God is Reigning from the Tree – Br. Lucas Hall

Br. Lucas Hall

Palm Sunday

There’s no such thing as a tree.

I’ll explain.

Biologically, we tend to group living creatures, different species, together with their closest relatives. Take birds, for example. There are many different birds, ostriches, hummingbirds, penguins, vultures, the list is vast. But every bird is more closely related to every other bird, than they are to any creatures outside of that group, “birds.” It’s a neat, tidy category.

But that’s not true of trees. When we look at plant genetics, when we look at the fossil record, we see that what we commonly call “trees” isn’t a neat, tidy category of close relatives. Instead, the development of trees, of tall, massive, woody plants, extending up above other plant life, is a strategy, a structure, a way of being, that emerges again, and again, and again, in different plant families over many years. Our much-vaunted palm trees are more closely related to grass than they are to, say, a pine tree.

But, come on. Of course trees are a thing. Of course there’s such a thing as a tree. They’re just not a neat and tidy biological category. Instead, we should think of trees as a phenomenon, a dynamic happening, bubbling up from the substrate of the natural order, erupting forth in any place where this particular mode of being can gain purchase, and thrive, and live. Read More

Resisting Change – Br. David Vryhof

Br. David Vryhof

Jeremiah 7:23-28
Luke 11:14-23

If we were trying to come up with a theme for today’s lessons, I’d suggest the word “resistance.”

In the first reading, God reminds the Israelites of God’s generous offer: “I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and [you shall] walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”  But the Israelites very clearly don’t hold up their end of the bargain.  They do not listen or obey, but instead they walk “in their own counsels.”  Despite repeated pleas from the prophets, they continue to “stiffen their necks” and refuse to accept God’s guidance and discipline. Why?  Why do they return again and again to their old lives, refusing the new way of life God is offering them?

In the story from Luke, the theme again is resistance.  Jesus heals a man by casting out a mute demon.  The mute man speaks, and the crowd is amazed, but some challenge him by questioning the source of his power and by demanding further signs.  Why couldn’t they rejoice in the healing?  Instead of rejoicing and following him, they stiffen in their resistance and refuse to accept Jesus’ words and deeds.  Where does such resistance come from?  What were they resisting and why? Read More

Life in the Midst of Death – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Romans 8:35-39
John 14:1-7

We begin the first of five Tuesday evening sermons in Lent focused on “finding God amid all that troubles us in our lives and in the world.” This evening we explore the ultimate terms of life: “Life in the Midst of Death.”[i] I’m going to start with eternity and then move back-from-the-future into the present. First, a disclaimer. My own experience of life after death is limited. I’ll come back to that.

After Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus said he was going away to prepare a place for us, where he invites us to follow. [ii] This place in heaven is a “mansion” according to the King James Version of the Bible, which is what I learned from as a child. Maybe also you? However the Greek word that was translated into English in the 1500s as “mansion” does not mean what the word “mansion” connotates for us today. For us today, a mansion is like a small palace, like the oceanfront mansions in Newport, Rhode Island. But the Greek word used here is actually much more modest and far more intriguing. The Greek word is simply a temporary dwelling place: an inn for overnight lodging.[iii]Along the ancient Roman roads, travelers’ inns were placed about a day’s journey one from another where travelers would spend the night.

The Greek word for this inn that Jesus prepares for us implies a journey, an ongoing development. Rather than imagining eternity as something static – where we are installed in a private palace – imagine eternity as an adventure in the company of heaven, with travelers’ inns being prepared for us, both for our heavenly rest and for our heavenly adventure, as we move from light to light, from one inn to the next. Read More

Feasting and Fasting – Br. Lain Wilson

Luke 5:27-32
Isaiah 58:9b-14

I love that, four days into Lent, four days into this season of fasting, we’re reading about a feast.

For me, nothing captures this passage from Luke quite like the scene by the Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese. He turns Luke’s “great banquet” into a wild party. The enormous canvas of The Feast in the House of Levi bursts at its seams with dozens of figures: the disciples and Levi, as well as entertainers, soldiers, children, slaves—even a cat and a dog.[1] Jesus is a still, calm center in the midst of riotous humanity.

