Sermon and Worship Service Archive

The Face of the Living God

Guest Preacher
November 10, 2019

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Trinity Church Boston

November 10, 2019

The Rev. Austin Rios

“The face of the living God”

 

Trinity Church Boston and St. Paul’s Within the Walls Rome are separated by 4000 miles of churning seas.

 

And yet, this week I made passage between these two storied cities with relative ease, climbing aboard a flight and rising to a height where the turbulent waves below smoothed to blue glass reminiscent of La Farge’s work[1] in the back of this celebrated church. 

 

I came to Boston to see my friends, one of whom is your Rector Morgan Allen, for our yearly face-to-face gathering where we speak plainly about matters of faith and matters of the heart. 

 

We’ve been meeting like this for 14 years, and this accountability group allows us to honestly wrestle with the theology of our lives, while also serving as a tangible reminder that each of us is Known and Loved by the living God.

 

Such is the promise and power of seeing each other face to face.

 

St. Paul’s Within the Walls is a world away from Boston, and yet the bonds of affection and action that rise out of these congregations’ common pursuit of a living and meaningful faith link us together, just as surely as our buildings are linked by common works of Edward Burne-Jones and our liturgies cohere through the Book of Common Prayer.

 

St. Paul’s apse is filled with mosaics designed by Burne-Jones[2], with Jesus prominently seated on the throne at the end of the age, facing all those who enter the sacred space and reminding them, in the words of our patron saint, that when the complete comes, “we shall see face to face[3].”

 

Each time I look upon that mosaic face of Christ, I am reminded how our entire Christian understanding of what it means to love and to be loved is inseparably linked to the kind of knowing and being known that comes from looking into the incarnate face of God and being transformed as a result.

 

Ours is a faith that sinks when left to the churning waters of an empty legalism detached from the face of the living God.

 

We are a people called to look for resurrection in the faces of those who are near and in those who are far away, with a profound trust that the God who knows and loves us is most clearly manifest in those faces. 

 

Today’s Gospel scene explores the difference between a faceless and disembodied kind of theology, a dead version of faith, and a living hope in the resurrection that arises from incarnation in all its glory and messiness[4].

 

We see the Sadducees beginning with the premise that there is no resurrection, and then looking for ways to justify their point of view. 

 

Jesus engages with them only long enough to say that such argumentation is useless, and he urges all who are listening to believe and act upon the reality that God is not God of the dead but God of the living. 

 

Not only is the substance of their argument based in misguided conceptions of this woman as property, but the whole trajectory of their case begins and ends with death.

 

The first brother died, the second died, all seven die, and the woman eventually dies. 

 

If this were just idle banter, maybe Jesus would have let it slide.

 

However, the reality is that theologians who prefer to spend more time sorting out property issues after death, instead of engaging the living children of God who struggle and suffer in the here and now, betray an infidelity to the living God of whom Jesus speaks.

 

Sadly, such theologies and their shortcomings are not confined to history, but animate our current decision making and orientation as a church and world even today.

 

While the enthroned Christ in St. Paul’s apse confronts worshipers and visitors who enter our sanctuary, the face of the living God is manifest daily in the guests of the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center who come to our doors seeking signs of resurrection and hope.

 

By boats tossed about on the Mediterranean, and after long, perilous journeys overland, these children of God arrive in Rome at our center well acquainted with rejection and despair.

 

So many of them have faced inconceivable violence and rampant death in their home countries, propelled by unstable governments that would rather litigate religious or cultural purity doctrines than care for their people.

 

They are no faceless horde seeking to leave their families and languages and cultures to undermine Western society, but rather children of the living God with individual stories and hardships that we, as a church, are called to serve in a foreign land.

 

And yet many never make it to us, dying like little Alan Kurdi in that haunting photo on the beach, with their faces forgotten and buried in the sand on the edges of the sea.

 

Even though the JNRC is a multi-religious space filled with volunteers of many faiths, St. Paul’s Within the Walls opened and continues to nurture the center primarily because we believe that the face of Christ in the apse, and in all our glorious artistic renderings, only has life, power and meaning when it is connected to the living faces of God’s children.

 

We believe that approaching the mystery of God’s unfathomable love for us, which St. Paul sought to share with the Corinthians, the Romans and all who would listen to him—is best done by reaching forth our hands in love and seeking to manifest that love with others, especially those who are vulnerable, abused, and discounted.

 

So, we meet the living God face to face each day as we teach Italian classes, engage in therapeutic counseling, work on resumes and interview training, serve a nutritional breakfast, or help our brothers and sisters to be clothed with dignity.

 

And when we look into the face of the one seated on the throne, and offer our prayers and praises each Sunday, we more readily recognize the connections between word and sacrament, between our proclaimed theology and the living witness of our actions.

 

It turns out, the more incarnate our faith becomes, and the more willing we are to acknowledge our common standing as beloved children of God, the harder it is to engage in empty arguments and idolize dead theologies that deliberately drive wedges between us to our collective detriment.

 

The more we seek out the real and authentic face of the living God in each other and in our neighbors, and build up bonds of affection that lead to collective action, the more WE receive God’s love and understand what it means to be known fully even in the midst of our most haunting vulnerabilities.

 

Imagine a world where the false Gods of pettiness and proof-texting, and the discord and destruction that arise from them, give way to an incarnate assurance of eternal connection that we get to experience now as a foretaste of things to come.

 

You know what this feels like on some level, because you know the joy that comes from turning toward a loved one, and choosing to invest in your marriage or your friendships rather than seeking out a way to simply prove that you are always right.

 

You know the joy of being welcomed instead of rejected, and the overflowing richness of thanksgiving that comes from giving so that others can know God’s love and experience abundance of life.

 

Such windows of knowing issue from the face of the living God, which is bound to the face of the person seated next to you today,

 

the face of the person you will encounter as you make your way home today,

 

the face of the person with whom you disagree,

 

the face of the person at your office who is hurting and who responds by hurting others,

 

the face of your best friend who reminds you that the Gospel is authentic and alive,

 

the face of your brothers and sisters who worship and serve in Rome,

 

the face of refugees who walk lonely roads but whose home is always and forever in God.

 

Our world is dying to be transformed from a host of disjointed tribes content to bicker over disembodied issues, to one linked to the living God through love and common service.

 

My guess is that Trinity Church has the capacity to be a world leader in such a transformation, and I implore you to seize your opportunity to do so.

 

When you walk out those doors, look up at the face of Christ in Majesty, and be on watch for the face of the living God as you go forth into the world.

 

Then one day, when the complete comes, and the dim mirrors that distort our vision give way to the face to face reality of the resurrection, we may finally see each other as God sees us—through the eyes of Christ—fully known, fully loved, and fully alive[†].   

 

  

  

 

 

 

 

[†] For more information about the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center: https://jnrc.it

  For more information on St. Paul’s Within the Walls: https://www.stpaulsrome.it.