“The Seen and the Unseen”
April 6, 2014
Over at the Duane Banks Baseball Field,
the infield is already green, while the outfield struggles to lose its brown
My friend Craig writes that his yard turned
emerald while he was at work on Thursday. In my own backyard the grass is
slowly turning green after getting some help from fertilizer this past week.
The parking on the Jefferson St. side of
our building, however, still seems uncommitted. In recent days it has been
frozen, thawing, muddy, and the patches of grass wait to show any sign of
That’s somewhat like most of us, I
think. Still emerging from our rough winter, slowly thawing, cautiously letting
ourselves hope for warmer weather.
This year during Lent I’ve let the
changes of the seasons inform my sermons. I’ve encouraged us to look at what
that gradual change from freezing to thawing to muddy to sprouting might tell
us about God’s love toward and mercy for us. The name Lent, as you know, comes
from a word that means “to lengthen.” This is a sacred season that takes its
cues from the natural world as the creation tells us about the Creator.
On this fifth Sunday in Lent we’ve come
far enough that we can turn our attention to the grass beneath our feet, no
longer buried by the snow. The grass speaks of the slow transformations all
around us, of the slow transformations in our own lives. The hymn tells us that
we are “changed from glory into glory”—but that’s taking some time, isn’t it?
Still the endurance of grass through the cold of winter, its slow greening
brings joy and hope to our lives.
And yet, just as the ball parks and the
city parks and our own yards begin to change, we hear those words from Isaiah
quoted in the First Letter of Peter: “All flesh is like grass and all its glory
like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls.” The author
of I Peter didn’t include what follows, but Isaiah is quite explicit: “The
grass withers, and the flower falls…sure the people are grass.”
We are once again confronted with the
Lenten message of our finitude, our mortality. The grass proclaims the message
of Isaiah that is, as one person put it, “a discouraging word.”
In a way, there’s nothing new here, nothing that should surprise us.
Having been through any number of springs, we know that the hope and promise of
spring fades. “Nature’s first green is gold,” Robert Frost told us, “Its
hardest hue to hold.”
Then leaf subsides to leaf
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Certainly Robert Frost can almost always provide as discouraging a word
as Isaiah. But if we discover both hope and despair in the blades of grass now
turning green, there is something greater than spring in what is not seen.
Under the ground are the roots. Under the ground are the tendrils that
provide water and nutrients, that turn brown blades green, that bring life out
of death. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery told us, “What is essential is invisible
to the eye.”
The grass withers,
the flower fades, but we do not loose heart, Paul says, because we look not at
what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. Yes, Paul no doubt had in mind the
spiritual realm of the eternal. But those words encourage us always to look
deeper, look longer. To look through what can be seen until we encounter what
cannot be seen. We might even take the advice of Paul Tillich to look at nature
in quietness and there find its heart. It will show forth the glory of the
divine ground, he tells us. It will show us the indestructible hope of
grass, hidden in our own hearts, sensed in the invisible connections we have
with one another are the roots that sustain and nourish us. In faith we even
speak of the “communion of the saints,” reminding us that even death itself
cannot separate us from the support and encouragement of other people. The
unseen roots go deep and bring life.
I often read those words of Paul to the
Corinthians at funerals. They are a strong and beautiful expression of the
Christian hope. They point us beyond what we can see, what we can touch.
He asks us to set our gaze beyond what
can be seen and look at what cannot be seen. He asks us to look beyond the
temporary and consider the eternal.
If we look at what cannot be seen, we discover in the spring that there
is something going on in our world that is greater than the greening of our
yard and ball parks.
In the first paragraph of his
foundational work, The Institutes of the
Christian Religion, Calvin famously writes: “Nearly all the wisdom we
possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the
knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
These two types of knowledge are joined
together in many ways. That is to say, the more we know of ourselves, the more
we know of God. And as our knowledge of God develops, we come to know ourselves
better as well. When we know our own finitude, we come to better recognize the
depth and breadth of wisdom and goodness and love that are found in God. In the
same way, as we grow even in our limited, human knowledge of God, we begin to
better understand who we are as human beings—finite and fallible, yes, but also
created with an ability to create, with the freedom to choose, with the need to
One of the things we know about
ourselves as human beings is that we will die. Indeed, it’s said that human
beings are the only creatures who know that they will die. And such knowledge
has an ambiguous nature to it. On the one hand, the awareness of our mortality
can be a cause of great anxiety. At the same time, an existence that went on
endlessly, in time would seem to be senseless and pointless. Our existence has
meaning and our actions have urgency because one day we will die—and we know
that. We are finite.
As we know ourselves as finite, we come
to a deeper knowledge of God as the infinite, the Eternal One. This infinite
God whom we come to know in Jesus is the loving and merciful creator of
humankind who willingly gives God’s very self for our sake. To have faith in
such a God is to affirm that while we cannot know the shape of our eternal
destiny in any detailed manner, in life and in death, our future is in God’s
loving care. We have no special knowledge, no secret wisdom about life beyond
the grave. That is beyond all human knowledge, experience, and power.
Still, we can entrust ourselves at all
times to the God who created us and gives us life.
In our living and in our dying, we are
held in God’s care.
Next Sunday we will turn from
considering the weather and the changing seasons to remembering those events
long ago that continue to be at the heart of our own lives: Jesus’ entry into
Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the meal shared with his disciples and still with us
on Maundy Thursday, the betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion on Good Friday. All
of this leading to our celebration of the resurrection on Easter two weeks from
this morning. At the heart of all of this is the good news of God’s love that
is stronger than death. The word of God which begins the new creation in Jesus
Christ stands forever as the word that roots us and gives us life.
We’ve been through these spring days many times now as adults who know
the weariness, the pain, the profound loneliness, the confusion, and the fear
of living. But as one person put it: “In the midst of our desolation, we find
the risen Christ, triumphant over death and still shockingly alive, present to
us in ways we cannot understand much less explain. In Christ we find vibrancy
of life and a firm compassion that does not deny our suffering but transforms
and illumines it.”
So let us continue in the days ahead to
look at nature for what it might tell us of God’s great mercy even as we look with
hope toward what cannot be seen.
 Paul Tillich,
“Nature, Also, Mourns for a Lost Good,” The
Shaking of the Foundations, pgs. 79-80. Original quote: “Listen to nature
in quietness, and you will find its heart. It will sound forth the glory of the
divine ground. It will speak of the indestructible hope of salvation!”