Four days ago we finally began our Lenten pilgrimage after a long Epiphanytide. For a solid eight weeks following the Epiphany we have celebrated all the ways Jesus was made manifest as the messiah to the world and have studied how these stories help us recognize how Jesus is made manifest in our midst today. Wednesday, we received our invitation to a holy Lent, had ashes placed on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality, and we are now at the first Sunday in Lent.
As you might have gathered from our gospel lesson from Luke this morning, things have gotten really serious, very quickly! No sooner has Jesus come up from the waters of his baptism, he hears an affirmation of his identity from his Heavenly Father, and the Holy Spirit descends upon him. In a sense, Jesus has an epiphany and is filled with the Holy Spirit, which then leads him into the harsh Judean desert where the gospel writer says that he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Now, think about that for a moment: even though only three of Satan’s challenges are recorded in the lesson, Luke is quite clear that he is tempted for forty days, all the while with no provision of food or sustenance.
I do not know about you, but I am not encouraged by starting out on these forty days of Lent with a story of Jesus being subjected to mental and physical abuse by the devil! This may explain why Lent is not at the top of my list of favorite Liturgical seasons, especially since my track record with temptation is pretty dismal. I know you may find that hard to believe, but I am the guy who gives up craft beer for Lent and by week two I have succumbed to the desert heat and am quenching my thirst with a cold, refreshing IPA straight from the devil’s hand! In my frustration and disappointment with myself, I try to make myself feel better by thinking of something I can give up the next year where I might actually have success, like perhaps, asparagus. Nothing banishes temptation quite like asparagus. Yet to give up something that would not be challenging is to set out on an ‘adventure in missing the point’; the point being that temptation is a part of our everyday experience. Saint Antony, one of the first of the desert monastics was recorded as saying: “This is the great task of man, that he should hold his sin before the face of God, and count upon temptation until his last breath.”[i]
Most people will say that they remember exactly where they were and whom they were with at the time of an epic historical event, such as a tragedy or something shocking and unbelievable. Usually it is when the life of the world is altered in a split second, leaving no one unchanged. My mother would tell the story of how, as a young teenager, she was at Junior All-County Band clinic when she and the other students found out that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. In my own lifetime, the Challenger disaster and of course 9/11 are etched in my mind in vivid detail. Not only was 9/11 shocking, but it invoked a great deal of fear that shook the world. No one was the same after that day and we all recalled our stories to each other as we tried to process our emotions and begin the very long journey to healing.
I imagine that this is probably the experience of the shepherds in our gospel lesson from Luke this morning. This particular evening was just another speck in the sea of time, poised to be like all the others, keeping watch over the sheep in their care. These men were country dwellers who lived on the margins of society. To the temple leaders and social elite, they were among the dregs of society, unclean due to the nature of their profession. Because their jobs allowed them little time away, they were unable to make the appropriate temple sacrifices with any kind of regularity. They were literal outcasts because they tended the flocks in the rural regions on the perimeter of town. Yet, it was their job to see to the well-being of sheep that were most likely to be presented in the temple for sacrifice by people who could afford it.
Psalm 78:1-6; 1
I presume there are a few of you in the congregation who like me had the experience of growing up an only child. I certainly can attest to the advantages of being an ‘only’ through my observances of family and friends who did not share my experience. For instance, unlike my cousin, I did not have a younger sister who liked to pull my hair or inform my parents of my every move. Unlike my best friend in elementary school, I did not have to wear the ‘hand-me-downs’ from an older sibling. And, contrary to the experience of a college friend, I did not have to live up to the standard set by more virtuous siblings who seemed to do no wrong. I definitely considered these advantages. Yet, even though I enjoyed being an ‘only,’ I did experience some jealousy of my friends with siblings. My mom liked to tell the story of the time when I was 7 or 8 years old when I came to my parents who were sharing a conversation in the kitchen and asked if I could have an older brother! My dad, probably a little amused but letting me down gently said, “I don’t think things work like that, son.” Being resourceful, I had a follow-up question prepared. “Could we adopt one?” Obviously, knowing now how things turned out, they did not work that way either. As I think back to that story from my youth, I wonder what was behind my desire for an older brother?
