Tonight we conclude our Epiphany preaching series on following God’s call, reflecting on the Gift of Community. We are created for relationship, reflecting God’s nature. “Our human vocation to live in communion and mutuality is rooted in our creation in God’s image and likeness. The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love.”[i]
We are created to love mutually, to walk together, share, listen, teach, and encourage. In our brokenness, much can make us feel alienated, disconnected, and cut off. Choosing to turn toward each other to connect, welcome, and share heals and transforms. Life is about transformation, continual progression, ongoing conversion. God continually calls us onward into more together.
Yet we are often stuck in the past. Placed in memories, given labels and expectations. Memories of who we once jostling up against who we are now. Patterns of prior years are powerfully present though the players have changed.
Jesus sent out disciples two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits. Jesus “ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.” Jesus sent them out with authority and in need, with power and weakness. They needed hospitality from those to whom they were sent. They had to receive and rely on others.
Jesus revealed God not as distant and self-reliant but vulnerable and personal, coming as a baby and dwelling by growing up, living closely with us. In his longest recorded personal conversation, at a well in Samaria, Jesus began by asking for a drink. He was thirsty and had no bucket. Jesus offered good news and connection with his own need.
Hospitality, offering radical welcome, is not only for us to give but essential for us to receive. We Brothers welcome many alongside us in the monastery each week, and this is God’s house. We are all guests receiving God’s sustenance. As a frequent host, it’s hard and healing when I choose to receive hospitality. Being reliant and cared for as a guest furthers my conversion.
Feast of St Philip, Evangelist
I’m intrigued by the question the Ethiopian eunuch puts to Philip in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts. Philip has joined this powerful man in his chariot and beginning with the words of the prophet Isaiah, has interpreted the scriptures and “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). “As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” (v.38).
The answer is ‘nothing,’ it seems. And so they stop the chariot, go down into the water, and Philip baptizes him. I suppose Philip might have objected to the fact that this man was a foreigner or suggested that he needed further instruction and formation, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t hesitate at all.
Except that some ancient authorities add another verse following the eunuch’s question in which Philip does add a qualifier. In response to the eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip says, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” and the eunuch responds, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (v.37) It’s likely that someone added that verse just to make sure that there was some agreed-upon criteria by which candidates would be admitted to the fellowship of the Church.
What makes a community “Christian”? Believing and following Jesus as Christ are of course the basic requisites. But how should a Christian community distinguish itself from other social groups in its pattern of belief and pattern of life? By reminding the church in Corinth that they “are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2), Paul evidently regarded a Christian community as one whose members are transformed by Christ and uphold the standard of “holiness” (hagiotēs), living a new way of life pleasing and honoring God. Concluding his Gospel with the great commission: “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing . . . and teaching . . . ” (Matt 28:19-20), Matthew was saying to the church in Antioch that a Christian community should focus its mission on “disciple-training” (mathēteia) so that its members may be committed to the Triune God and fully equipped to share Jesus’ commandments with the whole world. What about John the Evangelist? Since the major witness in the Fourth Gospel was nicknamed the “Beloved Disciple” (13:23; 21:7) and Jesus said that his disciples would be properly recognized by their mutual love (13:25), John the Evangelist obviously expected his readers in Ephesus to form a community that would embody God’s love in Christ (agapē) so genuinely that they might testify to the eternal life already granted to them by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. All such visions of community are gems of insights for our life together as a Christian community today.
Who is in the family? Who belongs to us? Devastation by disaster is prompting some politicians to reconsider the good of government aid. If for a hurricane, Garrison Keillor asked last week, why not for cancer?[i] Should not disaster relief and health care be provided for everyone? Should we not expect each to be costly and worth it since we’re all in this together? Hurricanes and health care are just two of many ways our country is divided about who belongs and how we take care of each other.
In our gospel story this evening, Jesus called those who were following him together, and he named twelve of them apostles. These were set apart to be Jesus’ close friends, to receive his further instruction, to be powerfully sent out teaching and healing on his behalf.
