The past two evenings, our Evening Prayer lections from the second chapter of Mark have shown Jesus and the Temple authorities in conflict as to ritual observance of the Law. To the Pharisees and Scribes, it was a person’s moral duty to observe the Law with exact precision. To err, would render one ritually unclean, unable to enter the Temple, and make them a societal outcast. Over and over, Jesus challenged them as to their legalism, demonstrating to them what the Law looked like when seasoned with mercy.
Tonight’s reading from Mark turns up the heat in a way we have not yet seen. We might think this reading is about healing on the sabbath, but that is secondary to what has Jesus and the Pharisees staring at each other in silence. For the first time in these encounters we observe an emotional Jesus, seething with frustration. The gospel writer says, “Jesus looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.”
I would say that this story is about identity. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson once said: “In the presence of Jesus mankind beholds not merely the power of God but the possibility of man; not only what God is in Himself but what God meant man to be.”[i] The Pharisees spent their lives learning the law and enforcing it to the best of their abilities in order to keep Israel a holy nation. And Jesus certainly did not disagree with their zeal. In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus say: ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.[ii]
If you love domesticated animals like cats, dogs, and horses, or even some unconventional critters like monkeys, beavers, and squirrels, you have probably run across a website called ‘thedodo.com.’ The Dodo serves up emotional, visually compelling, and highly sharable animal-related stories and videos with the aim of making the care of animals a viral cause. The videos that bring a tear to the eye of a sensitive guy like me are the dog rescue videos. There are countless versions of this scenario: someone comes across a mangy, emaciated pup, that is tired, scared, weak, and not far from death. Animal rescuers are called to gather the animal, carefully and patiently doing what is necessary to subdue it while protecting themselves from the pups self-preserving, fear-filled growls, yaps, and snaps. Ultimately, the animal resigns and is taken to a veterinarian for rehabilitation with the hopes of finding it a forever home. The dogs are bathed, shaved, treated for mange, parasites, and other injuries, fed and nourished. Each video is a brief time-lapse record of its recovery, ending with the dog fully recovered, happy, and unrecognizable from the condition it was found in; it’s disposition one of unreserved love and affection.
In the year 2006, author John Koenig began a writing project based on his observation that there were no words to describe certain common existential feelings and emotions. These holes in the language inspired him to research etymologies, prefixes, suffixes and root words which resulted in a weblog of neologisms and their definitions (a neologism being a newly coined word or expression that has not quite found its way into common use). John defines the word lutalica as: the part of your identity that doesn’t fit into categories. Koenig posits that when we are born, we immediately get labeled, categorized, and put into box for the convenience of never having to go to the trouble of looking inside. In this way, we lose a sense of who we are and begin searching elsewhere for our identity. In regards to this dissonance, he writes: “We all want to belong to something. But part of you is still rattling around inside these categories and labels that could never do you justice.”[i]
In our reading from the Letter of James, the author has given us an admonition about distinctions. It is not about the eradication of distinctions. Distinction in the basic sense is simply the quality or state of being distinguishable. If we take a good look at the world around us we can see the rich diversity of God’s creation, and we show forth that same diversity. In Genesis we read that on the sixth day of creation, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” That word ‘our,’ points to the complex creation of a God whose very nature is diverse.
It has been such a comfort, in these unsettled and tense days, for us Brothers to maintain our practice of praying the Daily Office. The Psalms poetically reflect the fullness of the human experience: from praise, exultation, and celebration (126:1-2) to anger, disdain, and vengeance (59:12-14) to utter desperation, resignation, and helplessness (22:1-2), and everything in between. Because of this range of expression, the Psalms have an incredible ability to allow us to express whatever we are feeling in the moment, while also lifting us out of our current circumstances to listen for the eternally-speaking voice of God.
When I first arrived at the Monastery, chanting the Psalms – dressed in the full array of Sarum tones – delighted me. However, I noticed that I had a better comprehension of what I was praying (at first anyway) at Morning Prayer, when the practice is to recite the Psalms. I am not a morning person by nature, so often I pray these Psalms in the midst of a drowsy fog. But often, I’ll notice that a particular phrase or verse will jump out at me, gently nudge me out of my fog and beckon me to follow. Usually what is going on in my life at the time will determine how God will engage with me in the Psalms. I remember one week feeling particularly down and suffering from poor self-esteem when Psalm 26:8 presented itself for the subject of my prayer that day: Lord, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides. I felt as if God was telling me, “Jim, think better of yourself. I dwell in you and therefore the fullness of my glory is present within your heart and soul.”
