Hello, and welcome to this short course in discernment in prayer. We’re going to divide this course into two sections. The first part will consist of five video teachings on spiritual discernment. How do we hear God’s voice? And how do we bring God into the realm of our decision-making? How do we pray about choices that are facing us? And what are we looking for? What are we listening for? How do we expect God to come alongside us in those decisions? And we’ll look, especially, at the idea of vocation or our calling in life. How do we discern what we’re meant to do or to be in life?
So that would be the first section, five videotapes covering those topics. We’ll ask, first of all, what is spiritual discernment? Then we’ll ask, what does it mean when we speak about the call of God or about our sense of vocation? In the third video, we’ll look at Jesus and his sense of vocation. And in the fourth tape, we will try to play around with the question of how do we discern our own vocation? And in the fifth and final video in this first part of the course, we’ll be asking the question, is there a proven method, is there a reliable method that we could take up in order to make an important choice in life and pray our way through that choice? So that’s the first part of the course on spiritual discernment.
In the second part of the course, we’ll focus more on discernment of spirits. So discernment of spirits is a process by which we seek to distinguish between different kinds of spiritual stirrings in our heart and identifying those that are of God and those that are not. And the stirrings that are of God, we want to respond to positively and accept them. And the stirrings that are not from God, we want to be able to identify and reject. So, in that second part, the 11 podcasts, Curtis and I will be talking about those principles and how they work out in our daily lives.
So today we’ll begin by just asking the question, what is spiritual discernment? What are we talking about here? And I’d like to begin with a story. I once had a deaf friend, he had been profoundly deaf from birth, and so he had no acquaintance at all with sound, but he had obviously observed hearing people converse with one another, and he knew that when they were moving their jaws and their lips, something was happening, and they were understanding one another. And furthermore, he could see that they didn’t even have to be looking at one another in order to be able to communicate. And the person could be out in the hallway or in another room entirely or outdoors and they could still communicate. So this was something that he had never experienced. And he came to me at one point and asked, “Do you hear God? Does God speak to you?” He wondered if hearing people had the ability to receive communications from God in the same way that they receive communications from one another. I assured him that it wasn’t quite that easy.
But I appreciated his question because I grew up too learning of stories from the Bible in which God spoke to various people, God spoke to Moses, or God spoke to Noah, or God spoke to Jonah. And the message was always very clear. They were certain about what God was asking about them, even if they were reluctant or puzzled or overwhelmed by the words of God. So I grew up reading these kinds of stories of God speaking so clearly, so plainly, so understandably to these biblical figures, and wondered if God would ever speak to me that way or if I would ever experience anything like that.
So how do we hear God’s voice? How do we recognize when God is speaking to us? When we can’t hear the words or judge the intonation of the words, we can’t hear from God in the way that we can hear from other people. And so, how do we recognize the voice of God? I think there isn’t a clear section of scripture that will give us clear instructions on how to recognize the voice of God. But I think there are clues embedded in scripture. And I’d like to begin this series by looking at 1 Samuel chapter three, the story of Samuel’s call from God. In the story, Samuel is a young boy living in the temple and serving Eli, the high priest. And as he’s sleeping one night, a voice calls to him, calling his name, Samuel, Samuel. And Samuel jumps up and he runs to Eli and says, “Here I am, what is it that you want?” Eli says, “I didn’t call you, go back and lie down.” And this happens three times where Samuel is called, he gets up, runs to Eli, and Eli says, “I didn’t call you, return back and lie down again.” The third time, though, Eli senses that something is going on, and he recognizes that God is calling Samuel on that. And now, here’s one instance in the scripture, and there are several of them in scripture, where it seems to be an audible voice. That Samuel was responding to a voice calling his name in the middle of the night.
So that may be outside the experience of most of us, but it seems that it’s possible. So what do we notice in this story? First of all, I think we notice Samuel’s openness, his readiness, his eagerness to hear this voice. He pops up immediately when he hears his name being called and runs to Eli. And even though he doesn’t recognize at first that it’s the voice of the Lord calling him, still he’s very responsive, very open and very willing and eager to hear. So the first requirement for those who would hear the voice of God is to be really listening for it, to be watching for it, to be attentive for it. It puts us in a posture of receptivity. How will God speak to us? How will God direct us? And can I be watching and listening and waiting for God’s voice to come into my experience? So I think Samuel is a good example for us in that. Now, of course, that assumes that we believe that God can actually communicate with us. If we doubt that, if we’re skeptical about that, we’re gonna have difficulty recognizing that voice when it comes to us. We’ll doubt whatever message comes to us and say, “Maybe I just imagined that.”
