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
Exodus 3:1-15, I Cor. 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
“I am who I am. I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be rememberedthroughout all generations.”
This, the great climax of that wonderful story of Moses and the Burning Bush. Poor Moses, hiding his face in sheer terrorfrom the God who now calls to him out of the bush. The God who now reveals to Moses his sacred identity: God’s NAME. In Hebrew, four letters, the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, “Jehovah” – so holy that their true meaning is unknown, and many will never pronounce them.
They are often translated “I AM who I AM.” I AM the one, the eternal I AM. But God is clear: My name is to be rememberedfrom generation to generation.
I want to talk this morning aboutremembering. The command to rememberis one of the most important themes running through both the Old and New Testaments. Yet it is not easy for us to understand what the Bible means by remembering because it is very different from what weusually understand it to mean.
“Do you remember last Christmas?” “Do you remember that restaurant we went to last week?” We think of rememberingas simply recalling something that happened in the past. But in the Bible, remembering has the full semitic sense of recalling in such a way that the event of the past is actually made present once again. This sense of remembrance is all but untranslatable into English. But it is fundamental to understanding God’s actions throughout scripture.
Remember the Lord your God. Rememberthe marvels he has done. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Rememberthat you are but dust and to dust you shall return. Don’t just call them to mind, but by remembering, call on their power, that you too may experience nowGod’s marvels, God’s holiness, God’s power to raise you up from the dust and ashes of death.
To remember in this way is really to literally re-member,in the way that a surgeon may put a broken body together again. What wasin the past has taken form and has become fully and powerfully present now.
I had one of the most precious and wonderful experiences of this some years ago. My father had had a stroke and he was dying. I managed to fly home and by the grace of God saw my father just a few hours before he died. I sat with him and I didn’t think he knew who I was. But at one point his eyes rested on me. I said, “Dad, do you know who I am?” After some time, staring at me, he said, “Geoffrey Robert.” After saying my name his whole being seemed to be radiantand he smiled broadly, and I knew that at that moment the whole of me, from my birth onwards, had suddenly become presentto him – and he had become present to me. I felt an incredibly close and intimate connection.
I think when God says, “This is my name, and this is how I am to be remembered throughout all generations,” it’s something like that. God longs to be so present to us, that God’s life irradiates our own.
And this biblical understanding of remembrance parallels the New Testament as well. So when Mary cries out in joy in the Magnificatto the Lord “who has remembered his promise of mercy to Abraham and his children forever,” it is not that God had forgotten for a while, and then remembered again. It is rather that in the act of remembering, that promise becomes fully presentin the child in Mary’s womb.
And perhaps the most mysterious yet wonderful place where God’s remembrance is made powerfully present is in the Eucharist, which we celebrate today.
“On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat, this is my Body which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.” The Greek word used here for ‘remembrance’ is the word anamnesis. In the Church of England prayer book, the phrase is translated, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The American prayer book’s translation, “Do this forthe remembrance of me,” although it is slightly clumsy English, is actually a better, more literal translation of the Greek eis ten anamnesin, and I think helps remind us of the special semitic meaning of the kind of remembrance going on here. At the Eucharist, we are not simply recalling, or calling to mind an event that happened two thousand years ago. When we say these words, a true re-memberingis happening. God’s saving deeds in Christ are being made present, so that the fullness and power of those deeds of the past – Christ’s life and death and resurrection and ascension – take effect in our lives here and now. In the sacrament of bread and wine, the Lord is truly and really presentin all his strength and power, and we receive him into ourselves. We are irradiated by the real presenceof the Lord.
“Do this for the remembrance of me.”
But if to rememberin this full biblical sense is so incredibly powerful, imagine what the opposite would be: NOTto remember. In Jeremiah 31:31, God says these words: “The days are surely coming when I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more!” Amazing words of grace! For if to rememberin the biblical sense is to make something truly present and real, then notto remember is to truly and really take something away, so that it is no longer real or present.
The Good News of the Gospel is precisely that. Because of what Jesus Christ wrought for us on the Cross, God will remember our sins no more. It’s not that God is “forgetting” or pretending he never knew – but rather that God, through love and mercy, chooses not to remember: those sins are taken away, removed, no longer present.
