Feast of Saint James of Jerusalem – Br. Robert L’Esperance

Br. Robert L’Esperance

Matthew 13:54-58

How do we listen to God’s word?  How do we remain open to that word?  How do we hear the word in new ways?  How do we listen not only with our mind but more essentially with our hearts?  Today’s gospel seems to show us some ways we might do this:  first, by remaining open to possibility, second, by adopting a certain naïveté, and finally, through a practice of repentance that leads to real humility.

Today observe the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem.  The stories about St. James in the Acts of the Apostles tell us about a man open to possibility; a man open to hearing God’s word in new and varied ways.  It credits St. James with willingness to allow the possibility that the depth and breadth of God’s saving love extended far beyond the Hebrew people themselves.   He was open to the possibility that something he had been taught to believe as the word of God, something he assumed to be true, was false. St. James was able to change his mind.  He was able to allow that Jesus had come not only to save him and people like him but the entire world.  St. James was open to the possibility of the infinite breadth and depth of God’s love for all creation, not just his own people.

I think that the Jesus’ neighbors were wrestling with possibility.  Struggling with outrageous possibility:  the boy next door, now in mid-life, turned preacher; preacher of new and possibly dangerous ideas; a rabble rouser and trouble maker, that some insist can cure incurables and wrestle with demons?”  Would I, could I, really believe such things possible?  Could you?  Think about it.  Could we?

I often find myself sympathizing with people in the gospels who for one reason or another simply cannot believe or understand what Jesus is all about.  I feel for Jesus’ neighbors.  They knew Jesus.  He was the kid next door.  He was that boy who learned to read scripture at the feet of the same scribes that taught their boys.  He was Mary and Joseph’s oldest son.

Their response to Jesus shows that they had heard at least some of his teachings already. What we see in the Gospel passage is how far they had gotten with Jesus’ teachings. Not far enough to wholeheartedly accept and follow them, but at least far enough to question them, to wonder where on earth the teachings had come from and whether or not they carried any validity. The pot was at least boiling, even if the soup wasn’t done.

Maybe that’s where some of us are this evening, just far enough along in our understanding to make us wonder, even possibly struggle with Jesus’ message, but not ready yet to rest in whatever understanding we have. That’s good.  We’ve begun to at least admit the possibility.

All of us process information through well established thought patterns.  We all have our filters.  We usually see the world and others through those filters.  They can be useful.  They help us negotiate our world.  But, unquestioned, unexamined filters can be dangerous.  They can close off possibility.  You’ve probably heard the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”  Like those neighbors we can become smug in knowing what we think we know:  “Is not this the carpenter’s son?”  Familiarity breeds contempt – so do unquestioned, unexamined attitudes about others.

Sometimes, our thought patterns set up questions for us.  We find ourselves second guessing ourselves and others.  “Does that street person really need my help or is he just trying to scam me?  Does that person really mean what she says or is she trying to say what she thinks I want to hear?”  Or the neighbors’ questions:  “Is not this the carpenter’s son.  Is not his mother called Mary?”  “Can this be the one in whom the prophets have taught us to hope?”  Thinking we know who someone is can breed contempt.  Naïveté can mean choosing to accept things at face value. Many religious teachers advocate an attitude of naïveté, as one means of silencing nagging, unanswerable questions.  Sometimes only in embracing naïveté can we open ourselves to possibility.

How do we read the scriptures and what are we to make of them?  What does it mean?  How are we to understand this?  Even more seriously, how are we to shape our lives and live them out in relation to ourselves and others.  What will our lives look like based on our understanding.  These are questions that still inform our search for the living God; the same dogged questions present even as we come to accept the unique nature of Jesus’ insights into God.

Last Saturday morning Brother Mark teased out the meaning of that loaded word “repentance.”  He pointed out several layers of meaning.  Repentance contains an implication of remorse, of being sorry.  It also means “turning, turning around, and turning toward God” as well as “changing one’s mind,” and even “changing one’s heart.”

Jesus invites the possibility of changing one’s mind and heart from settled patterns into something that admits of wide open possibilities contained in our life with God.  To be open to new understanding and interpretation just as Jesus tried to offer his listeners new ways of imagining God’s love.

Changing one’s mind involves embracing one’s humanity.  Embracing our humanity is the beginning of humility.  How do we go forward in our quest to understand and re-understand the message of God’s word for us as contained in Holy Texts?  I would say we do so from a place of profound humility, wonder, and forbearance for those who hear the word in ways that differ from ours.

