Depending on the Bible you have, todays gospel lesson may contain a couple of jarring section headings. Mine says, “Coming Persecutions” and “Whom to fear.” These instructions that Jesus gives as he sends out his first apostles are nothing short of harrowing. They are not just warning of things that may happen, but rather foreknowledge of what will happen. They are honest and direct ways of describing what it is that the apostles would very soon face. James and John whom we remember today did indeed drink the cup of suffering for the gospel, and the faithful of every generation have found these warnings an apt description of their own experience when they were sent.
The followers of Christ in every age have had to contend with their own most pressing issues. Loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves have never been without challenge. There have often been warring political factions that demand utmost purity and allegiance. Our skin, our bodies, our place in society, have often been the battlegrounds of human conflict. Today they have their own particular slogans, banners, and champions.
Sermon for Independence Day, 2020
Deut. 10:17-21; Matt. 5:43-48
It seems quite a natural thing to have warm feelings for one’s homeland. Even today, when the majority of Americans report that they don’t feel proud of their country right now, most of us still feel a strong bond of connection and devotion to this land and to this nation. All of us have been stirred to pride by parts of our collective history, and all of us have felt the shame of other parts of our story. There have been times when we have been leaders in the world and models of courage and compassion, and other times when as a nation, we have been dishonest, scheming, and manipulative; when we have flexed our power to achieve and maintain a place of supremacy in the world at the expense of peoples and nations who are weaker and poorer. Experiencing this mixture of pride and shame can root us in a place of humility, where we can acknowledge the great gifts this country has given to the world, and at the same time look honestly and regretfully at its equally great shortcomings and sins.
We must never leave this place of humility, and always be on guard against arrogance and pride. There are some of us who have put devotion to our country above all else, refusing to acknowledge its failures and valuing it more highly that it deserves. Patriotism is our religion, and America is the god we worship. Others of us see nothing but failures and injustices, refusing to recognize the goodness in our fellow countrymen and in the institutions we have created for our governance. We find ourselves mired in apathy, cynicism and negativity.
As Christians we are bound to remember that we belong first and foremost not to our country, but to God. Our true citizenship is in the kingdom of heaven. Our identity as people of God takes priority over our national identity. We pledge allegiance to God alone.
Jesus does not sugarcoat his words in today’s Gospel. He tells us that the road we have to walk is hard. There is no way around it. Life will not always be easy. Such brutal honesty from Jesus may seem jarring, but he is preparing his disciples for the long journey ahead of them in which they certainly face hard times.
When I was a senior in college, I went to bed one night with a slight pain in my left leg. I thought I was just sore from exercising. I woke up the next morning and my leg had swollen to the point that I could barely walk. Soon after I started sweating and shivering uncontrollably.
The first doctor I saw in the hospital walked into my room holding the biggest syringe I had ever seen. The syringe looked like a water bottle with a comically oversized needle on one end and a plunger on the other. He explained that he had to drain my leg immediately and there was no time for anesthesia. Then he looked me in the eye and told me that this was going to be painful.
My memories of that week in the hospital are a blur now, but I still remember the tone of voice the doctor used as he lovingly did not sugarcoat telling me what pain I was about to feel. Jesus has the same love for us disciples when he tells us that the road we will walk in his name will be hard. The straight and narrow path will never be pain free.
Acts 28:16-20, 30-31
I finished a novel the other day. It was a really good one. And now that it’s over I’m left a bit forlorn. I would have loved this one to be a big multi-book series that could get turned into 8 or 9 movies. But it’s not. And it’s over now. As we’ve been working our way through this final chapter of John I’ve had the same kind of feelings I have at the end of a book or a great film. This longing for more, one more scene, one more chapter.
I think I must have been around 19 years old when I first heard someone talk about this passage at the end of John and it has stuck with me for 20 years. “There are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
The good news of Jesus continues to be written on your hearts, in your lives among those you share life with. You are the gospel of Christ. And not in some gauzy, divine essence hidden in the deepest cavern of your soul. The good news of Jesus is present and active in the tangible ways that you have been met by love. In the ways that you have been rescued from sin and shame. In the ways that love has defied the pattern of this world and transformed you by the renewing of your mind in Christ. And it does keep going.
