Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.
In light of our work this past week discussing, deciding, and planning, this morning’s lections feel (dare I say) providential.
Not only in the readings proscribed for the Holy Eucharist, but also in the course of readings that have been taking us through 2 Samuel at Morning Prayer, do we encounter that precious joy which is simultaneously a great burden: our free will as creatures. For the God of Love desires creatures capable of love; therefore God has given us that precious gift, which, in some ways, makes us most like God: our ability to decide—to respond to love in the affirmative.
While our free will marks us with this profound stroke of the divine image, this imprint of the divine nature does not protect us from making poor or foolish decisions.
Now therefore revere the Lord, we hear from Joshua, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…
Psalm 136:1-3, 10-15
If asked the question, “How would you describe God’s character?” how would you respond? Of course, none of us can really answer that question in its fullness. Even with a careful apophasis—that is, an approach to speaking of God in terms of what God is not—we nonetheless remain confronted with the reality that our language about God can only ever attempt to point toward God’s character. It would be a bit like asking the character in a novel to describe the author of that novel. Anything the character might say is limited to the very materials the author has disposed for that character—none of which is actually the author.
Yet today’s readings remind us that there is indeed one way of describing God that very nearly rises beyond our usual linguistic limitations. From God’s “night of vigil” to bring Israel out of Egypt in Exodus, to the incessant refrain of Psalm 136 (“for his mercy endures forever”), to Jesus’ work of blessing even in the midst of his rejection in the sight of the Pharisees, the biblical authors never fail to describe God’s character and self-understanding in terms of love.
No one can serve two masters.
I cannot quite remember when it started, but for some time now during Chapter Office (when we brothers gather daily to hear a chapter of our Rule) I have been following along in a German translation. While this practice has certainly helped my facility with the German language, it has also (rather unexpectedly) offered me intriguing new points of entry into the spirit of our Rule that I would not have noticed otherwise. A peculiar word choice on the translator’s part or even the simple encounter of a thought ordered to a different grammar, will invite a curiosity for my praying imagination.
Recently I noticed that, while our English original makes great use of the English’s expansive word “worship,” (from the old English worth-ship) the German text uses a word much more limited in its meaning: Dienen, or “to serve.” As I sat these last few days with the readings we just heard, I found myself put in mind of this linguistic oddity as I tried to hear Matthew’s Jesus with fresh ears. No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
Aside from a handful of exceptions, every translation of this passage I consulted uses the same words, “to serve” as a gloss for Matthew’s doulein. This feels especially significant to me on a day of Marian devotion, like today. For the verb Matthew uses here grows from the same root as a noun used by Luke in the first chapter of his gospel in a phrase often translated “behold, the handmaid (doulē) of the Lord.”
No one can serve two masters.
I believe we can miss a deeper lesson behind these words if we simply hear them within the more limited frame of a concept like Dienen. The dynamic described by Jesus here—of split motivations, of devotion and spite—attests to his deep knowledge our humanity in all its frailty and weakness—and, equally, of its innate inclination for worship.
What is really at stake for Matthew’s Jesus here is worship—worth-ship, that is, where we put our ultimate worth. You cannot worship God and wealth, says Jesus. Likewise, we may hear him continue, you cannot worship God and your ego; you cannot worship God and pleasure; you cannot worship God and… any good thing. For I do not hear Jesus saying wealth is itself bad. Wealth is a good, as is of course pleasure or any other gift of creation. But it cannot be served—worshipped—alongside God. Worship is, then, about much more than what we do together in church.
This service, this worship is embodied for us in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her obedience to God’s call, as she bore Christ to the world, she gave us all an example of true worship—of a life in its wholeness, grounded in the worth given not by created things, but by the Creator of all things. In her companionship, she shares this very worship with us as she prays for her children, the Body of Christ. In her example, she discloses a life lived in a humble awareness of one’s limitations, finitude, and dependence. A life that listens eagerly for the voice of God. A life in service of but one master.
Saturday in Proper 7B | The Blessed Virgin Mar
 Matthew 6:24
 Luke 1:38
Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1—7; Luke 24:36b—48
You have put gladness in my heart *
more than when grain, and wine, and oil increase.
We brothers pray the words of Psalm 4 nightly as we say the office of Compline. And almost nightly, since I first arrived in the community more than three and a half years ago, the strange abruptness of the transition between verses six and seven has never ceased to captivate me. And it is this strange abruptness that fittingly captures the difficulty I encountered as I set about preparing this sermon. Let’s hear those verse again,
Many are saying,
“Oh, that we might see better times!” *
Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord.
You have put gladness in my heart, *
more than when grain and wine and oil increase. 
