During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, rest, solitude, and recreation.
Jesus embodied stillness and solitude, and he cultivated a kind of hermitage of his own heart, an oasis in a desert where his Father in heaven lived in the mystery of infinite love and compassion. To nourish this place, Jesus often retreated somewhere alone to pray or meditate, and in the reading today Jesus offers a similar experience of solitude to his disciples, inviting them into a deserted place. The Greek word translated as “deserted place” can also be translated as the wilderness or the desert. The root of the word means “lonely” and in fact the New Jerusalem Bible translation has Jesus inviting his disciples into a “lonely place.” The question is, why would anyone want to go to a lonely place?
Within each of us our Beloved God has planted a seed, and if we can say the Holy One prays for anything, it might be simply that this seed bears good fruit. As followers of the Way of Jesus, that’s our prayer, too, for ourselves and for each other, that the seeds take root, sprout, and grow.
When Jesus walked ancient Palestine, people were very intimate with the earth and the cycles of seasons, in ways most us in urban societies might find hard to imagine. That’s why agriculture metaphors like this resonated so strongly for those listening to Jesus. Sowing seeds, for example, suggests a spirituality rooted in the ground of being in the world just as we find it, while also suggesting a sense of urgency since the fate of seeds could be a matter of life and death for people relying on the land to bear its fruit. The parable of the sower, in particular, must have struck a chord, because we find it in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and even in the gospel of Thomas.
This is the first of a series of sermons on the five marks of mission, five aspects of the mission that Christians are called to in the world. This list was developed by the Anglican Communion and endorsed by the Episcopal Church as a helpful framework within which we can better understand our calling to the mission of Christ. The five marks of mission are: 1) To proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom; 2) To teach, baptize and nurture new believers; 3) To respond to human need by loving service; 4) To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind and to pursue peace and reconciliation; and 5) To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
Maundy Thursday – 1 Cor 11.23-26
John 13.1-7, 31b-35
Saint John the Evangelist opens the fourth gospel with some of the most beautiful and majestic lines in the entire bible. “In the beginning was the Word,” he writes, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” He was “the light of all people. The light [that] shines in the darkness…” John also tells us how “…the Word became flesh and lived among us,” and how “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”.
Then, sometime later, John shares with us how the eternal Word made flesh, the source of all being, the bright light shining in the darkness, and the glory of God… offers to get down onto the ground and wash the dusty feet of some of his friends. Now, to say the disciples had a very high regard for Jesus would be a huge understatement, and so Peter, for example, was utterly shocked by the mere suggestion.
1 John 4:16b-19,
There’s a ghost-like, ephemeral butterfly, who’s been given the scientific name Leptosia nina. Her flight, like a wandering snowflake, is weak and erratic, as she hovers close to the ground, pausing now and again to flitter playfully near a flower or drink from morning dew. Her delicate wings are a translucent, pearly white, each having a small, dark spot, the color of ashen shadow. Her common name is psyche, which in Greek is both the word for butterfly, and the word translated as “soul” in the New Testament. It’s a word that suggests the deepest and most essential part of our being, the place where our most sacred truths live, and where, in moments of stillness and grace, Christ is born in our hearts.
In this light, psychology could be understood as the study of the soul, and psychiatry the healing of the soul. Now, I suppose those definitions might seem ambitious, or in the medical model perhaps even nonsensical, but long before there were fields called psychology or psychiatry, the wholeness of a human being was considered a soul made well again. Admittedly, this begs the question: what is a healthy soul, and what is a soul like when it’s not healthy? John Sanford, in his book The Kingdom Within, suggests that a soul’s primary purpose is one of relationship, relationship to self, to others, and to God. To the extent that a soul is healthy, those relationships are loving and nourishing. For an unhealthy soul, those relationships are broken, painful, or absent. And so our soul is yearning to share itself in the kind of open, authentic, and loving relationship we call intimacy.
The anonymous author of the Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century guide to Christian contemplative prayer, uses God’s appearances to Moses, or theophanies, as models for how we experience God’s continuing revelation in the world. For example, the Old Testament image of a pillar of cloud symbolizes the unknowing of God through a kind of negating of everything we think we know, while a pillar of fire symbolizes the way of affirmation, knowing God through qualities we affirm through images, sensations, thoughts, and feelings.
God is one, and the many religions of the world are like many paths up the same mountain, or like many rivers emptying into one great ocean. Then again, maybe not. Maybe God is not one, in the sense that religions are so radically different in their beliefs, practices, their understanding of the human condition and the nature of reality that any talk of oneness threatens to gloss over some very important distinctions, distinctions that define who we are as Christians.
The question of how religions of the world understand and relate to each other is an important one, especially in today’s world where religious violence and harassment continue to rise, a world that cries out for more interfaith tolerance and cooperation. Of course, this is hardly a new problem. In our reading from the letter of Paul to the Ephesians we’re reminded of the tensions between the gentiles and Jews of long ago. Today, however, with the world seeming ever smaller, our opportunities to encounter those of different religious traditions has grown in ways Paul could never have imagined.
When I was growing up I remember really liking my Uncle Michael – we used to call him Uncle Mickey. I didn’t get to see him very often, but I so looked forward to his visits. I only found out much later why he didn’t come to visit us more. He felt ashamed, he thought we wouldn’t want to see him, he believed he wasn’t worth seeing. You could say he felt “unclean.”
The notion of uncleanness was a very important one in ancient Jewish culture, and it was applied to both food and people. Reasons for such laws included, for example, concerns over hygiene or the creation of a unique Jewish identity. Originally, they were never meant to indicate a person’s state of sin or social worth, but by the time of Jesus being pronounced “unclean” could put you in the category of moral failure and social outcast.
The Episcopal Church web site speaks of a certain ambivalence towards the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the feast we celebrate today. The ambivalence is born from the differing points of view concerning the traditional focus of the feast, namely the Real Presence (capital “R,” capital “P”) of Jesus Christ in the sacrament. Real Presence refers to Jesus Christ is being really present in the consecrated bread and wine, and not present in some lesser way. But what do we mean by “really” present?
In 2012, I left work and school for a while so I could be with my father in the final weeks of his life. It was a difficult time of anxious, exhausted waiting — even with the blessing of a wonderful hospice team. My family and I patiently attended to my father’s needs, being as fully present for him as possible, our one wish being that his final passage be as peaceful and loving as possible. Making it more bearable were small moments of gifted grace — a random smile from my dad, a comment or mannerism that would usher in good memories, or just the touch of his hand.
Not long after my father died, I returned to the life I had left, relying on God’s love and compassion to help me through the painful grieving. On one occasion I found myself asking God for just one more chance to hold my father’s hand, just once more. I remember feeling a little guilty for asking the impossible, but it also felt right and honest — it just happened to be exactly what my heart most needed to ask.