I stood patiently by the door, waiting to be told where to sit. I saw all my Brothers take what I thought was their designated seat. It was my first time at “rounds” (what we Brothers call our daily morning meeting: that time where all the Brothers are in the same room at the same time to talk over the day’s business face-to-face).
I kept waiting to be told where to sit. I felt like a stray dog who had just been adopted days before, trying to figure out the ways of the household, not wanting to cause a stir, just looking to obey. Eventually I realized no one was going to tell me where to sit, and so I just sat down in an empty chair. I kept waiting for one of my elder Brothers to look at me and explain kindly but firmly that I was sitting in a chair that another Brother had been sitting in for longer than I had been alive. Luckily that never happened.
I went through thousands of moments like that in my early days as a Postulant: long moments of waiting for someone with authority to swoop in and tell me exactly what to do. It took me a long time to realize that was not the way authority was exercised at SSJE. Those in power were not going to tell me where to sit. Instead, those in authority were focused on having a productive morning meeting and getting through the day. This was a big difference from the days back when Novices had their mail read.
Joseph is one of those biblical characters who exists mostly in the shadows. He emerges just a handful of times, only to disappear once again, more or less for ever. Today in this account of finding the boy Jesus in the temple is the last time we see him in person. But what we have from this handful of references, is enough to weave together a portrait of a man who is good, and kind, loving, and compassionate. The thing is, he didn’t need to be, and no one would have thought any less of him.
Perhaps my favourite image of Joseph comes from the icon of the Nativity. There, away from the action, sits Joseph, with his head in in hands. Probably wondering what on earth was he going to do. Having sat this way more times than I can count, I have great sympathy with Joseph. Standing before him are two men, perhaps shepherds, obviously addressing him. Iconographic tradition calls this scene, Troubled Joseph. Matthew’s gospel tells us what is troubling him.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
Had he done so, no one would have blamed him. No doubt, having heard the revelation of Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph was scandalized, appalled, embarrassed, worried about his good name. He was perfectly within his rights to wash his hands of the whole sordid mess. And no one would have blamed him.
Matthew 11:16-19; 25-30
Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?’ [i]
There are some who listen and follow, who find her dwelling and hold her fast. But there are many in the broad places of the world who ignore her. The marketplace is for many things, but not for wisdom. They don’t bother to look up from their tiny screens. Nimble fingers text and tweet faster than hearts can pause and feel.
‘We played the flute for them, but they didn’t dance. We mourned, but they didn’t wail.’ [ii]
With each comment thread, the bitter bickering shrinks the circle. Wisdom has not played by the rules.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.[iii]
Jerusalem, Jerusalem! he cries, ‘How often have I desired to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing.’ [iv]
When the words of Wisdom finally find their target, the reaction is visceral. As one body united for the first time and the last, they cry: ‘CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!’[v]
Yet – Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.[vi]
Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Or, in Luke’s version, Wisdom is vindicated by her children.[vii] In books such as Proverbs and Job, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, we encounter God’s Wisdom personified as a Woman of great gentleness and strength, offering food and drink, shelter and instruction, scorned by the masses but taking her stand nonetheless. In the book Sirach, the wise elder instructs a disciple: “Listen, my child, and take my advice, do not reject my counsel: put your feet into [Wisdom’s] fetters, and your neck into her collar; offer your shoulder to her burden, do not be impatient of her bonds… For in the end you will find rest in her and she will take the form of joy for you.”[viii] In the gospels of Matthew and John, we bear witness to a Spirit-led conversation between this multifaceted tradition of personified Wisdom and the early Christian experience of Jesus Christ. For us as for them, Wisdom is Jesus, the embodiment of all good things in Wisdom’s treasury and the incarnation of God, the source and ground of Wisdom. This Jesus is without doubt a Savior to be worshipped and an exemplar of how we are to act in the world. But he is also a Teacher of the heart, what today we are calling “inner work.”
When I first read this passage from Acts, I was struck by how easy it seemed that the Holy Spirit would tell Paul and Barnabas exactly what He wanted from them. It all feels very immediate, and specific—and I’m sure there was more to it, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Has my experience with the Holy Spirit ever looked like that? Pray, fast, listen, and go? Is that how it is for you?
