The promise first came to Abram when he was already 75 years old! God said, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great…. In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:2-3). It was unthinkable even then, unimaginable, impossible, given his age and the barrenness of Sarai’s womb. But Abram believed God.
The second promise came eleven years later, when Abram was 86 years old! This time, Abram questioned God, “You have given me no offspring… [Is one of my slaves to become my heir]?” (Gen. 15:3) and God replied, “[No]. Your very own issue will be your heir… Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall you descendants be” (Gen. 15:5). And, once again, Abram believed God.
But as time went on and there was still no heir, his faith wavered. Abram and Sarai decided to help God out by taking matters into their own hands. So, Abram slept with Sarai’s servant and she conceived and bore him a son, Ishmael. But this was not God’s plan.
The third and final promise came thirteen years after the second. Abram was 99 years old and Sarai 90. Still, they had not conceived. Their dream of having a child had withered over time and finally evaporated completely. They knew it was now physically impossible. They had no reasonable hope. But God insisted, “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (Gen. 17:4,6). This time, Abram laughed (Gen. 17:17).
Today is the feast of St. Matthias who replaced Judas among the twelve apostles. Matthias had been with them since John baptized Jesus in the Jordan. He witnessed Jesus’ ministry with the crowds, heard the teaching, witnessed healings, had his own personal and communal experience of Jesus. Probably he was one of the 70 whom Jesus sent out and later was at the crucifixion. Hardly anything is written about him. The apostles selected two candidates. They drew lots thereby choosing Matthias.
The group probably wasn’t seeking a big personality. They already had that in Peter, James, and John. Now they were amid grief and change as Jesus had ascended back to heaven. Instead, they likely sought stability, one who had stuck it out with them and whom they trusted would remain. Remaining with through grief and loss is hard.
In language from the gospel, Matthias chose “to abide in Christ” and this company of friends. Abide can mean to live in, to make yourself at home. Abide also means to remain or to stick with through challenge. Jesus says the Father stuck with me. I’ll stick with you no matter what. Abide in my love, Jesus says. Remain with me.
We begin the first of five Tuesday evening sermons in Lent focused on “finding God amid all that troubles us in our lives and in the world.” This evening we explore the ultimate terms of life: “Life in the Midst of Death.”[i] I’m going to start with eternity and then move back-from-the-future into the present. First, a disclaimer. My own experience of life after death is limited. I’ll come back to that.
After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus said he was going away to prepare a place for us, where he invites us to follow. [ii] This place in heaven is a “mansion” according to the King James Version of the Bible, which is what I learned from as a child. Maybe also you? However the Greek word that was translated into English in the 1500s as “mansion” does not mean what the word “mansion” connotates for us today. For us today, a mansion is like a small palace, like the oceanfront mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. But the Greek word used here is actually much more modest and far more intriguing. The Greek word is simply a temporary dwelling place: an inn for overnight lodging.[iii]Along the ancient Roman roads, travelers’ inns were placed about a day’s journey one from another where travelers would spend the night.
The Greek word for this inn that Jesus prepares for us implies a journey, an ongoing development. Rather than imagining eternity as something static – where we are installed in a private palace – imagine eternity as an adventure in the company of heaven, with travelers’ inns being prepared for us, both for our heavenly rest and for our heavenly adventure, as we move from light to light, from one inn to the next.
I love that, four days into Lent, four days into this season of fasting, we’re reading about a feast.
For me, nothing captures this passage from Luke quite like the scene by the Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese. He turns Luke’s “great banquet” into a wild party. The enormous canvas of The Feast in the House of Levi bursts at its seams with dozens of figures: the disciples and Levi, as well as entertainers, soldiers, children, slaves—even a cat and a dog. Jesus is a still, calm center in the midst of riotous humanity.
The scene is seductive—outstretched arms and turned bodies invite us in, like a friend who opens a place in a circle for you to join. The scene invites us in, to join the throng of “tax collectors and sinners” whom Jesus comes to call. The key question of this scene isn’t that of the authorities—“why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Lk 5:30)—but the one that Jesus leaves unvoiced—“why don’t you join us?”
Imagine for a moment how those at the banquet might have felt. Tax collectors and sinners were the outcasts and the undesirables, cut off from community. Jesus does not seek to segregate and excise them, as others do, to tell them they are unworthy of his ministry and friendship. He calls them. He claims them.
The Thursday after Ash Wednesday feels like a hangover. Shrove Tuesday is full of excitement and pancakes. Ash Wednesday is solemn and full of reflective work. Then this Thursday comes along, and it doesn’t even have its own nickname. It’s just the second day of Lent.
In any journey, there’s always that feeling when the initial excitement of something beginning has worn off and you get a sense of how long the journey is actually going to take. It’s that part of a hike when after a mile or two you get a glimpse of the mountaintop through the trees and say oh wow, that’s a long way from here.
Six weeks from today, we Brothers will be sitting up here waiting for our Superior James to wash our feet. In between this Thursday after Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, there will be six weeks of daily life and all the joys and challenges that goes with it.
It’s with that spirit of daily life that makes the readings for two day of Lent perfect. In our Gospel this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that anyone who wants to follow him must “take up their cross daily.” I love how Jesus uses that word daily. Jesus didn’t have to include that word daily. Jesus could have just said that anyone who wants to follow him has to take up their cross. The fact that Jesus purposefully put in that word daily gets at something important to the Christian experience.
