Saturday in Fourteenth Week after Pentecost
The stark duality of this gospel passage gives me a twinge of panic when I consider what sort of tree I might be. I know that there have been times when something sweet and good was produced. But I’m also painfully aware of some thorns and bitter fruit that have been unpleasant and harmful for myself and others around me. And, sometimes, when I look around at the other plants in the garden, the people whose lives seem to produce nothing but bushel after bushel of the finest fruit around, I think of my own poor crop as rather paltry.
Depending on the Bible you have, todays gospel lesson may contain a couple of jarring section headings. Mine says, “Coming Persecutions” and “Whom to fear.” These instructions that Jesus gives as he sends out his first apostles are nothing short of harrowing. They are not just warning of things that may happen, but rather foreknowledge of what will happen. They are honest and direct ways of describing what it is that the apostles would very soon face. James and John whom we remember today did indeed drink the cup of suffering for the gospel, and the faithful of every generation have found these warnings an apt description of their own experience when they were sent.
The followers of Christ in every age have had to contend with their own most pressing issues. Loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves have never been without challenge. There have often been warring political factions that demand utmost purity and allegiance. Our skin, our bodies, our place in society, have often been the battlegrounds of human conflict. Today they have their own particular slogans, banners, and champions.
Hosea 8:4-7, 11-13
Have you ever had one of those dreams when you’re trying to scream but you can’t? Or you try to run but your legs won’t move? It’s a real feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. I’m always glad to snap out of those dreams into the world where my voice and my body do the things that I want them to do.
When I read this passage about a mute demoniac, I sympathize. When I hear about people helpless and harassed my compassion is stirred. When Jesus says the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few I want to raise my hand. “Here I am, Lord! Send me!”
That’s why this is such a well worn passage for ordinations and calls to evangelism. It reaches into the natural sympathy we have for those who suffer. And immediately after this passage Jesus calls his twelve apostles and gives them power over all these demons and diseases. It’s a stirring recruitment call.
“It’s a long courtship.” As I was preparing to come to the Monastery, that’s how I would usually describe the long path that leads a man to making life vows in SSJE. It often got a laugh but it also seemed to resonate a lot with folks who could make connections to their own lives of relationship and discernment. It continues to be a useful metaphor for me as I’ve continued to test this vocation. When I learned that the community was going to be involved in the “Renewing Our Foundations” discussions, I was excited that I would have a chance to take part in the concentrated work of looking back, and looking forward to set off confidently aware of priorities and passions.
Acts 28:16-20, 30-31
I finished a novel the other day. It was a really good one. And now that it’s over I’m left a bit forlorn. I would have loved this one to be a big multi-book series that could get turned into 8 or 9 movies. But it’s not. And it’s over now. As we’ve been working our way through this final chapter of John I’ve had the same kind of feelings I have at the end of a book or a great film. This longing for more, one more scene, one more chapter.
I think I must have been around 19 years old when I first heard someone talk about this passage at the end of John and it has stuck with me for 20 years. “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
The good news of Jesus continues to be written on your hearts, in your lives among those you share life with. You are the gospel of Christ. And not in some gauzy, divine essence hidden in the deepest cavern of your soul. The good news of Jesus is present and active in the tangible ways that you have been met by love. In the ways that you have been rescued from sin and shame. In the ways that love has defied the pattern of this world and transformed you by the renewing of your mind in Christ. And it does keep going.
I can’t say that this feels like some glittering moment of grace. Right now, I feel more like one of those bumbling disciples, just not quite getting it, struggling to make sense of where I am. And it’s painful and confusing. But I keep showing up. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.
“Make yourself at home.” It’s a nice thing to say to someone when they come over. It’s meant to put them at ease. It’s warm and inviting. I remember being told this a lot when I was asked to house-sit for people. And, as kind as it was. I knew it was only conditional. It was a temporary offer. I was welcome to eat some food from the fridge or lay down on the couch but painting a bedroom or organizing the kitchen cabinets the way I wanted to was never part of the bargain.
When Jesus invites us to abide, to dwell, to make our home, he’s offering more than a conditional bargain. He’s offering us eternity at home in God.
When John writes in his gospel that the “Word was made flesh” he chooses a word the resembles something more like “tented,” “tabernacled,” set up a temporary dwelling. The Word was made flesh and camped out among us. But, when Jesus talks about the relationship he’s offering with his disciples it has a more long-term, if not permanent ring. Make your home with me.
Can you see them; the pharisee and the tax collector? Their posture, their prayer? Are they familiar at all? Luke calls this a parable but it seems so true to life. There are no extended metaphors to work out, no women with coins, no lamps and bushel baskets, no sheep and goats, not a lot to decipher.
The temple, the pharisee, the tax collector. It has the ring of truth and experience because these are the actual cast of characters that Jesus spent time with and among whom all the other parables were told. I can imagine the real life conversations between Jesus, the pharisee, and the tax collector; the inner dispositions they reveal.
The pharisee, confident in his religion. Firm in conviction, and diligent in observing the law. “Jesus, can’t you see how hard I work? Can’t you appreciate the discipline this takes? Isn’t this enough for you? Don’t you see my sacrifice? Why bother with the ones who can’t seem to pull it together?”
And the tax collector, forced into a separate sphere life, the perks of wealth and protection that come from his occupation are a small consolation when his heart cries out in desperation. “Jesus, I don’t know what to do. I’m trapped. I just took this job to make some money but everything has gotten so twisted. Now they hate me as much as they hate the Romans, I feel like there’s nothing I can do to get out of this situation. Does it even matter what I do? Why should God bother with me?”