In 1961, Swedish diplomat and second Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld died at the age of 56 in an airplane crash as he travelled to a warring region of Africa. A lifelong student of languages, Christian mysticism, history and literature, Hammarskjöld had brought his deep faith to the work which he called ‘preventive diplomacy’, the negotiation of agreements and understandings in the spirit of the UN’s mandated mission of peace-making.
After his death, Hammarskjöld’s daily journal was published under the English title Markings. Hammarskjöld saw these jottings as his own ‘negotiations’ with himself and with God. His first entry when elected to his post in 1953 expresses the faith and conviction which were to uphold him in the years ahead. He wrote, ‘For all that has been, THANKS, for all that is to be, YES!’
In this prayer of affirmation and hope, Hammarskjöld points to the essence of our common life in Christ: the offering of gratitude and thanks. As we read in the Letter to the Colossians, ‘And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ Apostle Paul writes in the First Letter to the Thessalonians, ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’
I Peter 2: 4-10
For several years, each September, I had the delight of meeting a group of Harvard first-year students enrolled in an introductory Humanities course. Somewhere between reading Plato, the Gospel of Matthew, and St. Augustine, their professor shepherded them over to the monastery for a field trip. Another Brother and I greeted them in our antechapel and we’d begin with an exercise: I opened the gates of the choir grille and invited them to wander wherever they liked for fifteen minutes in silence. I encouraged them to look, listen, smell, and touch – to let their senses lead the way. After being assailed with words and information in their first few weeks of college, they welcomed this task, letting fingertips play across the rough-hewn stones of our chapel walls or lying down on the cool marble floor. When we sat down to speak about their experience, their faces often radiated calm. One young woman exclaimed, “The stones seem almost alive! I could almost hear them speaking.” I asked, “What did you almost hear them say?” She thought for a moment, and said: “Be still – you can rest here.”
“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals, yet chosen and precious in God’s sight.”[i]The author of the First Letter of Peter takes up the image of a cornerstone and interprets it afresh in relation to Jesus, our Rock and our Refuge. The cornerstone – often inscribed with a date and ritually blessed – is the first stone to be laid in a foundation. It is the stone which orients the building geographically and orients the builders in their labor. The reference is to Isaiah’s chapter 28, where we read: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation: ‘One who trusts will not panic.’[ii]The stability of a tested cornerstone will bear the weight of countless others. As they take their places, they participate in its fundamental strength. Jesus, the Head of the Corner, speaks to us as the stones of our chapel spoke to that young woman: “Be still: you can rest here.” He invites us, in the words of Mary Oliver, “to take our place in the family of things.”[iii]
Today, we celebrate the feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, most famously known as “Doubting Thomas,” from the Gospel story we just heard. Thomas misses the initial appearance of the Resurrected Christ, and insists that he will not believe unless he can stick his fingers inside the wounds of Christ himself. Jesus later arrives, and after offering his disciples a greeting of “Peace be with you,” he does again what he has already done to an infinite degree: Jesus offers his body, for the dispelling of the shadows of doubt and the triumph of life through the light of faith. He orders Thomas to stick his fingers in the wounds of his body. Thomas immediately realizes his error, and exclaims, “My Lord and my God!”1 Fear, repentance, shock, jubilation, hope, excitement, awe, love…all of these and more, bound up in Thomas’s beautiful cry, and the experience takes Thomas from doubt to a belief deep enough to explicitly affirm that Christ is God Incarnate.
Acts 4:8-13 / Psalm 23 / 1 Peter 5:1-4 / Matthew 16:13-19
Today we celebrate the Confession of St. Peter. They’re at Caesarea Philippi, a beautiful, rugged place of streams and waterfalls north of the Galilee in the Golan Heights, an area of Syria now controlled by Israel. The splendid Roman city is gone; the many temples and shrines to pagan gods built into the face of a great rock cliff are gone—a couple of small niches remain. It was perhaps directly facing these shrines with their statues that Jesus may have said something like, “That is Pan and that is Aphrodite. But who do you say that I am?” “You are the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ; the Son of the living God.” You are Son of the living God, not a god carved in stone—says Peter. The shrines and temples were built on the face of the rock cliff; the church would be built on the faith of a human “rock”, that is, Petros, Peter—as Simon came to be known.
I was reminded recently of the enormous cultural shifts that have taken place in American life since the 1950’s. I was watching a DVD of a 1958 episode of the Leonard Bernstein Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. It’s a wonderful series and has introduced music to countless young people over the years.
In my twenties I used to travel a lot. I especially loved the Middle East and North Africa. I travelled through Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Whenever I stopped in a village, locals would come up to me and we’d try to communicate. They would show me photos of their family – and they would always ask to see my family. At first I didn’t have any photos – but I soon learned. In the Middle East and Africa, if you want to know someone, you ask about their family. “Let me see your family, then I will know who you are.”
I don’t know if today’s readings from Acts and the Fourth Gospel were in the minds of Thomas Cranmer and the other compilers of the First Prayer Book in 1549; but the sentiments expressed in those readings must certainly have been in their thinking—devotion to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship; the breaking of bread and the prayers—worship in spirit and truth.
“Bait and switch” is one of the oldest tricks of trade: pull ’em in promising one thing, then switch to something else. We may be guilty. This evening being a “First Tuesday”, invitations went out advertising a “meal with the monks”. And some of those invitations went out promising “Good Food and Good Company and Good Fun.” Good fun. This may be a historical first for the SSJE: a promise of some Good Fun. (I’m so glad for that qualifier….)
But what we’ve just been through is Job cursing the day he was born, then the most bitter lamentation of the entire 150 Psalms, and then Jesus “setting his face” toward Jerusalem (we know what happens there…). I don’t know…maybe the fun comes later—I’ve heard a rumor of hula hoops, but I don’t believe it and neither should you. But I guess we’ll find out—I have no idea what’s been planned.