Beyond Words and Images

The Rev. Julie Wakelee-Lynch, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Albany, CA                                3rd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 27, 2019

Readings: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearC_RCL/Epiphany/CEpi3_RCL.html

Welcome to St. Alban’s annual meeting! This service begins the meeting, which concludes with a blessing and dismissal upstairs, after we’ve all been well-fed, discussed issues of import, and set our intentions for another year of life together.

We are here, because we are Jesus people, people who are interested in what it looks like, in daily life, to explore what it means to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the imprisoned, healing to the impaired, the breaking of the bonds of oppression, and speaking God’s love out loud, for all people.

We are also here, sometimes, depending on the day, to hear and sing beautiful music, to be with people we love, with whom we share this journey, to share sustenance – Eucharist, Sunday potlucks, emotional support

We have a lot of ways of discussing and proclaiming these things we believe. Some of them involve words. Sometimes the proclaiming involves images: more on that in just a bit.

St. Paul writes to the unruly church in Corinth, known to him to be a place of conflict and social posturing, reminding them that every person in that church had an important role to play in the making of the community, in the preaching of the gospel. This remains true for every church, everywhere. We cannot be the church we are without one another. Sure, we can learn to do different tasks, to take over or fill in for someone else, but only we can be ourselves, bringing our very particular perspectives, experiences, skills, sensitivities and stories.

This is how we come to be the place where hundreds of sack lunches have been made over the past few years. How bridge games gather are played out in the parish hall. How music has, since this building was completed, rung throughout our campus. Even, I’m sure, in how the building is shaped.

Each generation in the family of this place brings its own gifts, which build upon, maybe sometimes modify a bit, the gifts of those who came before, but it is all knit together in this one community.

I have been going to church all my life, so I see this: each congregation has its own culture, its own hallmarks, its own outstanding gifts entrusted by the Holy Spirit. It is no wonder that we who worship here love the natural world: look: the story of creation surrounds us every time we gather!

We love music here – and we celebrate in spaces that were intentionally designed to lift up sound, to make it even more beautiful. We love to feed people, and those who came before us created a warm and welcoming hall, and a great kitchen. We care about issues of our time, and we are a gathering place for literally dozens of groups working to heal the world.

How we express our beliefs matters. We are fortunate to live in a time when we can no longer take for granted that people generally know the basics of our faith. How is that a gift? Because it asks that we know and be able to articulate what we believe. To really own our faith, and not take it for granted, not for ourselves, not for others who are curious.

The down side, of course, is that there is a lot of misinformation out there about what it means to be a Christian…what it means to us, here, in this particular faith community, to be people who follow Jesus. Thus, the gift of needing to know and articulate our faith.

Since the very first groups who followed Jesus, there have been both verbal and visual ways to communicate the faith. When it was dangerous to belong to the Jesus tribe, early followers used codes to communicate where to meet, to affirm identity. Sometimes, drawing a downward arc in the dirt; the respondent, if a Christian,

would draw one that completed the image: an upward arc, making a fish. The Greek word for fish is “ichythis” This was made into an acrostic, with each letter standing for a word in the phrase Iesus kristos, theou yois soter “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”
It both protected the community, and proclaimed belief.

There are many others, some no longer much in use: the pomegranate, for example, as an image of the Church, and of God’s extravagant goodness. Why? Part of the answer is found in St. Paul’s words this morning: So many seeds, each one a part of the whole. Each one juicy, delicious, holding its own particular place. And, SO many seeds, more than all but the most patient person could count, as is God’s abundant love for us.

The peacock was an early symbol of eternal life. There are some fascinating early icons with the bird’s feathers painted or placed in mosaics filled with the images of the saints and martyrs. Why? According to sources,

The peacock was believed by the ancients to have flesh that does not decay after

death, and thus became a symbol of immortality. This symbolism was adopted

into Christianity, and the peacock appears in many early Christian mosaics and

paintings to represent eternal life.1

 

So many different kinds of images have been used to express aspect of our faith through the ages. Some, like these just mentioned, may be unfamiliar; others so close to us
we may take them for granted.

As we begin settling back into this beautifully renovated sanctuary, we have some work to do in determining how to use images in this space, especially since the cross that used to hang over the altar fell and broke before construction began. The cross is the most

singular Christian image of our time. And, depending on your theological location and tradition, it means about as many different things as there are believers.

In some traditions and personal pieties, it represents sacrifice, or atonement for sins; something required by God. Sometimes the way the cross is presented, Christ’s suffering is emphasized—blood, a crown of thorns.

Often in Protestant churches, the cross is empty, emphasizing resurrection.

Some crosses feature Jesus in royal garb, with a crown, not of thorns, but of precious metal and jewels, reminding all of his triumph over death.

Crosses have been employed on battle shields, and there is one in particular identified with the crusades. They have been set afire, by those claiming the title of Christian, and placed on the lawns of people of color as signs of terror and intimidation.

They are used to mark graves, signs of hope in resurrection; and as signs of office, as in the papal cross.

I’ve prepared some visuals for our conversation time upstairs today that I hope will be the beginning of many broad, deep and thoughtful conversations about what images speak most powerfully and universally to our community – the community we are, and the one we aspire to be.

In all of this, may we, who are many and uniquely gifted and beautiful, keep our focus on Christ, whose love goes beyond both words and images.