The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
What then will this child become? In the event of the birth of a child, this is not an uncommon question. As family, friends, and the wider community come together to celebrate a new birth, there are many hopes, dreams, and well-wishes expressed to the parents. As each year passes, many in this same circle will come together and celebrate the birthday of the young child as it grows, matures, and takes on personality and interests. Eventually they will find their place in that same community, contributing to the wider society, and carrying on the legacy of their parents. There are many in the community who will have a hand in helping to guide the child as they grow into adulthood. Looking back, perhaps we can name all of those who have been influential in our lives and have taken stock in our well-being.
In our gospel lesson from Luke, this question is flavored by the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the birth of John. His mother and father were well on in years. Elizabeth, well past child bearing age and having never been able to conceive, now finds herself pregnant. How will she be able to care for a child in her old age, much less survive childbirth? Zechariah, after an angelic vision in the Temple announcing the birth of his son and his vocational future as the Baptizer, questions this as real and is struck mute as a sign. The name given to the boy is unknown to the family. The loosening of Zechariah’s tongue, his praising of God, and his proclamation of prophecy connecting this birth to God’s covenant with Israel is a strange occurrence. The gospel writer says: “Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about through the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will THIS child become?’”
After the death of my parents, I had to settle their estate and then prepare the house that I grew up in to sell. Among the almost five decades of memories were photo albums assembled through the years. In one of these albums is a picture of my Mom and me when I was an infant. She was in her nightgown, her hair in curlers, sitting in a rocking chair holding me. She was lovingly looking down at me and I was gazing up at her, our eyes locked while I sucked on my pacifier. I imagine my Dad seeing the opportunity for the iconic shot and carefully reaching for his camera. It is a picture we have all seen in the many photo albums of our lives or even while walking in the park, eating in a restaurant, or visiting family. The mother gazes at the infant with a gentle outpouring of love, comfort, and safety. The infant returns the gaze, looking up into the eyes of its mother, taking in information, studying her face, expressions, and eyes. This gaze of love is so compelling, you cannot help but to get drawn in. Even though you were too young to remember this interchange, somehow you hold it sacramentally in embodied remembrance.
It was this kind of gaze that came to mind when reading these words in a small book published by our Society called A Cowley Calendar which has a quote of our founder Fr. Benson for each day of the year. On the page marked “Tuesday in the Octave of Ascension” there is this quote: “We must realize that His eye is really upon us. We must therefore rest in the knowledge that He is looking on us. He gazes into our hearts, He knows all the thoughts that are there. He watches when perhaps Satan assaults us with manifold evil thoughts. He encourages us to be strong, to keep ourselves continually gazing upon Him; and if we will only live in His love, then no power of the enemy can tear us away.”[i] In our lection this evening from the Gospel of John we hear Jesus pray to his Father for his disciples in loving intercession. As he begins to pray, the author of John says that Jesus looks up toward heaven. Its almost as if Jesus returns the gaze of his father as he prays about his coming glorification on the cross and then for protection for his disciples.
Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqLiH7AyU9A
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen[i]
I’ve been thinking a lot this past year about the prevalence of shame in our society. While I cannot remember my first encounter with shame, I can recall many instances of it throughout my life; moments that have been seared into my memory by the branding iron of trauma. From being bullied by older boys in the changing room at the local YMCA while participating in an after-school swimming program in elementary school—to being unable to finish my college degree as a result in part of a learning disability that eluded me until only three years ago—shame has been a regular character in the drama of my life, lurking behind the curtain until its cue to enter and take center stage. Shame manifests in my mind like evidence presented to a jury in a court of law, which after a very brief deliberation declares the devastating judgement, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Or, to put it simply: you are not enough.
In her book Daring Greatly, self-proclaimed ‘shame researcher’ Brené Brown defines this emotion as: the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.[ii] While you may not remember your maiden voyage on the sea of shame, my bet is that like me, you are able to recall instances of it throughout your lifetime. Brown goes on to say that we all experience the emotion of shame. And, even though it is universal, we are reluctant to talk about it.[iii] The insidious nature of shame insures that we dare not speak its name, giving it time to metastasize like cancer cells, breaking free from its injurious ‘ground zero’ and spreading throughout our lived experience.
Similarly, like cancer, the longer it roams free, the further out of control it becomes. The loss of innocence to shame often results in the learned skill of taming this wild beast and wielding it as a weapon to our advantage through the instilling of fear in another. So fluent are we all in the language of shame that often times our employing of it is not intentional. Shame can be used as a method of motivation to steer others from engaging in behaviors we find questionable, unacceptable, or dangerous according to our own lived experience, which can be skewed because of our own experience of being shamed. Shame begets shame, fear begets fear. When we force shame upon others, we rob them of their dignity as we venture to recreate them in our own image. Brown continues, “Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.”[iv] Forcing a square peg into a round hole will damage the integrity of both.
In John’s account of Jesus’ passion, we observe a first-hand account of the destructive nature of shame. We watch as Jesus is abandoned by all but a handful of those close to him. We see Jesus as he is stripped of his clothes and his dignity; mocked, scourged, and spit upon. We stand with Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple at the foot his cross, gazing at His body: bruised, bleeding, and naked. Perhaps, it is in gazing at Jesus nakedness that we harken to another place and time: a garden where we hid ourselves in shame, hearing the voice of our creator asking, “Who told you that you were naked?” Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”[v] It is in this garden, called Eden, that we encounter our first experience of the shame that is so difficult to remember. The trauma experienced here was not the result of forbidden fruit, eaten and digested, but through the seductive language of shame: Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden? You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’[vi] Or, once again to put it simply: you are not enough.
It was then that we observed God’s first acts of mercy. God clothes the man and woman and then says, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.’[vii] The expulsion from Eden was an act of mercy, lest humanity live in perpetual shame.
The gospel news of the cross is that God took on our human nature in the face of Jesus and endured the shame of the cross for our sake. It is in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that God restored our nature, giving us the ability to stare shame in the face and eradicate it with a different language: the language of love.
But, we do have to face the cross as Jesus did. We have to summon the courage with God’s help to face what we know to be true, that we are worthy of love and belonging, that we are enough. How is it that you know shame? What is your experience of being weighed in the balance and found wanting? How have you wielded shame as a weapon for the sake of self-preservation? Who has been a source of shame for you in your life? In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to venerate the cross. As you approach, bring your shame, your experience of not being enough, your struggle for control, or the shame you’ve felt at another’s hands; and as you kiss the cross, imagine that shame being nailed to the cross and know that in Jesus victory over death, that shame will be transfigured. For those of you joining us online, you may want to take a cross you have in your household, pull an image of a cross on your screen, draw a cross, or simply pick a brother to enact the veneration for you.
I close with words from Hymn 162:
O tree of beauty, tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear
Gone is thy shame, each crimsoned bough
Proclaims the King of glory now.
Blest tree, whose chosen branches bore
The wealth that did the world restore,
The price which none but he could pay
To spoil the spoiler of his prey.[viii]
Lectionary Year/Proper: Year One
Solemnity or Major Feast: Good Friday
[i] Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week, Book of Common Prayer, p. 220
[ii] Brown Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery, 2015.
[v] Genesis 3:11
[vi] Genesis 3:1-5
[vii] Genesis 3:22-24
[viii] Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?); ver. Hymnal 1982
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.