1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
As the autumn progresses, we will predictably see and hear a multitude of geese making their way from Canada and the northern United States southward to warmer climates. Ornithologists call this “The Atlantic Flyway,” and they estimate more than 600,000 geese will make their way through these parts this autumn. These geese do not fly alone; they need one another to travel the way. And so there are certain habits which the geese teach each succeeding generation:[i]
Principal Founder of SSJE
by Curtis Almquist SSJE
“Beloved, it is a loyal thing when you render any service to the brethren,
especially strangers, who have testified to your love before the church.”
3 John 5-8
The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, had a litmus test for ascertaining the brothers’ integrity and faithfulness to the vows we take: poverty, celibacy and obedience. Brotherly love is the evidence that we are grounded in the vows, that the vows have taken root, and that they are bearing fruit. Brotherly love. Father Benson doesn’t measure our faithfulness to the vows based on some external standard – not whether we’ve prayed the Divine Office or celebrated the Holy Eucharist so many times in a week, nor whether we’ve gone on mission to a certain number of places, nor whether we’ve shared pastoral conversations with a certain number of people. Father Benson doesn’t base the evidence of our faithfulness and fecundity on the number of brothers in community, the number of retreatants in the house, the number of books we publish. He doesn’t see the signs of integrity on any external standard but rather he measures it from the heart. Is love present? When it’s all done and said, the question we will be asked on the Day of Judgment is: Did you love? Were you a lover after Christ? Did you have room in your heart for those for whom Christ has room?
And so for us who actually live under the vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience, Father Benson is constantly challenging us to open the generosity of our hearts. He writes that “it is a miserable poverty which holds back any of its affections from any companion.”1 It’s because we are not entering into marriage or partnership that we are more freely able to love more people more. In our vows, it’s not that we’ve said no to love. To the contrary, we’ve said yes to more love for more. “True poverty,” Father Benson writes, “opens all its doors; welcomes all, serves all.” We meet Jesus in our baptism where, we believe, Jesus comes to live in our heart, to make his home with us, to abide with us. But this is also true for others. They, too, are a dwelling place for Jesus. We, individually and corporately, embody Jesus. Yes, Jesus lives in me, but Jesus also lives in you. “How can we,” he writes,” possibly love Jesus Christ if we do not love the members of his body?”
Father Benson draws the same conclusion from the vow of obedience. He summarizes the vow of obedience as a call to love. He readily acknowledges that we will be called to take on many things, not all necessarily our first choices. True, we will be asked to rise up to the demands of the moment with each passing day. But ultimately what is behind these various requests and our various responses is not our being legalistically being bound to a decree but rather an invitation to love. That we do it all for love. What we’ve been asked to do, we do it all out of love. Whatever it is that we are being called to be and do, it is ultimately not the satisfaction of some juridical rule or code, but rather a response of love. Father Benson writes, “Is he obedient who has forgotten to fulfill the very first commandment of all: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another?’”2
Father Benson can be a bit difficult to read. Part of that is cultural; part of that is generational; part of it is theological. Father Benson practiced the presence of God moment by moment, seeing God’s glory being manifest in everything. He lived his life presuming that every moment was filled with the presence of God, and that we are invited to live our lives conscious of that love which “streams down upon us.” 3 That is a very high calling, a very challenging and humbling invitation. We have been loved into life, by the love of God, for the love of God, to share that love of God with others: those who are far off and those who are near (sometimes even harder with those who are near). Love is the reason for our being. Love is the reason for their being.
The Collect for today – the prayer with which we began this morning’s liturgy – makes a reference, as a metaphor, to the Temple in Jerusalem. And it’s a shocking metaphor. It should be shocking. The prayer is “that we be made a holy temple.” That’s a reference to the Temple, no longer in Jerusalem. The Temple – its foundation and cornerstone – is being re-created and joined together within you: within your person, within your soul and body. You embody the Temple. Now that’s a stretch of the imagination.
In Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was a city built on a hill, as we read in the Psalms.[i] Within the walls of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount sat on the highest place: a huge structure of massive stonework – nearly 500,000 square feet in area[ii] – with crenelated walls, stunning archways and gates, and architectural demarcations to keep everyone in the place to which they belonged. Inside the great encompassing outer wall was the Court of the Gentiles, and then, further within, were walled sanctuaries of increasing separation. At the very center was the Tabernacle, the innermost sanctuary being the Holy of Holies. Within the Holy of Holies sat the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. Only the Chief Priest would access this most inner sanctuary.