This evening’s reflection is the first in a three-part series entitled “Lord Jesus, Come Soon,” in which we explore the great ‘O Antiphons’ of the season of Advent. On the last seven days before Christmas, this group of antiphons book-end the Magnificat (The Song of Mary) which is sung every evening at Evensong. Each of them refer to Jesus using an attribute associated with this long awaited Messiah: Emmanuel, Rex gentium, Oriens, Clavis David, Radix Jesse, Adonai, and Sapentia; translated: Emmanuel (meaning “God with us”), King of the Nations, Morning Star, Key of David, Root of Jesse, Lord, and Wisdom. When arranged in a particular order they form a Latin acrostic: Ero cras, which translated means, “Tomorrow, I will come.” This evening we will explore Jesus as ‘Wisdom.’ The text of the antiphon is:
Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
I suspect like most good Episcopalians, apocalyptic literature and signs of the end of the world make me a little anxious. To be honest, the other morning when I began exploring the texts for today’s sermon, I just wanted to crawl back into bed. Ever since I was a kid growing up in the Baptist church, I have always been fearful of what “The Rapture” would be like and if I would be one of the unlucky ones to be left behind on the earth as it met its doom.[i] Rather, I prefer a good uplifting message. As a good Anglo-Catholic, I love the passages in Revelation chapter five about the glorious worship in heaven by the elders and angels that number myriads and myriads singing: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing! Amen!’[ii] But all the stuff about wars, beasts, whores, plagues, famine, death, dragons, and creatures that I imagine resemble the Nazgul from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, you can keep that. For me it is what nightmares are made of. So what are we to make of our lections this morning?
In our gospel lesson from Mark, in a section from the thirteenth chapter known as “the little apocalypse,” we observe a disciple of Jesus marveling at the magnificence of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Considering the architectural feats that surround us in our modern age, this disciples’ astonishment might be lost on us. But it is important to note that the second Temple, completed by Herod the Great, was constructed on a scale comparable with the great Pyramids of Egypt. Part of Herod’s legacy was the massive building projects he undertook during his reign: the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada, the Herodium, and the second Temple.[iii] How the large stones that made up the supporting walls of the Temple were placed atop each other without the help of machinery we would use today, is an architectural wonder! “Look teacher,”the disciple says, “what large stones and what large buildings!” When Jesus responds: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down,” his disciples are stupefied. How could that be possible? Certainly, nothing could bring down this monstrosity. Perhaps we can relate to this when we remember that fateful September day in 2001, when we witnessed the twin towers of the World Trade Center topple to the ground. Who could have predicted that, and who would have ever believed that prediction?
Inquirers, Millennials, and Angels
A conversation with Br. Jim Woodrum about SSJE's new vocations website, catchthelife.org
We’re talking about SSJE’s new vocations website, called “Catch the Life.” What is “Catch the Life” and why did SSJE decide to launch this new site?
The phrase “Catch the Life” comes from our founder Richard Meux Benson, who wrote: “If we only let people see that we are living upon a truth, and loving it, they will soon catch the life.” That line has come to mean a lot to our community, because it captures how and why we love to share our life with others. Like all evangelists, we don’t want to keep the truth we’ve discovered to ourselves; we want to pass it on to guests and retreatants, friends and visitors – and that’s why we are a community who actively welcomes others to share our life. Our charism is to be the Society of Saint John the Evangelist: spreading good news. In the last few years, the phrase “catch the life” has come especially to symbolize and express our desire to share with other men the deeply satisfying and counter-cultural possibility of living the religious life today.
Many of us Brothers can point to the exact moment when we first learned that monastic life exists in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition and is a viable and accessible vocation. If you’re anything like me, that awareness hits you as a joyful revelation. Suddenly you realize that there is an answer to this yearning you’ve felt and that perhaps has evaded you until now– a desire for another way to live, for a different way to express your vocation as a Christian man.
Discussing this together as a community, we began to realize that we wanted to start being more open in talking about this life of ours – about how we love it and why we love it. The religious life is actually a very bold, adventurous life. It’s a risky life. It’s fulfilling and abundant in every way. As we began talking about this life of ours and our identity, we also began talking more broadly about masculinity and about what it means to be Christian men in the church today. We realized that we wanted more men to know that this life is out there, that it’s an option.
Catch the Life is our campaign to spread the word about the monastic life: this bold, risky, fulfilling path. To help get the word out, we’ve built a website, catchthelife.org, which is full of images, video, audio, and text we’ve drawn together to express how we are “living upon a truth, and loving it,” and that we want to help others “catch the life.”
How has the response been to “Catch the Life” so far?
It’s been really inspiring! Before Catch the Life was launched, we had three men who were actively exploring our life – “inquirers” we call them – two of whom had been at that stage with us for a long time. Nobody was biting. (And we were not alone in this. Religious life seems to be declining, not only among Anglican religious communities, but across the wider Church.)
Yet after launching Catch the Life, all of a sudden we had a steady stream of inquirers knocking on our door, reaching out to us and wanting to chat, asking to look a bit further into the life. In less than a year, I’d say a good twenty or more solid candidates have been in touch with me. We’ve gone from having three inquirers to having a dozen men actively inquiring into our life.
I now spend three, maybe four nights each week having conversations with interested men, talking with them about the religious life and our community, answering their questions. Listening to these men – hearing about their desires and needs, what excites them and what gifts they have – has been an incredible process. I feel like, along the way, I’ve been gifted with the opportunity to forge relationships with men who are seeking something that resonates with them and to see the multidimensional aspects of so many men who bear God’s image, each in their own way.
