Homily from service on May 22, 2022 – Sixth Sunday of Easter
Homily preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Sermon preached by The Rev. Tammy Hobbs Miracky
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
You have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding…[as] exceed all that we can desire” (Collect of the Day, BCP 225). Amen.
I had a professor in divinity school with a young daughter, around the age of three, I think. Together they watched a Youtube video. You may have seen it – the various versions have racked up millions of views. It is an animation of Pat and Stan, hippopotamus and dog, singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Have you seen it? If you haven’t, I highly recommend it. It put a smile on my face for days. (You can find a link in the text of my sermon when that gets posted online. LINK.) As they were watching this video, my professor’s daughter said, “Look, Daddy, the hippo is swimming!” He puzzled over this. He didn’t see a hippo swimming. He saw a hippo singing. When he asked her about it, she pointed to Pat’s shadow and said, “Look. There’s the water. He’s swimming.” You see, his daughter didn’t yet have a visual vocabulary for shadow. She had no mental category for that. She could only interpret what her current reality made visible to her. For her, shadow became water: it’s bluish, the hippo is moving around…in it…it seems to cover the ground…. The hippo is swimming.
We can see this in other ways with children as they grow, right? As they work to reach new milestones? If you’ve spent time with babies, for example, you will have come across the concept of “object permanence.” Until babies develop mental pictures to store in their memory, they can’t understand that when an object goes away it didn’t just stop being. They don’t know it can come back. You can take a toy while the baby watches and place it out of sight behind a chair, and the baby won’t look for it. They have no way of understanding that the toy still exists.
It may be easiest to observe these shifts in understanding in children. They can only comprehend in the way that their current developmental stage enables. Concrete thinkers transform into conceptual thinkers, and it’s hard to learn algebra until that developmental shift has occurred. And on and on as children grow.
This dynamic may be more readily apparent in children, but it’s still happening with adults. It’s happening, in fact, in today’s gospel.
Let’s remind ourselves about the context of today’s gospel selection. This passage is part of a much longer segment within John called the Farewell Discourse. As its name implies, John is conveying Jesus’ final teaching – a teaching that attempts to comfort his disciples as he approaches death; a teaching that tries to communicate to them a new way of being together even when he is no longer physically present.
Throughout the Farewell Discourse, Jesus is trying to describe a mystical concept. That’s hard to do. Especially in a way we can hear it. In the words of one commentator, Jesus is offering “a powerful…encounter with God that presses beyond language…he promises a complete communion between the human and divine” (Feasting on the Word, 492), a mystical union that can happen only after Jesus has passed over, out of this world. Up until now, Jesus’ connection with his followers has been constrained by time and space, limited to the particular geography that he inhabits in human form. Now, as he passes out of the world and returns to the creator, now this connection will be able to “take the form of spirit, equally accessible in every time and place,” as William Countryman describes it (Countryman 103).
So Jesus teaches his disciples:
- “Do not let your hearts be troubled…do not let them be afraid, ” Jesus says (14:27).
- “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you” (14:27).
- The Spirit who will come, and I, and the Creator…we are one. And you will be one with us…after I pass over from this world.
An encounter “that presses beyond language,” indeed.
You see, just like that concrete thinker for whom algebraic concepts remain oblique; like my professor’s three-year-old daughter who tries her best to understand the visual representation of a shadow, like that infant for whom a toy out of site ceases to exist, Jesus’ followers are not capable of understanding. There’s no way they can. He is describing life beyond this world, and this is the only world they know. He is describing a mystical love that will be made real, but he’s still with them in physical form. And the Spirit of love – the Spirit that will teach them to understand a new way of being, the Spirit will remind them of all Jesus has taught them – this Spirit hasn’t yet been given. So they try to grasp Jesus’ words, but they have no experience that helps them make meaning of his teaching. They can’t conceive of the comfort that will come to them only after Jesus is taken from them.
/// We, too, live in this world. Though the Spirit has been given and abides with us, it can still be hard to know – to really experience that mystical union of Creator, Christ, Spirit, and community of believers. If you’re like me, we don’t walk through every minute of every day vibrating with the full realization of God’s presence in us. We’re not there yet.
St. Augustine once said, “If you have understood, it’s not God.” (Sermon 117.5, as cited in Elizabeth Johnson, Source, 13). Though we may be graced with glimpses of God present with us – and though these experiences can remain with us, serving as important touchstones for our faith years into the future – God is beyond our comprehension and will remain that way until we cross over.
/// Today is the last day of the church school year here at All Saints. As we’ve walked alongside the children these past few weeks, we’ve begun to reflect on their year together and to talk about saying goodbye for the summer. So last week we worked through the story of the Pentecost from Acts. You’ll remember this story – we are told that the followers of Jesus were gathered together in one place when suddenly “the rush of a violent wind…filled the entire house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). Then “divided tongues, as of fire…rested on each of them” (2:3). And they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (2:4). We talked about how, even though Jesus was no longer with the disciples physically, they could still feel the presence of God’s Spirit. And we talked about how the kids might feel God’s Spirit today, in their own bodies.
Here’s what they said. They told us how they feel God’s love through the people around them. They described that this love makes them feel “support,” and “warmth,” and “a fullness.” They see themselves in the “wildness” of God represented by the wind blowing through the room. They feel love in cuddles with their dogs and hugs from their humans.
As adults, we have passed through so many more of life’s cognitive stages of development, but ironically, it may be the children who can teach us something about living into that mystical union Jesus describes. They who live more in the present moment; they who live more in their bodies.
No, we won’t live each day with full awareness of God’s presence. As our collect today reminds us, many good things will continue to “surpass our understanding.” But even though we can’t see God in God’s fullness in this world, the words of Jesus offer comfort: “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27). Know that you are graced with the peace of Christ. May you feel it in your body and may you see it in those who walk alongside you.