22 Mar 2015
“‘When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.’” (John 12:32) (+)
I don’t know how many of us have traveled to Boston and toured the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but even if you’ve never been there, I bet you remember what’s not there. 25 years ago this past Wednesday, March 18th, two thieves broke in and stole some $500 million worth of art works. A quarter of a century later it remains the largest unsolved property theft in US history and the largest unsolved art theft in world history. Isabella Stewart Gardner’s will is explicit. Nothing may be altered in her house. This means that once the paintings were cut out of their frames and stolen those 25 years ago, the frames must hang empty. The art that once was on display is now made conspicuous in its absence by those empty frames, and that means the crime can never be forgotten. That’s also the message of the purple shrouds. They are intended to symbolize for us the passage in John’s Gospel that reads: “[Jesus] departed and hid from them.” (12:36) A very public Jesus, who loved being with people, was forced into hiding to make sure His disciples were as prepared as possible for the events about to unfold. His absence is the reason for the shrouds, and they make that absence as obvious as the empty frames at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Musuem. They remind us of what once was there and is no longer.
The importance of liturgy, of practices like these shrouds throughout the Sanctuary, is to carry the past into the present. This afternoon we will gather for the Meal in the Upper Room, a reenactment of the Last Supper. That’s about memories, about taking us back to Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and imagining what it would have been like. This morning when we say those same Last Supper words of “This is my body” and “This is my blood” it’s not about memories. It’s about the present. It’s not about Jesus in Jerusalem. It’s about Jesus here in South Deerfield. It’s not about the twelve disciples. It’s about this congregation. That’s the promise of liturgy. It brings Jesus to us. And this is one of the reasons why church is so important. There’s a mystery taking place here that is so much more than memories.
The Passion Sunday liturgy of the shrouds, however, asks us to consider how that can be stolen away. Imagine again those empty frames in the museum. They, like these shrouds, won’t let us forget about what has been stolen. My brother-in-law’s sons play sports down in Maryland, the northern South. Even in the northern South there are no scheduled Sunday morning practices and games. They do that because the families involved insist on making Jesus a Sunday morning priority. This isn’t about laws enforcing religion. It’s about the fact that if they scheduled these events too many from their teams would not be there. It’s about choices. Massachusetts is far from the southern Bible-belt, but does that mean church families have to just accept whenever another event calls them out on a Sunday morning? Can’t we raise our voices and say, “We have to go to church first”? If church people simply accept Sunday morning intrusions, whatever they may be, without saying a word, and just go along, then remember these shrouds. They’re not only about the Jesus of Jerusalem who had to go into hiding. They’re also about the Jesus of today who can be stolen from right under our noses.
When I was in the Seminary, there were clergy who would pass through from a then Communist Poland. The way the government would tempt people away from churches was not with police, they said. It was with television. The often boring Communist programming would give way on Sunday mornings to real entertainment. Jesus doesn’t have to be stolen away in obvious ways. Sometimes it’s more effective to sneak Him away and then maybe people won’t even notice He’s gone. Alice and Peg shared this story with me. An old nun, who was living in a convent next to a construction site noticed the coarse language of the workers and decided to spend some time with them to correct their ways. And so she decided she would take her lunch and sit with the workers. She put her sandwich in a brown bag and walked over to the spot where the men were eating. Sporting a big smile, she walked up to the group and asked: "And, do you men know Jesus Christ?" They shook their heads and looked at each other, very confused. One of the workers looked up to the steelworks and yelled out, "Anybody up there know Jesus Christ?" One of the steelworkers yelled down, "Why?" The worker yelled back, “Because his mom's here with his lunch." We drive by churches all the time that aren’t needed any more. They’re bookstores, dance studios, residences and sometimes they just sit vacant. How many of us feel that we are the church-going minority among our friends? I know it’s true for me. The others are good and decent people, and I’m not saying that church makes us better and more decent than they are, but what they’re missing is Jesus. Are we passing on a religious heritage to the next generation that will be surprised by church, that won’t know who Jesus Christ is? Jesus can be stolen away little by little until we don’t even realize He’s missing.
Today’s Gospel tells us that Jews from all over the world were gathering in Jerusalem for Passover, and Jesus was there too as a Jew. Some Greek-speaking Jews asked to meet Jesus. They first approached the disciple Philip, whose name is Greek and who came from the diverse area of Galilee. He was their opening into Jesus’ community. With these far away people in mind, Jesus then utters the famous words: “‘When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself.’” Each of us can be a Philip to someone that no one else can be, and we have to be, because Jesus isn’t only thinking about us. His goal has always been to “draw all people to myself.” These shrouds represent a real possibility. It’s up to us to make sure that this possibility doesn’t become a reality. Stand up to Sunday morning intrusions. Cherish the mystery that brings Jesus right here among us. Be a Philip so someone else can find their way into Jesus’ community. Help Jesus fulfill His promise of drawing all people to Himself. For these things we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo