In the name of God: our subject, our lens, and our light. Amen.
Several years ago, I saw a documentary about a nature photographer. I love documentaries. They can make for soothing television while drifting off to sleep, but are also just as often a path to inspiration.
In this particular documentary, the photographer explained that for every expedition he takes, he’ll shoot thousands of shots. Before the age of digital photography, he’d shoot hundreds of rolls of film. When the circumstances allowed, and when everything worked out well, all of that effort would usually yield only a few usable pictures, and maybe only one or two that really tell the story that he’s trying to tell, or convey the real essence of what he’s trying to show. But to get to that point, he had to fail more times than he could count. Each successful shot also told the story of hundreds of others that had failed.
I was thinking about that this week as I reflected on our bishop’s forum last week, when he talked about risk - how we, as Christians, must become more comfortable with risk. If we are to be the church in the world - if we are to truly answer Christ’s call to meet the people of God where they are, and to share the good news of God in Christ - it’s going to mean taking some risks. It will probably even mean that we’ll fail from time to time - maybe even more often than not - but that’s how we’ll learn.
In the story that we read today from First Samuel, we hear about those long-ago people of God taking their turn at learning the hard way. They’re crying out to Samuel, begging to have God send them a king. They want to keep up with the Jones’, so to speak. Their neighboring countries all had kings, and they felt that they needed one, too. They forgot that God was their leader - that God, who had shown them the way through the oppressions of Egypt, and through the oppressions of the desert, was still showing them the way.
So God, with the wisdom of a parent who knows a child is about to make a mistake, lets them have what they want. God knows it’s a mistake. But God knows it’s also the only way that they’ll learn. They can’t see the failure, until they’ve seen it. So they’ve just got to learn.
This is the same process that we, as the people of God, have been struggling through for millennia: trusting God - trusting in the faithfulness of God - even when it’s hard to see. Trusting God, even when everything that we see in the world tells us to place our faith elsewhere. Because trusting God often means, as Paul described it, looking at what can’t be seen.
It seems counterintuitive. How can we look at what can’t be seen?
Photographers do it. They see, in the world around them, some story or some truth that can’t be easily captured. They use their lenses, and the light, and the framing, and the unpredictability of subjects beyond themselves to show us what we couldn’t have otherwise seen. They show us truth that would have been beyond our focus, if they hadn’t put it all together for us.
In that way, Jesus is like a photographer for our spirits, and for our salvation. Jesus frames the truth of God, and focuses it, to help us look at what we can’t, ourselves, see.
The Gospel lesson today, like a lot of Gospel lessons from Mark, at first sounds like a bit of a hodgepodge. One of the characteristics of this book, is that it comes across as sort of hurried - the way a child might tell an exciting story: without pausing for effect, or slowing down to make sure all of the details are told and understood. Mark just spills the story, and leaves it for the hearer to put it all together.
And this particular hodgepodge is one of those that I’ve struggled with, through the years. We, as a church, often think of ourselves as a kind of chosen family. We rely on the metaphors of family to describe ourselves and our relationships, because it’s unlike any other relationships we experience out in the world. But here, in this Gospel, Jesus seems to be spurning his family in favor of his chosen family.
“Look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen.”
I’ve always heard that verse about sins of the Holy Spirit as the only unforgiveable sins. It’s a stern warning. But what I saw this time, I had not seen before - those incredibly important, though to-often forgettable words: “for they [the scribes] said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”
That’s what Jesus was warning against - the judgement of the scribes. The real sin is the judgement. The real sin is denying the work of God. The real sin is imposing inhumanity on other holy, and wholly human creatures of God. In the world we may see shortcomings. In the world, we may see people who don’t measure up. In the world we may see faults, or even sin. But Christ, as the lens to God, is calling on us to look at what can’t be seen - to see the world through the lens of Christ.
Through the lens of Christ, the world starts to look a lot like love.
A few minutes ago, we sang the beautiful words of that hymn, “Come down, O Love divine.” In it, we call on God, who is love, to make a home in our lives. We pray that God will use that love to burn away those things that we see, leaving only the as-yet unseen truth. We imagine the love of God in our lives by saying, “none can guess its grace/ till Love create a place/ wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.”
May our hearts be that dwelling for the Love of God - for the God of Love - for love is of God. But be careful what you wish for. Inviting God into your life will be risky business. It will propel you to look at what can’t be seen, and there’s no telling what you’ll see there. It will change your focus, and your exposure. You will exist in new light. And you’ll never want to turn back. Amen.