So they have to have some faith and trust in God’s promises that God will lead us, and that God will direct us, and that God will speak to us. And there are numerous places in the scriptures where we receive that assurance. So, what’s involved? Well, one of the first things that’s involved in listening this voice is to find stillness. It’s important for us to be interiorly quiet and still so that we can hear that inner voice that comes to us so softly, so almost imperceptibly. It helps us to be still. We see this throughout the scriptures and the Psalms, for example, the psalmist says in Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” And then in Psalm 62:1, the psalmist writes, “For God alone my soul waits in silence, from him comes my salvation.” There’s that posture of listening. “My soul waits in silence.” It’s from God that my salvation is going to come, from God my help is going to come, from God the direction and guidance is going to come. And my job is to make my stuff still and receptive and open. Psalm 37:7. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.”
We see this so powerfully in the example of Jesus himself, how he was constantly listening for the word of the father to him, receiving as it were his directions day by day through this intimate connection that he enjoyed with the one that he called father. We see Jesus throughout his ministry regularly withdrawing to deserted places, to mountains, and in a boat to the sea or into the wilderness, where he can be alone, where he can be still, where he can attune his heart to listen to God’s word to him. We see Jesus going into the wilderness, struggling with temptation there and learning to recognize the voice of the enemy and the enticing words of the enemy and being able to repel those words. We see him using times of silence and solitude to discern where next to go in ministry. He withdraws and prays through the night before he selects his apostles. And he prays alone, discerning, “Who did the crowds say that I am?” It’s almost as if he’s trying to understand his own identity and his purpose for being in the world.
We see Jesus also using silence and solitude as a means of rest. And he withdraws after intense ministry, periods of intense ministry, in order to recover himself and to recenter himself, and to reclaim his mission and purpose in life. Each of the gospels testifies to this, in Matthew 14:13. “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.” In mark 6:45-46, we read, “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side to Bethsaida while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.” Luke 5:15-16. “But now, more than ever, the word about Jesus is spread abroad. Many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases, but he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” John 6:15. “When Jesus realized that the crowd was about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew to a mountain by himself.” So each of the gospels testifies to this practice of Jesus of withdrawing into silence and solitude. It’s almost as if he has to be in a quiet place in order to still his soul and to open his heart to receive God’s instructions. And he invites his followers to do the same. He says in Matthew 6, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door, and pray to your father, who is in secret. And your father, who sees in secret, will reward you.”
So the place of prayer is to be a solitary place, a quiet place where we’re alone. “Go into your room and shut the door,” says Jesus, “and there, commune with God.” And he also invites his followers to use silence and solitude as a means for restoring themselves after intense periods of ministry. For example, in Mark 6:31-32, Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves, and rest a while. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” And again, in Matthew 11:28-30. “Come to me,” says Jesus, “all of you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon me on you and learn of me, for I am gentle and humble in the heart, and you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
So just as it was for Jesus, so it’s also important for us to find places and times where we can give our full attention to God, where we can sit and allow our hearts to be stilled, where we can turn our hears and our eyes toward God and open ourselves to how God might want to speak to us in that moment. Monastics throughout history have spoken about the importance of silence and solitude. Here are some words from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, “Souls of prayer are souls of great silence. If we are careful of silence, it will be easy to pray and to pray fervently. There is so much talk, so much repetition, so much caring of tales in words and in writing, our life suffers so much because our hearts are not silent. Silence gives us a new outlook on everything. We need to be silent in order to touch souls. The essential thing is not what we say, but what God says to us and through us.
