There was once a young man who was beginning his spiritual journey in the religious life. He sought the council of an old man who was well versed in spirituality, and asked him what all he must do to live a disciplined religious life. The old man opened his Psalter and read the first verse of Psalm 39: I said, I will keep watch upon my ways, so that I do not offend with my tongue. “STOP!” cried the young man as the older was about to proceed; “when I have learned that I will come and receive further rules.” And so he went away and at the end of six months, the older man, curious about the progress of the younger, sought him out and asked, “Are you ready to continue with the other lessons?” “Not yet,” he replied. “I have not yet mastered the first one.” Another five years passed and curiously the older man again sought out the younger. This time the young man replied, “I have no need of the other lessons, for, having learned that first rule, to master the tongue, I have gained discipline and control over my whole nature.”[i]
The past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. I am struck by one of the Letter’s reoccurring themes: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness; if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.[ii] Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, the author of the Letter is admonishing his audience to put right words into right action. Certainly, 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 comprehend 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. Bits in the mouths of horses, small rudders guiding large ships, great forests being set ablaze by small sparks: all of these poetically call into question our mastery over this small, unruly member of our body: the tongue. With it, he says, we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. You might summarize this major theme of James’ Letter this way: words matter. What is your experience of this? What metaphor would you use to illustrate the power of speech? How have you come to know that words matter?
Human beings have evolved in such a way that we do most of our sleeping at night. Under normal circumstances, even so-called “night owls” tend not to stay awake all night long without very good reason. Physical pain, insomnia, or intense anxiety may banish sleep from our eyes, but so also might sheer anticipation or overwhelming joy. A sense of urgency may compel us to remain awake, when something or someone simply cannot or will not wait until morning: a newborn infant, a dying friend, or an impending deadline. Night may afford a precious window of opportunity, when the world is quiet and we are unburdened by the duties of our waking hours. Artists, writers, musicians, aspiring comedians: all these know a form of passionate asceticism as they labor at their primary vocation long into the night, especially if they work during the day at other paid professions. And night has always been a sacred time for lovers of all sorts, giddy with the rush of newfound or newly rekindled intimacy. The night hours become an inner sanctum of privacy enfolding the union of lover and beloved.
In today’s gospel lesson we encounter one of the few, tantalizing glimpses of the nocturnal life of Jesus – who loses sleep for the love of God.
“Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.”
In one line, Luke’s subtle highlights and shadows render not just a person, but a personality. In Luke’s many portraits of Jesus, we meet a man who is drawn into intimate, moment by moment communion with the God he knew as Father. We encounter a person filled with power by the Spirit of God, led by the Spirit to astonishing new heights and depths of self-offering. It should come as no surprise, then, that Luke’s Jesus spends the whole night in prayer.
Isaiah 35: 4 – 7a; Psalm 146; James 2: 1 – 10 (11 – 13) 14 – 17; Mark 7: 24 – 37
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 next time you are at a dinner party and see how impressed people are with your erudition! I love it because of the breathlessness with which Mark tells the story. You can almost hear the urgency in Mark’s voice, as in just six verses he tells us an awful lot, that is profoundly significant. I love it, because it harkens back to the church of my youth, and it calls to mind 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 of mine 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.
But 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 today, doing what he shouldn’t be doing. And that’s just the point.
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
This Gospel account speaks of Jesus’ miraculous birth; however our celebration today remembers the miraculous birth of his mother, Mary. There’s no record of this in the Scriptures. The best we can do is found in the Gospel of James, which dates back to about year 145. The Gospel of James is “apocryphal,” i.e., it doesn’t have the authority of the Scriptures but it does give us an early picture of the piety that developed around Jesus’ mother, Mary. According to the Gospel of James, Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, fervently prayed and prayed for a child, to no avail. But then they received a miraculous promise from God that Anna would conceive a child, and this child would herald God’s plan of salvation for the world. God was especially present in Mary’s life from the beginning. Two second-century teachers, Saint Irenaeus and Saint Justin Martyr, who lived at the same time as the Gospel of Thomas appeared, wrote that if Jesus is the new Adam, then Mary, his mother, is the new Eve.[i] Saint Augustine, writing in the fifth century, said that through Mary’s birth and the birth of her son, Jesus, the nature we inherit from our first parents Adam and Eve is changed from “original sin” to “original blessing.”[ii] Mary, then Jesus, change everything.
Each of the Gospels has its own way of telling how Jesus called his disciples. In today’s reading from St. Luke’s Gospel we can see how Jesus used a miraculous catch of fish as the opportunity to call the first of those who came to be his disciples.
At some point early in his ministry Jesus established Capernaum as his home, on the NW corner of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Lake of Genneseret.
Jesus had become a familiar sight as he walked along the shore of that inland sea. Because of this Peter and those fishing with him could feel comfortable with him on that day when Jesus got into one of their boats and asked them to put out into deep water and let down their nets.
