Have you heard the news? That question often makes my heart sink, because it’s usually bad news! The year started with the violent attack on the US Capitol. Then all those cataclysmic climate events, racial attacks, mass shootings, a deeply broken and divided nation and world. And perhaps most disheartening of all, the devastating effects of the Covid virus. Such a diet of bad news, day after day, can profoundly affect the way that we see our own lives. We can look back over this year and see only the bad news: bad news for ourselves, our families, our lives.
And if certain newspapers, eager for a story, honed in on you, wanting to dig up some bad news about you, that you’d rather the public didn’t know, I wonder what they would find? They would likely find something sooner or later, because there is bad news about all of us, if you look hard enough: things we have done or said, which we maybe wished we hadn’t, and which we’d hate to be made known.
But today is Christmas. We are here to celebrate GOOD NEWS; wonderful, joyful good news. Not make believe, or wishful thinking. The good news is this: that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ Yes, there is darkness – God knows there is darkness, darkness and all sorts of sinful, hurtful, shameful things in all of us and in our society. But the good news is that when God looks closely at you and at me, he is not like that newspaper looking for bad news. When God looks at us he looks at us with the eyes of love. Just as when you look at the person you love, you see how lovely they are: all that is beautiful and good about them. And when the person we love – our spouse, our children, our partner, our brother – when they are in trouble, or mess up, or fail an exam, or lose a job, or do something stupid or wrong, we don’t point the finger at them, or condemn them, or tell everyone about it. No, we love them even more, and we do everything in our power to help them – because we love them. And when things go wrong we love them all the more.
In the Holy Land, there is much solid rock, whether exposed, under a couple inches or under ten or more feet of soil. To build, one digs down however far it takes to use the foundation of solid rock. People build in the summer when it is dry not raining, yet it is hot. It is very hard work to break through the clay and dig down to solid rock. One may be tempted to skip the harder part, yet a sure foundation is essential to survive the winter floods.[i]
Jesus said, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.” Hearing and doing Jesus’ words take great effort, like digging down through hard clay under hot sun. This parable ends Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke and another version ends the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.[ii] Jesus ends with a call for necessary, risky, costly action.
My mother grew up, at least in the summers, with her Methodist minister grandfather who was quite a strict Sabbatarian. As a grown woman she remembered the Sundays of her childhood as full of rules, regulations, and restrictions. She could not swim unless it was over 100 degrees. She was not allowed to call on her friends but had to sit quietly with her younger sister reading. Sunday dinner, which had been cooked the day before and in spite of being kept warm in the oven, was cold, overcooked and tasteless. To me, and obviously to her as she spoke of it, it sounded dreadful.
Today’s gospel pulls us in to yet another confrontation between Jesus and a group of Pharisees. This time the argument is about sabbath keeping. It’s an argument I think my mother would understand.
It’s easy for us read this passage and once again to vilify the Pharisees, setting them up over and against Jesus, and always on the loosing side. Rather than doing that, let’s dig around and see what we can discover about the nature of the sabbath, and the point Jesus might have been trying to assert.
Our lesson from the Book of Genesis recalls Jacob on his deathbed. To listen to him recounting his life, claiming his lineage with Abraham and Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, in the presence of his sons, and naming the ancestral ground on which he wants to be buried is quite beautiful. This is noble, faithful Jacob at the end of his life. But this is not the picture of Jacob in is younger years: Jacob, the schemer and the cheat, who behaved so disreputably with his very family. The psalmist remembers Jacob: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” But in the verses before that, the psalmist speaks quite biographically about Jacob, “Though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea…The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”[i] In his younger years, Jacob’s ambitious, disreputable life had come toppling down, and then, over his lifetime, he was rescued by God.
Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, writes about our conversion being lifelong. Lifelong conversion can seem onerous and full of duty and repentance on our part.[ii] I am daily reminded of my own need for ongoing conversion. I am a work-in-progress, and there’s plenty of work to be done. You, too, may know about this. But lifelong conversion also comes with the hope that God is at work in our lifetime, going back in our past, undoing, remaking, redeeming, reforming what was lost, spent, and misdirected. Father Benson speaks the comforting words, that “we cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.” God draws us on. Which is clearly the picture of Jacob, and a hope for us.
[i] Psalm 46:1-4.
[ii] Richard Meux Benson, SSJE (1824–1915).
No one can serve two masters.
I cannot quite remember when it started, but for some time now during Chapter Office (when we brothers gather daily to hear a chapter of our Rule) I have been following along in a German translation. While this practice has certainly helped my facility with the German language, it has also (rather unexpectedly) offered me intriguing new points of entry into the spirit of our Rule that I would not have noticed otherwise. A peculiar word choice on the translator’s part or even the simple encounter of a thought ordered to a different grammar, will invite a curiosity for my praying imagination.
Recently I noticed that, while our English original makes great use of the English’s expansive word “worship,” (from the old English worth-ship) the German text uses a word much more limited in its meaning: Dienen, or “to serve.” As I sat these last few days with the readings we just heard, I found myself put in mind of this linguistic oddity as I tried to hear Matthew’s Jesus with fresh ears. No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
Aside from a handful of exceptions, every translation of this passage I consulted uses the same words, “to serve” as a gloss for Matthew’s doulein. This feels especially significant to me on a day of Marian devotion, like today. For the verb Matthew uses here grows from the same root as a noun used by Luke in the first chapter of his gospel in a phrase often translated “behold, the handmaid (doulē) of the Lord.”
No one can serve two masters.
I believe we can miss a deeper lesson behind these words if we simply hear them within the more limited frame of a concept like Dienen. The dynamic described by Jesus here—of split motivations, of devotion and spite—attests to his deep knowledge our humanity in all its frailty and weakness—and, equally, of its innate inclination for worship.
