When I read the gospel lesson for this Eucharist, my first response was ‘how timely!’
This story feels particularly helpful and relevant to me right now because it deals with our response to fear, and while fear can be a threatening presence in our lives at most any time, it seems to me that it is particularly present in the current age. Our country is more polarized than at any time in recent memory.
We are witnessing the gaps widen between the rich and the poor,
between the privileged and powerful and the weakest and most vulnerable;
between the “right” and the “left,” between “conservatives” and “liberals”,
between Republicans and Democrats,
between viewers of Fox News and viewers of CNN;
between white people and the structures that support their place of privilege in the world and people of color who are fed up with being the victims of racism and xenophobia;
between government officials and the people they represent, and even between our country and other nations of the world, many of whom have been our allies in the past.
Fear seems to be at the heart of so much of the conflict and distrust: Some of us fear that our culture is changing in ways that threaten our values and beliefs. Some of us are afraid that others will take what we have – whether that be our property or our security or our way of life or our rights as human beings worthy of respect and equality with others. Fear is often at the core of our response to our “enemies,” real or perceived; we fear individuals and groups of people who have power over us and who seem willing to take us to places where we do not want to go. For many of us, fear has been the unwelcomed companion who forces his way into our lives against our wishes, and remains stubbornly in our midst while we try to imagine how we will ever get him to leave! It feels as if we are in an age of strife that is threatening our ability to live peaceably together and to work towards clearly-identified common goods. It feels like we are caught in a storm, partly of our own making – a perfect storm in which fear has been a primary catalyst.
“It is I; do not be afraid.”1This is a familiar pattern. The Gospel narratives are full of instances where Jesus appears to his followers in a way that causes them terror. These experiences of fear seem to come in response to those moments in which Christ’s divinity is revealed, full and alive within his human vesture. In Mark’s Gospel, the angel of the Lord tells the women at the tomb that Jesus has arisen as he said; to this, we respond, “Alleluia,”2but this news prompted the women to flee from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them.”3 At the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John are clearly astonished throughout the episode, but fall over in terror at the Father’s proclamation that, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This fear is only calmed by Jesus touching the disciples and telling them “do not be afraid.”4
But then, Jesus’s revelation does not only cause fear among his disciples. In John’s Gospel, Christ asks the company of men who had come to arrest him, “Whom are you looking for?” They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and he replies, “I am he.” At this, the men “stepped back and fell to the ground.”5 Falling to the ground implies an uncontrolled, instinctual response. Like a person whose hand touches the hot burner of a stove, this is not a thought-out reaction.
Tonight, some of us have come here specifically to perform the ancient Christian ritual of foot-washing in which we seek to imitate Jesus, the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Some of us will recoil from this intimate act of pure service. To touch another person crosses a boundary. But piercing that boundary seems to me to have the potential of beginning to free us from the burden of fear. I think that this is what Jesus was doing when he stooped to wash the disciples’ feet. Trying to soothe his own fear in seeking the nearness and closeness of those who were closest to him. Indeed, seeking their very physicality and longing to touch them.
But, intimacy presupposes trust. Without trust, intimacy is impossible. That makes touching another fraught with risk. And this is something that we need to acknowledge to ourselves and one another. Something to seriously consider before we undertake what we are about to do. Feet in particular have always carried connotations of intimacy and closeness. It’s a theme that resonates through both Old and New Testament books.
Some will not be able to perform this act. For one reason or for a hundred reasons, this might be something that we are unable to do. Possibly it carries too much risk for some of us. If that is where you find yourself, suspend self-judgment; simply let that be.
Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The prayer with which we opened our liturgy today includes a rather loaded word: “conscience.” We prayed, “purify our conscience, Almighty God…” I’d like to speak about your conscience… which may make some of you inwardly roll your eyes or duck for cover. “Yikes: my conscience!” Our conscience typically gets rather bad press. Our conscience is about everything we do wrong… and we know it. We may hope it all stays a secret, and yet we also know, “He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sakes…”[i] Is that about Santa Claus or about God? Hmmm. Well it’s certainly about conscience, which comes from the Latin conscientia, which is a knowledge within oneself, an inner sense of what is right.”[ii] With our actions and our thoughts, there’s an inner knowing about our outer doing or saying, a kind of simultaneous overlay of direction and correction. That’s our conscience. In a few moments, we will be invited to make a confession of sin about things we know better about: where it is – don’t we know? – that things should have been different in what we’ve said or left unsaid, things we’ve done or left undone. And we know it. That awareness comes out of our “bad” conscience, i.e., our conscious awareness of being in the wrong.
