You can interpret a rising cloud to mean rain or a southern wind to mean heat, Jesus says. Why don’t you understand what’s happening right now? Don’t you see what I am doing?
Just before, Jesus said: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! … father against son … mother against daughter … mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law … .”[i] Though shocking now, family was everything, more powerful than in our current western context. Jesus invites radical change, creating a new community contrary to familial, social, and cultural norms. Discipleship invites conflict and division.
Mennonite pastor Melissa Florer-Bixler wrote: “The peacemaking Jesus intends for the disciples invites conflict in every aspect of our lives. Throughout the gospels, Jesus models this in a life of making enemies. The sword of Jesus’ good news is one that pierces natural alliances. Instead of focusing on the family, Jesus draws together those who were separated by ethnic and social hierarchies … .”[ii] God’s kingdom reorders relationships and creates one community where all belong.
One of the amazing things I find about Scripture is that the human emotions which underlie so much of life are so evident throughout its pages. It’s not hard to imagine the fear and confusion of Mary as she encounters the angel at the Annunciation, because it’s right there in the pages of Luke. We don’t need to dream up the pride of Peter as the Lord tries to wash his feet at the Last Supper, because it’s right there in John. We don’t need to read into the text the care of the centurion for his sick servant, because it’s right there in Matthew. And today we don’t need to wonder about the rich young man because it is right there in Mark:
When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
All of us know something of shock, so we have some hint as to how the young man felt when told to sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. All of us know something about attachment to things, that when something is lost, or broken, or goes missing, we know the grief that it causes. It doesn’t take much for me to dredge up the sadness, and loss, and frustration I still feel over one broken Christmas present from nearly 60 years ago, to know in part the grief the rich young man felt as he turned away from Jesus, in order to return to his precious possessions. It doesn’t take much to imagine this young man.
Our lesson from the Book of Genesis recalls Jacob on his deathbed. To listen to him recounting his life, claiming his lineage with Abraham and Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, in the presence of his sons, and naming the ancestral ground on which he wants to be buried is quite beautiful. This is noble, faithful Jacob at the end of his life. But this is not the picture of Jacob in is younger years: Jacob, the schemer and the cheat, who behaved so disreputably with his very family. The psalmist remembers Jacob: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” But in the verses before that, the psalmist speaks quite biographically about Jacob, “Though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea…The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”[i] In his younger years, Jacob’s ambitious, disreputable life had come toppling down, and then, over his lifetime, he was rescued by God.
Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, writes about our conversion being lifelong. Lifelong conversion can seem onerous and full of duty and repentance on our part.[ii] I am daily reminded of my own need for ongoing conversion. I am a work-in-progress, and there’s plenty of work to be done. You, too, may know about this. But lifelong conversion also comes with the hope that God is at work in our lifetime, going back in our past, undoing, remaking, redeeming, reforming what was lost, spent, and misdirected. Father Benson speaks the comforting words, that “we cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.” God draws us on. Which is clearly the picture of Jacob, and a hope for us.
[i] Psalm 46:1-4.
[ii] Richard Meux Benson, SSJE (1824–1915).
I stood patiently by the door, waiting to be told where to sit. I saw all my Brothers take what I thought was their designated seat. It was my first time at “rounds” (what we Brothers call our daily morning meeting: that time where all the Brothers are in the same room at the same time to talk over the day’s business face-to-face).
I kept waiting to be told where to sit. I felt like a stray dog who had just been adopted days before, trying to figure out the ways of the household, not wanting to cause a stir, just looking to obey. Eventually I realized no one was going to tell me where to sit, and so I just sat down in an empty chair. I kept waiting for one of my elder Brothers to look at me and explain kindly but firmly that I was sitting in a chair that another Brother had been sitting in for longer than I had been alive. Luckily that never happened.
I went through thousands of moments like that in my early days as a Postulant: long moments of waiting for someone with authority to swoop in and tell me exactly what to do. It took me a long time to realize that was not the way authority was exercised at SSJE. Those in power were not going to tell me where to sit. Instead, those in authority were focused on having a productive morning meeting and getting through the day. This was a big difference from the days back when Novices had their mail read.
Depending on the Bible you have, todays gospel lesson may contain a couple of jarring section headings. Mine says, “Coming Persecutions” and “Whom to fear.” These instructions that Jesus gives as he sends out his first apostles are nothing short of harrowing. They are not just warning of things that may happen, but rather foreknowledge of what will happen. They are honest and direct ways of describing what it is that the apostles would very soon face. James and John whom we remember today did indeed drink the cup of suffering for the gospel, and the faithful of every generation have found these warnings an apt description of their own experience when they were sent.