Well, I got to reminiscing, and I realized, for most of my life, I rarely approached God for anything other than to yell my thanks from afar. To ask for something?—His opinion?—for guidance? No, never did it, for the fear of appearing ungrateful. So, if He ever did speak to me in the Paul and Barnabas fashion… I wasn’t listening—not back then.
But that doesn’t mean He didn’t reach me. During that time, every life turn I took was, strangely, my second choice. From which high school I attended, to university, my first job… I never got what I thought I wanted, but all of those were what I needed. Before I was willing to actively engage God in my decision making, He led me through life by closing every door, except for the one that was meant for me. Let’s call that phase 1 of 3 in the progression of my communication with God: Him faithfully steering me in the right direction while I remained none the wiser.
Enter phase 2: In 2017, I hit a crossroads. I’d been in Japan for 4 years, and I had a beautiful life there. But a strange inkling… I wanted to go on extended mission. It was a very uncomfortable juncture. Should I leave my friends, my job, my stability… and go? I was at a complete loss—so, I approached God… and I asked. Now, in my mind, Paul and Barnabas were this unattainable model that I could never hope to reach. I was just me. Super regular—altogether unworthy. I thought I’d be met with excruciating silence. But, no. He dropped hints—a lot of hints—a comical amount of hints that I could only imagine reflected His delight that I had engaged Him in conversation. And in the end, I left on a life-changing adventure to Germany, and then Nepal.
So, enter phase 3. My last story, I promise. For this 2018-2019 academic year I had my sight set on going to graduate school. I had been accepted. I was going—but this time, God approachedme, and whispered, “Hey,monastery.” And I said, “Haha, I’m sorry…one more time?” And the difference is, this time He didn’t drop hints. And He didn’t shut the grad school door. He left it, wide open, alongside the opportunity to live in this wonderful community. And I asked Him, “Which one?” And He said it—and I heard Him—and I did it.
As I’ve grown in faith, our interactions have changed. Unlike those decisions earlier in life, He didn’t shove me onto the path that was right. He presented me with two amazing options, and then He stepped back—because now I could hear.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my pondering of this passage, it’s that some people are built for pray, fast, and do the thing. Some of us aren’t, or we dabble in it, amongst other kinds of communication. And even if we can’t identify what that is exactly… we don’t have to. Because God gets you. He gets you at phase 2, He got you at phase 1, and He’ll get you at phase 3. He’ll identify the growth in you far before you’ve noticed the change.
God will meet you where you’re at. He knows how you can hear Him—and that’s how He’ll talk. What’s phase 4 gonna look like? I don’t know. But I’m excited.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”[i]In dying, we live. Anything would be more palatable. Nothing is so essential. We must surrender, losing and letting go, being vulnerable again and again, dying to ourselves in order to live. This Holy Week we face Jesus on the cross.
When serving as a hospital chaplain, I found it exhausting continually listening to heartache. One day I realized Jesus was listening to the same heartache yet not for a few minutes per person and not just how many people I met. Jesus knows everyone and listens to all hearts, to everyone sick and dying, to all who are grieving, to each in any kind of suffering, and indeed to us all. Jesus draws the whole world to himself with a loving ear in a listening embrace.
All of us need and glory in the cross. Jesus invites each to die to self-sufficiency and secrecy. Jesus invites us to pray the whole truth of our lives, naming what weighs us down, our grief and questions, our wounds and concerns, as well as joys, thanks, and desires. Jesus listens directly and in the flesh through other people. Jesus, exposed and vulnerable on the cross, invites us to expose ourselves, share our inner life and struggles, pray in the dark, and pray our hearts.
Telling our stories can be painful, like touching wounds, a kind of death. Like wheat dying to bear fruit, safe exposure of our story heals. We like to edit, restrict, categorize, or deny our lives. Good listeners help by attending to our stories with their surprises, seeming contradictions, and scattered pieces. Listeners help us hear how these pieces together form us.
Hosea 14:1-9 | Mark 12:28-34
Hear, O Israel.
Return, O Israel.
We live in a particularly noisy world. Hosea and Jesus both certainly experienced the noisiness of our world, but we seem today to confront a kind of cacophony that is unique and acute. Even in the silences of our homes, the noise of the world calls to us from printed page and digital screen, hungry for our attention.
All the more difficult it can be to hear the voice of God in our lives, surrounded by the siren songs of marketing campaigns and the mandates of a twenty-first century pace.
