When I was a parish priest in England, my church, St Mary’s, stood right in the middle of the town, and in many ways was at the center of the community. Every year on our Patronal Festival, we organized a week of celebrations, with a carnival and street market, and concerts and events taking place every day inside the church. A large proportion of the town community thought of St Mary’s as their church, even if they only worshipped there occasionally, or not at all! Many of them were baptized there, and expected to be married and buried there. We were open and welcoming to anyone who turned up.
The only other church in the town was one of the oldest independent churches in England. Its members were direct descendants of those Puritan men and women who set sail a few hundred years ago to land on these shores of New England. They took a very different view of the local community, having little to do with it, and certainly nothing to do with us. Those who worshiped with them had first assented to some very specific theological doctrines, and tended to keep themselves separate from the secular world, which they saw as essentially ‘fallen’.
The Martyrs of Uganda, 1886
‘in a very little while,
the one who is coming will come and will not delay;
but my righteous one will live by faith.
My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.’”
[Hebrews 10:37-38 (cf. Habakkuk 2:3-4)]
In the community’s ‘Renewal of Our Foundations’ work this year, the most revealing discovery for me, was to learn of our founder’s deep conviction that the Society’s witness and mission was taking place in the ‘end times’. I do not think that Fr. Benson believed this in the fanatical manner of millenarian, end of the world predicters. Rather I would say that Fr. Benson’s end times theology arose from his unwavering faith in the victory over sin and death accomplished in Christ Jesus. For Richard Meux Benson, I believe, the abiding presence of the incarnate, crucified and risen Jesus in the outpoured Holy Spirit of God was ‘the’ reality, continually active in every age of history. He saw each historic era as an end time, a humanly constructed ‘world’ which would abruptly change as it was confronted by the kingdom of God in the followers of Jesus’s self-offering way of love. For Benson the urgency of the Society’s witness to a ‘world which is passing away’ was paramount.
On this day in 1886, thirty-two young Anglican and Roman Catholic men were burned to death for their refusal to renounce their Christian faith at the order of the king of Buganda. Their deaths signaled the beginnings of the end for the world as it was then perceived.
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20
The green vestments and altar frontal indicate that we have moved into what the Church calls “ordinary time.” But in spite of the change of color, we haven’t left the season of Epiphany completely behind. This is the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany and in just two weeks, we will conclude the season of Epiphany with the celebration of the Feast of the Transfiguration, in which the disciples see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ when they are with him on the mountain. So the theme of Epiphany – the revelation of the Divine Nature in the person of Jesus – is still present in our appointed readings for today.
Why, then, do we have this sober passage on fasting from the book of Isaiah? What does this passage on social justice have to do with Epiphany?
If we take a closer look at this passage and its context, we may begin to understand the connection between social justice and the revelation of the Glory of God.
Over time, the majority of biblical scholars have come to recognize in the book of Isaiah three distinct parts, which some have conveniently labeled “First Isaiah” (referring to chapters 1-39), “Second Isaiah” (consisting of chapters 40-55) and “Third Isaiah” (chapters 56-66). “First Isaiah” is sometimes referred to as the “real” Isaiah because it is grounded in the age in which the prophet actually lived. “Second” and “Third Isaiah” describe later periods and, scholars tell us, have been added to the original text. “Second Isaiah” is written during the time of Israel’s captivity and describes the vision of the New Israel which God was to establish after the return of the people from their exile in Babylon. “Third Isaiah” – from which today’s reading is taken – reveals that this glorious vision did not materialize as anticipated, and expresses the disappointment of God’s people. God had delivered them from their captivity in Babylon, but Israel had not been restored to its former glory, as had been expected. They were back home, but their home was in shambles. To adopt the campaign slogan of a certain U.S. President, how could they make Israel great again?
One day, a little boy was walking home from Sunday school, lost in thought. As he walked, he kept thinking about something the teacher had said, something that didn’t seem to make any sense. When the little boy got back to his house, he decided to visit his grandfather, whom the boy considered very wise. He found his grandfather working in the yard, pulling weeds from the garden, and, without any preamble, the little boy asked, “Grandpa, what’s hell like?”
The boy’s grandfather looked up from his work, wiping his brow with a gloved hand. “Why do you want to know,” he asked.
