Who is more important? We compare power and privilege, background, connection, skill and status. Earlier in the chapter for today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples asked: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”[i] What’s the top which then defines the whole, including us? We wrestle for rank and worry about worth.
Jesus “called a child, whom he put among them, and said ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”[ii] Become like children. Change your perspective. Rather than seeking power, skill, and status, acknowledge your need. Ask for help. Let yourself be helped and held. Relish wonder and love without embarrassment. Experiment, imagine, and playfully discover new ways of being. Gaze, dance, build, and fly. Become like children.
Who is more important? Each one. “Welcome one such child in my name, and you welcome me,” says Jesus. Woe to any who would “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” Jesus warns. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones.”[iii]
Isaiah 40: 1 – 11
Psalm 85: 1 – 2, 8 – 13
2 Peter 3: 8 – 15a
Mark 1: 1 – 8
Each year I get a little crankier and a little more annoyed by Christmas.
Now, don’t get me wrong, before you write me off as some kind of a monastic Scrooge, let me explain what I mean.
If truth be told, I actually love Christmas. I love the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. I love the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking, (perhaps especially the baking!). I love Christmas. What makes me cranky, and annoyed, is that what many people really just want are the lights, and the tinsel, and the tree. What many people really just want are the decorations, and the carols, and the crèche, and the baking. What many people really just want is the baby and the celebration. What many people don’t want is a saviour. But isn’t that the whole point of Christmas? And you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
For many, Christmas is about a cute, pudgy, sweet smelling baby, nestled in a bed of clean straw, in a romantically quaint, clean, rustic looking barn, amidst softly falling snow, much as we had yesterday. What they don’t want, is a saviour. And they don’t want a saviour, because that would suggest that we need saving. That would suggest that life isn’t all that we so often pretend it to be. And who wants to admit that life, especially my life, is not perfect, or that I can’t fix it?
In the minds of many, we in America are living in an era of increased hopelessness. Many of us are experiencing a level of despair beyond anything we have ever felt before. The reasons for this sense of despair are many:
The gap between the wealthy and powerful and the needy and poor seems to widen year by year, in our country and in the world at large. Many of our citizens lack job security, health care, and a live-able wage. They face an uncertain future, while others have the power to indulge themselves in luxury and waste.
Racial, cultural and gender inequality still plague our society, despite long and hard-fought battles for civil rights, equality and justice.
Climate change threatens the earth and puts countless people at risk, and yet ours is the only country in the world to exempt itself from the planet-preserving recommendations of the Paris Climate Agreement.
Our political system seems to be dominated more and more by people of extraordinary wealth and privilege. Our leaders are hampered by rigid partisanship and cannot seem to agree on the common good. Those in power seem consumed with maintaining their power at all costs. As columnist Jeff Kirkpatrick notes, “Power supersedes morality, ethics, national security, logic, reason and sanity” in America right now.[i]
The sun is setting. The night has begun. The season of Advent marks the start of the new Church year, and, like the Jewish day that begins once the sun has descended, our year begins with the night season.
Advent is a season of looking ahead. We anticipate the coming of the Lord both in our looking forward to the commemoration of his birth, as well as our hopeful belief in his coming again. It is, therefore, a season of the affirmation of our Christian faith and joy.
But the night is dark. The night is cold, and lonely, and we have not been given leave to rest until the warm embrace of the new dawn. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite. Christ gives us the order: “Keep awake.”1 Our Lord gives us this command, to keep watch at the door for his return. He does not even give us the time of his coming back, assuring us only that “about that day or hour no one knows.”1 There is no known end to the tunnel, no hour at which we can punch out and leave our shift at the night watch. We simply must watch, and wait. And lest we think we might have the sweet comfort or stimulating diversion of impermanent things, Christ tells us that “heaven and earth shall pass away.”1 All things will crumble; all things will fade.
One of the debates I see played out amongst my friends each year on social media is what I call the Christmas tree debate. Just when is it acceptable to drag out your Christmas CDs, decorations, and set up your tree in front of the living room picture window? We smile somewhat at this familiar conundrum but it seems each year the debate gets even more heated, perhaps one tier below our concerns about whether Russia interfered with our election process. I read comments from friends who dread hearing ‘Sleigh Ride’ played ad nauseum in supermarkets and shopping malls beginning Thanksgiving Day. And I don’t blame them. When I was home to see my parents a few weeks ago, I shook my head in frustration when a local radio station advertised its seasonal format shift to Christmas music exactly one week prior to Thanksgiving! Many of my friends had pictures of their trees on social media on Thanksgiving, one with the defiant comment: “We put our tree up today! Sorry, not sorry!” And who can blame them? In a world that appears to be immersed in utter chaos, in a climate of hostility to those who think, believe, and act differently, who wouldn’t be parched and thirsting for some Christmas joy?