Jesus is always waiting for us in silence. In that silence, he will listen to us. There, he will speak to our soul, and there, we will hear his voice.” Jesus presents himself as the good shepherd, the one who knows his sheep. And he says, my sheep know me, they hear my voice and they follow me. Unlike the hired hand, who has no investment in the sheep, who runs away at the first sign of danger. The sheep don’t respond to his voice, but they do respond to the voice of the one that they’ve come to know and trust. And Jesus is offering us that same possibility, that he wants to be our good shepherd and to lead us in the way. And he wants us to learn to recognize his voice. So the first thing about prayer is this openness to the voice, this attentiveness, this awareness. And stillness and silence and solitude are so important for discerning that voice. It’s like if we scooped up a jar full of pond water and shook it a little bit, it would be cloudy and murky. But if we set it on a table for a while and come back an hour later, we’ll see that the silt has settled to the bottom and we can see clearly through the water. So these times of silence and solitude, where we come apart and still ourselves, are very important for us to gain that kind of clarity that we need in order to perceive what God is asking of us.
Here’s a second thing in the story of Samuel. And that is that the voice of God is a persistent voice. So it’s a voice that comes to us, not just once, unless we miss it or fail to perceive it, but comes to us again and again and again until finally it takes hold of us and we understand its fullness and can lean into it. So often when we arrive at a place of clarity in our life where we can look back and say, this is really what God has called me to be and to do, I’ve found this sense of vocation in this work or in this place. And we look back over our life and we see how that call was coming to us repeatedly in our history. And we had opportunities to experience and to waken to little bits of that call until finally we get to live in the fullness of it. So God’s voice is a persistent voice. God doesn’t just come to us once, but he comes to us again and again, persistently. Samuel’s story, he comes three times, repeatedly coming. So that word is gently but persistently repeated over and over again, until we find they wake up to its full meaning and impact. A third thing that we can notice in Samuel’s story is that sometimes it’s helpful to have a more experienced guide listening aside of us.
The story of Samuel mentions that the word of the Lord was not frequently heard at that time. And so even Eli seems a little rusty and it takes him three times before he finally understands what’s happening and can instruct and tell Samuel how to recognize this voice and how to respond to it and what he should say. And he sends him back to lie down and says, “When you hear this voice, say, speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. And then be careful to listen to every word and take the message in.” And so Samuel goes back and lies down again. And again, the voice of God comes to him. He wakes hearing his name called, and he says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” And he receives a message. I wonder how Samuel felt about the message that he received, because the message he received from God was basically a condemnation of Eli and his whole household. Eli had not been faithful and had raised two sons who were disrupting the temple and were not good influences. And God was speaking judgment through Samuel. And so sometimes we receive a word that seems difficult to us or that seems harsh. Remember that that word has always spoken in love. Even if it’s a word of admonition or of rebuke, even.
So we open ourselves to this message and we prepare ourselves to hear whatever God wants to communicate to us. There’s always, even in the most difficult word, a sense of rightness about it. And we see that in this story too, because Eli accepts the message. He says to Samuel, “Tell me everything that God said to you, don’t hold anything back.” And Samuel gives him this message of doom for his house. And Eli says, “Let it be according to God’s word.” He accepts this judgment. He knows that it’s right and that’s true. And the same thing will be true for us as we listen to God. We’ll have a sense of rightness about it, a sense of, yes, this is true, this resonates with what I know about God and what I know about myself. That’ll be the ring of truth to the words that God gives us. So we prepare ourselves for this message. When Samuel was called, he was still a boy, and God was calling him to be a prophet, and specifically, calling him to deliver this difficult message to Eli, the high priest.
God often calls us beyond ourselves, beyond what we think we’re capable of. And God calls us to greater things. God’s voice is usually the invitation to something that’s expansive for us, something that’s beyond what we are now or who we are now or what we think we’re capable of now. We see this again and again in scripture. God appears to Moses in the wilderness. Moses is a simple shepherd, and he says, “Moses, I want you to go into Egypt and speak to Pharaoh so that he will release my people from their slavery there.” And the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah, and says, “I want you to be a prophet to the nations.” And the word comes to Mary, and says to this simple peasant girl, “You are about to give birth to the savior of the world.” So God’s call calls us beyond ourselves, beyond our own limited view of ourselves, maybe our limited view of the world, maybe our limited view of what God can do. God’s voice is always leading us to something greater, to something that will expand and stretch and challenge us. I don’t think Moses or Jeremiah or even Mary were particularly reassured by that call. It seemed daunting to them. Moses says, “I can’t speak, I’m a stutterer. I need Aaron to go along with me.” Jeremiah says, “I’m just a boy. How can I speak to the nations?” And Mary says, “How can this be?” She’s simply a young girl in a small village in Galilee. But God has God’s way of drawing us on and of challenging us.
