In the calendar of the church we remember today an Egyptian monk named Pachomius, who lived years 290-346. Pachomius was born in a small village in northern Egypt to a family who worshipped the gods of the Pharaohs. As a young man Pachomius was conscripted into military service. His fifth-century biography, the Vita Prima, recalls that where he was billeted, he for the first time met Christians who did “all manner of good… treating [everyone] with love for the sake of the God of heaven.” Pachomius was smitten by the kind and generous camaraderie, the koinonia, of Christian believers, the very thing described in the Acts of the Apostles: “They were of one heart and one soul,” and who essentially practiced three things: these Christians lived together in community, they prayed and worshipped, and they served others. This experience for Pachomius was life-changing. He prayed to this Christian God, promising that he would live his life in the same way. When he was discharged from military service, he was baptized, and for several years was formed in the Christian life by one of the desert hermits.
Pachomius had a series of visions, something he had never experienced before. The visions were about his becoming a monk, but not alone. Christian hermits had already been living in solitude in the Egyptian desert for about 50 years, since the late 3rdcentury. But Pachomius’ visions were about his living as a monk in community. He had as a model the words which we just heard from the Acts of the Apostles: “All who believed were together and had all things in common. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[i]And “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Saint Philip and Saint James, Apostles
In the calendar of the church we remember today Saint Philip and Saint James, both of whom were chosen by Jesus for his original circle of twelve Apostles. But here I must make a disclaimer. We know almost nothing about them. This Apostle James is not James, son of Zebedee, who, with his brother, John, had lobbied Jesus to sit at his right hand and left hand when Jesus came into power in Jerusalem.[i] Nor is this the James, the brother of Jesus, the brother traditionally known as the author of the Epistle of James and the sometime-Bishop of Jerusalem.[ii] This is James #3, son of Alphaeus, whom we know nothing about.[iii] This James is often called “James the Less,” which is not exactly flattering, but helps avoid some confusion with James #1 and James #2, about whom we know more.
As for Philip, he came from the same town as two other Apostles – the brothers Andrew and Peter – and that was Bethsaida, alongside the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel according to John, we read that Jesus “found” Philip.[iv] Like with the other Apostles, Philip took a long time to understand Jesus. In the Gospel according to John, we read about the multitude of hungry people listening to Jesus teach. Jesus then asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” We are told Jesus already knows what he is going to do, and so this is a test for Philip. Philip essentially fails the test. He answers Jesus, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Jesus then feeds the multitude with a boy’s five barley loaves and two fish.[v] On another occasion Philip fails the test again. He says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus answers Philip in exasperation, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’”[vi]
…Create in me a contrite heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit…
The gradual psalm we prayed together moments ago, Psalm 51, is the same psalm we prayed aloud in the Ash Wednesday liturgy as we began the season of Lent: “Create in me a contrite heart, O God…”[i] The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.” The energy around the word “contrite” is not a prayer that our heart be broken. It’s already happened. Contrition is a state you realize: “I’m just crushed.” If you’ve ever said that or felt that – “I’m just crushed.” – because of something sad or bad that has happened in your life, you will understand the essence of contrition. It’s just that contrition is feeling crushed from the inside out. You are not just the victim; you are also the culprit. Contrition is the dawning of regret or remorse about something you know to be wrong in your life.
Lenten Commemoration – George Herbert (1593-1633)
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the calendar of the church, we commemorate today a 17th-century Church of England country parson named George Herbert. Down through the centuries, he is most remembered for his arresting, revealing, passionate poetry, which was published posthumously. There was a secret to George Herbert’s greatness, but not the obvious.
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.