We often imagine what it must have been like for those disciples to be living with Jesus during those years of ministry together in Galilee. Particularly in the Synoptic Gospels we come to know a Jesus in all his humanity: his kindness, his gentleness, his anger, his sadness, his love. There are times, especially in Jesus’ healing miracles and perhaps above all at the Transfiguration, when the disciples glimpse something of his divinity, but so often Jesus tells them not to tell anyone of this. More often, Jesus is portrayed as a very human, who draws close to us in his humanity.
But when we move to the Gospel of John, we breathe a very different atmosphere. Here, in this gospel, it is as if Jesus can barely conceal his divinity at all. At any moment his glory is likely to ‘flame out like shining from shook foil.’ In our Gospel today, we have such a moment. Jesus comes to his disciples, walking on the water, and they are terrified. On seeing Jesus, the disciples were experiencing what Rudolph Otto in his book ‘The Idea of the Holy’ described as the numinous. The experience of the numinous, he says, underlies all genuine religious experience. Scripture is packed with such experiences, and perhaps the first famous one is in the account of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus 3. The experience of the numinous has three components, which Otto calls ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans.’ First is ‘mysterium’. The numinous experience is wholly other; entirely different to anything we experience in ordinary life, and it evokes a reaction of wonder. So, the disciples in the boat stare in awe and wonder at a man walking on water. Secondly the numinous is ‘tremendum’. It provokes terror, because it presents itself as an overwhelming power and majesty. And the poor disciples were terrified! But thirdly, the numinous is ‘fascinans’. We are attracted and drawn to it, as something merciful and gracious. The disciples longed for this terrifying figure on the water to come closer to them, and into the boat.
Matthew mentions a handful of women in his genealogy of Christ. This is odd. If he was following the convention of the time, which held that descent, inheritance, and “Jewishness” were passed down the male line, he wouldn’t have needed to include any women. But if he was attempting to give a holistic family tree, the few women he does mention are wildly insufficient. So what’s he doing?
I think each time he does this, it’s to point out something surprising about the relationship in question. Tamar is the first mentioned; she, having survived two husbands who God struck down for their sins, was regarded as cursed, and was ostracized from her family; through cunning deceit, including deliberately getting her father-in-law to impregnate her under the guise of being a prostitute, she proved that she was being mistreated, and so acquired for herself the security and status of marriage, bearing sons to a husband who was not struck down for his sins. Rahab is mentioned after her; she was a Canaanite, and quite possibly a prostitute or the owner of a brothel. Yet, she was also regarded as a holy and righteous woman, without whom the Israelites could not have conquered Jericho. Ruth is next; she was a Moabite, a member of a nation normally in conflict with the Israelites, but she demonstrated her faithfulness to God so strongly that an entire book of the Old Testament is named for her. And then there is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah; King David committed adultery with her, and then had Uriah murdered to cover up the subsequent pregnancy.
‘I have seen God face to face, and yet I live.’ But only just! Jacob had wrestled with the angel all night, and managed to come out alive – but with his hip put out of joint. Yet God blessed him through the struggle, and let him see God face to face.
Throughout Scripture, when the Spirit of the Lord comes down upon a person, there is so often a struggle; the Spirit is experienced as something traumatic and shattering. Dealing with God is not for the faint hearted! Listen to the prophet Ezekiel: ‘A spirit entered me and lifted me up and bore me away. Before the glory of the Lord I fell on my face, but the spirit lifted me up’. Daniel, standing on the banks of the river Tigris see a vision of a man, shining in glory, sent from God. The man spoke, and David fell into a trance, and then fell to the ground. Shaking with fear, he lost his strength and could hardly breathe. The prophet Jeremiah tries to get away from the Lord’s presence, but the Spirit overwhelms him, and he cries out, ‘If I say I will not mention him or speak in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.’ Well might the writer of the letter to the Hebrews say, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’!
Yet, through each one of these powerful and life changing experiences, God was at work, forming and molding these very different characters to become men of God; able to speak for God, but most crucially, to see for God. Through their profound and life changing encounters with the living God, they would now see as God sees. They would become God’s seers, and they would proclaim what they saw.
Most people will say that they remember exactly where they were and whom they were with at the time of an epic historical event, such as a tragedy or something shocking and unbelievable. Usually it is when the life of the world is altered in a split second, leaving no one unchanged. My mother would tell the story of how, as a young teenager, she was at Junior All-County Band clinic when she and the other students found out that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. In my own lifetime, the Challenger disaster and of course 9/11 are etched in my mind in vivid detail. Not only was 9/11 shocking, but it invoked a great deal of fear that shook the world. No one was the same after that day and we all recalled our stories to each other as we tried to process our emotions and begin the very long journey to healing.