Do you notice it?
In the space of one breath, the whole tenor of the psalmist’s prayer changes. One moment, the psalmist lays before God the pains and wounds of the world; Many are saying, “Oh, that we might see better times!” / Lift up the light of your countenance upon us, O Lord. And the next moment, without any obvious referent or explanation, the psalmist describes a sense of inner gladness. A gladness free from a dependence on worldly success or material security, surpassing the gladness when grain and wine and oil increase.
Much of God’s provision for us is mysterious, dark, and frustratingly hidden. I know this has been true in my own life, and I suspect it is probably true for many of us. Times when it’s hard to take Jesus at his word when he says, “Ask, and it will be given you.”
Not only now, in this time of seclusion, isolation, and separation, but in many parts of my life it has been tempting (and I use the word tempting with all of its sinister weight) to read the world and not see God’s provision whatsoever. I admit that this is frighteningly easy, at least for me.
Yet, in hindsight all of these situations that I have read as set-backs or crises—graves for my soul and my character—have really in fact been rich times of provision. And always right under my nose. And I am put in mind of these temptation as we continue our Lenten walk together.
It occurs to me that so often it is easy for us to talk about the disciplines we engage during Lent as “curbs”—to use a word that we brothers have used in our Rule to contrast the living reality of our life and the disciplines that form it. We say that the disciplines of our life are not mere curbs. And so then, what are they?
for everyday living
Br. Sean Glenn marvels at the incredible, redemptive promise of the Incarnation, when God shared our tent in the wilderness.
I Will Take You to Myself
when God shared our tent in the wilderness
In general terms, one might say that the problem of incarnation in Christian theology concerns how one imagines God’s difference in a way that makes it consistent with God’s presence in our world. Can the absolute be present in the concrete without coming too near or being too far away?
– Ola Sigurdson
A Claim to Stake a Life on
At the climax of his sermon On the Holy Transfiguration, St. Ephraim the Syrian speaks at length through a cycle of complementary questions. Of the strangeness and paradox that we find in the very being of Jesus Christ, he writes,
If he was not flesh, whom did Joseph take and flee into Egypt? And if he was not God, in whom were words “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” fulfilled? If he was not flesh, whom did John baptize? And if he was not God, to whom did the Father from heaven say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”? If he was not flesh, who fasted and hungered in the desert? And if he was not God, whom did the Angels come down and serve? If he was not flesh, who was invited to the wedding in Cana of Galilee? And if he was not God, who turned the water into wine?
This cycle of call and response (“If he was not flesh … / If he was not God …”) takes up more than a quarter of the entire sermon. What is Ephraim getting at? Why ask his congregation questions like these? Through this repetition of an apparent contradiction, our second-century saint is trying to read two seemingly incompatible forms of being together. As his refrain echoes back and forth, one deep calling to another, Ephraim undoes a common division between the material and the spiritual. In the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the material and spiritual sing together in harmonious concert.
Ephraim does not stand alone among the voices of the Christian movement. In the pages of the New Testament we find this strange claim made again and again, particularly in the work of our own spiritual patron here at SSJE, Saint John the Evangelist. “The material and the spiritual,” writes Shelly Rambo, “are often read in opposition to each other. But […] the Gospel of John positions them together.” From the very beginning of John’s gospel the astonishing affirmation is made: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Or, as David Bentley Hart’s recent translation evocatively (yet faithfully) renders it, “And the Logos [Word] became flesh and pitched his tent among us… and we saw his glory, glory as of the Father’s only one, full of grace and truth.” By pitching himself in the tent of our frail humanity, the glory of God’s desire for us is unveiled in Jesus.
From as early as I can remember hearing about the figure of Jesus, this strange claim always accompanied him. As a convert to the faith in early adulthood, I still remember how outlandish it sounded to me during my childhood and adolescence. Given the centrality of this proclamation to Christianity, the whole of the faith must have seemed just as outlandish and, frankly, impossible to me.
Looking back, I can see a number of reasons I balked at the idea that God could become human (… or that a human could be God). Some of these reasons were emotional, grown from the seeds of my sense of shame at my own body, judgements about the bodies of others, or ways my culture had taught me to see and value bodies. No, I would think, how could the creator of the universe (if there were such a thing) become human – so frail, so limited, so full of rage and anger and spite? How could the divine come so close to something that makes foul smells and produces substances like urine and feces? Some of these reasons were intellectual, the result of my unfamiliarity with the gospel and Christian thinking through the centuries. Surely, the great power of the creator would completely overwhelm the tiny frailty of a human being. How truly human could this Jesus have been if he were also God?
