Eight years ago this month is when my conversion started. Sort of. “Conversion” begins at each person’s beginning, and ends somewhere between here and eternity. But eight years ago, I was 19, and not terribly interested in someone dressed as I am right now sagely dismissing my crisis.
I had reached a breaking point. I was out in the middle of the night, wandering the college campus, anxious and confused. I’d had a basically hostile attitude toward religion for several years, but my own sense of being, of purpose, the great “why?” echoing along the canyon walls of human hearts…my old answers just weren’t working anymore. I could no longer justify my existence through my own happiness, because why should I care about my own happiness? Everything was empty, and death was not far from my thoughts.
Out of desperation, I prayed. To no one, or anyone, I prayed. I tearfully offered my uncertainty, my instability, my weakness, hoping for something to alleviate it. Some assurance from heaven, whoever’s version of it existed. And what I got was…nothing. No warmth, no light, no angelsong. Cold, dark, silent nothing. But this Nothing was greater, more powerful, than anything I’d experienced up until that point. I felt broken. I felt destroyed. I felt like a demolished city, burnt to the ground. And it was horrifying. And it was good. Because the abject admission of weakness and vulnerability I encountered in this experience was the great clearing of the brush, the great pouring out of old and perishing things. I was shattered, and I was made new.
“You cannot serve God and wealth.” This is a great line from today’s Gospel lesson. In it, Jesus offers a clear and unambiguous teaching. In many contexts, you might hear the word, “wealth,” go untranslated, as “mammon.” This is sometimes accompanied by an explanation that “mammon” is an ancient pagan god. There’s no historical evidence for this identification; “mammon” simply means wealth or money, and if we over-spiritualize here, we might miss the point, justifying ourselves along the way.
But I do think it’s helpful to use the image of an idol, a creation of human hands that is in turn worshipped by the very people who created it. Paul gives us the instruction to “pray without ceasing.” This is possible if we begin to understand prayer not only as active petition and dialogue with God, but rather more simply, the understanding, acknowledgement, and encounter of God in his eternal presence to us and to all creation. We might then take this a step further: if prayer to God without ceasing is possible, it could be helpful to understand ourselves as always praying, in some form or another. Always offering up, in some way, what we have been given by God, what God has provided us for sacrifice. And with that understanding, we may begin to enter into a new way of self-knowledge, a new way of understanding our feelings, thoughts, and actions: if it’s all prayer, we can ask ourselves about any given experience, no matter how mundane or “un-spiritual”, “Who was I praying to there? To whom was I sacrificing? Was it God, or an idol?”
I worked very hard on this sermon. I’ve spent a long time thinking about it.
Most of it was a waste.
Because I spent a very long time mulling over this Gospel text, of Jesus and Martha and Mary. I worked very hard to understand the story. But not because it’s some complex thing. No, the trouble is, it’s actually rather simple. It’s a story with, like, one plot point. So my effort to understand was not deciphering some crazy esoteric text, but rather, to think about how I might make this very simple text come alive in some fresh way. How I might use it to point out something new, something exciting, something we haven’t all heard a thousand times before.
Because that’s my job, right? That’s what the preacher is supposed to do. That’s my task, my role this morning. I’m supposed to come up with something good, something true, something real. To preach well is to point to Christ, and Christ is not boring. But the more I thought, the more I plugged away at this problem, the more I realized that I had nothing. Nothing fresh, anyway. Nothing alive.
For the preacher, the antidote to this problem is supposed to be prayer. Prayer, encounter with the eternal, the infinite, the Living God, should yield…well, something. And I have been praying! But it’s been harder than normal lately. Less intuitive. I’ve felt overwhelmed by work. I’ve felt stressed. I’ve felt incompetent, and discouraged by that feeling, I’ve tried even harder to work my way out of it, to push through and do something right, something where I wouldn’t be left with lingering doubts and anxieties over whether I’m good at anything.
So, more pushing. More striving. More petition to God to accomplish what I’d set out to do.
Today is Shrove Tuesday. You probably also know it as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. The fact that these two names can apply to the same day might surprise you. Shrove Tuesday comes from the verb, “to shrive,” that is, to confess. The weeks immediately preceding Lent, known historically as Shrovetide, were a time for the faithful to recollect, to soberly recall their sins, to confess those sins, and to receive absolution, all in preparation for the penitence of Lent. Fat Tuesday, on the other hand, calls to mind rich food and drink; we can think of pancakes or Carnival or a more general disposition toward partying hard. These two ideas seem to go together like water and oil. But to understand why they’re linked, it’s helpful to think back to where we’ve been in this past liturgical season. The day of Epiphany, and the weeks that follow, are full of revelation and celebration. The light of the star over Bethlehem, the Presentation of the infant Jesus to the Temple, Jesus turning water into wine, and just this Sunday, Christ’s Transfiguration. “In your light we see light,” the psalmist writes, and indeed, these weeks of light offer revelation and celebration to the world.
But maybe more evocative of this time between Epiphany and Lent than any other holy day is the Baptism of Christ, by John in the Jordan River. There are several reasons why. Perhaps most clearly, it is Christ’s Baptism that immediately precedes his 40-day fast in the wilderness. But more than that, as Jesus recounts in today’s Gospel lesson, the faithful came to the river and received the baptism of John, that is, a baptism of repentance, and in doing so, came to understand the justice of God, and received it with praise. They entered into repentance and found the joy of the kingdom of Heaven, the joy of Christ. They went in following John, the strenuous fasting prophet, and came out with the understanding that this sober-minded repentance pointed toward Jesus, the one who comes eating and drinking, celebrating with his friends as a bridegroom celebrates with his wedding guests.