I imagine that this is probably the experience of the shepherds in our gospel lesson from Luke this morning. This particular evening was just another speck in the sea of time, poised to be like all the others, keeping watch over the sheep in their care. These men were country dwellers who lived on the margins of society. To the temple leaders and social elite, they were among the dregs of society, unclean due to the nature of their profession. Because their jobs allowed them little time away, they were unable to make the appropriate temple sacrifices with any kind of regularity. They were literal outcasts because they tended the flocks in the rural regions on the perimeter of town. Yet, it was their job to see to the well-being of sheep that were most likely to be presented in the temple for sacrifice by people who could afford it.
Recently, you may remember, I preached on The Incarnation of Jesus Christ as the Prime Holy Mystery. Today I shall add to that the additional mystery of the relationship between Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
The Gospel reading tells us that at a certain point, six months after the Angel Gabriel had made his announcement to Mary, she “set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
The Bible tells us that Mary set out with haste to go to Zechariah’s house in the Judean hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. We know that most people travelled in those days by foot. What we don’t know is where she was starting from, and how long it would have taken her. Do we really need to understand that?
Matthew 9: 9-13
I believe that to be true. Probably, so do you. We believe that Jesus saves us from sin – our own and the sins of the whole world. Jesus saves us from death: by his Incarnation, by his freely given human life, and by his freely chosen death on the cross. Jesus saves us from the worst in ourselves: from our daily blindness, ignorance, resentment and failure to love. Jesus saves. For us, that is good news.
But just imagine that somewhere there is a person who doesn’t believe he is in need of saving. The message that “Jesus saves” rings hollow in his ears. In fact, he and his many friends hear this proposition and yawn, or chuckle, or roll their eyes. The offer of a Savior is not what they need.
I believe that, also, to be true. Probably, so do you. We believe that Jesus, our Savior, was also a Healer at heart, spending himself, spending his life bending down and reaching out to touch the leper, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the bleeding and broken and forsaken of the world. In healing bodies, he healed hearts and souls, and lives even now to do the same. Jesus heals. For us, that is good news.
Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Psalm 85: 7-13
Acts 13: 14b-26
Luke 1: 57-80
It doesn’t take much: a young girl, barely a teenager, lowering her bucket into the village well, listening for the splash when it hits the water; an old man, hands shaking with age, alone in the sanctuary of the Lord, spooning incense onto the red hot charcoal of the altar brazier. It doesn’t take much, and suddenly there is a moment, a movement, a presence, a strange voice, a greeting: ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you’; a command and a promise: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
It doesn’t take much, a young girl, barely a teenager, going about her daily chores; an old man, whose hands tremble with age, performing a duty he had done, perhaps countless times before, yet something is profoundly different.
I imagine it was with a youthful twinkle in his eye that our Society’s founder, Father Benson, once wrote: “If we are to have Jesus our friend, we must know him to be continually near. The companionship of Jesus! It is strange how many there are who look forward to being with him in another world, but never think of living fellowship with him here.”
I was eleven years old when I made my way to the front of my childhood church to proclaim what I already knew in my heart: that Jesus and I had had a personal relationship since before I could remember. In the evangelical tradition in which I was raised, the pastor would always give an “altar call” before the final hymn: he would invite anyone who wanted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ to come forward and stand with him as a public profession of that desire, which was the next step in the journey of faith. After I took that step myself, I always looked forward to that moment in the service, to see who else might come to be friends with Jesus the way I was.
Yet as I grew into an adult understanding of Jesus during my own journey into adulthood, the constant companion I had known as a child became a distant acquaintance that I would see once every great while (and when I did, I wasn’t quite sure what to say). Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you’ve been trying to reclaim a relationship with Jesus. Or maybe, in light of current events, you’re presently searching for a ray of hope, confused and disoriented at what is going on in this world, wondering ‘where in the world is Jesus in all of this?’
In my own journey, I met Jesus again in the same place that I had first professed to follow him: at the altar. Late in my high school years, I had the opportunity to visit an Episcopal Church one Christmas Eve and was most struck by all the activity surrounding the altar during the second half of the service. Something mysterious was occurring, and while I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, it was palpable. I eventually joined the Episcopal Church and came to know and understand what was happening at the altar. It was a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Through this sacrament, my personal relationship with Jesus was renewed. What’s more, I realized in this new ‘altar call’ that Jesus had always been with me on my journey, I just hadn’t recognized him. Every time we gather around an altar to break bread and share wine, we get a glimpse of Jesus, who is our constant companion.
