“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perfect? This sounds impossible. Remember one of your favorite teachers, whether a family member or in school, perhaps a coach. Imagine a favorite teacher saying: “Keep growing into more. You can do it.” How does it feel to hear that?
Today’s Gospel is the last in a series from Jesus:[i] You have heard it was said … but I say to you … .” With each one, Jesus invites beyond what has been already learned. You have heard: Don’t murder. But I say beware of your anger and insulting each other. You have heard: Don’t commit adultery. But I say beware of lust. Keep the spirit of the law. You have heard: Hate your enemy. But I say love your enemies.
Like a parent, teacher, coach, or one whom we admire, Jesus says: There’s more than the basic rules you already know. This is the way of adulthood.[ii] Keep on growing into further maturity, into an expansive spirit with integrity and mercy toward everyone, all the time. Scholar Dale Bruner writes the word translated as perfect is not about the height of accomplishment to which we reach up but rather the width of mercy, reaching out to embrace, and Bruner translates it as “perfectly mature.” [iii]
In the parallel passage in Luke, Jesus says: “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.”[iv] The New English Bible puts Matthew’s line as “be all goodness, as your heavenly Father is all good.” Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. … Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”
If you right now, like me, have had enough of lockdown, but are feeling a new sense of hope that life might just be starting to open up again; if you are looking for new energy and joy in your life, today’s Gospel comes as a real gift. As I prayed with the passage, two words, two verbs, leapt off the page, and seem to be offering us the promise of new life. The first verb is ‘to prune’: ‘Every branch that bears fruit the Father prunes to make it bear more fruit.’ The second verb is to ‘abide’: ‘Abide in me and I in you.’
The first word then, ‘to prune’. I was ordained in the south west of England in the diocese of Salisbury My first job was in Weymouth and Portland. I had a little house with a fantastic view over Portland Harbour, which is the place from which the ships sailed across to France on D Day. But the loveliest thing about my house was the garden. It was beautiful, and full of roses. They loved the soil and the southern English climate: damp and never extremely hot or extremely cold. I still remember especially in the evenings, the sweet scent of the roses mixed with the salty sea air, was incredible. But what my roses really loved was Harry. He was an elderly member of my church who loved gardening, and helped me in mine. I remember him saying to me, if you want your roses to thrive, get your worst enemy to prune them, because he will be ruthless, and cut them right down, which is what Harry did. And the following year they produced these fantastic flowers. Jesus said, ‘My father prunes every branch to make it bear more fruit.’ And of course, we are the vine, or the rose bush, that God wants to prune. As I look back over this past year of pandemic, I think my life has become a bit like a rambling rose that hasn’t been pruned. Perhaps you know something of that in your own life. Lockdown is a disorienting experience. Things we long to do and which give us huge satisfaction, people we long to visit and hug, many of our hopes and dreams, have not been possible. So, it’s easy to lose direction and to feel lost, or to head off in ways which are not life giving, or develop habits to soothe or numb us, but which ultimately make us feel worse. Like an unkept rose, we might feel like we have branches going off in every direction, but not really heading anywhere. When that happens with roses, the energy, the life force has been so dissipated, that when it comes to flowering season the fruit, the flowers, are small and stunted. We too can feel tired and listless, and unhappy. And if we are honest, not bearing much fruit.
This spring we’ve watched as a pair of morning doves built a nest on the outdoor crucifix located in our cloister garden. Nestled on the shoulder of the crucified Jesus, the mother sat motionless on her eggs for days and days. At last the chicks emerged.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to be watching the nest this past Monday evening. The two chicks are now adolescents, about 2/3 the size of their adult parents and darker in coloring. They were sitting side by side in the nest, eagerly looking out on the world. Their mother appeared and, standing on the head of the crucified Jesus, she fed them. Then she flew off and perched nearby where she could keep a close eye on them.
You could tell there was something happening. The young birds began rocking back and forth in the nest, as if working up their courage to leave the warmth and security of the nest. Finally, one of them took the leap. It flapped wildly around the cloister, unable to control its flight, banging into the walls and ceiling until it finally fell stunned to the floor. The second one readied itself for its first flight, rocking in the nest before finally launching its body into the air. Like the first, it flapped wildly about, crashing into the ceiling and walls, and then landing on the floor. It waited for a bit, then took off again, this time successfully navigating its way through the arches and out into the garden.
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it.”
Now the word of the Lord came to Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as they were casting and mending nets, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
When Jonah heard the Lord’s voice calling him he immediately got up and hightailed off in the opposite direction! When Simon and Andrew, James and John heard the Lord’s voice, they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. Two very different responses to the call of God. And as I was reading the two stories set in today’s Scripture readings, I was reflecting on the mystery of vocation, of how God is always calling us to larger life – and our very mixed and not always very impressive or heroic responses!
And certainly, in Scripture, it seems that most people whom God calls, don’t immediately leave their ‘nets’ and follow. Most of them, like me, are more like Jonah. Or like Moses. He tries to wriggle out of it when God calls him to confront Pharaoh: ‘O Lord, I’ve never been eloquent: I’m slow of speech and tongue.’ Or poor Jeremiah. ‘O Lord, truly I don’t know how to speak, for I’m only a boy.’ Or poor Isaiah, in the midst of a stunning vision of heaven – ‘O Lord, woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.’ But after the Lord cleanses him he does manage to say, ‘Here am I Lord, send me.’ We used to joke that he was probably feeling more, ‘Here am I – send HIM!’
Matthew 13: 18 – 23
I tried this once, and it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Whether or not we come from farming, or gardening backgrounds, we all read the parable of the sower with certain, modern assumptions about farming techniques. We assume modern, or at least rudimentary equipment that can plough, and till the soil, preparing it for seeding, which is then done carefully, accurately, and evenly. But it’s not as easy as that.
