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The Great Commission

October 5, 2015

A sermon preached by The Rev. Susan De George at the White Plains Presbyterian Church for the Feast of St. Francis / Blessing of the Animals on World Communion Sunday, October 4, 2015.

 Psalm 148 (select)         Mark 16:14-20

For those of you who don’t know about my family, I’ve raised three generations of children. There was a ten-year age gap between Frantz and Dan and an eight-year spread between Dan and Becca so every time I thought I had some experience in an area, I kept finding out that things had changed. Technological stuff was the hardest to keep up with. The demand of my first teenager for a corded phone extension in his room became a request when my second child became a teen to have a cordless phone. Then, eight years later, my third teenager declared her need, not just for a phone, but for a a cell phone with a camera, unlimited texting, email, and data usage. With such rapidly changing technology, it was clear that, no matter how many times I’d gone through it, I was always going to be an inexperienced parent.

PrintLuckily there was one non-technological thing all three of my children liked – puzzle books that had visual challenges—not the same visual challenges, but visual challenges none-the-less. When Frantz turned 14, he became intrigued with the “Where’s Waldo” type of puzzle books. Do you remember these? Each puzzle consisted of a double-page spread illustration that had dozens and dozens of people doing a variety of funny things that were connected with a specific theme or a specific location. The reader had to search through the tiny, detailed pictures to find Waldo (who was always dressed in a red-and-white striped shirt, weird hat, and glasses). You’d think his distinctive outfit would make him easy to recognize, but many of the pictures contained red herrings. The illustrator had put in lots of other red-and-white stripped objects to throw the searcher off but only one tiny Waldo. To find him you had to locate one red-and-white object after another until, usually after a good block of time squinting at the page, one of them finally turned out to be Waldo. Where’s Waldo books were great for long car trips, because Frantz could spend hours locating Waldo on page after page.

Dan never took to Waldo. He didn’t have the patience to keep searching. Luckily, however, when he turned 10, Magic Eye books came out. Magic Eyes were also visual game books, but instead of searching through tiny objects until you found the specific person you were looking for, Magic Eye books allowed you to see a 3D image hidden in a 2D picture. To see the stereogram picture embedded on the page, you had to hold the center of the printed image right up to your nose so that the original picture and its details became blurry. You then focused your eyes and your mind as though you are looking through the image into the distance. Once your eyes were set on what wasn’t there, you very slowly moved the image away from your face until a three dimensional pattern popped into your line of vision. If you moved your eyes during this process, lost focus, or moved the image away too quickly, you missed the three-dimensional picture and would have to start over. For Dan, Magic Eye books were techie enough to keep him busy in a car as he tried to figure out not only what the hidden picture was but why the stereogram was working as it did in each picture.

Airplane magic eyeIf you ask Becca now, she’ll tell you that she also loved Magic Eye books, but we could never get her to spend more than a few minutes looking for the hidden three-dimensional picture. Finding it just didn’t matter enough to her. Instead the visual puzzle books that grabbed her attention were the I Spy series of riddles that presented amazing photographs with lots of objects gathered around a theme and then asked children to find specific objects that were found in the photo. When Becca was young enough that she couldn’t yet read the list of hidden objects herself, Dan used to try to do the I Spy books with Becca, reading her the objects to look for. Becca would start to hunt for the object, only to be caught up in all the other intriguing objects on the page. Dan would try to bring her back to the list of “special” objects to be found, but Becca’s delight at the ordinary objects would continue and, after she’d pointed out one after another, Dan would give up in disgust while Becca continued to enjoy everything she was seeing on the page.


On this worldwide communion Sunday when we also more consciously bless the animal members of our community, I thought of these different types of visual puzzle games and what they teach us to focus on when we want to see God. Much of the religious education I was given growing up took a Where’s Waldo approach to finding God. There’s lots of beautiful literature that’s been written, this approach said, but if you want to find God, there was only one piece of literature in which to look for God– the Bible. In this Where’s Waldo way of searching for God, worship services became built around the Bible and its interpretation, church schools focused on learning and understanding scripture, and people were taught that looking elsewhere for the divine could give you the wrong image of God. You might initially think that God was to be found in other places, but if you looked carefully the other images weren’t really God, just red herrings. In this Protestant “Where’s Waldo” approach that Calvin so strongly emphasized, you used your head and searched the scriptures to find God. While many people today no longer prefer the “Where’s Waldo” way of finding God, our worship services and education programs still strongly reflect this vision game approach.

And then there are experiences like Paul of Tarsus had on the road to Damascus or Francis of Assisi had on his way to head off to fight as a soldier, with unusual, memorable experiences that are so sudden and so intense that they change your life forever.   Paul the persecutor of Christians becomes Paul the believer and advocate. Francis the well-off soldier becomes Francis the preacher who lives in poverty. They each see things in new ways, ways that revealed the divine in what before had seemed ordinary. Saul’s and Francis’ experiences are in many ways like the process required for the Magic Eye vision game, with the two-dimensional way in each had previously seen the world and God blurred out and a new three dimensional personal revelation taking its place.

