Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.
On many, many occasions in my millennial life, more than I care to recall or admit, I have lifted my head, refocused my eyes, and come to my frazzled senses after mindlessly staring at my iPhone or computer, those glowing rectangles of distraction and dispersion in front of which I spend an alarming percentage of my time. In those moments I think, “What did I just waste my time on?”
It’s often then that I find myself with the prayer we just heard in the Psalm on my heart and in my mind: “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.” In other translations, it reads “turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity,” and “avert my eyes from seeing falsehood.”
Vanity, falsehood, worthless. These words pretty well describe the substance of much of the digital content so effectively designed to capture my monetized attention. The fascinating thing is that this verse appears in Psalm 119, a prayer of one whose heart delights in the law of God. By including this petition for God to keep his eyes from what is worthless, the writer shows that the inclinations of the heart are inextricably bound up with the things our eyes behold.
Matthew 7:6, 12-14
Many of you may know that for almost the entire fifty days of Easter, I was home in Tennessee visiting and caring for my ailing mother who passed away on May 8th. As you can imagine, this time with my mom was precious, bittersweet, and we shared many reminiscences of our relationship throughout the years, but especially from my youth. One such instance was when I was 7 or 8 years old. I was at my friend Patrick’s house, which had a large lot behind it consisting of hills made from the excavation of red clay dirt for the future building of new homes. We had had a lot of rain that week and at the bottom of these clay dirt hills were big puddles of water. Thinking they looked refreshing, Patrick and I stripped down to our underwear and proceeded to roll down the clay mud hills landing in the puddles with a big splash. It was a lot of fun! We did this over and over again until I heard my mom calling me to supper in the distance.
Our frolicking in the clay puddles had seemed like such a good idea at the time that I could not have predicted my mother’s dismay when I showed up in the house wearing nothing buy my soaked, red clay-stained tighty-whities, which would never again be white. (Mind you, not only did I walk home that way, two streets over and through several neighbors’ yards, but we had dinner guests that evening). As I plead my case before my agitated mother I said, “Well, Patrick did it first!” And we have all heard the retort that I remember mom using that evening: “If Patrick jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, would you do it too?” As a young boy from the heart of Appalachia, I’m not sure I knew very much at that time about the Brooklyn Bridge, but I imagined if there was a red clay puddle at the bottom, then yes, absolutely!”
Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Psalm 85: 7-13
Acts 13: 14b-26
Luke 1: 57-80
It doesn’t take much: a young girl, barely a teenager, lowering her bucket into the village well, listening for the splash when it hits the water; an old man, hands shaking with age, alone in the sanctuary of the Lord, spooning incense onto the red hot charcoal of the altar brazier. It doesn’t take much, and suddenly there is a moment, a movement, a presence, a strange voice, a greeting: ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you’; a command and a promise: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
It doesn’t take much, a young girl, barely a teenager, going about her daily chores; an old man, whose hands tremble with age, performing a duty he had done, perhaps countless times before, yet something is profoundly different.
In our worship, we speak of the glorious company of apostles, the noble fellowship of prophets, and the white-robed army of martyrs.1We speak of the angelic hosts.2 We might use language such as, “the Church militant,” or, “the Church triumphant.” Our founder, Fr. Benson, once had a conversation with a stranger while out in the city. When he described his life as a member of a religious community, she exclaimed, “Oh, you must have found so much peace!” Fr. Benson replied, “No, madam, I’ve found a war.”
This language resonates with me, because it gives expression to a truth of my own life with God. I experience God as peace, as rest, as calm, as love. But this is not passivity, and my own proclivity to sin, the corruption of my own human nature, fights viciously to dethrone God from my heart. In my life, and especially my prayer, I often must fight back, asking God not only for the gifts of calm, rest, and silence, but also for the gifts of strength, vigor, and power, to aid me in the war over my spirit.
Clouds and darkness are round about him, * righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne [on earth as in heaven].
Rejoice in the Lord, you righteous * and give thanks to his holy [, hallowed] Name. –Psalm 97: 2, 12
If your prayer life is anything like my own, you will have found that our praying lives are often littered with ever shifting seasons, fresh insights, old wounds that continue to sting, and ever expanding and contracting horizons of the heart. Perhaps, too, you will have found that even the most familiar phenomena can take on new valences and, to our surprise, unveil themselves in a beautiful complexity to which we had previously been blind. The ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ from which our gospel pericope comes this morning, has often been for me a site of this very ‘unraveling of the familiar’—a place where the real limitations of our spiritual vision meet the scandalous, expansive, sometimes terrifying truth at the heart of all things.
For many of us, the words of the Lord’s prayer contain an inestimable, unqualifiable freight. These words—so dear, so familiar, so second-nature—stir the gaze of our hearts toward the One whom Jesus invites us to name “Our Father,” and articulate in six remarkably short petitions some of the deepest content of the “hope that is in us.” And yet, as with anything we live in close proximity to, the very familiarity of these words can sometimes obscure this prayer’s true power to transform us and its radical challenge that seeks to summon us beyond our illusory sense of self-dependence.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel reading there are some words of advice. Those words have to do with practices of Piety or devotion. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 6:1) This advice follows through the next few paragraphs which have to do with alms giving, prayer, and other practices of devotion and the reward for such practices.
