Death and Life – Br. Lain Wilson

Acts 5:27-33
Psalm 34:15-22
John 3:31-36

Have you ever faced a life-or-death situation?

For many of us, the honest answer will be no. Proportionally few of us serve in the armed forces, or are subsistence farmers, or fetch water by walking down long, dangerous roads. Or do as Peter and the apostles did, defying the authorities to preach in the name of Jesus, witnessing to the truth and risking death for it (Acts 5:28-29).

What allows those facing such danger, such precariousness, to go on? Need, for sure—the need to act or harvest or fetch or preach that impels them forward. But more than that. Trust. Trust in training and comrades; trust that the earth will bear fruit; trust that the spring will provide water. Trust, as the psalmist sings, that God is near to the brokenhearted, that God will deliver the righteous out of all their troubles and will keep safe all their bones (Ps 34:18, 19, 20).

And while we may not face life-or-death situations, trust is still embedded deeply in our lives. Trust in government and economies, in safety nets and supply chains, in smartphones and airplane doors. We trust these things will always exist, that they will provide or support or protect. We trust, until something shakes that trust and reveals that we may be closer to life-and-death situations than we think. The chapter in our Rule on “Holy Death” gets at this: in our “hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations, and risks . . . death is at work in advance” in our lives.[1]

But if what results when trust fails—all the bad and scary parts of life—can point us toward death, so can trust that succeeds, trust in what won’t fail us. And that trust points us to a death that is not final but transformed: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (Jn 3:36) and “has passed from death to life” (Jn 5:24). If our daily experiences of loss and failure and frustration prepare us for the certainty of our deaths, our daily experiences of trust—and the hope and joy and love that accompany them—do so as well. The also prepare us for death, show us how death is at work in advance in our lives, but a death transformed by Jesus’s saving work: “In Christ we are still one with [the departed],” our Rule goes on, and we believe, we trust, “that we will be reunited when Christ gathers all creation to himself, so that God may be all in all.”[2]

You may not face a life-or-death situation every day. But our trust that “God is true,” that God hears our cry, that God is near to us, that God saves us, makes every day a death-and-life proposition.

Amen.


[1] The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (Lanham, MD, 1997), 97.

[2] Ibid.

Pray Your Heart Out – Br. Curtis Almquist

Br. Curtis Almquist

Season of Creation

Romans 8:19-23

This morning we begin a 5-part Sunday morning sermon series on the Season of Creation. This “Creation” focus for our preaching and prayers is going on with other Christians throughout the world, across the denominational spectrum. In the upcoming four Sundays, the preachers here at the monastery will focus on themes related to “Creation”: to Learn, to Act, to Advocate, to Bless, and, beginning this morning, to Pray.

Emery House, our rural monastery in West Newbury, Massachusetts, is bordered by the Merrimack River, and so a story about the Merrimack, told by Henry David Thoreau, is particularly endearing. In the first two weeks of September 1839, Thoreau set off on a homemade wooden boat with his older brother, John, to explore the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.[i]  Later, while living in his sparse cabin at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote about this river experience, his first book. The writing project took him 10 years, not because of the length of the book, but because of the depth of his grief. After the river trek, Henry’s beloved brother, John, had cut himself while shaving and contracted tetanus, dying in agony the following week. John was 28; Henry, 25. In his grief, Henry was destroyed… almost.

Henry David Thoreau’s healing, his resuscitation, came at Walden Pond as he intently watched the goings on of flowers and trees, of birds and animals. Observing the natural wonders, he slowly realized that death is not the end of life but rather an intrinsic part of life. He learned from observation that the very process of decay, diminishment, and death is a life process. It is the way that God has created all of the earth, from the life of the tiniest bird and flower to humankind. Thoreau wrote in his Journal, “Do not the flowers die every autumn? …Yet death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident. [Death] is as common as life. Every blade in the field, every leaf in the forest, lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.”[ii]

