Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis is one of the most fascinating and mysterious stories in all of Scripture. Jacob has stolen his father’s blessing from his brother Esau and ran away with his family. But Esau has come looking for him full of fury, he imagines, and the meeting is to take place the following day. So, Jacob sends his whole family across the river to safety, and as night comes we read, “Jacob was left alone.” In those simple words we can sense Jacob’s fear, his anguished imaginings before meeting Esau. But in the middle of the night a mysterious man appears to Jacob, and this man starts to wrestle with him. They wrestle all night until daybreak. This was no ordinary man. In the Fogg art museum here in Cambridge there is a wonderful painting of Jacob wrestling with this mysterious stranger. The painting is by the French nineteenth century artist Gustave Moreau, and I go back often to look at it. For Moreau the man Jacob is fighting is clearly an angel, a magnificent figure dazzling bright. The fight is very uneven. Jacob is fighting with all his strength, but the angel uses just one arm to effortlessly hold him down. For of course the angel is infinitely more powerful than Jacob. Nevertheless, the angel clearly wants to fight, and Jacob never gives up.
Every time I stand in front of this painting and reflect on this story, I seem to understand more and more spiritual truths about our relationship with God. Jacob fights with God and never gives up. This man who knows that he has cheated his brother out of his blessing, brings all this anguish to the fight. He wrestles with everything he knows about himself, his past actions, his present situation. He comes to God in openness and honesty, with all that he is, good and bad, and wrestles with God, and will not let go until God blesses him. And God honors his struggle, and indeed blesses him. God blesses him with the gifts he will need to enter into the vocation which has always been his. Now you are ready. “You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel “For you have striven with God and prevailed”.
Today’s passage from Matthew’s gospel, though brief, just four verses, is significant, because it captures some of the essential qualities and characteristics of God. In this encounter between Jesus and leper, we see again the nature of God, and God’s desire for all humanity.
…a leper … came to [Jesus] and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” [Jesus] stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
What stands out for me this morning, is not only what is said, but also what is done, for Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper. While leprosy is contagious, it is not necessarily contracted through touch, as was once believed. That Jesus touched the leper, is significant, and in itself demonstrates something about God. In that one action, we see that nothing is beyond the touch and reach of God.
What is also significant is the dialogue. Lord, if you choose … I do choose….
The essential quality, characteristic, and nature of God is one of healing, wholeness, and life, for the God who in Jesus came that [we] may have life, and have it abundantly, is the same God who reaches out and touches, saying I do choose. Be made clean.
Yet while it is God’s nature to choose to reach out and touch us, our nature runs in the opposite direction, as we choose to hide, to turn our backs, and to reach out for what is forbidden. In our pride and arrogance, we choose to stretch out our hands, not to God, but to the forbidden fruit, thinking that by eating it, we will become like God.
The paradox is that we become like God, not by stretching out our hands in pride, but by choosing to stretch them out in humility and loving service, just as did Jesus.
The fruit that makes us like God, is when we choose to stretch out our hands in loving service, touching the untouchable, and bringing to them the healing, health, wholeness, and life which God chooses and desires for all humanity.
This passage, though brief, is significant, because it reminds us what God is like, and what God desires for humanity: healing, health, wholeness, and life. In choosing to reach out and touch, Jesus invites us to do that same. When we do, we become like God, whose very life and nature is bound up in acts of humble, loving service.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Friday, Year 1, Proper 7
 Matthew 8: 2 – 3
 John 10: 10b
 Genesis 3: 5
The Sea of Galilee is actually a large fresh-water lake in northern Israel/Palestine. The lake is 33 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is fed by the Jordan River which flows from north to south, and also by underground springs. The Sea of Galilee is as dangerous as it is distinctive: distinctive for being the lowest freshwater lake on earth – its surface almost 700 feet below sea level, with a beautiful shoreline, pristine drinking water, and a plentiful stock of fish. And yet the Sea of Galilee is dangerous because of its surprising and violent storms. From the Golan Heights in the east, fierce, cool winds meet up with the warm temperatures of the lake basin sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been tranquil and the sky, perfectly clear. This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples and Jesus. They had gotten into a boat. All was calm, all was bright… and then comes the storm. With the wind and waves coming at them, the disciples are swamped by well-informed fear. Most of them fish on this lake for a living. They know this water and these storms.
