I read an article this week in The New Yorker about a physicist who figured out a way to play old wax cylinders and aluminum disks. These are recordings from as long ago as the late 1800’s, kept in archives around the world. The recordings aren’t playable, because they are too fragile. Most are so fragile that to even handle them risks destroying them. The physicist, Carl Haber, was stuck in traffic in northern California one day, and he heard a story on the radio about these archives, recordings of aboriginal music, of speeches, of sounds from well over a hundred years ago, sounds that haven’t been heard by anyone now living. Haber works for a group that conducts experiments at the CERN collider in Switzerland, that seventeen mile underground tunnel that physicists use to accelerate atoms and subatomic particles and collide them with one another in order to learn more about how matter is put together. Haber works on the detectors that line the supercolliders and track the paths of the subatomic particles. He developed a device he calls the SmartScope which photographs the detectors in microscopic detail, then analyzes the images and the placement over and over again. When he heard the story about the unplayable archives, he wondered if he couldn’t use the device to scan the old wax cylinders and aluminum disks to make a precise digital image of the grooves which could then be converted to sound. He experimented with an old 78 of “Goodnight, Irene” by the Weavers, and found it worked great. He expanded into reading wax cylinders and aluminum disks, and now people can hear tribal music from a century ago, from around the world, and speeches by famous figures of the early 20th century, and people speaking languages that are no longer used. Haber even used this technology to play a recording made in soot on a piece of paper in Paris in April of 1860; a recording of a man singing “Au clair de la lune” before the outbreak of the Civil War. Haber now spends most of his time bringing these old recordings back to life. He recounts being able to play dance music recorded in the early 1900’s in an Indian village on Vancouver Island. He took that recording to the descendants of that tribe, the Kwakitul people, and they were able to hear their ancestors singing their tribal songs.
I think all of this is pretty amazing, how technology can help us keep and recover memories, whether from our own life or from past generations. Sounds and images provide us deep insight into ourselves and into our past, but of course, we don’t have either of those when it comes to the foundation of our faith. All we know about Jesus comes from the words of the bible. Over the centuries artists have painted millions of pictures of Jesus, but of course we have no idea what he looked like. Dozens of actors have portrayed Jesus in movies and on television, but of course we have no idea what he sounded like; in fact, the language he spoke, Aramaic, hasn’t been spoken in hundreds of years. And even the words of the bible, the things we read that Jesus said, weren’t transcribed by someone as he said them. The gospels weren’t written down until decades after Jesus died. The things Jesus said, the stories he told, the things he did, all of that was handed down by word of mouth, repeated from one person to another and then another and another. Finally, people thought it would be a good idea to write some of it down. Maybe they were worried that they were forgetting some of what Jesus had said and done; maybe they realized, like anyone who has played a game of Telephone at a party finds out, we’re not very good at repeating things verbatim. We tend to change things, sometimes adding a word here or there, sometimes leaving things out. And so, people decided it was time to put things down on paper, to create a sort of permanent record of what Jesus said, what Jesus did, who Jesus was.
It was a good idea, of course, and thank goodness they did write things down, these documents called ‘gospels’ or ‘good news.’ And thank goodness that we have more than one gospel; in fact, there were dozens of gospels written, but when folks got around to figuring what was going to be put in the bible, they chose four, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I say thank goodness that we have more than one gospel because each of them looks at Jesus in a different way, each of them has its own perspective. As a result of having all of these perspectives, we get a fuller picture of who Jesus was than we would if we only had one gospel. We read this morning from John’s gospel. John is perhaps the most theological of the four gospels. It makes John sometimes a bit of a slog to read, because Jesus gives lots of long speeches that seem to twist and turn and can be confusing. We’re not the only ones confused; everyone around Jesus, including his own disciples, seem to have trouble understanding exactly what Jesus is saying. In our reading this morning, Jesus is talking to the disciples about his coming death and resurrection. In the verses right before our reading, Jesus has told his friends that he’s going to die. Then he tells them not to be troubled by that, as if it were possible for the disciples not to be troubled by such disturbing news.
