What a joy it is for us brothers to be back worshipping in this beautiful chapel, and to be back worshipping with you our friends. We have had a very good summer, but we have missed you! We had a wonderful retreat at Emery House, and then our annual time of Chapter and discussions, and planning for the future. It was very fruitful and grace filled. It’s always lovely at Emery House. And, while we were away workmen finished off some of the renovations here at the monastery. We have been remembering you in our prayers with thanksgiving – and do hope you have had a great summer.
I guess because we are located at the heart of so many colleges and universities, that September really feels like the beginning of a new year. And what a wonderful way for us to start our new year this afternoon by clothing our postulant, Brian Pearson, as a novice. I hope you can be there to support him.
We have lots of exciting plans for ministry and teaching during this coming year. On Tuesday we will welcome three new interns who will live and work with us during this new year: Seth Woody, Waylon Whitley and Andrew Sinnes. And in a couple weeks time we will be welcoming a new postulant, Ruben Alexis.
Emery House is looking very beautiful. But it takes a lot of work to keep the grounds in order. I know last week Br. James spent a lot of time on the tractor – and the brothers are also looking after the bees, the chickens, and now four new pigs, and four very noisy but friendly geese! Yesterday we hosted a retreat day and picnic for homeless men and women from Boston. During this year we will be welcoming a succession of long-term residents at Emery House, living alongside the brothers – and we’re also very grateful to those of you who have spent a day at EH as volunteer gardeners. We love sharing this beautiful property with as many of you as we can! Do please visit!
So much of our ministry as brothers is centered on our two guest houses here and at Emery House. It is a joy for us to welcome retreatants from all over the world to spend time living in these two sacred spaces. You might this year consider making a retreat yourself, or suggesting it to a friend.
And so we look forward to an exciting year ahead of us with lots of activities – but at the very center of everything we do here and at Emery House, is worship. Our lives here are centered on worshipping in this sacred place five times a day.
What is it which is so powerful, so compelling about worship? What draws us to be here today: what draws us, what holds us? I was reflecting on this question as I prayed over today’s Gospel from St. Mark, where Jesus is comparing our outward acts with the secret thoughts of our hearts. I would say that worship is so compelling because it is the one place I can come and be completely open and honest before God. Here, we do not need to pretend. Before God – as I look at God and God looks at me – I can be who I most truly am. As we say in that opening prayer, “To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.”
No need to pretend. No need to “keep up appearances.” You may know that British comedy series “Keeping Up Appearances.” You will know Hyacinth Bucket, who insists her surname is pronounced not Bucket but Bouquet, and who is a rather eccentric, social climbing snob, and who is in constant fear of being embarrassed by her working class relatives Onslow, Daisy and Rose. It’s all very silly, but there’s enough truth in it to make us laugh, because we all know a little of how we too like to keep up appearances! Little distortions of the truth, little embellishments of the facts to show ourselves in a positive light, ways we try to impress – name-dropping – ways we try to enhance our image.
You could say that the Gospel today from St. Mark is all about keeping up appearances! The Pharisees and scribes were complaining that Jesus’ disciples were not observing some of the external traditions of the elders regarding ritual washing of hands, cups, pots and bronze kettles. Jesus actually becomes very angry with them. They are more concerned with the externals, the appearances of things, than with what is actually going on inside their hearts. Unclean hands, pots and pans do not matter. What defiles, damages, a person is an unclean heart.
Pretending to be someone you are not. Living a lie. These draw from Jesus a terrible rebuke. “You hypocrites,” he says. Hypocrisy is right at the top of those things which make Jesus angry, I think because it can be so destructive. “Keeping up appearances” can be amusing and pretty harmless, but it can also grow into something which is destructive and corrosive. We can slowly become alienated from our true selves. We can allow others to make us into the person that we are not. This is a challenge in any relationship or marriage – allowing the other to become who they truly are. We can live a life of pretense in order to be accepted and praised. And in the process we can lose our souls.
In Dante’s Inferno the hypocrites (and the Greek word means “actor”) are clothed in huge choir robes, made of solid lead, gilded on the outside with gold. The cloaks are so heavy that the hypocrites can hardly move. That is an amazing image of the bone-weary insanity of trying to keep up appearances! Dante describes the garb of the hypocrites as “O cloak of everlasting weariness.”
But here, in this place, where the Lord is present, we can shed our heavy cloaks of pretension and appearance. We can stand before the Lord, who knows us and loves us and accepts us – “just as I am.” So, worship is firstly a time when we can be open and honest before the God who knows us and loves us. But there is more. Not only does God see us as we truly are, not only does he love and accept us as we are – but, secondly, he also challenges us to change and be transformed – to become that unique person whom God made us to be.
The community of Taizé in France has a Rule, and in it it says this: “In worship we can stop hiding from God, and the light of God can heal and transform even what we are ashamed of.” God longs to heal us and transform us. It’s as if God longs for us to shed the heavy clothing of pretense and appearance – the clothes which once gave us confidence and strength, but which now just weigh us down. But then God longs to re-clothe us with Christ, whose burden is light, and who can set us free.
So, perhaps at the beginning of this month – a new term, a new year, we might take stock of our lives and, to use Dante’s image, look carefully at the clothing – the outward vesture – with which we live our lives. Is there some garment which weighs us down, and which God is inviting us to shed? Perhaps certain attitudes, habits, prejudices, addictions, illusions – ways in which we live our lives which need, if we are honest, to be stripped off. “These weight me down, and I long to be free. But at the same time, I’m afraid to shed them. I am so used to these old clothes – I’d hardly know myself in new ones.”
Perhaps today, during this worship where we can be truly honest and open, no need to keep up appearances – today perhaps God is challenging you to take off some garment which weighs you down – some disordered attachment, some damaging indulgence. Take it off, and leave it at the altar, and return to your seat lighter. It is hard for God to re-clothe us in Christ when we are already fully dressed!
So today, as on the day of your baptism, allow God to re-clothe you, to transform you, to transfigure you, that like Christ, you too may shine forth “in raiments dazzling white.”
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