So God’s word to us is often a daring word, an expansive word. Often it’s a surprising word. It surprises us and leads us beyond where we could imagine ourselves to be. Now, the other thing that’s clear in this story is that sometimes it takes a while to learn to recognize the voice of God. So we should be patient with ourselves and say, this is something that I will get better at with time. And we’ll come to know that voice and come to recognize it in various contexts and situations, but it takes time. I think of it as, for example, when a music teacher is teaching young children about the instruments in the orchestra, and she might take a flute and play the flute for them and say, “This is what the flute sounds like, and this is the melody that the flute plays in this piece.” And then, after they’ve learned to recognize that voice, she asks them to listen to it as she puts on the whole recording of the orchestra and all these instruments join in. And they wait and listen, and when they hear the sound of the flute, they recognize it. And I think it’s something similar for us. We go away in places of silence and solitude in order to receive the training that we need to recognize that voice. And then, when we step out into the world again, and we’re surrounded by all the voices of our culture, the voices of our friends, the voices of our peers, the voices of advertising, the voices of the culture, whereas we’re bombarded by all of these voices, we can still hear that one voice amidst all of the other noise. Really come to know that voice and to anticipate it and to love it, and to be eager to follow where it shows us to go.
So discernment, spiritual discernment, is this coming to recognize the voice of God and silence, stillness are important. Attentiveness, willingness to listen, eagerness to hear and to do what God says. Sometimes we need an experienced guide, like Samuel needed Eli, to come alongside us and to listen with us, to help train us to recognize the voice of God. So a spiritual director or a pastor or a spiritual friend can be very useful to us. And remember that God’s voice is always calling us on, and calling us to greater things, and calling us beyond our limited vision in our limited imagination. Jesus says, “Even greater things will you do than the ones that you see me doing.” God’s voice is always an expansive voice. And it takes time for us to learn, to heed, to recognize, to discern and to follow that voice. In our next video, the second video in this series, we’ll be talking specifically about what we mean when we use terms like vocation or a calling in life, to say, I feel called to do this or that, or I feel like I have a vocation to this in this line of work or in this type of service. So we’ll explore that in our next video, and I hope that you’ll join us then.
St Francis of Assisi
You may have noticed upon entering the chapel this morning that the liturgical color is white rather than green, which it would normally be during this season of the Church’s year. It is white because we are observing the Feast of St Francis of Assisi, the little poor man (Il Poverello) who has long been recognized as one of the most beloved saints of all time. His actual feast day is October 4, but we have transferred the feast to today to bring to a close our month-long observance of the Season of Creation, during which we have celebrated and prayed for the earth and its creatures.
I have twice had the good fortune of visiting the town of Assisi, which rests on a hilltop in the breathtakingly-beautiful central region of Italy called Umbria. Assisi is, of course, the birthplace of St Francis, and of the religious order he founded, the Order of Friars Minor (OFM). During my visits to Assisi, my favorite pastime has been to sit in the small chapel in the undercroft of the great Franciscan basilica, where the body of St Francis and four of his early companions are buried, to witness the silent, steady stream of admirers and devotees from all over the world, as they approached his tomb to offer their prayers and to pay their respects. I have literally spent hours there, wondering, as I looked on, how one man, one life, could have had such an enormous impact on the world and could have influenced for good millions upon millions of lives.
Feast of St Matthew
Proverbs 3:1-6, II Timothy 3:14-17, Matthew 9:9-13.
We are remembering with gratitude today the evangelist Matthew, author of the first of the four gospels contained in the New Testament. Matthew’s gospel was written to a Jewish-Christian audience and presents Jesus as the promised Messiah and King who has come to establish the reign of God upon earth. Matthew quotes the Old Testament (or Hebrew scriptures) extensively, arguing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the ancient prophesies that spoke of the coming of the Messiah.
Matthew opens his gospel with this proposition that Jesus is the Messiah, noting the circumstances that surrounded his birth, and explaining their significance. Then follow five sections, each containing narratives describing the words and actions of Jesus, and a block of Jesus’ teaching. The teachings elaborate what the kingdom of heaven is, and describe how those who belong to that kingdom are to conduct themselves in the world. The five sections bring to mind the five books of the law – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — all of which have been traditionally ascribed to Moses. The comparison is intentional: Moses was the great teacher of the Old Testament and of Israel; Jesus is the great teacher of the New Testament and of Christianity.
