Feast of Richard Meux Benson
“You are my friends if you do what I command you.”
I’m struck today by this little word “if.” “You are my friends if.” When was the last time you said that to a friend? “You are my friend if you take my side.” ”You are my friend if you do what I say.”
But how often does this “if” go unspoken? “You are my friend,” we say, while thinking, “if you do what I expect, if you believe or read or vote the way I do.” How often do we find ourselves unconsciously closing the door on those who do not fulfill our unspoken ifs?
The founder of our Society, Richard Meux Benson, whom we celebrate today, had a dim view of friendship, in large part because of these ifs. He recognized that, in practice, earthly friendships are often divisive, based as they are on “certain idiosyncrasies which we may share in common, and which naturally . . . separate cliques from the rest of mankind.” In short, he later wrote, “earthly friendships are apt to make us feel lonely both in their enjoyment and in their removal.”
Fiber, beads, pigment, wax, wood, copper, historic rosters and photos, digital image and database software. We Brothers played with these and more for a week of creativity. Diverse mediums for diverse persons, each in the image of our Divine Maker.
Matthew opens his telling of the good news with a genealogy notably including four courageous women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Their stories and that of sinful husbands Judah and David are scandalous. All four are foreigners. Jesus’ bloodline is not only Jewish but also Canaanite, Moabite, and Hittite. Jesus came for the world from the world.[i]
I was an elementary school teacher before entering the monastery. One of the things a teacher learns is that it’s important from time to time – particularly after the summer break – to go back to the basics. You can’t build or make progress without a good foundation, so it’s important to make sure your students have a solid grasp of the basics before moving on to new or more challenging subjects.
Going back to the basics appears to be what Jesus the teacher is doing here. Our gospel text today comes at the end of several tests that the Pharisees and scribes have put before Jesus. It is clear that their intention is to trap him[i] into saying something that would either offend the authorities or turn the crowds against him. To this point, he has successfully eluded these traps.
Here is another trap. “Teacher,” someone asks, “which commandment is the greatest?” If they can trick Jesus into picking a favorite command, he’ll be guilty of downplaying the other commandments. Since every commandment represents the very word of God, picking and choosing among them would be heretical. They are trying to force him into an impossible situation where any answer he gives can be challenged. I suppose it’s a little like asking a parent which of their children is their favorite. Choosing one of their children will make the others feel less important or less loved. The wise parent will say, “I love them all the same.
If you’ve been around children for more than about five minutes, I’m sure you’ve gotten frustrated. They interrupt and question when you just want to have a nice conversation. They run ahead, or behind, or zigzag, or sit down when you just want to have a nice walk. Think about that behavior. Now imagine yourself doing it. Does it make you uncomfortable? Do you think about what other people may think about your doing or asking? Name that uncomfortable emotion. Is it embarrassment or, perhaps, shame?
The word in our Gospel reading translated as “persistence” literally means “shamelessness.” Your friend knocks at the door late at night, and knocks, and keeps knocking, without regard for what you think about him. He needs something. Like a child, he is unashamed of his need, unashamed to ask, unashamed to persist.
Children appear in both our readings this morning, and imagining a particularly shameless child helps us to understand not only what it means to persist in prayer, as Jesus exhorts us, but to persevere in a relationship with God. God, Malachi tells us, will have compassion on those who serve God, as parents have compassion on “children who serve them” (Mal 3:17). I imagine this group not just as obedient children, but as shameless children, unembarrassed to revere God, unconcerned by what others, who see no profit in serving God, may think about them. This is the shamelessness of the psalmist, who persists in giving thanks to God despite those who mock him. This is the shamelessness of Saint Paul, who is unashamed of the Gospel (Rom 1:16).
This is difficult. We face enormous personal and social pressures to care about what others think, to conform, to grow up. But when we apply this to God, how easily we complicate our relationship with God. What childlike shamelessness gives us, I think, is single-minded freedom. Think back to that child. How would she express her need, how would she pray, how would she relate to God? Where do you feel resistance in doing likewise? What would it take for you to turn to God like her—unencumbered, unembarrassed, unashamed? Ask Jesus to give you that freedom—the freedom to ask, to search, to knock . . . the freedom to be shameless.
A sermon preached at the Baptism of Josephine Leach Curtis
Babies fascinate us. They are objects of wonder. Tiny fingers grasping tightly, with even tinier fingernails. What a miracle! Eyes wandering, then beginning to focus and take in the world, then recognizing and responding to the adults who love them. Lungs that can give a powerful shout; tears that flow when crying. Tiny eyelashes and soft, soft skin. Learning new things every day and slowly becoming the persons they are meant to be.
To hold a baby is an experience of wonder. You are a miracle of God, Josephine. We hold you, look into your eyes, and praise God, echoing the words of the psalmist,
“…You created her inmost parts; you knit her together in her mother’s womb. We will thank you because she is marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and we know it well.”
But Josephine’s tiny features and emerging personality aren’t the only wonders today. Today there is also the wonder of God, reaching out to lift her with gentle arms, to embrace and welcome her, just as Jesus did to the children brought to him. This is the mystery of baptism: that God claims us as God’s own, marks us with the sign of the Cross, seals us with the Holy Spirit, and declares that we belong to God forever. In baptism, God demonstrates God’s extravagant love for us.
