I wonder if we tire of or become bored by the life of faith because we have stopped using our imaginations. Maybe we’ve never learned how to use them in the first place.
Just imagine that you and I are “living tabernacles.” Outward and visible signs of God’s grace.
Just imagine that everyone else is, too.
Just imagine that “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God,” in the words of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Will we live the day before us differently?
Maybe we need to ask God to ignite our imaginations.
The below sermon, “Living Tabernacles,” by fellow saint and sinner Jake Dell, is an implicit invitation to do this very thing:
It’s not unusual for me to get taken for a Roman Catholic priest.
Sometimes, it’s easier to just go with it, rather than try to explain everything. After all, explanations tend to kill mysteries.
Just ask Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas Aquinas is best known for writing some of the most highly developed theology that we have about the Blessed Sacrament, the Eucharist, Holy Communion, or simply, the mass.
One might say that he went so far as to explain away all of the mystery, and that he reduced what happens here at this altar to a logical proof.
Perhaps that’s why, near the end of his life, he had a vision of all of his work and declared that all of his writings were nothing but straw.
The nature of a sacrament is that it’s an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace.
But we have to train our eyes to see what is hidden in plain sight.
Let me give you two examples of this that happened to me last week.
As I said, it’s not unusual for me to be taken for a Catholic priest … on the other hand, most days when I’m wearing a collar on the subway riding to work at the Episcopal Church Center on Second Avenue, absolutely nothing happens and no one notices me at all.
Last Friday morning was different.
People were noticing. Moreover, they weren’t just noticing, they were engaging me.
The first person to notice me was James.
“Excuse me, are you a Catholic priest?” he whispered to me as the subway lurched out of the station.
“No,” I finally answered, “I’m Episcopalian.”
“Ah,” he smiled as his English accent became noticeable, “I am a seminarian with the Blessed Sacrament Fathers.”
How funny, I thought, because I knew I was getting ready to preach a sermon today on the Feast of Corpus Christi.
James was dressed neatly in a white shirt and black pants. But he also looked like he’d been out all night.
No sooner did I think it then he confessed it.
“I had a little too much beer last night.” The train pulled into the station and he got off to hurry back to the rectory where he was staying.
“God bless you,” he said, and then asked me my name.
“Jake,” I answered. “And yours?”
Hmm. James, I thought. James, the brother of the Lord and training to be a priest in the order of the Blessed Sacrament fathers.
Coincidence, yes; but I was also beginning to let my imagination take over and to think sacramentally … that is: I was starting to look past outward appearances to inner meanings.
No sooner did James get off, than a young woman approached me.
Now often it’s the crazies who approach me on the subway to talk. They want to tell me about the end of the world and the coming one-world government ruled by the Antichrist.
But this woman clearly was not crazy.
She had been watching my conversation with James and apparently it gave her the courage to come up to me.
“Excuse me, are you a priest?” she asked.
Again, what good are explanations at a moment like this?
Should I tell her I was a deacon? Should I tell her that I was an Episcopalian? Both of which were true, but neither seemed at all relevant right then and there.
She was responding to an outward sign — my clerical collar — with her inward and spiritual need.
She asked if she could pray with me.
I told her, “Of course!”
Then I asked her what her name was.
“My name is Miriam,” she said. “That means Mary,” she added.
I knew that.
But still, here I was talking to Mary, like in Mary, the mother of God.
And Mary wanted me to pray with her.
Mary told me that she was facing lots of “stressors” in her life; that she was afraid that she was losing her way in life, and most poignantly, that she was afraid of losing her faith.
Here I was, minding my own business, and a woman comes up to me and tells me that she is afraid of losing her faith — something that is so essential to our inner life and that it’s hard to go for very long without it.
How’s that for bringing something inward and spiritual to the surface so that we can see it?
I put my hand on her shoulder and she and I prayed. I told her that she was loved and that she was not walking alone. I prayed and we asked God together not to let Mary lose heart.
Mary, our Lord’s mother, and the one who pondered many things in her heart.
We finished our prayer and I got off at 59th Street to change to the E train to continue my journey to Penn Station.
