The life to which Jesus calls us is essentially simple. In what does that simple life consist? The simple life – the life of the kingdom – consists in the abundant awareness that everything we receive is a gift that we did not earn or purchase; in the recognition that life itself is the first of all gifts; in the trust that our basic needs will be met; in the generosity that allows us to be the means by which God meets the needs of others; and in the capacity to surrender our inevitable craving for what we do not need.
Worrying is one behavior that leads to increased complexity of life, the labyrinthine complexity of misdirected anxiety. But this particular admonition not to worry is made more specific by a very clear statement: You cannot serve God and wealth. The incapacity to surrender our craving for what we do not need results in service to the wrong Master. And the tiny links in the chain with which that Master binds his unsuspecting devotees are worries. Restless hope of acquisition on the one hand, and undue fear for the security of what we have acquired on the other, results in a zig-zag of interior energy moving in the wrong direction: away from God.
As men who live under vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, we have committed ourselves to “striving first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” in a radical way. On an external level, this particular version of the Christian vocation entails much letting go and doing without: of spouse, children, a household of our own, and a significant measure of individual autonomy, to name only the most significant sacrifices. But as we know very well, these things comprise only the outermost concentric circle in a life of progressive dispossession for the sake of the kingdom. We discover whole hordes of interior possessions, guarded tooth and nail by dragons who feed on our thoughts. In short, we are tempted to worry all over again – perhaps even to justify our worry spiritually.
The situation is dire. Jesus’ life is coming to an end. In the verses immediately following this Gospel lesson, we learn of Judas’ betrayal, then Peter’s betrayal, then Jesus’ interrogations by Caiaphas, the high priest, and by Pilate, the Roman Prefect. And then comes Jesus’ crucifixion which Jesus fully anticipates and will readily submit. Which is his prayer. Jesus here is praying for protection – not his protection but our protection – and Jesus prays, “I speak these things… so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Joy in the context of suffering.
Joy goes without saying when all is well: the exhilaration of life and company of laughter, the wonder of life that is so palpable, the burdens of life lifted and whisked away like clouds. Joy – this melding of delight and gratitude, freedom and hope – goes without saying when the burdens of life are lifted, when the flow of life turns into a beautiful harmony or a consoling fragrance, when – to use the language of the psalmist – “when we have wings like a dove.”[i] Joy goes without saying when all is well and we experience the sheer freedom and bliss of being alive. But the weather, and the weather of the heart, changes. And that is where joy is such a paradox.
Jesus is speaking about joy in the context of suffering, that his joy may be ours, in our suffering. Saint Paul writes continually about joy: joy in the context of suffering, or in the aftermath of suffering, or in the anticipation of suffering. It is the same in the Letter to the Hebrews and in the First Letter of Peter: how the crucible of suffering becomes the wellspring of joy.[ii]
Do not worry and do not be afraid, that’s the basic message of today’s gospel reading. Don’t worry about your life, what you eat, your body, or what you wear. Don’t worry about how long you’ll live, because, after all, worrying won’t help. I suppose we could also add, don’t worry about the coronavirus or our nation’s political and economic woes. Don’t worry about anything, but strive for just one thing, God’s Kingdom.
It probably goes without saying that when Jesus says “don’t worry,” he’s focusing on the subjectively negative experience of anxiety and the feeling of distraction that comes with it, as opposed to just acknowledging a concern for something, and taking appropriate action. The Greek word Luke uses has these negative connotations of anxiety and distraction, and he uses this same word when Jesus tells Martha she’s anxious.
Jesus is tempted by the evil one to do something, to become somebody that was possible, but that was wrong. And he knew it was wrong, a wrong contorting of his power. Where we are most vulnerable to temptation is not just where we are weak, and know it, but rather where we are strong, and can use our power to the wrong end.