For many of Jesus’ contemporaries, for many Christians and Muslims today, revelation wasn’t a far off event that happened in some by-gone time.  It is something that is happening in the here and now.  Right here, today.  As heirs of this tradition, Revelation invites us to open our mind’s eye in a way that allows us to take ourselves into a creative process; a process that requires the very best of human ingenuity.  For us, there is no infallible information about the divine in Revelation.  We acknowledge that because we acknowledge that that kind of information is beyond our understanding.  “Even the supreme revelation of Christ, the incarnate Word, showed that the reality of what we call God [to be] as elusive as ever.”

The best of our tradition has always insisted on intellectual integrity and thinking for oneself.  Jesus teaches us here and elsewhere that “Instead of clinging nervously to insights from the past, his followers are to be inventive, fearless, and confident in their interpretation of faith.”

I realize that my presentation of biblical interpretation reflects of my own values and I presume the values of many of us here this evening.  There are plenty of sincere people who would radically dispute the idea of Revelation that I have presented here.  We all do a lot of talking and asserting.  And many of us are quite comfortable with our version of faith that is to some extent comfortable with the symbolism of God when it is backed up with inspiring rituals and disciplined living in a vibrant community.  Many of us here this evening can and do find meaning in this.

But, as we know, most people don’t think this way.  I find that I have to remind myself again and again that I have no corner on the truth of God.  Much of the today’s religious discourse is very contentious even downright rude and mean.  God is infinite, and neither I nor anyone else is ever going to have the last word on this matter.  Not even when like today I get to do all of the talking and you get to listen.  The best I can ever do is to have what is for ME the last word right here and now – while being honest enough with myself to keep an open mind and heart.

There is an ongoing discussion of what we mean by Revelation and what that revelation says about God.  It would, I think, be fatuous to think that most people who call themselves Christians share the version of that I am presenting here.  It would be fatuous to say that there is even anything like agreement about these things in our own denomination.

If others see things and think things differently, we need to remind ourselves that to quarrel about such things is counterproductive and not conducive to enlightenment.  If we can’t even talk civilly among ourselves, among other people who call themselves “Episcopalians or Anglicans” how can we expect to be able to listen to someone who insists that creation was completed in seven twenty-four periods, or who firmly believes in the necessity of speaking in tongues or the biblical directive on snake handling.

If we can’t silence ourselves long enough to admit our own groping before the mystery of God we cannot enter into any authentic religious experience.  The essence of mystery will have left us and made that experience unavailable and therefore impossible.  We won’t be able to embrace the mystery of God or the ritual that makes that mystery available to us.

Jesus’ message is an invitation to us to come to terms with God’s elusive nature and to learn to live more comfortably with an elusive God.  Our faith means being able to step back and question our own beliefs subjecting them, fearlessly, to ruthless scrutiny.  Whenever we think we’ve have figured it out, we need to step back and acknowledge that we all stand before a great mystery.

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  1. Elizaabeth Hardy on August 10, 2018 at 10:06

    This is a very cogent and well thought out sermon. It has given me a “missing link” I need to tie my sermon together for Sunday…..I couldn’t quite fit John 6:41-51 with Ephesians 4:25-5:2. I see the connection now in reading this sermon. How we apprehend Jesus, how we apprehend one another, how we discuss and dispute without anger or bitterness or slander..etc. Thanx Br. Robert.

  2. Anders Benson on June 8, 2017 at 11:17

    Go, brother Robert! As my faith community struggles with how they figure out how to change the world (an objective with which I am uncomfortable), I think I’ll excuse myself for just needing a quiet moment to grope before the mystery of God. Personally I’m not quite ready for handling snakes, but the next time I hear foreign tongues I will think of you, that God is great and God is good.

  3. Rhode on June 8, 2017 at 08:26

    For I know (within my limited life context) whom I have believed (belief in a Being who is alive yesterday, today and forever; no shrine, no tomb) and am persuaded (inclined – though sometimes realizing i will not be punished for grasping that preserver in the shallow end before learning ways not to drown) that he is able (completely able – regardless of what it is i think i know of Gods’ ability) to keep (preserve, hopefully, like wine, richer with age) that which I have committed unto him (a flowing relationship of giving, receiving, knowing and unknowing) against (leaning in for comfort with forgiveness for clinging) ….that day.
    (Which will come: and it will, at my death, or the apocalypse, or perhaps, each morning, like today when dropping the burden of what I think I know of this journey at the feet of Him who knows and loves me best)

  4. SusanMarie on June 8, 2017 at 07:01

    Two of the best ways I’ve found to be open to the possibilities of God’s Word, to listen with my heart, and to be humble before God and the Word, are the practices of lectio divina (divine reading or sacred reading) and centering prayer. Both of these spiritual practices keep me from being stuck in what I think I know and allow space for Divine revelation within my heart and mind as well as helping me to be open to the viewpoints of others.
    Thank you for this wonderful sermon.

