring for others, of not worrying about all those things but of surrendering our thoughts, our fears, and our work into the loving hands of his Father. “Father,” he said, “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.”
Whenever we see that pattern in our world, whether it be from Pope Francis or from the person next to us in the pew, we see the face of Jesus. Falling into that pattern will sell him, and we shall become Disciples of Christ at last.
Let it be so. Amen.