“Well, the teacher was talking about heaven and hell in school today, where good people and bad people go, and…. I was just wondering what hell is really like.”
His grandfather paused, and turning to face the boy, closed his eyes for a moment. “OK,” he said, opening his eyes, “it’s like this.”
“In hell, there’s this really big dinner table, and all the people in hell are sitting around it. The table is decorated with candles and flowers… it’s just amazingly beautiful. And on the table are bowls of the most delicious food you could ever imagine: and all your favorite food in the whole world is right there in front of you. Deserts, too, brownies, cakes, cookies, candy…. And, you can even eat desert first if you want. It’s the most beautiful, delicious, and amazing feast ever.”
Sirach 10: 12 – 18
Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15 – 16
Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14
If you are anything like me, (and I can already hear some Brothers muttering, please no, one James is already one too many, the last thing we need is a roomful of people like him) but if you are like me, you have spent the past decade (yes, DECADE), of your life waiting for the release of another programme on PBS or Netflix. First, it was Downton Abbey that we waited for. For six years we waited patiently each fall until the new season was released shortly after the New Year. Now, we wait, and wait for Netflix to release the next season of The Crown.
I’ve enjoyed both Downton Abbey and The Crown, partly because they have fed my fantasy life, but mostly because I have been fascinated, not always with the story line, but with the attention to detail. One of the things which has held my attention, has been all the care shown around the preparation for great occasions, even if it was only the Crawly family sitting down to dinner. Watching Carson measure the distance between the edge of the table and the bottom of the wineglass, or seeing Tommy Lascelles on The Crown, eye the great seating charts used for state occasions, and moving an individual a few seats up or down depending on their rank and station, has been a wonderful study in detail.
Now few, if any of us, will ever dine at Buckingham Palace, or take the care to measure the placement of our glasses when we set the table for dinner at home, but there isn’t all that great a leap between what we have been watching thanks to PBS, or Netflix, and today’s gospel from Luke, or even some of our own behaviour.
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely.
Even the casual reader of Luke’s gospel will become aware that Luke fills his gospel with stories about meals, and great banquets. We have this meal today. In the next chapter there is the banquet held by the father on the occasion of the return of the prodigal. There is of course the Last Supper, the supper at Emmaus, and the account of the Risen Lord eating broiled fish in the Upper Room. Luke fills his gospel with stories of meals, so much so, that for Luke we can stay that the meal is a sign, and foretaste, and announcement of the breaking in of God’s reign, the heavenly banquet which we will all share, and the establishment of the kingdom of God, here and now. Just as in Downton Abbey and The Crown, meals in Luke’s gospel are wonderful occasions, and occasions to watch people in order to see their real motives.
When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable.
All this talk of meals, and banquets, and watching people, reminded me of an event in my own life.
I was a brand new deacon, not long ordained, and finally serving in my first parish as the Assistant Curate. Shortly after my arrival in the parish, a couple invited me to dinner. Their family was coming, and they thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to meet them, and get to know them. I arrived in my new clerical collar, grey flannel trousers and tweed jacket, looking every inch the new Curate. There was a very pleasant half hour or so, as we enjoyed drinks and nibbles in the garden, and I chatted with a number of others. When our hostess called us to dinner, I followed the crowd into the dining room, looking forward to more conversation and a wonderful meal. Imagine my shock and horror when my hostess turned to me and said, Oh, James, we have put you in the kitchen with the grandchildren. We thought that you would be good with young children.
‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.
It would be easy to dismiss this parable of the meal, as just an easy bit of social advice: when someone invites you to their house for dinner, don’t assume that you are the guest of honour, and take by right the seat of privilege. But neither Luke nor Jesus use these parables and stories of meals and banquets, simply as occasions to discuss social etiquette. There is a lot more going on here than that. In his gospel, Luke uses meals in a number of different ways. One of the ways in which he uses them, is to enable Jesus to make rather cutting comments about people’s unbridled pride, sense of privilege, and ambition. But Luke also uses meals to show how Jesus is turning people’s social expectations about the kingdom of God, upside down.
So, this story is about so much more, than social etiquette. It is a reminder of our natural tendency simply to assume certain rights and privileges, based on who, we at least think, we are. Much of our un-thought out behaviour stems from assumptions we make about ourselves. Just as that new deacon assumed certain things about himself, and his place in the scheme of things on that occasion, we assume certain things about ourselves, and what is ours by right.
