I was listening to public radio yesterday and learned of a new book written primarily for women – but with application for us all, I would imagine. It’s called Overwhelmed. The title struck me as particularly appropriate for the times in which we are living. Many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by the pace of life, by the expectations placed on us by our families or our work places, by the culture in which we live or by the demands of technology. We feel overwhelmed at times by the political tensions that are so evident right now in our country, or by the threats of enemies abroad. We worry about gun violence, climate change, and economic stability. Life can sometimes feel overwhelming and the temptation to desperation or despair very real. Perhaps you are even now in such a place, uncertain about your future or our future as a nation and a world.
Where do people of faith find hope in times of trouble? Where do they turn in times of duress, when their world has been turned upside-down, when their expectations have been shattered, when even their beliefs and assumptions have been called into question? A look at today’s gospel lesson may help.
Journey to the Center of the World
SSJE's Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
Br. David Vryhof, SSJE
In late May 2018, I journeyed with forty pilgrims – members of the Fellowship of Saint John and Friends of SSJE – and Brothers Jonathan Maury and Nicholas Bartoli on a ten-day pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine, the sacred land where Jesus was born, where he ministered, and where he was crucified and resurrected.
Our journey brought us to Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Savior, and to Nazareth, the tiny village where he grew up. It led us into the Judean wilderness, where we celebrated the Eucharist in dawn’s early light. It took us to the Mount of the Beatitudes, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, and Tabgha, the place where Jesus fed the multitudes. It led us through the four quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem, to the Western Wall of the Temple, the Temple Mount, the Upper Room, and the Church of the Resurrection. We renewed our baptismal vows at the Jordan River and floated in the Dead Sea. We feasted on Middle-Eastern cuisine and enjoyed the generous hospitality of Palestinian Christians. We laughed and cried together. We had so much to talk about, but we also needed time alone and in silence to ponder these wonders in our own hearts.
We gathered first, as you would expect, in the Old City of Jerusalem. At the Church of the Resurrection – regarded as the most holy site in all of Christianity – a marble compass marks “the center of the world.” The reference is from Psalm 48:1, where Jerusalem is described as “the city of our God…beautiful and lofty, the joy of all the earth…the hill of Zion, the very center of the world…” Jerusalem is a focal point not just for Christianity, but also for Islam and Judaism. A short distance from this compass is the Western Wall of the Temple, the holiest site for Jews. Atop this wall is the Temple Mount, home of the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into the heavens on his Night Journey. A tremendous amount of sacred and strife-filled history is encompassed within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Pilgrims experience this mix of energy. Jerusalem, and what surrounds it, is as fascinating and as complicated now as it was in Jesus’ own day.
The psalms speak repeatedly of “going up to Jerusalem,” this “city set on a hill.” For many centuries before Jesus’ birth and since, Jerusalem and the Holy Land have been a magnet for pilgrims. Joseph and Mary, with Jesus, would have observed the great Jewish holidays, three of which were pilgrimage festivals, ideally spent in Jerusalem. Passover, in the spring, recalled the exodus from Egypt. Fifty days later, the “Feast of Weeks” was an agricultural festival thanking God for the fruitfulness of the land. In the autumn, the “Feast of Booths” was an eight-day harvest celebration marked by music, feasting, and dancing; which recalled the forty years the people of Israel spent in the wilderness. During this festival everybody was to live in temporary dwellings or “booths.”
Throughout our pilgrimage, we were companioned by a local guide, Canon Iyad Qumri, our cherished, long-time friend. Iyad is a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, an Anglican and a licensed Israeli guide. His understanding of the history and geography of the region, of the Bible, and of the intersection of cultures, ancient and new, is brilliant. We Brothers complemented Iyad by leading worship and offering meditations along the way to help our companion-pilgrims make meaning of the many layers of revelation.
