In our lections the past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. This Letter, I think, presents one of the most important themes that we of modern times need to consider closely: that of integrity of speech. At the outset, it reads like a collection of lessons straight out of a book of social etiquette. James’ words recall in my memory my mother’s admonishment: “Jimmy, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I suspect most of us would consider this maxim to be good and sound. But, I also think to the days of my childhood when someone would speak to another person ungraciously, perhaps calling them a name. You may know the famous playground retort: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Unlike my mother’s advice, this saying I find questionable at best.
What is striking to me about James’ wise council, is that it goes deeper than just manners and childhood retorts. Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, James’ Letter draws a correlation between word and action. And, he seems to know something about the nature of speech. His use of metaphor instantly captures our imaginations and brings into focus a truth that is both easy to identify yet difficult to master. This morning we read: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.
In the Holy Land, there is much solid rock, whether exposed, under a couple inches or under ten or more feet of soil. To build, one digs down however far it takes to use the foundation of solid rock. People build in the summer when it is dry not raining, yet it is hot. It is very hard work to break through the clay and dig down to solid rock. One may be tempted to skip the harder part, yet a sure foundation is essential to survive the winter floods.[i]
Jesus said, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.” Hearing and doing Jesus’ words take great effort, like digging down through hard clay under hot sun. This parable ends Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke and another version ends the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.[ii] Jesus ends with a call for necessary, risky, costly action.
At a time when there is so much tragedy around the Church’s witness to the native and First Nations peoples of North America, one wonders about the appropriateness of remembering a nineteenth-century man who spent much of his life as a missionary in Canada’s north. It’s hard to disentangle the very real harm that settler or western religion, culture, and institutions have done in our attempt to follow Christ’s command to go therefore and make disciples of all nations…from the desire to make known the God who is love.
An Englishman by birth, Edmund James Peck spent thirty years in the Canadian Arctic, often separated from his own wife and family for years at a time. We don’t know what Peck’s racial biases were. Like all of us though, at least all of us of European descent, he must have had some. Yet his work on behalf of the Inuit of northern Canada was prodigious. He took a syllabic writing method developed for the Cree of northern Manitoba and adapted it to Inuktitut. By the 1920’s Peck’s syllabic writing method was so widespread that most of Canada’s Inuit people could read and write, and pencils and pocket notebooks so popular, they were in great demand. In 1897 the four gospels were printed as were extracts of the psalms and the Prayer Book.
“Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.”[i] Why? Why did Jesus pray through the night? It seems that in the morning Jesus had the clarity whom to call to be his 12 apostles. But why didn’t he just know that without praying? Why so many times in the Gospels do we read of Jesus’ setting off to pray to God whom he called “Father”?
In the Gospels, we read Jesus prays:
- at his baptism[ii];
- when he withdraws from the crowds[iii];
- after healing people[iv];
- when he is transfigured with God’s light while on the mountaintop[v];
- before walking on water[vi];
- after he learns of John the Baptist’s death[vii];
- before he brings his dead friend, Lazarus, back to life[viii];
- for his apostle, Peter, in the early days and at the end[ix].
We are told Jesus prays about food:
- at meals[x];
- before the miraculous feedings of the multitudes[xi];
- before and after his “last supper” when he meets with his disciples[xii];
At the end of Jesus’ life, he prays:
- three times in the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion[xiii];
- from the cross his agony and then his surrender[xiv];
- after his resurrection when he breaks bread for his friends at Emmaus[xv].
I love this story of the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from the Gospel of Mark! I love it in part, because I get to say the word Syrophoenician! Just throw that into the conversation and see how impressed people are with your erudition! I love it because of the breathlessness with which Mark tells the story. You can hear the urgency, as in just six verses Mark tells us an awful lot, that is profoundly significant. I love it, because it harkens back to my childhood growing up at St. Mary’s, Regina. It is from this passage, among other sources, that Cranmer created, what some of you will remember, as the Prayer of Humble Access, or the Zoom Prayer, as a friend calls it:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us. Amen.
Mostly I love this story because it shouldn’t have happened! There is a hint of the forbidden. We see Jesus acting out of the box. He shouldn’t be where we find him, doing what he shouldn’t be doing. And that’s just the point.
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…
In May of this year I sat in a webinar on climate emergency organized by Episcopal clergy and lay leaders. I listened to Dr. Bette Hecox-Lea, an Episcopalian and marine biologist, speak words of unvarnished truth about how biosphere degradation has activated tipping points that, if left on course, will result in a massive extinction event. On behalf of the scientific community, she said plainly, “We do not know what will come after these points have tipped permanently, other than that the earth will become uninhabitable.” I wept tears of shocked but sober recognition as I absorbed information I have heard before, but this time, truly listened.[i]
Five months earlier, in January, I had brought my weight of grief and hope for the world to the silent winter woods at Emery House. I had left screens and books and words and even food behind me for a time. I found a lone hemlock tree, and dug a clearing in the snow beneath it until I could see and touch the body of the earth. I nestled my weary body against the cold, dark, moist soil and gazed up at the green branches sheltering me. I prayed as though my life and all life depended upon it. Time seemed to stop as I lay there, and as the drops of snow-melt mingled with my tears of gratitude, something happened. My flesh knew the earth from which it had come, and to which it would return; my bones knew that death would be only a door into the Creator’s heart; and my heart knew that while I am alive I am bound by Christ to love him in and through this Creation, from which we are not separate.