The Martyrs of Japan
In 1597, 26 Christians, including three children, were crucified in Nagasaki, Japan. They were bound upon crosses, hoisted up, and stabbed to death with spears. There is no way to dress this up. There is no way to make it peaceful or pretty. These were gruesome, terrible deaths. The martyrs almost certainly felt a great deal of fear and pain. The killings were a deliberate attempt to stoke fear among any Christian converts, missionaries, and sympathizers. This has never been an ordinary form of execution in Japan; the killings were a deliberate mockery of Christ’s Crucifixion.
Maybe that’s our way in. Many Christians in our country live in an escapist fantasy, where they are the oppressed minority, and executions are only a generation or two away. This thinking seems to cut across many different denominations, and makes an utter mockery of the martyrs of the Church. But for the rest of us, real martyrdom is deeply difficult to wrap our heads around. We have, perhaps, felt a bit at-odds or out-of-place running in certain social circles. Maybe this has led to arguments or hurt feelings. But, for the vast majority of us, this is as bad as it will ever get. Genuinely being killed for being Christian is…unthinkable. Not here. Over there, sure. But not here.
The Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
In the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest may say two prayers over the bread and wine immediately following their placement on the altar. In these prayers, the bread is called the fruit of the earth, the wine, the fruit of the vine; both are identified as having been received through the goodness of God, and both are called “the work of human hands.” This understanding, what I’ll call the “offertory posture,” positions us and our labors as intertwined with God’s own goodness and creativity. Our work, and the fruit of it, is also the fruit of God’s creation, and anything we create is to be viewed as coming ultimately from God, and offered back to God. This reciprocity of giving involves continuous interchange between God and his people.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”1 James and John respond to this in the affirmative, with no further questioning. I wonder if this is an example of loving faith, or naïve foolishness, or both. Regardless, it is reasonable for us to ask, “What is this cup?”
The most obvious answer is that the cup Jesus mentions is a reference to his own death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in the hours before his arrest, Jesus refers to his impending death as a cup that he desires to pass from his lips.2 If this is the case, Christ’s assertion to the sons of Zebedee that, “The cup that I drink you will drink,” is a truthful one. James becomes a martyr, the first of the Twelve apostles to die, beheaded on the orders of King Herod in Jerusalem.3 John, the Tradition of the Church holds, lives on, the only one of the Twelve not to be martyred, instead spending his days watching his companions meet their deaths, each one a new nail in John’s own inner crucifixion.
In today’s Gospel reading, Christ miraculously feeds a crowd of hungry people. The people recognize him as a prophet, and gather to bring him to Jerusalem to proclaim him king. Jesus responds by fleeing to the solitude of the mountains.
Let’s rephrase this telling. A crowd of people, living in a country beset by political strife, gather to march on the capital. They are eager to replace their corrupt, ineffectual, incompetent ruling classes, who spend more time arguing about the minutiae of law than they do responding to the hunger of the people for bread and for justice. They have just seen a man whom they regard as a leader, one with power and legitimate claim to authority, and they long for him to lead their movement, to lead them in their resistance to the evils of their day.
Perhaps this telling hits close to home. Gazing out on the political landscape of this country, how many of us long for justice in the face of leaders embroiled in cruelty, corruption, self-importance, and outright malice? How many of us locate in Christ the supreme example of leadership, and, comparing him to the afflictions of our country now, how many of us channel Jesus in our protestations of this state of affairs? Before I came here, I used to want to work in politics. I even ran for public office. The political environment we face at present has awakened a long-held desire of mine to enter the fray, and the convictions of my faith highlight to me just how much injustice, just how much falsehood, we currently face. If the opportunity presented itself, I too would long to crown Christ.
“They begged him to leave.” With this, the townsfolk in today’s Gospel reading confess that there are more than two demoniacs among them.
Jesus comes to the country of the Gadarenes and encounters two men, possessed. He rebukes the powers that ensnare the men, allowing them to flee into a herd of pigs. The animals are driven mad and throw themselves into the water to drown. This terrifies the swineherds, who rush into town, recounting the whole story. At this, the townspeople come out to meet Jesus, and beg him to leave.
This story is consistent with Christ’s promise to bring not peace, but a sword. Christ is a calmer of storms for the afflicted, but a harbinger of upheaval for communities built on and preserved by sin. By begging Christ to leave, the people have preferred livestock to humans. They have preferred to abandon and exile the afflicted, selling their neighbors to purchase stability. For the sake of peace, they have preferred pigs to men. But this is a false peace, a veneer that serves to obscure the brutality of their society. And it is into this peace that Christ, God’s right hand, thrusts his sword.
In our worship, we speak of the glorious company of apostles, the noble fellowship of prophets, and the white-robed army of martyrs.1We speak of the angelic hosts.2 We might use language such as, “the Church militant,” or, “the Church triumphant.” Our founder, Fr. Benson, once had a conversation with a stranger while out in the city. When he described his life as a member of a religious community, she exclaimed, “Oh, you must have found so much peace!” Fr. Benson replied, “No, madam, I’ve found a war.”
This language resonates with me, because it gives expression to a truth of my own life with God. I experience God as peace, as rest, as calm, as love. But this is not passivity, and my own proclivity to sin, the corruption of my own human nature, fights viciously to dethrone God from my heart. In my life, and especially my prayer, I often must fight back, asking God not only for the gifts of calm, rest, and silence, but also for the gifts of strength, vigor, and power, to aid me in the war over my spirit.