The scene is seductive—outstretched arms and turned bodies invite us in, like a friend who opens a place in a circle for you to join. The scene invites us in, to join the throng of “tax collectors and sinners” whom Jesus comes to call. The key question of this scene isn’t that of the authorities—“why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Lk 5:30)—but the one that Jesus leaves unvoiced—“why don’t you join us?”

Imagine for a moment how those at the banquet might have felt. Tax collectors and sinners were the outcasts and the undesirables, cut off from community. Jesus does not seek to segregate and excise them, as others do, to tell them they are unworthy of his ministry and friendship. He calls them. He claims them. Read More

Ash Wednesday Hangover – Br. Jack Crowley 

Br. Jack Crowley headshot

Br. Jack Crowley

Luke 9:18-25

The Thursday after Ash Wednesday feels like a hangover. Shrove Tuesday is full of excitement and pancakes. Ash Wednesday is solemn and full of reflective work. Then this Thursday comes along, and it doesn’t even have its own nickname. It’s just the second day of Lent.  

In any journey, there’s always that feeling when the initial excitement of something beginning has worn off and you get a sense of how long the journey is actually going to take. It’s that part of a hike when after a mile or two you get a glimpse of the mountaintop through the trees and say oh wow, that’s a long way from here. 

Six weeks from today, we Brothers will be sitting up here waiting for our Superior James to wash our feet. In between this Thursday after Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, there will be six weeks of daily life and all the joys and challenges that goes with it.  

It’s with that spirit of daily life that makes the readings for two day of Lent perfect. In our Gospel this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that anyone who wants to follow him must “take up their cross daily.” I love how Jesus uses that word daily. Jesus didn’t have to include that word daily. Jesus could have just said that anyone who wants to follow him has to take up their cross. The fact that Jesus purposefully put in that word daily gets at something important to the Christian experience.   Read More

Blind See – Br. Luke Ditewig

Br. Luke Ditewig

John 9:1-41

One of my friends sees as I don’t. He walks into a room and immediately senses things in others and in me to which I’m oblivious. Sometimes he says: “Don’t you see?” and I reply: “No, you’ve got to tell me. I can’t see.” That’s hard to say, to realize being in the dark while another can clearly see, to discover and experience limitation in the light of another’s ability.

In today’s gospel story, Jesus walks along and sees a person who is blind and who doesn’t ask for help. Jesus doesn’t ask what he wants. Jesus comes and opens his eyes. In response, a flurry of questions by the neighbors and the leaders: How did this happen? Was he really blind before? Who is Jesus? They struggle with question upon question, arguing, accusing, reprimanding, and rejecting. This community is stumbling, groping in the dark, trying to escape the truth that one born blind now sees because of Jesus.

As the community struggles and stumbles, this person grows to see even more. He is honest about limits: “I don’t know where Jesus is. I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” He also comes to know Jesus. First, he says “the man called Jesus” touched me. Then “he is a prophet.” A bit later “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” Finally, again face to face “Lord, I believe.” First, he receives literal sight, and second, insight, awakened to Jesus. Read More

Mending a Broken World – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Genesis 2:3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

Today is the first Sunday in the holy season of Lent. ‘I hate Lent!’ So said Jonathan Swift. ‘I hate Lent, with its different diets and herb porridge, and sour devout faces of people who only put on religion for seven weeks.’ I actually like Lent. Many of my brothers would I think say the same. It’s a time to get serious. Not just giving up chocolate. The Jesuit James Martin wrote, ‘Don’t give up chocolate; give up being a jerk!  It’s time to get serious about God and our lives. It’s a time to go into the desert of one’s heart to encounter God. A time for deeper prayer, repentance, silence and solitude. To look with unblinking eyes at the state of our lives, our relationships, our world.

The world we live in is a beautiful gift, God’s gift to us. And yet we know that God’s gift has been ravaged and broken. Our greed has plundered the land and damaged the environment. Millions live in abject poverty and hunger. Our wars, as in the Ukraine right now, have and continue to kill and maim and disfigure millions. Our sin has broken and scarred our relationships with one another, broken up families, divided people of different cultures, races, and beliefs. Our world, God’s precious and fragile gift to us is torn and divided violently at every level.

