I recently returned from spending a few weeks in Colombia. I was invited by the bishop, and worked in three Episcopal parishes in Bogota and Medellin. It was an extraordinary experience and I am still thinking and praying about everything I was privileged to see and do, and remembering especially some of the wonderful, generous people I met. The people of Colombia have lived through decades of violence. Terrorized by guerilla groups like the FARC, and suffering through the murderous days of Pablo Escobar and narco-terrorism. What is less well known is that Colombia has the world’s highest number of internally displaced people – more even than Syria. These are Colombian men, women and children who over the past 30 years have been forcibly driven from their homes by armed groups, and who have become refugees in their own land. Eight million of them – many now living in poverty in the outlying barrios, which cling to the mountainsides of the great cities.
I spent much of my time living in one such barrio in Bogota. It was a tough place to be, but the great blessing I received was to meet and talk with men and women, who in the midst of great suffering and hardship, radiated a profound faith and trust in God.
Given that Br. Luke (our acolyte today) went to a lot of trouble learning how to pronounce all those difficult names, I feel it’s only right that we should reflect on the lesson from Nehemiah this morning.
It might help to first establish a context for these words. You may remember that early in the 6th century B.C.E., the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians. It was a devastating defeat. The temple at Jerusalem was completely destroyed, as was the city itself, and the majority of the people were carried off into captivity. Only a small remnant remained. The period of exile lasted 70 years, and gave rise to the book of Lamentations and to several psalms of lament – Psalm 137, for example: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion” (Psalm 137:1). In the year 538 B.C.E., Babylon was conquered by the Medes and Persians. The Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, was a wise and compassionate man who not only gave the Israelites permission to begin returning home, but also provided the resources they needed to rebuild the temple. A first wave of exiles left Babylon to return to Judah.
It took over eighty years before a second group of exiles returned to Jerusalem, led by the prophet Ezra, in 455 B.C.E. Ten years after this second group departs, we find Nehemiah, a Jew still living in Persia, serving as cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes. Nehemiah hears a report that deeply troubles him: the Israelites are still struggling to establish themselves in their home country. They have managed to rebuild the temple, but the walls around Jerusalem are still in ruins. After four months of prayer, Nehemiah decides to risk approaching the king. He asks for permission to return to Jerusalem with a third group of exiles, with the expressed purpose of rebuilding the city’s walls.
Zechariah 8:20-23 :: Psalm 87 :: Luke 9:51-56
This evening’s lections highlight for us a very important paradox about what we might call “the Religious world-view.” In our readings from the Hebrew Bible, both Zechariah and the Psalmist remind us that the beauty and goodness of religion have the power to bring people into a relationship with the Divine. Surely, this is true for just about every one of us here, whether we call ourselves religious or not. Both biblical authors imagine for us a context where the abundant beauty and goodness of God become so incarnated in the life and worship of God’s people that the people of the world will long for nothing more than to enter into that life.
Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.’ … In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’
Glorious things are spoken of you *
O city of our God.
Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51
Today we celebrate one of the more mysterious feasts in the calendar of the Church: The Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. Not only is it a feast, but it is what we monastics call a solemnity: one of the upper echelon feasts, with its title in ALL CAPS in the Ordo, and a lunchtime meal with not only meat and dessert but also ‘festive beverages,’ therefore it must be pretty important. What do you know about angels? Or what do you believe about these mystical beings? You may know a bit more than me. I have to admit that I had to do some research in preparing the homily for this feast because I know very little myself about angels except that most images I have seen of them show human like figures with wings and a glowing countenance.
Perhaps like a few of you here, I grew up in an evangelical tradition of the church that did not talk a lot about angels. Even though angels show up at different times in the scriptures, we just didn’t dwell much on them, which is ironic because it is from the Greek word for evangelist (euangelion) that we get the word angel: a bearer of good news. Primarily, angels are known as messengers from God. The angel Gabriel (whose name means “The Strength of God”)[i] visits the Virgin Mary to proclaim the good news that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited Messiah. Shortly after in Luke’s gospel we hear that an angel of the Lord visits a group of shepherds outside of Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus and telling them where to find him. And before they set out the sky is filled with angels singing: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’[ii]
Luke 9:37-50 (with focus on v. 43b-45)
We have before us today a short passage from Luke’s gospel focusing on the failure of the disciples to understand Jesus’ prediction that he will “be betrayed into human hands.” To understand it better, I’d like to view it in its broader context (Luke 9:37-50), which you’ll find printed on the handout.