This year has been more difficult than any I ever remember. We live in a world where people are polarized and moving further away from each other in isolation. The pandemic, the spotlighting of systematic-racism, an election year in a deeply divided country have all exposed a wave of fear fueling our anxiety. We Brothers recognize that we are lucky to live in community together. Yet while we have not been cut off from the sacramental life of the church due to the pandemic, we have been cut off from family, friends, our congregation, and the many guests who seek us out for spiritual direction, silence, prayer, worship, and who yearn for a deeper relationship with Jesus. This has left us with a sense of disorientation and loss.
Out of this loss, we have felt convicted to do old things in new ways: live-stream our services, offer teaching online, broadcast our election night vigil before the Sacrament, and host online gatherings with the Fellowship of Saint John on Zoom. We even hosted a virtual “Come and See” retreat with six men who are actively discerning a vocation with SSJE! Our lives have been greatly enriched by seeing you online and hearing from you through letters and e-mails. Indeed, God is at work in the midst of creation, beckoning us all to follow in new ways and encouraging us in these difficult times.
As we Brothers were praying Morning Prayer the other day, Psalm 34 was the vehicle in which God chose to speak to me: I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me out of all my terror. Look upon him and be radiant, and let not your faces be ashamed. I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me and saved me from all my troubles. The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him, and he will deliver them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him! (vv. 4-8).
These verses have buoyed me up for days now and have made me realize that we who claim the faith of Jesus are not alone in our solitude. We cannot be cut off from the sacramental life of the Church because God has made us tabernacles and we are where his glory abides. Fr. Congreve SSJE once wrote:
At times, when we have to wait and have nothing to do to occupy ourselves with – Oh! Then it is not wasted time if we have thought of God in it, if we have looked into the face of Jesus. Then anything that we do at the end of such waiting times we do with a glory and a power to witness to Jesus which is, indeed, a precious result. Everything should become by degrees an act of communion with God.
God is indeed with us, in our hearts and souls, softly speaking to us and saying: “I am here with you. Look upon me and be radiant. Taste and see!”
We Brothers continue to look forward to the day when we can all be together again. In the meantime, join us for online worship, and know that we continue to lift all of you, this nation, and this world up in our prayers.
God bless you,
Br. Jim Woodrum SSJE
Lectionary Year and Proper: The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24, Year A
In today’s gospel lesson we hear what I experience as the most challenging of Jesus’ teachings: the admonition to forgive. Not only to forgive just one transgression, but to forgive them all. There may be a few of you who disagree with me thinking surely the most difficult teaching would be to love your enemies. That would be fair. Loving someone who wishes you harm and forgiving someone who has harmed you, especially harm that is irreversible, certainly burn with similar intensity. We could agree that they are akin to one another, with varying degrees of intention and action being contrasting pieces of the puzzle. Regardless of this quagmire, Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question ‘how often should I forgive,’ is that forgiveness is never discretionary. Rather, forgiveness is Divine directive.
Jesus illustrates his point with a parable in which a king wishes to settle his accounts. One of his servants who owes him ten thousand talents is unable to repay. Begging the King for patience he promises that given some time, he will be able to pay in full. Surprisingly, the king has pity and not only reneges on his order to sell the servant and his family, but pronounces his debts forgiven. Completely. I admit I do not know much about ancient currency, but ten thousand of anything sounds like no small amount. I imagine it would be like having your mortgage forgiven when still owing over half with interest. What would your reaction be if this happened to you? I know that I would be incredibly thankful and filled with a sense of awe at the grace shown to me.
In our lection from Matthew this morning we observe something in Jesus that is rarely expressed in the gospels: we see a display of emotion. Other instances include Jesus feeling compassion: as in the hungry crowds who endlessly follow or seek an audience with him. Or in the case of the rich young ruler who when asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, the gospel of Mark says that Jesus loved him before telling him to go and sell all his goods then follow him. With all the dinner invitations Jesus received, I am sure there had to be some merriment and laughter during his ministry and I wish we had a confirmation that Jesus did in fact share a good chuckle with his friends. We know that in John’s gospel, Jesus wept in grief over the sadness surrounding the death of his friend, Lazarus. Today, we hear that Jesus was amazed. What is it exactly that could amaze the incarnation of God?