As a monk now, I get the chance to meet Jesus at the altar every day during the Eucharist. Yet even as a monk, I also need to attune my eyes to see him in my everyday life. How can we become aware of Jesus, who is also called Emmanuel – “God with us” – when we’re away from the altar? I want to suggest a transformative practice which comes from the monastic tradition: reserving two brief periods of prayer to act as ‘bookends’ to your day.
In the morning, take a few moments and pray forward through your day. As editor David Cobb suggests in the newly revised Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book:
In God’s presence, think through the day ahead: the work you will do, the people you will encounter, the dangers or uncertainties you face, the possibilities for joy and acts of kindness, any particular resolutions you need to renew. Consider what might draw you from the love of God and neighbor, the opportunities you will have to know and serve God and to grow in virtue. Remember those closest to you and all for whom you have agreed to pray, ask God’s blessings, guidance, and strength in all that lies before you. Then, gather up these thoughts and reflections with the words of the Lord’s Prayer.
Or you might conclude, as I do, with Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer,” which is popular in 12-Step work:
GOD, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it. Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.
If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find that, over time, this way of praying in the morning will help make you aware of Jesus with you throughout your day. Even the empty, in-between times of the day can become full of chances to meet him in the moment. Father George Congreve, SSJE once wrote:
At times, when we have to wait and have nothing to do to occupy ourselves with – Oh! Then it is not wasted time if we have thought of God in it, if we have looked into the face of Jesus. Then anything that we do at the end of such waiting times we do with a glory and a power to witness to Jesus which is, indeed, a precious result. Everything should become by degrees an act of communion with God.
A second period of prayer, at the end of the day, can help you to see how many moments throughout your day were, indeed, “an act of communion with God.” Before you go to bed, take ten or fifteen minutes to pray backwards through your day. You might use the five-step prayer known in Ignatian Spirituality as “The Examen”:
- Become aware of God’s presence and ask God to bring clarity to the end of your day.
- Review the day with gratitude, both what went well and where you might have come up short. Pay attention to the small things. God is in the details.
- Pay attention to your emotions. Ignatius says that we detect the presence of God in our emotions. What is God saying through these feelings?
- Choose one feature from the day and pray from it. Look at it. Pray about it. Allow the prayer to arise spontaneously from your heart – whether intercession, praise, repentance, or gratitude.
- Look forward to tomorrow. Do all this with a posture of gratitude knowing that all of life is a gift of God, and then close with the Lord’s Prayer.
Jesus always waits for us at the altar. And he meets us in the sacrament of our daily lives. He continually accompanies us along our earthly pilgrimage, loving us and upholding us, each step of the way. Look for him beside you.
Feast of St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
It was a dark, cold, and snowy night in March of 2009.I had missed the highly erratic number 86 Bus by 5 minutes. The walk from the Sullivan Square train station in Somerville to my apartment was about 1.5 miles, a twenty minute schlep in my snow boots. Though I didn’t relish the prospect of a poorly lit walk through a fairly unpleasant neighborhood at that hour, my feet seemed to make the decision for me. My hand groped in my coat pocket for my prayer rope, as my mind groped for the familiar repetition, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
It was a difficult period in my life. There were many moments when the anxiety of daily existence felt overwhelming. I was only partially employed; a number of friends had recently moved away; my apartment was cold and dilapidated; I was searching for direction and purpose. Beneath the surface of it all, in my quiet moments, the anxiety of existence itself stared back at me, sharp and real. Most days, prayer preserved my sanity. But on days like this one, brow furrowed, teeth clenched, heels pounding the frosty pavement, prayer felt like firing a nail gun into an empty sky. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Three-hundred nails, on average, from the train station to my doorstep.
During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, silence, and recreation. The Chapel will reopen on Tuesday, August 30, 2016.
It is so good to be back again, worshiping in this lovely place, after our time away of retreat and community discussions. And it is so good to see you all again. I do hope you have had a great summer – a time for rest and refreshment.
We had a wonderful retreat. To spend those days amidst the natural beauty of Emery House was a great gift. Certainly for me, and I know other Brothers, it was an occasion to deepen our contemplative vision. In the Letter to the Hebrews which was read this morning, verse 14 says, “For here we have no abiding city, but we are looking for a city that is to come.” And I think that’s really what the contemplative vision is all about. It is about seeing with the eyes of faith; seeing that this life which we have is not the only reality. When our contemplative vision grows, we see that the apparently ordinary things of life are shot through with the glory of God. Spending time on retreat is a wonderful opportunity to really see again heaven breaking through – or as William Blake put it, “to see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour.”