Tonight, some of us have come here specifically to perform the ancient Christian ritual of foot-washing in which we seek to imitate Jesus, the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Some of us will recoil from this intimate act of pure service. To touch another person crosses a boundary. But piercing that boundary seems to me to have the potential of beginning to free us from the burden of fear. I think that this is what Jesus was doing when he stooped to wash the disciples’ feet. Trying to soothe his own fear in seeking the nearness and closeness of those who were closest to him. Indeed, seeking their very physicality and longing to touch them.
But, intimacy presupposes trust. Without trust, intimacy is impossible. That makes touching another fraught with risk. And this is something that we need to acknowledge to ourselves and one another. Something to seriously consider before we undertake what we are about to do. Feet in particular have always carried connotations of intimacy and closeness. It’s a theme that resonates through both Old and New Testament books.
Some will not be able to perform this act. For one reason or for a hundred reasons, this might be something that we are unable to do. Possibly it carries too much risk for some of us. If that is where you find yourself, suspend self-judgment; simply let that be.
“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.
Every year in August, the Brothers gather together for a community retreat at Emery House. During this month, in lieu of posting sermons, we will be sharing with you some of the Brothers’ recent reflections from Cowley magazine on the topic of our relationship with the Creation, which will be the main theme of the Brothers’ teaching for the coming year.
In September, we’ll look forward to sharing Br. James Koester’s Monastic Wisdom article, “Living in Rhythm: Following Nature’s Rule.” And we hope you’ll share word of our upcoming 2016 Lenten series, “Growing a Rule of Life,” which offers guidance and inspiration for individuals, parishes, and groups.
The renovated Cloister Garden at the Monastery opens the door for a new relationship with Creation, which Br. Robert L’Esperance shares.
Most High, all – powerful, all good, Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor and all blessing.1
There is a cost to being in touch with our natural world. Like just about anything worth having there is a cost to it. There is real joy in discerning nature and its wonders, yet there is also pain in knowing this.
How utterly removed many of us are from nature that we don’t even seem to have a care for what we are looking at. On the one hand we see the autumn colors in the fall and we think “What a pretty picture!” What a glorious creation. Or we see the first spring green in the woods and say to ourselves, “How thrilling!” What a glorious creation. But we know the names of nothing. And that makes our lives easier. Once you learn the name of things, maybe you will see the early fall color along New England roadsides and think, “Oh, my, look at all those choking vines aglow in yellow: oriental bittersweet, everywhere.” That first spring green in the woods? Japanese barberry. The downside to knowing the names of things can be an element of disenchantment.
To witness the Creation truly, it should be an honor to know the names of things, to know our world by name. Naming the world was one of God’s first gifts to humankind. We should be able to name Creation, even though it might sometimes mean introducing new heartache or anxiety into our lives where before there was none, where before there were just pretty pictures.
Learning the names of things also deepens our appreciation for the sugar maple, the white oak, the tree or the shrub we may before have regarded as just some tree or bush like all others. The tree and the shrub become individuals, which is what they are, with an identity in the Creation that is unique and fantastic, with an ancient lineage all its own. A lineage like your own that brought you to this place, time, and moment in Creation. That tree, that shrub is an inheritor of billions of years of survival and each also is a giver to pollinators, birds, and the myriad upon myriad of icky things from which we would rather turn our gaze.
Birders can tell a sparrow from a sparrow, or a gull from a gull – and the world becomes richer, truer, more real. And what might be thought of as a dull sparrow becomes a source of excitement and joy.
All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces various fruits with colored flower and herbs.
On an August afternoon during the Monastery’s renovation, the Brothers made a field trip to Garden in the Woods, located in Framingham, Massachusetts, about twenty miles west of Boston. That trip constituted a turning point for the community in thinking about how to restore and renovate the Cloister Garden after the site was cleared of the construction materials that were housed there during the renovation. Up to that point, we had been thinking along quite conventional lines. That trip to Framingham helped us to begin to imagine something that would seek to bring other values to our idea of what our garden should be like.
It was in that visit that the idea of a naturalistic, native plant garden was born. The results of that vision are now visible from the cloister windows.
With hundreds – no maybe thousands – of hours of careful research, planning, and design, the community’s friend, Patrick Smith, helped us bring to birth (the process sometimes felt just like that!) a vision of the cloister space that has been a transforming and life-giving experience for the entire community and our guests. Like so many other notions about the earth, the environment, and our role in that great interchange, ideas about what a garden is and should be are undergoing great changes. The garden design that Patrick developed for us tries to take many of these new understandings seriously and put them into practice.
We have been encouraged to think of our garden as an opportunity for us to be the best stewards of the land that we can be. Each plant was chosen with the site in mind, bringing into play the current thinking which advocates choosing plants that are appropriate to the existing environment rather than trying to artificially modify the environment to accommodate a less appropriate choice. This is about working with nature and what nature has already given to the site, rather than imposing something out of place. We also saw our garden as a being that should be life-sustaining to itself, us, and the other living beings with whom we share this space. This impulse lies behind much of what motivates any gardener to sink her hands into the soil: the desire to cultivate and connect with life itself.
Our garden is also intended to be a marker of time. We live our life according to a liturgical calendar that marks the natural rhythms of the seasons by recalling the great salvific acts of the Creator. Through the four seasons, the garden is designed to be a grand calendar, from snow covered limbs, through the bud-break of a million shining chalices, the steamy heat of summer alive with crickets and katydids, and then through the cool and refreshing fire of autumn’s colors.
Finally, the garden is a way of extending monastic hospitality to non-human guests. We are blessedly close to the beautiful Mount Auburn garden cemetery, the home or migration ground to so many birds and animals. Our garden’s berries, water, and shelter are already drawing wild birds that we have never seen before on the Monastery’s urban-enclosed grounds. In a sense, those visiting and lodging birds have become ambassadors by carrying those seeds and berries outside the garden perimeters into the wider world. As a nourishing and nurturing place, the Cloister Garden has in common with other native plant gardens the capacity of existing beyond its borders for the benefit of all.
The new Cloister Garden is a palate that will hopefully help each of us grow more and more into relationship with the individual plants. We hope guests who come will learn, as we Brothers have, to name and know the beautiful and varied forms and flowers of native dogwoods, sourwood, sweet-bay magnolia and autumn witch hazel, old man’s beard, ironwood, serviceberry and paw-paw. We hope you’ll spot the divine presence along the paths that wind through an understory of viburnum, rhododendron, holly, spice-bush, and mountain laurel.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks, and serve him with great humility.
1. [The italicized lines throughout this article are taken from Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures (The Society of St. Francis, Little Portion Friary, Mt. Sinai, NY: 1926).]↩
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