From an early age I had been taught that some of the early chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew, 5 through 7, are known as the Sermon on the Mount. Those words give to us some of the basic teachings of Jesus from early in his ministry. The teachings in today’s Gospel Reading are those which have to do with familiar practices of piety and worship and the rewards related with them
If I were to tell you that I love my sister – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, have a sibling, or spouse, or partner, or best friend whom you love very much. If I were to make the revelation that I also love dill pickles – which is very true – you could imagine what I’m talking about. You, too, love dill pickles, or, if not, you love something delectable. But you would understand that I don’t love my sister the same way I love dill pickles. Right? In English we use the verb “love” in many, many different ways, our word “love” being defined by its context. Not so in Greek, the language of the New Testament. In Greek there are four different verbs which we, in English, translate as “love.” And in the Greek, there’s also a host of other verbs that describe our relationship to pickles and the like.
So we should rightly ask, when we hear Jesus say “love your enemies,” what kind of love is this? What’s the Greek verb? It’s rather unfortunate. Jesus is talking here of love at its most, most extreme, self-sacrificial way. Jesus is using the same “love” verb that describes how he literally lays down his life in being crucified by his enemies. Why? For love. It’s imaginable how we would give up our lives, lay down our lives, expend our lives in very self-sacrificial ways for our spouse, or lover, or child, or for someone else whom we adore. That goes without saying. But what Jesus is saying here is to love our enemies in the same way. I beg to differ.
I Samuel 16:1-13
From the First Book of Samuel, that great story of the calling and anointing of David. I’ve always really loved this story. It’s a kind of Cinderella story. Here are all Jesse’s sons lined up in front of the prophet Samuel. He looks at each one in turn: which one has the Lord chosen to be king? The first one, Eliab. He’s tall and good-looking. He must be the one! But no, says God. Never mind about his appearance or his height – he’s not the one. Nor the next one, nor the next one. But surely, God, this one looks perfect to be king. No, says God – never mind what he looks like. “For the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
And none of his sons are chosen. Are you sure there’s no one else? Well, says Jesse, there is the youngest (or in Hebrew it can also mean the smallest or the shortest). It couldn’t possibly be him! – and anyway he’s out with the sheep. Bring him in! I need to see him! He comes in, and immediately Samuel knows‘This is the one!’ And he anoints him with oil in the presence of all his brothers, and we read “The Spirit of the Lord came mightily on David from that day forward.”
Well, it’s a great story, and the reason I think I’ve always loved it is that I’m the youngest son in my family and I’ve got two older brothers. Growing up I was always younger and shorter than them. Playing football (soccer) with them and their friends, they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re too small. You can go in goal. I hated being in goal and just standing around. Boring! You couldn’t run around with the ball.
What is God calling you from? This is not a question many of us are used to asking; much more commonly, we ask what God is calling us to. But, upon reading today’s lessons, it’s the first question that stuck out to me: What is God calling you from?
Elijah has fled from his oppressors, fearing for his life. He finds a cave, a hiding place, a refuge, and it’s difficult for me to imagine just how comforting that must have been for him. But soon after, God asks Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah explains his predicament, and God listens, but then tells him to come out of the cave.
Immediately, the scene changes to one of destruction and upheaval. Whipping, wind, quaking earth, roaring fire: it must have been terrifying. But these terrors are only a prelude. The din of destruction dies down, and in the calm and the quiet, in the silence, Elijah encounters God. He shields his face with his mantle, because he knows this silence is holy ground.
For Jesus, Saturday – not Sunday – was the most important day of the week. Saturday, not because of shopping, or afternoon barbeques, or baseball games, or getting bills paid and the laundry done, but because Saturday was the sabbath, the most important day of the week. Jesus was formed in the observance of the Ten Commandments. Of all the Commandments, the longest explanation is given to the fourth commandment: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”[i] You are probably quite clear about the commandment not to commit murder, and not to steal, and not to take the Lord’s name in vain, but what about remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy?[ii] Is that a little fuzzy for you? If so, what happened, because you’re not alone? For many people, several things have colluded to compromise the observance of sabbath.
For one, there’s the Church’s deference to Sunday. Sunday is the day of resurrection. Every Sunday is a little Easter. By the Middle Ages, most Christians had transferred sabbath observance from Saturday to Sunday, i.e., keeping Sunday holy. Sunday, for most Christians, became the new sabbath. As a young boy, I remember the preparation for Sunday, our sabbath day, included the ritual Saturday night bath. Sunday morning I put on my very best clothes for church. My father taught me how to tie a necktie because because of church attire on Sunday. And that’s pretty much what we as a family did on Sundays: we went to church Sunday morning and Sunday evening, and we were together as a family all Sunday. I didn’t play with my neighborhood buddies, I didn’t watch TV, I didn’t make a lot of noise. There were no school activities on Sunday. There were “Blue Laws” which kept the stores shut: no shopping on Sundays, which also allowed store employees to do the very thing we were doing on Sunday: having a day of rest.[iii]