Feast of the Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist
In a monastery, the past is inescapable. Formal, stately portraits of departed SSJE brethren hang on the walls of our refectory, placidly gazing upon daily breakfasts and Easter dinners alike. The names of others are inscribed on the bottoms of communion chalices or on memorial plaques, hanging in both obvious and out of the way places. Names and dates in elegant cursive script grace the inside covers of some of the older books on our library shelves. Occasionally, I stumble across prayers copied out on title pages or notes penciled in the yellowing margins, and I’m unexpectedly moved; I feel as if I am entering a conversation that began long before me. Finally, and most significantly, there is our practice of reading the obituary of a departed brother on the anniversary of his death. This moment at Compline is not simply a gentle reminder of our mortality. It is also a loving gaze at a portrait in the family photo album. And that probably points to the heart of the matter. When I say that the past is inescapable here, I do not mean that in an antiquarian or anachronistic way, as if living in a monastery were like living in a museum or an antique gallery. Nor do I mean that we are haunted by ghosts. In the phrasing of Donald Allchin, former Canon of Canterbury Cathedral and a friend of this community long before I came along, it is the “living presence of the past” that makes itself so mysteriously and palpably felt in a monastery.[i] Before I came to monastic life, my personal relationship with the past felt both very passionate and very piecemeal. Confined to favorite authors and artists and a handful of saints, I found it difficult to describe why these figures exerted such a persistent, gravitational tug upon my heart – and what meanings that tug signified for my life in the present. But as I come more and more to take my place in a lineage, and to discover my individual story knit into a fabric whose folds extend beyond my imagining, I begin to grasp in my daily experience the words from our Rule of Life: “As we explore the spiritual legacy of our forebears we remember that they are not dead figures from the past. Risen in Christ, they belong to the great cloud of witnesses who spur us on by their prayers to change and mature in response to the Holy Spirit who makes all things new.”[ii]
Feast of Christ the King: Proper 29A
Ezekiel 34: 11 – 16, 20 – 24
Ephesians 1: 15 – 23
Matthew 25: 31 – 46
We all know that a shift has taken place in the world, and we see it most clearly in last year’s election in this country and the BREXIT referendum in the UK. The shift appears to be away from a global, universal outlook to a more individual, nationalist one. Me First appears to be the watchword, and that has become true about nations as well as individuals. We see this in foreign as well as domestic policy, ranging from trade, to immigration, to security, to health, to education, to gun laws, to the environment, to civil and human rights. We see this as society becomes more stratified and neighbourhoods and communities more uniform. We are losing, or perhaps have lost, our concern for the other and appear to live in a culture that says that I can do whatever I want, and the other person, or neighbourhood, or nation, simply doesn’t matter. Some political commentators see evidence of this, not just at one end of the political spectrum, but at both ends. And some argue that this isn’t a recent phenomenon, but has its roots back several decades.
But this Me First attitude is in stark contrast to the kind of life we are trying to live as Christians, and as a Christian community. It is such a stark contrast, that I have spent some time pondering what it is that sets us apart from the world, and shapes our life as Christians in a fundamentally different way, so much so, that not only are we set apart from the world, sooner or later our values as Christians will set us in conflict with a world where a Me First attitude is king. And that, I think, is the key for us, at least for today: who or what is king over our lives? Who or what rules supreme in our lives? To whom or to what do we owe our ultimate allegiance?
1 Thessalonians 5:11
If you have the opportunity to travel to the Holy Land, you inevitably experience a great diversity of people. Among them are Jews, Muslims, and Christians, all of whom lay claim to both the land, and to their own particular narrative of history: what has happened there down through the centuries, and why. Though there is a common ground, there is not a common creed, as we well know… except that all three faith traditions look to the same place and time and person, the first person to be invited into a relationship with God. And this is Abraham and his wife, Sarah, with whom God establishes a covenant.
A covenant is not the same as a contract. A contract is a transaction, but a covenant is a relationship. A contract is about interests, but a covenant is about identity. And that is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform. Covenants transform. We are covenanted people. I am drawing here on the teaching of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, sometime Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, who spoke about ten years ago to the Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference.[i] In a covenant, two or more individuals, each respecting the dignity and the integrity of the other, come together in a bond of love and trust, to share their interests, sometimes even to share their lives, by pledging faithfulness to one another, to do together what neither can do alone. A covenant is about relationship, a relationship that invites and presumes a transformative change will happen in both persons, both parties.