Transferring to the E at 59th Street is like walking a labyrinth.
You get off one train, do an about-face, walk to the center of the platform, walk up a flight of stairs to a mezzanine, turn left through a corridor, take an escalator ride up, walk down a corridor past the “Infinity Shoe Shine” and then take a long escalator ride down.
The escalator shaft is so long you cannot see the landing at the bottom.
The shaft is a tiled tube that goes down and down; and I as I was riding it, the sound of someone moaning and groaning was echoing and reverberating off it.
It was a racket; it was a din and it seemed to be coming from a child.
But it wasn’t a tantrum. This wasn’t a disobedient child in the throes of acting out. This was someone having a fit; perhaps due to some kind of mental disorder.
It was a disturbing sound — other riders on the escalator were commenting — and, as we descended, the moans and the cries became loud and shrill.
“How odd,” I thought. First, I meet James, then Mary and now it seems like I am descending into hell.
I reached the lower platform and the train came. I could no longer hear the moans.
As I stood on the subway heading downtown, I looked at the people around me.
I was still praying for Miriam. She may even have been praying for me then too.
For a moment I stepped into God’s eye. And I saw as he sees. There is a prayer that some priests pray after mass that goes:
“Blessed, Praised, Hallowed and Adored be our Lord Jesus Christ upon His Throne of Glory in Heaven, in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, and in the hearts of his faithful people.”
And then in that moment, right where the hearts of each of these people should be, I saw a small, round wafer.
A communion host.
Sometimes these hosts were in a small monstrance; that decorated stand that holds the consecrated bread.
Other times they were in a ciborium, which is the dish or cup that priests use to hold communion wafers.
Now you may say that I have an active imagination, and you’d be right. And I think that’s okay.
Imagination and the Christian faith go hand-in-hand.
Imagination can serve the faith well, provided one doesn’t become unhinged.
And the point of my vision of the little communion wafers — of the little Corpus Christis — on the hearts of all those subway riders was to remind me that God is active in outward and visible ways in this world.
Most especially, he is active in the people we meet every day.
When I first moved to New York three years ago, I was overwhelmed by the number of people.
I used to think as I looked at them all, “How can God keep track of them all?
“How can he care about all of their problems as much as he cares about all of mine?”
Moreover, I wondered, “How can God love so many people?”
And I have to confess, I even doubted that he could.
Last Friday morning, he answered my question.
When I saw those communion wafers emblazoned on the hearts of all the subway riders, I knew that I was in the real presence of Christ.
For a moment, in my mind’s eye, the subway was full of living tabernacles. Human beings made in the image of God.
Each person on that train: black, white, Asian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, Christian or of no faith at all; young and old, male and female, gay or straight — all of these outward labels and orientations no longer signified.
They fell apart.
Those old wineskins were bursting as the love of God radiated from one living tabernacle to the next.
If you’re like me, then you’ve fallen in love once or twice in your life.
If you’re like me, then you tend to adore whoever you’re in love with!
It’s an adoration that’s intense enough to see past any flaws and content to gaze only on perfection.
Of course that kind of adoration is hard to sustain.
And no woman (or man) can survive for very long on that kind of pedestal. It is, after all, a form of idolatry.
But that is not what is going on here.
In a moment or two we’ll take a consecrated wafer of bread, place it on the altar, and adore it.
And as we adore it, I want you to practice seeing it with a mystical eye.
The gateway to the mystery of God is your imagination, so use it.
You may see something right away, or you may not.
The sacraments can work like that. Sometimes they can affect you immediately.
Other times, it can take years before you start to notice what’s happening.
So suspend your disbelief for a moment or two. Let yourself “play along” with the idea that this bread and this wine have somehow become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
You see, God makes a good playmate. If you ask him, he will play along with you.
He’ll make you into his own outward and visible sign of grace.
He’ll send people into your lives with uncanny names and uncanny stories.
He’ll help you see things you never saw before, yet were always in plain sight.
Like the crucified, risen and victorious Lord in a thin wafer of bread, or in a sip of wine.
Have you been using your imagination lately? Got something to share with the Fellowship? Leave it below or send it my way: firstname.lastname@example.org.