sermon: disturbing images and soulful growth

Scripture Text: John 6:51-58
Unedited/uncited, by J. Lavoy

Have you ever been so struck by an image, that it disrupted your thinking and re-oriented your thinking and imagination?

I was in grade school in the 1990s and early 2000s. My math textbooks were hyper-self aware. In an effort to make up for decades of racism, sexism, and able-ism, the pictures of students happily solving math problems in the text books, always prominently featured people of different ethnic backgrounds, and there was a blend of genders, and there was always one person in a wheel chair or on crutches. It was as if Disney’s “It’s a Small World” was transformed into a math textbook. Even so, it was nothing more than well intentioned propaganda, as the textbooks themselves were still designed for white, middle-class, suburban children, but it was a valiant effort, nonetheless, and one that I appreciate. I went to school in a rural area of northeastern Pennsylvania, where we had off of school on the first Monday of deer hunting season. The vast majority of my peers were white, and mostly of German, English, or Italian ancestry. But seeing this diversity of backgrounds reflected in my math textbook, made it feel like I was learning in a diverse setting. Although, I say that as a white male; perhaps a person with a different skin color would offer a differing opinion.

Likewise, social studies and geography textbooks were going through major revisions, while I was in school. Christopher Columbus was beginning to be villainized, slave narratives found their way into the textbooks, the Women’s Suffrage movement, at least in the US, was beginning to be covered. And, as I think about all of the social studies, history, and geography textbooks of my kindergarten through 12th grade experience, one image, in particular, comes to mind: that of the south Vietnamese General Loan executing a prisoner, in a public square. I’m sure you’d recognize it. Its brutal, you can see the emotion running through the two men involved, you can feel the moment, completely silent, a brief pause in time, as we know what happens next.

I think this is the image that introduced me to skepticism. I believe I first saw the image in 7th grade, in a formal textbook. I may have seen it earlier, I may have seen it later, I cannot remember. So let’s choose 7th grade. And, for the 13 years of my life prior to having seen that image, I learned of wars, and historical events that my country’s government was involved in. Please hear me that this, I’m sure, applies to any country’s government, and children’s relationship with it. For 13 years, I trusted that my governments decisions were always good and noble, if not a bit misguided. Then, seeing this image of a young man being shot, by another man who could have been his brother, for a reason unknown to my peers and me, and at the instruction of my government as it waged war in Vietnam, well…this image disturbed me so much that it re-oriented my vision. I began to see that not all authority is good and noble, and that we should be a bit skeptical, to think about and question the things of power that we may otherwise take for granted.

Images are powerful and provocative. Sometimes they can be used to assure a fifth grader that children around the world simply love doing long division. But most often, a powerful image can create in you an emotional response that you simply don’t know what to do with. So you sit with it, in its grotesqueness and in its beauty.

And before I go any further, I want to say this: I don’t know everything. Perhaps you are shocked by this admission, having noticed the great river of wisdom that falls out of my mouth every week. But I need to say it again: I don’t know everything. I don’t even know an eighth of everything. And now, on the anniversary of my ordination, I find I know less than half of what I thought I knew 1 year ago.  But I do know this: if I had to coach a newly ordained person, or a pastoral intern, I would tell them that the two most important things in ministry are humility, and a willingness to sit shiva, in awkard, or deep places. Sure, its important to be, or pretend to be organized, and to smile a lot, and to have a good gut for drinking coffee, or wine if youre serving Rio Terrace, but the two keys to ministry, as I understand them at this very moment, are humility, which involves trusting that you don’t have all the answers, but together, and with God, we can figure some things out; and a willingness to be with people and congregations and communities in really dark or deep places, when you’d rather just run home and hide under your blanket.

So, I don’t know everything. But in my humility, I’ve tried my hardest to spend the last year listening, rather than asserting. You may be thinking, “well you’ve failed pretty miserably at that, pastor James!”, but, for someone whose restless, and with a mild case of ADHD, I’ll pat myself on the back. There goes the humility.

The point I’m trying to make, though, is that one theological concept really keeps coming back to me. This unusually, theologically diverse congregation keeps raising the topic of flesh and blood with me, with regards to communion. I am not exaggerating when I say that a solid ¼ of our congregation has spoken with me about the nature, meaning, and grotesqueness of flesh and blood with regards to communion. Some have spoken of cannibalism, some have spoken of the gross feelings it conjures up, some have spoken about how it doesn’t make sense, spiritually, while others have shared similar interesting points and concerns.

Verse 56: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” What?! You’re all right. This doesn’t make any sense.

And as a cleric who’s trying to maintain that I’m the “pastor who listens, not the pastor who talks”, I’ve been wrestling with all this, too, even as I insist that we keep using the traditional words of institution at Communion. I’ve had conversations about this with my spiritual director, and, totally ignoring my concerns but also cutting right to the chase, she said, “what a blessing it is to have a congregation who is so deeply concerned with these spiritual matters.”

The good news for us, is that the crowd who had gathered to hear Jesus speak – in this section, called disciples –  are so deeply offended by Jesus comments, that the majority of them leave. I can imagine that some of them were grossed out, “eat me? At least the Romans aren’t cannibals…”, while others were completely distressed – their last great hope for a messiah turned out to be a crazy man. And even still, 12 remained, the 12 disciples that we know, the ones who were at the last supper, from whence our image for the Sacrament of Communion comes. And it doesn’t say that those 12 weren’t offended or disturbed by Jesus comments, so I assume that they were; yet they stayed, and persisted with him, because they know that something deeper was happening.

That’s what I like about this passage. At some level, I believe that Jesus was trying to use a provocative or disturbing image, to elicit spiritual growth in his disciples. As a garden thrives when it is roto-tilled, so do our souls thrive when they are disturbed.

Jesus used this disturbing image – my flesh and blood are the recipe for the worlds redemption and creation – because it was like that roto-tiller. He said:

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, is in me, and I am in them.”
“The spirit gives life. The flesh is useless.”

Jesus is even preaching in paradox. Here is the dilemma; the image can only be disturbing and transformative, if you are willing to sit with it. And it might take years. And, even after many years, an image may still be grotesque, but its resonance will have worked in you.

I’m not asking you to change your mind about flesh and blood and communion. Frankly, this scripture passage isn’t about Communion. But I do believe that Christ is inviting us to let our souls be disturbed by images. We do not desire to be the same tomorrow, as we are today. And if you do, don’t consider a career in ministry. Only when our souls are disturbed can spiritual maturation occur. Only when our souls are disturbed can we notice injustice in the world. Only when our souls are disturbed can we feel kinship with others who may not look or seem anything like ourselves.

My great criticism of life in this contemporary world is that we think too much and feel to little.

Images are words of emotion. Images invite us into a deeper Communion with God, that words simply cannot.

So, my prayer for you to pray is this:
“May God disturb my soul today. Amen.”