Sermon delivered at the UU Christian Fellowship's Communion Service
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at the Kansas City Convention Center, Kansas City, MO
June 23, 2018
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 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 marketplace responded by making “Grilled Cheesus”, a sandwich maker that toasts the image of Jesus into your sandwich.
One of my congregants gifted me recently with a Jesus stamp for my own toast which was so sweet of her. (“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. (Read more here.)
It turns out our brains are pre-programmed with the longing to experience what is ultimate in the form of another human face.
We 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 the Body of Christ, all gathered at the same scandalous meal TOGETHER.
We long to have a sensual experience of our God.
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.
What a disappointing response. When I wish to see God, I picture in my mind’s eye sunsets over Star Island, or my babies’ tiny munchable toes when they were newborn, or the yearning look on my congregation’s faces when I offer them the bread of life and the cup of salvation gathered around a table like this one.
Jesus doesn’t point to beautiful things like that, though. Jesus says if you wish to see him, you should look no further than the cross lifted from the earth. And then he hides.
In the Roman empire--crucifixion was a warning. Usually only slaves and bandits were crucified. Crucifixion was “a public service message” to other oppressed peoples. It was a body hanging on a cross: a gruesome sign that said "Don't do this, or you'll be next.”
When you wish to see Jesus, look to the children separated from their parents in detention at the border; to the families held indefinitely in detention as they await asylum hearings not sure if they will see each other again. The administration says that they are using this separation as a punishment and a deterrent, so that families will see these images of children separated from their parents and think twice about coming to the border. This is a crucifixion. Don’t do this or you will be next.
Jesus is locked in those cages, in the shelter for children of tender ages, crying for his mother’s milk. Jesus is begging to see his sisters and brothers, calling for his Papi.
When you wish to see Jesus, look to the black and brown folks murdered by police on our city streets. That is Jesus lying in a pool of blood, saying “I can’t breathe.” Say his name.
When you wish to see Jesus, look to the Muslim women getting their hijab pulled off and the swastikas painted on the doors of the synagogue and the gender non-conforming folks confronted in bathrooms.
When you are looking for God when God is hidden, look to the cross.
But when you are looking for Jesus, don’t forget the rising. Don’t forget that our God deals life from death.
Don’t forget to look for the signs of resurrection and proclaim them. Find the rubble, the death, the ugliest things. And then look for little signs of redemption. Look to the helpers, as Fred Rogers says. Find the grass piercing the concrete.
I just went to see my dear friend Geno Carr in his Broadway musical debut a couple of weeks ago, in Come From Away. Have you seen it? “Come From Away” is the remarkable true story of a small town that welcomed the whole world. Gander, New Foundland is a town about the size of my small town in Sterling, Massachusetts—9,000 people— where 38 planes were diverted on September 11, 2001 when the United States closed its airspace for the first time in history.
The people of Gander saved the whole world that day. The size of the population of the town nearly doubled when the planes landed. 7,000 confused, angry, terrified “plane people” from all over the world— were put up in people’s homes and schools and community centers. Stores in the town stripped their shelves to bring the “plane people” toiletries, diapers, sanitary products for women, and snacks.
The citizens of Gander made three meals a day for the plane people for four days, gave them air mattresses and hand-me-down clothing and showers, tried to communicate in languages not their own, kept the animals stowed in the bottom of the planes alive including a pregnant Bonobo, got the passengers phones so that they could desperately call home, comforted the bereaved and terrified once the plane people realized what was happening back in the United States, distracted them with jokes, sang karaoke and danced with them in the town bar, found places for Jews and Muslims and Christians to pray together, found translators for the multiple languages spoken, and generally just opened their homes and hearts to strangers from all over the world. One of the cast members said, the show “is not about the sadness of September 11th, it’s about the goodness that came out of it.”
This was my favorite scene: a frightened man from Africa on a bus with his wife in rural Newfoundland, being taken to who-knows-where from a plane that landed far from its destination. They come to a camp full of people from Gander in Salvation Army uniforms, which looks to the frightened man simply like a sea of soldiers in the darkness.
The bus driver stops, and motions for the passengers to get off the bus. The frightened man doesn’t move. He does not understand the bus driver’s language. He does not trust him. The bus driver thinks quick, and points to the Bible that the man’s wife is clutching. She hands it to him nervously. The bus driver doesn’t know the language the Bible is written in, but he figures the chapters and verses are the same. He flips to Philippians and points at chapter 4, verse 6. “Be anxious for nothing,” it says. Now they speak the same language. Pentecost. Relieved, the frightened man gets off the bus.
Like the people of Gander on September 11th, if we wish to see God, sometimes we need to look to the cross, and then be the rising.
Maybe our rising won’t look as dramatic as rolling away the stone and seeing grave cloths where a body once was. Maybe it doesn’t look as dramatic as saving the whole world on September 11th. Sometimes resurrection comes slowly.
The rising may look like having coffee with a political opponent and listening for understanding instead of for your next argument. The rising may just look like getting out of bed despite a broken heart and doing what needs to be done for the children. It may just look like one more day of not drinking, or one more hour digging our nails into our palm to keep from losing it. It may look like shopping for a pretty head scarf to cover our bald head even though we are weak and tired from chemo. It may look like going on that first awkward OK Cupid date after the divorce papers are filed. It may look like continuing to take the anti-depressants, hoping some day they’ll kick in. It may look like showing up in public every once in awhile even though we don’t want to; even though we are still mourning all that we have lost. It may simply be stopping to notice that a broken heart can go on beating.
If we want others to see God when God is most hidden: we are going to have to get up out of our tombs of despair, anger, self-doubt, self-hate, illness, fear, addiction, death, mourning, sin, separation, loneliness and isolation, broken relationships, and depression…
We are going to have to get up out of our graves,
Roll away the stone and be the rising!
God still has more to do with us, so be the rising.
Our current predicaments don’t exempt us from our purpose, so be the rising.
A broken heart still beats, so be the rising.
We are not alone, so be the rising.
This country is a HOT MESS right now so please be the rising!
The people united in God’s love can never be defeated, so be the rising.
We can do hard things, so be the rising!
Hell is here on this earth, and every last person deserves to be pulled out of it, so reach out your hand and be the rising!
Heaven is here on this earth too, so don’t just sit there waiting for it to manifest itself, be the rising!
The power of Love will overcome the love of power, so be the rising!
Beloved, if you wish to see Jesus, look to the cross. Especially when God seems most hidden, proclaim the resurrection. There is no time but now, and no people but us, and no way forward without turning toward each other. Be the rising! Amen.
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.