At first glance, these words of Jesus seem contradictory. ‘Do not fear human beings who can only kill the body,’ he says, ‘but fear God whose power extends through and beyond death.’ But having warned us to fear God, Jesus then reassures us of God’s lovingkindness towards us. “Do not be afraid,” he says, “you are of more value (to God) than many sparrows.” So which is it? Are we to fear God, or not?
The Greek word that is translated “fear” in this passage is phobeó (fob-éh-o), which can mean “to fear” or “to dread,” but can also mean “to reverence” or “to hold in awe.” It is this latter sense of reverencing or holding in awe that is the psalmist’s meaning when he says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). It a state of being in which dread, veneration and wonder are mingled. To “fear God” is to have a profound and humble reverence for God, who is sacred and mysterious, and who is far beyond our human understanding.
Romans 6: 3 – 11
Matthew 28:1 – 10
There was a dreadful custom at one time practiced in some Anglo-Catholic circles, including in a certain monastery on the banks of the Charles River. For the last two weeks of Lent, beginning on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, (which used to be called Passion Sunday), and carrying on until Holy Saturday, after each of the Offices, Psalm 51: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses would be mumbled in unison. Our brother, David Allen remembers this going on here when he made his first visit to the community in the late 1950’s. He thinks it came to an end sometime in the mid-1960’s. You can just imagine the effect of a dozen or so men, sitting here in the Choir, mumbling the psalm in unison. Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
John 18:1 – 19:42
Our efforts cultivating the fruit of the earth were modest at best, because growing up in Brooklyn meant not have having much gardening space. In our backyard, we had a few small rectangles of soil in which to plant our hopes for fresh vegetables and herbs. We experimented with everything from eggplants to pumpkins, but what I remember most is the tomato plants tended by my father and grandfather, taller than me at the time and filled with beautiful ripe tomatoes. That such a prodigious crop could come from so tiny a handful of seeds never ceased to amaze me. And after we had planted the seeds for next season, I waited with a mixture of hope and awe for what seemed like a miracle, new tomato plants rising from the ground in which the seeds were buried.
Nowadays, many of us who live in cities don’t consider anything about our food very miraculous, and we probably aren’t familiar with placing all our faith in a seed. But the lives of our ancestors, certainly in Jesus’ time, were intimately woven with nature’s cycles of death and new life. The fruit of each plant gives its life for the rich potential of its seeds, and each seed itself must die so to bring forth new growth.
Mark 12:28-43 a
Today we remember Aelred, the 12th century abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in Yorkshire. He is remembered especially for his writings on spiritual friendship and chaste fraternal affection. Quote: “No medicine is more valuable, none more efficacious, none better suited to the cure of our temporal ills than a friend to whom we may turn for consolation in time of trouble, and with whom we may share happiness in time of joy.”
http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1015945 Or, how about this: “As a result of a kiss, there arises in the mind a wonderful feeling of delight that awakens and binds together the love of them that kiss….” [http://www.azquotes.com/quote/773721] What do you think about that?
So…the focus this evening is love, that “many splendored thing”, which is the very essence of God [1 John 4:8]. Love, which is perfected in the lives of human beings when we love one another [1 John 4:12]. Love, which casts out all fear [1 John 4:18]. Love, which is the Summary of the Law and the Prophets.Love, which is central to Christian faith, life and understanding. I offer these reflections as one who stumbles along the way and very much depends on others for guidance.
I am impressed by many who cry out to Jesus for help. People in the Bible including blind Bartimaeus who shouts louder and louder when he hears Jesus is nearby; the woman who works her way through the crowd and reaches out to touch Jesus’ clothes; the small group who climb up on a roof to lower their friend in front of Jesus, and the centurion who says: “If you just say the word, my servant will be healed.” Jesus healed them and commended them for their faith. 1
In contrast, Jesus’ own disciples are embarrassing and uncomfortably familiar. They spend lots of time with Jesus, see the miracles, witness healing. Yet when a storm rises up, when life gets rough and tough, the disciples freeze in fear. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
Luke 13:1-9, 31-35
In today’s Gospel, Jesus responds to a threat from Herod, “You tell that fox I have work to do.”
So, if Herod is the fox, who is Jesus? Jesus, in the words of the poet Francis Thompson, Jesus is the Hound of Heaven. And just as the hound picks up the scent of its prey, relentlessly pursuing, unhurried and unperturbed, ever drawing nearer in the chase; so Jesus has our scent. Jesus is on to us.