There was once a young man who was beginning his spiritual journey in the religious life. He sought the council of an old man who was well versed in spirituality, and asked him what all he must do to live a disciplined religious life. The old man opened his Psalter and read the first verse of Psalm 39: I said, I will keep watch upon my ways, so that I do not offend with my tongue. “STOP!” cried the young man as the older was about to proceed; “when I have learned that I will come and receive further rules.” And so he went away and at the end of six months, the older man, curious about the progress of the younger, sought him out and asked, “Are you ready to continue with the other lessons?” “Not yet,” he replied. “I have not yet mastered the first one.” Another five years passed and curiously the older man again sought out the younger. This time the young man replied, “I have no need of the other lessons, for, having learned that first rule, to master the tongue, I have gained discipline and control over my whole nature.”[i]
The past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. I am struck by one of the Letter’s reoccurring themes: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness; if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.[ii] Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, the author of the Letter is admonishing his audience to put right words into right action. Certainly, he seems to know something about the nature of speech. His use of metaphor instantly captures our imaginations and brings into focus a truth that is both easy to comprehend yet difficult to master. This morning we read: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. Bits in the mouths of horses, small rudders guiding large ships, great forests being set ablaze by small sparks: all of these poetically call into question our mastery over this small, unruly member of our body: the tongue. With it, he says, we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. You might summarize this major theme of James’ Letter this way: words matter. What is your experience of this? What metaphor would you use to illustrate the power of speech? How have you come to know that words matter?
Matthew 7:6, 12-14
Many of you may know that for almost the entire fifty days of Easter, I was home in Tennessee visiting and caring for my ailing mother who passed away on May 8th. As you can imagine, this time with my mom was precious, bittersweet, and we shared many reminiscences of our relationship throughout the years, but especially from my youth. One such instance was when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was at my friend Patrick’s house, which had a large lot behind it consisting of hills made from the excavation of red clay dirt for the future building of new homes. We had had a lot of rain that week and at the bottom of these clay dirt hills were big puddles of water. Thinking they looked refreshing, Patrick and I stripped down to our underwear and proceeded to roll down the clay mud hills landing in the puddles with a big splash. It was a lot of fun! We did this over and over again until I heard my mom calling me to supper in the distance.
Our frolicking in the clay puddles had seemed like such a good idea at the time that I could not have predicted my mother’s dismay when I showed up in the house wearing nothing buy my soaked, red clay-stained tighty-whities, which would never again be white. (Mind you, not only did I walk home that way, two streets over and through several neighbors’ yards, but we had dinner guests that evening). As I plead my case before my agitated mother I said, “Well, Patrick did it first!” And we have all heard the retort that I remember mom using that evening: “If Patrick jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” As a young boy from the heart of Appalachia, I’m not sure I knew very much at that time about the Brooklyn Bridge, but I imagined if there was a red clay puddle at the bottom, then yes, absolutely!”
Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 71:1-14; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; John 12:20-36
When praying with our scriptures appointed for this evening, one word kept grabbing my attention and has stayed with me now for several days. It is something that I have spent a lifetime trying to evade but continues to show up and rear its head at me no matter how much I try to control it, manipulate it, and cover it up. I have a personal and intimate knowledge of it, yet I know it to be a pervasive reality in all of humanity and I suspect that every one of us here has an intimate knowledge of this word. The word is: shame.
Wikipedia defines shame as: a painful, social emotion that can be seen as resulting “…from comparison of the self’s action with the self’s standards…,” but which may equally stem from comparison of the self’s state of being with the ideal social context’s standard. Both the comparison and standards are enabled by socialization. Though usually considered an emotion, shame may also variously be considered an affect, cognition, state, or condition.[i]
From the beginning of the canon of scripture, it only takes three chapters for shame to appear in the human condition. The last sentence of Genesis chapter two reads: “And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.” In the course of chapter three we read that Adam and Eve act on their temptation to do the one thing their creator has told them they must not do, eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Their eyes are opened and they hide themselves. When God moves through the garden and cannot find them he calls out to them, “Where are you?” The man answers, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” And from that moment, shame enters the human condition and continues to show up continually throughout our existence.