Jesus visits his dear friends Martha and Mary in their home. Martha is upset that Mary sits listening rather than helping her with the work as host. Some hear this as about work versus prayer or balancing action and contemplation. Paul Borgman points to parallel structure. This story is right after the lawyer who tries to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus ‘Then who is my neighbor?’”[i] The lawyer and Martha are both anxious and trying to justify themselves.[ii] I am doing what is right, am I not? I know and follow the law. I am upholding our virtue of hospitality. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”
Jesus replies to the lawyer with a story of a man robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both pass him by, but a despised Samaritan stops to cares for him. Which one was a neighbor? The one who shows mercy. Jesus says: “Go, and do likewise.”[iii]Jesus replies to Martha. “You are worried and distracted by many things. … Mary has chosen the better part.” What does it mean to inherit eternal life? Listen to God’s Word like Mary, and do it like the Samaritan.[iv]
How are you relating to Jesus? Like the lawyer and Martha, where are you anxious? How are trying to justify yourself? What good is getting in the way?
One of the things which fascinates me about the saints is that often those things for which they are most remembered and venerated, probably never happened. We keep today the feast of St. James and John the Apostles. As you know, James is remembered in parts of the Church as the one who first preached the Good News of the Gospel in Spain. It would appear that today only Spaniards believe this, for the earliest accounts of St. James’ travels to Spain only goes back to the seventh century. Truth, at least of the historical kind, seems to be unimportant when it comes to devotion to James, for even today his shrine in Spain continues to be one of the great places of pilgrimage in the Church.
According to that story, sometime after Pentecost, James travelled to Spain to preach the gospel. So far so good. But it gets better. While he was there, the Virgin appeared to him on the banks of the Ebro River, and commanded him to return to Jerusalem, where he faced his martyrdom. This apparition of Mary, known as Our Lady of the Pillar, is the first apparition of the Virgin, in a long series that includes Lourdes, Fatima, and Walsingham. But it gets better. Mary is presumed to have been living in Jerusalem at the time, so this was not so much an apparition, as it was an act of bilocation. Curiously, or not, some of the earliest archaeological evidence of devotion to Mary in Spain, dates to the fourth century, not far from where this apparition is said to have taken place. Another story of James’ martyrdom is that his accuser immediately repented and suffered the same fate as James. Following his death his body was transferred by to Spain, either by angels, or floating in a stone boat.
Given our proximity to the ocean, we might imagine a vast body of water when we read in the Gospels about the Sea of Galilee. But the Sea of Galilee is no ocean. The Sea of Galilee is a lake, a large fresh-water lake in northern Israel/Palestine. The lake is 33 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is fed by the Jordan River which flows from north to south, and also by underground springs.
The Sea of Galilee is as dangerous as it is distinctive: distinctive because it is the lowest freshwater lake on earth – it’s surface almost 700 feet below sea level, with a beautiful shoreline, pristine drinking water, and a plentiful stock of fish. Anddangerous because of its surprising and violent storms. From the Golan Heights in the east, fierce, cool winds meet up with the warm temperatures of the lake basin, sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been tranquil and the sky perfectly clear.
This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples. They had set off in their small fishing boat in seemingly tranquil waters, when suddenly a violent storm arose. Their tiny boat was being battered by the wind and the waves, and there seemed to be no possibility of safely reaching the shore. They were swamped by fear. They had fished on this lake for a living. They knew this water, they knew these storms, and they were terrified!
And you? You probably know how it is to be sailing through life in radiant sunlight when swiftly and unexpectedly a storm arises and you suddenly find yourself swamped by mighty waves and tossed about by terrible winds. Perhaps something tragic or frightening has happened to a family member or friend, or to you; maybe it’s a health issue, a financial disaster, an accident, some kind of assault, or some other unforeseen suffering. There is so much to be afraid of in life, and our fears can seem so great when we feel so small. Fear is no respecter of age, or gender, or social standing. Fear may be the most common experience we share with all of humankind: the consuming, crippling, sometimes-irrational visitation of fear. We can experience fear when we face impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined does not matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to swamp our lives and make us sink. Whatever its source, our fear is real.