Two realizations had happened in Thoreau: in his mind and in his heart. In his mind, he came to embrace a “disindividualized” view of life. Thoreau writes, “The individual may die, but the materials that make up the individual do not. They are subsumed into new forms and so live on,” true for every living thing that has ever been created.[iii] And emotionally, Thoreau’s grief in his brother’s death never went away; however his grief came to be companioned by gratitude and wonder. Thoreau’s love for his brother, John, his joy in the life together they had shared, and his many memories had not died. They actually took new form and lived on. Thoreau realized that death is not the end of life but, rather an essential part of life, by God’s design, and this is something we share with everything and with everyone and for all time. Thoreau said that, in a certain sense, there is no death; everything is part and parcel of life. Thoreau’s epiphany brought to my mind what we pray at a funeral, that at death, the life of this departed one “is changed, not ended.”[iv]

So we look to the whole of creation as if it were an icon, a window through which to know God on God’s terms:

  • the window of creation opening our eyes to the majestic beauty of God;
  • the window of creation opening our eyes to the panoply of the diversity which God creates, multiplies, shares, and invites; in the beginning, God’s creation teems with beauty and diversity, and God said, “it is good”;[v]
  • the window of creation – what is the most massive and mighty, and what is the most tiny and delicate – with a lifespan the prepares and provides for what is next. This is why we call it “the created order.” We read in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…”[vi]

We have an invitation and an inspiration for our prayer as we learn from God’s creation that surrounds us and fills us.

  • Be still enough, focused enough, close enough to notice, expectant enough to notice the majesty and terminality of creation. You might ask, “Notice what?” To which I would only smile.
  • The autumn season is upon us. The colors and fragrances of plants, and flowers, and trees are changing, preparing the way for the next season. Outside in front of the monastery, the sycamores, these elephantine trees soaring into the sky, have decided this is a year to divest their bark, their old bark. Behold, a fresh skin of bark is awaiting. Very soon these great soaring trees will also surrender their leaves… which leave space for new life to emerge in the spring. In our Rule of Life, we write how the autumn of life prepares the way: “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death.”[vii] Is death an end in itself? Not at all. Death is part of life; death is the portal to the new life that Jesus promises us.[viii]
  • See how the creation that surrounds us does not clutch at its life, but rather lives and gives its life. Letting go is an important life practice. I love an ancient word in the church’s vocabulary: oblation, from the Latin meaning an offering, a gift. We live the gift of our lives as an oblation, offering our lives back to God the custody God has temporarily entrusted to us.

We notice, we acquiesce, we participate most fully in life when we live with the terms by which God has created all of life, which is terminal. All of creation is a teacher for our prayer.

We also have an invitation to pray for the creation that surrounds us. So much of creation does not advocate well for itself when faced with human intrusion. One word captures how I, personally, pray for plants and animals, for birds and fish, mountains and meadows. My own prayer word is “channeling.” I pray that I can channel light; I pray that I can channel fresh water; I pray that I can channel the needed nourishment; I pray that I can channel a fresh breeze. I sometimes pray I can channel CO2 to some poor plant. I am placing myself with one hand pointing to the heavens, and the other hand channeling some life I sense this creature, this created thing, needs. I pray, co-operating with the Creator. I pray I can be a conduit of God’s life to this creature in need. If you were to ask me, “So does your channeling prayer do any good?” I would say, “Absolutely!” “Yes, I am quite sure.”

So this is free-form prayer, what captures my heart’s attention in the moment. And yet there are some specific creatures – by creatures I mean plants and animals, trees and meadows, mountains and waterways – some specific creatures that have a particular, ongoing claim on my heart’s attention. Maybe you, also? To what in creation are you drawn to give attention in your prayer? How do you pray to be a channel of God’s light, and life, and love to this creature? How are you drawn to pray? You might not be ready to publish, but I imagine you do have some prayer practice for creation. What is it?

