A Sermon for Michaelmas: God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

The following is a sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale on the morning of Sunday, September 30th. Today we celebrated the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. The readings were: Gen. 28:10-17; Psalm 103; Rev. 12:7-12; John 1:47-51.

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I speak to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

As I was perusing the internet this week I noticed that a good deal of controversy was once again stirring up surrounding a soon to open Andreas Serrano exhibit at a New York gallery. The controversy is thanks primarily to Serrano’s piece entitled, Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artists’ own urine. The light in the image makes it appear to glow. It is, to be sure, an evocative image, one which draws all sorts of attention wherever it goes. Last year when it was on display in France a group of angry protesters armed with hammers attacked and damaged the photograph. This past week politicians in the US called on President Obama to “stand up for America’s values and beliefs and denounce the ‘Piss Christ’”. And there is, of course, a planned protest set for Thursday when the exhibit opens in New York. Andrew Hudgins captured the image nicely, I think, in his poem, Andreas Serrano [warning, vivid imagery]:

If we did not know it was cow’s blood and urine,
if we did not know that Serrano had for weeks
hoarded his urine in a plastic vat,
if we did not know the cross was gimcrack plastic,
we would assume it was too beautiful.
We would assume it was the resurrection,
glory, Christ transformed to light by light
because the blood and urine burn like a halo,
and light, as always, light makes it beautiful.

We are born between the urine and the feces,
Augustine says, and so was Christ, if there was a Christ,
skidding into this world as we do
on a tide of blood and urine. Blood, feces, urine—
what the fallen world is made of, and what we make.
He peed, shat, wept, bled—
bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs
and he ascended bodily unto heaven,
and on the third day he rose into glory, which
is what we see here, the Piss Christ in glowing blood:
the whole irreducible point of the faith,
God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

We have grown used to useless beauty.

God thrown in human waste, submerged and shining.

Jacob, he was a schemer and trickster. All his life he was trying to get one up on his older twin, Esau. The story as it’s recorded in the Bible even includes a particular detail from their birth: Jacob came out holding on to his brother’s heel. Even in the womb Jacob was trying to trip up Esau. Well, this habit stuck around with Jacob. Eventually, he tricked Esau out of his birthright, and out of his father’s blessing. However, as they got older the tables turned to the point where Esau tried to kill Jacob, prompting Jacob to leave, in a hurry. We see this story unfold in Genesis 25-28. Our Old Testament reading from this morning picks up as Jacob is fleeing. There is Jacob, running away with nothing but the clothing on his back and he has a dream one night as he slept. He saw a ladder set up on the earth which stretched up into heaven and the angels of God were going up and down on it. In fact, the Lord himself stood beside Jacob and promised him that he would bring him back to his land in peace and prosperity.

It is this passage that Jesus seems to be alluding to in our gospel reading this morning when he says to Nathanael and the other disciples that they will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. This is a bit of a strange picture isn’t it? It’s hard to know what exactly Nathanael and the others might have made of it, or what Jesus might have meant by it. Yet, it’s obviously important within John’s account of the gospel as it concludes the first chapter. In order to get a better understanding of what Jesus may have meant let’s take a closer look at the story of Jacob’s dream.

The point about Jacob’s dream of a ladder that connected heaven and earth was that it showed that God himself was there with Jacob, that God was there in that place where Jacob was. Indeed, in the verses immediately following our reading from this morning Jacob calls the place where he had this dream Bethel, which means “House of God”. Later in the story after Jacob had come back to the land, and much later when his descendants had been established, Bethel became an important location for Israel as one of the places where they worshipped. As one New Testament scholar points out, “The tradition of Jacob’s dream, of the angels going up and down on the ladder, would then be connected with the belief that when you worshipped God in his house, God was really present, with his angels coming and going to link heaven and earth,” (N.T. Wright).

This is probably a clue for us to better understand what Jesus might have meant. A good portion of John’s gospel account has to do with the way in which Jesus fulfilled the promises made about the Temple and even goes far beyond these promises, presenting a new way in which the living God will be present with his people. John has already pointed us in this direction in the first few lines of the gospel. When John says that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (14) the word translated “lived” literally means to “tabernacle” or to “pitch one’s tent”. The thought of a tent in which God dwelt would send Jewish minds, the minds of Nathanael and the others, back to the tabernacle in the wilderness that Israel would erect and tear down during their time in Exile. Then of course they would think of the Temple in Jerusalem where God promised to dwell. Thus, what Jesus seems to be saying in verse 51 is, in effect, what you will see from now on is the reality towards which Jacob’s ladder, and the Temple itself, was pointing. “If you follow me,” says Jesus, “you’ll be seeing what it looks like when heaven and earth are open to one another.” When you’re with Jesus, it’s as though you’re in the house of God, angels coming and going, and God’s very own presence there beside you. Indeed, Jesus is the place where heaven and earth meet.

We have grown used to beauty without horror.

“You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” John’s gospel differs slightly from the other gospel accounts with regards to the glory (?) or beauty of the Son of Man. Where is it that we see the glory of the Son of Man most fully expressed? In Matthew, Mark, and Luke we hear sayings about seeing the future coming of the Son of Man, when the heavens will be shaken and he will be accompanied by angels (Mk 13:25-27; 14:62; Mt 16:27-28; 24:29-31). John takes this and adapts it to refer more to Jesus’ earthly mission. In John, the angels no longer accompany the Son of Man at his final coming, but are to be seen as ascending and descending upon him from the very start of his mission. In John’s perspective, the glory of the Son of Man does not await the end of history but is related particularly to his death as his hour of glory: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” (12:23). For John, it is on the cross where the Son of Man is most fully glorified:

bled under Pontius Pilate, and I assume
the mutilated god, the criminal,
humiliated god, voided himself
on the cross and the blood and urine smeared his legs…

God is hard to see, hidden in the blood stained flesh of a crucified Messiah. Could you really blame those who rejected him then, humble as he was? Could you really blame those who could not see in this figure on the cross the very Son of God, naked as he was? And yet, there were some who saw, some who believed. To be sure, those who saw were first seen. “Where did you get to know me?” asked Nathanael. “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” And so Nathanael believed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” indeed. Yet he did not know where this would lead. How could they have known it would lead to agony outside the city walls, failed revolutionary, nailed to a tree? And yet he believed and followed, and yet they believed and followed. They thought they had seen and found, faith. But they had been seen and been found, grace.

Here is where we get down to the nitty gritty of faith. Faith does not always see clearly. Faith is not always rewarded immediately. Life for the followers of Jesus, is faith seeking understanding. Faith comes prior to understanding. Whereas the modern mindset is, “I’ll have faith once I understand.” But who can understand? Who can ascend to heaven but the one who has come down from heaven? Who can discern the glory of God hidden in the weakness of Christ? Who are we to think that we could gather and weigh the evidence, come to a reasonable understanding, and find God for ourselves? No! We cannot find God, for he is hidden. Hidden in suffering. Hidden in the agony and stench of death. But God has found us, and he has come to us, and he has set up his dwelling and made his home among us. God is with us, Immanuel. And this God who in Christ Jesus is with us calls us to follow him. May we trust him. May we respond in faith to this gift, an participate in the glory of the resurrected Christ. And may we continue to respond in faith all along the way, despite the fact that we may not see clearly just yet, despite the fact that we may not totally understand just yet. May we respond in faith, and follow Christ, for along the way we will see “greater things than these” as the living Jesus opens our eyes to discern his presence among us in ways we could have never discerned on our own. And may we be bold, filled as we are with a holy curiosity, and invite others to come and see the glory of the risen and living Jesus shining through our life. Amen.

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