A sermon preached on March 4, 2018
at First Church in Sterling, MA
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
Sermons are better seen.
This week, a large group of us was in the Lenten class Megan and I are leading on Wednesday nights which is called “The Awakening of Hope.” We had just watched a video about Camden, New Jersey, voted the worst place to live in the United States. We learned that Camden’s residents’ back yards have become home for our waste. Camden has no jobs, no grocery stores; no businesses. The police force has been cut in half. It has a higher murder rate than Baghdad. We saw picture after picture of burned down factories and toppling trash piles. We heard about the drug problems, crime and poverty.
A man named Chris Haw was being interviewed in the video. He had moved to Camden to bear witness to the suffering of God’s creation firsthand. He was given a plot of land among the devastation in the neighborhood, where he planted a garden. He spoke very frankly about the web of poverty and violence that he encountered as the underbelly of capitalism run amok. He talked about what it was like to live in a place where there are no jobs, and no hope that they would return.“That’s where you have to draw from faith, hope and love,” he says. “Irrationally. You have hope because its a hopeless situation.” His way of practicing hope in Camden is raising chickens, and growing tomatoes in the rubble.
At the end of the class, one of the participants said. “This class is called ‘Awakening of Hope. I didn’t find any hope in that video. I found it depressing and hopeless. If there is hope in Camden, New Jersey, I think I missed it.”
Sometimes hope doesn’t look hopeful. Sometimes when you’re looking for God, you have to look really hard. You have to look at what is ugliest in the world, and then look for tiny seeds of redemption. Like a small garden plot in an urban wasteland. God’s story in Scripture is not about escaping this world, but about bringing heaven to earth. It’s the story of resurrection; of grass piercing concrete. It’s the story of chickens laying eggs in vacant lots—little signs of life amongst all the death and destruction.
Hope is a lot like faith, I said. It’s all we have when we cannot see our way home in the dark. We can’t see the light, so we just have to believe it’s there.
The problem with having faith is, most of us humans need to see to believe.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” That’s what a group of Greeks say to Philip in our scripture from John’s Gospel today, having traveled to the festival for worship. That’s what a group of Gentiles we wouldn’t expect to see participating in a Jewish festival say to Phillip. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Perhaps they needed to see to believe.
The desire to see Jesus, it turns out, is a rather lucrative business. In March of 2017, a man in Windham, Maine discovered the image of Jesus in his buttered toast. He preserved the toast in the freezer and put it on eBay with the starting bid of $25,000.
As far as eBay auctions go, this theme is played out. Sellers eager to make a quick buck — I mean, spread the Christian faith — have auctioned off "miraculous" images of religious figures like Jesus and the Virgin Mary embedded in everything from toast to a fish stick. A woman named Diane Duyser sold her 10 year old grilled cheese sandwich that bore the image of the Virgin Mary for $28,000 on eBay.
Duyser said she took a bite after making the sandwich 10 years ago and saw a face staring back at her. She put the sandwich in a clear plastic box with cotton balls and kept it on her night stand. She said the sandwich has never sprouted a spore of mold.
The market place responded by making “Grilled Cheesus”, a sandwich maker that toasts the image of Jesus into your sandwich.
One of you gifted me once with a Jesus stamp for my own toast which was so sweet of you. (“What to give to the pastor who has everything?”)
We long to see Jesus. We long to taste and see that the Lord is good.
According to a new study published in the journal Cortex, this phenomenon of seeing religious figures in our food is “perfectly normal” because of a phenomenon called “face pareidolia, the illusory perception of non-existent faces.” We have a tendency to see faces that aren’t there because of the way our brain functions. Our religious beliefs strongly correlate with what we see in the ordinary things like grilled cheese sandwiches.
It turns out our brains are pre-programmed with the longing to experience what is ultimate in the form of another human face.
We Christians long to see Jesus.
And it makes sense that some of us see Jesus in our food. We are hungry. We are starving on the steady diet consumer culture feeds us: more and bigger; new and IMPROVED, flashy and fast-paced. And so we buy and buy, and spend and spend, but we are never satiated. We are hungry for something more than the thin gruel of empty consumerism, TV and movies, shopping and home improvement, politics and cliched inspirational memes shared on instagram.