What is really at stake for Matthew’s Jesus here is worship—worth-ship, that is, where we put our ultimate worth. You cannot worship God and wealth, says Jesus. Likewise, we may hear him continue, you cannot worship God and your ego; you cannot worship God and pleasure; you cannot worship God and… any good thing. For I do not hear Jesus saying wealth is itself bad. Wealth is a good, as is of course pleasure or any other gift of creation. But it cannot be served—worshipped—alongside God. Worship is, then, about much more than what we do together in church.
This service, this worship is embodied for us in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her obedience to God’s call, as she bore Christ to the world, she gave us all an example of true worship—of a life in its wholeness, grounded in the worth given not by created things, but by the Creator of all things. In her companionship, she shares this very worship with us as she prays for her children, the Body of Christ. In her example, she discloses a life lived in a humble awareness of one’s limitations, finitude, and dependence. A life that listens eagerly for the voice of God. A life in service of but one master.
Saturday in Proper 7B | The Blessed Virgin Mar
 Matthew 6:24
 Luke 1:38
Bread is ordinary, daily, for most people necessary nourishment, and a key symbol of our salvation. Remember the unleavened bread of the Exodus. God delivered our ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Pushed out, they had to leave quickly, without time for their bread to rise or make other provisions. All they had was their daily dough, and they could not prepare it as they were accustomed. They had to leave “before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.”[i]
Remember manna in the wilderness. God provided ancient Israel with bread from heaven in the wilderness for forty years. Our parents asked: “What is it?” God said take a measure of this bread from heaven every morning. More will come tomorrow. Don’t hoard it. I will give you enough.[ii]
Remember earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus turned a few loaves and fish into a meal for thousands. Followed by a crowd, Jesus raised the question of how to feed them. The disciples said: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread.” Jesus said: “Make the people sit down. … Jesus gave thanks and distributed the food, … as much as they wanted.”[iii]
Psalm 139:1—5, 12—17
From the time I first encountered it in earnest, this season of the church year has always spoken to me of identity. In particular, the play between the way we see our identities and the way God sees our identities.
On January 6, the Church kept the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, celebrating the manifestation of God to the world in Jesus. As she did, she called to mind (at least in the western rites) the story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. A story about an identity: the fullness of God’s identity, present in the frailty of a defenseless, dependent child.
As she kept the Feast of the Baptism of Christ on the Sunday that followed, she recalled yet another story about identity: the human identity into which God desired to be baptized in the flesh of Jesus beneath the waters of the Jordan River. The humanity into which Righteousness itself was pleased to be plunged and drowned. The humanity with which, by that act, God became unmistakably and eternally bound.
These two feasts are recognized in the lectionary as solemnities. They can sometimes pass us by in the daze that follows the whirlwind of Chistmastide, but they frontload the season of Epiphany with these themes of identity. I find it a grace that the lectionary does this in this way. And this year in particular. For as the Church celebrated the display of God’s presence in the world before the Gentile Magi on January 6, her eyes beheld a different kind of epiphany as violence swept through the Capitol. It was an epiphany of the very brokenness and division into which God deigned to be submerged.
The Baptism of Christ
I have a box in my room where I keep all my precious documents. You probably have something similar. These documents, such as passports, birth certificates, ordination papers, for many, marriage certificates, these documents are all very precious because they tell us what we belong to and who we belong to. That’s incredibly important, because belonging gives us our sense of identity. These documents remind me of who I am. Among the most precious of documents for me are my two passports. Whenever I hold these passports I have an enormous sense of gratitude to God that my own life, my very identity, has been formed by the traditions and values of two different nations.
Our core identity is intimately bound up with the values of the country to which we belong; so, when we see these values violated, as we have seen on Capitol Hill during these past days, we feel a visceral shock to our very core.
Belonging and identity are so bound together, that an even worse experience is to actually have your ‘belonging’ taken away. I will never forget a time of ministry some years ago in South Dakota, when I spoke with some elderly native Americans who told me the harrowing story of how they had been made to leave their ancestral lands and at school were forbidden to speak their native language. ‘We don’t belong here anymore’ they said. How terrible to belong nowhere and belong to no one. Those sad and haunted eyes we have seen on the TV of refugees, thrown out of their country, ‘cleansed’ or fled in terror from their homes and from a country where they are told they don’t belong.
In the year 2006, author John Koenig began a writing project based on his observation that there were no words to describe certain common existential feelings and emotions. These holes in the language inspired him to research etymologies, prefixes, suffixes and root words which resulted in a weblog of neologisms and their definitions (a neologism being a newly coined word or expression that has not quite found its way into common use). John defines the word lutalica as: the part of your identity that doesn’t fit into categories. Koenig posits that when we are born, we immediately get labeled, categorized, and put into box for the convenience of never having to go to the trouble of looking inside. In this way, we lose a sense of who we are and begin searching elsewhere for our identity. In regards to this dissonance, he writes: “We all want to belong to something. But part of you is still rattling around inside these categories and labels that could never do you justice.”[i]
In our reading from the Letter of James, the author has given us an admonition about distinctions. It is not about the eradication of distinctions. Distinction in the basic sense is simply the quality or state of being distinguishable. If we take a good look at the world around us we can see the rich diversity of God’s creation, and we show forth that same diversity. In Genesis we read that on the sixth day of creation, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” That word ‘our,’ points to the complex creation of a God whose very nature is diverse.
This morning Jesus speaks to us of a heavenly wisdom, personified in a group of (rather human sounding) women before a (rather human sounding) wedding. I admit I am always a little startled when Jesus uses wedding imagery to illustrate the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Yet he does so with notable frequency. For his contemporaries, as for us, there is a familiarity here.
“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’”