At one corner of my desk, downstairs in my study, I keep a most-prized possession—this three-paneled icon written in burgundy and gold: an “authentic copy,” the certificate reads: in other words, a “genuine imitation” of a Byzantine altar piece. In the middle panel is the Virgin Mary, Mother of our Lord, cheek to holy cheek with the Christ-child and both of them looking peaceful, serene, and perhaps because in either side panel the archangels Michael and Gabriel stand guard, Michael with a sword and Gabriel with… something I cannot quite make it out. It does not look like a weapon, but I would not care to test him and find out otherwise.
I look at that icon on my desk every day, and when I do I remember that somewhere, in one of the many Greek Orthodox churches around the world, hanging above that church’s Altar is the real thing, from which my genuine imitation is authentically copied. I know, too, that at that church, whenever it is time for worship, the icon is reverently unfolded, unshuttered, if you please, as if to open a window between earth and heaven—to let the prayers of those worshipers out, to let heaven itself look in and keep vigil over those faithful prayers.
An icon is just a picture, really, but with a purpose. You have seen Sunday School classes where, on the wall, there is a picture of Jesus, or a cross. Maybe you have been to churches, or hospitals, where in each room is hung a crucifix. The picture or cross hangs there to mark the room as holy space, and to call you back to the moment should your mind wander. The picture itself, somehow, reminds you of why you are there.
Indeed, believers have long believed that by pondering pictures of Jesus we are drawn closer to him somehow, and he to us. By filling our mind more and more with images of Christ, we find ourselves more and more filled up with Christ’s presence and purpose and, I think, his peace.
Thank God for all the various pictures of our Lord—on the wall, on the desk; thank God for the Bible, too, which gives us so many pictures, so many stories, to help us focus our thinking, to aid our understanding, to quicken our prayers.
Today’s gospel lesson is such a story, such a picture. Considering what we see here, praying what we find, may give voice to many of our most urgent confessions and hopes, may help us pray our best prayers.
You remember, don’t you? One day Jesus is standing by the lake of Genessaret—the Sea of Galilee—and a crowd gathers around him, the folks at the back pushing to get closer so they can hear and the folk at the front crowding Jesus so that he is about to fall in the lake. He sees two boats, there in the shallows, empty, because the fishermen had left the boats, were already washing their nets…ding, ding, ding—washing their nets: they have already given-up, have quit fishing, have called it a day.
Jesus gets into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and he asks Simon to put out a little way from shore. Jesus sat down in the boat, partly because that is what you do, usually, when you are on a boat. But sitting is also a rabbi’s customary posture for teaching. Jesus teaches, from the boat—what, we don’t know, but soon, he is finished. He turns to Simon and says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
“Master,” Peter says, and note that well: “Master.” Not rabbi, nor teacher. Not Lord, not yet. Just Master. A master is someone you obey, and so Simon obeys, but not without objection: “Master, we fished all night and we caught nothing… “
Of course they caught nothing! They never catch anything! In spite of the fact that at least four of Jesus’ disciples are professional fishermen, there is not a single instance in all the gospels, nary a one, when they ever catch even a single fish—unless Jesus is there, in the boat, on the shore, directing them, helping them.
“Master, we fished all night and we caught nothing, yet if you say so I will let down the nets.“ He obeys and now there are so many fish in the nets he cannot haul them in, so many fish in the nets that he has to call his friends, has to call the other boat—so many fish that the nets are breaking and both boats are sinking…
Simon falls at Jesus’ knees and pleads with him, “Go away from me, Lord”—not Master this time, but Lord—“for I am a sinful man.” Jesus does go away—but not without Simon and the others, too: “Do not be afraid: from now on you will be catching people,” Jesus said, and when the boats had gotten back to shore, Simon and James and John left everything—their boats, their nets, all those fish, too, I guess, and how long had they been hoping for such a catch as that…but they left it there, lying there on the sand, with the rest of their stuff, and off they go. For if a Master is one you must obey, the Lord is one you have follow. He is the Big One you can’t let get away.
Maybe you know what it feels like to be give-out and still empty. Just washing your nets with what little strength you have left. You have worked so hard and have so little to show for it. And who would not hope and pray that after the long night of our futility and failure, if we are just obedient, obedient enough in little things, Jesus will reward us in abundance, so much abundance that we will need help getting it all in the bank.
