By The Rev. Sherry Deets
26 Pentecost, Proper 28 – November 17, 2013
The Temple, that most Jewish of places, the place where God touched the earth and held it still and safe. The Temple was stunning. The Temple was huge. The Temple was overwhelming, as befits the building that honors the God who alone is God.
And the Temple was beautiful because Herod, that Roman stooge who styled himself as King of the Jews, had spent massive amounts of money making it beautiful. Herod, that vicious and brutal tyrant known as much for his private slaughter of his family members as for his acts of public largesse, had built up the Temple so that it would rival pagan temples built up by rival rulers.
Jesus’ words, therefore, about the leveling of the Temple, not one stone on another, would have had a double bite. On the one hand, that leveling (even at the hands of Rome) would remove the Herodian blot from the holy city. On the other hand, the Temple was the Temple, and not even Herod’s pagan corruption could change that.
And Jesus goes on to talk about awful things, false prophets, wars, famines, etc. This is scary stuff. So what is at the heart of Jesus’ message here?
Perhaps Jesus is pointing out that things are not always as they appear. Perhaps Jesus is saying that no matter how difficult life seems to be, endurance, hope, belief in the resurrection is what matters. That is what is everlasting. But how do we get past appearances? How do we see that even if a wondrous Temple is destroyed, the heart still lives on? How do we go deeper, how do we go beyond and deeper to see what is real, what is of God, in our daily lives?
In his book, Rumors of Another World, Philip Yancey explores vocabulary of vision in an unusual direction: through The Elephant Man. This man, possibly the ugliest human being who has ever lived, suffered from neurofibromatosis. The disease had turned him into such a grotesque spectacle that at the age of four, his mother abandoned him. A London surgeon who visited the carnival that showcased the Elephant Man, described in clinical detail what his eyes beheld:
A bony mass protruded from his brow; spongy skin, with a fissured surface resembling brown cauliflower hanging in folds from his back; a huge, misshapen head the circumference of a man’s waist; the mouth a distorted, slobbering aperture; the nose a dangling lump of skin . . . his right arm was overgrown to twice its normal size, its fingers stubby and useless. Flaps of skin in the shape of a paddle descended from one armpit . . .
The same surgeon, hearing unintelligible splutters from his mouth judged him to be an imbecile. At the end of his interview, the surgeon gave the man his business card and left the room. Two years later authorities in Belgium finally closed the carnival for good; and the Elephant Man was shipped back to London. The man’s only ray of hope: he had kept the card from the surgeon in his pocket the entire two years.
Contacting the surgeon, the Elephant Man was allowed to live in the hospital where the surgeon practiced. Bringing lunch to this newcomer the first day, the nurse unprepared for such a sight, screamed, dropped the tray and fled from the room. Yet over time, the hospital staff got accustomed to this unusual resident.
Eventually the surgeon began to understand this man’s speech. The astonished doctor discovered that the Elephant Man was far from an imbecile, for he was literate and a voracious reader. He had studied the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, and knew Jane Austen and Shakespeare.
In the final two years of his life, the surgeon and his patient became true friends and slowly the Elephant Man began to come out of his shell, meekly wondering if he might be allowed to enter an asylum for the blind. He longed to live among people who wouldn’t scream in horror at his appearance.
The man also spoke adoringly of women—even though every woman had treated him as an object of loathing. One day the surgeon persuaded a friend of his, a young woman, to enter The Elephant Man’s room with a smile and to wish him good morning and to shake his hand. The man bent his head on his knees and sobbed. As he later said, “this was the first woman who had ever smiled at me and the first woman in my whole life that shook my hand.”
He grew into a new transformation—from object of horror to a human being with dignity. “He showed himself to be a gentle, affectionate, and loving creature,” the surgeon wrote in his journal. With each new experience the patient responded in childlike wonder. “I am happy every hour of the day.” Using only his left hand—the only functional one—the Elephant Man constructed models of buildings, gluing together carefully chosen pieces of colored paper and cardboard.
Peering out his window in the attic the patient watched in amazement as a new hospital was being constructed. He soon made an exquisite model of a cathedral by fitting into place, piece by piece, a cardboard replica of each tiny stone and tile. “This,” he said, “is an imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud.”
After four years of the only happiness he’d ever known, the Elephant Man—now known as John Merrick—died; his huge head fell on his pillow during the night and crushed his vertebrae and neck. The Elephant Man was no longer and had long since passed; but John Merrick was the man who had become the gentle, artful human being hidden behind grotesque shapes and strange deformities.
The story of John Merrick reminds me of our lesson in Isaiah 65—it is a passage that is aware of two ways of looking, of viewing our world. Too often our media follows an Elephant Man, Jonathan Schell trajectory; a horrible vision that views a civilization that will ultimately blow itself up in global and nuclear conflagration. In his book, The Fate of the Earth, Schell marshals his evidence of nuclear stockpiles, weapons of mass destruction, and then adds in our potential to do evil. The resulting vision is clear: total death and destruction. To live on that kind of diet, is to have a bleak vision filled with futility and despair.
When we’re glued to the terra firma, and stuck in the Now—the grotesque shapes of terrorism, the runaway costs of living, unchecked crime in our neighborhoods, or pollution on a global scale, we too often see only mud. But the vocabulary of faith, Jesus’ opens our vision to see purpose beyond chaos, joy beyond sorrow, life beyond death, and God beyond all the muck. Faith allows us to claim with the prophet Isaiah that God is at work creating new heavens and a new earth. Our vision sees grace flying up and up from the mud. Jesus is telling us to endure, to hope, to see beyond the illusion.
God’s vision continues to build a new heaven and earth through the Son, Jesus Christ. As one commentator says, “What God is up to is nothing less than making a new heaven and a new earth. This is not high-flying rhetoric, but a genuine description of what God accomplished in Jesus Christ.”
If we’re tempted to equate God’s vision of a new heaven and new earth with abandonment, the fact is, Christians don’t jump ship—the world is going to hell in a handbasket, so I’m just going to abandon my involvement on this old world. God’s vision does not require us to unplug and walk away from the mud. Rather the opposite – we work in our world and in the relationships of our daily lives as if the Reign of God is already shaping that new heaven and earth. Our hands, our words, our efforts and energy, our financial investments to further God’s purpose for the world become, in God’s creative hands, the tools God uses to create new things in the world.
But our sustaining vision frees our faith to look beyond the images that seek to counter God’s great vision of health, healing, wholeness, peace, love, and restoration in this world. Things are not always as they seem. Some may see the Elephant Man in all its grotesqueness and jarring spectacle. But the vision that sees higher and beyond the material sees instead of a carnival attraction of hideous shape, a gifted artist, who with but one hand could fashion beauty and art from ordinary mud.
Such is our upward call—to shape beauty from the very mud that we are. Jesus said, “..not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Amen.
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