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.
Bread is ordinary, daily, for most people necessary nourishment, and a key symbol of our salvation. Remember the unleavened bread of the Exodus. God delivered our ancestors from slavery in Egypt. Pushed out, they had to leave quickly, without time for their bread to rise or make other provisions. All they had was their daily dough, and they could not prepare it as they were accustomed. They had to leave “before it was leavened, with their kneading bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders.”[i]
Remember manna in the wilderness. God provided ancient Israel with bread from heaven in the wilderness for forty years. Our parents asked: “What is it?” God said take a measure of this bread from heaven every morning. More will come tomorrow. Don’t hoard it. I will give you enough.[ii]
Remember earlier in the Gospel of John, Jesus turned a few loaves and fish into a meal for thousands. Followed by a crowd, Jesus raised the question of how to feed them. The disciples said: “Six months wages would not buy enough bread.” Jesus said: “Make the people sit down. … Jesus gave thanks and distributed the food, … as much as they wanted.”[iii]
It’s not unusual for me to get something in my head, and be convinced that I have it correct, only to discover that I have it backwards. For the last few weeks, I have been repeating to myself a phrase, which I was positive I had right, but was actually wrong.
In the midst of death, I’ve been telling myself, we are in life. The phrase comes to us from the Prayer Book burial rite, and we Brothers sing it at the midday service on Holy Saturday. The problem is, I have it backwards. What the text actually says is, in the midst of life we are in death.
It seems however, that the trick my mind has played on me, has some merit. This past year, has been one long, long season of death. It will not surprise you to hear that the number of cases of Covid-19 in this country alone, will soon reach 31 million, with over 555,000 deaths. In the midst of death.
Nor may it surprise you to hear, that since the beginning of the year, there have been 125 cases of mass shootings, with a total of 481 people wounded, and 148 others killed. In the midst of death.
We see unfolding in the news, reports of anti-Asian hate crimes rising. The other day the George Floyd murder trial began. In the midst of death.
Again?! More?! More giving up, letting go, and self-denial, more awareness of need and sin, more repentance and vulnerability? Do we really need more Lent? The past year feels like a long Lent with so much loss and grief, and it is as if we are still waiting for Easter. Now more Lenten wilderness again? Let us keep praying with the psalmist “How long, O Lord?”[i] Scripture both gives voice to our lament and reminds us of our story.
Back near the beginning, in the Book of Genesis, seeing evil pervasive throughout the world, God sent a flood. God also chose to save through the ark. Afterward, God gave a promise: I will never destroy like this again. I choose you and all living creatures forever. The flood is not as surprising to me now as it once was because I have experienced more of the prevailing evil. I see the wrong not simply in others as it is easy to point out, but that which is in myself. I mess up so much over and over again in thought and action, opposing God, not loving my neighbor, nor loving myself. The flood reminds that we all sin and fall short.
Notice God’s promise to Noah. It’s one-sided. There is no requirement for how Noah or humanity must behave. It’s all up to God. Just after this passage, Noah gets drunk and is ashamed. In the Bible, we hear stories of human folly again and again. The characters cheat, steal, fight, conspire, sleep around, murder, and all the other things that, if we are honest, resonate with our desires and actions. From the flood and throughout, scripture reminds us we all need salvation.
Recently, I have found myself recalling the fact the first 10, now 11, and soon 12 months have passed, since we closed the guesthouse and then the chapel. You will remember those days I’m sure. We began hearing about this new virus and the reports of mounting deaths Soon we were horrified to discover that it had reached this country. Suddenly there was anxiety about how it spread, and were instructed to suspend various liturgical practices, such as the Common Cup, physically exchanging the Peace, and holy water at the doors of churches. Days after, we announced we were closing the guesthouse. By the end of that week, we closed the chapel. It’s now been almost a year.
Today, nearly half a million people have died from Covid-19 in this country, and almost 2.3 million around the world.
In many ways these last 11 months have been a time of disfiguration, quite literally, as many have been disfigured by disease and death. Some of those who have recovered continue to feel the effects and are living with post-COVID-19 syndrome. They live with chronic difficulties breathing, exhaustion, brain fog, and a loss of taste and smell. No one knows how long these symptoms will last.
As is always so in the power of the Holy Spirit, this evening’s scripture readings address the present moment in surprising ways. This occurs somewhat serendipitously as we read the story of Jacob’s courtship of Rachel on the eve of the Valentine’s Day celebration of romantic love.
However, after nearly a year of pandemic loss and isolation, I would like direct our prayerful reflection on the present moment, on God’s eternal ‘now’, through the story of Jesus’s encounter with the blind beggar Bartimaeus.
