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?”
If God were to appear to you in a dream and tell you to travel to New York and walk through the center of Manhattan pronouncing God’s judgment and impending destruction of that city, how would you respond? I suspect many of us would wake up and think, wow, that was a really strange dream and perhaps share it with friends for a laugh over a coffee or lunch break. If we felt particularly disturbed by the dream, we might call our therapist or spiritual director to help process the feelings and emotions the dream conjured. Somehow I suspect most if not all of us would eventually shrug it off and forget about it. But what if this dream were to reoccur persistently?
In this evening’s Old Testament lesson we hear a portion of a comical story about Jonah who receives this very message from God. This short book is only four chapters long start to finish and the introduction to Jonah in the New Oxford Annotated Bible states that he is never even called a prophet in the text.[i] To add insult to injury, the book of Jonah is more about God’s dealings with the ‘prophet’ himself than with the recipients of Jonah’s message, therefore making Jonah the ‘circus clown’ of all the prophets. His day starts out by getting a daunting assignment from God: go to Nineveh, the capitol city of the hated and oppressive Assyrian Empire, and pronounce God’s judgment on them. I don’t think there is a single one of us who blame Jonah for his response. Jonah runs away and we shake our heads at him intuiting that this is only going to get worse.
I imagine it was with a youthful twinkle in his eye that our Society’s founder, Father Benson, once wrote: “If we are to have Jesus our friend, we must know him to be continually near. The companionship of Jesus! It is strange how many there are who look forward to being with him in another world, but never think of living fellowship with him here.”
I was eleven years old when I made my way to the front of my childhood church to proclaim what I already knew in my heart: that Jesus and I had had a personal relationship since before I could remember. In the evangelical tradition in which I was raised, the pastor would always give an “altar call” before the final hymn: he would invite anyone who wanted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to come forward and stand with him as a public profession of that desire, which was the next step in the journey of faith. After I took that step myself, I always looked forward to that moment in the service, to see who else might come to be friends with Jesus the way I was.
Yet as I grew into an adult understanding of Jesus during my own journey into adulthood, the constant companion I had known as a child became a distant acquaintance that I would see once every great while (and when I did, I wasn’t quite sure what to say). Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’ve been trying to reclaim a relationship with Jesus. Or maybe, in light of current events, you’re presently searching for a ray of hope, confused and disoriented at what is going on in this world, wondering ‘where in the world is Jesus in all of this?’
In my own journey, I met Jesus again in the same place that I had first professed to follow him: at the altar. Late in my high school years, I had the opportunity to visit an Episcopal Church one Christmas Eve and was most struck by all the activity surrounding the altar during the second half of the service. Something mysterious was occurring, and while I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, it was palpable. I eventually joined the Episcopal Church and came to know and understand what was happening at the altar. It was a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Through this sacrament, my personal relationship with Jesus was renewed. What’s more, I realized in this new ‘altar call’ that Jesus had always been with me on my journey, I just hadn’t recognized him. Every time we gather around an altar to break bread and share wine, we get a glimpse of Jesus, who is our constant companion.
As a monk now, I get the chance to meet Jesus at the altar every day during the Eucharist. Yet even as a monk, I also need to attune my eyes to see him in my everyday life. How can we become aware of Jesus, who is also called Emmanuel – “God with us” – when we’re away from the altar? I want to suggest a transformative practice which comes from the monastic tradition: reserving two brief periods of prayer to act as ‘bookends’ to your day.
In the morning, take a few moments and pray forward through your day. As editor David Cobb suggests in the newly revised Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book:
In God’s presence, think through the day ahead: the work you will do, the people you will encounter, the dangers or uncertainties you face, the possibilities for joy and acts of kindness, any particular resolutions you need to renew. Consider what might draw you from the love of God and neighbor, the opportunities you will have to know and serve God and to grow in virtue. Remember those closest to you and all for whom you have agreed to pray, ask God’s blessings, guidance, and strength in all that lies before you. Then, gather up these thoughts and reflections with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
Or you might conclude, as I do, with Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” which is popular in 12-Step work:
GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.