What are the desires and needs you’re hearing? What is drawing men to consider the monastic life today?
Society tries to sell us this one model for a wonderful life: you have to go to school, you have to get a degree, you have to get a job and make this much money, you have to get married and have kids, you have to buy this kind of house and live in this neighborhood and have this kind of car, and accumulate this much stuff, so that eventually people will say, “Oh you must be very successful and happy.” But that’s a myth.
Younger men are seeing this. I hear them saying, “I don’t subscribe to this worldview – of dominance, of power, of toxic masculinity.” They’re sitting there going, “You know, I don’t want to give my life to something like that. But I do want to give my life intentionally and prayerfully. I do want adventure, abundance, and to live boldly. I do want to give myself to something bigger.” So many people assume that millennials are afraid of commitment. From these recent conversations, I’d say that’s not true. They aren’t afraid of living bold lives, or of giving themselves to something bigger. What they’re really afraid of is conforming to an inauthentic life that serves no one but themselves.
There are millions of ways that you can be happy and live an abundant life; the trick is finding one that is actually tailored to you and your gifts. You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. These men are seeing this – especially younger men – and they’re knocking on our door, to see if maybe this life would be a good fit for them, their talents, and the kind of life they want to lead.
How do you help men through the next step in the discernment process?
The first thing I do is encourage them to really explore this life, without any expectations or pressure. There’s another line from Richard Meux Benson that resonates for me, which I often share with them: “We cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could, we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.” Whatever God calls us to next is not the resting place, it’s only a step on our pilgrimage. That’s true for us monks, as much as for the men inquiring into our life. God is always calling us onward, and therefore we keep discerning the next thing. For us monks, that next thing will happen within the context of this community! But even though we remain in this place, we can never think we’re done growing and changing.
I encourage inquirers to soak up everything that this experience of discovery can teach them about themselves – whether or not they end up deciding to look further into having a monastic vocation. And I ask them to be okay with dwelling in not knowing for a time. I had a priest tell me once, “If you know where you’re going, God is probably not in it. If you have no idea where you are, or what’s going on, God is all over that! That is the fertile soil of an adventure with God.”
I think some men carry this baggage about being afraid to inquire, or to test whether they might have a monastic vocation, because they hate the idea of having been “wrong” or having “failed,” if it turns out not to be the life for them. But that’s not how we think about it at all. There’s no such thing as a “failed” vocation that has been well-tested. The experience of engaging vocational discernment – looking at this life, asking questions, learning about the monastic life of intention, prayer, and ministry: this will give you food for the next stage of your journey, wherever God is leading you.
How can friends of the community support and take part in Catch the Life?
Be an evangelist – better yet, be an angel! We get the word angel from the world euangelion, meaning “bearer of good news.” Share your knowledge of this community with those who are looking and seeking, who are perhaps unable to articulate the desire they’re experiencing.
There are men out there who are looking for something that the world can’t give them. I know because I was that square peg trying to get into the round hole; I know how it feels. And I know there are other men out there, who are wandering, who are adrift, and who are searching for happiness, but always coming up a little bit short. We need people who know us to be evangelists, to let people know, “Hey, there’s more than one way to live. There are more adventures out there than you could possibly shake a stick at. Here’s one of them; why don’t you think about this?” Keep your eyes open for men who might fit into this life.
We need angels. We need people who can say, “You know, I know this place, and this group of men, who are looking for someone like you, and you just might fit. Visit this website, and see what you think.”
Br. Jim Woodrum
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-28, 32-12:2; Psalm 37:28-36; Matthew 22:23-32
When we brothers were on pilgrimage to the UK a little over a year ago, we stayed at Keble College while in Oxford. Among the prominent features of Keble College is its chapel. It is not that there is anything outstanding in its architecture that makes it stand out, but rather, once you walk through the doors you are thrown into a sort of sensory overload, especially because all around the perimeter of the chapel are beautiful, multi-colored mosaics. Once you get over the initial shock and begin to study the mosaics, you will note that most of the scenes portrayed are from the Old Testament. You see Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph, and others. It may seem odd at first to experience a Christian chapel that predominantly features scenes from the Old Testament. That is until you take a closer look and note that in each of the scenes there is a thinly veiled reference to Jesus Christ.
In the image of Noah we see a dove flying between the Ark and the rainbow, a symbol of the Holy Spirit hovering over both the waters of Creation and of the waters of Baptism. Directly below that we see in the story of Abraham the priest Melchizadek offering bread and wine, the emblematic food of the Christian, the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.[i] And as you go around the chapel observing these mosaics you can see that Jesus is subtly there and that each story from the Old Testament is giving a knowing nod to the Word (sometimes referred to as the Wisdom of God), who the prologue of John’s gospel says was present in the beginning with God. For the leaders of the Oxford Movement, the Old Testament is “one vast prophetic system, veiling, but full of the New Testament,” and, more specifically, “of the One whose presence is stored up within it.”[ii]
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.