Wasteful, extravagant, profligate, spendthrift. These are all words that are synonymous with the first definition in the dictionary of the word prodigal. I have to admit that it was only recently that I learned that word’s true meaning. I grew up in the Baptist church and all my life have been steeped in scripture. I have heard this parable from Luke’s gospel thousands of times in my lifetime, but I never knew the true meaning of the word prodigal. I had always assumed it either meant ‘lost,’ as in the parable of the lost son. Or perhaps ‘repentant,’ as in the parable of the repentant son. These certainly could fit. But after finally looking up the word, it all makes sense. Prodigal: spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant. So as we read the parable and follow the son’s journey from his restlessness at home to eating pig slop as a result of his reckless and wasteful spending, we see how it is that the young son earns the name: prodigal.
Generous, lavish, liberal, bounteous. These are all words synonymous with the second definition of the word prodigal which reads: having or giving something on a lavish scale. Jesus says when the young son returns, hoping that his father will hire him as a servant, the father does the unthinkable. He orders his slaves to bring out the finest robe for his son and to put sandals on his feet and a ring on his finger. To be given a robe to wear was to be honored and only members of the family wore sandals. Slaves and hired servants were required to be barefoot. And probably the most shocking of the father’s prodigality was the giving of the ring. In that culture if a man gave a ring to another man it was the same as giving him power of attorney; an act so generous it defies common sense even in our day.[i] How many of us would hand over everything we owned to someone who could not exhibit proper stewardship of just a fraction of that. But this is what the father does and orders his slaves to kill the fatted calf and to throw a huge party to celebrate his son’s return.
A friend of mine recently e-mailed me a maxim which read, ‘Work tip: Stand up. Stretch. Take a walk. Go to the airport. Get on an airplane. Never return.’ I sometimes wonder if this is what Jesus and his disciples felt like in their own ministry. When you read the gospel of Mark, one thing you will notice straight away is the fevered pace with which Jesus and his disciples move in their ministry. After Jesus is baptized, Mark writes that the Spirit immediately drives Jesus into the desert to be tempted by Satan. He then begins his ministry, chooses his disciples, heals a man with an unclean spirit, heals Simon’s mother-in-law and then others who catch wind of Jesus power. He then begins a preaching tour through Galilee and cleanses a leper he encounters along the way. And this is just the first chapter and in as little as 870 words!
We’re now in chapter six and we read that Jesus’ disciples have been out on their own preaching, teaching, healing, and casting out demons. They have met up with Jesus again and you can sense their child-like excitement as they begin to recount how they had put to use all that He had been teaching them. With all this commotion around them they had not even had time to attend to their own needs of sustenance and rest. We then hear Jesus tell them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” The sigh of relief is palpable as we read that they got in a boat and set sail for the other side. Can you identity with Jesus and the disciples? Have you ever had one of those days or even weeks that just doesn’t seem to stop?
Exodus 13:17-22; Matthew 2:1-12
For a few of us brothers, one of the highlights of our pilgrimage to the UK this past summer was a trek to The Eagle and Child Pub in Oxford. It was not necessarily for the food and beer that we wanted to visit this pub, although the Slow-cooked Steak, Amber Ale & Mushroom Pie is quite delicious. Rather, the reason for this sacred journey was that this was a regular meeting place for a literary group known as “The Inklings,” of which C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein were members. Sitting in a cramped corner of this pub with Luke, Keith, Nicholas, and Lucas, I couldn’t help but to wonder if perhaps we were sitting at a table where Lewis and Tolkein might have sat, discussing literature, philosophy, religion, and theology. One of my favorite poems from Tolkein’s epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings kept playing over and over in my head. It begins:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.[i]
Indeed, this became my own personal mantra for the pilgrimage: “Not all those who wander are lost!” Tonight’s sermon is the second part of our Epiphany preaching series on vocation entitled Gifts for the Journey. This evening we will explore: The Gift of Detours.
The Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ
Today in the calendar of the church we arrive at the beginning of a new season: Epiphany. Growing up in a different Christian tradition, I admit that the meaning of this period of the church year alluded me for quite some time. Like being a postulant and novice in a monastery, becoming acclimated to the richness of a new tradition can take some time and more often than not, we learn by entering into the life and slowly absorbing little by little all that tradition has to teach us. There usually comes a moment when the nature and purpose of a particular practice will become apparent and make us exclaim: “Eureka! I got it!” While an epiphany seems like a sudden and random event, the truth is epiphanies happen after a significant period of time when a final tidbit of information gathered brings something into focus. While the ‘Eureka effect,’ (the sudden elation one experiences when having an epiphany) makes this event appear to be random, in actuality it is the end of a long process. Epiphany (from the Greek) literally means manifestation.
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:46-55; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
If you have been worshipping with us with any regularity this Advent you will notice a slight variation this morning in our liturgical colors. The traditional Sarum blue is normally flanked by earthy green and highlights of crimson, all colors that represent the mystery of the Incarnation; that is, God becoming flesh and blood, putting on our human vesture in the womb of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Just as future parents prepare themselves for the birth of a child, so this season of Advent is a time for prayer, recollection, and getting our lives in order in preparation for the birth of Jesus at Christmas. But today, the Sarum blue is complimented by swatches of velvety rose to signify the third Sunday of Advent which is known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday. Gaudete, the Latin word for “Rejoice,” is the first word we hear in both the Introit[i] to today’s Mass from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice,” as well as the Epistle from his letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” Gaudete Sunday is a day of rejoicing!
One of the debates I see played out amongst my friends each year on social media is what I call the Christmas tree debate. Just when is it acceptable to drag out your Christmas CDs, decorations, and set up your tree in front of the living room picture window? We smile somewhat at this familiar conundrum but it seems each year the debate gets even more heated, perhaps one tier below our concerns about whether Russia interfered with our election process. I read comments from friends who dread hearing ‘Sleigh Ride’ played ad nauseum in supermarkets and shopping malls beginning Thanksgiving Day. And I don’t blame them. When I was home to see my parents a few weeks ago, I shook my head in frustration when a local radio station advertised its seasonal format shift to Christmas music exactly one week prior to Thanksgiving! Many of my friends had pictures of their trees on social media on Thanksgiving, one with the defiant comment: “We put our tree up today! Sorry, not sorry!” And who can blame them? In a world that appears to be immersed in utter chaos, in a climate of hostility to those who think, believe, and act differently, who wouldn’t be parched and thirsting for some Christmas joy?
If someone were to come up to you and ask, “Do you consider yourself concentric or eccentric,” what would you say? This question might take us a little by surprise and I somehow imagine most of us would reply, “Come again?” I don’t imagine any of us would expect this question upon meeting someone for the first time or that we would see it on an eHarmony dating questionnaire. We know that a person who is eccentric is someone who is perhaps a little unique or odd, someone who marches to the beat of a different drummer, and not necessarily in a way that we want to emulate. I doubt any of my brothers would ever characterize me that way. I’m completely normal in that aspect. But am I concentric? Merriam Webster defines concentric as: having a common center or axis. To be honest that definition does not really help me in identifying with any certitude if I am a concentric person. Perhaps a better question would be: am I egocentric? Most of us would probably not admit to being egocentric, although we all have an ego and personally, truth be told, my ego can on occasion get me into trouble! Perhaps you can relate. But could any of us really be defined as egocentric? In our gospel lesson today, Jesus is teaching his disciples and the crowds surrounding them about relationship, especially in regards to centricity: the center. He is in effect asking them “Who or what is at the center of your life? Where is your focus?”