Holy Name Day
‘Come here Geoffrey!’ Someone shouted that to their child in the supermarket the other day and I jumped! They weren’t talking to me, but I jumped when I heard my name. When someone uses your name, you notice; it’s a sign that they know us. When they use our first name, our given name, it means a degree of intimacy.
Today is the first day of a New Year – the Year of our Lord 2021, and we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. We give thanks that through Jesus we have been given the gift of intimacy with God. St Paul tells us that, ‘God has sent the Spirit of his son Jesus into our hearts, crying Abba, Father.’ We have the wonderful privilege as Christians of being able to pray to our Father with the same closeness and intimacy which Jesus has with his Father – to make our prayer ‘in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.’
Throughout Scripture, God’s use of names is very important, and part of God’s act of creation. In the account of creation in Genesis, whenever God calls each part of creation into being he calls it by a name.: ‘He called the light day, the darkness night.’ But God goes on creating right through the pages of Scripture. Most notably he takes men and women and carries on creating them throughout their lives. God enters a person’s life and draws gifts and qualities out of them which they could hardly have dreamt of, and as a sign of this he calls them by a new name. God calls Abram and makes a covenant with him. He will be the father of a multitude of nations, and will be called ‘Abra-ham’, which means ‘father of a multitude.’ Jacob wrestles with an angel all night long, and in the morning the angel blesses him and says, ‘You have striven with God and prevailed – you shall now be called ‘Israel’. The name ‘Isra-el’ means ‘striven with God’, and the word ‘El’ means ‘God’. So, Jacob actually receives the name of God into his new name. What an extraordinary act of intimacy.
So when’s the last time you were in a crowd of seventy people? It’s probably been a while, maybe eight months or so. Jesus was speaking to a crowd of seventy disciples in today’s Gospel. Seventy people is not a huge crowd, it’s about half the capacity of our chapel, but it’s no small get together either. These disciples were early Christians ready to go out on mission ahead of Christ to prepare his way. These disciples were not a casual crew, they were ready to die for the cause, and some of them would. Starting a speech to such a crowd demands a solid opening line.
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” In other words, roll up your sleeves and get ready to work. Jesus knew he was short staffed and the work was going to pile up. There was no time for self-pity. There was no room for laziness. This was going to be tough work.
Genesis 3:9-15, 20
Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Those of you who have joined us at one point or another for one of our meals, will know that most of the time, on most days, we listen to the reading of a book during the meal. It’s only on Sundays, Tuesdays and some feast days that we share in conversation. A number of years ago, our book of choice was a little denser than we normally read at meals, as we read Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin. Mother of God was a heavy read, and as we joked at the time, in the end we knew more about Mary than she knew about herself! One of the underlying themes of the book was that before she became known as the Mother of God, before she became known as the Queen of Heaven, she was simply Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus. In essence, underlying all the titles, and the various devotions, that is who she was, and that is who she remains, Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that young girl of Nazareth. It is a feast not spoken of in scripture but one deeply rooted in the tradition of the Church from ancient times, and one which says as much about us, and our life in God, as it does about Mary herself, and her life in God. So while the focus today is on Mary, we see in her the source, and ground, of our own life of faith. In looking at Mary we gaze not outwardly, or even upwardly, but inwardly to our own adoption as children of God because it is there that we find Mary’s true vocation, and ours as well, to be the adopted daughters and sons of God.
Deuteronomy 30:11-14 :: Romans 10:8b-18 :: John 1:35-42
How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news.
Today is the last day of the church year, and, coincidentally, the day the church remembers Saint Andrew the apostle and his response to the call of God in Jesus Christ.
If you have been keeping up with the readings in our Ordo, you will notice that the gospel we just heard is not the one prescribed for this morning’s liturgy. The reading originally set for the Holy Eucharist today comes from the fourth chapter of Matthew, where we read that Andrew and his brother, Simon Peter, were fishermen. In Matthew’s account, Jesus meets them at their nets: “follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
While I absolutely love the scene as Matthew records it, the reading prescribed for Evening Prayer—which we have just heard from the gospel of John—has caught my praying attention in a different way. We see something deeper and more searching in the figure of Andrew in this Johannine account; something worth meditating on as we recall the year behind us.