Jesus, and, later, Saint Paul, were convinced there are forces of both good and evil at work in this world. The evil forces are very seductive. Why else are we prone to do or say what we know full well to be wrong? Why do we cave in? And so Saint Paul speaks of our need for spiritual armor… which may sound a little corny in this day and age. But this is a “heads up” about our need for just that: spiritual armor, of needed protection for our soul.[i]
You probably do have up-to-date anti-virus software on your computer. You probably do take your doctor’s recommendation for immunizations against polio, tetanus, hepatitis, pneumonia, and influenza. You probably do wash your hands throughout the day as a kind of precaution against invasive germs and viruses. You probably accept our country’s need for military defense to guard us against an enemy attack. All of these are protections to ward against adversarial powers. But the thought of “spiritual armor” may not garner much of your attention. It should. We need what Saint Paul calls the “armor of God”: protection from head to heart to toe because we all are vulnerable to temptation and attack from the enemy of our soul.[ii]
I’ll draw on the insight of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth century founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. In his earlier life, Ignatius was an armor-bearing knight and soldier.[iii] Ignatius says that the enemy of our soul is like a calculating general sizing up the opponent.
- Your vulnerability to temptation may have to do with your risk of losing your center or your sobriety. What is it that makes you vulnerable? It may have to do with your proclivity to over-work, or to under-rest, to obsess or to pretend, and so your fuse is short or your rationalization is great. In an unguarded moment you may quietly say to yourself, “I deserve this,” “I can get away with this,” something, which if you were more sound and centered would be a dangerous temptation, as you would well know.
- If you are prone to harbor resentment, you are very vulnerable. Resentment is residual anger, a dis-ease, and it will metastasize in your soul. Resentment will lower your resistance to oppressive forces, and it will infect you. Resentment will compromise you and make you vulnerable to become the person you resent.
- If you are prone to lose your gratitude for being alive, you are spiritually vulnerable. God is the source, sustenance, and destiny for our lives. If you are prone to lose that perspective on the amazing gift of life, of so much that is mysteriously wonderful, beautiful, sustaining, strengthening that comes to us from God… if you are prone to lose sight of this, then you are vulnerable to the idolatry of being your own god. And that god will prove too small for you. You will be tempted to compensate. You will be powerless in your hour of need and sorely tempted to hide or to die away.
- If you are inappropriately critical of other people, you are vulnerable. I say inappropriately critical of other people, because we absolutely need critical faculties to navigate our relationships. Being inappropriately critical is to see other people as better than you or as worse than you, and therefore you are either inferior or superior to them. That’s inviting trouble, because you lose your dignity in that kind of judgment, and, in your eyes, so does this other person. We are not better or worse than each other. We are simply different from one another, and God loves differences. Look at the diversity of creation! The temptation to be derisively critical is a temptation far afield from the splendor of God’s love, and that temptation is a very slippery slope.
- If you are prone to keep secrets, you are spiritually vulnerable. I’m not talking here about your valuing privacy, nor about your keeping confidences, both of which are very important. I’m talking about living your life looking over your shoulder or keeping your head down, hoping that something is not discovered or traceable, wanting something going on within you can be kept in the dark, when it desperately needs the light. Those kinds of cheating secrets are a kiss of death, and they will put your soul at risk because that darkness will grow without light.
- How are you vulnerable, from the inside out? How are you vulnerable?
In our lifetimes, we do not lose our spiritual vulnerability. We would not want to lose it. How we come to know God, how God breaks through to us, is oftentimes through something that is broken in our lives. That break becomes God’s breakthrough, again and again. But our being vulnerable for the good also puts us at risk for being vulnerable to the bad. I’ll use a medical analogy. A patient in a hospital anticipating surgery is looking for a good outcome. The surgeon will take every precaution that something bad, something potentially infectious or invasive, does not infiltrate what is opened up for the good. And so must you. We are spiritually vulnerable, for good and ill. Ignatius of Loyola says that there is a kind of spiritual warfare going on around us and within us. We are being fought over, and we need to be protected.
Ignatius says that in every soldier’s set of armor there are chinks, little breaks in the armor’s lattice that make the soldier particularly vulnerable in those areas. Ignatius says these particular breaks don’t go away in life. Where and how you are vulnerable will likely remain for the rest of your life. Ignatius simply says, remember, you’re vulnerable. Don’t let down your guard, especially where you know yourself to be vulnerable.
