In my mid-twenties I worked for a non-profit agency in Boston’s Chinatown. The mission of the organization was to offer educational and social services to new Chinese immigrants and their families. Though generously supported by a base of donors, largely Chinese-American Christians, our budget was always tight. As the director of the organization’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, I had just finished the long process of completing and submitting a complicated grant application that would give us access to some state funding. We did not receive the grant, and I was crest-fallen as I went into my regularly scheduled performance review with our executive director and founder – a charismatic, successful pillar of the community who had emigrated forty years ago. She worked her way through a long list of things she felt I could be doing differently. With each item, I began to feel a gathering energy of discouragement, like yeast molecules feeding on sugars of self-doubt and inadequacy. When she finally paused, I took a deep breath and asked – Was there anything she felt I was doing well? She let out an astonished laugh. “Everything! Your work is excellent!” I saw her face shift and her eyebrows furrow as she reasoned aloud that this must be a cultural difference. She took for granted that I knew what I was doing well. She had seen plenty of grant opportunities come and go, and had intended her feedback only to leaven my sense of resolve for the future by pinpointing areas for growth. After losing the grant, for which I felt personally responsible, I had needed a different kind of yeast: a balanced assessment that included reminders of my strengths, and her confidence in me, in order to make my dough rise.
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?
I moved into the monastery on January 9th, 2017, about a week and a half before the inauguration of the current president. Several friends told me I was very lucky, as they couldn’t imagine a better time to enclose oneself away from the troubles and instabilities of the world, insulated from a constant torrent of news coverage.
They weren’t completely wrong. But I must confess, I speak today from a place of intense distraction, here in the midst of the longest and most stressful election of my lifetime. But it’s not just the fault of the media. Nobody requires me to have multiple tabs open on my computer, reading through various news sources, then, when I get to the end, going back to the first and refreshing the page, “just in case.”
No, the voracious consumption of this stuff is a symptom, not a cause. An unending appetite for junk points to a deeper dissatisfaction, deep-seated feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, isolation, confusion, frustration. I think our culture right now is very prone to this. And maybe your “junk” is not election news. Maybe it’s news about the coronavirus. Maybe it’s not news media, but the endless stimulation of social media. Maybe it’s work, ceaselessly giving yourself external tasks to complete. Or maybe it’s more embodied; maybe it’s alcohol, or porn, or literal junk food. It doesn’t matter. Maybe I didn’t list yours here, but there are myriad varieties of this experience, and I am convinced that they come from the same source of division, dissatisfaction, and a desire to be comforted in our inmost fears.
It’s the miracle which is perhaps the most famous of them all: the feeding of the 5,000. It’s found in all four Gospels. But we don’t always notice that in Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, there is another miracle, which is very similar: the miracle of the feeding of the FOUR thousand. And that is our Gospel for today.
There is so much in this story, but as I read it again, slowly, two things in particular spoke to me.
First, I was struck again by Jesus’ wonderful compassion. “My heart is moved with pity,” one translation puts it, “because they are hungry.” We often remember all the spiritual things Jesus says in the Gospels, but we don’t always notice how he is not just interested in our spiritual selves, but our physical needs as well. They’re hungry; help them. Remember how after Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter, he says, “give her something to eat.” When the disciples return from mission, Jesus can see they are exhausted and says, “Come away by yourselves and rest.”
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
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?
The scholarly journal, the “International Bulletin of Mission Research,” has for more than thirty years compiled an annual table of Christian martyrs. The journal defines martyrs as “believers in Christ who have lost their lives prematurely, in situations of witness, as a result of human hostility.”
Martyr. The journal’s estimate: in the last 10 years, 900,000 Christians have been killed worldwide for their witness to Christ. That’s, on average, 90,000 Christians martyred each year during this past decade.[i]
The English word “martyr” comes from both Latin and Greek, the word “martyr” translated as “witness.” May we be spared shedding our blood as a martyr; nonetheless, there will be countless occasions to give “witness” to Christ. There will be more than a few opportunities for us to “lay down our life” for someone, another child of God, probably even today. The invitation may not be in an act of heroism – no shedding of blood – but more likely in a very mundane and rather hidden way.
Certain people who – as we say – absolutely “kill us,” we will have the occasion to show kindness or to forgive. We will be invited, undoubtedly, to offer the generosity of our tried patience; the withholding of our judgment; the readiness to be helpful and not hurtful, or retiring or rebuffing; the opportunity to bless and not to curse. Not everyone, we pray, will face John the Baptist’s fate; but all of us who profess Jesus as our Lord and Savior will be invited to die more than once, maybe more than once even today. To die. Jesus said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it will not bear fruit.”[ii] We’re to be fruitful. Something will need to die for us to be fruitful. Whether it be something great or something puny that we are sorely tempted to clutch at and save at all costs may need to die. It may be some image of ourselves, some impression, or decision, or resolution, or privilege, or fear, or time that we feel is our rightful possession. It’s going to get in the way of life, what Jesus calls “abundant life,” if we don’t let it go, don’t surrender it, don’t let it die.[iii] Today will probably be a “killer” in the working out of our salvation and in our claiming the “abundant life” promised by Jesus.