Mark’s Gospel narrative has reached an important juncture here. Jesus and the disciples have journeyed away from Galilee where great hope and joy have been generated among the people by Jesus’s ministry of teaching, healing and proclaiming the Good News. The travelers have now come to Jericho from which they are turning toward Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover festival, joined by a great crowd of expectant pilgrims. Yet on the road Jesus’s disciples have been deeply disturbed by his repeated disclosure of the purpose for their journey: at Jerusalem Jesus is to fulfill his identity and mission as the martyr-messiah of God’s kingdom. In misunderstanding and fear at the prospect, the disciples have retreated into deep denial. Thus when Bartimaeus raises his loud cries, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”, the disciples, in their alarm, join the festal crowd in attempting to silence the poor man.
“The Word was made flesh and lived among us.”
Amazing, wondrous flesh: a baby with bright eyes and smile, tiny fingers, a bundle of new living love. Fragile, frail flesh: reliant on others for food, warmth, provision. Whether child, youth, adult, or elder, even with great care, each will sicken and die. Connected, touching flesh: face-to-face baby and parents bond before and beyond words. Human bodies relate in families and communities both given and chosen. Looking at each other, faces light up and we know love. The Word became flesh—amazing, fragile, connected—and lived among us.
Disconnected this year, we long to be together in the flesh, to see and touch, hug and hold. Fragile and frail, we mourn the dead and dying, struggle to tend the sick, to care for each other, to make ends meet. We are weary from so much change and adaptation.
Being human is amazing. Remember the wonder of our breath, every movement we make, our capacity for imagination and discovery, for being playful and creative. Remember how skin and other organs work to protect from and then restore after injury. Remember the healing power of touch, listening, tears, and laughter.
God became human in Jesus, to live as one of us. “Pleased with us in flesh to dwell Jesus our Emmanuel.”[i] God was pleased to fully immerse into being human. The “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Mighty God, … Prince of Peace”[ii]came and still comes for, with, and as one of us. Jesus longs with us, mourns with us, and with a twinkling eye reminds us of amazing bodies and wondrous love.
Look at the Child of Bethlehem. We have hope. God still comes. Take a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. With one hand on your heart, reach out to another. This is a way to show and feel affection on Zoom. Though distant, we are still connected. Look to the glory embodied, and share the love. Merry Christmas!
[i] Charles Wesley, 1739, alt. “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing!” verse 2
[ii] Isaiah 9:6
Luke 2: 1-14 (15-20)
I want to begin this evening by acknowledging all who are watching this livestreamed Christmas Eve Eucharist, either in real time, or in virtual time. Your prayers, your support, your friendship have been important sources of strength and grace for us Brothers over these last 10 months. We miss your physical presence here in the chapel. We long for the day when we will be able to reopen and greet you in person. At the same time, we are excited that the wonders of technology have enabled many, who for whatever reason are not able to be here in person, and are now able to join us, from next door and across the world.
I also want to assure you that we are all well and safe, and that we pray for your health and safety on a regular basis. We are especially praying for medical professionals who are working hard to bring the vaccine to as many as possible, as quickly as possible. We also hold in our prayers the various essential workers who ensure that life can carry on despite this pandemic. Please know that we value your service and dedication.
‘I have seen God face to face, and yet I live.’ But only just! Jacob had wrestled with the angel all night, and managed to come out alive – but with his hip put out of joint. Yet God blessed him through the struggle, and let him see God face to face.
Throughout Scripture, when the Spirit of the Lord comes down upon a person, there is so often a struggle; the Spirit is experienced as something traumatic and shattering. Dealing with God is not for the faint hearted! Listen to the prophet Ezekiel: ‘A spirit entered me and lifted me up and bore me away. Before the glory of the Lord I fell on my face, but the spirit lifted me up’. Daniel, standing on the banks of the river Tigris see a vision of a man, shining in glory, sent from God. The man spoke, and David fell into a trance, and then fell to the ground. Shaking with fear, he lost his strength and could hardly breathe. The prophet Jeremiah tries to get away from the Lord’s presence, but the Spirit overwhelms him, and he cries out, ‘If I say I will not mention him or speak in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.’ Well might the writer of the letter to the Hebrews say, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’!
Yet, through each one of these powerful and life changing experiences, God was at work, forming and molding these very different characters to become men of God; able to speak for God, but most crucially, to see for God. Through their profound and life changing encounters with the living God, they would now see as God sees. They would become God’s seers, and they would proclaim what they saw.
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. 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.