Yet more deeply, all of these reasons really grew from one crucial blind spot: the God revealed in Jesus Christ wound up being a far cry from the god I had been imagining God to be. Even as I refused to believe in a creator (let alone one who would come to share our lot with us) I was aware of keen tension already expressed in the pages of scripture. As Ola Sirgurdson fittingly expressed it at the outset of these pages, “Can the absolute be present in the concrete without coming too near or being too far away?”
Even now, years after my own confirmation, God continues to be very far from anything I could ever imagine. But I find it easier to live with this kind of unknowing because of the unique relationship enabled and sworn by what the church calls the Incarnation – that is, the very claim I had misunderstood. God has made it plain that any distance between our flesh and God’s self is forever closed, because in Jesus Christ both the fullness of God’s divinity and the fullness of our humanity meet in one form. It is the event by which Saint Paul knows that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Not only is the absolute present in the concrete, it neither competes with nor destroys it. It perfects it. Like the burning bush encountered by Moses, the Incarnation reveals that God does not consume the fragile creature the nearer it comes, but instead makes the creature more beautifully what it is.
We are living through a season in the world when the importance of this unique meeting of the finite and the Infinite cannot be underestimated. I feel the significance of the Incarnation now more than ever. For as pandemic, social division, racism, and nationalism(s) threaten to divide the vibrant body of our humanity, this supreme gift of God invites us to reimagine our relationship to one another, our bodies, our nature, and our destiny in a most unexpected way.
An Existence Reaffirmed “Good”
The Christian believer cannot but honor the body as an integral part of man’s complex being, the work of God’s hand, the Creator of all things in heaven and on earth, material as well as spiritual. The Christian believer must honor the body as redeemed from degradation and restored to its true dignity by the Incarnation of the Eternal Son; “the Word was made flesh” – conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the Virgin Mary; as sanctified moreover by the Holy Ghost, the shrine of His indwelling presence, Who in many ways appeals to our inner being through our bodily nature, and confers on us the highest gifts of spiritual grace through material channels.
– Fr. Arthur C. A. Hall SSJE
By taking a human body to himself, the God revealed in Jesus reminds us that our bodies are good gifts. In our fallen state, however, it can be easy for us to either forget or (worse) all out deny this affirmation. Consider how often we tend to think of the body as something that holds us back, something to be escaped. The body is where we experience the dualities of pain and pleasure, freedom and confinement, identification and alienation. Our bodies reveal us to be at once like other creatures, yet imprinted with this strange otherness to other creatures.
It is easy to caricature the Christian worldview as one that is deeply mistrustful of the body. To be sure, there are historical reasons for this and the Church has had its own part to play in the ways we have tended to misread the role of the human body. Yet the Church still affirms something that tends to scandalize other forms of religion around the world (including western secularism), an insight named at the very beginning of the Bible: Creation (the material universe) is good. The author(s) of Genesis show no ambivalence about this: God beholds all that God creates and names it “good.” Still, it is only after God speaks the words “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness” and creates human beings that we read, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
The Incarnation of Jesus echoes the scriptural affirmation that human beings bear the image of their Creator, reminding us to affirm the goodness of our own bodies and the material of Creation all around us. In fact, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ testifies, in flesh and blood, that God is at work in our fragile, time-bound bodies. God shows us in Jesus that the material body is “the shrine of His indwelling presence, Who in many ways appeals to our inner being through our bodily nature, and confers on us the highest gifts of spiritual grace through material channels.”
Yet through this self-revelation, God did much more than merely reaffirm our image-bearing status. In fact, the whole picture of our image-bearing status is refined and clarified in the way God interacted (through the humanity of Jesus) with our bodies. The kinds of bodies with which Jesus moved, the bodies who experienced Jesus’ love, the bodies with which Jesus identified himself tended to be bodies most societies cast off, disregard, or pity. Jesus, however, shows us the very power of God on display and at work in them. Even more, by freely handing himself over to be tortured and crucified by the very creatures he came to save, Jesus allowed his own precious body to become one of those so often cast off, disregarded, or pitied. He allowed the marks of death to fall upon his body in the same way they fall upon all bodies. Indeed, these marks would become pivotal identifiers after his Resurrection.
By “pitching his tent among us” in this way, God has definitively met us – and promises to meet us – in the body. As such, any spirituality that denies the body a place and role in the redemption of the human person must confront the cross of Jesus. God has met the human being truly and concretely in the tortured, suffering body of Jesus. All bodies, astonishingly, may become chalices of God’s active grace – but in particular those bodies Jesus identified with, those the world may find deficient, broken, disturbing, or repugnant. Not the bodies we have moralized into a strong, sound independence; but the broken bodies, discarded, harassed, or ignored, dependent upon God and one another. The world may try to tell us the body is for any number of things, including escape. Yet the Incarnation tells us that the body is good, that the body is for the showing forth of the divine love.