We need spiritual armor. We personally need the 21st century equivalent of the 1st century “armor of God” described in the Letter to the Ephesians so that we can stand firm.[iv] Saint Paul gives a spiritual overlay to the first-century armor of a Roman soldier: a belt of truth buckled around your waist; a breastplate of righteousness to give you courage and protection to face what is wrong and must be righted; your feet fitted so you are ready to spring not to war but to peace; a shield to extinguish the flaming arrows, the strategic attacks of the evil one; a helmet of salvation to guard your mind from what is untrue or fake. That’s first century Roman armor, allegorized.
What armor do you need, now? Let’s pause for a moment. Just ponder this. Where do you need “armor” – protection – in areas where you are very strong and gifted. Where do you need “armor” – protection – in areas where you are quite weak and fearful? We’re most vulnerable in areas where we are very strong and where we are very weak. If you had custom-designed armor – let’s say 3 pieces of armor – where do you need protection from the assault of the evil one, the enemy of our soul? What armor do you need?
There is more going on in this world than meets the eye: the spiritual equivalent to germ warfare. The presence and power of God is operating: God’s light and life and love. God’s invitation for us is to co-operate with how God operates: to claim our need for protection and God’s invincible and available power. And God’s power and protection we’re assured of. Claim it. Claim what you need. Saint Paul writes, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[v] Heads up. Claim the protection you need, the armor God has for you. Take it up… and having done, do not be afraid.[vi]
[i] In Ephesians 6:12-13, Saint Paul writes that “our struggle [in this world] is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places…”
[ii] Ephesians 6:10-18.
[iii] Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556).
[iv] Ephesians 6:14-17.
[v] Romans 8:37-39.
[vi] Ephesians 6:13.
Celebrating: The Nativity of Mary
When I was a child, one of my favorite Christmas television shows was Frosty the Snowman. It was a short cartoon made in 1969, and narrated by Jimmy Durante; who also sang the song the story is based on. The song begins this way:
Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy soul
With a corncob pipe and a button nose
And two eyes made out of coal
Frosty the snowman is a fairytale they say
He was made of snow but the children
Know how he came to life one day
What happens in the story is that some children build a snowman, and name him “Frosty.” While they’re admiring their new creation, a chance gust of wind carries a magical hat to the top of Frosty’s head, and suddenly Frosty comes to life. A number of adventures follow where the children foil the plans of an evil magician, intent on taking the magical hat for himself. During all this, Frosty sometimes loses the hat, and whenever the hat is placed on his head, including that first time, and as he springs to life, he lets out a joyous shout of: “Happy Birthday!”
And today we give a joyous shout of “Happy Birthday” for Mary, Jesus’ mother. Actually, we are a bit late, since the date in the church’s calendar was a couple of days ago, but a belated “Happy Birthday” is better than none at all. In some ways, though, and no offense to Mary, it’s not a very obvious choice to add to the church calendar. Many Christians don’t even celebrate Mary’s birthday, and we don’t have a biblical account of her birth to lend that kind of authority to the celebration. Still, the celebration of Mary’s birth is an ancient tradition going back to at least the sixth century.
July 12, 2019
If I were to tell someone how much they mean to me, and I said to them, “You, my dear friend, are more important to me than sparrows.” I think this friend would be nonplussed. Probably offended. Deeply. So what’s going on with Jesus’ rhetorical question, “Are you not of more value than many sparrows…?”
It’s worth considering the value of a sparrow in Jesus’ day. In Jesus’ day, when making an offering at the Temple in Jerusalem, the poorest of the poor could not afford the offering of a lamb; they brought sparrows. Two sparrows were sold for one Roman penny. Two pennies made farthing. A farthing was 1/64 of a denarius. And a denarius was the average laborer’s wage for one day. So a common laborer’s daily wage would buy about 130 sparrows. It would have been one thing if Jesus had said, “you are of more value than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” But no. He says, “You are of more value than sparrows.” Sparrows.
Today, Jesus speaks to us, not as a people, a nation, a church, or as an internationally defined global community. Rather, He speaks to us as He always has: as creatures of His hand and people of His pasture. There is no room in this claim on us for the passing boundaries of earthly empires or the othering practices of an assumed cultural superiority. No one person and no one group are the center of the universe Jesus reveals to us, for we are each and all the center of the Divine attention, an attention that knows, searches, and sees all—for it is the attention of the Eternal One, the source and center of all reality.