This terrible process is described in the New Testament as the work of ‘diabolos’ or the devil. That Greek word ‘diabolos’ used in the New Testament, literally means, ‘the one who throws apart’. The work of diabolos is essentially to divide, to break up that which was one. Read More

The Season of Lent

At SSJE

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. At the Monastery, we follow the tradition of burning the palm branches from last year’s Palm Sunday and using those ashes in our liturgy. Ashes are an ancient sign of sorrow and repentance.  They symbolized mourning, mortality, poverty, and penance.

The Christian custom on being marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday draws from the early western church. Lent began as the season of final preparation (following a three-years’ instruction as catechumens) for those seeking Holy Baptism at Easter. But the season was also used as a period of personal public penance in which those separated from the Church were restored to communion and fellowship by being sprinkled with ashes, dressed in sackcloth, and obliged to remain apart from the Christian community until Maundy Thursday. By the tenth century, this public penance had fallen into disuse, but a derivation of the practice was claimed for the entire church by placing ashes on the foreheads of the entire congregation, making the sign of the cross.

The ashes we receive on Ash Wednesday offer a two-fold reminder, which can be helpful to carry forward throughout the whole of Lent.  First, ashes are a reminder of our mortality. As we hear in the funeral rite: “earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” The ashes remind us to live every day with an awareness of the preciousness of life, the stewardship of our resources, and gratitude for all the gifts of this life, which will end.

Secondly, ashes remind us of poverty. By taking on this outward sign of ashes, we acknowledge our identification with the poor, on two levels. In an internal way, all of us probably know the ways in which we feel vulnerable and in need, in which we come up short. This feeds our internal identification with poverty.

By taking the sign of ashes on our forehead, we also choose to take on an external identification with the poor of this world.  We belong to them, and they to us.  With ashes on our forehead for others to see, we take on a public pledge of the remediation of others’ poverty.

Ash Wednesday – like the whole ensuing season of Lent – beckons us again into our work: of turning afresh to the Lord, seeing ourselves clearly, and giving our need to the One who formed us from the dust.

Suggestions for Prayer and Practice

The liturgy for Ash Wednesday contains many rich resources for prayer and reflection, which can be used throughout the season of Lent. You might find it meaningful, in your personal prayer, to return to elements from this stirring, soul-searching liturgy.

  • Invitation to the observance of a holy Lent (BCP 264)
  • Psalm 51 (BCP 266)
  • Litany of Penance (BCP 267-9)

It has long been the Christian practice to adopt during the season of Lent some spiritual practice that will draw us closer to God and nearer to the self whom God intends us to be. For some, this practice is a “giving up” – breaking some unhealthy habit, for instance, or examining prayerfully some disordered attachment in our lives in order to gain freedom from it.  For others, it is a “taking on” – adopting a healthy practice, or engaging our minds and bodies in new and life-giving ways, or reaching out to others. This Lent, prayerfully consider what practice would allow you to take the next step on your pilgrimage of faith.

Throughout Lent, we hear the call for repentance most every day. Repentance asks us to observe in retrospect where we had it wrong and with whom, and then to resolve to make amends where we can.  You might find a daily practice of repentance to be a helpful Lenten discipline. At the end of each day, stop; review your day. Be thankful in every way you can be thankful; pay attention to where you need to repent. And then claim Jesus’ promise that he is with us to create in us a new heart.

Perhaps the most important discipline to take on during Lent is intentionality. Don’t sort-of do something. Don’t sort-of fast from something. Be intentional: be really present to the grace of this season and its power to draw us near to God.

Praying the Questions

In the collect from the Ash Wednesday liturgy, we pray, “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts….”  The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.”  The sense of the word is about having a heart broken open. How is your heart being broken open now, in this season of life? What is God inviting you to in this opening?

 

Lent is not a time to be miserable, to try to lose weight, to break old habits. Instead it is a time to discover who we truly are: a people worthy of pardon and absolution, a people worthy of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, a people worthy to stand in God’s presence, a people worthy of God’s love. The purpose of Lent is to discover our worth, not to revel in our misery. This Lent, even as you acknowledge your sin, you might also mediate on your own worthiness. As you look in the mirror, can you see someone who is holy because God is holy? And as you go about the world – on the T, in a shop, at your office – can you see those around you as a temple of God, because God’s Spirit has chosen to dwell therein?

