Making sense and losing it for faith’s sake

Thomas reaches to touch the wounds of the Risen Christ,
14thor 15th century, St. Denys Church, Rotherfield, Sussex

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 8, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 2:1-5, Psalm 123, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, and Mark 6:1-13.

You may have seen today’s comic strip, “Rhymes withOrange.”  It pictures two bears sitting on a picnic blanket in a park or forest.  There’s a teapot between them and both are sipping from their cups.  One bear says to the other, “What delicious tea!”  The other replies, “It’s hibiscus and honey infused with overturned garbage and compost scraps.” 
Bears are known for their keen sense of smell.  But the idea of smelling hibiscus with a hint of garbage seems all too real to me, given the recent power outages and the incredibly high temperatures we’ve experienced. To step outside and breathe deeply, one will take in all kinds of odors multiplied and made stronger by being cooked in open air.   But this season assaults all our senses, if you think about it.
To walk outside is to be hit with a bright light.  The sun seems to be everywhere at once. And at night, especially when the power was out, streetlamps and windows were dark, the streets of Cleveland Park seem curvier than usual, and the stars more numerous.  Our skin feels the difference between standing in the sun, resting in the shade.  Our ears hear fireworks, and churchbells, traffic and birds, and tourists who are tired, and hot, and lost.  But the tastes of summer almost make up for the other assaults, don’t they? Ice cream, and fresh tomatoes, melons, and drinks of water (and other things) that restore life. 
But what happens when the senses are overcome, or shut down, or get short-circuited in some way?  What happens when we’re completely in the dark, when the only taste on our tongue is a bitter one? 
The scriptures today invite us to think about our senses, but also to think about the way they stop short of something else. Together they help us ask the question, “what does it mean to walk by faith, not by sight?” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

In the first reading we meet Ezekiel, the prophet of God who is adept at walking by faith. Again and again, he’s asked to walk by faith, to believe that God is leading him and is showing the way. Ezekiel’s senses are sharp to begin with, and he allows God to move him them, but also a little further.  In today’s reading, Ezekiel is warned that there are going to be lots of people who will not get it. They won’t understand. Their eyes will fail them. Their ears will let them hear only what they want to hear, but be deaf to the Word of the Lord.  And yet, God says to Ezekiel, “if you’re true to yourself, true to the person I’ve called you to be, then they will know one thing, at least: a prophet has been among them.” So don’t be afraid, don’t be dismayed, just keep praying and moving and being faithful.

Jesus has the same problem in many places as he preaches and teaches and heals. In today’s Gospel he runs into local opposition. The very people who know him best cannot reconcile the Son of Mary with the Son of God. It’s doesn’t compute. It’s doesn’t flow. It’s as though their senses are all clogged up, somehow closed off from God.  When they look, all they see is Mary’s son, Joseph’s stepson.  What they hear just sounds like the same old stories.  To perceive Jesus as the Christ, to receive Jesus as the Son of God, come to redeem us and live in us and be with us through death and into everlasting life— this takes faith. As Jesus moved through Nazareth, he was “amazed at their unbelief.”  And he and his disciples could accomplish very little there.  And so they moved on to places and people who were open, who could perceive, who dared to live by faith.

In the second reading, Paul tells the people of Corinth about someone he knows (and I wonder if it was really Paul, who’s distancing himself from the story and using the rhetorical, “I know someone who…).  This person was caught up into what Paul calls the third heaven.  The person had an experience beyond the normal senses. Paul covers a lot of ground in the life of faith as he points to this person who has known God through a sublime, rare, spiritual experience, and Paul himself, who most days has to seek God in the kingdom of here and now, of aches and pains, of thorny people and situations and thinking… who knows what Paul refers to here, but whatever it was that afflicts him, he uses it to remind him to turn again and again to God. So God’s grace comes in ways that work through the senses and in spite of the sense.  God’s grace brings forth faith from us— grace reaches into us to pull out faith, like the sun reaches into the earth and brings forth green things that sprout, and grow, and blossom.  
Paul knows about the senses.  His first encounter with Jesus Christ was an overwhelming of his senses, as he was blinded by a vision, and “in the darkness of having no sight is led across the boundary of what, for him, had not been credible:  faith in Jesus Christ.”  In a little book of meditations for Holy Week, Martin Warner uses the senses to contemplate the mystery of Jesus Christ, but then, as Warner says, we’re drawn into a relationship with God through the experience of our senses, “but also through the challenge to leave them behind.  It’s like “diving into the sea,” he says. “a new world emerges in which we feel strange and unfamiliar with what governs it and how we inhabit it.” (Martin Warner, Known to the Senses, viii.)
Through the ages, people searching for God have been led through the senses into deeper faith. In the 3rd century, men and women left cities and went into the desert to fine-tune their senses.  The desert mother and fathers, and all who tried to learn from them since, have sometimes prayed for the lessening of the senses so that faith might be developed more strongly. Some have maintained the “custody of the eyes” so that one’s gaze might be directed more upon God. (In a culture as saturated with appearance and presentation as ours, that might be a good practice from time to time.) There is the tradition of fasting, so that one’s hunger might be less, say, for carbohydrates and more for Christ. (By noticing our emptiness, we can make better choices about what fills us.) There is the tradition of silence so that the inner voice of God’s Holy Spirit might be heard.  In these ways, Christian ascetics have taken seriously this spiritual training of the senses—the training, itself being a kind of faith—so that a deeper faith and reliance upon God might be developed and sustained.

God works through what we see and feel and taste and hear, but there comes that place beyond, that other “sense.”  In the Gospel the power of Jesus to heal and restore, to enliven and to convey God’s love becomes limited—not by some outside force, not by the devil, not by the will of God, but rather, because the people had no faith.  Jesus marvels at their unbelief, their inability to see beyond seeing, to hear deeper than sound, to taste the food of eternity.
May God quicken the faith that is in us.  May we take vacations this season—times in which we allow our over-stimulated and over-used sensibilities to vacate our bodies, so that we might be newly open to faith.  Whether it’s through long walks, visits to quiet places, a retreat or even silence in the midst of a crowd, may we take time this summer to practice training our senses, that me might not always depend upon what we see or hear or taste. May the Holy Spirit develop within us the kind of faith that leads us through loving trust; that allows God to work wonders, make miracles and do mighty works.   In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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