The other evening, I engaged in a discussion with a friend about the Prayer of Humble Access. This prayer, recited just before communion in the Rite I liturgy; of the Prayer Book, and is known for its poetic, though somewhat outdated, language. I pointed out to my friend that is a version of the prayer, in contemporary language, which begins: “We do not presume to come to this your table, O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in your abundant and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table; but you are the same Lord whose character is always to have mercy.” Opinions on this prayer vary; some may find its tone overly submissive, while others, like myself, prefer to focus on the aspects of God’s grace.
My friend observed that, for him, the modern language didn’t capture the depth he found in the more traditional language, especially highlighting the phrase: “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.” He argued that “characteristic” doesn’t convey the same depth as “property.” The term property refers to a quality or feature uniquely belonging to an individual or thing. Being a science enthusiast, he likened it to a “physical property of matter,” explaining that such a property is an attribute observable and measurable without altering the substance’s chemical identity. Properties observable only through chemical changes are chemical properties, whereas physical properties are apparent without change or during physical alterations. Examples include changing states of matter or altering matter’s shape through actions like folding or cutting. Physical properties are detectable through our senses, making them crucial for describing matter.[i] Applying this analogy to the Prayer of Humble Access, we recognize that mercy is an unchanging attribute of God amidst a constantly changing and evolving world.
What do we make of a story like this? Jesus leads three of his closest friends up a high mountain and there he is transfigured before them! His clothes become dazzling white, whiter than anyone on earth could bleach them! Moses and Elijah, representing the law and the prophets, suddenly appear beside Jesus, speaking with him! A cloud overshadows them all, and a voice booms out of the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” No wonder the poor disciples are terrified!
What do we make of a story like this that describes a theophany so extraordinary, so spectacular, so dazzling, so supernatural, that it defies logic. The whole experience lies so far beyond anything any of us has or ever will see or know, it is almost impossible to imagine.
For a few brief moments, the veil is lifted and the disciples see the radiant glory of God beaming from the person of Jesus. And then it is over, as quickly as it began.
The remarkable incident described in today’s gospel reading calls to mind the earlier story of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan by John the Baptist (Mark 1:9-11). There, too, a voice from heaven rumbled out of the clouds, though this time the message was directed to Jesus himself: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It was a message of love and affirmation, which confirmed his identity as God’s Beloved Son, and signaled the start of his mission.
This is a very old story. For more than 2,000 years people have heard this same Gospel story endlessly. Nothing changed. The same story. Quite boring, irrelevant… except for one thing. The only thing new or different is what’s going on for us, the hearers of the story. We, the hearer, are in a new space, like never before.
In our Rule of Life we say, “These hearts of ours are not empty vessels but inner worlds alive with images, memories, experiences and desires.”[i] God’s revelation to us will be a kind of synergy between what is going on with a very old scriptural story, and what is going on today in our own heart and imagination[ii]. And that creates a whole new story.
So we have Jesus in the region of Tyre, a town on the Mediterranean coast of southern Lebanon. A woman comes up to him. She is from Syrophoenicia, the Roman province of Syria. She is a long way from her homeland. Is she without a country? We don’t know. She may be without hope. She is certainly a person vulnerable and desperate or she would never, never alone have approached a man, a Jewish man, especially as she is a Gentile woman and a foreigner.
The scene captured in this Gospel passage does not typically show up in beautiful stained glass windows in churches. This is a troubling scene. In the family system it is a rough day for Jesus, his siblings, and his mother, Mary.[i]
Here is the back story. Away on a mountaintop Jesus had just appointed his twelve apostles, and then he returned to Nazareth, which is the setting for this Gospel lesson.[ii] A considerable crowd has surrounded Jesus outside his family’s home as he teaches. There is very mixed energy in the crowd. Jesus’ mother and his brothers must have been inside their home, because the Gospel of Mark reports they then go outside and send word through the crowd for Jesus. Why? Is it so they can stand with Jesus and give their public assent to his teaching? No. Does his family want to protect Jesus? No. We read the family makes their appearance to restrain Jesus.[iii] The verb used here to describe their reaction to Jesus literally means “he is out of his mind” or “he has gone mad!”[iv] What we witness is an attempt at a family intervention.
The terse situation seems only to escalate when we hear Jesus’ reaction to the report that his family has appeared on the outskirts of the crowd. Jesus seems to respond rhetorically or dismissively: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, Jesus says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Feast of Richard Meux Benson
“You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
I’m struck today by this little word “if.” “You are my friends if.” When was the last time you said that to a friend? “You are my friend if you take my side.” ”You are my friend if you do what I say.”
But how often does this “if” go unspoken? “You are my friend,” we say, while thinking, “if you do what I expect, if you believe or read or vote the way I do.” How often do we find ourselves unconsciously closing the door on those who do not fulfill our unspoken ifs?
The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, whom we celebrate today, had a dim view of friendship, in large part because of these ifs. He recognized that, in practice, earthly friendships are often divisive, based as they are on “certain idiosyncrasies which we may share in common, and which naturally . . . separate cliques from the rest of mankind.” In short, he later wrote, “earthly friendships are apt to make us feel lonely both in their enjoyment and in their removal.”