The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, … who is not partial and takes no bribe. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. 
No creaturely title or pedigree, no national border or communal parameter undoes our dependence on this God for all good things. We are all, from birth to death, waking to sleeping, dependent moment to moment for our life and our pasture—our sustenance and security. They are not realities of our own making. Our sustenance and security can only ever be gifts of the Love that created us. No border can free or save us from the claims of such a dependence. It usurps every one of our identity claims.
Yet today, Jesus also speaks to us as bordered and boundaried people. As people who live in carefully marked communities, and who harbor a dangerously guarded dependence on national, political, religious, and ideological borders.
The Sea of Galilee is notorious for its surprising and violent storms. The Sea of Galilee, which is actually a fresh-water lake, lies 700 feet below sea level. Immediately to the northeast are the hills of the Golan Heights, reaching 2000 feet. The large difference in height and temperature between these cool, sometimes snow-covered hills and the semi-tropical sea causes large air pressure changes. Strong winds funnel down from the Golan Heights, sometimes creating the perfect storm over the water. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been calm and the sky perfectly clear. This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples and Jesus who are in a boat on the sea. Aside from the wind and waves coming at them, there was something else that surfaces: fear. They are terrified. You will probably know how it is to be sailing through life on the sunniest of days, where all is calm, all is bright… and then a storm hits.
In the Scriptures, nothing is talked about more often than fear. Fear is a dis-ease of the soul. The psalmist writes, “Do not fear, though the earth should change, the mountains tremble and shake in the heart of the sea, fear not.”[i]The prophet Isaiah says: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Do not fear.”[ii] In the scriptures, we hear about fear from the very beginning: in the Book of Genesis, the story from the Garden of Eden. The angel of God comes to Adam and Eve, and they are terrified.[iii] We hear again about fear much later in another garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, where the women have come to anoint Jesus’ body. Once more the angel of the Lord appears, and the women are terrified. Fear is a very costly, distressing emotion when we’re in touch with impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to overwhelm us. I imagine that all of us here know about fear, either in a particular situation or perhaps recurringly. What are you afraid of? What causes your heart to tremble?
Are you afraid that you might be wrong, or afraid that you might be right? Are you afraid that you might be excluded, or afraid that you might be included? Are you afraid that you might fail, or afraid that you might succeed? Are you afraid that you might never finish, or afraid because you’ve come to the finish? Are you afraid of making a commitment, or of not making of commitment? Are you afraid of being sick, of dying? Are you afraid that you’re going to have to face being well again? Are you afraid of someone? Are you afraid of yourself? Are you afraid that you might be sent, or might not be sent? Afraid that you won’t get the attention, or maybe that the attention will be on you? Are you afraid of being discovered, or of never being discovered? Afraid of heights, or depths, or something else between? Most of us will know something about fear, maybe even right now. If so, why? Why are you afraid? That’s Jesus’ question for his disciples, and it’s his question for all of us. If you are afraid, why?
To be sure, there are therapeutic protocols to address our fears, and phobias, and anxieties. And there are medicinal ways to address fear, to chemically lower fear’s looming capacity to inundate us. And there is physical training and stress-reduction techniques that may enable us cope with or conquer fear… These may be helpful, even necessary. But what is it about fear that is a “spiritual issue” for you?
Rather than presuming that fear, our own fear, is a sign of the absence of God, our fear actually gives witness to the presence of God. Our fear often arises out of something that is bigger than we are – perhaps concerning our health, or family, or vocation, or endurance. And we find that in-and-of ourselves, there isn’t enough: not enough strength, or patience, or hope, or encouragement, or provision. Our life is unmanageable. We come up short. And we’re afraid that our boat is going to sink, that we’re dead in the water. Fear raises issues that may well need to be dealt with on many levels; one of those levels being spiritual. Where is God in your fear? What is the invitation from God in your fear? Fear is like a beam of light pointing to that deepest place of need within your heart. Fear is very illuminating. What is the your fear exposing, where you are too small, too powerless, too needy to go on? What is it? Why are youafraid? Because in the fear is an invitation from God that God wants to be God in your life, to claim the ultimate authority and highest power in your life. We cannot live our life and be our own God at the same time.