Given that Br. Luke (our acolyte today) went to a lot of trouble learning how to pronounce all those difficult names, I feel it’s only right that we should reflect on the lesson from Nehemiah this morning.
It might help to first establish a context for these words. You may remember that early in the 6th century B.C.E., the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians. It was a devastating defeat. The temple at Jerusalem was completely destroyed, as was the city itself, and the majority of the people were carried off into captivity. Only a small remnant remained. The period of exile lasted 70 years, and gave rise to the book of Lamentations and to several psalms of lament – Psalm 137, for example: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion” (Psalm 137:1). In the year 538 B.C.E., Babylon was conquered by the Medes and Persians. The Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, was a wise and compassionate man who not only gave the Israelites permission to begin returning home, but also provided the resources they needed to rebuild the temple. A first wave of exiles left Babylon to return to Judah.
It took over eighty years before a second group of exiles returned to Jerusalem, led by the prophet Ezra, in 455 B.C.E. Ten years after this second group departs, we find Nehemiah, a Jew still living in Persia, serving as cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes. Nehemiah hears a report that deeply troubles him: the Israelites are still struggling to establish themselves in their home country. They have managed to rebuild the temple, but the walls around Jerusalem are still in ruins. After four months of prayer, Nehemiah decides to risk approaching the king. He asks for permission to return to Jerusalem with a third group of exiles, with the expressed purpose of rebuilding the city’s walls.
If you have kept a journal with any regularity at any point in your life, you’ll know that reading old journal entries can be a little risky. Whenever I meet people who journal, I like to ask if they read what they wrote a year, or two years, or ten years ago. Some visibly cringe at this thought. From the vantage point of the present self, that past self narrates a story that begs not to be revisited, either because it no longer rings true, or it still rings all too true. And all of it is expressed in yesterday’s language, bristling with a permanently adolescent awkwardness. But once, when I was leading a men’s retreat, I witnessed a man read aloud from a journal entry he had written thirty years ago – in his mid-twenties. He prefaced his reading by saying that he found most of it woefully embarrassing, decidedly cringe-worthy, but that revisiting that self – and the intensity of that self’s first desire for God – was crucial to reconnecting with God in the present. He was approaching a mellowed maturity, but sought an understanding of God that he could only arrive at by praying through the lens of his first fervor. A group of twelve men – myself included – listened with rapt attention and respect.
When I imagine the apostles James and John overhearing this gospel passage each time we read it in church, I wonder if they cringe in embarrassment at a past self, still full of fervor but struggling to lay hold of understanding. I then realize that I am the one who is embarrassed on their behalf, as I conjure up my own moments of misguided zeal. I wonder if Matthew wasn’t a little embarrassed on their behalf. Mark places this audacious request in their own mouths: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Matthew presents it as a favor sought from Jesus by their mother: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” In her great love, a mother can be excused for saying embarrassing things in public on behalf of her children.
Jesus is realistic with them. They have made a very adult request of him – too adult, in fact, too full of the world’s ambition and a worldly conception of privilege and prestige that colors their still emerging notion of the kingdom of God, where one must become humble like a child. But in reply, Jesus treats them like spiritual adults: “You do not know what you are asking.” I see his faint smile, completely free of condescension or judgement, turn into a look of utmost sobriety as he looks them both directly in the eyes, assessing their readiness, knowing that one is never ready. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” Jesus has seen their first fervor, the sudden zeal with which they stepped from the fishing boat of their father Zebedee into his tutelage and his care. He now honors that first fervor in their all-too-teenaged reply: “We are able.”
It is a grave moment of consent, to participate in their Master’s glory to some unknown degree, in some mysterious measure. It is at least clear that this will entail suffering. It is a statement of bold trust – even if its utterance is still ninety-percent aspiration, saturated with what a friend of mine who is both a priest and a mother calls an “over-realized eschatology.”
James and John don’t know it yet, but “We are able” may well be the shortest, simplest, most direct, most honest prayer of their lives. It is not, as they believe in the moment, their consent to a condition that will fulfill and validate their first fervor. Rather, it is a prayer that expresses the truest, noblest, and holiest intention of their lives, a prayer that will never be fully translatable on this side of heaven; a prayer that fulfills their vocation in God.