  5. Jane Goldring on October 23, 2016 at 11:41

    I think we should treat people as we want to be treated. Try and do the right thing about helping where help is needed. we never know when we will need help. Be true to what you believe in. I mostly go to the 8:00 a.m. service and give a ride to one of our parishiners who has gone blind. I think if everyone in the parish does their share we would be better for it.

  6. Scripture | The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana on October 23, 2016 at 00:05

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  7. Christina on October 24, 2014 at 09:46

    Today, 24/10, I have gone back to re-read your sermon. Thank you for your insights. I sometimes think that, if I had lived a few centuries ago, I would have been burned at the stake for being a heretic. Now, perhaps, my thoughts may not be viewed so. However, I do find it a challenge to find others with whom I can converse about how I see God’s world. They do not disagree with what I say, but don’t respond. Leaves me wondering if I have ‘got it all wrong.’ God’s world – God’s great mystery – an amazing gift. Christina

  8. anders on October 23, 2014 at 12:13

    Thank you. I seem to be agreement with your views on Revelation though Im not theologically informed enough to understand the arguments. Nor am I aware of the source of the directive to choose being inventive, fearless, and confident in my interpretation of faith rather than clinging nervously to insights from the past, but Ill consider it an invitation to be alive instead of spoon fed. Listening to the mystery is a path for me, as well as the church, to move forward in this often unrecognizable world. I see the church, and often myself, as succumbing to the sin of claiming to be the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and offering others to eat from it to also have the power. In the meantime, there´s a lot of ripe fruit for which I am grateful. I will let go of my anxiety over how many hours there are in a figurative or literal day in favor of listening to Gods simple cosmic love song. Is it in Latin as a Gregorian chant or maybe a familiar pop song? Listen, do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell, whoa oh, oh. Closer. Let me whisper in your ear. Say the words you long to hear. I’m in love with you…

  9. Michele on October 23, 2014 at 11:44

    Thank you for this message today. I have been discerning my vocation and continuing to question the religious community in which I was raised. I pray for a more open discourse amongst Catholics, my family’s religious roots. I pray for acceptance within the Catholic community of divorced remarried Catholics, members of the LGBT community and any other Catholics who want to be accepted as full participating members of this church. I will continue to pray for my own humility and guidance from the Lord to help me discern my vocation and find a religious community that I can call home.

  10. Joanne Wilson on October 23, 2014 at 11:02

    Continue to be blessed by the sharing of SSJE’s inner and outer community .Feels like we are a “communion of subjects “.

  11. haig on October 23, 2014 at 08:00

    God is a great mystery. But he desires that we know each other. As I open myself to that mystery, with others, I see with greater clarity who I am and who I am called to be. And that is life changing and affirming. Not my will but Thine be done.

  12. Glenna Bailey on July 26, 2014 at 08:08

    Thank you, Brother Robert, for this inspiring message. Jesus trying to “offer his listeners new ways of imagining God’s love” makes the parables come more alive for me and so necessary in the conflicts of today. “To silence ourselves long enough to admit our own groping before the mystery of God….” ; Step one in the reconciliation process.
    God Bless you and all the brothers for sharing these fruits from the rich soil of your hearts.

  13. Joni H on July 25, 2014 at 17:09

    Br. Robert, thank you for linking back to this piece this week.
    Evan, thank you for your insight and for sharing “the wideness of God’s kingdom”.
    I am reading “My Bright Abyss” and am finding that Christian Winan eloquently writes on the same “theme”, if you will, of God’s vast unknowability but simultaneously His deep intimacy in our very being. I commend the book to you as a possible companion for your spiritual journey.

  14. Evan Lassen on July 25, 2014 at 12:40

    Brother Robert L’Esperance,

    Yesterday, 7/24/14, I has a “porch visit” with 2 young men, one 18 yrs old and the other 19 yrs old who were on a mission in our neighborhood representing the Mormon Church.
    l listened and conversed with them about hour. Now at 77
    years of age, with a love life with the heritage and Family of the Epicopal Church, I have no plans for my conversion to Mormonism, but their conversion offers me the possibility to ponder the “infinite breadth and depth” of “God’s Country”.

    Eugene H. Peterson uses “God’s Country” as so expansive that thes GPS of God in Creation, Jesus in History and the Holy Spirit in Community provides us with the “mechanism” (my word) to find our way.
    I remind myself of when I miss a way point and hear the
    voice say, “Turn right at the next street……..
    I wish those two Youngsters well in their Journey.

    Thank you for your insight, I really admire “You Guys”

    Evan G. Lassen

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