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.
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.