The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
“Behold what you are; may we become what we receive.” With every declaration of that Eucharistic proclamation the aperture of my heart’s perception begins, O so slowly, to dilate, straining for clearer focus on the One who calls me “guest” at his gracious table. It is an invitation like nothing I have ever heard from the Altar, and it awakens a peculiar zeal for Christ’s kingdom promises.
As I went to the polls yesterday afternoon, and as I spent time with this passage in the days before—with Paul’s frustrated words of encouragement to his flock in Corinth—this Eucharistic proclamation returned to me over and over—not as an invitation, but as a dire summons: BEHOLD WHAT YOU ARE; what you really are. Paul will frequently summon us to behold what we are, especially when the dangerous spark of zeal is ignited within us; and he summons us this way, I think, to ask us what it really at the center of our heart’s aperture, without illusion or self-deception. Are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
So what do you make of the story we’ve just read from the Gospel of Luke? Do you believe in ‘demons’ or ‘unclean spirits’ that ‘possess’ people and cause physical and mental illness? Do you believe that these ‘demons’ can be ‘cast out’ and that Jesus had power over them, as this story testifies? Or do you suspect that this story so heavily reflects first-century beliefs about human behavior and illness that it has little relevance to us who live in the modern era? Is it difficult for you to make sense of “Jesus, the exorcist”?
Our ability to hear, to comprehend and to profit from accounts like this one from Luke’s gospel is certainly shaped by our modern context. On the one hand, we are enlightened people, with access to vast amounts of information about human psychology, human behavior, and human illnesses that simply did not exist in Jesus’ day. So we might naturally be skeptical about first-century assumptions about demons and demon-possession. It’s likely that we could come up with a number of other plausible explanations for what might have happened that day in the synagogue at Capernaum that would make more sense to our modern minds.
Some years ago I was sharing a conversation with my spiritual director, who was a seasoned Jesuit priest. He had risen in the ranks of leadership over the decades and, to me, was a treasury of wisdom. Reflecting on his own years in the Society of Jesus, he said to me: “Be very kind to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet these same people on your way down.” There is a word for this, a word on which we should be on good speaking terms. That word is “humility.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond the minions who otherwise surround us. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. Humus is formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material in the ground. Humility is composted from leading a well-cultivated life. I’ll come back to that.
Jesus navigated life with humility. The ancient prophecies that had anticipated the coming Messiah predicted the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”[i]Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter this kingdom of God. He says to enter “as a little child.[ii] And Jesus gives the warning, “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”[iii]Jesus was critical of those who trumpet and parade their piety, their purity, their generosity, their grandiosity, their accomplishments from the grandstand. Rather Jesus commends us to live out our lives in a very unostentatious, uncalculated way, not even letting our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing. This is the grace of humility.
1 Corinthians 1:17-25; Matthew 25:1-13
Before Scripture is read in the context of the Eastern Orthodox liturgies, the deacon comes forward and announces loudly to the assembly, “Wisdom! Let us attend!” It is as if he is saying, “If your attention has wandered off, now is the time to bring it back. Get ready!” Though I’d be hard-pressed to define wisdom in the abstract, it has a refreshingly straightforward, tangible quality when I witness it in the life of an individual person. I hear an inner voice cry, “Wisdom, let us attend!” Wise people tend to be real people, people with “street cred.” There is a quiet authority that has no need to announce itself but is obvious to anyone whose wisdom-o-meter is in good order. A truly wise woman or man possesses presence like shade on a hot day. Their whole affect communicates a life lived well, deliberately, mindfully, wholeheartedly. On my first encounters with people like this – who are, truth be told, rare – my first impulse is to grow quiet, to listen more intently, to ask questions that are simple, questions that do not waste time demonstrating how much I think I know. I become aware that time is too precious for such drivel. I become aware that I am in need of oil. This person cannot give me that oil directly (if only it were that simple!) but can show me how to find some for myself.
In today’s Gospel reading, Christ miraculously feeds a crowd of hungry people. The people recognize him as a prophet, and gather to bring him to Jerusalem to proclaim him king. Jesus responds by fleeing to the solitude of the mountains.
Let’s rephrase this telling. A crowd of people, living in a country beset by political strife, gather to march on the capital. They are eager to replace their corrupt, ineffectual, incompetent ruling classes, who spend more time arguing about the minutiae of law than they do responding to the hunger of the people for bread and for justice. They have just seen a man whom they regard as a leader, one with power and legitimate claim to authority, and they long for him to lead their movement, to lead them in their resistance to the evils of their day.
Perhaps this telling hits close to home. Gazing out on the political landscape of this country, how many of us long for justice in the face of leaders embroiled in cruelty, corruption, self-importance, and outright malice? How many of us locate in Christ the supreme example of leadership, and, comparing him to the afflictions of our country now, how many of us channel Jesus in our protestations of this state of affairs? Before I came here, I used to want to work in politics. I even ran for public office. The political environment we face at present has awakened a long-held desire of mine to enter the fray, and the convictions of my faith highlight to me just how much injustice, just how much falsehood, we currently face. If the opportunity presented itself, I too would long to crown Christ.