The followers of Christ in every age have had to contend with their own most pressing issues. Loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves have never been without challenge. There have often been warring political factions that demand utmost purity and allegiance. Our skin, our bodies, our place in society, have often been the battlegrounds of human conflict. Today they have their own particular slogans, banners, and champions.
Jeremiah is sent by God to the potter’s house, where he learns an important lesson. The image of the potter fashioning a vessel on his potter’s wheel would have been very familiar to Jeremiah’s audience. It is familiar territory for us, too, since the shaping vessels of clay by hand on a potter’s wheel is still done in much the same way today.
What does Jeremiah notice as he observes the potter at work?
He notices first the clay. As he watched the potter shape and mold the clay, Jeremiah knew that he was looking at a picture of himself, and of every person, and of every nation. We are the clay, fashioned into useful vessels by God, the potter. Jeremiah isn’t the only prophet to draw on this image: Isaiah and Zechariah also use it, as does Paul in his letter to the Romans. Jeremiah watched as the clay was fashioned into a vessel. Then, some imperfection in the clay spoiled it in the potter’s hand and the potter crushed it and began the process again.
When I was a student in graduate school, our chaplain, Cameron Partridge, introduced me to a concept that has never left me: liturgical hinges, or, those places in the church’s year that are marked by their liminality. Places that sit in a fertile tension between the thematic demarcations of two seasons. Days in the liturgical calendar that begin to ease our praying imaginations into the content of a new season, tantalize us with vexing ideas, incongruities, or questions, or provide us space to step back from our habitual readings of our relationship with God and others. Think of those two peculiar days between the last Sunday of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, or that liminal week after Christ the King as the church begins to hinge itself into the waiting of Advent. If you consult the seemingly arcane groupings of variable propers for the days after the First Sunday of Christmas, you will find that we are, even here and now, in the midst of such a hinge.
I love these oddities of the church calendar because of their signature “fuzziness,” as if we were removing one pair of spiritual glasses—the expanse of Ordinary Time after Trinity Sunday, let’s say—for another—in this case, Advent. We tend to know what to expect from the terrain of Ordinary Time or Advent (or Lent, or Easter). Their contours, while somehow always new, are familiar to us. They remind us that the whole journey of conversion is itself is life-long pivot from the familiar.
In my thoughts and prayers right now are our Brothers David, Jonathan and Nicholas and the 39 pilgrims who are with them in the Holy Land. On Monday they will be by the Sea of Galilee, which for me is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The Sea of Galilee has a particular power and spirit because it was there and in the surrounding region that Jesus first called his disciples to follow him. It is the cradle of Christian vocation.
“He saw Simon and Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”
He saw James and John who were in their boat mending the nets. He called them and the left their father Zebedee and followed him.
He called the rich young man and said, “Sell everything that you haveand follow me.”
Acts 20:28-38; Ps 68:28-36; John 17:11b-19
Goodbye. What a simple word. What a simple, mundane, commonplace, disquieting, difficult, dreadful, shattering little word. Goodbye.
As a general rule, we humans are not fond of endings. Even when we ponder our plans for the future with genuine excitement, we can’t help but drag our feet at the threshold. We would like to step forth confidently on a new adventure with our left foot while keeping our right foot firmly planted on its old familiar turf. But life doesn’t work that way. Whether we like it or not, endings happen to all of us, and Goodbye is their calling card. Goodbye is what we say both to those we adore and to those we barely know when we walk out of a room or walk out of their lives entirely. Goodbye is the last turn of the key in the lock as we leave one home for the next. Goodbye is the acknowledgement of a distinct past and a distinct, separate future.
When these moments of change come, we are faced with the task of acknowledging the break in continuity. Speaking broadly, it is considered good manners to say Goodbye and not just slip out when no one is looking. But more often than not, when we are the ones taking our leave, facing our loved ones and saying Goodbye can be more than we can bear. How often have we heard someone say, “When it’s my time, I hope I go without warning. Just here one minute, gone the next.” This is frequently billed as the (quite rational) desire not to suffer or burden one’s family with a drawn-out illness. But there’s more to it than that. For many of us, actually leaving is the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to say when we do.
Sing to the Lord a new song. The Psalmist exhorts us to sing a song we’ve never sung before. Certainly, it may come to us in fragments—a gesture here, a motif there—and sometimes (if we’re feeling particularly confident) we may even begin to think we know how this strange new air goes. Yet this isn’t a song we or the world are used to hearing, and we may often feel ill-trained to sing it; but that’s probably because we are.
As the ear of our prayer adjusts in the fullness of time, we begin to realize that this new song, from our vantage, requires a kind of virtuosity for which we alone lack the dexterity of heart; and we realize we will not learn this song on our own. And still, there comes also a sense, somewhere deep within noisy mystery of ourselves, that we have known this strange song we’ve never sung before.
Sing to the Lord a new song.