Though I have almost no nautical knowledge or understanding of shipbuilding, one of my favorite museum exhibits has always been the collection of maritime paintings at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. These are masterfully executed renderings of eighteenth and nineteenth-century ships from all across New England. Their aesthetic, which is captivating to me, combines strength and power with delicacy of line and grace of movement. However, while the paintings themselves are unbelievably detailed, maritime paintings as a genre fall into a very limited number of categories: you have ships in a calm harbor; ships in a storm; whaling ships in pursuit; ships in battle; ships in battle in a storm; and, the tragic ne plus ultra, the shipwreck. Despite the restricted subject matter, I think part of my fascination with these paintings, beyond the antiquarian aspect, has to do with what you might call their moral message: even the pinnacle expressions of human craftsmanship and ingenuity are no match for either the elements, or human nature; for wind and water or war.
Wind and water have always been used as metaphors for the spiritual realm. Right in Genesis 1, the Spirit moves over the waters, ruffling the abyss, churning it up as God began the work of Creation. In the Exodus, the Lord sends a driving east wind to part the Red Sea and let the Israelites walk across on dry land. Jesus, who in his teaching used the metaphor of the Holy Spirit as wind, walks across the raging sea to the terrified disciples, and calms the storm, demonstrating his command of the natural and the supernatural world.
Wind and water: we can see outlines, direction, response; we can feel the pressure drop, we can smell the rain on the air before it falls, but the forces that cause this are invisible, and out of our control.
And so it is with the Holy Spirit, which two Sundays ago we celebrated on Pentecost. We feel the Spirit and see its effects; it is Presence, but not a Presence that can be pinned down. The Holy Spirit is the wildcard of the Trinity. The Spirit itself does not speak; it only speaks through.
The Holy Spirit is the opposite of every broad human preference: where we want order, predictability, control, tangibility, and hierarchy, the Holy Spirit is unbound, unpredictable, out of control, immaterial, and, to use Biblical language, “no respecter of persons.” Especially important persons!
In other words, the Holy Spirit is rarely good news for the status quo.
In today’s scripture readings, physical reality, the facts of this world, its established structures and relationships, “real life” as it is often called, is pitted against spiritual reality, the immaterial, the hidden but strongly felt presence of God manifest, the great mystery of our existence.
The Israelites, in the lesson from the Old Testament, want a king. The age of rule by the judges and prophets is coming to an end. The days of the Exodus, and of wandering in the wilderness, of being led by a pillar of cloud and fire, are long gone. The Spirit of the Lord has rested on various prophets and judges, speaking through them. When Israel has followed the Torah, the Law, it has prospered; when it has not, it has faced disaster.
But now the great prophet Samuel is old, his sons are corrupt, and Israel is tired of this system. “Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations.” We just want to be like everybody else, the chosen people say, sounding a bit like junior high school students. We want what everyone else has! Why do we have to be different? (pause) Why can’t we have a king that we can see and touch, who can speak to us directly, not from a mountain or fiery cloud or in thunder, not from behind the curtain of the Temple. We want someone accessible. We want someone who will go out ahead of us and fight our battles. This is yet another dig at Yahweh. Hasn’t he been fighting for them? What about the walls of Jericho? What about entering the promised land of Canaan? But they want someone in a crown and a shiny suit of armor, not a hidden force from above.
Now at this point Samuel could have said, “Okay, but how about a constitutional democracy?” But he doesn’t. He consults with the Lord, who tells Samuel that they are really rejecting the Lord as king, and not Samuel. The Lord tells Samuel to “give the people what they want,” but to warn them about what life under a king will really be like.
By forgoing the spiritual leadership of the Lord as king of Israel, the people will be subjected to economic oppression. Samuel’s sons may be taking bribes and hogging the sacrificial meat, but that is nothing compared to what a king will take: their sons and daughters, their labor, their harvest, their livestock. Samuel tells the people “You shall be his slaves.” You would think that, after Egypt, this would maybe give them pause; but it does not.
So Samuel anoints Saul to be king over Israel. Saul’s main qualifications for kingship, we learn in 1 Samuel, are that he comes from a wealthy family, he is incredibly handsome, and he is much taller than anyone else in Israel. He definitely has the ancient equivalent of “presidential hair.” In other words, he is everything they want. And he is an utter failure, who will be replaced by David, of Goliath and slingshot fame. And so the nation of Israel begins their long and difficult relationship with monarchy, which will end in exile and the destruction of the Temple, the biblical version of the maritime shipwreck painting.
The Israelites’ impulse—to prefer the physical, visible and tangible to the spiritual—is a characteristic of human nature. At some point or another, we have all tried to fix spiritual problems, or, if you like, emotional or psychological ones, with physical solutions. We want a quick, clean and tangible fix. We prefer to deal above the surface only.
We are unhappy in our relationship or in our job, so we buy lots of things we don’t need and fill up our houses with stuff. Or we decide that if we were ten or fifteen pounds lighter, we would feel much differently about our lives. Or that we need to renovate or redecorate, again. We want visible solutions, even if they are not the right solutions for what ails us.
We do this as individuals, and we do it as communities as well. I’ve been a member of several different faith communities over the years, and I’m always amazed at the lengths church vestries or boards will go to reframe any problem in terms of a physical solution. I think the best example of this was when I was asked, along with several other people from churches in the western suburbs, to work with the remaining members of a tiny, tiny congregation that was finally ready, probably a decade too late, to face its own serious decline and think about its future. There were only about ten people at Sunday worship; they could no longer afford a clergyperson. And so a group of us gathered with them to talk about options; if they should try one last time to grow, or simply to close and end their ministry in that place.