Preached at Emery House
The Feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for the Body of Christ), has been celebrated since the late 13th century in the western church, remembering what Jesus said at the last supper when he pointed to the bread which he called “his body” and the wine, which he called “his blood.” In the church calendar, we first remember this on Maundy Thursday; however Maundy Thursday is a rather complicated memory. The name “maundy” comes from the Latin, mandatum, which is a command. Jesus commands us “to do this,” the very thing that we do here at this noonday: to name and claim Christ’s being really present with us in the form of bread and wine, the very thing he promised. And there is a second commandment which we remember on Maundy Thursday: Jesus’ calling us to “love one another as [he] has loved us.”[i] One of the many ways we are to show this love is in the washing of one another’s feet. And then, on Maundy Thursday, things go downhill as we remember Jesus’ later going to the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading with his disciples to stay with him, watch with him, to be really present to him… then Jesus is seized by the governing authorities, he is flogged, his disciples abandon or betray him, the crucifixion happens. In the heart’s memory, the institution of the Holy Eucharist on Maundy Thursday is overshadowed by so many layers of suffering.
Ascension Day follows the high drama of Holy Week: the palm-waving crowds, the last supper among friends, the betrayals, the scourging, the crucifixion and resurrection. All of those days are full of interpretation and meaning. But Ascension Day is rather vacuous of meaning. Jesus says to his followers,“Stay here. Wait. Wait until you have been clothed with power.”Why the wait? I think God is waiting for us, for you and for me, to say Yes with our own lives: our readiness or at least our willingness to co-operate with God for what God has in mind for our own lives.Dag Hammarskjöld, the great Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote in his diary just before Pentecost in 1961: “…at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”1 Say Yes to your own life. God is waiting for us to say Yes to our own lives, which will open up this channel of God’s power at work within us and through us.
Romans 12:1-2, 9-21
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
There’s a word that shows up in this Gospel lesson appointed for today; the word shows up continually in the Scriptures and in the vocabulary of the church: repent. Repentance is both better and worse than you might imagine. The English word translated as “repentance” is the Greek word “metanoia”: a preposition “meta (after) and “noia” (to think or observe). “Metanoia” – repentance – is something we conclude in hindsight where we realize we had it wrong: something we have done or left undone, said or left unsaid that was wrong. Maybe a conclusion or a judgment call about something or someone which we now see wasn’t right. It may be a whole pattern of actions, brazenly in the open or in the secrecy of darkness that may have snowballed out of control, and it’s wrong. It’s got to stop; we can see it, sadly. And so that’s the other piece about repentance. Repentance isn’t just wisdom gleaned from experience; repentance is regret gleaned from sorrow. We cannot go on, we simply cannot live with ourselves that way any longer. Repentance is hindsight teeming with regret, enough so to fuel a change in life. Repentance is both better and worse than you might imagine.
Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I* will make three dwellings* here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved;* with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.[i]
Mount Tabor is about 100 miles north of Jerusalem,just west of the Sea of Galilee. It is forested with pine trees and offers stunning, panoramic views. On a clear day, to the north and west, you can see Lebanon; to the east, beyond of the Sea of Galilee, you can see Syria, Jordan, and Mount Hermon. Jesus and his disciples would have known the words of Psalm 89 about these majestic mountaintops. The psalmist says, “The north and the south* – you created them;Tabor and Hermon joyously praise your name.”[ii] These mountain tops are sovery beautiful and breezy. Mount Tabor is only about 2,000 feet above sea level, but that is a lofty height above the sea level of Galilee, which is nearly 700 feet below sea level. Mount Tabor is a place where you are glad to linger. It’s heavenly.
Preached at Yale Divinity School
…If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched… (Mark 9:42-50)
Don’t do this. Don’t take Jesus literally – plucking out your eye or cutting off your hand. You take this literally, you won’t finish the term. But do take Jesus seriously. This is hyperbole. My little sister used to say this same thing to me when I was acting out, when I had tried her patience to the extreme. She would say, “Curtis, cut it out!” She got my attention.
The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews, people like many of us. How will we know? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work? What will be the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit among us? Justice. Justice to the nations. These opening words of Isaiah, God’s prophet, about the forthcoming Messiah, and then, later,when Jesus, the Messiah, begins his ministry, his opening words are about justice.[ii]