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.
The Acts of the Apostles is full of radical change, divinely inspired and enabled. Sent by the Spirit, Philip goes to the excluded Ethiopian eunuch, explains the scripture and baptizes him.[i] Saul, notorious persecutor of the church, meets Jesus and radically changes into Paul, famous evangelist.[ii] The Spirit sends Peter to the centurion Cornelius. Though unlawful to visit let alone eat with Gentiles, Peter does both, proclaims the gospel and the household follows Jesus.[iii]
The Spirit reaches further and further. Gentiles receive the Spirit in the same way as the Jews. It is an unsettling time for the Jewish followers of Jesus. They hotly debate inclusion of outsiders. Leaders gather in Jerusalem to respond to this crisis. James, Jesus’ brother, leads the gathering to affirm huge change, to welcome Gentiles, all people, as equal followers of Jesus. James discerns that the present crisis fits the grand narrative promise: all people may seek God.
Doing so fits with Jesus welcoming all kinds people outcast: women, foreigners, the sick, and children. Many people cling to labels like Gentile and sinner, but not Jesus. Jesus loves everyone no matter what. Jesus invites everyone into more. Jesus changes and keeps becoming more.
1 Corinthians 13:8-12 & Mark 8:22-26
Because children have a limited capacity to understand certain standard operating procedures of the adult world, they often come to conclusions that are very logical, but alas, entirely incorrect. National Public Radio’s Ira Glass calls this universal phenomenon “kid logic.”[i] For example, my younger sister was convinced that any building called a warehouse was a designated habitat for a werewolf, since these were the only two words she ever encountered with that particular prefix. Similarly, after overhearing an adult conversation featuring the improbable word “concubine” I became convinced that this was a rare species related to the porcupine. My parents patiently let us discover the errors of our “kid logic” on our own, and when we realized the inaccuracy of our theories, we were able to laugh at ourselves — and recalibrate. As children get closer to adolescence, they have a harder time with this gradual approach to revising their narratives. It’s a stage when many instances of “kid logic” collapse, often rapidly and ungracefully, in the face of new evidence about the world. That pre-teen struggle to integrate a vast range of new knowledge – along with the inner imperative to project a persona of effortless maturity to keep up with one’s peers – can make junior high school an unusually cruel boot-camp in disillusionment.
One of my favorite music recordings is of Arthur Rubenstein, the great Polish-American classical pianist, playing Chopin.[i] Rubenstein was known to be the greatest interpreter of Chopin in his time. This particular recording is brilliant. It’s not just the music; it’s also the jacket cover. The recording was originally made in 1965, when Rubenstein was still at his height. This newer recording is actually a remix of the 1965 recording released again in 1981, about a year before he died at age 95. The photo on the jacket cover captures the elderly Rubenstein in deep concentration, with his hands at work on the keyboard… except the keyboard and the piano are non-existent. Rubenstein is pictured, clad in his shirtsleeves, sitting in his apartment, with his hands outstretched above his coffee table, playing “in the air” what it must have been like for him to play in the great concert halls of the world. In this cover photo, Rubenstein is absolutely engrossed in the music which he no longer actually plays, but remembers and rehearses on his invisible piano. He is a man at peace. This informal portrait of Rubenstein is stunning.
There’s a word that shows up in this Gospel lesson appointed for today; the word shows up continually in the Scriptures and in the vocabulary of the church: repent. Repentance is both better and worse than you might imagine. The English word translated as “repentance” is the Greek word “metanoia”: a preposition “meta (after) and “noia” (to think or observe). “Metanoia” – repentance – is something we conclude in hindsight where we realize we had it wrong: something we have done or left undone, said or left unsaid that was wrong. Maybe a conclusion or a judgment call about something or someone which we now see wasn’t right. It may be a whole pattern of actions, brazenly in the open or in the secrecy of darkness that may have snowballed out of control, and it’s wrong. It’s got to stop; we can see it, sadly. And so that’s the other piece about repentance. Repentance isn’t just wisdom gleaned from experience; repentance is regret gleaned from sorrow. We cannot go on, we simply cannot live with ourselves that way any longer. Repentance is hindsight teeming with regret, enough so to fuel a change in life. Repentance is both better and worse than you might imagine.