As I discovered in the kitchen garden, soil can be different in one part of the garden, than it is in another. In just a few feet, you can go from sandy, well-drained soil, to another that is full of clay, and so the rain runs off without penetrating the surface. No matter how well you prepare the soil, it takes great skill for a farmer, or gardener, to develop optimum soil conditions over time. And that is even before you sow the seed.
Hosea 10:1-3, 12
There is a new fence going up. So far it is just the posts. They are taller and more robust. The perimeter expands further, and—fittingly—it is beautiful. There is a new fence going up at the Monks’ Garden at Emery House. Everything grown there is given away. The first beets were just harvested; 100 pounds will be distributed this week at the Newbury Food Pantry.[i]
The garden is in partnership with Nourishing the North Shore. We provide the land and water. They grow, harvest, and distribute. We also host land for the Organic Community Garden. We Brothers share in Nourishing the North Shore’s mission: “to ensure equal access to healthy, local food to all members of the North Shore communities in a manner that builds community, fosters connection, and promotes dignity and self-reliance.”[ii] Food justice is expanding step by step in further work with local schools and with a bigger garden: mission in action.
A bigger garden could be used for exclusion and greed, to horde and squander. In today’s text, the prophet Hosea shows bad and good images. God’s people were like “a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit.” With more fruit, they built monuments to idols, like self-praise, ignoring God. “Their heart is false … The Lord will break down their altars, and destroy their pillars.”
You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants. Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
There is something which stirs under the weight of words like “vow,” “obedience,” “poverty,” “repentance.” To the contemporary Western imagination, the thing which stirs—the family of obscure reminders about our nature as creatures—elicits a quiet shrug: “we already know what these words mean, and those are postures we’ve outgrown, have we not? The mature, modern person has no need of these archaic patterns, for the self-made man or woman is vowed to no one but themselves; one need only obey the agreed upon social conventions (even if our conscience may quiver from time to time); poverty is, as a matter of categorical necessity, a social ill to be triumphed over, escaped, conquered; it has nothing to do with our essential nature; and to repent? well, let’s not deny our dominion over ourselves—our bodies are, after all, our own.”
I Samuel 16:1-13
From the First Book of Samuel, that great story of the calling and anointing of David. I’ve always really loved this story. It’s a kind of Cinderella story. Here are all Jesse’s sons lined up in front of the prophet Samuel. He looks at each one in turn: which one has the Lord chosen to be king? The first one, Eliab. He’s tall and good-looking. He must be the one! But no, says God. Never mind about his appearance or his height – he’s not the one. Nor the next one, nor the next one. But surely, God, this one looks perfect to be king. No, says God – never mind what he looks like. “For the Lord does not see as mortals see. They look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
And none of his sons are chosen. Are you sure there’s no one else? Well, says Jesse, there is the youngest (or in Hebrew it can also mean the smallest or the shortest). It couldn’t possibly be him! – and anyway he’s out with the sheep. Bring him in! I need to see him! He comes in, and immediately Samuel knows‘This is the one!’ And he anoints him with oil in the presence of all his brothers, and we read “The Spirit of the Lord came mightily on David from that day forward.”
Well, it’s a great story, and the reason I think I’ve always loved it is that I’m the youngest son in my family and I’ve got two older brothers. Growing up I was always younger and shorter than them. Playing football (soccer) with them and their friends, they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re too small. You can go in goal. I hated being in goal and just standing around. Boring! You couldn’t run around with the ball.
Acts 8: 26 – 40
Psalm 22: 24 – 30
1 John 4: 7 – 21|
John 15: 1 – 8
I think that it is safe to say that the further we get from our agrarian past, or even just from the practice of having a small vegetable garden in the back yard, the more foreign some parts of Scripture will be for us. Much in Scripture, and certainly in the Gospels, assumes a familiarity with different aspects of agriculture. But what was once common knowledge, even if it wasn’t firsthand knowledge, now must be learnt, not from experience, but from books or podcasts.
My mother delighted in telling me a story when I was visiting her a number of years ago, about my then, 6 year old niece Callie. Callie was helping Mum, whom she called Oma, make lunch one day, and in the midst of the preparations Mum instructed Callie to go out into the backyard garden and pull a few carrots from the vegetable patch for them to have with their lunch. Wide-eyed Callie put her hands on her hips and shook her head. Oh, Oma, Callie said very seriously, carrots don’t come from gardens, carrots come from grocery stores. Clearly, poor old foolish Oma didn’t know anything about carrots, and certainly not where you could get them if you wanted to have some with your lunch.
If we no longer know where carrots come from, as obviously some people in this world don’t (and here I don’t mean poor old foolish Oma!); if we have forgotten our agrarian past; if there is no longer any dirt under our finger nails; if our only experience of food production is what we find in shops; what are we to make of a text such as we have today from John’s Gospel that assumes a degree of knowledge of viniculture, or even just basic gardening.
When I read over this lesson I could feel that it was a farewell address. Paul was giving advice and encouragement for the time when he could no longer be with the people of Ephesus. It was a prayer for spiritual strength; for courage and perseverance. (Vv. 16-17)
At the beginning of this 3rd chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus he referred to himself as a prisoner for Christ Jesus.
After a series of trials before several tribunals Paul had appealed to the Emperor. He was on his way to Rome by way of churches he had founded. (Cf. Acts 25:10-12) He did not want the concern that these people of Ephesus had for him to hinder the growth of their faith in God. Having said this, look at the main thrust of today’s Epistle reading.