But that is not the way it is in the kingdom of God, for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Sadly, we live in a world and a culture that makes assumptions all the time about an individual’s worth and dignity all the time. I was insulted that day being sent to eat in the kitchen with the grandchildren, believing that my place was in the dining room, thinking that those with whom I was to eat, were below my dignity, and forgetting that they too have a place set for them at the heavenly banquet.
When we get caught up in our own pride, and privilege, and entitlement, as did the Pharisees at the dinner party Luke tells us about in today’s gospel, and as I did as a new deacon that afternoon years ago, we lose sight of the dignity of those with whom we have been invited to dine. When we are concerned only with our own dignity, we forget about the inherent dignity of others. They too have a place set at God’s bountiful table, where there is room and enough for all.
In our baptisms we pledged, with God’s help, to strive for justice and peace among all people, and [to] respect the dignity of every human being.But we cannot do that, if we are constantly elbowing people out of the way, in order to get what it is we think we are owed. We cannot do that, if we fail to see the image of God in the faces of those whom we deem to be insignificant, or least, or last.
Today’s gospel doesn’t come down to us from a book of etiquette about rules for every social occasion imagined (although if I had read it before going to dinner that day, I might have saved myself some embarrassment). Rather it is about how to live in the kingdom of God.
Jesus’ parable about choosing the lowest spot at the banquet table must have touched a raw nerve among the Pharisees, just as it should us. But again, it is about more than simply social etiquette or good manners, and a lesson about not elbowing our way to a seat of privilege at the dinner table. It is also about not elbowing our way into the kingdom of God.
Just as we make assumptions about our rightful place in the scheme of things, so too do we make assumptions about our place in the kingdom. I made certain assumptions that day about my place, and where I deserved to sit, largely based on the collar I wore around my neck. But as I have reflected on that experience over the last 40 years, I wonder about what other assumptions I am making, not about my place at the dinner table, but about my place at the heavenly banquet, and where and with whom I sit.
There is a great debate going on in the world today, and not just in this country, about who deserves a place at the table and where, as millions in India discover they are not actually citizens of the country where they have lived for generations; as Britain wrestles with the implications of Brexit; and as people of colour in this country are told to go back where they came from. The elbowing our way into places of privilege, and entitlement, is not confined to the Pharisees described by Luke, and challenged by Jesus, because it is happening even now as people are elbowed out of place, based on any number of factors. But into this melee, Jesus comes and pours over us the waters of Baptism. Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human being? This is the challenge of Baptism, as Jesus reminds us that there is another way to live, the way of humility, love, justice, and peace. These are the marks of the kingdom of God, and every time we swallow our pride, pull in our elbows, sit down in the kitchen, and eat with the grandchildren, something happens, and the kingdom of God takes root in our lives.
Luke 14: 1
Luke 15: 11ff
Luke 22: 7ff
Luke 24: 13ff
Luke 24: 36ff
Luke 14: 7
Luke 14: 8 – 9
Luke 14: 11
TEC, Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 305
Peace – as we ordinarily understand that word — is often very hard work. Whether it is the resolution of conflict between nations or ethnic groups, or an inward psychological disposition leading to deeper wellbeing, peace is usually work-in-progress. It is no secret that these two forms of peace are deeply interrelated. The crucial work of social peace (negotiating peace, organizing peace, facilitating peace, instituting peace) only maintains a superficial and tenuous harmony if there is no on-the-ground commitment to interior peace, the kind that changes lives from the inside out. Countless civil disobedience movements have demonstrated the power of non-violent action when it is steeped in spiritual intention and grounded in a peace that no oppressor can give or take away.
The peace of Jesus was a living, inner presence that challenged, changed, and empowered his followers to seek the peace “which the world cannot give.” This inner presence inevitably brought Jesus into conflict with the ambient culture of violent occupation around him. The religious leaders who benefitted from their quiet complicity no doubt had a very different understanding of shalom. Rather than a dynamic, empowering presence, “peace” meant maintaining a broken system with minimal disturbance to received tradition.
Jesus says to his gathered disciples:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Jesus, knowing that his death is imminent, bequeathes his own Peace to his inner circle, who will so desperately need it in the midst of the suffering and death about to break upon them like a tidal wave.
