‘I have seen God face to face, and yet I live.’ But only just! Jacob had wrestled with the angel all night, and managed to come out alive – but with his hip put out of joint. Yet God blessed him through the struggle, and let him see God face to face.
Throughout Scripture, when the Spirit of the Lord comes down upon a person, there is so often a struggle; the Spirit is experienced as something traumatic and shattering. Dealing with God is not for the faint hearted! Listen to the prophet Ezekiel: ‘A spirit entered me and lifted me up and bore me away. Before the glory of the Lord I fell on my face, but the spirit lifted me up’. Daniel, standing on the banks of the river Tigris see a vision of a man, shining in glory, sent from God. The man spoke, and David fell into a trance, and then fell to the ground. Shaking with fear, he lost his strength and could hardly breathe. The prophet Jeremiah tries to get away from the Lord’s presence, but the Spirit overwhelms him, and he cries out, ‘If I say I will not mention him or speak in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.’ Well might the writer of the letter to the Hebrews say, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’!
Yet, through each one of these powerful and life changing experiences, God was at work, forming and molding these very different characters to become men of God; able to speak for God, but most crucially, to see for God. Through their profound and life changing encounters with the living God, they would now see as God sees. They would become God’s seers, and they would proclaim what they saw.
Enter into the joy of your master.
This solitary phrase from twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel has rung like a bell through my praying imagination this week. As he discloses what we commonly call “The Parable of the Talents,” this phrase rings twice from the lips of Matthew’s Jesus. Enter into the joy of your master. Most of us know the well-established reading of this parable.
It goes something like this: A wealthy man goes on a journey, leaving his wealth in the hands of three slaves. Each responds to the responsibility in one of two ways. One we might call a wise stewardship that produces more of what has been given. The other, a refusal to wisely use the gifts so graciously given, leading to waste and suffering. Traditionally read, this parable speaks an urgent call to responsible stewardship of all God gives to us that we might be invited to enter into the joy of our master.
“Are you greater than our father Abraham?” They were confused and upset. How could those who kept his word not see death? They clung to what they knew and could not hear or see something more. They clung so tightly to being Abraham’s children, that they missed really seeing Jesus.
What might you be clinging to so tightly such that it’s hard to recognize what is real? What is getting in the way between you and Jesus?
Perhaps it’s who we are or what we have: heritage, group-identity, connections. Perhaps it’s the people we love or who love us best, our meaningful relationships. Perhaps it’s comfort or privilege, standard of living, status or success. Perhaps it’s abilities, gifts, how we serve, what we do well—including for God.
One of the appealing characteristics of Father Benson, but also surely one of the more baffling for many, perhaps also for you, was his grasp of a heavenly reality, in the midst of a worldly existence. We know the famous story of the old woman, when asked is she could understand his preaching responded, that gentleman just opens heaven to me, and I can look right in.
Over and again, Father Benson calls us to an awareness of this heavenly reality. He writes, [do] I realize to myself that as I pray, I am truly in heaven, and that I ought to be experiencing the joys of heaven? If we would but look to heaven with more consciousness of present joy therein, we should find its power to set us free from earthly difficulty.
It is this consciousness of the present joy of heaven that was a motivating factor in much of his life. Reading Philippians, as we do today, he would have been perfectly comfortable with the notion that our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
Our reading from the Second Book of Kings would make would make for a great scene in an adventure movie or mythology novel: the Prophet Elijah’s ascending into heaven in a whirlwind with horses of fire and in a chariot fire. And there’s also the scenes when Elijah’s cloak – his “miracle mantle” – is used two different times to strike the Jordan River, which then miraculously divides in two, one side to the other, to open a dry passageway for a walkthrough. It’s such spectacular power!
A fascinating and inspiring way to read the Scriptures is through the lens of power. In virtually every page of the Bible, there is a supernatural manifestation of power, the intervention or infusion of God’s power in everyday life:
- Power in the form of words being given to someone who is otherwise inarticulate.
- Power in the form of knowledge about something which is otherwise unknowable.
- Power in interpreting signs, experiences, dreams, languages, or what could seem as “coincidence.”
- Power to be wise amidst what is otherwise so confusing and undecipherable in life.
- Power in the form of physical strength, or moral integrity, or courage when confronted with strong opposition.
- Power in the form of an inner peacefulness in the face of strife, violence, or threat.
- Power in the face of disaster, imprisonment, censure, or banishment.
- Power in the form of provision: food, money, shelter, access to people of influence.
- Power in the form of healing mediated through words, through touch, through oil, through spittle.
- Power to forgive the otherwise-unforgivable.
One question trailed Jesus throughout his earthly life: “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[i] And Jesus’ parting promise to us was about our being able to do “even greater works of power” than he did because of God’s abiding presence with us, because of God’s Spirit.[ii] Christianity without power is like a country club for nice manners and good taste. Christianity is about engaging the powers and the powerful needs of this world with the force and provision of God.
Annie Dillard writes, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour…? Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? …It is madness to wear ladies’ velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” [iii] We have been created by the power of God to know and mediate the power of God.
