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.
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.
The kingdom of God as a great dinner, as banquet, is an old image. 700 years before Jesus, Isaiah wrote that one day God would make a feast of rich food and well-aged wines for all peoples. At that time, God would also destroy death and wipe away all tears.[i]
Over time, a few groups reinterpreted Isaiah’s vision inserting limits, saying it was not for everyone but rather for good religious folk, those who kept all the religious laws, not for unbelievers, not for foreigners.[ii] Likely some reclining at the dinner with Jesus were expecting him to affirm the reinterpretation: Blessed are the righteous, those who keep the rules, who (like us) will be worthy to be welcomed to God’s party.[iii]
Instead, Jesus tells this story. “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many.” One invites, get confirmations, and from that number prepares appropriate food. When the food is ready, guests are invited a second time to come over, like as we say “now come to the table.”
Contrary to all custom, the guests refuse, giving ridiculous excuses. “I bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it.” Yet anyone would look at a piece of land extensively before buying. “I bought five yoke of oxen, and I have to go try them out.” Yet oxen must work well together yoked. It would be foolish to buy without testing them first. The third says, “it’s my wedding night. I can’t come.” These are not: I’m so sorry. Something I couldn’t have foreseen just came up. These are absurd. They are offensive, public insults to the host.[iv]
For good reason, the master of the house became angry. One rightly expects retaliation, or cutting off relationship, or withdrawing and stewing. When you or someone you love is insulted, threatened, hurt or attacked, what stirs in you? How do you want to respond, or what do you find that you do with your anger? Right the wrong with revenge. Fight back with force. Wound with words. Hit to hurt. Shame.
There was once a young man who was beginning his spiritual journey in the religious life. He sought the council of an old man who was well versed in spirituality, and asked him what all he must do to live a disciplined religious life. The old man opened his Psalter and read the first verse of Psalm 39: I said, I will keep watch upon my ways, so that I do not offend with my tongue. “STOP!” cried the young man as the older was about to proceed; “when I have learned that I will come and receive further rules.” And so he went away and at the end of six months, the older man, curious about the progress of the younger, sought him out and asked, “Are you ready to continue with the other lessons?” “Not yet,” he replied. “I have not yet mastered the first one.” Another five years passed and curiously the older man again sought out the younger. This time the young man replied, “I have no need of the other lessons, for, having learned that first rule, to master the tongue, I have gained discipline and control over my whole nature.”[i]
The past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. I am struck by one of the Letter’s reoccurring themes: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness; if any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.[ii] Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, the author of the Letter is admonishing his audience to put right words into right action. Certainly, he seems to know something about the nature of speech. His use of metaphor instantly captures our imaginations and brings into focus a truth that is both easy to comprehend yet difficult to master. This morning we read: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. Bits in the mouths of horses, small rudders guiding large ships, great forests being set ablaze by small sparks: all of these poetically call into question our mastery over this small, unruly member of our body: the tongue. With it, he says, we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. You might summarize this major theme of James’ Letter this way: words matter. What is your experience of this? What metaphor would you use to illustrate the power of speech? How have you come to know that words matter?
Some years ago I was sharing a conversation with my spiritual director, who was a seasoned Jesuit priest. He had risen in the ranks of leadership over the decades and, to me, was a treasury of wisdom. Reflecting on his own years in the Society of Jesus, he said to me: “Be very kind to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet these same people on your way down.” There is a word for this, a word on which we should be on good speaking terms. That word is “humility.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond the minions who otherwise surround us. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. Humus is formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material in the ground. Humility is composted from leading a well-cultivated life. I’ll come back to that.
Jesus navigated life with humility. The ancient prophecies that had anticipated the coming Messiah predicted the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”[i]Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter this kingdom of God. He says to enter “as a little child.[ii] And Jesus gives the warning, “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”[iii]Jesus was critical of those who trumpet and parade their piety, their purity, their generosity, their grandiosity, their accomplishments from the grandstand. Rather Jesus commends us to live out our lives in a very unostentatious, uncalculated way, not even letting our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing. This is the grace of humility.
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 but 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!
Our gospel lesson from Matthew this evening is a portion of what is known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.’ Most of us will be familiar with the Beatitudes which begin this famous sermon (Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who morn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, etc.)[i] This sermon is given in a rabbinic tradition that takes aspects of the law and expounds upon them in order to help people realize that to which they have been called. And Jesus covers a lot of ground during this time of teaching. What most caught my eye was Jesus’ admonition to ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easythat leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.’