Every first-time pilgrim to the Holy Land arrives with at least some sense of what he or she will experience. A pilgrim may have their mind’s eye informed by museum artwork and stained-glass depictions of scenes in the life of Jesus. These scenes may or may not prove to be accurate depictions of the places and people we discover on pilgrimage. Usually not. We soon discover that the people of the Holy Land bear little resemblance to the Anglicized figures depicted in our Sunday School papers. We knew that, intellectually, before we arrived; but it’s a completely different experience to be immersed in a Middle-Eastern culture which, in so many ways, parallels the political, social, and religious landscape of Jesus’ own day. Pilgrims also bring expectations and biases, conscious or otherwise.
The SSJE Brothers serve as chaplains to the pilgrims, helping them to integrate and make meaning of their personal histories, of the biblical accounts, of the geography and culture, and of the present situation in Israel/Palestine. Sometimes, when visiting a particular place, we would say, “This is where the Church has remembered such-and-such happening,” e.g., a particular scene remembered in the Gospels. Whether or not the scholars are in agreement that this particular place is definitely The Place, nevertheless the site has been made holy, down through the centuries, by the countless number of pilgrims who have come there to pray and to worship. In SSJE’s Rule of Life, we speak of helping people “to pray their lives,” and this takes on a multi-dimensional meaning in the Holy Land.
A pilgrimage typically includes three experiences: leaving something, gaining something, and struggling with something. Many pilgrims will want to leave a concern, or leave a need, or leave a sin or a sorrow in God’s hands while on pilgrimage. The desire is for relief of this burden which weighs down one’s life. Many pilgrims are also looking to gain something: healing, hope, freedom, a sense of belonging, an insight that comes from “the eyes of one’s heart” being enlightened. Pilgrimage also typically includes a bonum arduum, an “arduous good.” There’s at least one thing about a pilgrimage that will be difficult for each person. Pilgrims following Jesus’ way will somehow get in touch with “the cost of discipleship.” The cost may have to do with one’s own internal “baggage.” The cost may relate to one’s memories, or hopes, or health, or to one’s fellow travelers. Pilgrimages are fascinating and transformative; they are not altogether easy. Sometimes they’re messy or overwhelming. Nonetheless, most pilgrims will say or sense that making a pilgrimage is something they really needed to do in their lifetime.
Whether or not you have the experience of making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land sometime in your lifetime, you may find it very significant to make pilgrimage a periodic practice in your life. You may be drawn to make a pilgrimage to some place or places that were significant to you, your family, or to others who are important to you. A pilgrimage invites you to recollect your life, or perhaps to make meaning of your life in and through a particular setting. A pilgrimage will inspire you to find freedom to be fully alive. To where are you intrigued to go on pilgrimage? God’s inspiration is behind your intrigue.
Br. David Vryhof
Phillipians 3:4b-14; Matthew 20:17-28
What comes to mind when you hear the word “servant” or “slave”? Most of us imagine a person who is not free to do what he pleases, one who lacks the power or freedom or resources to direct his own life, one who must work to fulfill the desires of another. We think of a servant or slave as powerless in relation to his superior. His station in life demands that he constantly set aside his own desires to fulfill the desire of his master. For most of us, it is not an enviable position. How many of us would willingly sacrifice our independence and autonomy to become the slave of another person?
And yet this is what Jesus asks of his disciples, that they imitate him as one who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (v.28).
In his letter to the Christians at Corinth, St Paul writes, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” (I Cor. 4:1,2) “Think of us in this way,” says Paul, “as servants of Christ.” He says this with pride, not shame. He is not embarrassed that he has been reduced to the role of a servant; he does not regret that he is no longer free to do his own will and is compelled to do the bidding of another. Nor is there any suggestion that he has been forced to become a servant – in fact, the opposite is true: Paul has voluntarily chosen to take up this role. He sees it as a glorious privilege to be considered a servant of Christ. He sees it as a blessing to live no longer for himself, but for Christ. He is honored to have been entrusted with divine mysteries, and feels both an obligation and a desire to be found trustworthy in this responsibility.