James and John have heard our version of their story many times. In the heart of Jesus, I imagine that they are held beyond first fervor or mellowed maturity, but in eternity, see through the lens of both simultaneously, and can say with the assurance of the saints, “We were never able. But because he took us at our word – our own impossible words – he made us worthy.” Blessed James and John, whom we remember today.
The Spirit spoke, Philip ran, the Eunuch asked, teaching began, water appeared, the chariot halted, baptism happened, lives were changed.
In my experience, conversion and discipleship are rarely this efficient but the elements, the rhythm, the signs are familiar. I recognize the irreducible miracle of spiritual mentoring and good teaching because I have received it. Faithful women and men have come alongside my messy, ordinary life at just the right moment. When God shows up between a mentor and a seeker, the sum is infinitely greater than the parts and everyone is changed forever. Who was your Philip? Who is your Philip today?
Is it any wonder that the account of the Ethiopian Eunuch is a template for the ancient Christian discipleship process, what the church calls “the catechumenate?” The word “catechumen” is from Biblical Greek, meaning “one who sounds out something.” The catechumenate is a supportive and encouraging environment in which an inquirer makes a series of informed decisions to journey through to Christian initiation. We see here, in this passage from Acts, the dynamic interaction between community, scripture, and sacrament that produces a living ecosystem in which transformation and growth occur.
When the people of God are listening, paying disciplined attention to the Lectionary, bringing their deepest longings into Liturgy and looking out for signs of Life, then the Holy Spirit calls seekers to appear, teachers to emerge, Christians are formed, and vocations are discerned. For seekers to turn and bring their longings toward the Church, the Church must be intentionally showing and sharing the Gospel with the world. If the church is to be a sign of Life — a magnet for the God-given longing in all people to reconcile with God and with one another — then the Church must speak its abundant life in the terms of the times. As Anglicans, we are at our best when we engage the signs of our times with the signs of eternal life.
(The Sending of the Seventy)
Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20
Given what the gospels report about Jesus’ twelve disciples – how they were often slow to comprehend the message of the kingdom, and repeatedly failed to live by its principles – it seems to me that Jesus is taking quite a risk here in commissioning these seventy to go out as his representatives. If the twelve he had chosen to be his closest friends and companions were having trouble grasping the message, how was this lot supposed to get it right? What training did they have? Who was going to supervise them or hold them accountable? How could he be sure they were capable of representing him, or that they would be faithful to his message? Had he had a chance to test their theology? Had he checked their backgrounds? Had he measured their commitment, or tested their reliability? But here he is, entrusting them with the message of the kingdom and empowering them to heal in his name.
It seems that Jesus was willing to take chances. He was willing to place heavenly treasure in fragile earthen vessels. He was willing to turn them loose, to send them out, to let them speak, without being certain of the outcome. And, not surprisingly, he’s still doing that today – sending each of us out to be messengers of that Good News; asking us, despite our weaknesses and shortcomings, to be his ambassadors in the world; proclaiming, through us, that “the kingdom of God has come near.”
When I first read this passage from Acts, I was struck by how easy it seemed that the Holy Spirit would tell Paul and Barnabas exactly what He wanted from them. It all feels very immediate, and specific—and I’m sure there was more to it, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Has my experience with the Holy Spirit ever looked like that? Pray, fast, listen, and go? Is that how it is for you?
Well, I got to reminiscing, and I realized, for most of my life, I rarely approached God for anything other than to yell my thanks from afar. To ask for something?—His opinion?—for guidance? No, never did it, for the fear of appearing ungrateful. So, if He ever did speak to me in the Paul and Barnabas fashion… I wasn’t listening—not back then.
But that doesn’t mean He didn’t reach me. During that time, every life turn I took was, strangely, my second choice. From which high school I attended, to university, my first job… I never got what I thought I wanted, but all of those were what I needed. Before I was willing to actively engage God in my decision making, He led me through life by closing every door, except for the one that was meant for me. Let’s call that phase 1 of 3 in the progression of my communication with God: Him faithfully steering me in the right direction while I remained none the wiser.
