Life Profession of Nicholas Bartoli SSJE
Exodus 33: 7 – 11
Psalm 139: 1 – 12
1 John 4: 7 – 12
John 15: 9 – 19
If truth be told, I am more than a little surprised to be here today. Indeed, I am more than a little surprised that any of us are here today. I am actually most surprised that Nicholas is here today!
There was a time, not all that long ago in the scheme of things, that I was convinced that this life profession of our Brother Nicholas, would never happen. And I am not the only one. I think Nicholas was even more convinced that it would never happen! He was so convinced in fact, that he went around telling Brothers individually, that he was leaving the community!
In the midst of all of this, I tried to convince Nicholas that leaving, at least leaving when he was thinking about doing so, was not a good idea. But in case you didn’t know, Nicholas has a stubborn streak in him as wide at the Brooklyn Bridge! What saved the day was a conversation he had with a good friend of ours. In the course of that brief conversation, our friend put a couple of questions to Nicholas. In less than an hour Nicholas’ mind was changed as whole new possibilities opened up. A little more than a year later, here we are. Here we are to witness, and support, and encourage Nicholas as he makes his life profession in our Society, promising to God and before the whole company of heaven and in the presence of this congregation … that [he] will live in life-long observance of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, according to the Rule of this Society.
So friend, if you are out there, we owe you our profound thanks, because if it weren’t for your intervention, today’s profession would not be happening! (Although, there may be days in the future we blame you that it has happened!)
This Gospel passage appointed for today is about blindness – a blind man whose sight Jesus restores – however there’s more going on here than meets the eye. In the Gospel according to Mark, there’s a recurring theme of blindness – blindness as a metaphor – of people seeing but not understanding. They have sight, but they do not have insight or foresight. The “eyes of their hearts” are notenlightened.
Just prior to this scene in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus miraculously feeds a multitude of people, and two different times. The disciples witness both of these miracles, but they are blind to what is really going on, twice. They miss the meaning. Jesus asks, rhetorically: “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see?”[i]
Mark uses a particular verb for seeing in this Gospel story and multiple times throughout his Gospel. The verb Mark uses for “seeing” is actually the verb for “perception”: which is observing something and then understanding correctly what it means.[ii]But the disciples don’t. They don’t get it. Repeatedly. They’re blind. Mark takes his inspiration from the prophecy of Isaiah, who writes recurringly about the Messiah’s coming to heal blindness, blindness of the heart to perceive and understand.[iii]
Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5,10
Mark 8: 14-21
All of the world’s major Story traditions contain epic cycles of creation, the flourishing of life, decline, death, and renewal. Myths – stories that resound with the ring of Truth, whether or not they are based on factual events – mirror the processes of nature and the work of time. These stories enlarge what is small but also condense what is vast. This process allows the storyteller and the story-listener to make meaning of the cycle – which would otherwise remain too large to handle. The portion that is visible to us at any one moment – birth, growth, suffering, or death – would overwhelm us with its magnitude. Stories sift, sort, and distill until symbols cohere from the chaos: the waters of a great flood; a boat designed by God; a bit of yeast; a single loaf of bread.
When decline and death become the predominant experience of a culture or group, these stories become vital life-lines to a sacred past. “We have been here before,” the people can confidently say. “Let us remember; let our remembering bear us forward.” Some of the Psalms are almost entirely sustained acts of remembrance. Foundational memories recorded elsewhere in the Torah are set to psalmody not to be redundant, but to place them in the mouths of each praying generation. Including ours.
For the people of Israel, there is a power, a force, a God outside of nature and time. “The LORD sits enthroned abovethe flood,” the Psalmist sings. The Holy One is transcendent.
Once upon a time there was a young Elm tree, and, sadly, he was miserable most of his days. The weather was so fickle, often just plain awful; one day, too much rain, another snow and hail; ice and cold, burning heat, or terrible winds. Sometimes cloudy days would go on forever with no hint of Sun. And the young Elm would lament bitterly.
Nearby, their lived an old Oak tree, standing silently by as the weather did what it did. Hot or cold, dark or sunny, windy or calm, wet or dry, the old Oak just stood content and still, wearing a smile more often than not.
The young Elm would spy the old Oak, baffled and, increasingly, annoyed. It’s cold and snowing, for God’s sake, what could that old Oak be smiling about? Until one day, the young Elm could stand it no longer, and he said to the old Oak, “Why on earth are you smiling? The weather is horrible… why aren’t you miserable like I am? What do you know that I don’t know?”
I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked: and I hid myself.
