I moved into the monastery on January 9th, 2017, about a week and a half before the inauguration of the current president. Several friends told me I was very lucky, as they couldn’t imagine a better time to enclose oneself away from the troubles and instabilities of the world, insulated from a constant torrent of news coverage.
They weren’t completely wrong. But I must confess, I speak today from a place of intense distraction, here in the midst of the longest and most stressful election of my lifetime. But it’s not just the fault of the media. Nobody requires me to have multiple tabs open on my computer, reading through various news sources, then, when I get to the end, going back to the first and refreshing the page, “just in case.”
No, the voracious consumption of this stuff is a symptom, not a cause. An unending appetite for junk points to a deeper dissatisfaction, deep-seated feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, isolation, confusion, frustration. I think our culture right now is very prone to this. And maybe your “junk” is not election news. Maybe it’s news about the coronavirus. Maybe it’s not news media, but the endless stimulation of social media. Maybe it’s work, ceaselessly giving yourself external tasks to complete. Or maybe it’s more embodied; maybe it’s alcohol, or porn, or literal junk food. It doesn’t matter. Maybe I didn’t list yours here, but there are myriad varieties of this experience, and I am convinced that they come from the same source of division, dissatisfaction, and a desire to be comforted in our inmost fears.
The scholarly journal, the “International Bulletin of Mission Research,” has for more than thirty years compiled an annual table of Christian martyrs. The journal defines martyrs as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”
Martyr. The journal’s estimate: in the last 10 years, 900,000 Christians have been killed worldwide for their witness to Christ. That’s, on average, 90,000 Christians martyred each year during this past decade.[i]
The English word “martyr” comes from both Latin and Greek, the word “martyr” translated as “witness.” May we be spared shedding our blood as a martyr; nonetheless, there will be countless occasions to give “witness” to Christ. There will be more than a few opportunities for us to “lay down our life” for someone, another child of God, probably even today. The invitation may not be in an act of heroism – no shedding of blood – but more likely in a very mundane and rather hidden way.
Certain people who – as we say – absolutely “kill us,” we will have the occasion to show kindness or to forgive. We will be invited, undoubtedly, to offer the generosity of our tried patience; the withholding of our judgment; the readiness to be helpful and not hurtful, or retiring or rebuffing; the opportunity to bless and not to curse. Not everyone, we pray, will face John the Baptist’s fate; but all of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior will be invited to die more than once, maybe more than once even today. To die. Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will not bear fruit.”[ii] We’re to be fruitful. Something will need to die for us to be fruitful. Whether it be something great or something puny that we are sorely tempted to clutch at and save at all costs may need to die. It may be some image of ourselves, some impression, or decision, or resolution, or privilege, or fear, or time that we feel is our rightful possession. It’s going to get in the way of life, what Jesus calls “abundant life,” if we don’t let it go, don’t surrender it, don’t let it die.[iii] Today will probably be a “killer” in the working out of our salvation and in our claiming the “abundant life” promised by Jesus.
In the SSJE Brothers’ Rule of Life, we speak of our identification with martyrdom, not because we are monks, but because we are baptized. In our baptismal vows, we profess that we “have died with Christ and are raised with him.” Jesus promises us resurrection power. We have to die before we rise, before we can claim his resurrection power. Die, again, and again, and again, we must die.
[i] See the International Bulletin of Mission Research, 2018 study: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2396939317739833
[ii] John 12:24.
[iii] Jesus speaks of “abundant life” in John 10:10.
Mark 4: 35 – 41.
Some of you will know that this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the theft of a number of art treasures from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. It was the night of 19 March 1990 that two thieves, dressed at Boston policemen, broke into the museum, stole 13 paintings, and literally vanished into thin air. It’s the biggest art theft in American history, and no trace has ever been found of either paintings, or the men. Still to this day, because of the terms of Mrs. Gardner’s will, which stipulates nothing can be moved or changed, you can go to the museum and see the empty frames where the paintings once hung.
One of those stolen paintings was Rembrandt’s 1633 oil on canvas painting of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.
If you have ever been caught in a storm on a body of water, you’ll know exactly how terrifying they can be. The world seems to be moving every which way, all at the same time, and there is nothing between you and certain death by drowning except what seems to be a flimsy bit of wood or metal, even if the vessel you are on is a great ocean going liner.
