If I’m honest, on some days I can certainly resonate with those who demanded that Jesus ‘tell them plainly’ who he was. In fact, sometimes I have a hard time fully understanding the people around me, much less those who walked among us thousands of years ago. In fact, this challenge of understanding people and who they are came home to me in a particular way over the last couple of weeks. In this case, these people also lived in the past:
I have been grateful over the last few weeks to have had a little time to dig into a project which has captured my imagination of late. It is history, which I have always loved and this little bit of history has been largely unexplored. And so it is when I get a few hours, I settle in and page through what I have already gathered. Or I take a trip to a museum or the research room of a library which promises to offer a new insight or detail to add to the story I am slowly uncovering about the Soldiers’ Widows’ Home which was established in Wilmington, Illinois in 1895.
Now there are lots of avenues one can take to uncover a story, of course. Believe it or not, it is fascinating to read lists of detailed expenditures. Consider, for instance, what 100 lbs of flour would have cost in 1910. And why do you think a home that housed mostly elderly women would have purchased 7 tobacco pipes in 1907? And yet, while these details offer texture to a story, it is the people and their motivations: their hopes and hurts, their failures and dreams which pique my curiosity the most. And, of course, those can be hardest to come by.
Much of my energy, in fact, has focused on uncovering the story of Flo Jamison Miller, who was the matron of the home in the early 1900’s:
- Having read some of her correspondence and a couple of patriotic speeches she gave it is clear that she was educated and very articulate.
- By now I know some other things as well. For instance, I know that her father, a Civil War veteran, died when she was 19. Certainly the four years he spent as a soldier shaped his identity and evidently, hers as well.
- And later on, her mother had been in her daughter’s care until she died shortly after Flo took charge of the home. Oh yes, she had seen the plight of Civil War widows up close. Perhaps this lay behind her passion for her work.
- And yet, reading her biennial reports to the State of Illinois, one gets a sense of her frustration in the day to day work which was hers.
Just last week I discovered this. Flo died in 1940 —- long after she had stepped down as matron. In 1941, her daughter, Zola, took over the role her mother once held.
- And I wonder about her and what motivated her to follow in her mother’s footsteps.
And yet, it is tricky work, this. For ever detail I uncover I need to remind myself that I live in an entirely different time and place. I am shaped by other loyalties and by other experiences. Oh yes, I have to work hard to guard against thinking that what motivated these women would have any similarity to my own life experience. Oh, it may be the same. And it surely may not. Lots of times I have to ‘get myself out of the way’ so that I can better understand.
And so we come today to the story of Jesus as he addresses those gathered in the portico of Solomon as they are trying to figure out who he is. And I wonder if they cannot recognize him as Messiah because they are overlaying the story of who he is with their own far too limited understandings and experiences of what love and leadership and sacrifice look like. And indeed, might this also be so for all of us? For while our experiences and imaginations may offer a rough facsimile of God’s love for us, my suspicion is that much of the time it may not even come close. Indeed, it seems to me that throughout his ministry, Jesus has been ‘telling plainly’ who he was, is, and will be, but there are those who simply cannot take it in. Something is clearly in the way. I can’t help but wonder if that something is themselves. And on some days, ourselves. On any given day: myself.
And so for us today. You and I do not have the chance to physically stand in the portico of Solomon and ask Jesus face to face to tell us plainly who he is. No, in fact, we stand at twenty times the distance in time and place and experience that I do from the women who sought to care for elderly widows in Wilmington a century ago. And yet,
- We do have the witnesses of the four Gospel writers who, from different angles and experiences offer us comparable windows into the identity of Jesus.
- We have correspondence with the early church which helped them and us still today to get a sense of who Jesus was and is for them and for us.
- And we have the witness of the church and its people who have known the truth of God’s love which has held tight to them all of their lives — in much the way Jesus offers when he says that his sheep will never be snatched out of his hand.
Oh yes, as limited as it may be, we are still those who have received this gift of understanding of who Jesus is and we are those who pass it along through our own stories of how Jesus continues to work in this time and place. And yes, we are those who are called to live as those who hear and know and follow the voice of the Shepherd. For that is finally the point of knowing who Jesus is, isn’t it? It is not just to come to some sort of intellectual conclusion. It is, rather knowing him in such a way that who we are and what we do next is somehow different because of it.
And some days? Like those questioning Jesus in the portico of Solomon so long ago, all I have to do is get my own limited, preconceived understandings of love and leadership and sacrifice out of the way so that I can begin to see who Jesus really is. For so far as I can tell? That sort of humility is the beginning of hearing and knowing his voice. That is the beginning of following him. Some days I know I am not there at all. And on other days, it seems like I may just be getting close.
- Why do you suppose the listeners in the story before us do not understand who Jesus is? I have offered on possible explanation above. What do you think?
- Across all this time and space and experience, how is it possible for us to comprehend the truth of who Jesus was and is? What witness to this truth have you found especially convincing or helpful?
- What does it mean to you to hear and respond to the Shepherd’s Voice? How is this more than an intellectual assent for you?