In the SSJE Brothers’ Rule of Life, we speak of our identification with martyrdom, not because we are monks, but because we are baptized. In our baptismal vows, we profess that we “have died with Christ and are raised with him.” Jesus promises us resurrection power. We have to die before we rise, before we can claim his resurrection power. Die, again, and again, and again, we must die.
[i] See the International Bulletin of Mission Research, 2018 study: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2396939317739833
[ii] John 12:24.
[iii] Jesus speaks of “abundant life” in John 10:10.
Today is Candlemas and it’s a feast I’m very fond of – but then I like candles! I remember when I was a young child, we lived in the South of England, deep in the Sussex countryside, and we were often having power outages. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed, carrying a candle, and then tuck up in bed, nice and cozy, looking round a once familiar bedroom – now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.
Later as I came to faith, looking at a candle, holding a candle, staring at the flickering light of the candle helped me to pray. The flickering light spoke to me of the light of Christ: of warmth, comfort, and the mystery of God.
The candles that we light in this church – all over the church and on the high altar today – help us celebrate the event which took place 40 days after Christmas, when Jesus, the Light of the world, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents to fulfill the required ceremonies of the law. He had already been circumcised on the eighth day and received his name, “Jesus.” But because he was the first-born, he was regarded as holy. In other words, belonging to the Lord, and his parents had to, as it were, buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary, and he was then presented to the Lord. At the same time, his mother Mary had, according to the law, to be purified after childbirth. This was achieved by offering two burnt offerings either of turtle doves and two pigeons.
Mark 4: 35 – 41.
Some of you will know that this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the theft of a number of art treasures from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. It was the night of 19 March 1990 that two thieves, dressed at Boston policemen, broke into the museum, stole 13 paintings, and literally vanished into thin air. It’s the biggest art theft in American history, and no trace has ever been found of either paintings, or the men. Still to this day, because of the terms of Mrs. Gardner’s will, which stipulates nothing can be moved or changed, you can go to the museum and see the empty frames where the paintings once hung.
One of those stolen paintings was Rembrandt’s 1633 oil on canvas painting of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.
If you have ever been caught in a storm on a body of water, you’ll know exactly how terrifying they can be. The world seems to be moving every which way, all at the same time, and there is nothing between you and certain death by drowning except what seems to be a flimsy bit of wood or metal, even if the vessel you are on is a great ocean going liner.
The terror on the faces of the disciples in Rembrandt’s painting is clear, as they strain at the oars, or try to control the sails. Yet in the midst of this is a calm Jesus, roused from his sleep with the urgent query, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ Matthew’s version of this same story has an even greater sense of urgency, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’
2 Samuel 11:1-17 & Mark 4:26-34
I am haunted by a vivid memory: a lush, green vine consuming a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and even a small house. The vine is kudzu, a species innocently introduced to the southern U.S. in the late 1800’s from Japan. Now known as “the vine that ate the south,” kudzu is an aggressively invasive species, often growing a foot in a single day. My vivid memory stems from seeing this vine for the first time at age nine, when my family relocated to Alabama from New Jersey. On one stretch of highway, I gawked at the shape of a tractor, an abandoned car, a telephone pole, and then a small house clearly visible beneath the lush foliage. I silently wondered if our new house would eventually suffer the same fate.
Sin is not unlike kudzu on an untended stretch of highway. In the second book of Samuel, we encounter a passage that is notoriously timeless in its relevance. A simple stroll and a lingering glance in the direction of the unknowing, innocent Bathsheba prove fatal. So much harm grown from a single, tragically misguided decision, to act on his tempting thoughts in flagrant abuse of his power as king. David’s sin rapidly multiplies in a sequence of events leading to worse and worse consequences. An innocent woman’s life is changed forever, and a good man is put to death by the king whose interests he was fighting to defend.
No one covers a lamp with a basket or puts it under a bed, says Jesus. Hiding a lamp makes it ineffective. A lamp is made to share light, to be out in the open so others may see. Matthew adds: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[i] We are made to shine, to illuminate, to point people to God, not hiding or keeping to ourselves.
Yesterday in the text preceding this we heard a parable.[ii] Like the wild sower, God is recklessly generous, scattering seed everywhere, including where there is little chance of bearing fruit. Like the different soils, we vary in our receptivity, while God keeps loving, generously sharing.
To receive such generosity and to share it means being vulnerable—risky, emotional, exposed—and this is how we are created to be. Fear and shame prompt hiding or hording. Jesus says as a lamp is for a room, we are to receive, be seen, and shine.