We don’t need to be afraid, not because fear is “wrong.” We’re supposed to be strong and resilient. No, it’s not that. It’s not that we don’t need to be afraid because we shouldn’t be. This is not a de jure statement: “Don’t be afraid because strong people are not afraid.” No, it’s not that. This is a de facto statement: “Don’t be afraid because you don’t have to be afraid.” It’s Jesus’ promise that he will meet us in the experience of fear. He tells us, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[iv]
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks us all. Jesus longs to hear why. Jesus longs to be invited into your fear. And if you’re afraid that you are going to lose your life, or lose some part life, you don’t need to be afraid even of that. Why is that so? Because it’s going to happen. We all are going to lose our lives; we’re all going to lose the life that we now recognize. But Jesus assures us that in losing our lives we find life. Not to fear.[v] The Scottish philosopher John Macmurray writes of an old adage about fear, an adage which some of us were probably taught… The old adage is: “Fear not; trust in God, and God will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.” That’s not true, in Macmurray’s view. On the contrary. Macmurray rephrases the old adage to say, “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.”[vi]Why not? Because Jesus tells us, “I am with you in this… This is the way into life. Trust me.”
Tell Jesus about your fear. This may be your most honest prayer. Tell Jesus about your fear. And if you’re afraid even to talk with Jesus about your fear, then start there: why it is that you are afraid to talk to Jesus about your fear. Tell him! Go ahead. Try it. Jesus is all ears. Jesus has an open heart. And he is waiting.
Here, an ancient Celtic prayer:
Jesus, from this world’s stormy seas
Give your hand for lifting me.
Jesus, lift me from the darkest night.
Jesus, lift me into the realm of light.
Jesus, lift me from my body’s pain,
Jesus lift me up and keep me sane.
Jesus, lift me from the things I dread,
Jesus, lift me from the living dead.
Jesus, lift me from the place I lie,
Jesus, lift me that I never die. Amen.
[v]Matthew 10:39; 16:25.
[vi]John Macmurray (1891-1976), a Scottish moral philosopher, writing in Persons in Relation (Humanity Press, 1998), p. 171.
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.
Two things we hear from Jesus in this Gospel lesson are eye opening. For one, Jesus relentlessly shares meals with notorious “sinners.” Sitting at table with someone, sharing a meal, is a “socially intimate” experience. There’s a sameness between everyone at the table: the same setting, at the same time, eating the same food, feeding the same needs we all have. Jesus sits at table with “sinners and tax collectors,” which is code language for the dregs of society, with whom Jesus is very glad to share a meal and to share life. (If you are sometimes a member of the dregs, welcome home.) And then Jesus alludes to his like a physician: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus presumes we are unwell. We are not fine and dandy, thank you. We are unwell, Jesus presumes. There’s something about our own life that is significantly damaged, broken, unmanageable, scarred, fearful, or traumatized that needs healing. We’ll need the healing care of Jesus, the physician, for the rest of our life. Our need is that great. Jesus presumes this.
Secondly, Jesus’ taking on the role of physician tells us about the nature of God’s judgment. We are unwell. We cannot heal ourselves. We go to a physician, first to receive a diagnosis. A diagnosis is a judgment. A diagnosis is a physician’s judgment based on what we report and what the physician sees, and hears, and feels in his or her examination of us. The physician draws on their training and experience to determine that this is what is wrong with you, in their judgment. And then you would want your physician to prescribe some treatment that will enable your healing and wholeness. In their judgment, this remedy will save you. This remedy will be a salve to your woundedness. And you would also have every hope – given that you are sick and therefore quite vulnerable, perhaps even fearful or ashamed – that your physician would treat you in a kind and merciful way. Jesus is the Great Physician, a great one indeed.
Saint John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish friar, said that, in the end, we will be judged by God. And God’s judgment will be a judgment of love.[i]
[i]Saint John of the Cross, OCarm (1542-1591), was a Spanish mystic, and Carmelite friar and a priest.