(for contextual notes about this passage in the arc of Mark’s Gospel, see the end of this sermon)
Picture this: Jesus and his disciples are traveling on a hot and dusty road from Galilee – the territory in the north where he was raised and where he has been teaching and healing – to Jerusalem, the holy city in the south that is the center of Jewish faith and practice. He has deliberately set out to go there, “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” knowing full well its dangers, and the opposition he is certain to face there.
Along the way, he has revealed to his disciples that he must suffer and be put to death by his enemies, but that God will raise him to life again. These words confuse and frighten them and they repeatedly demonstrate their failure to understand not only the meaning of this prediction, but also who he is and what he has been teaching them. They seem not to have grasped at all the concept of the “kingdom” of which he has been speaking – an “upside-down kingdom” in which the first are last and the last are first, in which to lose one’s life is to gain it, and in which the greatest is the servant of all.
Just now they have been arguing amongst themselves over who will be the greatest in the kingdom which they are sure he will establish once he arrives in Jerusalem and defeats his foes. Jesus corrects them and tells them plainly that in God’s kingdom “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then, we are told, “he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me’” (Mk 9:35-37). For Jesus, children are a sacrament of God’s presence and of his presence and are therefore to be protected and loved.
One day Jesus was invited to dine at the house of a Pharisee. While they were at table, a woman “who was a sinner” entered the room with an alabaster jar of ointment. She began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued to kiss his feet as she poured the costly ointment over them. We are not told who the woman was, or what had earned her the reputation of “a sinner,” or how she knew Jesus, or why she was weeping and anointing his feet. The gospel writer records only her simple act of profound love and devotion.
The Pharisee objected mightily to this woman’s presence in his house. He may have been irritated that she was distracting his guest and ruining his party. But it’s more likely that he objected to her very presence. He said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” For the Pharisee, that label had clear implications: it dictated how a righteous person would respond to her. Certainly a teacher like Jesus should understand these important social norms. Not only would he not have let her touch him, he would not have interacted with her in any way. To do so would compromise his own holiness.
So what do you make of the story we’ve just read from the Gospel of Luke? Do you believe in ‘demons’ or ‘unclean spirits’ that ‘possess’ people and cause physical and mental illness? Do you believe that these ‘demons’ can be ‘cast out’ and that Jesus had power over them, as this story testifies? Or do you suspect that this story so heavily reflects first-century beliefs about human behavior and illness that it has little relevance to us who live in the modern era? Is it difficult for you to make sense of “Jesus, the exorcist”?
Our ability to hear, to comprehend and to profit from accounts like this one from Luke’s gospel is certainly shaped by our modern context. On the one hand, we are enlightened people, with access to vast amounts of information about human psychology, human behavior, and human illnesses that simply did not exist in Jesus’ day. So we might naturally be skeptical about first-century assumptions about demons and demon-possession. It’s likely that we could come up with a number of other plausible explanations for what might have happened that day in the synagogue at Capernaum that would make more sense to our modern minds.
This is one horrific story – so senseless, so tragic. It recounts the death of a devoted servant of God who played a vital role in salvation history. His death is no martyrdom. This is not Stephen, who after testifying to God’s faithfulness lifts his eyes to the heavens and beholds Jesus, as the stones batter his body and end his life. No, this death is brought about by a drunken, lustful ruler who allows himself to be seduced by the sensuous dancing of his teenage daughter and tricked by his cunning wife into making a foolish promise that he must then carry out just to save face in the company of his equally-besotted guests. This is a silent beheading, without witnesses or testimony, of a man of God who had been imprisoned for his bold witness to the truth.
The “king” was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had married a Nabataean princess but then discarded her in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. The dishonored princess fled in humiliation back to her father, which led to a military conflict in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed by the Nabataean king and his forces. Nevertheless, Herod married Herodias, and no one except John the Baptist had the courage and moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was. No one except John made any attempt to hold this king accountable for his lies and deceptions, and for his evil actions. No one else had the courage to speak the truth to him. They were all afraid.
When I read the gospel lesson for this Eucharist, my first response was ‘how timely!’