If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find that, over time, this way of praying in the morning will help make you aware of Jesus with you throughout your day. Even the empty, in-between times of the day can become full of chances to meet him in the moment. Father George 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.
A second period of prayer, at the end of the day, can help you to see how many moments throughout your day were, indeed, “an act of communion with God.” Before you go to bed, take ten or fifteen minutes to pray backwards through your day. You might use the five-step prayer known in Ignatian Spirituality as “The Examen”:
- Become aware of God’s presence and ask God to bring clarity to the end of your day.
- Review the day with gratitude, both what went well and where you might have come up short. Pay attention to the small things. God is in the details.
- Pay attention to your emotions. Ignatius says that we detect the presence of God in our emotions. What is God saying through these feelings?
- Choose one feature from the day and pray from it. Look at it. Pray about it. Allow the prayer to arise spontaneously from your heart – whether intercession, praise, repentance, or gratitude.
- Look forward to tomorrow. Do all this with a posture of gratitude knowing that all of life is a gift of God, and then close with the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus always waits for us at the altar. And he meets us in the sacrament of our daily lives. He continually accompanies us along our earthly pilgrimage, loving us and upholding us, each step of the way. Look for him beside you.
Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32
The other day I ran across a video on YouTube that made me incredibly uncomfortable. The scene was of the famous conductor Leonard Bernstein rehearsing Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations with the BBC Orchestra. In the video, the famous maestro singles out the trumpet section on a particular passage of music and tries to instruct them on what he would like to hear. Confused, one of the trumpeters asks for clarification on the sound Mr. Bernstein is looking for. The maestro answers: well, not a brassy ‘waaah’, indicating how he thought they had just played it. With an agitated expression on his face and obviously disagreeing with the maestro’s assessment of their performance, the second trumpet player responds to Mr. Bernstein, taking a tone that is both ungracious and confrontational. The air in the room is tense as you would expect when a brilliant musician with a bruised ego pushes back against one of the most renowned conductors of that era. At the end of the brief two minute video Mr. Bernstein summons the rest of the orchestra to move on and the camera catches the principal clarinetist smiling nervously, almost disbelieving what he just witnessed.[i] I don’t know about you, but my reaction would probably be like that of the clarinetist. Even though conflict and confrontation are sometimes inevitable in life, I have to admit, I certainly do not go looking for it.
Isaiah 44:6-8; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Our gospel lesson for today made me recall what I remember as the very first theological conundrum of my childhood. I was probably 7 or 8 years old, it was summertime, and my Mom had admonished me to go outside and play. I suspect on that particular day I had been a bee in my mother’s bonnet. I walked outside into the front yard barefoot, enjoying the feeling of the warm grass between my toes. That is until I experienced the sensation of sharp pain all over the bottom of my foot. I jerked my foot up quickly as I looked down to discover that I had stepped squarely on a thistle. After I had recovered from the pain, made sure there were no needles stuck in my foot, and surveyed the scene hoping that my parents had not heard the expletive I had shouted (not necessarily in that order), I began to wonder why God made thistles in the first place. What was the purpose or a thistle? Why did God create something to inflict pain on a barefooted kid such as myself?
On August 20, 1965, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an episcopal seminarian did an amazing thing. When confronted by a white man with a 12 gauge shot gun, Jonathan jumped in front of 16 year old Ruby Sales, an African American woman from Alabama, and absorbed the bullet meant for her at point blank range. He died. This is amazing, but not extraordinary. Most people who have been donned a ‘hero’ usually shrug off the title saying that they reacted to a situation by instinct and not by any heroic rationale. Had he lived, perhaps Jonathan would have said the same of his behavior in the face of violence.
