Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 23, 2015
“Pray in the Spirit at all times . . . and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” (Ephesians 6:18)
I love to come into this church when the sunlight is streaming through these windows, illuminating and intensifying the colors of the stained glass. It’s the vivid red and blue colors that capture my attention. But you’ll notice that it’s mostly the blue stained glass that dominates these scenes. That’s what makes them come alive and ignite our imaginations.
Several years ago I learned something about that color in particular that I’m still trying to comprehend. It turns out that “seeing” blue in the world — thinking about it and talking about it — is something that I take for granted, and so do you. As language evolves in a culture and moves beyond words for black and white, red is without exception the first prismatic color to be named and added to the vocabulary. It’s not only the color of blood but also the easiest color for human beings to create artificially and, therefore, to use in art and design.
Not so with blue. It’s added much later, if at all, as a language grows and expands. It’s also rare in nature and very difficult to produce. These insights come from Guy Deutscher’s Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. One of the fascinating stories in that book is about William Gladstone in 1858, at the age of forty-nine, a decade before he would become the prime minister of Great Britain. That’s when his more than seventeen hundred page, three volume study of the poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey was published.
Gladstone was a man of deep faith for whom the words of Homer, the famous poet of ancient Greece, were the next best thing to the words of the Bible. At the end of his last volume, there’s an odd chapter called “Homer’s perception and use of color.” There Gladstone notes the curious fact that Homer, who was only blind according to legends, refers to the wine-dark sea and violet wool and green honey. But here’s the strangest part. Gladstone also notes that something is missing. He writes that:
Homer had before him the most perfect example of blue. Yet he never once so describes the sky. His sky is starry, or broad, or great, or iron, or copper; but it is never blue.
Blue is also missing in other ancient poetry. In the fall of 1867, an Orthodox Jew and philologist named Lazarus Geiger addressed a gathering of natural scientists in Frankfurt, Germany. He described at one point a remarkable fact about poems from ancient India in Vedic Sanskrit. Listen to one of the things he noticed about them:
These hymns of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, cloud and lightening, the air and the ether, all of these are unfolded before us over and over again, in splendor and vivid fullness. But there is only one thing that no one would ever learn from those ancient songs who did not already know it, and that is that the sky is blue.
You and I, and nearly everyone else we know, assume that across the centuries and throughout the world there’s a timeless question a child will eventually ask a parent:
Daddy, Daddy, DA-DEEEEE!
(That’s how our oldest son used to introduce something very, very important.)
Yes, Rowan, I’m listening.
Well, umm, why is the sky blue?
Rowan could ask a question like that because he had been given the words to do so. But it turns out that in many cultures, past and present, blue is merely a shade of black or, more commonly, a shade of green. So that question about the color of the sky isn’t as obvious as we imagine it to be. We learn to talk about color in the world, and that affects the way we see the world and the way we experience it. I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a real sense in which you don’t “see” blue until you have a word for it.
A few minutes ago we heard a passage read from Ephesians, an ancient letter in the New Testament. It doesn’t talk about the color blue or any other color of the rainbow. But, like Homer, it does use language in an odd way that might be confusing. This passage borrows an image — the warrior garb of a Roman soldier — that would have been very familiar to the people who first heard these words in the first century. Ephesians uses that image as a metaphor for the Christian life in the midst of a hostile world. It’s an ironic use of language in which the hostility of the world is met with the gospel of peace.
We’re able to do this as Christians, not in the power of the soldier’s master, the Roman Emperor, but in the power of our master, the Lord Jesus Christ. One uses force to maintain a human empire, while the other uses love to extend a divine kingdom. And this is where we come to learn the language whose words brightly color that kingdom. One of the most important things we’re asked to do, through the strength of Christ’s presence, is to pray. We are to pray constantly, not only for ourselves but for “all the saints,” for all of you here today, for sisters and brothers in Christ throughout the world. Learning to pray in glorious Technicolor, however, doesn’t always happen in the life of a Christian the way that we think it does.
One night in the middle of a very cold Minnesota winter, when Rowan was three years old, my wife and I were sitting in the room next to his bedroom, and we heard him recite the Lord’s Prayer. Now I know what you’re thinking: He’s the son of a priest, so what’s the big deal about the fact that he knew the words of the Lord’s Prayer. The big deal is the fact that, at the time, we hadn’t taught him those words. He learned them in the pews of my last church, while supposedly “not paying attention” in worship. That’s where he overheard the language of love and began to see the world differently, in its full color. Now he and his little brother overhear that same language of love together in these pews. It will change the way they see things.
Here’s how the pastor and poet Eugene Peterson explains that. He writes:
Unselfconsciously we acquire fluency in our mother tongue long before we enter a school, simply by being talked to and talking with our parents and siblings and the neighborhood children. When we keep company with Moses and his stories, David and his psalms, the preaching of Isaiah, our Lord himself in his parables and prayers, pastors and priests who lead us in the church’s common worship, singing hymns with Wesley and Watts, we are praying and learning to pray even when we aren’t aware of it.
. . . We are in a community, these baptized men and women, “the saints” whose names we know, brothers and sisters in Christ. Human relationships require alert and persevering maintenance. Begin with these saints, the people that in Christ you have the most in common with, and then move outwards. That many of them don’t behave or look the way we think saints should is no concern of ours. They are saints by virtue of the way God looks on and treats them.
And that’s what happens here at Palmer as young and old alike are baptized in this font. We look on them as God looks at them. We call them saints and pray for them constantly to see in the world the brilliant colors of the glory of God. My hope is that you’ll also see in this world those those brilliant colors . . . today.
1 BACK TO POST William Gladstone, Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, quoted by Guy Deutscher, Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (New York: Picador, 2010) 34.
2 BACK TO POST Lazarus Geiger, “On the Color Sense in Primitive Times and Its Evolution,” quoted by Guy Deutscher, Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (New York: Picador, 2010) 42-43.
3 BACK TO POST Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 267.