Then Jesus offers an image to comfort his disciples. He says, “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” This image of God’s house having many dwelling places, many rooms, each prepared for us, has offered generations of faithful people a sort of glimpse of what life after death may look like. We can imagine a large, comfortable home, with a place prepared specially for ourselves, with rooms for all those who we have loved but who gone on before us, and with rooms for all those we will leave behind. Somehow, we will remain ourselves, we will be who are now, but in a different way, and we will dwell with God in God’s own house. Thomas, however, wants more information, he wants some concrete details. He wants to know where this house is, maybe what it looks like. He wants to know what it will be like to dwell with God. He asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answers him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Now its Philip’s turn to question Jesus, and he says, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you'll this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
This is the central theme of John’s gospel. You may remember that we read the beginning of John’s gospel way back on Christmas Eve, that familiar passage that starts, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.” The passage ends with with John’s thesis, his statement about who Jesus is. He writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Look at Jesus who surrounded himself with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the untouchables. Look at Jesus who was criticized by the religious elite for hanging out with sinners. Look at Jesus who treated women with dignity and respect at a time when that was unheard of. Look at Jesus who taught his disciples to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return, to overcome evil with love. Look at Jesus who wept when his friend died, who suffered on the cross, who forgave those who persecuted him. In Jesus, we understand that God suffers, God forgives, God cares for the poor, God cares for the sick, God loves God’s enemies.
This passage from John’s gospel, this conversation with Thomas and Philip, is a reminder to us that Jesus is the best lens we have into the nature of God; Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s self. God is revealed in the beauty and wonder of the natural world, a revelation that is easy for us to appreciate during these spectacular spring days. God is also revealed in the person of Jesus, but this revelation may be harder for us to appreciate. Jesus lived so long ago, and the memories we have of him are limited to words written down years after his death by people in another culture and time. What we would give for a picture of his face, the sound of his voice.
On Tuesday, former Army Sgt. Kyle White was awarded the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for combat bravery. In November of 2007, White and his fellow soldiers were sent to a meeting with village elders. They arrived in the village, and things didn’t seem quite right. The meeting was delayed, there were an unusual number of young men around, and there was enemy chatter on the radio. They decided it wasn’t safe and they left the village, trudging back up a steep, rocky trail. White recounts, “"It started off with a single shot, two shots, and then it seemed like the whole valley erupted. There were rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire from every direction,”
A rocket-propelled grenade exploded just behind White's head. He was hit, shrapnel peppering his face and hands. He says he didn't see how any of them could survive. "I told myself I was going to die because I just had that feeling — the amount of fire, I was already wounded — I'm not going to make it through this one. And I knew that if I'm going to die, I'm going to do what I can to help my battle buddies until it happens. And that's what's running through my mind," he says.
As others in the unit went down, White ran back and forth — dodging bullets — to care for the wounded. One of them was Spc. Kain Schilling. "That's when I got shot in my arm. It went numb. And I thought I lost my arm, thought an RPG or something took it off," Schilling says. Schilling found cover under a small tree. White ran after him. "He had to run through overwhelming fire just to get to me. It was... shale type of rocks, so when bullets hit, it was a cool-looking spark. So everywhere he's going you could see these sparks flying up around him," Schilling says. White wrapped a tourniquet around Schilling's arm. Then he spotted another American down, Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks. White ran to help — straight through the Taliban fire. Schilling saw it all happen. "Tons of sparks, puffs of dirt coming up. He kind of just acted like they weren't there or it wasn't going to hit him. It was for sure he was going to get hit," Schilling says. The bullets ripped away pieces of White's uniform, but somehow he didn't get hit. He reached Bocks, who was badly wounded. White tried to calm him.
"The only words he ever said to me was, 'I don't think I'm going to make it through this.' Nah, you're going to be fine, Medevac is on its way — just trying to reassure him," White says. For twenty hours, White tended to the wounded under unceasing enemy fire. When the helicopters finally arrived, he made sure all the wounded were loaded up before he got onboard to be taken to safety. 'When you're deployed,' he later said, 'those people become your family. What you really care about is, I want to get this guy to the left and to the right home.”
So, maybe we have pictures of Jesus after all, maybe we do know what Jesus sounds like. In the self-sacrificing heroism of the our men and women in uniform; in the spirit of those who, in the aftermath of the flooding this week in Penn Yan and around the state, have stepped up to volunteer to clean up and help those who have lost their homes; in the work and generosity of those in our community who to try to make life better for people who are hungry or ill or lonely; in all these folks, and hundreds of other examples, we get a glimpse of Jesus here in our time, we get a glimpse of God at work in our world. These week, may we be on the lookout for the ways Jesus is working in our world today, and may we be ready to join him in ministry. Amen.