In this story we observe two men, from two cultures, sharing the same geography. Both men are powerful; both men have authority; both men have a following. From the outset, it may look as if the only thing different about them are how they look. One man is a Roman centurion, an enforcer of the Roman occupation of Palestine, a Gentile dressed in the finest uniform of the Roman army which displays his elite social status. The other man is an itinerant rabbi, a teacher and reformer, a Jew dressed in the clothes of nomad. The one thing they have in common is humility.
Jesus has displayed his humility in the willingness to reach the most disenfranchised of his people. In the reading just prior to our gospel this morning, we observe Jesus grant the request of a leper who asks to be made clean. Lepers were outcasts of society due to the vileness of their disease which was highly contagious and for which there was no cure. Jesus not only confronts the man who requests to be healed, but actually touches him in the process. This alone would have made Jesus ‘unclean’ in the eyes of the temple leaders and unfit to enter the temple. Yet Jesus heals him and tells him to go show himself to the temple leaders and to give his gift in thanksgiving
One of the most prevalent needs in the human condition is that of intimacy. Intimate relationships allow us to be vulnerable and share things that are deeply personal and guarded. If these are not handled with great care and compassion, we can experience deep shame and humiliation.
In our national civic discourse, we see devastating examples of a lack of empathy and compassion for each other. Our government leaders use bully tactics to berate, infantilize, and minimize those with whom they disagree. The cultural equating of intimacy with sex has resulted in people allowing themselves to be vulnerable without the requisite building of trust and emotional connection. Our inherent yearning for true intimacy, coupled with our experience of shame at the hands of those who have betrayed our own sense of what is good and true, can leave us mired in fear. As a result, we engage others with unrealistic expectations and misunderstandings that lead to disillusionment and the eventual disintegration of relationship. Lack of intimacy is often a contributing factor in addiction, depression, and bodily illness.
We begin to celebrate Trinity Sunday this evening, just shy of two weeks since the senseless death of George Floyd at the hands (and under the knee) of members of the Minneapolis police department. This murder (the latest in a string of fatalities of black men and women) has sparked anger and outrage, as well as suspicion of uniformed officers of the law, who have sworn to faithfully uphold their communities.[i] We have watched (and some have witnessed first-hand) the daily protests that have taken place across the country, some peaceful, and others turning violent, unable to contain the frustration of not being heard; all of this against the backdrop of a pandemic that has us reeling in isolation.
The civic unrest that we are experiencing in our country is not only the result of a Constitutional crisis symptomatic of racism, but even more so because the attempt to subdue, divide, or destroy community, which springs from the common good, goes against the very nature of the God whose image we bear. The founder of our Society Richard Meux Benson wrote: “By the communication of the Holy Spirit, the personal God is found dwelling in all the faithful, not as a Sovereign to overpower their individuality, but as a Giver of life and fullness, that our fallen emptiness may rise into true correspondence of Love with Him from whom it came.”[ii] The word community comes from the Latin communitas, which literally means “with oneness.” Community and communion are related to each other. The anger being expressed in our country over the death of George Floyd and countless other of our black sisters and brothers is a righteous anger. It is the blood of Abel crying out from the ground of our very being which is a creation of God. We should not be outraged at the anger of those who have taken to our streets in protest, but conversely, at the source of that anger. We should deeply mourn the sin of all who seek to destroy the very dwelling place of God in our midst. The inability or unwillingness to speak the truth of love to power is to be guilty of complacency. Silence in this case is not holy, but rather synonymous with death.[iii]
Ascensiontide always reminds me of a story my mom loved to tell about my first trip on an airplane when I was six years old. I was so excited because I got to sit near the window, the best place to witness our ascension into the sky. As we rose to our cruising altitude above the big, fluffy clouds I turned to my mom, wide-eyed, and asked, “Mama, are we in heaven?” This is not surprising, considering that every illustration I had seen of Jesus’ ascension heavenward had Him standing on a pillow of clouds. To this day the beauty, serenity, and peace of flying above the clouds is ‘heavenly’ in my mind’s eye.