Nature: Body and Soul
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
… by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made truly human.
– The Nicene Creed
There is profound wonder in the fact that God would take a human body to himself. It scandalizes or undoes so many of our ideas about the physical’s relationship to the spiritual. It shows us that the fire of divine Love does not intend to consume and destroy us, but to enliven us and make us more gloriously who we are. But there is a larger significance to the Incarnation. When we confess that, in the words of the Creed, Jesus is “God from God” and “became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made [truly human],” we are naming something much larger than the fact that Jesus took to himself a human body.
By becoming incarnate from the Virgin Mary and becoming truly human, God not only took a human body to himself, but took a human nature. Not simply our physical condition, our poverty, our bodily limitation; but our psychological poverty, our spiritual poverty, our experiences of separation, loss, anxiety, and death. Both realities he transfigured in the Spirit. Although Christians are called to live lives in the Spirit, this does not elide or undo the fact that Jesus Christ took to himself this crucial aspect of our humanity, something the scriptural tradition rather unfortunately and misleadingly calls “flesh.”
While commonly mistaken as another word for our bodies, “flesh” is more than our physical embodiment. Although flesh is wrapped up in our experience of being embodied, flesh was generally understood before the Reformation as distinct from body. Reading imagery of the flesh informed by the Gospel of John, Shelley Rambo reclaims early Christian insights about this strange area of human experience. “Flesh binds individual bodies to a world. Flesh is marked by the world and by its various processes of life and death. Flesh attests to a way of being constituted in relationship with everything that is around us.” Our psychology, our social formation, our wounds and traumas, even the languages we use (all of these realities that seem to share in the material while always somehow transcending it) are the world named by the word “flesh.” And the world with which it is in relationship, we remember from Genesis, is created “good.”
Further, wondering at the significance of the wounded body the resurrected Christ presents to Thomas in the twentieth chapter of John, Rambo names another revelation for us:
Thinking of Jesus’ return in terms of a marked body, we see him as one subjected to the … realities of his day. He was crucified under Roman imperial rule. But this is not the whole account. [John’s] prologue also presents him in incarnational terms, as the eternal Word taking on flesh. If we read his return in terms of marked flesh, the history is not just singular but collective. His entrance into history affirms all that is fleshly, but also moves it toward its fullness.
All of these material-yet-not-material realities of our total humanity – the intersections of our embodiment and our inner nature – are taken up by the Only-Begotten-One when he pitches his tent among us. By retaining the marks of his torture and death, the resurrected Christ reveals that he has not just entered our embodiment, but indeed has entered all of the realities that inform our very spiritual condition, our humanity in its wholeness: wounds and joys, body and soul.
Even this is not the end of the story, however. It would be one thing if God had met us in our condition and then simply departed as he came. But that is not the story the Church preserves. Not only does God the Only-Begotten-One stoop his infinity down into our physical and spiritual limitations, failures, and struggles. That kind of identification would be gift enough, to be sure, but God’s generosity revealed in Christ’s Incarnation goes even further – even to the very heart of the God.
Glorification: I Will Take You to Myself
After his glorious resurrection he openly appeared to his disciples, and in their sight ascended into heaven, to prepare a place for us; that where he is, there we might also be, and reign with him in glory.
I want to attempt to illustrate this further significance of the Incarnation with a musical image first. One of the most deeply moving experiences I can have when listening to a piece of music is encountering a moment, say of a symphony, when the composer takes a musical idea that initially sounded melancholic or dejected and then completely re-clothes it with a new harmony, a new texture, a new color. Moments when a theme of despair will come back, emerging from the texture of the orchestra with a new color, lit and transfigured by a new set of chords, singing a new song of celebration. Because of their initial appearance as themes of sorrow, their unanticipated transformation into songs of joy is all the more palpable, mysterious, and miraculous. These moments speak to me of the kind of destiny God has disclosed for us in the revelation of Jesus.
Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection give us a foretaste of the way God has promised to incarnate us all in the age to come. The Ascension of his Incarnation shows something equally remarkable: the generous destiny for which God has made us from the very beginning.