Given our proximity to the ocean, we might imagine a vast body of water when we read in the Gospels about the Sea of Galilee. But the Sea of Galilee is no ocean. The Sea of Galilee is a lake, a large fresh-water lake in northern Israel/Palestine. The lake is 33 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is fed by the Jordan River which flows from north to south, and also by underground springs.
The Sea of Galilee is as dangerous as it is distinctive: distinctive because it is the lowest freshwater lake on earth – it’s surface almost 700 feet below sea level, with a beautiful shoreline, pristine drinking water, and a plentiful stock of fish. Anddangerous because of its surprising and violent storms. From the Golan Heights in the east, fierce, cool winds meet up with the warm temperatures of the lake basin, sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been tranquil and the sky perfectly clear.
This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples. They had set off in their small fishing boat in seemingly tranquil waters, when suddenly a violent storm arose. Their tiny boat was being battered by the wind and the waves, and there seemed to be no possibility of safely reaching the shore. They were swamped by fear. They had fished on this lake for a living. They knew this water, they knew these storms, and they were terrified!
And you? You probably know how it is to be sailing through life in radiant sunlight when swiftly and unexpectedly a storm arises and you suddenly find yourself swamped by mighty waves and tossed about by terrible winds. Perhaps something tragic or frightening has happened to a family member or friend, or to you; maybe it’s a health issue, a financial disaster, an accident, some kind of assault, or some other unforeseen suffering. There is so much to be afraid of in life, and our fears can seem so great when we feel so small. Fear is no respecter of age, or gender, or social standing. Fear may be the most common experience we share with all of humankind: the consuming, crippling, sometimes-irrational visitation of fear. We can experience fear when we face impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined does not matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to swamp our lives and make us sink. Whatever its source, our fear is real.
Jesus speaks a great deal about fear and anxiety, which is quite revealing. He would have learned his lessons about fear from two sources, one being the Hebrew scriptures. The scriptures which he would have known – what we call the “Old Testament” – are replete with messages about worry and fear. We are told very plainly that we do not need to be afraid, and this is because of God’s promise and provision, God’s steadfast love and unfailing faithfulness. Fear’s tight hold on us is loosened, the Bible assures us, when we put our trust in God.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me,” the psalmist says, “and delivered me out of all my terror.” (Ps.34:4)
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” another psalmist declares. “The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? …. Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; and though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him.” (Ps 27:1,3-4)
“Whenever I am afraid,” the psalmist says to God, “I will put my trust in you.” (Ps 56:3)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” writes another, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult…. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” (Ps 46:1-3,11)
Jesus would have known these words, just as he would have known the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“But now, thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isa 43:1-3)
Jesus would also have learned about fear from his own life. I am not talking about the fear he observed in other people. I am talking about his own personal fear, what he experienced. We don’t know the specifics of what Jesus feared, but we do know that Jesus lived a fully human life, and therefore he must have been acquainted with fear, undoubtedly. If you want to imagine what Jesus feared, use your own life as an example. Of what have you been afraid? If you went back in memory to your earliest childhood, then your adolescence, then coming into your twenties and beyond into adulthood, what has caused you to fear?
Were you afraid there would not be enough of something, or afraid there would be too much of something? Were you afraid because you might be excluded from something, or afraid because you might be included in something? Were you afraid because you might be asked to speak, or afraid because, when you spoke, no one would listen, or no one would understand? Were you afraid because you might be left alone, or afraid because you would not be left alone? Were you afraid because of too much work, or afraid because there was no work, or no meaningful work? Were you afraid because you stood out, or afraid because you felt unnoticed, lost in the crowd, forgotten, invisible? Were you afraid because you were bullied, or because you faced prejudice or persecution? Were you ever so afraid that you feared for your life? Or were you afraid because of your own temper? Some of our fears are pathetic: tiny, tedious, embarrassing to even admit… and yet they are very real. We suffer with our fears – which are the kinds of things Jesus must also have been afraid of, because these are the kind of fears that visit us in life.
