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]
It is hard to believe that a week from tomorrow marks one year since my brothers Curtis, John, Luke, and I embarked on a journey to the Holy Land to lead a pilgrimage. Each of us brothers prepared two reflections to give at designated sites during our two week journey. I was assigned to give my first meditation at ‘The Shepherd’s Field,’ in the countryside just outside of Bethlehem where tradition says the shepherds would have encountered the great angelic hosts proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ birth. My second meditation I gave at the teardrop-shaped church on the Mount of Olives called ‘Dominus Flevit,’ which is Latin for “The Lord wept.” It was here that I could begin to piece together in my mind the scene we celebrated at the beginning of this morning’s liturgy.
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
If I were to walk up to you and wish you a Happy Ash Wednesday, how would you react? If I were to say ‘I hope you have a great Lent,’ I imagine I’d get some strange looks, maybe a dubious smile, or perhaps even judged as being irreverent. Truth be told, Lent actually seems to be the opposite of happy and festive. We don’t ring bells in excitement. We don’t have a festive meal to mark the occasion. We deny ourselves certain creature comforts that have become staples of our happiness. We look with a strange combination of pity and amusement upon our fellow Episcopalians when they slip up and say “Allelu…!”[i] And we step outside the door of Ash Wednesday with a sigh, trying to psych ourselves up for the journey towards Easter which at this point seems to be nowhere in sight. Yet, we as Christians know that this is something we must do. Which way do we go? Just how far is it really? Do I have enough provisions to sustain me until I arrive? How did I get myself in this mess?
I admit, I have often stepped out on my Lenten journey with a sense of dread, fixated on just how it is I’ve gotten it all wrong, how badly I’ve messed up, and putting together in my mind the words I will need to pray in order for God to forgive me and take me back…..if I’m lucky. This isn’t necessarily inappropriate, but I think it turns a blind eye to a very important truth about our relationship with God. We often think that we must do the right thing in order to please God. We must say the right words to ‘woo’ God into thinking that were wonderful, smart, and loveable. If we act in the right way, God will react graciously.
The autumn of my 4th grade year I had the sudden desire, much to the surprise of my parents, to play football. I say my parents were surprised because I had never even shown the slightest interest in watching a football game much less playing football. Maybe it had more to do with the fact that my friends were not around to hang out with after to school because they were at football practice, after which they’d come home to eat supper with their families before doing their studies and going to bed. Whatever the reason, I remember begging my folks to let me play, even against their counsel. Finally, my Dad said to me, “If we let you play, you’re in until the banquet at the end of the season.” I was overjoyed and after I had agreed to the stipulation, we were off to pay the fee, get weighed in, and get my football pads.
Now, it only took one practice of getting hit and knocked into the dirt for me to appreciate my parents’ wisdom, and I came home and told them as much. My father graciously thanked me before reiterating, to my dismay, that I would play Center for the East Pee Wee football team until the banquet. Even a trip to the ER to treat a laceration to the elbow which required stitches did not change his mind. The solution: elbow pads. I played through the season and you may be surprised to know that I did not get MVP nor most improved; just a participation trophy and a scar on my elbow. This story came to mind when praying with our lesson from Ecclesiasticus: My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for testing. Set you hear right and be steadfast, and do not be impetuous in time of calamity. Cling to him and do not depart, so that your last days may be prosperous. Accept whatever befalls you, and in times of humiliation be patient. For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable in the furnace of humiliation. Trust in him, and he will help you; make your ways straight, and hope in him.
As you can tell from the name of our Society, we brothers have a special affinity to the beloved disciple which tradition suggests is John. There is an icon in the statio that you pass on your way into the cloister that contains the tender image of the beloved disciple reclining on the breast of Jesus. He was closest to Jesus in his inner circle of friends. But if truth be told, most days I identify more with Peter. You may remember in Matthew’s gospel that Simon is renamed by Jesus and given the name Peter which means rock, “and on this rock,” Jesus tells him, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”[i]
But it is not this aspect of Peter that I identify with. It is because more often than not gets it wrong. Peter is constantly saying the wrong things and sticking his foot in his mouth. It is Peter who steps outside the boat to walk with Jesus on the water but is overcome by his fear and begins to sink.[ii] It is Peter who denies Jesus three times before the cock crows after his insistence that he would never leave Jesus.[iii] The many stories we hear about Peter suggests that he does not have all the information he needs and often acts or speaks out of ignorance.
When I first began to study the lessons appointed for today, I couldn’t help but to think back to one of my favorite commercials from the 1990’s. The setting is just outside a desert fortress where a criminal is tied to a pole and is facing a firing squad. The chief executioner questions the condemned man: “Would you like a blindfold, Messieur? The man answers quickly, “No!” The executioner then asks, “Would you like a cigarette?” Again, the man answers, “No!” Finally, he is asked, “What do you want on your tombstone?” The man pauses briefly to think before answering resolutely, “Pepperoni and cheese!” The commercial was for Tombstone Pizza which not only offered you convenience: a full sized frozen pizza served piping hot in just minutes with all natural ingredients, but also a panoply of choices suited for all tastes.[i] As Americans, we LOVE choices! We do not like to be boxed in with no options. We want to make the decision with the most concise information and with as little serious discernment as possible. We are highly individualistic and want to feel like every option is personal, tailored specifically for our convenience.