In the name of Christ, who is everywhere – even those far-flung places where the name and all that it stands for isn’t recognized. Amen.
If you stop by my office sometime, and you have a few minutes to spare, one of the things I’ll probably do is take you on a little tour around the room of some of my pictures and other hanging “artifacts” that help to make the space a little home away from home for me. In that tour, one of the items that I am always sure to point out is a little icon of Jesus that hangs near my desk, between my two ordination certificates.
It has an interesting story. The subject is called “Christ, Pantocrator”, which means Christ, the Ruler of the Universe. Traditionally it shows an image of Jesus, with a gilded halo, extending his right hand in blessing, and holding an open book in his left. The book sometimes says different things, but in my icon it says, in Russian, “Come to me all who are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest”. You’ll often see this image painted inside the domes, high above the center of some Orthodox churches.
But part of why my icon has an interesting story, is because it’s about 400 years old. In reality, I hate to even call it “mine”. With something that old, I’m just a custodian for a while. But the icon is showing its wear. The wood, and some of the paint is chipped. You can only barely still see the gilding around Jesus’ head. During the Soviet era in Russia, religious expression was seriously restricted. Religious articles like these were often smuggled out of the country to keep them from being destroyed. Around that same time, the state of Israel was coming into its own, and Russian Jews poured in seeking refuge. Some of them brought icons like the one I now hold to sell to Christian tourists as a way of setting themselves up financially in their new lives. I bought this icon from a dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem, from a Muslim man who sells these icons in a shop along the Via Dolorosa.
So, I’m an Episcopal Priest, who bought a Russian Orthodox Christian icon that was smuggled into Israel by a Russian Jew, from a Muslim man.
Like Jesus, himself, this icon is like a kind of great equalizer. It is iconic, not only of this particular teaching of Jesus, but of even the spirit behind the teaching. For centuries, it has provided comfort – both spiritual and even physical comfort through its sale – to countless people, regardless of race, or creed, or nationality, or anything else. It came into being in order to provide comfort for a limited community – a specific audience. But through its life, it has gone on to spread the love its writer poured into each stroke of the brush to untold people in places he never could have imagined.
But Jesus wasn’t always like that. One of the reasons I love this story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, is that it shows Jesus growing.
We have lots of stories of Jesus reaching out to outsiders – extending his ministry to those at the margins; to the people no one would have expected – but this story stands apart, because, at first, he said “no”. The woman begs for healing for her daughter, and we’re told that she is a Gentile and a foreigner. Jesus says, “Let the children [my own people] be fed first. It’s not fair to take their food and throw it to the dogs.”
It sounds harsh. It is harsh. But the woman’s faith and her persistence was stronger than his rebuke. She stood up for herself, and that made him rethink his position. Because of her ministry of persistence, Jesus grew. He became a better person. He saw more, and understood more because she had asserted her humanity and her dignity and she wouldn’t stand for any less.
We only have to look to the rest of the tradition to see that it stuck. The way of Jesus is the way of open arms. The way of Jesus that has been passed down to us through the generations is the way of equality for all, and of dignity for the oppressed.
We heard it from the Jewish tradition this morning in the Proverbs. It said, “The rich and poor have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”
But the tradition of the open arms of Jesus is never clearer than in the reflections of dear, Brother James – the one who, last week, told us to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
This week, James comes back at us with new wisdom again. He says that God has “chosen the poor” to be inheritors of greater riches. And he calls us to task for showing favoritism to those of high esteem that make their ways into our presence.
But the lesson of the day is to take on the spirit of the icon – the spirit that flowed through Christ, into the Christian tradition, and on our better days, through us and our expressions of faith, too. That’s the spirit of openness and welcome. That’s the spirit of love that knows no bounds – the spirit of love that spreads farther and wider than it was ever intended, because it flows through the tradition of Jesus, the Christ. When we follow Christ, that same surprising abundance will flow through us. We may think we’re only up to one thing, but our acts of kindness and generosity will reach farther than we’ve ever imagined. Our little moments of following Christ will even go so far as to change the world.
That little icon that hangs in my office has changed the world for a host of improbable people – even down through the centuries to me. If that humble expression of faith through wood and paint could do all that, imagine what your love could do. Love is stronger than paint and wood. Love is the only reason that paint and wood has survived as long as it has. Just imagine…
It’s probably beyond your imagination. I know it is, mine. But, even so, it fits neatly into the imagination of God. Amen.