And you? You probably know how it is to be sailing through life on the sunniest of days, and then a storm hits. There is so much to be afraid of in life when we are accosted by threats, whether they be familiar or foreign. These fears can seem so great and we feel so small. Fear is no respecter of age, or gender, or privilege. Fear may be the most common experience we share with all of humankind: the consuming, crippling, sometimes-irrational visitation of fear. We can experience fear when we face impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined, it does not matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to swamp our lives. Whatever the source of our fear, our fear is real.
“The Word was made flesh and lived among us.”
Amazing, wondrous flesh: a baby with bright eyes and smile, tiny fingers, a bundle of new living love. Fragile, frail flesh: reliant on others for food, warmth, provision. Whether child, youth, adult, or elder, even with great care, each will sicken and die. Connected, touching flesh: face-to-face baby and parents bond before and beyond words. Human bodies relate in families and communities both given and chosen. Looking at each other, faces light up and we know love. The Word became flesh—amazing, fragile, connected—and lived among us.
Disconnected this year, we long to be together in the flesh, to see and touch, hug and hold. Fragile and frail, we mourn the dead and dying, struggle to tend the sick, to care for each other, to make ends meet. We are weary from so much change and adaptation.
Being human is amazing. Remember the wonder of our breath, every movement we make, our capacity for imagination and discovery, for being playful and creative. Remember how skin and other organs work to protect from and then restore after injury. Remember the healing power of touch, listening, tears, and laughter.
God became human in Jesus, to live as one of us. “Pleased with us in flesh to dwell Jesus our Emmanuel.”[i] God was pleased to fully immerse into being human. The “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Mighty God, … Prince of Peace”[ii]came and still comes for, with, and as one of us. Jesus longs with us, mourns with us, and with a twinkling eye reminds us of amazing bodies and wondrous love.
Look at the Child of Bethlehem. We have hope. God still comes. Take a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. With one hand on your heart, reach out to another. This is a way to show and feel affection on Zoom. Though distant, we are still connected. Look to the glory embodied, and share the love. Merry Christmas!
[i] Charles Wesley, 1739, alt. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” verse 2
[ii] Isaiah 9:6
Lately, I have been listening to a new podcast hosted by the Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Webber called The Confessional. Each episode of The Confessional features a guest who speaks with Nadia and reveals (to her and us) some of the worst things they have ever done. When I first heard about this podcast, before I had heard even a single episode, the traditionalist in me had his doubts. I imagined there might be something a little unseemly about taking the tenderness and intimacy of a one-on-one confession into the arena of public listening. The seal of the confessional is a grace that I cherish. The knowledge that whatever I disclose will be met by only three sets of ears—my confessor’s, mine, and God’s—is irreplaceable. I wondered if something about this kind of sacramental reconciliation would end up lost (even cheapened) over the airwaves and apps.
Yet as I began to listen to each of these brave, faithful people tell stories about their most notorious failures and deepest shames, my own suspicions began to disperse as something else became clear. Yes, these are stories about human failure, human weakness, and human insufficiency. At the same time (and perhaps more significantly), these are stories about God’s boundless generosity, forgiveness, and desire to be reconciled with his creatures.
We begin today, not simply a new liturgical year, with the beginning of the season of Advent, but we begin to read our way through a new gospel. This is the year when we read our way through the Gospel According to Mark over the course of the year.
Mark’s gospel is significant for several reasons. Historians believe that it was probably written for a gentile audience, in Rome, about the year AD 70, making it the oldest of the four gospels. As the first of the gospels to take written form, it is also thought that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a primary source when they wrote their gospels in the two or three decades that followed. When biblical scholars place each of these three gospels side by side, they are able to trace the influence that Mark had on the other two.
Mark’s gospel is also significant for what it does not contain. There is no birth story in Mark, unlike Matthew or Luke, or any pre-existent theology, as we find in John. Jesus simply appears like an actor on a stage, in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John. Scholars will also point out that there are not one, but three endings to the gospel and it is believed that it originally ended without any reference to an appearance of the Risen Lord, but simply stated so [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
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.