I am sure the scene we’ve just heard in the temple at Jerusalem was a noisy one. This chapter of Mark’s gospel has seen one conflict after another. The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders have questioned the origin of Jesus’ authority; a group of Pharisees and Herodians has tried to trap him by inquiring as to his religious and political allegiances; some Sadducees have tried to deny Jesus’ resurrection claims by positing a logical quandary to him about a hypothetical woman and her seven hypothetical husbands.
Some years ago I was sharing a conversation with my spiritual director, who was a seasoned Jesuit priest. He had risen in the ranks of leadership over the decades and, to me, was a treasury of wisdom. Reflecting on his own years in the Society of Jesus, he said to me: “Be very kind to people on your way up, because you’re going to meet these same people on your way down.” There is a word for this, a word on which we should be on good speaking terms. That word is “humility.” The English word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis: “lowly,” or “near the ground.” Humility is the opposite of feeling oneself to be high and lofty, above and beyond the minions who otherwise surround us. The English words “humility” and “humus” are cousins, “humus” being the organic component of soil. Humus is what makes soil rich. Humus is formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material in the ground. Humility is composted from leading a well-cultivated life. I’ll come back to that.
Jesus navigated life with humility. The ancient prophecies that had anticipated the coming Messiah predicted the Messiah’s humility: “Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey….”[i]Jesus himself takes up this theme of humility when he speaks of how we should enter this kingdom of God. He says to enter “as a little child.[ii] And Jesus gives the warning, “Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled and those who humble themselves shall be exalted.”[iii]Jesus was critical of those who trumpet and parade their piety, their purity, their generosity, their grandiosity, their accomplishments from the grandstand. Rather Jesus commends us to live out our lives in a very unostentatious, uncalculated way, not even letting our left hand knowing what our right hand is doing. This is the grace of humility.
2 Corinthians 1:3-5
“How long, O Lord?” How long shall the news be of disaster? Fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and violence. More and more of it all. Mass shootings repeatedly, this week larger in Las Vegas. As in an Orlando nightclub and at the Boston marathon, a place of celebration turned into chaos.[i]
The psalmist prays with groans and wails. With memories and hearts broken again, we join in:
“How long shall I have perplexity in my mind, and grief in my heart day after day?” How long and how much more?
More trauma—feeling threatened and our ability to cope overwhelmed.
Sometimes when we call out prayers for help, the situation seems to grow worse. We get more upset, questioning, “Where is God?”
After more loss, with life feeling out of control, God becomes visible. With Job, Old Testament prophets, and the psalmist, we can be angry. “If only you had been here sooner, the situation wouldn’t have gotten out of hand, with so much hurt. Pick us up. Get us out.” We want to be rescued and healed, swim to safety, for life to be resolved and back to normal. Yet healing is a slow work, not usually quick or simple, not neat and tidy.
Acts 2: 42 – 47
1 Peter 2: 19 – 25
John 10: 1 – 10
Finally the phone call came, and I went down to the post office to pick up my parcel. On this particular day the woman ahead of me in the line was picking up her package of bees. I’d seen them as I came into the post office. They were sitting, by themselves, on the loading dock. The postal workers won’t let them inside the building. They don’t like having to deliver bees, but the postal regulations require them to do so. My package on the other hand was sitting in the corner, near the counter. I knew it was mine because I could hear the goslings inside, honking away.
As incredible as it seems my four goslings had hatched on a Monday. They had been sexed, packed and shipped from Oklahoma before the end of that day, and there I was, picking them up in West Newbury on Wednesday. They came in a box about the size of a clementine orange box with a bit of straw and a heat pad. I put them in the car and drove them home, talking to them the whole way. When I got them home, I carefully opened the box and picked them up one at a time as I gave them something to drink. Having done that I was able to install them in their goose coop.
During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, silence, solitude, and recreation.
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (I Samuel 3:10)
I once had a deaf friend, an earnest Christian, who asked me whether hearing people could hear God’s voice as clearly as they could hear one another’s voices. He had often observed hearing people responding to one another’s voices, mysteriously communicating meaning to one another through the movements of their jaws and lips, and understanding one another even when they weren’t looking at each other, or when the speaker was in another room. He had learned that they possessed a mysterious ability that he had never had, and now he wondered if the same ability that enabled them to communicate with one another even when separated by a wall or a door enabled them also to communicate with God. “Does God talk to you?” he asked; “Can you hear God?”