Having been made flesh, having pitched his tent – body and soul – among us his creatures to live and eventually face the shame of death, Jesus resurrected – wounds and all – reveals the glory for which it has all been purposed. It has all been purposed for an unanticipated glory. That is, the divinization of the human being. An early Christian phrase summarizes this glorious destiny in this way, “Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Deus” (God became human so that the human might become [like] God). Or, as our visionary founder, Richard Meux Benson has written, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.” Like the transfiguration of a melancholy motif, the Risen Lord carries the body of this glorified humanity (still bearing the marks of death – both physical and spiritual) into the very heart of God. Not only has God pledged to meet us in our bodies, not only has God vowed to meet us in the fullness of our humanity, God has promised to take us, with the Risen Jesus, to his very self.
In an act only the power of God could accomplish, God came as close to humanity as is possible and has invited humanity to enter into that tender intimacy, which is God’s desire. God became human so that our humanity could be healed and redeemed from the inside. God became human so that our humanity might be taken to the place for which it was always destined: the heart of the Father. God’s Incarnation in Jesus Christ reveals to us that our creatureliness will be neither consumed nor destroyed by the fire of his Love, but will be at last enlivened as we become more completely the creatures God creates us to be.
I don’t know about you, but this reading from Mark always strikes me as a bit of a scandal; to encounter Jesus with a very human prejudice on his lips. I’ve always found it a bit disturbing, especially to see a woman with a deep need coming to the incarnate Word of God, only to be met with an oddly human formation. Where’s the good news in this?—I often have to ask myself.
As I sat with this scandal of a reading for the past few days, I discerned three possible ways I think it might speak some good news to us, and might actually communicate some of the wideness of God’s mercy at play.
One of the things that speaks a word of good news is also one of the things that is most unsettling about this: we encounter a very human Jesus. A Jesus who has been formed by human communities with their own blind-spots, prejudices, and hatreds. Children verses dogs.
Psalm 139:1—5, 12—17
From the time I first encountered it in earnest, this season of the church year has always spoken to me of identity. In particular, the play between the way we see our identities and the way God sees our identities.
On January 6, the Church kept the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, celebrating the manifestation of God to the world in Jesus. As she did, she called to mind (at least in the western rites) the story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. A story about an identity: the fullness of God’s identity, present in the frailty of a defenseless, dependent child.
As she kept the Feast of the Baptism of Christ on the Sunday that followed, she recalled yet another story about identity: the human identity into which God desired to be baptized in the flesh of Jesus beneath the waters of the Jordan River. The humanity into which Righteousness itself was pleased to be plunged and drowned. The humanity with which, by that act, God became unmistakably and eternally bound.
These two feasts are recognized in the lectionary as solemnities. They can sometimes pass us by in the daze that follows the whirlwind of Chistmastide, but they frontload the season of Epiphany with these themes of identity. I find it a grace that the lectionary does this in this way. And this year in particular. For as the Church celebrated the display of God’s presence in the world before the Gentile Magi on January 6, her eyes beheld a different kind of epiphany as violence swept through the Capitol. It was an epiphany of the very brokenness and division into which God deigned to be submerged.
Lately, I have been listening to a new podcast hosted by the Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Webber called The Confessional. Each episode of The Confessional features a guest who speaks with Nadia and reveals (to her and us) some of the worst things they have ever done. When I first heard about this podcast, before I had heard even a single episode, the traditionalist in me had his doubts. I imagined there might be something a little unseemly about taking the tenderness and intimacy of a one-on-one confession into the arena of public listening. The seal of the confessional is a grace that I cherish. The knowledge that whatever I disclose will be met by only three sets of ears—my confessor’s, mine, and God’s—is irreplaceable. I wondered if something about this kind of sacramental reconciliation would end up lost (even cheapened) over the airwaves and apps.
Yet as I began to listen to each of these brave, faithful people tell stories about their most notorious failures and deepest shames, my own suspicions began to disperse as something else became clear. Yes, these are stories about human failure, human weakness, and human insufficiency. At the same time (and perhaps more significantly), these are stories about God’s boundless generosity, forgiveness, and desire to be reconciled with his creatures.
Enter into the joy of your master.
This solitary phrase from twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel has rung like a bell through my praying imagination this week. As he discloses what we commonly call “The Parable of the Talents,” this phrase rings twice from the lips of Matthew’s Jesus. Enter into the joy of your master. Most of us know the well-established reading of this parable.
It goes something like this: A wealthy man goes on a journey, leaving his wealth in the hands of three slaves. Each responds to the responsibility in one of two ways. One we might call a wise stewardship that produces more of what has been given. The other, a refusal to wisely use the gifts so graciously given, leading to waste and suffering. Traditionally read, this parable speaks an urgent call to responsible stewardship of all God gives to us that we might be invited to enter into the joy of our master.