I can’t say that this feels like some glittering moment of grace. Right now, I feel more like one of those bumbling disciples, just not quite getting it, struggling to make sense of where I am. And it’s painful and confusing. But I keep showing up. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home.
Ephesians 2: 11-22
‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are members of God’s household.’ This is the Good News that Paul is proclaiming in his letter to the Ephesians: it’s the good news of the Gospel: that we who were once strangers have now come to live in God’s home. And this has all happened through the gift of Christ’s dying for us on the Cross. The Cross, for Paul, is the most wonderful expression of God’s generous love for us, and the most radical expression of God’s extraordinary hospitality.
A few months ago, I was living in Colombia. And whoever it was I stayed with showed me extraordinary hospitality. The first thing they invariably said to me by way of welcome was that wonderful Spanish phrase, ‘Mi casa es su casa’: ‘my home is your home’. And Paul is telling us in this letter that God’s generosity is so overflowing, that he longs for each one of us, whoever we are, whether we feel like a stranger, or unworthy, God longs for us to ‘come home’, to come and live with God forever. You could say that the whole Gospel is about God inviting and welcoming each one of us with these gracious words, ‘Mi casa es su casa’: ‘my home is your home.’ Jesus came to offer us that very invitation. In John’s Gospel chapter 14, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘In my father’s house there are many rooms. I am going to prepare a place for you, and then I will come and take you there, so that where I am you may be also.’ ‘Mi casa es su casa!’ God’s extraordinary hospitality. And look who he invites! All sorts; tax collectors, outcasts, sinners, like you and me. ‘Let them all come in. There’s room for everyone in my house’.
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we are told in great detail where the Apostle Paul traveled on his missionary journeys, a very detailed itinerary during just one season of his life. Why? The Apostle Paul has been traveling with Silas in Syria and Cilicia. They went on to Derbe, then met up with Timothy in Lystra, then to Phrygia, then Galatia. (Why? Because they could not go to Asia.) Then opposite Mysia, they attempted to enter Bithynia, (but were forbidden) so they went down to Troas… and then, because Paul had a dream, they set off to Macedonia… and on and on it goes. Why? Why are we given this endless travelogue? Three reasons.
The most obvious reason is the very reason we do this. If there’s someone we know and love who has been away from us traveling, we want to know all about it. “Where did you go?” “What did you see?” “Who did you meet?” “What impressed you the most?” We want to get current with people we love who have been away from us.
A second reason is that Saint Paul’s readers were an oppressed and persecuted minority. They needed the encouragement that their faith in Jesus was catching fire. If you are suffering, and there’s no immediate remedy for your suffering, the next best thing is to know you are not alone. So the story, this travelogue, is told for the sake of others’ encouragement.
I just finished reading a marvelous book, Dancing with Sherman. Sherman is a donkey. Ostensibly, the book is about donkey-racing with their human partners in the Amish-Mennonite country of Pennsylvania. Sherman is a real winner. In actuality, the book is about trust, the interdependence of trust woven into the whole of creation. The author, Christopher McDougall, writes that “donkeys operate on one frequency – trust. They do nothing on faith, but everything on certainty.”[i] Donkeys operate on trust, not faith. We have the capacity for both, for both trust and faith.
Trust and faith are related. They’re like cousins. Faith operates with the eyes of our heart.[ii] We read in The Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[iii] Faith… the conviction of things not seen. Faith in God is a gift from God, though it’s not based on evidence. Faith is a kind of inner knowing. Which is why so many people – even in the face of tremendous fear or overwhelming suffering, even now – have not lost their faith in God. Many people’s faith in God is awakened in suffering, which is such a paradox. In our opening prayer,the Collect for today, we ask God to “open the eyes of our faith” to behold God. The eyes of our faith is a kind of inner seeing, which can even be contrary to the evidence we actually see. Saint Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.”[iv]It was Saint Anselm of Canterbury who, in the 11th century, described the preeminence of faith as coming from the heart, not the mind: “faith seeking understanding,” he said.[v]
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!’