Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
In the Gospel according to Luke, there is a scene where Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”[i] Here is my hunch. All who heard Jesus were amazed at his knowledge: a precocious, 12-year old boy from Nazareth (which was a Podunk) and being so smart. There is a somewhat similar reaction after Jesus begins his public ministry. By this time, Jesus is about 30 years old, a relatively old man in first-century Palestine. Once more, people are astounded with him. Luke reports that people asked themselves aloud, “Where did this man get all this?” What are they talking about? Not just Jesus’ knowledge. Luke reports Jesus had grown, and become strong, and was now filled with wisdom.[ii] The crowds were amazed and asked, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?[iii] Evidence of Jesus’ wisdom is what we hear in this Gospel lesson appointed for today: “[Jesus] taught as one having authority.”[iv]
In the scriptures, wisdom is the gift extolled above all others for how to make meaning and how to navigate life. Wisdom is a deep knowledge, much deeper than simply information. We have today an information glut. As you well know, it’s possible to browse through a virtually-infinite stream of data with simply a click: an endless array of “horizontal information.” It’s possible to browse life only at the surface, none of which automatically translates into wisdom. Information alone may make us competent, or make us look smart; information alone may breed arrogance; information alone may overwhelm us; information alone may make us conversant in multiple platforms.[v] Information alone is not wisdom. Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist, said that, “Wisdom is knowledge and the knowledge of its own limits.”[vi]
In the scriptures, we are consistently called “children of God,” not “adults of God,” but “children of God.” The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 40, is spoken to you, a child of God:
I waited patiently upon the Lord;
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure. (Psalm 40:1-2)
The psalmist begins, “I waited patiently upon the Lord.” You will know something about this, when you are having to wait in life. This kind of waiting is not an eager waiting, where you are pirouetting around with great expectation about something wonderful you just can’t wait to happen. It’s not a waiting where you are jumping up and down, because you can hardly wait. This kind of waiting implies suffering, when you are dreading something, or when you are stuck in a seemingly-intractable situation which is imprisoning. You are waiting patiently because you are powerless in-and-of yourself to rise above your insufferable circumstances. The English word “patience” comes from Latin patientia which means, literally, a “quality of suffering.” And suffering you are as you wait patiently, hopefully, desperately.
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The prayer with which we opened our liturgy today includes a rather loaded word: “conscience.” We prayed, “purify our conscience, Almighty God…” I’d like to speak about your conscience… which may make some of you inwardly roll your eyes or duck for cover. “Yikes: my conscience!” Our conscience typically gets rather bad press. Our conscience is about everything we do wrong… and we know it. We may hope it all stays a secret, and yet we also know, “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sakes…”[i] Is that about Santa Claus or about God? Hmmm. Well it’s certainly about conscience, which comes from the Latin conscientia, which is a knowledge within oneself, an inner sense of what is right.”[ii] With our actions and our thoughts, there’s an inner knowing about our outer doing or saying, a kind of simultaneous overlay of direction and correction. That’s our conscience. In a few moments, we will be invited to make a confession of sin about things we know better about: where it is – don’t we know? – that things should have been different in what we’ve said or left unsaid, things we’ve done or left undone. And we know it. That awareness comes out of our “bad” conscience, i.e., our conscious awareness of being in the wrong.
1 Thessalonians 5:11
If you have the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land, you inevitably experience a great diversity of people. Among them are Jews, Muslims, and Christians, all of whom lay claim to both the land, and to their own particular narrative of history: what has happened there down through the centuries, and why. Though there is a common ground, there is not a common creed, as we well know… except that all three faith traditions look to the same place and time and person, the first person to be invited into a relationship with God. And this is Abraham and his wife, Sarah, with whom God establishes a covenant.
A covenant is not the same as a contract. A contract is a transaction, but a covenant is a relationship. A contract is about interests, but a covenant is about identity. And that is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform. Covenants transform. We are covenanted people. I am drawing here on the teaching of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, sometime Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, who spoke about ten years ago to the Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference.[i] In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and the integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can do alone. A covenant is about relationship, a relationship that invites and presumes a transformative change will happen in both persons, both parties.
Today we remember with thanksgiving one of Jesus’ twelve Apostles named Luke. Luke was odd-man-out. Luke was not a Jew and, unlike most, he was educated. His home was likely Antioch, capital of Syria. Some historians conjecture he was educated in Tarsus, in what is now southern Turkey. Tarsus was the foundation of a famous medical school, and also the home town of St. Paul, with whom Luke became a devoted friend. Paul writes from prison just before he was executed: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course… Only Luke is with me.”[i] Luke also knew Peter, the Apostle. When it comes to the writing attributed to Luke, it is the most eloquent Greek of the New Testament, and it is revealing what Luke notices and records. Of the four Gospel writers, only Luke remembers that Jesus began his public ministry talking about healing.[ii]
As a physician, Luke would have practiced his vocation with a combination of science, experience, intuition, and bedside manner, then as now. The medical arts. Tradition has it that Luke may also have been an artist; he certainly was a wordsmith. Like no other writer in the New Testament, Luke describes with fascinating, picturesque detail the angels’ Annunciation to the Virgin Mary; the Visitation to her kinsfolk, Elizabeth and Zacharias[iii]; the Nativity scene with the Shepherds; Jesus’ Presentation at age 12 in the Temple; the Good Shepherd searching for the lost sheep. These and many other scenes, particularly about the poor, are described by Luke in the Gospel attributed to him and in the Acts of the Apostles. Luke’s descriptions have become inspired, inspiring themes of artists, writers, and preachers down through the centuries.[iv] If Luke did not paint with pigment, he surely painted with words.
One of my favorite music recordings is of Arthur Rubenstein, the great Polish-American classical pianist, playing Chopin.[i] Rubenstein was known to be the greatest interpreter of Chopin in his time. This particular recording is brilliant. It’s not just the music; it’s also the jacket cover. The recording was originally made in 1965, when Rubenstein was still at his height. This newer recording is actually a remix of the 1965 recording released again in 1981, about a year before he died at age 95. The photo on the jacket cover captures the elderly Rubenstein in deep concentration, with his hands at work on the keyboard… except the keyboard and the piano are non-existent. Rubenstein is pictured, clad in his shirtsleeves, sitting in his apartment, with his hands outstretched above his coffee table, playing “in the air” what it must have been like for him to play in the great concert halls of the world. In this cover photo, Rubenstein is absolutely engrossed in the music which he no longer actually plays, but remembers and rehearses on his invisible piano. He is a man at peace. This informal portrait of Rubenstein is stunning.
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.