Josephine’s baptism marks her as “Christ’s own forever.” There is nothing that will ever separate her from the love of God in Christ – no disappointment or failure, no defeat or loss, no suffering or hardship. No matter what life brings, God’s strong, loving arms will always encircle her, always protect her, always carry her. She is in the care of the Good Shepherd, the one who calls each of his sheep by name and loves them as the unique beings that they are.
Our hearts overflow with love when we gaze into Jo’s eyes. We want to protect her, nourish her, and love her; we want to encourage her and support her; we want to guide her and teach her. We want nothing but the best for her; every good thing. And if our hearts so overflow with love and if we want so much to care for her, how much more the heart of God, who has created her and called her by name and claimed her as his own. Blessed be God!
And blessed be you, Jo’s parents and godparents, aunts and uncles, grandparents and friends; you who will be the hands and eyes and voices that will watch over her, protecting and nurturing her. You will be God’s gentle hands and loving voice; you will be channels of God’s love and blessing in her life until she is old enough to enter into a relationship with God herself. God bless you in your task.
All praise and thanks to you, most merciful Father, for adopting us as your own children, for incorporating us into your holy Church, and for making us worthy to share in the inheritance of your saints in light; through Jesus Christ you Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I have been overjoyed this week to see Br. David, with sign language, showing us the importance of interpretation. At one time or another, we all need an interpreter. We need a translation to understand a text. We need an explanation to understand a law. Or we need an encounter to make real a truth that we may know but do not yet feel.
This is true of the Israelites, as we hear in our passage from Nehemiah this morning. They are gathered to hear the priest Ezra read from the law. At the same time, a group of Levites move through the assembled crowd to help them understand what is being read. The effect is clear: “All the people went their way . . . to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (Neh 8:12). The text is important—but the act of interpretation makes the truth of the text they hear real and felt.
Today is a perfect day for me! I love this feast for all sorts of different reasons.
I love it because it is slightly quirky. Nowhere in scripture is anything at all mentioned about the birth of Mary. All we can really say, unless we believe that Jesus arrived on earth via space ship, is that it happened.
I love it, because who could not love something whose source is a second century document entitled the Protoevangelium of James. While the feast itself may not date to the second century, the very human desire to know more about the people we love, and honour is as real desire.
“Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.”
When I was in college, I was a member of a social fraternity whose particular charism was the promotion of music for the uplift of humankind. We believed that there was a divine spirit of truth in music. Our chief philanthropy was a Music Mission (started by our founder here at the ‘Alpha Chapter’ in Boston), where we would go to nursing homes and hospitals and sing for all those whose spirits were downtrodden: the aging, infirm, or those suffering from dementia. We had a hymnal-like book filled with songs in 4-part harmony that we would break out and sing at meetings, in restaurants, or even an occasional serenade to a young lady we wanted to impress. Now, you might think we were a sweet group of young, geeky, idealistic music nerds who took their craft a little too seriously. But we also were typical college students who loved to get together and have a good time, consuming beer and pizza, and occasionally getting a little rowdy. We loved each other and we would always come to a brother’s aid if an occasion demanded it.
When I was a teenager I heard a chaplain say that God’s love for us is “unconditional.” On the surface, this sounded fabulous to me because I was a very mixed bag. Actually, I was a mess. And the thought that God actually loves me – me! – unconditionally was something I desperately (though very secretly) needed to know. By that point I was in high school, and it so happens I had trained to be a lifeguard. In actuality, it was like I who was drowning in my own stuff. I needed to be rescued; I needed to be saved from my self-disdain. That’s an adult term, “self-disdain.” As a teenager, I hated myself. So if it were true that God’s love for me, for us, is unconditional, then sign me up.
God’s love for each of us is vast and so personal. Who we are, what we are, however it is we’ve gotten to be where we are, God knows, God lures, God loves. Rather than calling this God’s “unconditional love,” I now think of this as God’s “conditional love.” Because life is inescapably full of conditions and circumstances, changes and chances, and God’s love for us is neither theoretical nor generic. God’s love for us is real and personal, woven into the fabric of our lives from the very beginning. God so loves our own world.
When I was a child, I learned a song about Zaccheus. I won’t sing it for you, but the words went like this:
Zaccheus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…
The fascination of the story for children, of course, is that this small but important man clamored up a tree to get a better look at the popular preacher who had come to town. He was curious and determined, and he didn’t let his small stature deter him from realizing his goal.
We can picture him running ahead of the crowd, climbing into a tree, and looking down the road as Jesus approached. He hides himself among the leaves, wanting to see the prophet, but not expecting to be seen by him. And yet this is exactly what happens. Jesus stops the procession, looks up into the branches, and summons Zaccheus to come down. He already knows who Zaccheus is – not only that he is a tax collector, but that he is a chief tax collector – but he also perceives that there is far more to this little man than what his title and role might suggest. Perhaps he senses Zaccheus’ present dissatisfaction with his life, or perhaps he recognizes his hunger for God. Whatever it is, he sees something and invites Zaccheus to a life-changing conversation.