There hadn’t been anyone there. At least there hadn’t been anyone there when I looked out the window as the coach pulled to the side of the road and slowed to a stop. There hadn’t been anyone there, as all 30 of us got off to stretch our legs. But suddenly people began to emerge from the barren landscape. At first, it was a young boy, and then a couple of other children. One or two adults came into view. Soon the whole community was there. Fires were laid. Tea was made. Various goods for sale were displayed on blankets spread out on the ground. As we drank our tea, we were invited to buy what was being offered for sale. If I remember correctly, I did but something, but now can’t remember what it was.
I was in the wilderness. It was the fall of 1998 and I had gone with a group of pilgrims from St. George’s College, Jerusalem, to Egypt. We had spent a few days in Cairo, and then made our way to St. Antony’s Monastery, the home of a thriving community of Coptic monks located in the place where monasticism began with St. Antony. We where now in the Sinai on our way to St. Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of the mountain where tradition tells us that Moses encountered the Burning Bush, and then later received the Ten Commandments, and where Elijah had heard the still small voice and knew it to be God.
Just as you would imagine, the landscape was barren and harsh, especially when the sun was at its height. Rocky outcrops seemed to be everywhere, and while there was evidence of plant life, it seemed mostly to be scrub, not much good for anything. But somehow, somewhere, this community of people seemed to make a living, tending their flocks, and no doubt doing what they were doing that day when I met them: appearing out of no where to offer strangers tea, and an opportunity to buy a few souvenirs. Clearly, they lived somewhere, but there was no evidence of village, or camp. There was certainly no sign of water.
It is probably strange to hear this morning’s gospel text in light of the current state of our world. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Scenes of evangelism may be a challenge for us all right now. Rather than being sent out into the world, we find ourselves compelled to remain at home and distance ourselves from those we might otherwise wish to serve, up close and in person. We are not presently going, there are no homes into which we might safely venture, no opportunities for face to face discussion, study, or prayer.
Yet we still hear Jesus’s call, even in the midst of a crisis that would see us shrink back and retreat from the world to which we have been called to bring God’s love. Go.
Thankfully various technologies—especially the internet—have afforded us valuable ways to overcome the sharpness of our physical separation from one another. Although I count myself among the world’s stubborn luddites, I cannot imagine rising to meet the present moment without the advantages of our own community’s presence on social media and other web interfaces. Much like those Christians of the fifteenth century, who experienced for the first time a new kind of evangelistic media (the printing press), we have heretofore unexplored worlds of potential set before us.
Amos 8: 4 – 6, 9 – 12; Psalm 119: 1 – 8; Matthew 9: 9 – 13
There is a saying that I am fond of quoting. You have no doubt heard me, as I use it in any number of different contexts. It goes, if you pull a string, you’ll find that the universe is attached. To be fair, it is a misquote of something the naturalist and conservationist John Muir said: when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
I feel this way a lot of the time. I especially feel it when I read Scripture, and today is no different.
On the surface we have the story of the calling of Matthew to be a disciple of Jesus. In many ways, it’s quite simple. Jesus calls. Matthew follows. End of story. But nothing in Scripture is that simple. This story is not just about the call of Matthew to be a follower of Jesus. It is a story about how God’s reign of mercy, justice, and peace breaks in upon us in unexpected ways.
Matthew, as we know, was not a good boy. He may have been a good ole boy, but he was certainly not a good boy. He was a collaborator with the oppressive imperial Roman occupation. He was on the side of the bad guys and represented everything that was wrong and evil during the dark days of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Yet it was to this man that Jesus said, follow me, and, amazingly, he got up and followed him. Luke tells us that Matthew got up, left everything, and followed [Jesus].
We are reminded in our Rule of Life that [the] first challenge of community life is to accept whole-heartedly the authority of Christ to call whom he will. Clearly that was a lesson needed by those who asked why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? My hunch is, that’s a question even some of Jesus’ other followers were asking. Why on earth him, Lord? I’ll bet looking around at the other Brothers, it’s a question you ask yourself, every so often. I know I do.