We remember today Margaret, Queen of Scotland. This brief description of her is drawn from For All the Saints, a resource of the Anglican Church of Canada:
Margaret was an Anglo-Saxon princess who became the [wife] of King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1069. She bore eight children and through her husband initiated civilizing reforms in the Scottish royal court, the Scottish Church, and the Scottish nation. But Margaret is chiefly remembered for her efforts on behalf of Scotland’s poor. She not only gave out large sums of money but also ensured that institutions already in place did indeed provide relief for the homeless, the hungry, and the orphaned. In addition, Margaret supplied the funds which purchased freedom for those Anglo-Saxons who had been sold into slavery by their Norman conquerors. Hence, to her title of Queen is added the still greater title for a Christian – “Helper of the Poor.”[i] [italics mine]
“Helper of the Poor.” Would to God that every Christian on the planet could be known by that title. To be a “helper of the poor” is to be one with the mission of Jesus who, according to his own testimony, was anointed by God “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to let the oppressed go free…” (Lk 4:18). It is to be one with the mission of God in the world, whose deep concern and compassion for the helpless is so much in evidence throughout our sacred scriptures.
I recently spent a day of retreat at Emery House. I sat in a simple hut deep in the woods – and all day long I watched the gently falling leaves. It was a beautiful and melancholy experience. Those falling leaves seemed to pick up the feelings at this time of the year: a sense of letting go and of loss. A time to remember. In church we remember all Saints. We remember on All Souls Day our loved ones who have passed away. This past week we have remembered those who lost their lives in war.
A couple of days ago in London at the Royal Albert Hall there was the annual Festival of Remembrance. I love to watch it, because of what happens at the end. After all the music and the singing, the huge crowd stands in silence as a million poppies fall, gently and silently – in remembrance of all who died in war – “we will remember them.” I love that moment – with that strange mixture of sadness, yet of hope. As the autumn leaves fall, and as the poppies fall there is sadness, but something else – a sweet sorrow. Solomon in his wisdom, put it like this: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction. But they are at peace.” (Wisdom 3:1-3)
But there is I think more going on at this melancholy time of year than just remembering those who have died. There is something about this season of falling leaves and bare trees which speaks profoundly to our souls and invites us to also experience a dying. “For unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)
What do those enigmatic words of Jesus mean?
I think there is a clue in the reading from the Gospel of Luke we have just heard: the story of the rich young man. He comes up to Jesus and asks how he might inherit eternal life. He rattles off all the commandments that he has kept: he’s full of self-righteousness, and full of money. And Jesus looks at him in all his fullness and says to him, “You lack one thing – sell all that you have, and give the money to the poor.” (Lk 18:22)
The man asked for life – eternal life – and Jesus replied by saying – if you want life, you have to die first. Just as the tree needs to let go of its leaves in order to have room for new life and growth – so the rich man had to first shed his self-righteousness and wealth, to leave room to be filled with the fullness of God.
And each season of fall reminds us again of Jesus’ invitation to us to an autumnal experience of letting go and of dying – if we want to truly live, and be filled with the fullness of God.
It is the pattern of dying and being reborn, of crucifixion and resurrection, which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. It’s the pattern at work in all the saints. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians wrote, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things.” (Phil 3:8)
And so with the rich young man, Jesus was saying to him, with great love, that if you don’t empty yourself, I can’t fill you – there’s no room!
So when Jesus looks at you and me, with great love, and longs to fill us with his life, who does he see? Does he see someone too full already? It could be just too much stuff: possessions can suffocate us, possess us. Or we may be so overwhelmed by busy-ness that we cannot attend to the things of God.
Or maybe God can’t find room to fill you, because you are filled with anger, or resentment, or an inability to forgive – emotions that can consume us and overwhelm us. Imagine Jesus looking at you with love, and saying gently, “let it go, let it go.” Let it fall away like the autumn leaves.
At times we may feel the burden of sin. Things we have done or said in the past which still haunt us and fill us with guilt or remorse. There’s a wonderful line in our Rule which says, “We cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ, who goes before us if we are encumbered by guilt.” I love the image of Jesus running ahead of us and looking back and saying, ‘Come on!’ And we say, “I can’t keep up! I’m weighed down by guilt, or my possessions, my anger, my resentment, my fear…!’
And Jesus saying, ‘Let me forgive you. Let me take the weight off you. Let them go, and become light and free … and come follow me.’
I love this time of year – the season of fall. Things seem to be falling and dying. But Solomon knew a deeper mystery: “In the eyes of the foolish,” he said, “they seemed to have died.” And we who follow Jesus know a deeper mystery. We know that those bare trees, which seem so dead, are just waiting silently and expectantly for the mystery of spring and the glorious bursting forth of new life.
And so with us. Jesus calls us every day to live into that mystery in our own lives. To let die all that does not give me life. To empty myself of all that weighs me down: possessions, anxieties, resentments, sins: whatever it is that stops me following Jesus.
Let it go. Learn from those gently falling leaves. And let it go.