The Rev. Canon John L. Peterson
In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit: The One God. Amen
From the Epistle: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before hand to be our way of life.”
From the Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …”
The Gospel and Epistle for today challenge us. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. God so loved the world, not just Washington or London, but the whole world: Gaza, Calcutta, Darfur, Soweto, Havana and Baghdad.
Today I would like us to reflect on this verse and how we understand God’s love in the world by asking you to join me in Jerusalem to do the Stations of the Cross. The Stations remind the Church of when Jesus, on Good Friday, carried his cross from the Place of Condemnation through the city streets of Jerusalem to Calvary/Golgotha, the site of His Crucifixion. One of the real gifts of going to Jerusalem is to pray the 14 Stations of the Cross. Every single day of the year, from dawn until dusk, pilgrims from around the world carry crosses through the marketplace in the Old City of Jerusalem. They remember the journey that our Lord took on that first Good Friday when Jesus was condemned to death by crucifixion and he was given a heavy cross beam to carry through the city streets of Jerusalem to Calvary/Golgotha.
By the time Jesus reaches the Sixth Station he has already fallen once under the weight of the cross, he has met his mother and the Roman soldiers have ordered a visitor named Simon of Cyrene, modern day Libya, to carry the cross for Jesus to Calvary Golgotha. By the time Jesus reaches the Sixth Station Jesus is exhausted, almost unable to keep going. At the Sixth Station, the Church remembers a woman named Veronica who comes out of her home to wipe the sweat, blood and dust from Jesus’ face.
Veronica, the word means “true icon” and the word “icon” means “image”. God sent his son Jesus in the exact image or icon of God’s own being: a “true icon”. Many of you will remember the story of Veronica. She comes out of her house when she sees Jesus approaching. Veronica takes her towel and wipes and cools the face of Jesus. Later she will discover an icon of Jesus’ face miraculously imprinted on her towel.
We, too, are created in the image of God. We, too, are created in the icon of God. Icons help us to live in the fullness of the image of God, to live in the radical discipleship of our Lord, in that perfect image of God. Even more importantly, we are called ourselves to be icons of God so that when others see us they will see right through us to God and to God’s love.
“For we are what God made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”
At the Sixth Station of the Cross in Jerusalem there is a convent run by the Little Sisters of Jesus. Every time I pray the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem the Sisters always welcome us into the atrium of their tiny chapel. It is a place of peace, it is a place of quiet just off the bustling streets of Jerusalem.
If you are absolutely down and out in Jerusalem, if you have absolutely no place else to go, you know that you can go to the Little Sisters of Jesus. For indeed their ministry is to support the poorest of the poor. To support their ministry, the Sisters write icons.
The Little Sisters of Jesus help us to understand the love that God has for this world by encouraging us to live out what it means to be the true image, a Veronica of God. The Little Sisters of Jesus help us to understand that God loves the poorest of the poor, the marginalized in society, those who are despised and rejected. Society does not love the poorest of the poor. The poorest are rejected. They are despised. They are ignored. But at this Sixth Station we are reminded that all people are created in the perfect image of God, in the perfect icon of God, and that we are called to be partners with the poorest of the poor. In her compassion Veronica sees through the horror and ugliness of the Passion to the beauty of Jesus. Veronica sees through God’s eyes to recognize love and beauty when it is so much easier to see only ugliness and squalor. Veronica helps us to understand that God loves all of God’s beings by revealing his perfect nature in the person of Jesus.
The questions we have to ask ourselves this Lent are: How well are we visible to others as an icon of God? How well are we seeing others in the true image of God?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …”
This familiar verse from John 3:16 that we all learned in Sunday School came alive for me one day in 1997 when I visited the city garbage dump in Recife, Brazil. What I was going to see, and what I was going to experience, put me in touch with the reality of who God is: that God so loves the world.
That morning I had attended the consecration of the new Bishop in Recife, but let me assure you the consecration did not prepare me for what I was going to see that afternoon when I visited the city garbage dump.
Following the service I was taken to a garbage dump that was one mile square where literally hundreds of people live and sleep. I have never seen anything like it in my life. The conditions of this garbage dump can only be described as “non-human”. There were rats, dogs and filth, as people dug through the garbage to find something to eat or something to sell. But in this garbage dump the Episcopal Church of Brazil has a church. Simea is the priest. As the priest, she not only ministers sacramentally to the people, but she is also an advocate for them.
When we arrived at the garbage pit we were warmly welcomed into a home that had been made of scraps found in the garbage. The home was a single room which is no more than 10 x 10 where eight people (believe it or not) live and sleep. Most of the young boys and girls who live there, because of their poverty, are victims of the drug pushers. But we were told that the Church was a threat to the drug pushers, because the Church was there to help break the vicious cycle of poverty, and therefore the young people were much more likely to get off and stay off the crack.
The stories I was told were unbelievable. What these children have to face every single day is incredible. But out of this poverty I was given a gift made out of the garbage that the boys and girls had found. They gave me this cross. In the midst of hunger and an incredible loss of human dignity the boys and girls made me this cross from the scraps of paper they found in the garbage dump. A cross which symbolized for them hope. A cross which symbolized for them life. A cross which symbolized for them God’s love. When I receive their gift, I cried. The only thing I could say to them was simply, “today I have seen the face of Jesus in you.” Indeed in the garbage pit in Recife, I saw the face of Jesus in those young boys, I saw the face of Jesus in those young girls. I saw the face of Jesus made out of scrap paper in the form of a cross. No greater tangible gift have I ever received. I saw through these young boys and girls, the perfect image of God. I knew at that moment what it meant for God to love the world so much that he gave his only Son. In that garbage dump Jesus looked like the children of Recife. Not just exhausted and sweaty, but bloody, hopeless to look at, condemned. God loved the world so much that God would enter into the garbage dump in the same way as Jesus carried his cross through the city streets of Jerusalem.
When one sees the children in the garbage dump we are reminded of Veronica, coming out of her home to wash the face of Jesus. This Lent we have to ask ourselves, are we Veronicas, do we behave like Veronica, seeing with God’s eyes love and beauty, where we may only see ugliness and squalor?
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …”
The children and Simea in the garbage dump in Brazil. Veronica at the Sixth Station wiping the blood, sweat and dust from the face of Jesus. Both are icons of God’s love, transcending ugliness and poverty to illuminate the love and beauty of Jesus.
Where are we in these pictures? In Washington, this day and this Lent, how do we see through the ‘blood sweat and dust’ with God’s loving eyes, when it is so much easier to see only ugliness and squalor. As we look upon the faces of our brothers and sisters in the world, might we see them through God’s eyes and know them as we are known.
“For God so loved the world …”
“When I received the children’s gift, I cried. The only thing I could say to them was: “today I have seen the face of Jesus in you.”
In the name of God. Amen.