We all know the feeling of waiting for that one guy who is always late. That feeling of quiet anger rising as the whole room waits for him to arrive so that the meeting can start. You try to be patient, you try some small talk, but soon the frustrating thoughts creep in… he always does this, God is he clueless, someone should say something to him. The moments drag by…then finally the tardy man arrives two minutes late, holding tea and toast.
St. Paul encourages us tonight to regard others as better than ourselves. Now please keep in mind St. Paul didn’t write these words on his honeymoon. He wrote these words in jail, locked up because he was a Christian. So even in chains he asks us to consider others as better than ourselves…that includes Mr. Tea and Toast.
Why would St. Paul write such a thing? Why not write something like follow the spirit of Christ and always arrive five minutes early so no has to wait for you? The genius of St. Paul was his vision for the long haul. He knew that having the patience to regard others as more important is a short term pain for a long term gain. In other words, patience is a good strategy.
I remember, nearly a decade ago, watching a video on YouTube. In the video, the hosts of the show, consistent with their political leanings, filmed their infiltration of an environmentalist rally. There, they spoke with attendees and asked for signatures on their petition to ban a purportedly dangerous chemical. This chemical was largely unregulated, had been detected in our water supply along with countless food items, and could cause death within minutes if inhaled in sufficient quantities. The chemical in question was described with the scary-sounding name, “dihydrogen monoxide.” You might know it better by its chemical formula: H2O. Largely unregulated, in our food and water, it can cause death if inhaled in sufficient quantities, it was water.
There is a common physiological phenomenon that occurs to many people as their bodies cross the threshold from a waking state into deep sleep. An involuntary twitch of the muscles, called a hypnic jerk, wrenches the body awake. This is often preceded by a distinct sensation of falling that can be quite horrifying. Scientists don’t really understand it. It may be that our daytime motor control is exerting a last burst of effort for dominance as our muscles enter full relaxation on the cusp of dreaming. It may even be an evolutionary echo: our brain mistakes this necessary muscle relaxation for the experience of falling out of a tree, and sends a sudden flash of warning to the body. Whatever the cause, there is something deep, something primal in us, that resists relinquishing control as we approach the mysterious, nightly death of sleep.
In tonight’s passage from Acts, we hear about a boy named Eutychus and an unexpected fall. Eutychus falls asleep and falls to his death from a third-floor window. This tragic accident interrupts the bigger story with a profusion of small details. It happened “On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread,” Luke writes. The furniture is different, but we have been here before. Paul breaks open the word in an upper room in Troas, just as Jesus did in Jerusalem on the night before he died, and again after his Resurrection. Paul’s destination, too, is Jerusalem. As the gravity of his self-offering becomes clear, the power of the Lord’s resurrection flashes forth within and around him.
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43
The focal point of much of Jesus’ preaching and teaching in the gospels is “the kingdom of God.”
The opening of Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus “came into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mk 1:14-15) Of course, this kingdom that Jesus proclaims is quite unlike the kingdoms of the world that we human beings know from experience:
God’s reign is not about exerting authority; it’s about offering service;
it is not about dominance and power; it’s about humility;
it is not about being first or greatest; it’s about identifying with the lowly and the poor.
Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus employs a number of images or metaphors to introduce the concept of God’s kingdom to his hearers, most of whom were peasants, subsistence farmers, living in an agrarian society. Jesus speaks about agriculture, about planting and harvesting, about sowing seeds – images easily understood by the people. His images regularly startle and surprise his listeners, and us. Over and over again, his point seems to be that this kingdom of God is never quite what we expect.
Saint Augustine, the African bishop and theologian of the early 5th century, spent many years writing about God as a Trinity of Persons, a mystery which both consumed his attention and yet eluded his understanding.[i] So the story goes, he was walking by the seaside one day, meditating on the Trinity, how God could be One essence, and yet, at the same time, three Persons. He came onto a little child. The child had dug a small hole in the sand, and with a seashell was scooping water from the ocean into the hole. Augustine watched him for a little while and finally asked the child what he was doing. The child answered that he wanted to scoop all the water from the sea and pour it into the hole in the sand. Augustine felt impelled to correct the child. “That is impossible,” Augustine said. “The sea is too large and the hole is too small.” And now it was this child who was impelled to correct Augustine. The child said, “That is true, but I will sooner draw all the water from the sea and empty it into this hole than you will succeed in penetrating the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your limited understanding.” Augustine turned away in amazement, and when he looked back, the child had disappeared. Augustine had been put in his place, not a bad place, but simply in a place of recognition that he, too, was a child of God, a God whom he would mysteriously experience but never fully understand.
