May 8

Recognition. Relationship. Representation

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

John 10:22-30

Click here to hear just the sermon


As an elementary school student my parents took my siblings and me on a weeklong trip to Washington D.C. We spent most our days in and out of museums and monuments. I was particularly in awe of the National Air and Space Museum and remembered being captivated by the planes and rockets. We were in the gift shop, and I was mesmerized by a small triangular prism that fit in the palm of my hand. I kept turning it over and over to see how the prism would refract the light. On one side, ordinary light entered the prism through a translucent pane and on the other side out came visible parts of the color spectrum. If you like music, think of the image on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album. White light enters one side of a triangle, and a rainbow comes out the other.

My mom bought the prism for me and wherever we went, I would take it out to see if it would work. Without fail, wherever there was light, the prism would make what looked like a rainbow to me. Whether we were at the zoo or the Lincoln memorial my prism would show me something present but unrecognizable. Without the prism, the light looked clear to me, just like the light in this room. It seemed like normal light. But with a triangular prism with precise panels cut at just the right angles, I could see something more than with just my naked eye. While there are a lot of scientific tools that do similar things, the simplicity of the prism stands out to me and it changed the way I engaged with the world. It is not as if I go around always aware that the light I see holds a spectrum of colors not visible to my eye by direct observation alone; yet I know that beneath the observable surface is a reality infinitely more complex than what it seems at the first glance. There is more to world and life than meets the eye.

At times, we catch glimpses of the depths of reality. We get lost gazing at the stars and wonder of it all, our breath is taken away by the view of a mountain top. We are overwhelmed by a hug at the right time, or the perfect mother’s day gift which makes someone feel seen and heard. Sometimes, we witness death and destruction or receive life altering news. We experience transcendence or even recognize our own finitude at such moments. These moments can invite us to deeper recognition. They shape and mold us. It would be nice if there was some sort of prism that we could keep in our pockets and hold up to those moment or some devise that would allow us to capture the way they make us feel. When life feels too complex or we just need a little more surety, we could hold a prism up to and go beneath the surface. Sometimes, it is hard to recognize what is going on beneath the surface or even that more is going on.

For some, prayer, Word, and Sacrament might be like prisms which invite us to marvel at God and Creation. They are means of grace which can be centering. In a curious sort of way, they ground us on the solid rock. A wonder, is that these means of grace are in some ways, just ordinary. Water for baptism, bread for communion, ink and paper for Scripture. Hands and words for prayer, food for fellowship. Ordinary, like how there is nothing special about the light that goes through a prism. In a certain sense, there is nothing special about water, bread, ink, and food but through scripture, reason, tradition, and experience we can see that they are extraordinary. The mundane can disclose the Divine. Many of our deepest understanding stem from realities that cannot be seen with the eye alone. Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience can reveal the unseen bonds are there. We might need a sort of prism to recognize them but they are present.

Our Gospel reading invites us to consider recognition with regard to Jesus. Amid winter, perhaps replete with cold breezes, at Solomons portico during the festival of dedication— people gathered around Jesus. They inquire whether he is the Messiah, first asking how long he will keep them in suspense. The question seems straightforward. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” A simple yes or no would suffice. But Jesus does not answer the question in the way the group would have liked. He answers it in a way that preserves tension, ambiguity, and mystery. He answers in way that maintains suspense, not necessarily for the sake of suspense, but because of the way recognition and faith relate. Faith is not proof but belief and trust. Jesus responds to the question, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

Sometimes, to recognize the voice of the Shepherd, we need to belong to the sheep. It is perhaps not as linear as that suggests. Belonging leads to belief. There is a danger to this sort of thinking when it is closed. The danger of circular reasoning. Faith sometimes falls victim to circular reasoning which confines it. And yet, so many through history and now are able to keep the circle open through exposure to change and life. Yes, sometimes, to recognize the voice of the Shepherd, we need to first belong to the sheep. Belong to believe. I believe Lord, help my unbelief. But perhaps, Jesus words should not be taken so linearly or even circularly but as a spiral which moves up and down, as well as side to side. A spiral is not confined to one axis just as faith is not confined to the mind, the page, or circular reasoning. It is where faith and life intersect that Jesus’ words come to be true. The very situations and contexts we find ourselves in are not obstacles to believe in Jesus as the Good Shepherd but the time and place where the words take on truth in time.

Perhaps, many first learn to seek, then learn to recognize. We learn to take out our prisms and hold them up to the light to make sure the color spectrum is still present. Through time, we learn to trust in the consistency of the presence of the other such that we do not always need to pull out the prism to know that God is with us. A trouble though, is that moments are fleeting. The experience we once had of the divine that we were so confident of, passes into memory. The cobwebs of the mind settle fading the original passion and experience. Life goes on and the circle is more comfortable than the spiral. Belong to believe but keep belief exposed to God’s ongoing presence and work enlivens faith. At some point, we recognize the Good Shepherd not only because we are the sheep, but because God relates to us as the Good Shepherd.