Malachi 3:1-4 | Hebrews 2:12-18 | Luke 2:22-40
“When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”
Today, with St. Luke the Evangelist, the church recalls Jesus’ presentation in the temple at Jerusalem: the place where the presence of YHWH was understood to dwell, where heaven and earth overlapped in perfect resonance. This was YHWH’s chosen dwelling-place.This was the site of prayer, sacrifice, and pilgrimage, rebuilt by Herod to “recapture the glory of the Solomonic temple.”
The temple, temple language, and temple imagery likely do not resonate with us in the same vivid ways they did for the faithful of antiquity. The distances of time and cultural ethos have changed our relationship to temple language in deep, subconscious ways, but the image hangs over Luke’s gospel from beginning to end in ways both subtle and obvious. Mentioned more than seventy times, the temple features prominently within the vocabulary of Luke’s text when compared with the other gospels. Luke draws our attention to it at specific points in the narration of his gospel, and it comes to occupy a place of importance in his account of Jesus’ work, ministry, and self-understanding; destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.
I found inspiration recently, in of all things, The Edicts of Ashoka, ancient inscriptions written by Emperor Ashoka of India in the third century before the common era. They represent some of the oldest examples we have of what today we might call interfaith dialogue. For the most part, Emperor Ashoka is waxing eloquent on a newly arrived faith tradition called “Buddhism.” However, he also spends some time speaking about other religious traditions. Here’s some of what he wrote:
“The beloved of the gods… [he referred to himself in the third person that way] values this – that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause… it is better to honor other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others… The beloved of the gods… desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions… And the fruit of this is that one’s own religion grows…”
With these words, Emperor Ashoka provides one of our first references to religious pluralism, suggesting a relationship beyond peaceful coexistence, towards finding essential wisdom in traditions not one’s own, and perhaps finding an underlying truth common to all traditions. Whatever his precise intention, the relationship between diverse faith traditions and their various truth claims has remained an important issue throughout our history.
a sermon for the Feast of the First Book of Common Prayer
I’m thinking today of our friend, Dick Mahaffy, as we celebrate the feast that marks the publication of the first Book of Common Prayerin the Church of England in the year 1549. Dick is an Episcopal priest, a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School, and a member of the Fellowship of Saint John. He is also profoundly Deaf, and has been since birth. He currently serves as the President of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf (E.C.D.), an association of Episcopal churches that minister to and with Deaf people throughout the United States. I’m reminded of him today because I think this feast would be one that he would especially value.
The 1549 Book of Common Prayer was the first book of services written in English, the language of the people. As such it was a powerful sign that the liturgy belonged to the people and not just to the educated priests who could read and speak Latin. It was an invitation for all to participate in the worship of the Church with full comprehension of what was being said, for all to join in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” of the Eucharist in their own tongue, for all to be not merely spectators but actual participants in the Church’s worship. The publication of the Book of Common Prayer in the English language in 1549 was an act of inclusion.
Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple
As I read the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel, I often imagine seeing an enormous tent being painstakingly erected, like those that are used for outdoor weddings. With the introduction of each significant character – Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna – another stake or peg is fixed in the earth, with its own cord attached. These cords begin to cross and intersect at just the right angles, as if by the arrangement of some mysterious, divine geometry, held taut by the weight of poles and the canvas now unfurling from the ground into a recognizable structure. Into the particularity of time and space there unfolds a tabernacle, a tent or dwelling for Christ Emmanuel, God-with-Us. A web of divinely inspired, interpersonal encounters prepares the ground and provides a sheltering roof.
It may be tempting today, looking around at the multitude of different denominations and churches, with all their varied practices and beliefs to wistfully look back at the first century of Christianity as simpler times, when we were all at least a bit more unified. It’s in this sort of spirit that we have a yearly week of prayer for Christian unity helping to remind us of our common heritage as followers of Christ, although not all Christians observe the occasion. Of course, there will likely be differences among us for as long as there is an “us,” and there have been differences and divisions among Christians from the beginning, with the very idea of what it meant to be a Christian often not well agreed upon.
When Paul was writing his letter to the Romans in the middle of the first century there probably weren’t anyone even calling themselves “Christians.” Paul himself never uses the term “Christian,” instead he using general terms like “brothers and sisters,” “assembly,” “church,” “congregation” or “saints”. The church in Rome, like many of the churches Paul had contact with, would have been a community composed of people with a variety of religious, spiritual, and philosophical backgrounds, including both Gentile and Jew.