 

The penitence, self-examination, prayer, fasting, and alms-giving enjoined upon us in Lent are for us, for our own benefit, and not for God’s. They are meant to bring us into a face-to-face encounter with our need, as well as the need of our brothers and sisters. These spiritual tools have been sharpened and refined by the generations and bequeathed to us for the sake of our growth in humility and larger vision. The longer we look, the more God will reveal. How have you been blind or refused God’s invitations to grow?

 

Bathed in Glory – Br. James Koester

Bathed in Glory - Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester,
Superior

Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20

There is a line in this evening’s lesson from Isaiah that has always appealed to me. In fact, a number of years ago when I was asked what my favourite line from Scripture was, I quoted this one. I don’t know if I would still say it remains my favourite, but it continues to intrigue me. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord.[1]

The line, and indeed the passage, intrigues me, because of what it tells us about God, and God’s nature.

In my imagination, what unfolds before us this evening is a great courtroom drama, with all the twists and turns that implies. Think, if you a certain age, Perry Mason. And I think that’s what Isaiah had in mind. Isaiah is not speaking of an argument, between two angry and hostile parties. He is speaking in terms of a legal argument, where all the facts of the case are laid before the court, which has the power to make an ultimate decision or judgement.

If Isaiah is describing a court of law, and not a verbal argument between two antagonists, then we can ask ourselves, who are the actors in this courtroom drama? Who is judge or jury? Who are the opposing attorneys? Who is the defendant? Most particularly we can ask, what is this case about.

The answer to the last two questions is clear. The defendants are those children of God Isaiah references, who have rebelled, who do evil and deal corruptly, who have forsaken and despised the Holy One, and who are utterly estranged from God. The case is one of rebellion, and it is they, the children of God, who have rebelled, and who are now clothed in the scarlet and crimson of their sins.[2]

Last Holy Week, I had fun dyeing eggs for Easter. Rather than using commercial food dye, or buying an Easter Egg dyeing kit, I looked around the kitchen, and created various dyeing solutions using different spices, vegetables, and fruits.

Not only is Isaiah giving us a lesson in Biblical legal procedures in this passage, he is also giving us a lesson in the art of dyeing fabric. What I learnt dyeing eggs resonates with what Isaiah hints at.

It is no accident that Isaiah uses the colours scarlet and crimson to denote sin, and it is not simply because they are the colour of blood. To dye something scarlet or crimson requires that the article be left in the dye solution for quite some time. As I discovered with my Easter eggs, the longer something is left in the solution, the deeper the colour, and the harder it is to wipe off. Those whose sin has coloured them scarlet, who are red like crimson, Isaiah tells us, have utterly forsaken God, and walked far from the paths of righteousness. We are not speaking here of a pale colour that will soon fade. We are speaking of a colour, indeed a sin, that is deeply, indelibly set.

Nor should it surprise us that Isaiah is not speaking of a nameless, or anonymous people in this passage. He is speaking of a people known to him. Indeed, he is speaking of a people to whom he is speaking: the people of Judah and Jerusalem. By extension, he is speaking to us. We are that sinful, rebellious, corrupt people, whose sins have clothed us in scarlet and crimson.

Because our sin is so indelibly set, like the colours scarlet and crimson, the outcome of our legal case is certain. The judgement can be nothing less than guilty as charged. But that’s where things get exciting. That’s why I find this passage so fascinating.

While the identity of the defendant is clear, and they are clearly guilty, the judge, jury, and attorneys switch sides in an instant, and go from prosecuting the defendant, to pleading with them. …though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.[3]

Isaiah’s audience would have known how difficult it is to reverse the dyeing process, and take something scarlet or crimson, and turn it white. They would have known the impossibility of such a transformation. No amount of washing, soaking, scrubbing, or bleaching, would be able to totally remove the scarlet and crimson dye. What had been dyed scarlet or crimson was indelibly coloured. Nothing can change that.