The terror on the faces of the disciples in Rembrandt’s painting is clear, as they strain at the oars, or try to control the sails. Yet in the midst of this is a calm Jesus, roused from his sleep with the urgent query, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ Matthew’s version of this same story has an even greater sense of urgency, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’
Luke 5: 12-16
“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”
All four of the gospels give us tell-tale signs of a distinct pattern in Jesus’s own rhythm of life: his withdrawal into solitary places for prayer. The word in Greek can mean to slip away quietly, to go back, to go aside: it literally means to vacate or make space down, perhaps a bit like how we say, ‘My schedule will free up in a few days.’ The word withdraw can have rather negative connotations in English: to take something away after it has been offered; or to stop supporting someone, like a political candidate. People go into withdrawal if they stop taking an addictive drug: the end result will be freedom from addiction, but in the meantime, great suffering is in store. To describe someone as withdrawn is not a positive assessment.
If some of you are scratching your head, feeling a little deja vu all over again, as some comic put it, there’s little wonder. We have been hit this past week with a double dose of Maccabees, and today that double dose is doubled, by the fact that we read, more or less, the same lesson at Morning Prayer, as we have just heard here in the Eucharist. So no, you’re not dreaming, and no the reader did not make a mistake. We actually did read portions of 1 Maccabees for the second time today.
So what is it with all this Maccabees stuff?
In a nutshell Israel and Judea have been occupied once again by Gentile forces. Observance of the Law has been banned. Circumcision has been outlawed. Jews are forced to eat pork. The Temple, as we heard at Morning Prayer, has been desecrated. But a small band of faithful Jews, led by Judas Maccabeus, rise up in revolt, push back the Gentile forces, rededicate the temple, as we have just read, and re-establish Jewish worship and customs. It is out of this story that comes the Feast of Hanukah, which Jews keep to this day.
The question for us is, why should we care? And I assure you, Christians have cared passionately about this story for centuries. Indeed in some places a feast of the Maccabean Martyrs is kept on 1 August. Curiously this feast of the Maccabean Martyrs was one of the few pre-Reformation feasts that was kept in the early Books of Common Prayer. So the story of the Maccabeans, is part of our DNA not only as Christians, but also as Anglicans.
What captured the imagination of the early Church, as well as people of faith on both sides of the Reformation divide, was the story of the woman with seven sons described in 2 Maccabees 7. In this story a mother of seven sons is forced to watch, as each of her sons, one after the other is tortured, and killed, for refusing to abandon the Law and eat pork. Some point to this story as the source for Hebrews 11: women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. It is the steadfastness of the mother, and the courage of the sons, that holds our attention. Do not fear this butcher, she exhorts one son. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.
It is this faithfulness in the face of torture, and death, as a witness to the resurrection that makes the story of the Maccabeans, not simply a curious appendage to Scripture, but a pattern of life for people of faith.
We say in our Rule of Life that [the] grace to surrender our lives to God through our vows has been given to us in Baptism whereby we die with Christ and are raised with him. It is the same grace that gives strength to martyrs to submit gladly to death as witnesses of the resurrection. From the beginning monks and nuns have been encouraged to understand their own commitment in the light of the freedom and trust that enables martyrs to give up their lives to the glory of God. The witness of the martyrs should never be far from our minds as we go forward in the vowed life day by day.
And that is why we should care.
Since the beginning of the Christian Church, women and men of faith have suffered death at the hands of others, not as a sign of surrender, or defeat, but as a witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Like the Maccabeans, by their death, the martyrs declare that they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
As followers of Jesus, our witness is to his resurrection. For most of us that witness is the witness of baptism, whereby we die daily to our sin and pride, so that we may rise in Christ. For some of us, it will mean giving up our lives to the glory of God. In either case we do so in the confidence of a sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, as we say in the burial rite, and that’s why we should care about the Maccabeans today.
Homily preached by Brother James Koester in the Monastery Chapel, Friday, 22 November 2019
1 Maccabees 4: 36 – 37, 52 – 59
 The First Lesson at both Morning Prayer and the Eucharist this week (Proper 28) have been readings from 1 and 2 Maccabees.
 1 Maccabees 4: 36 – 59
 Hebrews 11: 35
 2 Maccabees 7: 29
 SSJE, Rule of Life, Life Profession, chapter 39, page 79
 Hebrews 11: 16
 Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 501
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.