When Jesus talks about not being afraid, he is not speaking clinically, nor is the source of his teaching primarily from external observation. He is rather speaking from his own experience. He is speaking about fear from the inside-out, autobiographically. He had as much to be afraid of as you and I have. And then, something slowly happened to Jesus. Something shifted in Jesus in the nearly 20 years between when he was, at age 12, discussing theology with the elders in the Temple in Jerusalem, and when appeared before his cousin, John, to be baptized in the Jordan River. These 20-some years are often called Jesus’ “hidden years,” and we are not told where Jesus was or what he was doing. The scriptures are silent on this period of Jesus’ life. I am certain he was making peace with the terms of his life, and that included facing his fears.
When Jesus finds his voice – at around age 30 – he speaks a great deal about fear, worry, and anxiety: he tells us that we need not be afraid, that we need not worry, that we need not be anxious. Why is that? Because of God’s powerful presence and provision; and because of God’s enduring faithfulness. Jesus learned this. In facing his own fears, he discovered he was not alone.
Going back to the Gospel lesson appointed for today: When a violent storm descends upon the disciples in the boat, Jesus appears to them. The disciples are terrified. Whatever we make of Jesus’ walking on the stormy water, we can see that he is not afraid. Had he ever been afraid of storms on the Sea of Galilee? I’m sure he had. He had grown up in Nazareth, which is not far from the Sea of Galilee. He knew storms, inside and out. But he is no longer afraid of storms. And he tells his disciples, he tells us, not to be afraid. He isn’t scolding us; he is reassuring us not to be afraid, because we don’t need to be afraid. He has come to know this, from the scriptures and from his own experience. And he promises us his power, his provision, his presence to be with us always, to the end of the storm, and to the end of life.
If your life now is swamped with fear, or if you are afraid about an incoming storm in your life – and I presume that all of us are acquainted with fear – remember this: our fear is not an obstacle to God but rather an invitation from God to take Jesus at his word. We need not be afraid. Jesus will know every reason why we could be afraid because he’s been there. He assures us not to be afraid, not to have anxiety, because he is with us: his presence, his power, his provision. For us, fear can seem such an inmovable impediment. But for God, our fear presents an opportunity to show forth God’s presence, and power, and provision; and an opportunity for us to learn to trust. Our fear is God’s invitation, and Jesus will make good on his promise to be with us always. There is so much of which we could be afraid in life, but Jesus assures us not to fear.
Saint Francis De Sales, a 17th century Bishop of Geneva, who lived during a very stormy time in history, left us with these words of assurance:
“Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life;
rather look to them with full hope that as they arise,
God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in his arms.
“Do not fear what may happen tomorrow.
The same everlasting Father who cared for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
“He will either shield you from suffering,
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.”
Jesus has the last word: “Do not fear, for I am with you, always.” (cf Mt 28:20)
We would be hard pressed to find anyone in scripture who suffered more setbacks in life than Joseph. His brothers were jealous of him and, finding an opportunity to do away with him, sold him to slave traders who were passing through the land. He was brought to Egypt and purchased by Potiphar, a wealthy and powerful Egyptian, who eventually recognized Joseph’s intelligence, honesty and hard work, and put him in charge of all that he had. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him and, when he refused her, she accused him before her husband and he was imprisoned. Even in prison his character and his deep insight continued to impress others. He interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s servants and was promised freedom, but was then forgotten and left to languish in his prison cell. Finally he got his opportunity, when Pharaoh himself had a troubling dream and Joseph was called to interpret it. This he did, saving the land and its people from a deadly famine. He rose in Pharaoh’s eyes and became a powerful ruler, second only to Pharaoh himself.
And then we read that his brothers, experiencing famine in their own land, came to Egypt seeking food. Joseph recognizes them, but conceals his identity from them. He sends them home with food, but arranges for his younger brother to be brought to him. In the touching passage we read today, he finally breaks down and reveals his true identity to them. “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into slavery,” he says; “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5).
“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (v.14)
Fasting was a commonly accepted spiritual practice among the Jews and had been for centuries. It was recognized as an effective way to express sorrow for sin and a means, hopefully, to avoid God’s judgment. John the Baptist and his followers and the Pharisees regularly practiced it, not only for their own sakes, but vicariously for the nation.
