Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div.,Ph.D. firstname.lastname@example.org
Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community
John O’Donohue in Divine Beauty (2003) on True Community:
“As in the rainforest where a dazzling diversity of life-forms complement and sustain each other, there is secret oxygen with which we unknowingly sustain one another. True community is not produced; it is invoked and awakened. True community is an ideal where the full identities of awakened and realized individuals challenge and complement each other”
We find ourselves, again, in Ordinary Time, the time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. Like the counting and certification of the Electoral College vote this time is most often noted as an unnoticed passage of time, the doing, through ritual, of a function which is fashioned to move from one marker to the next. It’s Ordinary Time, that in-between time, unremarkable and invisible – just doing what’s called for.
But not, as with the counting of the Electoral College ballots, not this year. This year we might just gain new insight on what occurs in in-between time and in-between space, that is, the time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday and the space between my separated and isolated self and the community with which I want to be physically connected. It’s this connection in space that has become so crucial this year. And I mean crucial in its literal sense, in that this separation is the presence of the cross in our lives. This in-between space is what the philosopher and spiritual guide, John O’Donohue calls invisible territory.
So, in light of this invisible, intangible space I would like to take a look at just what is occurring in this passage from the Gospel of John (1:35-42). Some may read this Gospel as a construction of leadership. The big names are here – John the Baptist, and his cousin, Jesus, Andrew and Peter are headliners, too. From this superficial read, this surface view, many preachers launch into the leadership features of the gathering around Jesus that would become a global institution. How about, instead of leadership we consider belonging? Just what is it that Jesus invites these soon to be former disciples of John to “Come & See?” What they see is Jesus who welcomes them to become members of his travelling band of itinerants. And in not too long a time they are joined by others, particularly women, Mary of Magdala among them, who would stand by Jesus to what they thought was the end on that death-dealing Friday afternoon just before Passover on an execution hill outside the walls of Jerusalem.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s not even Ash Wednesday yet. Here in this Gospel passage we start at the beginning. The community forms, and increasingly, new people become members. They all belong. And in between their physical selves they experience what O’Donohue calls “invisible territory.” Theirs is, a la O’Donohue, a “web of belonging.”
(Inserted here were the three pictures on p.1 of the Order of Service which can be found under the Homilies/Services tab for 2021, January 17)
At this point I would like to explain the pictures above.. In preparing for what I would say this morning I was taken by O’Donohue’s thoughts about the invisible territory of betweenness. When I went looking for a visual representation of betweenness, as often happens on Google, something that seemed completely different appeared. It’s the graph of “Betweenness Centrality” – the picture on the left. It seems that social scientists have very exotic formulas using complex mathematical symbols to attempt to describe influence between social actors. This circular plot graph is, I guess, one way these social scientists describe it. That’s right, if we had the benefit of their science 2000 years ago we could plot the influencer Jesus and the strength of the betweenness of him to Andrew and Peter, as well as his cousin, John.
Here’s, maybe, a more obvious example of betweenness, or better, its lack. One guilty pleasure that Jean and I enjoy these days is to find a local restaurant that is open at 3-4 o’clock in the afternoon (figuring they may not be too busy). We’ve done a fair amount of private dining in restaurants at that time of day. We go to places that have a policy of masks for staff and limited capacity.
We went to one such place in Burlington last week. Only thing is you place your food order at the end of the bar by the cash register and the food is brought to your table. As I approached, a woman was standing immediately next to where I had to place the order. I will be completely non-PC, showing all of my 73 years, and say she appeared to be a little old lady just calmly standing there. However, she was not masked!
I scooted by her up to place my order. While I waited for Staff to take the order I looked over to her and said, “Excuse me, but would you please keep a social distance.” To which she replied, “Oh, that’s not important.” A little fallen back from her inconsiderateness, I got as far away from her as I could and placed the order. As I walked away she said to me, “A healthy person doesn’t have to worry.” So—- my first reaction is unmentionable in this holy assembly. I did almost say out loud, “How incredibly stupid is that!” What I did say out loud was, “But I don’t know whether you are healthy or not.” What a loss of betweenness we are experiencing these days.
The picture on the right above is a spider web. I realize that’s a picture that scares some people and I apologize. The thought of being caught and stuck with the spider bearing down is probably better as the plot of one of those Disney cartoons that are billed as children’s stories but are actually based in tragedy, like Dumbo the baby elephant losing his Mother. But, I digress.
O’Donohue uses this image to deepen our awareness of the invisible territory of community. The image is the web of belonging. If you see what Jesus is doing in his invitation to, “Come and See” as forming community more than picking leaders, then you likely appreciate the Spirit-force of belonging to one another.
Apparently, some of those first followers of Jesus formed communities with people they knew. Last Sunday we heard about Cornelius’ household all being baptized together. In Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians he starts with a reference to Chloe’s household. We truly have inherited an ancient relationship in this web of belonging.
So, here’s one more current example. Who, among us will ever again take for granted assembling physically together and celebrating our belonging by simply singing? All of us, I’d bet, now know what the musicians have known all along. If you ever did not realize it as a palpable as well as a spiritual reality, surely now you know that singing’s bond of betweenness is made up of both the blend of voices and the web that forms the stuff of community. The connection of betweenness and the comfort of belonging is that invisible, intangible territory that is a fundamental, essential condition of community.
Today, Jesus invites us to “Come and See.” So until we can do so physically we inhabit the territory of Zoom. In O’Donohue’s words we try our best to sustain this “web of betweenness” where true community is invoked and awakened. And we pray for that day when we, reluctant Zoomers though we may be, will “Come and See” community physically assembled. And there you have the reason for the picture in the middle.
A Prayer (JR)
Uncreated Word and Holy Messiah,
not born an angel, but walked the common earth:
With those you called by the lakeside
may we share your mission to bring Good News to all,
to let the world know that God is among us,
Now and evermore. Amen.