It strikes me that as a people we are beginning to ask ourselves (deeply) what kind of freedom our common life enshrines. One of the many assumptions our culture relies upon is the idea that freedom is chiefly about “choice.” This assumption stands out to me as I pray with these readings from Genesis and Mark, and the Spirit asks us to consider the freedom we rightly celebrate as Christians, compared with the world’s many pseudo-freedoms. The freedom to choose God’s will in love, or the second-hand freedoms that will always leave us feeling, nevertheless, afraid.
It is telling to me that prior to our temptation we were perfectly free to choose from every tree of the garden—every blessing and delight of created existence, every pursuit of knowledge and relationship with our partner and our God—except, of course, one.
This tree, our desire to eat of it, and the choice to pursue or abstain from that desire tips the narrative of creation. Twice.
Genesis 1:1-19 / Psalm 104:1-12
“Bless the Lord O my soul, O Lord my God, how excellent is your greatness! You are clothed with majesty and splendor. You wrap yourself with light as with a cloak.”
Those wonderful opening lines of today’s Psalm 104. There is this amazing intimate relationship between God and creation. God wraps himself with light as with a cloak. So when we look at light we see something of God. And so with the cloud and the wind. They speak to us of God.
And this same relationship between God and creation is revealed in those opening verses of the beginning of the Book of Genesis. God creates the dry land and the sea, light and darkness, vegetation, plants, trees, seeds, fruit, birds, fish, cattle. And each time God saw that it was good. God creates with love and tenderness and in God’s image. The imprint of God’s very hand – the divine potter – is on everything he created. It is very good. This intimacy between creator and created is very important, because I know that the created world – the trees and flowers and birds, the sunshine – even the snow! – have the power to reveal God to us.
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.
When I was a student, one phrase always sent my spirit sinking, “group work.” Invariably I would be assigned a partner or two who, to my mind, were only there to drag me down or distract my self-esteem by their more finely formed intelligence and work ethic. “Couldn’t we just do these assignments on our own?” I would ask myself. I wanted to be in sole control over anything I had to surrender for the teacher’s scrutiny. So focused was I on the state of my own GPA that I dreaded the idea of having to compete with, or worse still, depend on another. “Surely,” I thought, “real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
I think it is safe to say that we live in a culture that suffers, to varying degrees, from this pivotal misunderstanding. While cooperation and mutuality are concepts routinely praised from the political podium, in classrooms, and in many an ideological platform, at the end of the day, we still notice something unsettling: individualism and individual choice, the right to be an island, and the desire for private ownership still guide so much of the world around us as goods in themselves. It is clear that we know we should temper these behaviors, but we still manage to miss the mark. We seem to be uncomfortable working beyond our own, or our community’s, assumptions. We want to be in control.
“Surely real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
There is a scene in the Gospels where 12-year old Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions.[i]And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” Here is my hunch. All who heard Jesus were amazed at his knowledge: a precocious boy from Nazareth (which was a long ways from nowhere), and Jesus’ being sosmart. He dazzled them with his knowledge.
Something happens in the ensuing nearly 20 years, the “hidden years,” before Jesus begins his public ministry. When he emerges from his seclusion, he does great deeds of power, healing, and provision; however something else “astounds” the people. Astounds. They ask themselves, “Where did this man get all this?” And what are they talking about? It’s not just about Jesus’ powerful ministry; it’s not just about his knowledge. Jesus is now filled with wisdom. So we hear in today’s Gospel lesson: the crowds were amazed and asked, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?”
In the New Testament epistles, Jesus is named “the wisdom of God.”[ii] Jesus is the one “in whom all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.”[iii] “Wisdom and knowledge,” which are cousins. Wisdom and knowledge are related, but they not one-in-the-same. Jesus was not born wise.
The Martyrs of Japan
In 1597, 26 Christians, including three children, were crucified in Nagasaki, Japan. They were bound upon crosses, hoisted up, and stabbed to death with spears. There is no way to dress this up. There is no way to make it peaceful or pretty. These were gruesome, terrible deaths. The martyrs almost certainly felt a great deal of fear and pain. The killings were a deliberate attempt to stoke fear among any Christian converts, missionaries, and sympathizers. This has never been an ordinary form of execution in Japan; the killings were a deliberate mockery of Christ’s Crucifixion.
Maybe that’s our way in. Many Christians in our country live in an escapist fantasy, where they are the oppressed minority, and executions are only a generation or two away. This thinking seems to cut across many different denominations, and makes an utter mockery of the martyrs of the Church. But for the rest of us, real martyrdom is deeply difficult to wrap our heads around. We have, perhaps, felt a bit at-odds or out-of-place running in certain social circles. Maybe this has led to arguments or hurt feelings. But, for the vast majority of us, this is as bad as it will ever get. Genuinely being killed for being Christian is…unthinkable. Not here. Over there, sure. But not here.