There was once a man whose younger son wanted to make his own choices in life. Now it pained the father to let him make these choices because he suspected that his son was not really mature enough to make wise choices – but still he gave him the freedom he wanted. (There are times when this is a good thing for love to do.)
At any rate, his son was pleased, and he began to make his choices.
He chose, first of all, to have his share of his father’s inheritance turned into spending money. Then he chose to leave his father’s home, taking all his money with him. Next, he began to choose some new friends, and together with them he chose some ways to spend his money. And with each choice that he made, that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, was becoming something a little different than it was before.
Until at last he found that his choices had ruined him.
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
When I was a child, I can remember that from time to time, when my father was in one of his rages, I would drop whatever I was doing and clean the house. However true the family systems analyst may be in pointing to this pattern of behavior as a sign of “over functioning,” I think there is something still more significant at play in my frantic periods of scrubbing, dusting, and tidying.
As I search the heart of my inner child, I discern a motivation worth bringing into the light of Jesus’ loving gaze. Yes, most of my awareness at the time usually centered on my fear of my father when he was angry; and the hope that a clean house would abate his frustration and fury.
Some of you may know that in a former life, I underwent a significant amount of training for a career in music. This was a rich period of my life. The rigors of my training enriched my understanding of something that had—from the farthest recesses of my memory—called out to the deepest parts of my being. I met people who would become life-long friends. The experience opened my mind to a host of perspectives I had never encountered. And the lessons in discipline, patience, and delayed gratification have served my life in vocation in ways I never imagined possible.
That said, as I moved about the social groups that made up my colleagues in the field of music, I quickly became aware of some ways of being that would eventually drive me away from my ambitions to the higher echelons of professional music. There were pressures of all kinds that I found began to stifle and suffocate my humanity—the pressure for perfection, for self-promotion, and for recognition and esteem in the eyes of both my peers and my audience.
All of these temptations robbed me of the life that music had originally spoken into my soul. The feeling of utter worthlessness I could experience after a harsh criticism or poor performance made me question quite frequently the path in life I had chosen. At times, it was impossible for me to celebrate the accomplishments of my peers—for all I could discern in them was the feeling that none of my hard work would ever get me playing like so-and-so.
I want to crack these scripture passages open by sharing some things I’ve gleaned lately about ethics from a rather unlikely pair: a wildly popular content creator on TikTok and an early eighteenth century Quaker. Bear with me!
Alexis Nicole Nelson is a foraging expert and an advocate for growing and eating local food based in Columbus, Ohio. She creates irresistibly funny videos, and her sense of wonder for the earth is contagious. But Nelson, who is a Black woman and a vegan, also offers powerful insights about the complex relationship between our food choices, our privilege or lack of privilege, and the ethical conundrums we all face as consumers in an industrial society. As she points out, the adoption of moral self-righteousness around what we choose to eat or not eat is woefully misguided because when it comes to balancing harm of other humans, harm to animals, and harm to the environment, no food choice is ethically perfect. And yet, Nelson continues to passionately educate others about harm reduction in relation to food-ways, because while perfection is impossible, doing better is attainable. We can continue to improve our own choices and build a lower-impact food culture while remaining humble and empathetic.
Preaching is always an intimidating task, but seldom more than on a day like today when we hear Jesus criticizing those “who like to walk around in long robes.” For a monk, that strikes pretty close to home.
That being said, I truly believe that today’s gospel lesson is about something more substantive than the wearing of robes. But it does begin there. Jesus criticizes the ‘scribes,’ important religious leaders of his day, for “liking to walk around” in long robes, for enjoying the respect they received when greeted in the marketplaces, and for relishing the privilege of having the best seats in the synagogue and the places of honor at banquets. For them, Jesus suggests, it’s all about being seen, honored and admired by ‘ordinary folk.’ They delight in this kind of attention.
This, of course, is exactly what Jesus has already warned us about in the Sermon on the Mount. “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them;” he cautions, “for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. Whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.” (Mt 6:1-2a) Did you catch those two important phrases: “in order to be seen by them,” and “so that they may be praised by others”? Jesus expects that we will share what we have and give generously to the work of God in the world, but he asks us to consider why and how we offer alms or do good deeds. Whenever we posture and pose in order to impress others with our holiness or our goodness or our generosity and selflessness, whenever we actively court their flattery and praise, we sacrifice the good favor of our Father in heaven for the cheap and fickle praise of human beings.