“Make yourself at home.” It’s a nice thing to say to someone when they come over. It’s meant to put them at ease. It’s warm and inviting. I remember being told this a lot when I was asked to house-sit for people. And, as kind as it was. I knew it was only conditional. It was a temporary offer. I was welcome to eat some food from the fridge or lay down on the couch but painting a bedroom or organizing the kitchen cabinets the way I wanted to was never part of the bargain.
When Jesus invites us to abide, to dwell, to make our home, he’s offering more than a conditional bargain. He’s offering us eternity at home in God.
When John writes in his gospel that the “Word was made flesh” he chooses a word the resembles something more like “tented,” “tabernacled,” set up a temporary dwelling. The Word was made flesh and camped out among us. But, when Jesus talks about the relationship he’s offering with his disciples it has a more long-term, if not permanent ring. Make your home with me.
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Life is full of mystery. Especially people. We are all such mysteries. Yet there are these moments when we learn something about another person, and it’s like the light turns on in our heart of understanding who they are and why. It may be in our learning about their family of origin, their life history, their health, their abilities and training, their failures or successes. Whatever. And we have this “ah-ha” moment. It’s like a missing piece has been found in the puzzle of understanding this person… and their life now makes much more sense to us. Perhaps even what before had seemed to us a stain on this person’s character, we now can see is a scar which they have worn and wear well. We realize they are something of a walking miracle. You probably have had this experience. I certainly have.
The word in the scriptures that captures this deep sense of understanding another person is mercy, often also translated as compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion comes from the same root as the word for womb. Compassion is womb-like, for both the giver and the receiver.[i] Compassion safely, gently nurtures life. Estelle Frankel, a rabbi and psychotherapist, says that, “With compassion we enable all things to grow into their most beautiful and complete form, and with compassion we learn the wisdom of the womb,” how to hold, when to hold back as we carry someone in our womb of awareness.[ii]
When I was 26, I went to the Holy Land for the first time. The day I remember most was getting up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning with my fellow pilgrims and leaving our hotel in Jerusalem and getting into our coach, and in the dead of night driving due East. Ahead of us lay the great Judean wilderness. We could see very little, but eventually the coach stopped and we climbed out into the utter silence of the desert. As we stood in awe, our eyes slowly made out the shape of the hills, below the twinkling stars. Then the bus drove off. We were alone – standing together on the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
We, like the man in the parable, were going to walk from Jerusalem to Jericho. The ancient road is not the modern highway which now carries countless pilgrims down to Jericho in their air conditioned coaches. The road which we were taking winds its way between the hills and the rocks and the canyons, but always going down and down. For Jerusalem is high in the hills, while Jericho is way below sea level, one of the lowest points in the earth’s surface. The cities are less than 20 miles apart.
And so we set out for several hours of silent, prayerful walking .We began to see more and more clearly, and then there was a glorious sunrise, and we all sat down on the rocks and had Eucharist together.
On we walked, as the temperature rose; it became incredibly hot. “Keep drinking, keep drinking!” said our Palestinian guide. We did. But, sadly, we never made it to Jericho. The heat and sun became so intense as we walked lower and lower that some of our party felt unwell, and we called for the bus to drive us the last few miles into Jericho.
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.”
Isaiah 11:1-3 / Matthew 1:1-17
Well, I managed to get through that long Gospel reading! Why on earth did Matthew start his Gospel with a long, tedious list of names? Because for Matthew the gospel, (the Good News he was proclaiming), was entirely dependent on who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus is everything. And central to his identity is that he is a branch, stemming from the root of Jesse. O root, O radix Jesse, as today’s Advent antiphon puts it.
Identity is central to the whole prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. That tradition became more and more focused on the hope that one day, God would save his people by sending them a Savior – an anointed one—a Messiah. But who would he be? How will we know who it is? People were always asking “who are you?” “Where are you from?” Well, Isaiah tells us in our reading today: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him….” He will be the one. We will recognize the Messiah when he comes, because he will come from the root of Jesse.
Well, the long genealogical list at the beginning of Matthew is pretty dreary – but the image of a tree, a family tree, is much more appealing to the imagination. And that was certainly true for the medieval imagination. So over the centuries, artists have created some of the most beautiful and imaginative trees to teach and to celebrate Jesus’ genealogical identity. They are called Jesse Trees. We see them in stained glass windows. (The oldest piece of stained glass in England is the Jesse Tree at York Minster.) We see them in stone casings (like the wonderful Jesse Tree greeting pilgrims at the entrance to the cathedral of St. James Santiago de Compostela.) And we see them in illuminated manuscripts, such as the one you have before you. It is taken from the famous Winchester Psalter from the 12th century.