I spent a lot of time thinking, and pondering, and reflecting this past fall. Sometimes I simply thought about the weather, or the beauty of the scenery. Sometimes my reflections were much deeper than that, as I pondered where I had come from, and where I was going, not just that day, but in my life. A lot of the time, I thought about the path, literally, that was ahead of me.
Some of you will know that this September, I spent two weeks walking the Hadrian’s Wall Path in northern England. The Hadrian’s Wall Path, as its name suggests, is one of the great long distance walking paths in Britain, following the 85 mile route of Hadrian’s Wall, from Wallsend, just east of Newcastle, to Bowness on Solway, to the west of Carlisle. As you can imagine, walking 85 miles over the course of two weeks gives you lots of opportunity to think about any number of things.
But as I said, one of the things which I thought about, a lot, was the path itself, and more generally, the nature of paths.
2 Timothy 2:8-15 & Luke 17:11-19
The patterns of life help us predict and control the chaos of creaturely existence. But there arises inevitably the unforeseen variable. The variable may visit in the form of a disruption in a system; as a tipping point or breaking point. Or a sudden reversal or unexpected contradiction can interrupt the flow of a familiar pattern. We witness this in all fields of human experience, from economics to meteorology to evolutionary biology to poetry. The loss of control that accompanies such variables can be truly terrifying. But there is another law of creaturely existence to bear in mind: without the unforeseen variable, genuine change cannot emerge. Without the couplet at the end of the sonnet that unlocks the poem’s meaning, the reader will remain unmoved by the galloping rhyme and meter that brought her there. For us, the Holy Spirit is this change agent. The Holy Spirit is made known within us as what theologian Karl Rahner called “an interior pressure by which we become more.” Such moments are usually the cumulative effect in our praying consciousness of many seeds of grace planted and forgotten, tended in the nourishing darkness of God. Moments of becoming unfold in real time as the fruition of a pattern, but what they point to is something altogether unpredictable. We can witness them if we have eyes to see. They break upon our hearing if we are attentive to how we listen.
The authors of scripture were well-attuned to the basic momentum of the Holy Spirit, that “interior pressure to become more” pulsing within the collective life of Christ’s new Body. They interiorized and recorded the testimony of those who had witnessed, at firsthand, the great unforeseen variable of The Resurrection. The cross and empty tomb together represented the sudden reversal by which God’s wisdom and power shone forth in the least likely, promising, or predictable ways. I want to explore the ways our Epistle and our gospel text show us this relationship between the pattern and the unforeseen variable in the shape of Christian life.
St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
In the calendar of the church we remember today one of Jesus’ early followers named Philip, traditionally referred to as a Deacon and Evangelist. Most likely this Philip is not Philip the apostle, but rather a namesake, one of seven appointed by the apostles to distribute bread and alms to the widows and the poor in Jerusalem. We hear in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Philip travels south of Jerusalem to Gaza, and en route encounters an Ethiopian who is trying to make sense of the prophecy of Isaiah. Philip was obviously prepared and ready to give witness to how Isaiah was pointing to Jesus.
The church has remembered this story about Philip; however it’s less to do with the conversion of this Ethiopian. After Jesus’ resurrection, multitudes of people were converting to Christ. The importance of this story is more about Philip. He was prepared. Jesus had talked almost endlessly about being prepared almost endlessly in his teachings and parables. “Be prepared.” “Keep awake.” “Be ready.” Be ready for an encounter that awaits you. We read in the First Letter of Peter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”[i] Be ready. If you claim to be Christian, why? Not why did you become a Christian, but why have you remained a Christian? What is the good news – what is it of Jesus’ “good news” – that keeps you a follower of Jesus today?
There is a subtle and mysterious power that begins to permeate the experience of someone who is becoming acquainted with the largeness of the soul – not just “the soul” as some abstractly beautiful idea, but with the largeness of his or her own inmost self. When Walt Whitman wrote the phrase “I am large, I contain multitudes” in his epic Song of Myself, he was perhaps following his own ecstatic muse toward a version of the truth we find in the letter to the Colossians. This letter, I confess, is one of the epistles I cherish most. When I read it, the most interior, intimate, and invisible part of myself feels so palpably enlarged – and empowered. Here is a truly expansive vision of Christian identity, perhaps best summarized in the single, breath-taking phrase from its third chapter: “There is only Christ: he is everything and he is in everything.” All, everything, whole, full, fullness – these are the characteristic words of the Letter to the Colossians, words by which the reader becomes something more, someone larger than life, a person filled with Life beyond his or her own.
This Christ whose heart of love is now the center and binding agent of the whole cosmos is the one in whom the soul discovers the true measure of its wingspan. For the author of Colossians – probably not Paul, but almost certainly a disciple of Paul’s spirituality – there is a direct relationship between the expansiveness we come to know by participation in this cosmic Christ and the empowerment of the Christian. The follower of Christ knows the power of God in Christ, a power that liberates in a world filled with powers that enslave, abuse, diminish and make small.
Genesis 32: 22 – 32
Psalm 17: 1 – 8
Matthew 9: 32 – 38
It was the winter term of Grade 9, and for gym class we were being taught some of the finer points of wrestling. As I am sure you can imagine, even though I had the weight, I didn’t have the strength, the aptitude, the dexterity, or more importantly the interest, to make a wrestler. But none the less, day after day, I would be assigned a partner, and within seconds, I would be flat on the mat with my opponent once again triumphant. I don’t think I ever lasted more than a few seconds, and I am sure that I never once prevailed.