Recognition invites relationship. It stems from relationship and points back toward relationship. When we are in relationship we trust in the presence across unseen bonds. After years of relationship with someone, we learn to recognize their responses, body language, and other subtle clues about what they are thinking or feeling. I do not always need to be present with my spouse to know she loves me and to trust her even as I do seek to affirm these realities when we are together. Eventually, relationship informs recognition, even self-recognition. In other words, it is through recognizing ourselves as the people of God that we come to learn about what it means to be people. To love. To be loved. This type of being must be opened by the world to break out of well-worn circles and go into unknown spirals. Recognition invites relationships. Relationship with a present but elusive God.

Paul Ricoeur wrote, “The small miracle of recognition, however, is to coat with presence the otherness of that which is over and gone.” Recognition is not just about seeing but also relationship and presence. It is a mode of thinking or being which relates in the world differently as a result of engagement and it allows difference. “The small miracle of recognition, however, is to coat with presence the otherness of that which is over and gone.” Applied to God we might say that God is bigger than my preferences, positions, and predilections. That God is present but also other than presence.

Every year my undergraduate school would print an “April fools” edition of the school newspaper. I confess that I looked forward to that edition more than any other throughout the year. It was the one I read with the most care and derived the most joy from. One year, the front-page headline was in reference to the school’s science building campaign. The school had been trying to raise funds for what felt like a decade to renovate and update the facility. It seemed that every major event would end with a drive for the science building. I was not a science major so I did not care much for the efforts or pay close attention, except that it felt like the campaign would never end. I did my science liberal arts credits but spent most of my time with the theology crowd; although, I wish I had better equipped myself in the sciences too.

The April fools front page had a big picture of the current science building with a headline that said something like: “God answers prayers for new science building” and underneath in slightly smaller letters  “The answer is no.”    “God answers prayers for new science building: the answer is no.” In one swell swoop, the headline provided a succent zinger that still makes me chuckle when I think about it, and says something profound about God. God does not always respond the way we would like nor does God always respond in ways that we would like.

God is present with us, especially through Christ in Word and Sacrament and in the caring actions of people around the world, but God also remains something other than what we can conceive or imagine. There is an otherness of God that keeps a tension with the closeness of God. Recognizing the otherness of God is important to keeping faith living. A living faith is one which draws from the rich images of Scripture, history, tradition, experience, reason, and other sources. It is not threatened by difference and does not succumb to ethnocentric tendencies. It is enlivened by a diversity of opinions, expressions, and images. A living faith is one which lets God be God and us be human. It trades degrees of certainty and closedness for more porous boundaries and explorations. It does not force itself onto others, especially by taking rights aways. It knows that sometimes, God answers prayer with “no,” that God is sometimes more elusive than we would prefer, and sometimes Jesus refuses to break the suspense and tension we desperately want broken.

And yet, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” Put differently, my sheep recognize my voice and are in relationship with me. Recognition, relationship go together and extend over into representation. When we are counted among the sheep recognizing the shepherd and in relationship with the Good Shepherd, we become representations. That is the root of Christians afterall, little Christs. We represent Christ when we act justly, love faithfulness, and walk humbly with the Good Shepherd.

Across our lectionary texts today, we see the common pastoral images for and used by Christ. We hear Christ refer to his people as sheep. The Johannine passage follows one of the “I am” sayings. Christ refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. “11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The Psalm for the day is perhaps the most familiar. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Revelation invites us to behold Christ, the lamb of God, around a host of worshippers. A diverse host from across boundaries which emphasizes diverse and universal aspects of the people of God. These bucolic and pastoral images invite us to reflect on the nearness of God. The presence of Christ. They invite us to peer into the world and boldly affirm Immanuel- God with us. They invite us to recognize through relationship and to represent.

There is, of course, a caution though. God is not mere light which a prism can fully reveal. God is greater than that which we can imagine and therefore, we must also hold onto the otherness of God.  We relate with God and the world as an unfolding spiral where we are invited into deeper love.

We live in the suspense that Christ refused to do away with. “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” It might not be that exact question for you but perhaps it is something similar. How long do I have to live with the unknown of unemployment when I trust in God’s provision? How long do I have to lament over the lost pandemic time and losing loved ones? How long will machines of war rake in profits while food rots unused.

We live in a world full of suspense. I cannot break the suspense for you today. There are times when irresolution speaks louder than resolution but amid the suspense, I offer you the prism and the spiral. Recognition – Relationship – Representation


– Rev. Scott Donahue-Martens, PhD Candidate in Homiletics at BU School of Theology

Comments are closed.