I wonder if you may have something in your life, some sin, some action of which you are ashamed and which you keep remembering, replaying, going over again and again. Maybe God is longing to reassure you that God remembers your sin no more, and you should stop remembering it as well. You may not be able to forget, but you can stop rememberingand trust God’s word.
And what about your relationship with others? That person who has hurt you terribly. “I’ll never forget what you did to me!” No, you can’t forget it ever happened, but you can— and I believe, to be set free, you must— choose not to remember – not to constantly re-enact, “make real” the offence, so that it is an ever-present reality and a perpetual barrier and blockage.
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”
“Remember our sins no more, as we no longer remember the sins of those who have sinned against us.”
In a few minutes, we will hear those words again: “This is my body, this is my blood. Do this for the remembrance of me.” As we remember, Jesus will be made real for us. When you receive his body and blood, you will truly be receiving his power and his strength, wonderfully present to us.
In that power, in that strength, offer to God the burden of sin which you may be carrying, and hear again those gracious words of forgiveness: “I will remember your sins no more.” Then offer to God that person whom you find it hard to forgive, and ask for the grace to be able to say about them, “I will remember your sins no more.”
And there will be rejoicing in heaven – in the glorious Name of our loving, holy and gracious God, whom we remember, and will continue to remember, throughout all generations.
(sermon for March 25, Feast of the Annunciation)
Isaiah 7:10-14 and Luke 1:26-38
In our readings on this Feast of the Annunciation, we have the story of two visitations: one to Ahaz, King of Judah, and the other to Mary, mother of our Lord.
In the first of these visitations, God promises, through the prophet Isaiah, to rescue Ahaz and the people of Judah from the hands of their enemies. They have only to put their trust in God and God will deliver them. Furthermore, God invites Ahaz to ask for a sign so that he will have no doubt or fear about placing his whole trust in God’s promise. Ahaz declines the offer, saying he does not want to put the Lord to the test. But what seems at first glance to be a humble and appropriate response is revealed instead to be a sign of the king’s stubbornness and resistance. Ahaz actually resents God breaking into his life; he prefers to make his own decisions and to map out his own path, and this stubbornness and pride leads to his destruction.
Mary also receives a visitation. God promises, through the angel Gabriel, to bless her with a son, who “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,” and through whom God’s people will be established forever. Mary’s response is the opposite of Ahaz’s. She accepts the intervention and the promise with openness and trust, and responds with those familiar words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
Two visitations. Two invitations to cooperate with God’s saving work and to reap the benefits of God’s promise. But two very different responses: one of resistance, the other of acceptance. One person says ‘No,’ while the other says ‘Yes.’
There are two ways we can hear this Gospel account appointed for today: This is a two-thousand year-old story about Simon Peter, James, and John who fished by trade on a lake in Palestine. This is history – rather patchy history – about how Jesus began assembling his inner ring of 12 apostles in the northern region of Galilee.
or:This Gospel story is autobiographical. Like Peter, James, and John, we each have been summoned by Jesus. Jesus has caught our attention, and we have followed him. This story gets us in touch with our ownstory. It’s part of the backdrop of why we’re here today.
Is this Gospel story about them, or is it about us, about you? The answer is “yes.”
On the one hand, we’re introduced to Peter, James, and John, who continue to figure into Jesus’ life and story. These three leave everything to follow Jesus. Sort of everything. Peter is married, and he doesn’t leave his wife. None of the three leaves his ego behind. That will become obvious. All three of these men are shown to have very mixed motives for following Jesus. Complicated. Sometimes quite duplicitious. Tradition has it that all three ultimately and willingly accept martyrdom for being followers of Jesus… but we’re a long ways from that when we first meet them here in their boats.
1 John 3:11-18 / John 1:43-51
As we move from the Festal Season of Christmas into what is sometimes called Ordinary Time what ought we to think?
When I was a newly confirmed Episcopalian in 1942, I learned that the season we are about to enter can be called the Missionary Season. An example of Mission activity is Andrew taking his brother Peter to meet Jesus.
Today’s Gospel gives us the example of Philip finding Nathanael and telling him about Jesus. Philip first told Nathanael, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael’s reply was not very encouraging, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip went on to say to him, “Come and see.” What happened then was very encouraging, to say the least. Jesus showed himself a good judge of Character. When Jesus told Nathanael he had seen him under a fig tree, there was a further revelation.