With my dismal wrestling record, I can’t really imagine what it would be like to be so evenly matched, that you could actually wrestle all through the night, before one or other prevailed, yet this is exactly what happened that night with Jacob.
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.
It was only as dawn was breaking, that Jacob’s hip joint was thrown out, and the night time contest came to an end.
Preached at Emery House
When the angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her that she will bear the son of God, we hear in Luke’s gospel that she was “much perplexed by his words” and asks “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”. Immediately after the Annunciation, Mary travels to visit Elizabeth, who also responds to this visitation with a question: not “how”, but “why” – “why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”. “Why me?”
Elizabeth is the wife of a priest, so she’s probably used to important visitors and even divine visitations in the household – just not to her. Six months ago, her husband Zechariah was chosen to offer incense in the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem. As he was standing there, separated only by a veil from the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, he was visited by an angel, and he hasn’t been able to speak ever since.
Job 38:1-11, 16-18
A world in need now summons us to labor, love, and give;
to make our life an offering to God that all may live;
the Church of Christ is calling us to make the dream come true:
a world redeemed by Christ-like love; all life in Christ made new.
Rogationtide is upon us, dear friends: a little season within a season when the church traditionally remembers and prays for the good blessings of the earth, a fruitful harvest, and freedom from agricultural calamity. While the cycle of sowing and harvest leaves a less distinctive mark on our common life than it did in our more agricultural past, the church’s act of Rogation (from the Latin, Rogare, or “to ask”) still asks our attention and reflection. As we begin to feel the impending shifts in our global climate caused by two centuries of industrialization and consumerism, the church’s inherited awareness calls us to remember that, as we brothers pray at Compline, it is God’s “unfailing providence [that] sustains the world we live in and the life we live.”This little handful of days in the church calendar is but one of the many reminders of our shared vocation as givers of thanks—thanks to God for the “wonderful works of creation,”lest, like the wealthy landowner in this morning’s gospel, we mistake the gift for the giver and miss out on the living possibilities always before us.
Why come to church? In an era of declining membership in mainline churches, in a time when more and more people – not justyoungpeople – are exercising the option not to attend church services, why do we keep coming back? What is it that we realize that we need, and that compels us to return to this place day after day, week after week?
There are many possible answers, and no doubt we would find a wide range of reasons if we polled the congregation today. Most of us would say we come first of all to worship and to give thanks to God. We realize that life is a gift – all of it –and we wantand needto return thanks to the Giver of all that we have received. Many of us would say we come to be fed by Word and Sacrament, to be nourished and strengthened by the holy gifts of Bread and Wine for the service we feel called to give in the world. Others of us come for community, to join together with people who have made a commitment to belonging to God and to following Christ. We take seriously the call to join ourselves to the Body of Christ, and we find strength in solidarity with others in this place. But here is another important reason why we come to church: We come because we realize that living as a Christian in the world is counter-cultural, and we need frequently to be remindedof that, instructedin that, and encouragedin that. When we realize that God asks us to live in ways that are often out of step with the culture that surrounds us, that God invites us to embrace and embody a different set of principles and values than the world promotes, namely the values of the kingdom of God, then we understand how much we need the support of others as we make this difficult and sometimes perilous journey upstream.
The first lesson appointed for today, the reading we heard from the Prophecy of Isaiah, begins with the words: “Here is my servant; …I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[i] Now this reading is like a supernatural transcription of what the prophet Isaiah heard from God: God’s spirit being promised to the long-awaited Messiah, and also, God’s spirit reaching to foreign nations and distant lands, to the gôyîm, the non-Jews: people like many of us. How will we know God’s presence and God’s power? What will be the evidence of God’s spirit at work, the outward sign, the fruit of God’s spirit? Justice. Justice to the nations. What will be the preeminent work and witness of the Messiah? Justice.[ii]
In the scriptures, justice is broader than what is dictated by law or custom. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due, especially the poor and the weak. The Prophet Isaiah continues, “abruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench,” which shows a kind, gentle, dignified respect for others, especially the weak.[iii] The Prophet Isaiah closes with the words: “[The Messiah and we, the Messiah’s followers] will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth…” The Messiah’s mission begins and ends with justice. The biblical understanding of justice is that everyone is given their due. Justice!
Shopping these days feels like sensory overload. We’re bombarded with messages: Your home can be the best with these trees, ornaments, garlands, and nicknacks. Here’s the present for you. Get ready—Christmas is coming! December and year round, our culture tells us to look good and to have the right stuff. That what we have and how we look determines who we are.
We want to have our living spaces in order before anyone comes over. Don’t drop by because it—and I—might not be together. This is hard for me. I have always strived to keep my rooms organized with my loose ends and junk nicely hidden under the bed, in the closet, or under carefully draped fabric.
While it may not be an orderly space, what’s particularly important to your presenting image? We’re taught to consider what we wear, the stuff we own, the people we know, the places we’ve been, and what we have done. We consider what we let others see and for what they don’t see. Get ready—someone is looking at us!
In our Gospel text, someone is coming. God comes to John in the wilderness: not a fun place out in nature, but a harsh land where few people go. John looks odd, dressed in camel’s hair eating locusts and honey as Matthew and Mark tell us. An odd man in an odd place, and lots of people came from all around the region. John is not fancy nor fashionable, but many people listen and do what he invites. John is not the awaited guest; he points to Jesus. Get ready—God is coming!