But if I’m honest, my childish understanding of heaven has always made Jesus seem far away. While flying above the clouds seems like a heavenly realm to a small child, technically it is only six and half to seven miles above the earth; a walkable distance here on the ground. Conversely, heaven seems so distant, otherworldly, and infinite to our finite minds. In the Collect for Ascension Day, we pray for the awareness of Jesus fully present to us now and always: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things: Mercifully give us faith to perceive that, according to his promise, he abides with his Church on earth, even to the end of the ages.”
Perceiving that Christ abides with his Church on earth is not easy in our COVID-19 world. It seems that in a blink of an eye our world changed. This pandemic has forced us to take cover, to distance ourselves from friends and family. It has shut us out of our places of worship, and thrust us into economic uncertainty. It has revealed weaknesses in our systems of care that have led to even more deaths. There are clear signs of racial and economic inequality, and tension between those who favor restarting the economy as soon as possible, and those who want to be more cautious. Two and a half months into our isolation, we worry about a second wave of the virus. Some of us are restless; all of us are eager to get beyond this. We might identify with the Psalmist as he cries, “How long, O Lord? How long will I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day?”
This is why we pray for faith to perceive Jesus’ abiding presence with us. We have faith in God’s Incarnation: that God entered our human experience in the person of Jesus, and that he lived among us announcing the arrival of God’s reign. We have faith that he died a bodily death, and experienced the resurrection of his body. We have faith that Jesus, both divine and human, had a bodily ascension into heaven. Yet the perplexities of this pandemic might seem like clouds veiling our perception of God Emmanuel (that is “God with us”). We gaze up and down, left and right, wondering, “Where in the world is God in all of this?”
Our founder Richard Meux Benson once wrote, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”
When Jesus ascended into heaven, he brought our humanity into the heart of God, and made heaven present to us here on earth. When we make the decision to put our love, faith, and hope in Jesus, we are infused with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us what we need to know and reminds us of Jesus’ promise: I will not leave you orphaned. Jesus abides in the tabernacle of our hearts making heaven present to us, speaking a word of heavenly serenity, peace, and calm in the midst of the storms of life.
One of my favorite hymns in the Hymnal 1982 (#669) begins this way:
Commit thou all that grieves thee and fills thy heart with care
To him whose faithful mercy the skies above declare,
Who gives the winds their courses, who points the clouds their way;
‘tis he will guide thy footsteps and be thy staff and stay.
These faithful words of counsel help me to rise above the perplexing clouds that seemingly veil my eyes from God’s presence. The Holy Spirit strengthens our faith to know that Jesus is born in our hearts, that He bears us up to heaven, and that He abides in the tabernacle of our hearts forever. So, “Children of God, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Heaven begins within you and Jesus abides with you there!
Br. Jim Woodrum, SSJE
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10
Many of you know that I have a special affinity for angels. These mysterious figures show up throughout scripture and fill the depths of my imagination with stories of their continual worship in heaven, especially as described in the Revelation to John. If I had to say there was a runner-up for the affections of my heart, it would probably be shepherds. This is in part because they were the first to hear the news of Jesus’ birth, announced to them by a multitude of angels. The main job of these country-dwellers was for the husbandry and protection of flocks of sheep placed in their care.
When I first began to pray with our Collect for this morning the phrase ‘good shepherd of your people’ caught my attention. I began to think back throughout my life to people who had been shepherds to me, and thank goodness there have been many. I recall the youth program at my elementary school that occurred every summer sponsored by our local Department of Parks and Recreation. While parents were working, neighborhood kids could ride their bike up to the school where young adults employed by the Parks and Rec would be on hand to facilitate games, art, physical fitness, and field trips. Being an only child experiencing the ups and downs of family life that was not always happy, I craved and needed special attention. There were two or three young adults during those summers who recognized that need and would play board games with me when no one else showed any interest. They shepherded me when I, in a way, was a lost sheep, bullied by other kids and isolated because I was not popular. When I received the attention I so desperately needed from these councilors I felt happy, content, and most importantly, safe. Perhaps this is what inspired me to ask my parents one Christmas if I could have an older brother. I wanted someone who cared for me, looked out for me, and who had walked the very path I had walked earlier in his life; someone who could guide, affirm, and encourage me when I felt especially alone and vulnerable. I think this is as true for the 49-year old Jim as it was for the 9-year old Jim.