I remember, nearly a decade ago, watching a video on YouTube. In the video, the hosts of the show, consistent with their political leanings, filmed their infiltration of an environmentalist rally. There, they spoke with attendees and asked for signatures on their petition to ban a purportedly dangerous chemical. This chemical was largely unregulated, had been detected in our water supply along with countless food items, and could cause death within minutes if inhaled in sufficient quantities. The chemical in question was described with the scary-sounding name, “dihydrogen monoxide.” You might know it better by its chemical formula: H2O. Largely unregulated, in our food and water, it can cause death if inhaled in sufficient quantities, it was water.
Our present circumstances have left me feeling very stuck. I feel some paralysis and malaise over the experience of not really moving forward, not really doing anything productive, constantly planning to do things, waiting for my working life to begin anew. Of course, my life contains work right now, but it’s work that feels like it’s in a bit of a holding pattern, work designed to keep things afloat until things can really start happening again. And I’m finding it difficult to pray in this time, because I just feel stuck.
I suspect many of us have similar feelings. The United States right now is a country ravaged by two sicknesses: a global pandemic and the violence of racism. Both are huge and intractable problems. Both simultaneously demand a response and seem to swallow up anything most ordinary people are capable of doing, to render our best intentions and actions impotent in the face of these deadly plagues. Actions, like protesting, that might help us to face one problem might play right into the hands of the other in a horrible lose-lose situation. We are in a position of having to trust the judgment and skill of our leaders, many of whom have proven themselves to be unworthy of that trust. So the question arises: when we feel paralyzed, when we feel impotent, when we feel stuck, what is God’s call to us?
I have been spending quite a lot of time with the Lord’s Prayer lately. It has become a regular feature in my own private prayer, and I have relished it more than I typically do when the brothers come together to pray in the chapel. I have seen much of what’s going on in the world for months, and sometimes, I just cannot put together my own words. “What more can I say? What more can any of us say?” is the common refrain of my heart. I can’t imagine I’m alone. Sometimes, in those moments, through some prompting of the same Spirit whose sighs are enough, I am given the gentle reminder, “Remember the words he has taught you.”
Of particular note for me recently is the plea, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” It’s difficult for me not to pay attention to the political situation of the country, from the very big stories to the particular zigs and zags of individual newsworthy figures. Again, I can’t imagine I’m alone. And, paying that attention in the midst of all that has gone on, the picture seems very bleak. The failures, incompetencies, and abuses of those in power right now leave me feeling sad and angry. But the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the hope for the coming of God’s kingdom, is a touchstone of hope for me, for three reasons.
First, that this is the prayer of Jesus, the one who intercedes for us, and who abides close to the Father’s heart, comforts me. Christ assures us that we, even in our imperfection, know how to give to the needy. “How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” The promises of Jesus, and the hope of Jesus, are not idle, for he knows the heart of the One from whom all good comes. The kingdom of God will come. When we show forth the love of God, we participate in that kingdom, and anticipate its full revelation.
Second, it assures me that God’s kingdom is something fundamentally different from what we see before us. It’s not the domain of earthly rulers to enact for themselves, even in the best of times. It is certainly at odds with rank and blatant injustice; as the psalmist writes, “Can a corrupt tribunal have any part with you, one which frames evil into law?”
Third, it reminds me that this sadness and anger, this dissonance between what is and what should be, is a normal part of what it means to be a Christian. “Here we have no lasting city,” reads the letter to the Hebrews, “but we are looking for the city that is to come.” We have been called to the greater kingdom, and it has not yet been revealed in its fullness and glory, its mercy and justice. We should feel somewhat alienated from the halls of power; we should be able to see what’s wrong. And the fact that we do is itself a sign of the hope to come.
Many of us are wearied by the changes and the uncertainty of our civil lives, our political communities. I certainly am. But we can take heart, and pray together for the coming of God’s kingdom; it is a hope, big and sturdy enough for us all.
Br. Lucas Hall, SSJE
This is my first Presidential Election since coming to the Monastery. I follow politics pretty closely; it’s what I originally went to school to study, and I ran for local office when I was nineteen. It’s an intense interest, and I cannot help but look on the political state of this country right now and feel a great deal of sadness, anger, and confusion. Things seem utterly broken and chaotic, and it seems foolish to think that there’s some quick fix, some reset button we can press to go back to when things were “normal.” Too much rot, too much that was and is wrong about the way we’ve been running our country and our world, has been laid bare.
I moved into the monastery on January 9th, 2017, about a week and a half before the inauguration of the current president. Several friends told me I was very lucky, as they couldn’t imagine a better time to enclose oneself away from the troubles and instabilities of the world, insulated from a constant torrent of news coverage.
They weren’t completely wrong. But I must confess, I speak today from a place of intense distraction, here in the midst of the longest and most stressful election of my lifetime. But it’s not just the fault of the media. Nobody requires me to have multiple tabs open on my computer, reading through various news sources, then, when I get to the end, going back to the first and refreshing the page, “just in case.”
No, the voracious consumption of this stuff is a symptom, not a cause. An unending appetite for junk points to a deeper dissatisfaction, deep-seated feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, isolation, confusion, frustration. I think our culture right now is very prone to this. And maybe your “junk” is not election news. Maybe it’s news about the coronavirus. Maybe it’s not news media, but the endless stimulation of social media. Maybe it’s work, ceaselessly giving yourself external tasks to complete. Or maybe it’s more embodied; maybe it’s alcohol, or porn, or literal junk food. It doesn’t matter. Maybe I didn’t list yours here, but there are myriad varieties of this experience, and I am convinced that they come from the same source of division, dissatisfaction, and a desire to be comforted in our inmost fears.
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.