Jesus speaks a great deal about fear and anxiety, which is quite revealing. He would have learned his lessons about fear from two sources, one being the Hebrew scriptures. The scriptures which he would have known – what we call the “Old Testament” – are replete with messages about worry and fear. We are told very plainly that we do not need to be afraid, and this is because of God’s promise and provision, God’s steadfast love and unfailing faithfulness. Fear’s tight hold on us is loosened, the Bible assures us, when we put our trust in God.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me,” the psalmist says, “and delivered me out of all my terror.” (Ps.34:4)
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” another psalmist declares. “The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? …. Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; and though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him.” (Ps 27:1,3-4)
“Whenever I am afraid,” the psalmist says to God, “I will put my trust in you.” (Ps 56:3)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” writes another, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult…. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” (Ps 46:1-3,11)
Jesus would have known these words, just as he would have known the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“But now, thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isa 43:1-3)
Jesus would also have learned about fear from his own life. I am not talking about the fear he observed in other people. I am talking about his own personal fear, what he experienced. We don’t know the specifics of what Jesus feared, but we do know that Jesus lived a fully human life, and therefore he must have been acquainted with fear, undoubtedly. If you want to imagine what Jesus feared, use your own life as an example. Of what have you been afraid? If you went back in memory to your earliest childhood, then your adolescence, then coming into your twenties and beyond into adulthood, what has caused you to fear?
Were you afraid there would not be enough of something, or afraid there would be too much of something? Were you afraid because you might be excluded from something, or afraid because you might be included in something? Were you afraid because you might be asked to speak, or afraid because, when you spoke, no one would listen, or no one would understand? Were you afraid because you might be left alone, or afraid because you would not be left alone? Were you afraid because of too much work, or afraid because there was no work, or no meaningful work? Were you afraid because you stood out, or afraid because you felt unnoticed, lost in the crowd, forgotten, invisible? Were you afraid because you were bullied, or because you faced prejudice or persecution? Were you ever so afraid that you feared for your life? Or were you afraid because of your own temper? Some of our fears are pathetic: tiny, tedious, embarrassing to even admit… and yet they are very real. We suffer with our fears – which are the kinds of things Jesus must also have been afraid of, because these are the kind of fears that visit us in life.
When Jesus talks about not being afraid, he is not speaking clinically, nor is the source of his teaching primarily from external observation. He is rather speaking from his own experience. He is speaking about fear from the inside-out, autobiographically. He had as much to be afraid of as you and I have. And then, something slowly happened to Jesus. Something shifted in Jesus in the nearly 20 years between when he was, at age 12, discussing theology with the elders in the Temple in Jerusalem, and when appeared before his cousin, John, to be baptized in the Jordan River. These 20-some years are often called Jesus’ “hidden years,” and we are not told where Jesus was or what he was doing. The scriptures are silent on this period of Jesus’ life. I am certain he was making peace with the terms of his life, and that included facing his fears.
When Jesus finds his voice – at around age 30 – he speaks a great deal about fear, worry, and anxiety: he tells us that we need not be afraid, that we need not worry, that we need not be anxious. Why is that? Because of God’s powerful presence and provision; and because of God’s enduring faithfulness. Jesus learned this. In facing his own fears, he discovered he was not alone.
Going back to the Gospel lesson appointed for today: When a violent storm descends upon the disciples in the boat, Jesus appears to them. The disciples are terrified. Whatever we make of Jesus’ walking on the stormy water, we can see that he is not afraid. Had he ever been afraid of storms on the Sea of Galilee? I’m sure he had. He had grown up in Nazareth, which is not far from the Sea of Galilee. He knew storms, inside and out. But he is no longer afraid of storms. And he tells his disciples, he tells us, not to be afraid. He isn’t scolding us; he is reassuring us not to be afraid, because we don’t need to be afraid. He has come to know this, from the scriptures and from his own experience. And he promises us his power, his provision, his presence to be with us always, to the end of the storm, and to the end of life.
If your life now is swamped with fear, or if you are afraid about an incoming storm in your life – and I presume that all of us are acquainted with fear – remember this: our fear is not an obstacle to God but rather an invitation from God to take Jesus at his word. We need not be afraid. Jesus will know every reason why we could be afraid because he’s been there. He assures us not to be afraid, not to have anxiety, because he is with us: his presence, his power, his provision. For us, fear can seem such an inmovable impediment. But for God, our fear presents an opportunity to show forth God’s presence, and power, and provision; and an opportunity for us to learn to trust. Our fear is God’s invitation, and Jesus will make good on his promise to be with us always. There is so much of which we could be afraid in life, but Jesus assures us not to fear.
Saint Francis De Sales, a 17th century Bishop of Geneva, who lived during a very stormy time in history, left us with these words of assurance:
“Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life;
rather look to them with full hope that as they arise,
God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in his arms.
“Do not fear what may happen tomorrow.
The same everlasting Father who cared for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
“He will either shield you from suffering,
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.”
Jesus has the last word: “Do not fear, for I am with you, always.” (cf Mt 28:20)