For almost 20 years I have been fascinated with the work of Johannes Fritz, an Austrian biologist, who has devoted his life to saving an endangered bird species, the northern bald ibis. The ibis is a goose-sized black bird with a bald head and an enormous beak. Perhaps you’ve read about Dr. Fritz who feeds and cuddles the baby ibises and then, using his ultralight aircraft, he leads them in flight to a new safer winter migration path that bypasses the Alps. Global warming figures into the urgency of his work. Dr. Fritz has rewilded more about 300 of these ibises. It’s his life’s work. I mention this particular legacy as an amazing example of passion and advocacy. His passion is what I am talking about when I speak of praying for whatever in creation has captured your heart’s attention. Pray as an intermediary. Be like a third point in a triangle, whose two other points are God and the creature that has caught your heart’s attention. Pray your intercession, and then channel the power or provision for what God gives you for this fellow creature. Pray. Do pray.

In our lesson from the Letter to the Romans, we hear Saint Paul say, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…”[ix] Creation is waiting for us to do our own part in the company of fellow creatures.

“i thank You God for most this amazing day, the words of E. E. Cummings:

“i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes….”[x]


[i] Henry David Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849.

[ii] From October 1837 to November 1861, Thoreau kept a handwritten Journal. Thoreau’s Walden was first published in 1854.

[iii] Three Roads Back; How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives, by Robert D. Richardson (Princeton Univ. Press, 2023), pp. 53-54.

[iv] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 382.

[v] Genesis 1 – 2:3.

[vi] Ecclesiastes 3:1-2.

[vii] Quoted from SSJE’s The Rule of Life (Cowley, 1997), chapter 48: “Holy Death.”

[viii] John 14:3-10.

[ix] Romans 8:19.

[x] E. E. Cummings (1894-1962):

 i thank You God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth

day of life and love and wings: and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any-lifted from the no

of all nothing-human merely being

doubt unimaginably You?

 (now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened) 

 

 

Beware, Keep Alert, Keep Awake – Br. James Koester

Mark 13: 24-37

We begin today, not simply a new liturgical year, with the beginning of the season of Advent, but we begin to read our way through a new gospel. This is the year when we read our way through the Gospel According to Mark over the course of the year.

Mark’s gospel is significant for several reasons. Historians believe that it was probably written for a gentile audience, in Rome, about the year AD 70, making it the oldest of the four gospels. As the first of the gospels to take written form, it is also thought that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a primary source when they wrote their gospels in the two or three decades that followed. When biblical scholars place each of these three gospels side by side, they are able to trace the influence that Mark had on the other two.

Mark’s gospel is also significant for what it does not contain. There is no birth story in Mark, unlike Matthew or Luke, or any pre-existent theology, as we find in John. Jesus simply appears like an actor on a stage, in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John.[1] Scholars will also point out that there are not one, but three endings to the gospel and it is believed that it originally ended without any reference to an appearance of the Risen Lord, but simply stated so [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.[2] Read More

Powerful Truths & Ineffable Mysteries – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

John 18:1—19:42
Good Friday 

I.

“It is finished.”[i]

Logically, there should be no more to say. “It is finished.” The altar is naked, the flame extinguished, the holy water dried up. 

And yet, we linger here  where powerful truths have been expressed and ineffable mysteries suggested.

II.

The Truth: that the Love of God risks everything, forsakes all sense, abandons natural order, acts contrary to human expectation. We read in this truth the voluntary self-gift of God’s only-begotten Son “into the hands of sinners” that he fashioned from clay. 

And the Truth: that the Love of God can – and shall – convert every instrument of death that cruel humans can invent into a key that opens the door to Life. We read this truth in the Cross that bore his Body. 

And the Truth: that the Love of God endures the worst imaginable suffering. Through this, not in spite of this, as a ray of light pierces the darkest storm cloud, God’s glory is made manifest. We read this truth in the flesh of Jesus Christ: beaten, bleeding, broken, dying…drawing all people to himself.