Like many of us, Jonathan struggled with his sense of vocation. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute and attended Harvard for graduate school but when it came to what he wanted to do with his life, he felt lost, juggling the possibilities of being a lawyer, doctor, or writer. Then on Easter Day in 1962 while attending a service at the Church of the Advent here in Boston, Jonathan heard the still small voice of God calling him and immediately knew in his heart what he must do. He soon entered what is now the Episcopal Divinity School to pursue ministry. Three years later, inspired by the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the gospel of Luke (He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things….)[i] and also by words of Dr. Martin Luther King, he asked for leave from seminary to go to Selma, Alabama to help in the Civil Rights Movement. He wrote: “I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”[ii]
1 Peter 2:2-10
Those of you who have had an opportunity to stay with us here at the monastery or have had an occasion to join us for a Sunday meal know that I am a foodie. I enjoy cooking and eating all kinds of food, but most I most especially have a passion for southern cooking. While I love living here in New England and jump at an occasion to enjoy a Lobster Roll or warm up with a bowl of chowder, one of the things that I miss the most are the tastes of home. And so on the Sundays when I volunteer to cook lunch, I more often than not will cook food with a southern flair: Chicken Fried Shortribs, a variety of greens wilted in a homemade bacon jam, and classic peach cobbler a la mode is just one of the many meals you may experience when I’m in the kitchen.
When a man first comes to the monastery to test his vocation, you may be surprised to know that he does not get a large ‘how to’ manual on being a monk. Nor does he receive a week-long orientation in the essentials of monastic living. Much of what a postulant and novice learns is by observation, trial and error, and asking questions when they arise. When he sings the Offices with the Community, (regardless of his proficiency in music fundamentals) he learns a strange musical script with a four-line staff and peculiar square notes that when stacked on top of each other means they ascend and when written in progression means they descend. He learns that the bell rings ten minutes prior to each service although he may find himself sitting in chapel alone and confused for fifteen to twenty minutes when the Angelus bell rings at noon and no one shows up. There is often that awkward moment when learning to acolyte that he lights the candles on the altar at noonday prayer only to have them extinguished with an explanation that candles are not lit at the noon office. I sometimes joke that I’ve been here over five years and I’m still learning new things each week, although now they are more often epiphanies that dawn on me mysteriously, out of the blue. For me, our lesson this evening from John’s gospel illustrates how the experience of novice monks is not dissimilar from that of Jesus’ disciples.
This morning we hear one of the most quintessential stories in all of the gospels; so definitive in fact that it has given birth to a term that is used to label a person we deem as a skeptic. When someone we know is unwilling to believe something without concrete evidence, we call them a ‘doubting Thomas.’ Beginning with Easter Day we hear an abundance of post-resurrection stories witnessing to the disciples and those close to Jesus seeing, speaking, and eating with Him, giving credence to the fantastic rumors that His body had not been stolen, but that He had in fact risen from the dead three days after his gruesome crucifixion, just as He had prophesied. Our lection from John begins with one of these accounts: it is the first day of the week following the crucifixion and Jesus’ disciples have hidden themselves behind locked doors out of fear for their lives. Jesus appears among them bidding them peace, and then he immediately shows them his hands, feet, and side: the wounds that were inflicted on him to assure his torture and resulting death. John says: ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’
But the gospel writer says that one of them was missing: Thomas, who was called ‘the twin.’ Where was Thomas? Was he out surveying the scene, plotting a safe exit from Jerusalem for the others? Was he discreetly purchasing food and other provisions that they needed? We don’t know, all we can surmise is that Jesus’ disciples were hiding in fear and that Thomas was not with them. Considering the little we know about Thomas, this is not altogether surprising. There seems to be an implicit bravado associated with him. Earlier in John’s gospel, it is Thomas who exclaims “let us also go [with Jesus}, that we may die with him,” demonstrating that Thomas was utterly devoted to Jesus at the most, and at a hothead at the very least.[i]