Enter phase 2: In 2017, I hit a crossroads. I’d been in Japan for 4 years, and I had a beautiful life there. But a strange inkling… I wanted to go on extended mission. It was a very uncomfortable juncture. Should I leave my friends, my job, my stability… and go? I was at a complete loss—so, I approached God… and I asked. Now, in my mind, Paul and Barnabas were this unattainable model that I could never hope to reach. I was just me. Super regular—altogether unworthy. I thought I’d be met with excruciating silence. But, no. He dropped hints—a lot of hints—a comical amount of hints that I could only imagine reflected His delight that I had engaged Him in conversation. And in the end, I left on a life-changing adventure to Germany, and then Nepal.
So, enter phase 3. My last story, I promise. For this 2018-2019 academic year I had my sight set on going to graduate school. I had been accepted. I was going—but this time, God approachedme, and whispered, “Hey,monastery.” And I said, “Haha, I’m sorry…one more time?” And the difference is, this time He didn’t drop hints. And He didn’t shut the grad school door. He left it, wide open, alongside the opportunity to live in this wonderful community. And I asked Him, “Which one?” And He said it—and I heard Him—and I did it.
As I’ve grown in faith, our interactions have changed. Unlike those decisions earlier in life, He didn’t shove me onto the path that was right. He presented me with two amazing options, and then He stepped back—because now I could hear.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my pondering of this passage, it’s that some people are built for pray, fast, and do the thing. Some of us aren’t, or we dabble in it, amongst other kinds of communication. And even if we can’t identify what that is exactly… we don’t have to. Because God gets you. He gets you at phase 2, He got you at phase 1, and He’ll get you at phase 3. He’ll identify the growth in you far before you’ve noticed the change.
God will meet you where you’re at. He knows how you can hear Him—and that’s how He’ll talk. What’s phase 4 gonna look like? I don’t know. But I’m excited.
When I was a quiet little fourth grader I had a pretty unusual answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I wanted to be a priest on Sundays and a baker during the week. But whenever people would ask me, I wouldn’t tell them that; I would give them an expected fourth grade answer like teacher or baseball player. I couldn’t see anyone else doing what I wanted to do, so I kept telling myself that my dream was impossible. Even though I had heard Isaiah say “this is the way; walk in it” (30:21) and Jesus say “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6) I didn’t trust that to be the case for my way. But as I grew older I started to embrace the unconventional path that has led me here to preach at a monastery in the middle of the city, something I never thought I could do. And a month from today I’ll be following this way to Plainsong Farm in Michigan to dive deeper into the intersection of food and faith.
I was so afraid to start walking in this way though. I didn’t see anyone else doing what I wanted to do. But I knew that Jesus used agricultural metaphors in so many of His teachings. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24). We are told to trust 98 times in the Gospel according to John. But I had a veil over my eyes, I couldn’t see far beyond my own doubts. When I let myself be vulnerable and I let that veil be lifted by Christ, I saw that I was not alone. In my time here at the monastery I have seen fruit beginning to grow. I have baked so many loaves of bread for supper. I have come to see cooking and eating as an act of worship in community. I have been given a clearer sense of calling. And most importantly, I have made connections with folks who are following Christ in beautiful, unique ways.
We remember Philip and James today. We really don’t know much about James the Lesser besides his membership among the Twelve. We do know that Philip was an early and enthusiastic follower according to John as he told Nathaniel to “come and see”. (John 1:43-46). Not long after this, he questioned Jesus at the feeding of the 5,000 saying “six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (John 6:7) but he saw Jesus feed them all with plenty to spare. In today’s gospel we see that Philip is having a hard time grasping what Jesus is saying about His relationship to the Father. There is some tension between them during this farewell discourse as Jesus prepares His disciples for His Passion. But even though there was tension and Philip couldn’t see clearly, he followed and received the Holy Spirit with his community. The Twelve all dropped everything and turned away from the status quo. As they followed the Way of Christ they found each other.
Jesus tells us that He is about to return to the Father, but He does not leave us alone. We are given peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gift of community. We are told that if we follow His way we will do great things. So follow that unconventional path and you will be lead to places and people you never imagined could be possible. Don’t try to fit the expectations of the world. Follow that still small voice telling you “this is the way; walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).
Feasting on the Gospels: John, Volume 2 Chapters 10-21 Edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson. Exegetical Perspective by Jaime Clark-Soles. Page 141