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. While washing their nets lakeside, Jesus had come along with a crowd. He asked for a boat from which to speak. Then Jesus said: “Put out into deep water and let out your nets.” Simon said: We’ve been out all night and caught nothing! Yet if you say so, I’ll try. Suddenly there were so many fish, Simon had to yell for other boats to help. The boats began to sink because of the fish. Seeing this, Simon Peter fell at Jesus’ knees and said: “Go away, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus said: “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you’ll be catching people.” Simon, Andrew, James, and John then left everything and followed Jesus.[ii]
When I first began to study the lessons appointed for today, I couldn’t help but to think back to one of my favorite commercials from the 1990’s. The setting is just outside a desert fortress where a criminal is tied to a pole and is facing a firing squad. The chief executioner questions the condemned man: “Would you like a blindfold, Messieur? The man answers quickly, “No!” The executioner then asks, “Would you like a cigarette?” Again, the man answers, “No!” Finally, he is asked, “What do you want on your tombstone?” The man pauses briefly to think before answering resolutely, “Pepperoni and cheese!” The commercial was for Tombstone Pizza which not only offered you convenience: a full sized frozen pizza served piping hot in just minutes with all natural ingredients, but also a panoply of choices suited for all tastes.[i] As Americans, we LOVE choices! We do not like to be boxed in with no options. We want to make the decision with the most concise information and with as little serious discernment as possible. We are highly individualistic and want to feel like every option is personal, tailored specifically for our convenience.
Today we remember Antony of Egypt, the founder of Christian monasticism, who moved out into the desert alone to pray. When Antony emerged from the desert and learned of a great persecution of the church, he returned to the city and cared for those in trouble. Later he returned to the desert but many people came out to see him and hear his wisdom. Judges repeatedly called Antony down to the city to advise them in their rulings.
Solitude for prayer, for focusing on relationship with God, is key to our life and what we offer on retreat. Monasticism like ours is life shared together, a company of friends who prioritize friendship with Christ.
2 Kings 5:1-15
Leprosy is a skin disease, though, in the Bible it is considered a state of ‘uncleanness’, rather than an illness. A person afflicted with leprosy is encouraged to present themselves to the priest, and not the physician. Leprosy is a spiritual condition, and we can understand it as a metaphor for an inward state of alienation. Unlovely, unwanted, lepers are relegated to the fringes of society, and are to be avoided. But most of us know that an unattractive skin disease is not a necessary condition for feeling estranged. Feelings of alienation, being misunderstood, not fitting-in, feeling “less-than”, and apart-from, being on the outside looking in, this is a real experience for many people. Alienation, the experience of not feeling as if one belongs, is a spiritual condition that Jesus came to save us from. Jesus came to save outcasts and sinners. The Bible often characterizes alienation metaphorically, as leprosy, which brings us to the story of Naaman from our first reading.[i]
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Profession of Life Vows by Brother Luke Ditewig, SSJE
Now I can’t claim to be the list king in this community. There is another brother, who will remain nameless, who is the king of lists, charts and calendars in this community. But what I can claim to be is the brother obituariest (the brothers call me something else, but it’s a little rude so I won’t repeat it!). Anyway, I am the one responsible for writing the obituaries which we read at Compline, on the anniversary of a brother’s death. It’s a job that I take great delight in. One thing I have done is to make lists of all the brothers who have died in the community since our founding in 1866 beginning with Father Coggeshall, who was the first in our community to die in 1876, up to and including Brother Bernie whose death earlier this year was the most recent. By my count there have been 153 deaths in the community. But while I was making that list, I became curious about another list. I began to wonder how many men have made their life profession in our community, and when. So I began to dig, and it has taken quite a lot of digging, because our records are somewhat incomplete. But according to my count Luke, you are at least the 201st person since Father Benson to make his life profession in the Society of Saint John the Evangelist and the 47th to make his life profession here in this Chapel since Father Lockyer, who was the first to be professed here, on 21 July 1938.
In the fourth chapter of the Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, we express how and why we understand that all human beings are called to live in community: “In community we bear witness to the social nature of human life as willed by our Creator. Human beings bear the image of the triune God and are not meant to be separate and isolated.” All of us, as human beings, are called to share in communities of one kind or another, because we have all been made in the image and likeness of God. And God is community: “The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love.”