In medias res . . . If I wish to tell this story at all, I will have to begin in the midst of things. Is there really any other way to begin, I wonder? Who knows when anything started? I can testify that the narrative arc of my spiritual life has taken a steadily upward trajectory since midyear of 2021, during a “damp, drizzly November in my soul”—even though the calendar said it was late summer. I can pinpoint the moment when I once again began speaking to God—and he to me—and trace the meandering paths I have taken since those first tentative communications. And I will, soon. It is important for me to share this piece of my journey. But today, I want to tell a much more recent part of the story while it’s fresh and clear. I promise to fill in the blanks in upcoming weeks as I revel in the free time of summer vacation with only two classes on my calendar.
Several miraculous turns of fate have granted me the opportunity to use my gifts in ways that have been prevented or shunned for more than 15 years in a spiritual wasteland. The talk I have shared below is the result of one of them. I am in the process of being licensed as a lay minister in a small congregation of the Episcopal Church, St. Mary Magdalene in Seven Lakes, North Carolina. Planning a well-deserved vacation, the vicar asked me to present the homily at the liturgy of Morning Prayer on Sunday, May 15, (the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year C, for those who keep up with the lectionary).
With humility and gratitude, I accepted the assignment, and in the same spirit, I am sharing my somewhat revised remarks below simply because I believe the Lord had and has something important for me to say. And because the intent of my message was to highlight means seeking to know God and make him known in face of the ineffable mystery that he must remain, in my next post, I will share another relevant discovery. Stay tuned. We’re always in medias res.
I would like to begin my message with the Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
A collect traditionally has five parts: the invocation or address, the acknowledgment of a divine attribute, the petition or request, the aspiration or desired result, and the pleading. Today’s collect is no different:
- The acknowledgment is that truly to know God is everlasting life;
- the petition is that we may come to know his Son Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life;
- and the aspiration is that by following the unerring footsteps of Jesus, we may grasp that gift of eternal life.
As I read and prayed about the lectionary in preparation for today’s message, I found myself returning repeatedly to this prayer and its repeated word KNOW. Therefore, I will first unpack unpack the important guidelines contained in the few words of the collect and then look at those guidelines through the lenses provided by today’s scripture readings.
The goal—not just of today’s collect, but of our very lives—is to know God. However, in the words of philosopher Walter T. Stace, “Either God is a mystery, or he is nothing at all.” We say God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Myself, I can’t understand what it means to have all power, to know all things, and to be everywhere at once. The vicar at my first Episcopal Church, a beloved spiritual advisor, always tried to help us past this stumbling-block when he advised, “If we can’t understand God, we CAN know that God is at least Christ-like.” I loved that lesson because it made my spiritual path a little plainer. This God-Jesus became Man-Jesus and, in the process, lived a life whose general outlines we can follow. We can certainly recognize his anger when he drove the money-changers from the temple, his tears when his friend Lazarus died, and his anguish at Gethsemane. We can sometimes even emulate the power of his love when we reach out to crying children or offer condolence to a bereaved friend. I believe I glimpse a little speck of his nature when I try to teach my students with stories—parables—as Jesus did.
However, despite these tentative efforts to know the God who became man by using him as a model, I still say that it is difficult for me to understand Jesus in his perfect life, his perfect love, his perfect goodness. My way of overcoming that obstacle was to extend the illustration and find a model of Christ-like behavior in Rick Scarpitti, a fellow parishioner at St. Christopher’s in Garner, who seemed to exemplify the love, compassion, and humility of Jesus as a routine part of his everyday life. So I told myself, “I really can’t understand the perfect being Jesus, but I CAN know that he is at least Rick-like.”
And so, my friends, the first lesson I glean from today’s lectionary is that we can know God through Jesus and know Jesus—through each other. I would like to challenge you to put this lesson into practice. You can start today by looking around you. While I have known you for only a few weeks, I have already learned lessons in living like Jesus from some of the members with whom I have interacted. But these people in the pews have been your brothers and sisters for years. Ponder a bit until you recall specific Christ-like actions by which they have inspired or taught or comforted you—and TELL them about it. Articulating these lessons will clarify and vitalize them for you—and telling your experiences will surely encourage and edify that person as well.
We have learned from the collect that we can begin to know God by emulating his Son, often clarified by the Christ-like examples of others. As we move to today’s Psalm, we learn another way to know God by entering into his presence. Thirteen times in this Psalm we find the word praise. We are certainly enjoined to praise the Lord in all things, but so are all other animate and inanimate parts of his wondrous creation—angels and warriors, kings and rulers, sun and moon, trees and cattle—and all people, male and female, the infants and the aged.
Clearly, we are supposed to praise God continuously and with our whole being. But why am I suggesting that we can actually begin to know God better by praising him? On the one hand, engaging in praise enables us to come a little closer to acknowledging and thereby understanding that he and he alone is worthy of praise. It helps us to humble ourselves in the presence of someone whose glory and majesty we cannot begin to comprehend except in the very acts of glorifying him and praising his majesty.
But I believe there is something more going on here as well. The Psalms are songs, meant to be sung, and it has been wisely said that “he who sings prays twice.” Although I have played music and sung for almost as long as I can remember—and in church beginning at the age of 13–it was actually at Cursillo that I first learned one of the most valuable lessons in my faith journey: how to worship the Lord in music. As we sing love songs and hymns of praise to our God, we can enter into his presence and experience him in a mystical way that doesn’t often happen when we seek him with words alone.
Finally, I would like to consider today’s Gospel and its further lesson for bringing us into a surer knowledge of God through Jesus Christ—and how we can also use it to make him known to others in a world where fewer and fewer people have any relationship with him.
What happened in the Upper Room before the excerpt in today’s Gospel is the part of the story that can help us understand the nature of Jesus more intimately. He gets down on his knees, washes the feet of each disciple gathered there, one after the other after the other, and dries them with a towel he has tied around his waist. Doing so, becomes their servant and then explains the example he has provided: “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
One of the most profound spiritual lessons of my entire life occurred during a reënactment of this foot-washing scenario. We were sitting in a circle, 30 women who had committed ourselves to become servants to a group very public sinners—inmates at the North Carolina Correctional Institution for Women. Our team leader knelt in front of her assistant and tenderly washed and dried her feet. Then they changed places and exchanged rôles. In turn, each of us had her feet washed and then washed the feet of the woman seated alongside us. What a humbling experience for both washer and washed, in which I learned as much about Jesus—about being like Jesus—as I have learned from any book or Sunday school lesson or sermon.
But here’s the best part: Jesus then explains to the devoted followers he must soon leave, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus has shown them—and us—how to know him by revealing himself as a servant and instructing us that we must in turn become servants to all those around us. That is, in this brief lesson, he has both revealed his true nature and then shown us how to be more like him. But then, enriching the message even further, he tells us we can do the same thing that he just accomplished. That is, Jesus’s parting lesson before his death on the cross was that simply by being a loving servant—by being Mother Teresa or even Rick or Phyllis or you and me—we can bring his message of love to the world and enable others to know him as well.
In the words of one of my delightful colleagues in the prison ministry, my prayer today is that each of us may be “Jesus with skin on” to those we meet in our everyday lives. And I close with the equally evocative, if more eloquently expressed, words attributed to St. Teresa of Ávila:
Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassionately on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, and yours are the eyes.
You are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassionately on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.