Like most of the sections of Jesus’s lengthy farewell discourse, this specific section is prompted by a question: “Lord, how is it that you will reveal yourself to us and not to the world?” The first part of Jesus’s reply focuses on the gift of the Paraclete or Advocate, the Holy Spirit who “will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” The gift of Jesus’s Peace is a highly related but ultimately distinct gift. And while the gift of Peace participates in the tradition of shalom as both greeting and farewell, this Peace is a promise of ongoing presence because it harkens to the gift of Peace inaugurated by the Messiah: the righteous rule of the “Prince of Peace,” which will be eternal.
Marianne Meye Thompson notes that in this Farewell Discourse of Jesus, the world is almost always mentioned in the same breath as the promised Holy Spirit. Similarly, Jesus here explains, “I do not give to you as the world gives,” immediately following his twice-repeated gift of his own Peace. While the term “world,” or kosmos, in John’s gospel is a bit elastic in its meaning, it takes on an unequivocally threatening character in John’s closing chapters. A dense energy of worldliness threatens to obscure or corrode the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The world “hates” Jesus’s followers just as it hates Jesus. Thompson sees “the world” in the Farewell Discourse as both the “source of opposition” facing the followers of Jesus and the “arena” in which their witness to the gospel must unfold. As such, it remains a perpetual challenge for the Church to grapple with in every generation.[i]
It is very easy to be seduced by a peace that is not Christ’s, but rather a false peace that is of the world. There are at least three forms this might take:
We often seek permanent, lasting peace in places we will never find it, or will find only provisional peace: a political party, financial security, a beautiful house, a romantic partnership, a career promotion, retirement, a new ministry, a denomination of the Church, our liturgical preferences, our physical or mental talents. The list can grow quite long. It sometimes helps to honestly assess the direction in which we are seeking ultimate peace. “Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them,” writes the Psalmist, and there are endless variations on this theme in scripture. Horses? No. Chariots? No. Riches? Nope. All of these will fail us. If we look to provisional or temporal things for ultimate peace, we are likely to wake up itchy, restless and dissatisfied when they disappoint us. These paths toward peace are often onramps or runways toward the Peace that is Christ’s Peace. But our trust in these things is provisional because it is light, gentle, and acknowledges human frailty – others’ and our own.
We often seek to “build” peace with the hope of arriving at a lasting, permanent solution in the sheer strength of our own efforts. As a form of service to humanity this is a noble and selfless motive. But if we are not co-creating paths toward peace with Jesus, we are pursuing the world’s peace. Participating in the Peace of Christ requires a patience and a persistence that only Christ can supply. It demands an attentive eye to recognize where Christ’s Peace is already breaking forth as slow growth unassisted by our well-organized efforts, and asks only for us to bear witness.
We often wish, aspire, or pray to arrive at an interior peace that is a “once and for all” accomplishment. If we establish the right spiritual practices with the right frequency and depth, if we follow the right Rule of Life, if we say “yes” to every opportunity to be of service, if we worship God with deep enough focus and sincerity of heart every day, maybe we’ll reach a plane of permanent spiritual peace where we no longer swear in traffic or eat too much dessert or judge ourselves for our mistakes or make superficial assumptions about people. As far as I can tell, such a Peace does not exist this side of heaven. I do believe that the Spirit works in us a slow purification of the will that renders certain habitual sins a lot less interesting than they once were. But until then, I think that following Jesus opens us to receive his Peace in the midst of our flaws, not in spite of them. We hold the treasure of Christ’s Peace in clay jars, as grateful sinners.
As recipients of the Peace of Jesus, we have been given – in trust – the defining gift of Jesus’s now-and-future reign. Hearing Jesus invite me to make use of his Peace – a Peace already entrusted to me – changes my understanding of the adventure and challenge of peace-making in a very unpeaceful world. Making peace becomes consenting to Christ’s peace-making process wherever it is unfolding. Making peace becomes receiving Peace and being Peace. Only then can Christ use you and me to give Peace – a Peace which will remain his alone, but will change us each time we give it away, and each time we pass it around in our Eucharistic feast.
I give to you the Peace of Christ – a Peace which the world cannot give.
I give you the unshakable sanity and unflappable presence of Christ.
I give the Peace that saves you and me from all inner and outer persecution and from every stone the world may hurl your way.
