“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon,
they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
I doubt there are many preachers who would clamor to preach on the gospel text we have just heard. We preachers tend to avoid the difficult sayings of Jesus and look for more comfortable and pleasing words. This straight-talking, hard-hitting, no-holds-barred Jesus disturbs us. And yet this may be one of the blessings of having texts chosen for us by a daily lectionary, which compels us forego, at least occasionally, the more agreeable stories and sayings of Jesus. In texts like these, we are forced to confront the message of Jesus in all its forms.
The gospel tells us that two followers of Jesus were walking and talking as they made their way to the village of Emmaus, a distance of about seven miles from Jerusalem. Just a couple of days had passed since the tragic death of Jesus, and the confusion, fear, disappointment, and grief of that event weighed heavily upon them. Some of those closest to Jesus had contributed to the tragedy: he had been betrayed by one of his own disciples, denied by another, and abandoned by his followers and friends, who had fled for their lives. Furthermore, the body had apparently gone missing! Some women who had visited the tomb earlier this same day had reported a strange encounter with“two men in dazzling clothes,” who had greeted them with the amazing news that Jesus was not there, but risen! They had reported this curious and inexplicable experience to the disciples, but the disciples took it to be “an idle tale” and sent them away.[i] And now, as these two were walking along, they were trying to make sense of all of this, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, trying to work through their grief and confusion, trying to find some point of light to illumine the darkness and despair that had overshadowed their hearts.
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Some years ago I had the privilege of taking a course with Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian who was then on the faculty of the Divinity School at Duke University. Dr. Hauerwas, the son of a bricklayer, was a straight-shooting, no-nonsense kind of guy who believed that living as true disciples of Jesus in the world would necessarily put us in conflict with the culture in which we live. I remember being surprised to hear him say that participating in the Eucharist was one of the most radical actions any Christian could undertake. Tonight we will understand why this is true.
Tonight we watch in wonder as the only-begotten Son of God, the Eternal Word who was “in the beginning with God” and through whom “all things came into being” (Jn 1:1-3), stoops to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. Tonight we behold the Incarnate Son of God, the “King of kings” and the “Lord of lords,” tying a towel around himself, pouring water into a basin, and assuming the role of a servant. The King kneels before his subjects; the Master washes the feet of his disciples.
The words of Isaiah, the prophet: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isa 49:4).
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? In that valley of desolation and discouragement; that place where we start wondering if our efforts have made a difference, if they have been appreciated, if they’ve been worthwhile, if we’ve accomplished anything of value. Isaiah is discouraged. The people are in exile and all his efforts to redirect them to God have been met with indifference. He feels like a failure. “I have labored in vain,” he sighs, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
Discouragement is something we all experience from time to time. We may feel trapped in a dead-end job or a strained relationship, and have no sense of how to move forward. We may be enduring a chronic illness, with no relief in sight. We may find ourselves consumed with worry about our finances or our home or our work, and we wonder if things will ever get better. A sense of hopelessness settles over us, and we despair of our future. It’s difficult to imagine our circumstances improving and we’re not sure if we have the strength to go on.
In the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome, the power of a name was very real. It was widely assumed that the essence of a being resided in its name, and that if people could gain access to the names of supernatural beings they could influence them and perhaps entice them into serving their purposes. Magicians and sorcerers abounded who promised to reveal their secrets to common people. Their spells often included dozens of divine names. It was hoped that at least one of them would “hit the mark” and force a supernatural being to bring about a desired result.
The ancient Hebrews did not normally engage in such magic; in fact sorcery was forbidden under their laws. But they shared the cultural assumptions of their Gentile neighbors about the power of divine names. The sacred name of “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” was a thing of immense power, so sacred that it could not be spoken. The essence of God’s being was carried in a four-letter word, YHWH (Yahweh) that could be recited only by a priest and only on special holy days. Another Hebrew word, Adonai, which we translate as “the Lord,” was used to refer to God in everyday discourse.
Read by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
I Thessalonians 5:18
I have a memory of my 5th-grade teacher asking us to write a short paragraph describing the things in our lives for which we were thankful. I don’t recall any of the specifics of that assignment, but I do recall having a terrible case of “writer’s block.” I sat for the longest time just staring at that piece of paper. I couldn’t think of a thing for which I was thankful.
Recalling it now, it seems shocking to me that a 5th-grade boy growing up in suburban America, with plenty of food and warm clothes and a comfortable home and a loving family, couldn’t think of anything for which he was thankful. I was surrounded by gifts, but I didn’t recognize them as gifts, and so I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude for them. I suppose I naively assumed that everyone had food and clothing, a loving family and a comfortable home. I was unaware of how privileged I was to enjoy these things on a daily basis, and simply took them for granted.
Luke 14:1, 7-11
This story is reminiscent of another Gospel story, when Jesus found his disciples arguing about which of them would be greatest in the kingdom of God (see Luke 9:46-48 or Mark 9:33-37). He realized that they had not yet understood the import of his message: that what is valued and sought after in the world is not what is most prized in the kingdom of God. On that occasion he taught them, saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). The aim of life in the kingdom was not self-exaltation, but self-offering, the laying down of one’s life in service to God and to one’s neighbor.
Here we see a similar situation – not among Jesus’ disciples, but among the dinner guests at a Pharisee’s house. Jesus notices them seeking the places of honor, motivated no doubt by the desire to be noticed and deemed important by the other guests. He tells them that when they attend such a banquet, they should deliberately choose the lowest place, because “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v.11).
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Perhaps we can better understand this unnamed woman’s outburst if we recall that in Jesus’ time there would have been far fewer opportunities for a woman to distinguish herself from among her peers than there are today. To have given birth to and raised a “successful” son might have given a woman a sense of pride and accomplishment. Her peers, as evidenced in this story, might have admired her and thought her “blessed.”
It is not uncommon for us, too, to want to distinguish ourselves among our peers. For many of us, our accomplishments not only give us pleasure and satisfaction, they also offer a sense that our lives have been meaningful and worthwhile. Our identity is often wrapped up in these achievements. We learn to value ourselves, and others, based on what we have done. We may gain respect in the eyes of others by our academic or professional accomplishments, or by the fact that we have been able to build wealth or raise our social status. Even if we restrain from bragging openly about our accomplishments, we may savor a hidden sense of pride that we have made a mark on the world and distinguished ourselves in the eyes of others.
I Peter 5:1-4
The Christian life is a life of transformation. The call to follow Christ is a call to a lifelong process of conversion. It requires us to let go of our former identities – built on our gifts, our achievements, and our social standing – in order to embrace a new identity in Christ. It asks us to set aside our selfish goals and pursuits to take on a new set of priorities and values. It invites us to become changed people: people whose lives are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and humility. It summons us to treat every person we meet with dignity and respect, seeing that they too are made in the image of God. “If anyone is in Christ,” writes St. Paul, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, there is a new creation!” (II Cor. 5:17)