Yes, we know we are sinners, but we do not want to be afraid anymore. We know we are weak, but we want him to be strong. Strong, for us, when we have no strength left. If he is the Lord of all things, will he not steer us past the superficialities of this word to deeper things, tell us where to drop our nets, and give us far more abundantly than we know how to ask or receive? Who would not pray that God is able and ready to lavish on us all we might want or need: victory, prosperity, health, answers, glory?
A Theology of Glory—that is what frames this picture from Luke and that is what many of us pray for most, for ourselves and our friends: glory, prosperity, healing, victory in Jesus. That is why churches like ours put an empty cross on the wall: to show that Jesus has overcome death and the grave. And that is what we pray for ourselves, that we will also overcome…
But what about when we are overcome? When there is no prosperity, or glory, or victory?
Have any of you ever heard of St. Bernard? Not the dog… St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who died 850 years ago, now, thereabouts. I have been thinking of him this week. Bernard was a monk, a person of deep prayer and faith, and when others came to him, asking him to teach them how to pray, he would sometimes tell them to get in their mind a picture of Jesus’ wounds—the nail prints in his hands and his side. He believed that meditating on the wounds in Jesus’ hands and feet could give believers a deep picture of Jesus’ love and mercy, that if one pondered the wound in Jesus side, the very heart of Jesus would become visible, his Sacred Heart, the very love of God.
Take any of that how you will, but the phrase is fetching, at least, to me: “meditating on the wounds of Jesus.” This week I have been doing that—but I have been thinking not so much of Jesus’ physical body, but of his Body, the Church. I have been meditating on the wounds I have seen just this week in Christ’s church.
I am thinking of the woman who has been married to her husband for three decades, and both of them Christians, active in church, anyway. She confided to me this week that she does not talk to her husband anymore because she is afraid he will get mad, and when he is mad she fears for her life. She is deathly afraid of her Christian husband.
I am thinking about a congregation I know where on Thursday of this week 28 people met secretly, and they tried to recruit others, in an effort to oust the pastor. They are losing power—the church is no longer looks or sounds like it used to, and they are terrified. So they are lying, gossiping, doing all sorts of evil—for “the good of the church,” they say, but how can evil ever serve the good?
I am thinking of good friends, here and other places, whose loved ones are sick, or sick again, dying—and there may be no victory, no healing, at least not the kind they have hoped and prayed for anyway—at the Last, yes, we believe, but for now it is grief and anger and questions and helplessness.
I am considering the wounds to Christ’s Body, the Church, and many more than this, of course—hypocrisy, judgmentalism, partisanship, apathy—and maybe you too have been wounded by some wound in the Body of Christ, and how are we to pray in such situations?
Maybe Bernard would tell us to look again at Jesus’ heart…broken and ever-breaking for love of his stained and struggling Bride. Maybe he would tell us to come to this Table in the confession that we too are broken, all of us, but in the knowledge that here, He, too, is broken, for us. In the cup is his blood, his heart, the depth of his love.
He is wounded with our transgressions; and we too are wounded, by our own sins and the sins of others; but perhaps as we give our wounds to him, here we find that by stripes we are healed: he gives his wounds also to us, and here, we find healing.
In his novel, The Blood of the Lamb, Peter deVries tells of a man, a single father, who loses his 12-year old daughter to leukemia. After her death he says this:
“How I hate this world. I would like to tear it apart with my own two hands if I could. I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a trefful of rotten fruit. (I am) inconsolable, thanks to that eternal "Why?" when there is not Why, that question mark twisted like a fishhook into (my) heart."
But then the man’s bitterness gives way to something else, and the book ends this way…
“Time heals nothing, which should make us the better able to minister (to each other)> Blessed are they that comfort, for they too have mourned...the throb of compassion rather than the breath of consolation: the recognition of how long, how long is the mourners' bench on which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship, all of us brief links, ourselves, in the eternal pity."
Strength. Abundance. Victory. Those are pictures to ponder and pray, but not the only ones worth our attentions and hopes.
The Church, and we ourselves, broken but joined in compassion. Mercy. Comfort. Friendship—all of us both wounded, and healers; just like Christ our Lord, who invites to his Table all who love him…