The surprising thing is that Isaiah suggests it can be changed. The surprising thing is that scarlet and crimson can be made white. With that, the legal case is turned on its ear, and the judge, who one minute was ready to find the defendant guilty, is equally prepared to find them innocent. …you shall be like snow…you shall become like wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land. And we know now, the judge, jury, and attorneys to be none other than God, the Holy One of Israel.

If scarlet and crimson are the colours of indelible sin, then the purity of snow, and the loveliness of wool point in the opposite direction. We saw that direction several days ago.

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.[4]

In the Transfiguration, we see Jesus as he truly is, radiating God’s glory, and being shown to be God’s son. ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’[5]

Baptized as we are into Christ Jesus, we see ourselves as God intends us to be. Like Jesus, in him we too are clothed in dazzling white, and bathed in glory. What a far cry is this vision of ourselves, from the one Isaiah holds before us. There we see ourselves stained by sin and indelibly coloured scarlet and crimson. Now we see ourselves pure and lovely, radiating God’s glory.

Both Isaiah and Jesus tell us this transformation, indeed, this transfiguration is possible. All it takes for us to go from being indelibly coloured by sin, is to wash ourselves by ceasing to do evil, learning to do good, seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow.[6]

This transformation, indeed, this transfiguration, from scarlet to snow, and crimson to wool, from a people utterly estranged from God, and indelibly marked by sin, to the beloved daughters and sons of God, happens when we remember who and whose we are. Baptized into Christ we are called to be a people of justice, mercy, and peace, who like the ox knows its owner, and like the donkey knows its master’s crib.[7]

Acknowledging whose we are, and where we belong turns the legal case against us and our sin on its ear. Judge, jury, and attorneys go in an instant from prosecuting our guilt and sin, to pleading our innocence, and forgiving our sin. In an instant the mark of rebellion and estrangement from God is wiped out, as we come to know ourselves as God’s beloved daughters and sons.

For many, Lent is a time to recognize our sin. It is a time to acknowledge they are like scarlet and red like crimson. Lent is a time to recognize that we do evil and deal corruptly. But if that is the only message of Lent, no wonder it makes us miserable.

There is another message of Lent. It is the message of Isaiah, the message of Jesus.  [Though our] sins be like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.

No matter how set is the colour of our sin, the message of Lent, the message of Isaiah, the message of Jesus is a message of ultimate release and forgiveness when we will know ourselves as God intends us to be, clothed in dazzling white, and bathed in glory, like fresh snow, and washed wool.

I am intrigued by the passage, and by God’s desire to argue it out with us, because in the end it reminds us that God’s nature is always to have mercy and forgive, just as our nature is to be clothed in dazzling white and bathed in glory as the beloved daughters and sons of God.


[1] Isaiah 1: 18a

[2] Isaiah 1: 2 – 4, 18

[3] Isaiah 1: 18 – 19

[4] Luke 9: 28 – 29

[5] Luke 9: 35

[6] See Isaiah 1: 16 – 17

[7] See Isaiah 1: 2

Wash Us – Br. Luke Ditewig

Isaiah 1:2-4, 16-20
Psalm 50:7-15, 22-24

Much of the snow here melted last week, changing our perspective. The grounds and gardens came back into view. As soon as the river thawed, rowers went back out in their sculls. We see what was hidden: water, plants, and paths along with trash and twigs. Lent invites revealing, attending to what has been hidden, and reordering our lives. It may include gathering the trash and raking up the twigs within our souls, what we can see is out of place.

God says through the prophet Isaiah in tonight’s scripture: “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. … Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove evil … cease to do evil.” It is more than lawns or riverbanks and more than simply tidying up. Wash yourself from evil. From denying goodness in each other. From denying goodness in ourselves and in the world. From all our little to large words and actions and inaction—including allowing others and systems to act on our behalf—all that degrades, oppresses, shames, and enslaves.[i]

Particularly in Lent, we are called to realize, name, and turn from our sin. As we will sing: “Lenten gifts invite us, searching deep within, claiming our desires, naming all our sin.”[ii] Not in order to beat ourselves up. Not because God wants revenge. Rather, surrender by acknowledging our need and receive grace. God comes wanting to save. Read More