Jesus’ teaching here was about the discernment of right of wrong which would not always be clear based on popular schools of thought. Jesus used the actions of the religious leaders of his day to prove the point. In his line of fire were the Pharisees, an influential sect within Judaism who were known for their personal piety and their insistence that Jews should observe all laws of the Torah which included 248 prescriptions and 365 proscriptions—that is “you shall’s” and “you shall not’s,” respectively.[ii] The Pharisees spent their lives learning the law and enforcing it to the best of their abilities in order to keep Israel a holy nation. And Jesus certainly did not disagree with their zeal. Just two chapters earlier at the beginning of this sermon Jesus affirms his commitment to the law saying, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.’[iii]
The Matthean community from which Matthew’s gospel originates, was one of Jewish origin and identity who were following ‘the Way’ that Jesus had preached. Out of their context of Judaism, they were concerned about matters of correct procedure, the main conundrum being: were they as apostles to be conservators or liberators? Were they to be conservators of the Jewish heritage and indoctrinate new converts to Jesus Christ back into the faith of the chosen people, orwere they to be liberators, seeing their experience of Jesus Christ as an invitation into the future, the coming kingdom of God and the gift of salvation and liberation for all. Which was it?[iv]
Jesus message which he reiterated over and over was that holiness was not determined by being set apart as morally superior to others but rather by exhibiting the highest attribute of God, what was known in Hebrew as chesed, which is translated as loving-kindness or compassion.[v] The Law was important but it had to be kept in the spirit of chesed, which is why later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus responds to a Pharisee’s question this way: When he was asked which commandment in the law is greatest he responded predictably: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is a quote from Deuteronomy and is part of the Shema, the primary creed in Judaism which begins every service.[vi]
But Jesus throws in a second which he says is like the first. What could be equal to loving God with every fiber of your being? Jesus uses a line from the Holiness Code in Leviticus: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The verse from Leviticus ends with the statement, “I am the Lord.”[vii] In other words, this is my essence, who I am. By keeping this law you will be set apart as my own. “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Jesus doesn’t negate any other part of the Law, but rather says on these two, love of God and love of neighbor, hang all the law and the prophets. In keeping the Law you must meld it with the spirit of Chesed: loving-kindness or compassion; you might even say ‘mercy.’
But as nice is all this sounds, Jesus’ point in the gospel we heard this evening is that the work of ‘chesed’ is not an easy walk in the park and it normally goes against the stream of popular thought. Love of God can only be accomplished by committing to the equally large task of love of neighbor as self. And I believe that this task is as big and perhaps daunting today as it was in Jesus’ day. We live in virtual society where social media that has promised to bring us together through technology and convenience is actually driving us apart. A couple of years ago I remember seeing an advertisement while waiting on the T to arrive for GrubHub, a popular food delivery service. I was so startled by its message that I took a picture of the sign that read: ‘Say hello to ordering food online, and say goodbye to saying hello into a phone.’[viii] In other words, why be inconvenienced by the complexity and difficulty of human interaction? It is this loss of personal connection that I believe has led us to a place of extreme isolation at a time where connection, understanding, compassion, kindness, and even mercy are so desperately needed. But let’s face it, chesed is not easy. This narrow way that leads to life takes the will and intention of commitment, the assent to experiencing inconvenience, the expectation of messiness, and the understanding that it will cost us all something, both individually and communally. How can we begin to actively engage in the work of chesed?
The first point Jesus makes in his summary of the Law begins with the word “You.” You shall love the Lord God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Why? Because that is why we were created. We were created in love for the sake of relationship with God, and in the image of God with the capacity to mirror the same love that is His essence, chesed. I know that one of my greatest challenges in my life is to see myself as one of God’s beloved, to see His image in myself. All too often, I’ve been my greatest critic and have done more to separate myself from God’s love than to embrace it. The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson said, “We cannot have an abiding faith in the Incarnation[ix] unless we recognize consequences in ourselves proportionate, and nothing can be proportionate to God becoming flesh short of the great mystery of ourselves becoming one with God as His children.”[x] This is the holiness we’re called to. If you’re having trouble seeing yourself as God’s beloved, you may want pray using the verse from Psalm 26: “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.”[xi] You are that abiding place!
Once we recognize our interconnectedness with God and His creation vertically, then I think we can the move to love of neighbor in the horizontal. This love of neighbor is of the same essence as the love of God, chesed. Our neighbors are a testimony to the vast diversity of God. To reject this diversity is to reject aspects of the living God in our midst. We cannot say, “I have no need of you.” We can only have relationship by actively and intentionally engaging our neighbors, especially the ones who challenge us. We must have the resolve to engage these neighbors not by reproving them for their wrong thought, but by actively listening to them and searching for the common ground where we can then begin to build a foundation. Sometimes the only common ground we may be able to find is that place at the altar where we all acknowledge our neediness by putting our hands together and stretching them out to receive sustenance from the one who is the essence of chesed: our kind, compassionate, merciful God who gave us Jesus his son as the shepherd leading us to the narrow gate that leads to life abundant.
I do not remember being punished by my mom for my romp in the muddy, clay-filled pools of water with Patrick, my cohort in crime. Even though I was instructed on ‘correct’ behavior, I believe my mom knew that in my incorrect decision of following Patrick’s actions (because of course her son would never lead anyone astray), I was just a young boy celebrating life and learning its lessons. She was a model of chesed, loving kindness and compassion. And I miss her! Amen
[ii]Harrington, Daniel, ed. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1991. Print.
[v]Winters, Charles L., ed. Education for Ministry, Year Two: New Testament. Sewanee: The University of the South. 1977. Print.
[ix]The doctrine of the incarnation affirms that the eternal Son of God took human flesh from His human mother and that the historical Christ is at once fully God and fully man. (From the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church).
[x]The Final Passover, Vol. 2, p. 402
Tonight we conclude our Epiphany preaching series on following God’s call, reflecting on the Gift of Community. We are created for relationship, reflecting God’s nature. “Our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love.”[i]
We are created to love mutually, to walk together, share, listen, teach, and encourage. In our brokenness, much can make us feel alienated, disconnected, and cut off. Choosing to turn toward each other to connect, welcome, and share heals and transforms. Life is about transformation, continual progression, ongoing conversion. God continually calls us onward into more together.
Yet we are often stuck in the past. Placed in memories, given labels and expectations. Memories of who we once jostling up against who we are now. Patterns of prior years are powerfully present though the players have changed.