There are lots of things in life for which we could be fearful. And so Jesus speaks endlessly about our not needing to be afraid, about our not needing to be anxious because he is with us, always.[iv] You may be in touch right now with fear or anxiety where you feel your vulnerability and need. But there’s more. You may be equally afraid – maybe even more afraid – of how you are powerful. If you are afraid of your power – and you do have power – you need not fear your power. Don’t be afraid. Remember the Blessed Virgin Mary who was visited by an angel announcing Mary’s life mission, a very powerful calling.[v] Mary was afraid, afraid of being giving such power, and then she found the grace to say “yes” to God. She finally prayed, “Okay. Be it unto me according to your word.” And so for you. You probably already pray about poverty and need, yours and others’. Also pray for God’s power. Pray your “yes” to God’s power to be at work within you and through you.
[i] Matthew 13:54, 26:64; Mark 6:2, 14:62; Luke 6:19; John 1:12.
[ii] John 12:12-14.
[iii] From Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, pp. 40-41. Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975 and in 2014 received the National Humanities Medal.
[iv] Matthew 28:20.
[v] Luke 1:26-38.
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year A
Isaiah 55: 10 – 13
Psalm 65: 9 – 14
Romans 8: 1 – 11
Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23
My father was never much for television. Except for the nightly news, and the occasional serial drama like Upstairs, Downstairs, I don’t remember him watching TV in the evening. He and Mum would sit in their chairs reading, either a book or the newspaper, while we kids watched whatever it was we watched, splayed out on the living room floor.
What I do remember is how quickly he would get up and turn the TV off, the instant something came on that he did not think suitable for children. This was especially true if something about the Second World War came on. In a flash he would be up, out of his chair, and across the living room, to turn the TV off and say, by way of explanation, too tough for kids. I never knew what he was talking about, until as a teenager, I began to learn about the Holocaust.
“Let me hear thee softly speaking;
in my spirit’s ear whisper: ‘I am near.’ …
voice, that oft of love hast told me;
arms, so strong to clasp and hold me;
thou thy watch wilt keep,
Savior, o’er my sleep.”[i]
We have just sung this prayer for sleep and God’s safe-keeping. How is your sleep these days? Many of us are more tired from the stresses of our present suffering: changed work, isolation and separation, the pandemic increasing, so much death and loss, cries of injustice, racism and privilege further exposed. When is change? Where is healing? How do we sleep at a time like this?
Paul in his letter to the Romans acknowledges suffering. In today’s text he speaks of us groaning and not just us but all of creation, groaning as in labor pains, waiting for restoration in a new birth. He also speak of hope, of that which is not seen. What does having hope look like? Especially when we’re groaning, and when it is hard to sleep?
Earlier in chapter 4, Paul wrote about Abraham as one who “hoping against hope … believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’” as God had said, with numerous descendants.[ii] Abraham believed despite overwhelming contrary physical evidence. Abraham was about 100 years old, and Sarah, his wife, was barren. Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do as promised.”[iii] Paul quotes Genesis 15 which says Abraham’s faith “‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”[iv] Remember what happened at that reckoning?
John 16: (16-23a) 23b-28
It’s difficult these days not to read every gospel text from the perspective of those whose lives have been so drastically altered by the coronavirus. Encountering this text from John 16, the word that captured my attention was the word “joy.” “You will have pain,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but your pain will turn into joy” (v. 20). Of course he is talking here of the pain the disciples will experience when Jesus is separated from them as he goes forward to his passion and death. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me,” he says (v. 17). He knows they will suffer; he knows that the events of the coming days will test and try them; and he knows he cannot protect them from this pain. But he wants to keep their eyes fixed not on the pain, but on the joy that is to come.
“You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” To help them grasp this promise, he offers the example of a woman in childbirth. The pain of birthing a child is intense, “but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (v. 21) There is joy on the other side of this suffering, he promises. “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joyfrom you”(v. 22).
“The Father himself loves you,” he assures them, and therefore they can ask for whatever they need in his name and the Father will give it to them (v. 23-27). “Ask and you will receive,” he tells them, “so that your joy may be complete” (v. 24). Once again, God intends joy for his people, not endless sorrow, and God will provide all that they need to find real and lasting joy.
II Thessalonians 3:1-5
I’ve been listening to a lot of gospel music lately. I do it because gospel music makes me happy, and offers glimpses of hope in a world that at times seems overshadowed by darkness. One of the songs I’ve come to find solace in goes like this:
Life is easy when you’re up on the mountain;
you’ve got peace of mind like you’ve never known.
But things change when you’re down in the valley;
don’t lose faith, for you’re never alone.
For the God on the mountain is still God in the valley;
when things go wrong, he’ll make them right.
And the God of the good times is still God in the bad times;
the God of the day is still God in the night.[i]
The song acknowledges that life has its ups and downs, its mountains and valleys, and that it’s easy to talk of faith “when life’s at its best.” But when we’re “down in the valley of trials and temptations, that’s where [our] faith is really put to the test” (quotations from the 2nd stanza). Doubtless we know this to be true from our own experience.
