The Story in our Windows, Part III
June 25, 2017 Matthew 13:24-30 & 2 Timothy 3:14-17
This is the third and final sermon in the series on our building’s stained glass windows. I confess that this series has been a challenge for me, because I am much more comfortable with words than images. And there are only five words in our windows—and three of them are Latin!
I’ve saved the windows on the south and west walls for last. This morning I’ll start at the east end of the south wall and move west. [First slide]
The images at the top of this window convey a Lenten and Easter message. I’m sure you recognize the Cross in the right window. Bible scholars believe that it was on a cross like this that Christ was crucified. There is some debate, because there were several different crosses used to execute criminals in use at that time. Execute criminals. The symbol of the Cross is so familiar that we forget that initially it was a bizarre, even ghastly symbol. If we used an electric chair, or a noose, or a syringe, modern instruments of capital punishment, as symbols for Christ’s death it might have a more powerful impact. Initially Christians used a cross almost as an ironic symbol, to show that Christ is stronger than death. Down the street from my house there’s a church sign that says “Nails didn’t hold Christ to the cross—love did.” That helps us recognize that the love Christ showed the world came at a cost of great suffering. And I’ll point out that Presbyterians use empty crosses. We do not represent Christ physically on the Cross. Yes, Christ was executed on the cross as a criminal, but Christ didn’t stay on the cross. The empty cross reminds us that Christ is risen.
Our window has some purple fabric draped on it, and the fabric appears to be moved by a strong wind. It is significant that the cloth is purple. The 19th chapter of John’s gospel mentions that the soldiers mocked Jesus by putting a purple cloak around him—the symbolic color of royalty, and bowed before him in a sarcastic, humiliating way. The modern church uses purple as the color of the two Christians seasons of preparation: Advent and Lent.
The window to the left of the shrouded cross shows lilies. In modern times lilies have become associated with Easter. Their white represents purity and their yellow color not only reminds us of the value of Christ’s death, yellow is also a color that symbolizes health and healing. Could there be any greater healing than the resurrection? I’ve also heard that the shape of the blossoms recalls trumpets, and we have brass instruments every Easter to help us celebrate the resurrection. But lilies also have a much humbler message for us. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ commanded us to “consider the lilies.” I like to think of that as a command. Lilies do not do any work, yet they are more beautiful, Christ says, than Solomon in all his royal get up. If God entrusts such beauty into something as impermanent as flowers, imagine how much more God loves human beings, whom God created in God’s own image. So when you see something naturally beautiful use it as a reminder of the depth of God’s love for you.
Consider the lilies.
There are four images in the big window on the south wall; the one of the far left is an hourglass, which reminds us of the passage of time, as Psalm 90 says, “A thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night.” Or as we sing in the familiar song, “Time like an ever rolling stream, Soon bears us all away…” The passage of time is contrasted with the eternal nature of God’s love for creation.
The middle lower window shows a cross whose vertical piece is surrounded by a crown. These symbols remind us of the prophecy that foretold a messiah to come from the family of David, combined with again the symbol of the execution of that messiah. As Christ was led to the Cross he was crowned with a crown of thorns, a humiliating and painful way that the soldiers used to mock him. I put a crown of thorns that one of our members made more than ten years ago on the Cross on the communion table for worship this morning. I think she used a rosebush and one can see how painful a crown of thorns would be. It’s hard to carry it without getting stuck.
These next windows, the first to the right of the cross and crown and the second, shows sickle and grain, and the next, the only window on the west side of the sanctuary that survived a building renovation in the 1950s, show weeds and wheat growing together. There are repeated mentions of grain and harvests in the Bible. In the New Testament the image of the harvest symbolizes the final judgment. I can’t see a sickle without imagining The Grim Reaper, but that particular personification of death is not Biblical. In this morning’s gospel lesson that Emmeline read Jesus told a parable that is a little surprising. A farmer sowed his field with good seed, but an enemy planted weed seeds in the same field. The weeds and wheat grew up together. Now I’m a city kid, but I know you don’t want weeds growing in your grain field. What should the farmer do? He could have his laborers pull the weeds, but that would also uproot the grain. The farmer decides to let the weeds and grain grow together, and at the harvest, they will first reap the weeds and burn them, then harvest the wheat.
If we read this parable as a metaphor for life in Christ—and I think that’s its intention—that means that Christ says we should permit evil to be side-by-side with good. Getting rid of evil would also be destructive of good. Should we, as people who seek to follow Christ, also let evil reside right next to good? Should we wait until the Harvest of God’s judgment to weed out the bad stuff? That is certainly one way to interpret this parable. And remember, earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus refers to himself as “The Lord of the Harvest,” when he tells his disciples that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.
Over the years I have pointed this slide out more than any other. This window is one only two that have words. The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit. And notice that the Bible is open. We believe that the Bible is more than just words; it reveals the Living Word, that is Jesus Christ, when it is interpreted with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And Presbyterians interpret scripture together. We are confident that the Holy Spirit works through people. For example, when we ordain officers we understand that those who are called to serve are called by the Holy Spirit through the voice of the people.
I learned something new last week. You have probably heard that there are two new Presbyterian churches starting in Oshkosh. One of them is an Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the other is a Presbyterian Church in America congregation. I got acquainted with Presbyterian Church in America pastor. One point of doctrine that is very important to this strand of Presbyterianism is the inerrancy of scripture. That means, they believe that the text of the Bible as written by the authors who wrote them originally is without error. Errors in the text, they contend, were the result of scribal errors. And so the version of the Bible that we have now would be perfect if scribes had been perfect, but they weren’t. There were human errors introduced to the text, but what we have now, they believe is really, really, really close to what God guided them to write.
I had always believed that believing in inerrancy was the same as believing that the Bible should be taken literally. The Presbyterian Church in America understands that there are texts that are metaphorical. For example, the doctrine of inerrancy does not require one to believe that the world was created in six 24 hour days. There are some groups that believe that, but the doctrine of inerrancy does not require it.
As I was eating lunch with my colleague, I confessed that I am baffled why the doctrine of inerrancy is so important. To me the words that we read are important, but what makes them important is the confidence and expectation that God will speak to us, guided by the Holy Spirit, through them. What makes the text sacred is first of all, the way we approach it.
This approach is beautifully expressed in the image of the dove, surrounded by light, descending into an open Bible. This approach also means that God can speak to us through any version of the Bible that we use. It is God’s word to us when we open ourselves to the word and spirit.
Once again, I extend my thanks to John Cross for the images that were projected today. These last three sermons, with the photos inserted in the text can be seen on the church’s website. And I really hope you will look at them, and let the Holy Spirit move in you as you do. Amen.