We long to see Jesus. To experience God in the form of another human face.We experience the world through our bodies, so we want to EXPERIENCE God with all five senses. We desire to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch God.
That’s why we gather around this table. To touch and smell the bread of life, to taste the cup of salvation, to hear the word of Love. Most of all, we gather to see the people of God: all ages, races, classes, abilities, sexualities, gender expressions: all a part of Christ, all gathered at the same scandalous meal TOGETHER.
We long to experience God.
I asked my friends where and how they experienced God this week and I got so many beautiful answers I can’t list them all: in the sunrise and sunset, in cadbury mini-eggs and wine, in a maternity ward, at my friend’s ordination when she served communion to her momma, in grilled cheese and tomato soup, in the faces of children, in a family of ducks taking up residence in a pond, in the coffee in a coffee cup, in laughter, in the sun peaking through the clouds, in conversations with teenagers, in exquisite music, and music made by children.
Sometimes, when we long to see God, all we have to do is lift our heads and look around. It’s easy when the world is beautiful. It’s not so easy when the world is brutal. When we are lost in the darkness; when we cannot see the light.
I think the disciples are surprised at Jesus’ response when they come to tell him that the Greeks would like to see him. Instead of saying, “oh hey, yeah, bring ‘em on over,” Jesus gives a speech instead, his last sermon. And his sermon points only to the cross. He says, “the hour has come for me to die. If you want to see me, look no further than the cross where I will be raised up out of the ground. I will draw all people to myself.”
The last line of the scripture is “then he departed and hid from them, so that he could no longer be seen.” They wished to see Jesus, and he points to the cross on the way to his hiding spot.
When we are looking for God when God is hidden, look to the cross. Find the rubble, the death, the ugliest things. And then look for little signs of redemption.
When I asked where friends experienced God this week, they looked also to the cross. God was present in the chemo bay, in a little girl in remission from terrible cancer, in the meals and cards sent after the latest round of chemo, in the resilience of kids who have been terribly abused by care-takers, at a 12 step meeting, in the face of a devastated child who couldn’t see his mentally ill mother on his birthday, and a woman who had fallen on the street, The community lunch team at First Church served over 100 people who are hungry and lonely for connection yesterday, and so many of you have helped empower our youth to advocate for their own safety after Parkland. And God bless the many First Church women who prayed for Jennifer’s grand babies delivered too early, and then prayed them home to God. Love amid death. If you wish to see God, look to the cross.
In suffering, we draw closer to Jesus. We experience him. We see him clearly.
The La Romana team had a little adventure Friday night when their flight was canceled, and spent some time at Logan airport. If you wish to see Jesus, lift your head and look around the airport next time you are there.
Jen Colburn writes: Last night I saw a woman who was clearly unhappy with the weather delays. Her interaction with the airport staff helping her was curt. It was clear neither party was pleased with the interaction. Other than staff she was alone. And to be frank I thought the attitude she gave staff was rude. I lost track of her while getting our folks settled.
I saw her again this morning. Completely alone, clearly exhausted, in pain, and just done. I went over to say hello, feeling a little guilty that this had clearly been easier on us. She cried. A friendly hello and the tears flowed. After a difficult surgery, she had received a call in New Mexico, her missing cousin had been found after nearly 6 months. He was murdered. His funeral is this morning. Her new flight out tomorrow.
I can't fix that, Jen said. I could show her kindness. I got her food and water. I helped her think through getting a hotel, got permission from the airline for her borrow the wheelchair she was using. With a new understanding of her situation, they arranged accessible transportation to and from her hotel. A quick hug, a few tears, from both of us and we were both heading off in different directions. I believe sometimes their is a reason we get inconvenienced. I hope next time I remember kindness before judgement.
When you wish to see Jesus, don’t just look for sunsets and babies, look to the cross. Then become children of the light. Plant seeds of redemption with food, water, a hug, and a listening ear. Remember kindness before judgment. Bring heaven down to earth. When the neighborhood looks like a trash heap, plant a garden. Where there is an intractable political debate somewhere on social media, be God’s curiosity. Where there is death, be the living God. Where there is disease and poverty, be God’s healing. Where there is anger and division, be God’s peace. Where there is hunger, be God’s bread. Where there is loneliness, be God’s love. Where there is darkness, be God’s light.
You are the light of the world. Let it shine.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.