Church of Saint Mary and Saint John, Cowley
Philippians 2:1 – 18
Matthew 15: 21 – 28
I want first of all to express my gratitude for the invitation for us to be here today. As you know my brothers and I are members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, known better here as the Cowley Fathers, so it is a delight to be here in Cowley, the parish where it all began.
We have been on pilgrimage to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our founding, as we have explored the roots of Christianity, and thus Anglicanism in this land, but also discovering our own roots as an Anglican monastic community and especially as a particular monastic community that had its origins in this neighbourhood.
One of our customs at the Monastery is to read the obituary at Compline of a brother on the anniversary of his death. So over the years we have read about the small house on the Iffley Road where Fathers Benson, Grafton and O’Neill began the life of our community, and now we have seen, what is known to you as the Isis Hotel, the very house in whose parlor chapel those first three Fathers made their professions on 27th December 1866, the Feast of St. John the Evangelist, and thus began the life of our community. We read about the chapel at the top of the stairs where Father Benson’s teaching to the early members of our community acted as the crucible where our community’s life took shape, and now we have celebrated the Eucharist there and explored the rest of the old Mission House, now St. Stephen’s House. We have seen, and even touched, the names of departed brothers inscribed on the walls of the Mission House Lady Chapel, including many of those whom we have known and loved over the years in our Monastery in Massachusetts. We have met and stayed with the All Saints Sisters and the Sisters of the Love of God, whose histories are so tied up with our own. And some of us, having heard about the Gladiator Club, founded after the Second World War by Father Hemming, have now been to the Gladiator Club and met some of its members, had a drink, and watched a couple of rounds of Aunt Sally. We have prayed in the cell in the Mission House where Father Benson died and stood outside this Church by his memorial cross. And today we are here, in the heart of the Parish of Cowley St. John, with you, who are no less the daughters and sons of Father Benson than we are.
Isaiah 44:6-8; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Our gospel lesson for today made me recall what I remember as the very first theological conundrum of my childhood. I was probably 7 or 8 years old, it was summertime, and my Mom had admonished me to go outside and play. I suspect on that particular day I had been a bee in my mother’s bonnet. I walked outside into the front yard barefoot, enjoying the feeling of the warm grass between my toes. That is until I experienced the sensation of sharp pain all over the bottom of my foot. I jerked my foot up quickly as I looked down to discover that I had stepped squarely on a thistle. After I had recovered from the pain, made sure there were no needles stuck in my foot, and surveyed the scene hoping that my parents had not heard the expletive I had shouted (not necessarily in that order), I began to wonder why God made thistles in the first place. What was the purpose or a thistle? Why did God create something to inflict pain on a barefooted kid such as myself?
Feast of Mary Magdalene
Throughout the gospels, Jesus comes again and again with a simple message: do not be afraid. Sometimes he says this himself, and sometimes he sends a messenger. At his conception, the angel said to the Virgin Mary, “Do not be afraid.”1 At his birth, the angels announced to the shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid.”2 When Jesus first called Peter, John, and James from their fishing boat, he reassured them, saying, “Do not be afraid.”3 At the Transfiguration, when the same three disciples fell over in terror on the mountaintop, Jesus told them, “Do not be afraid.”4 This is, no doubt, meant as a sweet comfort. But it is also a teaching, and a command. Christ even goes so far as to fundamentally juxtapose fear and faith: “Do not fear, only believe.”5
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon,
they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
I doubt there are many preachers who would clamor to preach on the gospel text we have just heard. We preachers tend to avoid the difficult sayings of Jesus and look for more comfortable and pleasing words. This straight-talking, hard-hitting, no-holds-barred Jesus disturbs us. And yet this may be one of the blessings of having texts chosen for us by a daily lectionary, which compels us forego, at least occasionally, the more agreeable stories and sayings of Jesus. In texts like these, we are forced to confront the message of Jesus in all its forms.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
The vegetable garden at Emery House is flourishing as we partner with Nourishing the North Shore. With our land and water, they labor to grow, harvest, and distribute vegetables, mostly to neighbors in need. They carefully prepared the soil, made plans, and planted precise rows with irrigation. One section has cover crops in order to replenish the soil. It’s all planned and orderly. As in your yard or inside with containers, gardeners plan and prepare.
Today’s parable gets our attention. The sower casts seed recklessly such that seeds fell on the path where birds ate them, on rocky ground where shoots sprang up but quickly withered, amid thorns which grew alongside and chocked them, as well as on good soil which bore fruit. No one sows like this, wildly sending seed with little chance of survival. No one is so reckless.