This story feels particularly helpful and relevant to me right now because it deals with our response to fear, and while fear can be a threatening presence in our lives at most any time, it seems to me that it is particularly present in the current age. Our country is more polarized than at any time in recent memory.
We are witnessing the gaps widen between the rich and the poor,
between the privileged and powerful and the weakest and most vulnerable;
between the “right” and the “left,” between “conservatives” and “liberals”,
between Republicans and Democrats,
between viewers of Fox News and viewers of CNN;
between white people and the structures that support their place of privilege in the world and people of color who are fed up with being the victims of racism and xenophobia;
between government officials and the people they represent, and even between our country and other nations of the world, many of whom have been our allies in the past.
Fear seems to be at the heart of so much of the conflict and distrust: Some of us fear that our culture is changing in ways that threaten our values and beliefs. Some of us are afraid that others will take what we have – whether that be our property or our security or our way of life or our rights as human beings worthy of respect and equality with others. Fear is often at the core of our response to our “enemies,” real or perceived; we fear individuals and groups of people who have power over us and who seem willing to take us to places where we do not want to go. For many of us, fear has been the unwelcomed companion who forces his way into our lives against our wishes, and remains stubbornly in our midst while we try to imagine how we will ever get him to leave! It feels as if we are in an age of strife that is threatening our ability to live peaceably together and to work towards clearly-identified common goods. It feels like we are caught in a storm, partly of our own making – a perfect storm in which fear has been a primary catalyst.
You might have noticed that the gospel story read this morning contains two healing miracles, not one. What makes them particularly interesting is that they are interwoven – in fact, one story interrupts the other.
We find Jesus surrounded by “a large crowd” just after his return from a healing mission that had taken him across the Sea of Galilee. A man approaches him – not just any man, but a leader of the synagogue, a person of considerable social status and importance. He is desperate with worry and grief and, abandoning all dignity, he falls to the ground at Jesus’ feet and “begs him repeatedly,” the gospel writer tells us,to come and lay his hands on his sick daughter, who is at the point of death. There is a mixture of desperation and hope in his eyes. He is convinced that Jesus has the authority to make her well, if only he will come, and quickly. So Jesus went with him. The crowd followed.
On the way a curious thing happens. Jesus suddenly stops and looks around. “Who touched me?” he asks. This strikes even his own disciples as an odd question, given that throngs of people are surrounding him and jostling against him. But he is “aware that power had gone forth from him” and he wants to know to whom it has gone. There is a pause, until a woman slowly comes forward and admits that it was she who reached out to touch his robes. Her situation is similarly desperate. The gospel writer Mark underscores the seriousness of her case by telling us that not only had she been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, she had “endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse”! Unlike Jairus, the man whose daughter was gravely ill, she has no high social standing. Her disease has impoverished her and isolated her; anyone coming into contact with her would have been rendered ritually impure. For twelve years she had been in pain physically and ostracized socially! It is no wonder that she took the risk she did in reaching out to touch the man of God.
a sermon for the Feast of the First Book of Common Prayer
I’m thinking today of our friend, Dick Mahaffy, as we celebrate the feast that marks the publication of the first Book of Common Prayerin the Church of England in the year 1549. Dick is an Episcopal priest, a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School, and a member of the Fellowship of Saint John. He is also profoundly Deaf, and has been since birth. He currently serves as the President of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf (E.C.D.), an association of Episcopal churches that minister to and with Deaf people throughout the United States. I’m reminded of him today because I think this feast would be one that he would especially value.
The 1549 Book of Common Prayer was the first book of services written in English, the language of the people. As such it was a powerful sign that the liturgy belonged to the people and not just to the educated priests who could read and speak Latin. It was an invitation for all to participate in the worship of the Church with full comprehension of what was being said, for all to join in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” of the Eucharist in their own tongue, for all to be not merely spectators but actual participants in the Church’s worship. The publication of the Book of Common Prayer in the English language in 1549 was an act of inclusion.