I give you a Peace that will never falter or fade, and will carry you all the way Home.
The Peace of Christ be with you.
[i]Marianne Meye Thompson. John: A Commentary. p. 313.
While working as a psychotherapist I would occasionally receive a profound gift, witnessing someone in the very moment of a miraculous transformation. I would watch, always amazed and humbled, as they seemed to physically lighten, their countenance brightening, their posture shifting to being more alive and vital and present, their tears often taking on a baptismal glisten. Sometimes, spontaneous laughter and joy sprung forth, and other times they simply rested in a lingering sense of surprise and fragility, as if just getting acquainted with a new way of being. But what I remember most is a particular look flashing briefly in their eyes, the look of recognition. It was the look you might see if you paid an unexpected visit with a friend. Imagine knocking on their door, and when they open it, in that very first instant, you catch a brief sparkle of recognition in their eyes.
I’m willing to go out on a limb here, and say that true healing always has a spiritual component, an experience of knowing something to be true, not with our minds but with our hearts. And this heart knowing is not like learning anything new, but more like remembering something forgotten, something that has always been true, and we realize that a part of us deep within always knew this. Maybe that’s the kind of knowing or healing those religious leaders were hoping for when they demanded Jesus tell them if he were the Christ or not. Like most of us, they may have felt a nagging, perhaps unarticulated suspicion that something very important was missing in their lives. They knew the law, they kept all the commandments, they were successful, but still something didn’t feel quite right. Their minds tried to articulate what they wanted, but their hearts weren’t ready to accept it, to recognize who Jesus was by accepting who they themselves were.
Jeremiah 1: 4–10
Psalm 71: 1–6 1
Corinthians 13: 1-1 3
It all started out so well, Jesus, in the synagogue, in his hometown. No doubt, the benches were full that Sabbath morning, as would have been usual. Maybe people knew that Jesus, and some of his pals, had come home for a visit. They had perhaps heard that Jesus had seen, as perhaps they had, that crazed and crazy John the Baptist down the Jordan valley. They might even have known that Jesus was just back from spending six weeks, alone, in the desert. They might have heard that Jesus had taken up as a wandering teacher and preacher, and was developing quite a reputation. They knew that something was going on out there, in the world beyond their little village on the top of a hill. But they may not have connected this kid, now the grown man sitting among them, with anything more than a wayward come home. As I said, it all started so well, and in fact, except for some mild curiosity, so routine.
But slowly things began to take a turn. It wasn’t that Jesus was asked to read the lesson from the prophets that day.We do that, and no one gets excited! No, nothing unusual was happening. There was nothing to be excited about.
Today at both Morning Prayer and the Eucharist we are confronted with a scandal. In both places the original audiences would have been shocked by what Jesus was saying. They may have been listening as Jesus spoke, thinking yes, yes, I quite see that. Suddenly, they would have been startled by what they heard. Perhaps they turned to their neighbour with a quizzical look. Maybe they asked someone near them to repeat what they thought they had just heard. Perhaps they tried to clean out their ears, thinking they had misheard the Teacher. But if we read the gospels carefully, what we heard this morning is not new. Jesus repeats it over, and over. Indeed, Jesus lives it. We could even say that Jesus dies it.
Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.
‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured…’
Galatians 1: 13 – 24
Psalm 139: 1 – 14
Luke 10: 38 – 42
If truth be told, I don’t much like this passage from the Gospel of Luke about Martha and Mary. It makes me uncomfortable. I hear it as the great Martha put down, with Jesus saying, in effect, “Martha, I like your sister Mary better!”And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some people to others, And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers some activities, or rather no activity, to others, or rather any activity. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that Jesus prefers contemplation to action. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that you can only be in relationship with Jesus when you are sitting at his feet, rather than making him dinner. And that makes me uncomfortable. It seems to me to be saying that when I get busy, doing any number of things, Jesus likes me less, than when I am quiet, and still. And that makes me really, really uncomfortable, because probably like you, I have a zillion things on my to do list, and even when I am supposed to be, I can’t always be quiet and still.
But is that what is really going on here? Is Jesus really making these invidious distinctions between Martha and Mary? Between busyness and stillness? Between housework and hospitality? Between action and contemplation? That’s what we’ve been told over the years, but is it really the case?