A Pew Center Report on Religion noted that 50% of mainstream Protestants report having had personal experiences or moments of self-transcendence that for us, like for Francis or Paul, have been life-changing spiritual experiences. You wouldn’t know it though, from visiting our places of worship on Sunday or listening to conversations we exchange with each other. The Pew Report goes on to say that, while you may have someone with such a—for want of a better word—mystical experience sitting next to you, or you may yourself be that mystic, few churches provide opportunities for sharing those experiences, despite the fact that we claim our faith is grounded in such experiences of the Holy. We Protestants are so used to the Where’s Waldo expectation of how to look for God in scripture that we won’t talk about our own Magic Eye experiences and how they’ve both blurred some of our ways of seeing the world and brought others magically into our focus. We need to begin to find ways to acknowledge in worship that revelation is always personal, variable, and experiential. We would do well to explore ways that would allow us to talk more about those transcendent moments when the divine suddenly makes itself clear in our lives. After all, such Magic Eye God-moments are, for many of us, transformative and healing, putting new choices before us and allowing us each to find unique ways to say yes to the divine presence in our lives and in the new world that confronts us.

But today’s first reading – the responsive reading from Psalm 148 that becomes reflected in St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun– and Francis of Assisi’s life itself—point us toward another way of seeing God, a way that takes the I Spy approach. In them we don’t have to search the scriptures to find God and we don’t need to have some extraordinary mystical experiences that call our attention to God. Instead in the Psalm we are called to find God praised by and reflected in all the earthly things around us, in the ordinary miracles of dogs and cats, of bats and squirrels —the wonder of creation. And in story after story from Francis’ life he calls us to see all of life as sacred and revealing of God. Here’s one of my favorites. Francis says:

“I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments—

he got so excited

and ran into a hollow in his tree and came

back holding some acorns, an owl feather,

and a ribbon he had found.

And I just smiled and said, “Yes, dear,

you understand:

everything imparts

God’s grace.”

                St. Francis of Assisi, “The Sacraments”

translated by Daniel Ladinsky, Love Letters from God

In this I Spy approach all ordinary creation imparts God’s grace. You begin with a particular and specific acorn or owl feather or loaf of bread or furry family member sitting next to you and that particular being becomes a sacrament, a doorway to the mystery of the Incarnation. As Francis and the squirrel both understood so well, we can discover the divine by looking sacramentally at what’s right in front of us. Through Franciscan eyes, how you love anything, anyone, any part of creation, is how you love everything. As Pope Francis wrote about God in his recent encyclical Laudato Si’ “Today you are alive in every creature in your risen glory.” Today we can look at any part of the earth and see a reflection of God. Seeing God is an I Spy game, in which God appears not just in the Bible or in extraordinary experiences, but also in the wonder of flowers and microbes and water and other encounters and movements of our lives. Look up to the stars and find a reflection of God. Look out among the people and animals and trees—spy an icon of God’s face–and possibilities for yet more spying of God. I’m not advocating pantheism here—God isn’t the grass or the soil—but the ground and the grass are infused with the resurrection love of God in the same way that the bread and the cup are.

But God doesn’t just ask us to spy reflections of God in the abundant creation with which we are surrounded. God also gives us— each and every one of us -a task, a charge, one form of which is found in today’s scripture reading from Mark 16 to “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole of creation, to every creature.” Francis of Assisi took this commission literally, preaching to birds, insects, wolves and many other creatures, realizing that God’s good news is not meant to be just good news for human beings, but for all beings. Mark’s Great Commission should awaken us, not only to see God with our I Spy eyes rather than our Where’s Waldo ones, but to think carefully about how we respond to and treat the world around us. Do we listen to those creatures with whom we share our environment—our lizards and chickens and dogs and worms and cats, as well as our trees and soil and sky and stones and rain? Having listened, do we then tend carefully to them and to the rest of our environment, offering it God’s good news by the way in which we treat it? Do we spend time teaching our children to come to understand that all creatures bear Christ’s image, are interconnected, and are meant to have good news proclaimed to them through our actions, since such an understanding is the Great Commission, the key work to which God is calling all of us? Might this proclaiming of good news to all creation begin to move us away from an anthropocentric approach to the world around us toward a more biocentric perspective of our lives as part of the whole of creation? For perhaps more than preaching to the birds or wolves, what this Great Commission is calling us to is a change in perspective, one where we approach anything and everything that surrounds us with more intentionality and care because it is all a reflection of God that deserve to hear God’s good news—not just on a Sunday or two a year or even every Sunday, but in every moment of our lives? Perhaps, in order to follow Christ’s commission and truly bless all animals-human and non-human and the rest of our universe with them, we should our primary aspiration that of living according to Christ’s Great Commission as captured by Pope Francis who suggested that we pray: “Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, [and] to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey toward your infinite light.” May it be so. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Susan De George is the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Hudson River, is a GreenFaith fellow,  and teaches Religious Studies at Pace University. Prior to being Stated Clerk, Susan served as a pastor for several different Hudson River Presbytery congregations. She enjoys playing flute in the New Westchester Symphony Orchestra, gardening, reading, swimming, and having interesting conversations with folks who really want to change the world.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Grandma Leslie permalink
    October 6, 2015 6:44 am

    Susan: There are too many sermons here for me to process as I fly through this week. So I am printing “the Great Commission” to take with me to the West Coast. Perhaps not during the Moderator Training weekend, but in the week following when I continue to wake up on East Coast time with family members who don’t get up before Noon on any coast, this will be my devotion and my meditation. Thank you for such a rich source. Leslie

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