Read More

Let It Go – Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Br. Geoffrey Tristram

Luke 18:18-30

I recently spent a day of retreat at Emery House.  I sat in a simple hut deep in the woods – and all day long I watched the gently falling leaves.  It was a beautiful and melancholy experience.  Those falling leaves seemed to pick up the feelings at this time of the year: a sense of letting go and of loss.  A time to remember.  In church we remember all Saints. We remember on All Souls Day our loved ones who have passed away.  This past week we have remembered those who lost their lives in war.

A couple of days ago in London at the Royal Albert Hall there was the annual Festival of Remembrance.  I love to watch it, because of what happens at the end.  After all the music and the singing, the huge crowd stands in silence as a million poppies fall, gently and silently – in remembrance of all who died in war – “we will remember them.”  I love that moment – with that strange mixture of sadness, yet of hope.  As the autumn leaves fall, and as the poppies fall there is sadness, but something else – a sweet sorrow.  Solomon in his wisdom, put it like this: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.  In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction.  But they are at peace.” (Wisdom 3:1-3)

But there is I think more going on at this melancholy time of year than just remembering those who have died.  There is something about this season of falling leaves and bare trees which speaks profoundly to our souls and invites us to also experience a dying.  “For unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)

What do those enigmatic words of Jesus mean?

I think there is a clue in the reading from the Gospel of Luke we have just heard: the story of the rich young man.  He comes up to Jesus and asks how he might inherit eternal life.  He rattles off all the commandments that he has kept: he’s full of self-righteousness, and full of money.  And Jesus looks at him in all his fullness and says to him, “You lack one thing – sell all that you have, and give the money to the poor.” (Lk 18:22)

The man asked for life – eternal life – and Jesus replied by saying – if you want life, you have to die first.  Just as the tree needs to let go of its leaves in order to have room for new life and growth – so the rich man had to first shed his self-righteousness and wealth, to leave room to be filled with the fullness of God.

And each season of fall reminds us again of Jesus’ invitation to us to an autumnal experience of letting go and of dying – if we want to truly live, and be filled with the fullness of God.

It is the pattern of dying and being reborn, of crucifixion and resurrection, which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith.  It’s the pattern at work in all the saints.  St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians wrote, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things.” (Phil 3:8)

And so with the rich young man, Jesus was saying to him, with great love, that if you don’t empty yourself, I can’t fill you – there’s no room!

So when Jesus looks at you and me, with great love, and longs to fill us with his life, who does he see?  Does he see someone too full already?  It could be just too much stuff: possessions can suffocate us, possess us.  Or we may be so overwhelmed by busy-ness that we cannot attend to the things of God.

Or maybe God can’t find room to fill you, because you are filled with anger, or resentment, or an inability to forgive – emotions that can consume us and overwhelm us.  Imagine Jesus looking at you with love, and saying gently, “let it go, let it go.”  Let it fall away like the autumn leaves.

At times we may feel the burden of sin.  Things we have done or said in the past which still haunt us and fill us with guilt or remorse.  There’s a wonderful line in our Rule which says, “We cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ, who goes before us if we are encumbered by guilt.”  I love the image of Jesus running ahead of us and looking back and saying, ‘Come on!’  And we say, “I can’t keep up!  I’m weighed down by guilt, or my possessions, my anger, my resentment, my fear…!’

And Jesus saying, ‘Let me forgive you.  Let me take the weight off you.  Let them go, and become light and free … and come follow me.’

I love this time of year – the season of fall.  Things seem to be falling and dying.  But Solomon knew a deeper mystery: “In the eyes of the foolish,” he said, “they seemed to have died.”  And we who follow Jesus know a deeper mystery.  We know that those bare trees, which seem so dead, are just waiting silently and expectantly for the mystery of spring and the glorious bursting forth of new life.

And so with us.  Jesus calls us every day to live into that mystery in our own lives.  To let die all that does not give me life.  To empty myself of all that weighs me down: possessions, anxieties, resentments, sins: whatever it is that stops me following Jesus.

Let it go.  Learn from those gently falling leaves.  And let it go.

Amen.