On August 20, 1965, Jonathan Myrick Daniels, an episcopal seminarian did an amazing thing. When confronted by a white man with a 12 gauge shot gun, Jonathan jumped in front of 16 year old Ruby Sales, an African American woman from Alabama, and absorbed the bullet meant for her at point blank range. He died. This is amazing, but not extraordinary. Most people who have been donned a ‘hero’ usually shrug off the title saying that they reacted to a situation by instinct and not by any heroic rationale. Had he lived, perhaps Jonathan would have said the same of his behavior in the face of violence.
Like many of us, Jonathan struggled with his sense of vocation. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute and attended Harvard for graduate school but when it came to what he wanted to do with his life, he felt lost, juggling the possibilities of being a lawyer, doctor, or writer. Then on Easter Day in 1962 while attending a service at the Church of the Advent here in Boston, Jonathan heard the still small voice of God calling him and immediately knew in his heart what he must do. He soon entered what is now the Episcopal Divinity School to pursue ministry. Three years later, inspired by the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the gospel of Luke (He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things….)[i] and also by words of Dr. Martin Luther King, he asked for leave from seminary to go to Selma, Alabama to help in the Civil Rights Movement. He wrote: “I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”[ii]
Our world paints weakness in a very bad light. It’s seen as something to be exploited, or mocked, or—at best—pitied. But today’s Gospel reading flips that script. I think this passage is a very clear example of the necessity of weakness with Christ.
Zacchaeus was the chief tax-collector in Jericho. He was a Jew who had decided to collaborate with the Roman Empire for his own wealth and power. Many of his fellow Jews saw him as a traitor. Not only that, but tax collectors were widely—and often, correctly—seen as corrupt, willing to abuse their power for personal gain. The average person on the street in Jericho would have been very likely to view Zacchaeus as a treacherous thief.
Zechariah 9: 9 -12
Psalm 145: 8-15
Romans 7: 15 – 25a
Matthew 11: 16 – 19, 25 – 30
When I was in seminary, one of my professors frequently spoke of alarms bells. He’d be in the middle of his lecture, or answering a question, or making a comment about something, when he would stop and announce: alarm bells should be going off in your head right now! It took a while, but we soon realized that this was his code for us to make connections between what he had just said and something we might have heard or known from a different situation.
Well, if it were Professor Koester, and not Brother James standing before you today, I’d be saying alarm bells should be going off in your head right now! In fact, really loud alarms should be ringing for you this morning. It’s not that you are in a deep sleep right now and need to wake up (although perhaps that’s true!). Instead you should be thinking, this all sounds vaguely familiar. Where have I heard this before?
As a high school actor I was initiated into the fundamentals of method acting. Later in life, that experience was put to the test when I myself began teaching high school and was unexpectedly asked to direct student theater. The method actor asks the classic question, “What’s my motivation?” The director of method acting takes pains to encourage exercises in emotional intelligence, body-mind awareness, improvisation and character exploration. Only later, once the actors are finding their voices, tapping their emotional core, working as an ensemble, and embracing the full expressive range of their bodies does the director get down to work on stagecraft: who will move where and when, how lighting and costuming and props will augment and frame the actors, communicate themes, and offer a creative vision. Without that preparatory inner work, a high school play can be a cruel form of torture for an audience. A young, inexperienced or insensitive actor will seek to convey mature adult emotions by aiming to use his voice and body to manufacture a dramatic or impactful impression upon his audience. The effort almost always falls flat because the actor hasn’t done the work of engaging that emotion — or its nearest analogue — in his own life, letting the words and actions flow from that hidden spring. On the other hand, the most gratifying and miraculous moments in a high school play are those in which we glimpse a young actor’s unselfconscious humanity: the embodied expression of her personhood taking shape behind and beneath the memorized lines and tentative gestures. Here and there, true feeling flashes forth and art takes flesh before our eyes. She has become the character because she is becoming herself. This is the fruit of the actor’s inner work.
Here is my sermon that I preached today. I was struck immediately by the reference to God’s Compassion when I began meditating on the Scripture readings for today’s Eucharist. The reference to Sarah’s behavior being like an angry bear protecting her cub came from mention of bears in Quebec in several of Louise Penny’s Mystery Novels about a fictional village in Quebec. The rest of the sermon just developed from there.
Gen. 21:5, 8-20
Today’s first reading is a story of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, acting something like an angry mother bear protecting her cub. We also see God, acting in contrast to that with great compassion.
The story began by telling us that Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born. This alone was something outside of ordinary norms. Sarah herself was not much younger. Having a son born at such an age is a miracle.