I Timothy 6:7-10, 17-19
It is a rare person who cannot be tempted by wealth. Most of us believe that if we were wealthier our lives would be easier and more enjoyable than they are now. We envy those who are rich enough to satisfy not only their “needs” but also most of their “wants.” We imagine that they are free of worry and can rest in the assurance that they have what they need to face the future with confidence.
But appearances can be deceptive. The passages we have before us today warn us that the desire for wealth can be extremely dangerous. “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Desiring to be rich is dangerous. It can easily lead us into bad choices, which damage our character and our reputation, wreak havoc with our relationships, and result in ruin and destruction. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed,” Jesus warns us.
St Francis of Assisi
The 4th of October is always a special day, because it is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I first fell in love with St. Francis when I was a student. I was staying with a friend who was studying to be a priest at the English College in Rome. It was January, and the biggest shock for me was how cold it was. The fountains of Rome were all frozen, and the marble floors of the college gave little comfort. So, one weekend, we decided to take ourselves off to Assisi. We took the train, and headed north towards the Apennine mountains. As the train journeyed inland and uphill, it started to snow, and it was quite exciting. After about two hours, we finally pulled into the station, and by now the snow was very deep, and it was getting dark. We got out and looked around, and I remember feeling actually rather disappointed. The town looked a bit dull. But then, I looked up, and there, high above us, clinging to the mountainside like a dream, was the medieval city of Assisi, lit up by the setting sun, shimmering in the snow. It was stunning, and has stayed in my mind’s eye ever since.
During the next few days we walked in the footsteps of St Francis, heard his story, prayed in the churches, played in the snow, throwing snowballs outside the church of Santa Chiara (nearly hitting a nun!), and I remember feeling full of joy. Francis had captured our hearts! And it was joy above all, which was the gift we received from Francis. I think he has been blessing the world with joy ever since.
Hosea 10:1-3, 12
There is a new fence going up. So far it is just the posts. They are taller and more robust. The perimeter expands further, and—fittingly—it is beautiful. There is a new fence going up at the Monks’ Garden at Emery House. Everything grown there is given away. The first beets were just harvested; 100 pounds will be distributed this week at the Newbury Food Pantry.[i]
The garden is in partnership with Nourishing the North Shore. We provide the land and water. They grow, harvest, and distribute. We also host land for the Organic Community Garden. We Brothers share in Nourishing the North Shore’s mission: “to ensure equal access to healthy, local food to all members of the North Shore communities in a manner that builds community, fosters connection, and promotes dignity and self-reliance.”[ii] Food justice is expanding step by step in further work with local schools and with a bigger garden: mission in action.
A bigger garden could be used for exclusion and greed, to horde and squander. In today’s text, the prophet Hosea shows bad and good images. God’s people were like “a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.” With more fruit, they built monuments to idols, like self-praise, ignoring God. “Their heart is false … The Lord will break down their altars, and destroy their pillars.”
No one covers a lamp with a basket or puts it under a bed, says Jesus. Hiding a lamp makes it ineffective. A lamp is made to share light, to be out in the open so others may see. Matthew adds: “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[i] We are made to shine, to illuminate, to point people to God, not hiding or keeping to ourselves.
Yesterday in the text preceding this we heard a parable.[ii] Like the wild sower, God is recklessly generous, scattering seed everywhere, including where there is little chance of bearing fruit. Like the different soils, we vary in our receptivity, while God keeps loving, generously sharing.
To receive such generosity and to share it means being vulnerable—risky, emotional, exposed—and this is how we are created to be. Fear and shame prompt hiding or hording. Jesus says as a lamp is for a room, we are to receive, be seen, and shine.
When I’m told “be patient,” I squirm. For someone I love notices I’ve been squirming, wondering what will happen, and trying to make something happen. Perhaps we associate patience with being nice or good, yet it usually hurts.
“Be patient,” James writes. Along with the original hearers, I squirm. Be patient like the farmer who waits with a precious crop for the early and late rains to nourish mature growth. The farmer waits not simply for the rains to come but for the crop to survive in the meantime. Insects, weeds, and sun may harm or kill, and the farmer cannot control these.
To be patient is to tolerate or endure discomfort or suffering. The farmer does not know and cannot control what may eat, choke, or scorch the crops. Patience is hard, sometimes excruciating. I have also experienced that “be patient” helps prompt my renewed attention. Perhaps you have too. It is like the psalmist saying: “Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.”[i] Wait patiently by slowing down from squirm to stillness, from noisy chatter to silence. As anxiety lessens, we can see and hear more, including graced surprises. God comes in unexpected ways that may at first confuse us.