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.
So when’s the last time you were in a crowd of seventy people? It’s probably been a while, maybe eight months or so. Jesus was speaking to a crowd of seventy disciples in today’s Gospel. Seventy people is not a huge crowd, it’s about half the capacity of our chapel, but it’s no small get together either. These disciples were early Christians ready to go out on mission ahead of Christ to prepare his way. These disciples were not a casual crew, they were ready to die for the cause, and some of them would. Starting a speech to such a crowd demands a solid opening line.
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” In other words, roll up your sleeves and get ready to work. Jesus knew he was short staffed and the work was going to pile up. There was no time for self-pity. There was no room for laziness. This was going to be tough work.
“And so we came to Rome” (Acts 28: 14) The final chapter of Paul’s journeys, according to the Acts of the Apostles, brings him finally to Rome: journey’s end. Whatever else Paul was, he was a great traveler. When I was at school, perhaps aged fourteen, we studied Acts in our religious education class. I didn’t like religion much, but I did love drawing maps, like the ones you can find at the back of a Bible, maps of Asia and Europe, and drawing three lines across them. One line was in red, one in blue and one in yellow, each showing the route of Paul’s three missionary journeys. Paul traveled hundreds of miles, all over Asia Minor and Europe, preaching the Gospel. And the routes he took were very deliberate. He had a very clear idea of where he was going. In chapter 19 of the Acts we read, ‘Paul resolved in the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. “After I have gone there, I must also see Rome.”’ And that’s exactly what he did. But the significant words in this passage are ‘in the Spirit’. For it was the Spirit of Jesus, his constant companion, who guided him at all times throughout his journeys. I love the story in chapter 16, where Paul is planning to go further into Asia on his preaching mission. He’s all set to go, until, we read, ‘The Holy Spirit forbad them to speak the word in Asia.’ And during the night he had a vision: ‘There stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”’ Macedonia of course is in Europe. Paul changed direction. Instead of heading east, he turned west. He completely changed direction. Maybe Paul remembered that earlier journey he had made to Damascus, and how the Spirit of Jesus had also stopped him in his tracks, and again totally changed the direction of his life. I remember at school poring over the map and imagining Paul arriving at the shores of the Aegean, at Troas. I imagined him staring out across the sea, due west, towards this new continent of Europe, my continent. I wondered how he must have felt. Scared, I think. But he trusted the Spirit of Jesus to guide him; this Jesus who had always been faithful. And for the rest of his life, Paul would trust completely, would place his life time and time again, in the hands of Jesus, his faithful companion.
There hadn’t been anyone there. At least there hadn’t been anyone there when I looked out the window as the coach pulled to the side of the road and slowed to a stop. There hadn’t been anyone there, as all 30 of us got off to stretch our legs. But suddenly people began to emerge from the barren landscape. At first, it was a young boy, and then a couple of other children. One or two adults came into view. Soon the whole community was there. Fires were laid. Tea was made. Various goods for sale were displayed on blankets spread out on the ground. As we drank our tea, we were invited to buy what was being offered for sale. If I remember correctly, I did but something, but now can’t remember what it was.
I was in the wilderness. It was the fall of 1998 and I had gone with a group of pilgrims from St. George’s College, Jerusalem, to Egypt. We had spent a few days in Cairo, and then made our way to St. Antony’s Monastery, the home of a thriving community of Coptic monks located in the place where monasticism began with St. Antony. We where now in the Sinai on our way to St. Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of the mountain where tradition tells us that Moses encountered the Burning Bush, and then later received the Ten Commandments, and where Elijah had heard the still small voice and knew it to be God.
Just as you would imagine, the landscape was barren and harsh, especially when the sun was at its height. Rocky outcrops seemed to be everywhere, and while there was evidence of plant life, it seemed mostly to be scrub, not much good for anything. But somehow, somewhere, this community of people seemed to make a living, tending their flocks, and no doubt doing what they were doing that day when I met them: appearing out of no where to offer strangers tea, and an opportunity to buy a few souvenirs. Clearly, they lived somewhere, but there was no evidence of village, or camp. There was certainly no sign of water.