“In truth, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.”
The twentieth century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer focused much of his brilliant mind on the problem of ethics and particularly the problem of ethics in the face of violence. Bonhoeffer, having witnessed the take-over and transformation of Germany by the Nazi Party, knew and experienced violence and hatred personally.
His theology proceeds, as does any really good theology, directly from his lived experience. In it, Bonhoeffer argued strongly and persuasively that there are no ethical principles – none; and that Jesus was not a teacher of morality. Yet Bonhoeffer argued that for the Christian there is simply one guide and one guide only: Jesus Christ. Each moral decision, Bonhoeffer said, presents us, as individuals, with a fresh and unique moment of choice. Each choice is a unique opportunity, to make a choice, unrelated to any choice we have made before, or will make hereafter. And that choice is about one thing and one thing only: Is what I choose consistent with my calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ or to put it another way: Am I, in this particular instance, choosing love? Always, the same question: Am I choosing love?
The story of the Samaritan woman has been a powerful draw for me ever since I began to pray with scripture. It’s probably my favorite gospel story. Yet, I have never been able to say why that is so.
I’m guessing that it is something about the character of the woman and her story. A story that I understand to be the story of a woman who is the quintessential outsider. A woman who can only exist at the boundaries of her own society. In it, but not of it. This woman, who has had five husbands and now fornicates with one who is not her husband, lacks essential respectability. And simultaneously, she is a religious pariah to the dominant religious establishment that surrounds her and her homeland. This woman who can only exist at the margins. Outside the bounds that hold both respectable society and respectable religion together.
This is the ninth installation in a sermon series on the five marks of mission of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The five marks of mission are: to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom; to teach, baptize, and nurture new believers; to respond to human need by loving service; to seek to transform unjust structures of society; and finally this evening, the first of two sermons on the fifth mark of mission: to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.
There are any number of eloquent theological statements about our Christian responsibility to care for the earth and its creatures. Doubtless, one of the most eloquent and compelling is the recent encyclical letter of His Holiness, Pope Francis, Laudato ‘si. If you haven’t read I highly commend it to you. Not only is it eloquent but it’s also courageous. Pope Francis does not shrink or mince words in pointing out the culpability of capitalist society and its exploitation of the environment resulting in devastating consequences for many powerless and exploited poor people.
This morning’s parable would have seemed very real to Jesus’ audience. Some of the crowd probably knew large sections of Scripture for memory so they would have recognized the allusion to the prophet Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. In it, the prophet likens the chosen people and their promised land to a vineyard planted in fertile soil, lovingly tended, and yielding only the bitterness and disappointment of wild sour grapes.
The story relates not one violent incident but three, in a pattern of escalating violence. Patterns of violence begetting more violence like those we hear about almost every day. It sickens us as I imagine it sickened Jesus’ audience.
1 John 2:18-25
“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”
Christmas is a mystery. In some ways, it’s a familiar story about a birth under less than ideal circumstances, like so many births. But, it’s also an utterly fantastic birth. A boy- child without human father born of a virgin mother; heavenly choirs of angels sing tidings of this birth to simple shepherds; a new star appears in the heavens to mark the site of the birth and strangers travel from faraway lands to pay homage.
We talk about the Incarnation but we really don’t know what we are talking about when we do. The Word, the creative principle of the cosmos, fully becomes flesh yet continues to be fully the Divine. What does that mean? There seems little room for such an unreasonable possibility. It’s entirely unreasonable. For centuries, Christians have tried to wrap their heads around this birth. The whole premise is beyond possibility. And that’s at least part of the reason why we have these stories so beyond possibility about a birth so utterly unreasonable.
“Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”1
“…I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground…I was afraid…”1
That slave, who received one talent, often speaks for many of us. Isn’t fear of making a mistake, of trespassing, capable of paralyzing us into passivity and inaction? And when fear and inertia entrap us it is easy to imagine ourselves living in the freedom of the gospel while we are, in fact, trapped in slavery to the Law.
This afternoon, I want to say two things about angels and encounters with angels. First, that it seems to me that all angelic encounters are first and foremost about being open to the Other and intimacy with otherness.1 And second, that the mission of angels is bound up with the presence of both light and shadow in each of our lives and that all of our lives are bound up in angelic realms.
Talking about angels pushes us into that most remarkable region of the human mind that is able to entertain ideas and experiences that exceed our conceptual grasp. Belief and myth fall into this region. Religion was born in a world that had little use for the modern idea that belief has to do with intellectual assent to hypothetical and dubious propositions. Belief in its spiritual sense means to “prize, to value; to hold dear.” It’s a heart movement not a head movement, having much more in common with intuition than rational thought. It is closely connected to the concept of faith which in its biblical sense means “trust, loyalty, engagement, commitment.” Jesus set great store on faith but he wasn’t at all interested in whether people believed in him in the sense that we most often use that word. He wanted commitment not intellectual assent.2
A few years ago, a friend of mine told me about how one Sunday morning his son aged thirteen or fourteen didn’t come down for breakfast. He yelled up the stairs and got a faint groan. Ten minutes before they were supposed to be out the door to church, Greg walked into the kitchen, disheveled, still in his bathrobe, and said he wasn’t going to church. “I don’t want to do this church thing today.” To which his father replied, “Nope, son, no choice about that in this family. Church is who we are.”
My friend was right. Whether it’s right to force thirteen year olds to go to church, I can’t say. I’m not a parent and that I should ever be one seems, well, let me say, dubious at best. But I believe that my friend spoke Truth when he said that Church is who we are.
Q: When did you first have a sense of your own vocation?
I grew up in the age of cheap gasoline. There was a gas station down the street from where I lived, and I have a distinct memory that the gas was twenty-nine cents a gallon. When gasoline was cheap, a favorite family pastime was to go for rides. Sometimes our rides took us to attend Vespers at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, which was about forty miles from where I grew up. This was still in the day when the Roman Catholic liturgy was in Latin, and there was an area in the chapel that was screened in with curtains, because the monks were still under strict cloister. I remember that, from the extern area, you had a view of the altar but couldn’t see the choir monks. I was fairly small; I could peer through the opening in the curtain.
When I had my first thought about being a monk, I was probably about seven years old. I remember looking through the curtain down the nave of the abbey church, which seemed huge to me, to where I could see the monks at the far end of the choir in their white robes. There probably were about seventy monks at the time, so there were a lot of these white bodies down at the end. And I just remember having the thought, “That’s what I want to be when I grow up.”