Jesus stands in contrast to them. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking,” the Gospel writer tells us (Mt 11:19). Jesus and his disciples do not fast – which naturally raises the curiosity and suspicion of those who do. Jesus’ nonparticipation in this particular spiritual practice points to its theological weakness. Fasting, as it is often understood and practiced, emphasizes not what God is doing, but what humans must do in order to humor God into behaving favorably. Jesus claims this is unnecessary because God is present and active now; the Good News of God’s reign is here! “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (v.15a) The “bridegroom” is Jesus himself: through his ministry of healing and reconciliation, as well as through his association with outcasts and sinners, Jesus is proclaiming the arrival of God’s rule. God is not distant and threatening, but present and active, here and now, bringing forth new life! And that is cause for celebration!
I Timothy 6:7-10, 17-19
It is a rare person who cannot be tempted by wealth. Most of us believe that if we were wealthier our lives would be easier and more enjoyable than they are now. We envy those who are rich enough to satisfy not only their “needs” but also most of their “wants.” We imagine that they are free of worry and can rest in the assurance that they have what they need to face the future with confidence.
But appearances can be deceptive. The passages we have before us today warn us that the desire for wealth can be extremely dangerous. “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Desiring to be rich is dangerous. It can easily lead us into bad choices, which damage our character and our reputation, wreak havoc with our relationships, and result in ruin and destruction. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus warns us.
This spring we’ve watched as a pair of morning doves built a nest on the outdoor crucifix located in our cloister garden. Nestled on the shoulder of the crucified Jesus, the mother sat motionless on her eggs for days and days. At last the chicks emerged.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to be watching the nest this past Monday evening. The two chicks are now adolescents, about 2/3 the size of their adult parents and darker in coloring. They were sitting side by side in the nest, eagerly looking out on the world. Their mother appeared and, standing on the head of the crucified Jesus, she fed them. Then she flew off and perched nearby where she could keep a close eye on them.
You could tell there was something happening. The young birds began rocking back and forth in the nest, as if working up their courage to leave the warmth and security of the nest. Finally, one of them took the leap. It flapped wildly around the cloister, unable to control its flight, banging into the walls and ceiling until it finally fell stunned to the floor. The second one readied itself for its first flight, rocking in the nest before finally launching its body into the air. Like the first, it flapped wildly about, crashing into the ceiling and walls, and then landing on the floor. It waited for a bit, then took off again, this time successfully navigating its way through the arches and out into the garden.
Poet and author Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably best known for the words she wrote in a letter to her future husband: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Her father, Edward, was a controlling man who forbid any of his twelve children to marry, and when Elizabeth defied her father’s wishes to marry Robert Browning, her father never spoke to her again.
Elizabeth wrote weekly letters to her father in the hope that they might be reconciled, but for ten years there was no response. Then one day, after a decade of silence, a box arrived in the mail from her father. Her excitement quickly turned to anguish, however, when she opened it and found that it contained all of her letters – unopened. Edward Barrett’s heart was so hardened towards his daughter that he didn’t open a single one of the hundreds of letters she wrote to him.
Unforgiveness does that. It hardens the heart. It magnifies the perceived offense to the point where we can no longer appreciate a person’s value because all we see is how they have grieved us. If forgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for redemption in the Christian faith, unforgiveness is one of the most powerful forces for destruction. In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus gives us a parable that speaks to us about forgiveness and unforgiveness.[i]
All of us have secrets: secret thoughts, secret feelings, secret fears, hopes and desires. All of us know more about ourselves than we care to share with others. We allow others to think we have pure hearts, but we know that we harbor impure thoughts. We hope others will notice how unselfish we are, yet we know that selfishness still resides in us. We want people to see us as strong and courageous, but we know that often we are weak and afraid.
We live with secrets, all of us. We’re sometimes shocked when we learn something about a person that we never would have guessed, something that had been hidden from us. But the truth is that we will never fully know even the closest of our friends and companions. We are mysteries to each other, like icebergs of which we can see only the tip. And we are mysteries to ourselves. We will never fully understand why we think and act in the ways we do. Only God knows the secrets of our hearts.
Jesus often exposed the secrets of others. He perceived the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He discerned the true motives of the crowds that followed him. He saw into the hearts of his disciples. He knows our secrets. He knows that what we do on the outside does not always match up with what is going on within us. We may appear to be seeking God and trying to do what is right, and yet inwardly we are preoccupied with the impression we are making on other people. We may give the appearance of serving God, but it may not actually be God’s approval that we are seeking, or God’s purposes that we are trying to advance.