St Paul knew it. He had been on the mountaintops with God, borne into the heavens by the Spirit; but he also knew what it was to descend into the valley, to encounter resistance, persecution and evil. It’s moving to see him, a great giant of the faith, beseeching the Thessalonian Christians to pray for him. It is a mark of his humility, I think, and a valuable sign for us. We need one another. We need one another’s prayers. Paul is well aware of his own weakness and of the enormous challenges that are part of his calling, and he is humble enough to implore his fellow Christians to pray for him.
The scene we have just heard from Mark, I confess, appeals upon first reading to my lower nature—my unreflective sense of self-righteousness, my tendency to guard against anything alien or uncomfortable, my own carefully guarded picture of reality. And of course, a second reading always reveals to me the irony of this shallow appeal. For it is too easy to scorn the figures of the scribes and Pharisees in this scene. So easy, in fact, that we should be alert: the author of Mark is pouring out a necessary medicinal draught for us—we, the religious of our own time. While its taste may be bitter to the palette, we do well to drink all of it down, and slowly. For I believe Mark intends us to see our own reflection in this brew. That which we are easily tempted to deride about the scribes and Pharisees in this encounter may well be the very same hops and malt fermenting away in our own corporate body.
Jesus and his disciples have been healing throughout Gennesaret when a group of scribes and Pharisees confront him and his disciples, assumptions in tow, and begin to question the veracity and authenticity of their faith. Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands? What follows from Jesus is a firm rebuke of the inconsistencies in the practices so dearly observed by the Pharisaical community. Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother;’ and ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But if you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is [an offering to God]’—then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And to add just a little salt the wound, he continues, And you do many things like this.’
Jesus clearly knows how to engage with the sophisticated traditions and lexicon by which the Pharisees seek to live. There is nothing laissez faire about this Galilean preachers’ approach, and he recognizes that the gift of the Law is not an end in itself. He knows that as people of faith, hungry to know God’s presence and provision for us, we easily turn the free space offered to us by God into a patchwork of further subdivisions and contrived legality.
When I first claimed Christianity as part of my identity in my early twenties, I was in absolute awe of the richness of Anglican worship. Its rich symbolic universe, the inspiring spaces in which such worship occurred, a faith that didn’t seem to shun but indeed celebrated the intellectual life, and above all a corpus of musical heritage that drew me into previously unknown regions of depth, honesty, truth, and beauty. Those verses we heard from Psalm 84 became real for me: How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. / The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; * by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.
Yet not more than three months into my sweet adoration of and participation in this tradition I found out it did not quite speak with such force or authority for everyone. One evening at a restaurant before a romantic interest, I poured out my praise and admiration for the liturgical life at St. Mark’s Cathedral, my then home church. With an air of dismissal I had neither expected nor understood, he said, “I don’t understand all you Episcopalians and Catholics and the like. All this music and theatrics and superstition! For what? No, real worship is simple, bible-based, quiet.”
An argument, of course, ensued. We were both making assumptions about the other’s faith based on the ways we worshipped. I could not understand how this man could encounter God without movement, color, song, and beauty, much less without any practices to connect him to the historic life of the church. He, I suspect, could not understand how I could encounter God through the din of hymns and anthems, smoke and processions, Sunday finery and Sherry Hour. We both felt the other had deprived themselves of something real and substantive; neither of us could recognize the seeds of God’s word at work in both charisms. For we were not focused on the actual object of worship, that is, God, but on our own subjective experiences of liturgical life, our own personal preferences, our own inherited human traditions. We had both made idols out of our respective inheritance. While I cannot speak for him, in retrospect it is clear I was more concerned with the holiness of beauty than with the beauty of holiness.
As Jesus admonishes this group of religious gatekeepers in the seventh chapter of Mark, so we must anticipate the experience of our own admonishment as members of religious communities. As churches, we are too often tempted to claim more than we are permitted, and can thereby become the pretended gatekeepers of our own time. It is easy to grasp at the boundaries we have been given to help us understand ourselves and our place in God’s sight; things like genuflecting, fasting, calendars, hymnals, and even style. While all good gifts in themselves, once we grasp on to them and claim them as our ground of being, we deny the True Ground to which they were only designed to point.
To be sure, Jesus has not come to take these things away from us. But he has come to reorient our relationship to them. He has come to remind us that God does not deal with sin, failure, or even death the way we do, would, or could. He reveals a God who once saved a lowly people from a mighty empire by leading them through the Red Sea. A God who did not ask them to earn their salvation, but instead delivered them by grace before issuing even one commandment. A God who comes to and rescues us not because of our goodness, virtue, or anything we can do for God, but because of His love and our need.
So my fellow religious—lay, ordained, cloistered or dispersed, fallen away, curious, devoted or doubtful—remember the reflection Mark has offered us in this scene, and let us mercifully hold one another up. We are not going to shed our assumptions about the faith of others over night. But if we are truthful and honest with one another, Christ will show us the true beauty of the holiness at work for the salvation of all of God’s children.
 Mark 7:5
 Mark 7:10-12
 Psalm 84:1-2