Jesus is with his disciples in Galilee, about to turn his face towards Jerusalem, where he will face betrayal, crucifixion and death. He is speaking with his disciples about the cost of discipleship, and the necessity of “taking up the cross” in order to follow him.
In this section of Luke 9, we are brought face-to-face with the weakness of the twelve. They are lacking in power, having failed to cast a demon out of a boy. They are lacking in understanding, failing to grasp Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal into the hands of his enemies. They are lacking in humility, arguing about which of them was the greatest. And finally, they are lacking in sympathy and in Jesus’ spirit of inclusivity, when they try to exclude those who do not join them.[i]
In the calendar of the church we remember the life and witness of Vincent de Paul. He was born in France in the year 1580 to a peasant family. He was bright, given educational opportunity, and, at 20 years old, was ordained in year 1600. This was a time of enormous change in western Europe. Most historians locate the late 15th/early 16th century as the beginning or at least maturing of western capitalism. Merchants, entrepreneurs, and bankers accumulated and manipulated capital in unprecedented levels. It was the best of times and the worst of times, worst certainly for the bankrupt and for the poor, who became more numerous and more destitute. History repeats itself.
Vincent, when called to hear the confession of a dying man, was shocked by the spiritual poverty of the penitent. Vincent began preaching sermons on confession, calling people to the necessity of repentance. His sermons were so persuasive that villagers stood in line to go to confession. It was not just the laity, but also his fellow clergy whom he found so poorly formed in their own ministry. He became a pioneer in the renewal of theological education, and was instrumental in establishing seminaries. He also pioneered conducting retreats for clergy. In year 1626, Vincent and three other priests vowed to live and pray together, and to devote themselves as mission priests. The founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Richard Meux Benson in the 1860s, patterned our own community on Vincent de Paul’s Company of Mission Priests.
“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?”
In the calendar of the church, we remember today Thomas Traherne, one of the trio of great English poets and lyricists including John Donne and George Herbert. Traherne, Donne, and Herbert, each in their own way, expressed their profound awareness of the depths of God intertwined in all of creation. They articulated the Christian faith in the Middle Ages, which had a bewildering a maze of conflicting opinions about the meaning of life, not unlike today.
Traherne was born in 1637, the son of a humble shoemaker. He studied at Oxford, from where he earned three degrees, and was ordained priest in 1660. He died at age 37. Traherne’s poetry went unpublished and unknown until it was found in manuscript form in a London bookseller’s stall at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Jesus selected a small group to particularly teach and transform. As Jesus traveled, he saw and called an unusual assortment including uneducated fishermen. Matthew, whom we remember today, is an even more striking choice. As a tax collector working for the occupying Roman Empire, he was considered a traitor, outcast by the Jewish community.
Walking along, likely amid a crowd asking questions, Jesus saw Matthew. Jesus paid attention to the periphery and saw those looked down on or overlooked. Looking widely, Jesus saw Matthew, saw a human with dignity and worth. Matthew, an outcast seen and invited in, experienced Jesus’ mercy.
“Why eat with tax collectors and sinners?” say self-confident, serious, secure religious folk. Condemn traitors. Build barriers. Stick together. Keep yourselves clean.
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” Matthew followed Jesus to learn what this meant spending his days Peter, James, John, and other unlikely companions.
How do we learn mercy? Here are three ways: Look, Honor, and Receive. Look widely. Pay attention not only to those close to you. Look to the periphery, see and welcome the outcast and stranger.
Honor mystery. We Brothers say in our Rule of Life: “… we honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption and condemnation which pretends to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.”[i]
Receive wisdom. What do others have to teach you, especially companions you didn’t or wouldn’t choose?
We remember St. Matthew, one whom Jesus selected, shaped, and sent with love. Following, we continue to learn mercy. Look widely. Honor mystery. Receive wisdom.
Hildegard of Bingen, Abbess of Bingen and Mystic (1098-1179)
God of all times and seasons: Give us grace that we, after the example of your servant Hildegard, may both know and make known the joy and jubilation of being part of your creation, and show forth your glory not only with our lips but in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Savior,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 43:1-2, 6-7, 9-12, 27-28
In the calendar of the church we remember today Hildegard of Bingen, born over 900 years ago in year 1098. For most of her 80+ years, she lived in an obscure hilltop monastery in the Rhineland of Germany. As a child she was drawn to the religious life, a life of silence and prayer; however a convent could also then be a place of freedom for a woman to develop her intellectual gifts and creativity and care, and she did it all. At age 38 she became abbess of her community, and she would eventually build a second convent. Her character absolutely teemed with creativity, and yet she could also be steely, determined, and, at times, overbearing. Her sisters flourished under her rather unorthodox regime.