They had recently asked a roofer to look at the church roof, and the roofer had said that it would need to be replaced in about a year. For many other members of the committee, that roof became a big topic of discussion at every meeting. How would we pay to fix the roof. Should we wait the year or try to do it now. Should we take out a loan to fix the roof. And on and on. This roof got lots of attention, sitting atop an almost completely empty church!
Now, I am a person not generally prone to thoughts of arson. But I did catch myself thinking . . . once or twice . . . how convenient it would be if, for some reason, this dilapidated old millstone of a church building would just—you know—disappear, go up in smoke, collapse, what have you—at night when no one was there . . . and then we could get on with the real work that we were called together to do: to decide if this congregation had a future. (I didn’t give in to these thoughts, by the way, and the church building still stands: as condominiums.)
As followers of Christ, we always want to be aware of the temptation to solve our problems with concrete, tidy solutions that completely bypass the spiritual realm, and thus avoid the will of God, and the examination of our souls. The spiritual solution to whatever problem we are dealing with is often time-consuming, messy, and full of vulnerability on our part. Because it involves faith and trust in God, whom we can’t see. It’s much easier, as individuals, families, or faith communities, to do our own version of fixing the roof, distracting ourselves with something that is tangible, but immaterial to our problem. Or, worse: our own version of anointing a king, taking our trust away from our very present but hidden Lord, and placing it in someone or something of this world. The Bible’s term for that is “idolatry.”
But the Holy Spirit, always calling to us, always reaching out to us, wants more for us than superficial solutions: the Holy Spirit wants wholeness and abundant life for us. And this is only possible through deep grappling with what is really wrong under the surface, not with what is easy to fix.
Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was always calling on those who followed him to pay attention to the hidden but present things of God, to the way that the Kingdom of God was trying to unfold in this world. And so he held the Spirit of God, and spiritual relationships, above human institutions and natural or biological relationships.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, still at the beginning of his ministry, has been traveling around, healing people, casting out demons and speaking in strange parables. He decides to return home for a while. But when he gets to Nazareth, the scripture says that “when his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”
Upon hearing that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for him, Jesus says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus denies his biological family, his “family of origin,” we might say, in favor of the spiritual community constituted by those following God’s commandments.
This moment is completely consistent with Jesus’ teaching elsewhere. Let’s review, for a minute, what we might call Jesus’ family values.
A man who wants to follow Jesus says, “Teacher, first let me bury my father, and then I will follow.” Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury the dead.”
Another time, a woman in the crowd calls out to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you!” Jesus answers, “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and do it.” And even more challenging, in Matthew 10: “I come not to bring peace but the sword . . . and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.”
Friends, these are Jesus’ family values. Not very traditional, are they. Difficult to accept. The Spirit of God has more claim on individuals than their families. This, frankly, is a radical notion even now, let alone in the first century.
A little aside here, about Mary. Jesus, as we heard, rejects the notion that his mother is to be honored simply for the fact that she is his mother. Instead, Mary is held in the church’s memory because of her faith, and her assent to God’s will for her. As Mary’s cousin Elizabeth says to her in the Gospel of Luke, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” [Luke 1:45] It is Mary’s belief, not her biology, that makes her blessed. And in this, we are actually able to imitate her.
Jesus didn’t go much easier on other physical identity markers, such as tribe, nationality, and class. All of this was secondary to life lived in obedience to God’s will.
Women and slaves held leadership positions in the earliest house churches founded by followers of Jesus. This was unheard of among the Greek mystery religions that competed with Christianity for converts, and it was one of the reasons why the young church grew so rapidly.
In God and in Christ, we are not limited by our earthly identity markers, by our gender or sexual orientation, by our families, our race or ethnicity, by the various tribes to which we belong, professional, educational or class-based. The Apostle Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”
This does not mean that these things become invisible or insignificant. It means that they are not the sum of all we are in God. In Christian community, we are able to transcend the restrictions placed upon us by the circumstances of our lives.
Jesus’ family came to restrain him. Many of us come from wonderful families, and many of us come from less wonderful families. Probably all of us have at one time or another felt restrained by our families in some way: by their expectations of us, or their vision of who we are meant to be, or who we are meant to be with, or not be with. Restricted by their ideas of the limits of what we can accomplish, or conversely, by their ideas of the unlimited things we could accomplish, if only we were trying harder!
Jesus reminds us that ultimately, we are accountable to God alone. We can form relationships in our faith communities that support us in ways that our families, or the members of our various secular “tribes,” cannot. Each of us has to learn to look for the movement of the Spirit working in our lives and in the world around us, and we need to learn how to respond to that same Spirit to bring about God’s kingdom. This is why we need our spiritual brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. This is why we need to put our trust in God, so hidden and yet so very present, rather than in all the shiny distractions vying for our fragmented attention.
Paul says to us in Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”
How much attention are we giving to our inner nature? Our physical homes are full of stuff; how much furniture is in our spiritual homes? In whom are we putting our trust? From whom are we getting our support?
One of the things I love the most about the glorious paintings of ships in the Peabody Essex Museum is the way that the water is rendered. The light reflecting off it, the exquisite details of the individual ripples and waves. The ships are magnificent, but the vast ocean itself is even more so.
Our Christian lives are undergirded by the waters of baptism. Through our baptism we received new life, regeneration from sin, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promises we made in baptism, or that were made on our behalf, form the foundation of our faith.
Our baptism may have taken place years and years ago, but we can always float in our baptismal waters. On that day, the germ of our faith, or the faith of our sponsors, joined with God’s infinite and vast faith in us to create an indissoluble bond that will always sustain us. This bond will remain when all else, even our physical bodies, has passed away. So, finally, the spiritual life is real life, and it is only in the Spirit that we become truly alive. In God’s name, Amen.
~The Rev. Regina Walton
Curate, Parish of the Good Shepherd (Episcopal), Waban, MA