The Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist
Today, we observe the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. There are two biographical bits of information that I think are important to understanding Luke’s theology.
First, Luke was likely a Gentile convert to belief in the Israelite God. He rejected his surrounding culture of Greek paganism, but probably had not fully adopted Israelite religion as a convert Jew. Instead, Luke was probably a God-fearer, a class of participants in Israelite religion that was not bound by the law of Moses, but was bound by the much simpler law given to Noah after the flood for all humanity. God-fearers were, then, on the margins: not quite Gentile, not quite Jew. In other words, Luke knew what it meant to be an outsider.
The second fact about Luke is that he was a physician. In this line of work, he would have treated patients from a wide variety of cultures, social standings, ethnic backgrounds, economic circumstances, and religions. Everyone gets sick. Everyone dies. The frailty of human bodies is a universal experience, something Luke would have been intimately familiar with. In other words, Luke knew that, when it comes to universal human experiences, there are no outsiders.
These two facts, Luke’s status as a social and religious outsider, and his work with universal human sufferings, seem to have worked together to craft a particular theological outlook. In his account of the Gospel, Luke focuses very much on outsiders, those ranking low in the social hierarchy. Maybe the best example of this is Mary, a young woman in a patriarchal society who acts as a direct, even priestly, mediator between God and humanity and a virgin who gives birth. This is not simply Luke expressing social concerns; he paints a picture of Mary bearing Christ in the world, and, in doing so, from her position of social weakness, encountering God more fundamentally than those in positions of high social status, and wielding great power and authority in doing so.
or Galatians 6:14-18
Psalm 98 or 98:1-4
I was a teenager when I found it. A simple silver cross only about an inch and half tall. Plain, unadorned, simple slightly rounded arms smooth and finely wrought. I found it in a little silver shop in an old mining town in Colorado. I wore it for years, first on a little box chain, then re-strung a few times, leather cords, braided hemp, wooden beads, but always that simple silver cross around my neck. It was, beyond language, a token of great importance for me. Something that I couldn’t articulate at the time, an attraction, a reminder, an anchor. This constant companion that would make itself known to me on a cool day when I might slip it under my shirt and I feel the cold metal pressed against my breastbone. Or in a daydream I’d find myself toying with it with my fingers, sometimes compelled to bring it to my lips for a kiss. It was precious to me.
And one day, after returning home from travel I noticed it wasn’t around my neck anymore. It wasn’t in my pockets or my suitcase either. It was gone. I had lost it. And, truthfully, I was heartbroken. For months I checked other coat pockets, inside shoes, anywhere it might have ended up but I never saw it again. Now, it’s not that it was such a costly item that I missed it; nor was I somehow superstitiously clinging to it for luck. It was simply because of the joy and delight I had found in it, all the things that I couldn’t speak it spoke to my heart in close proximity. Ineffable strength and peace. That’s perhaps one of the first times I found the power of the cross.
In our lections the past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. This Letter, I think, presents one of the most important themes that we of modern times need to consider closely: that of integrity of speech. At the outset, it reads like a collection of lessons straight out of a book of social etiquette. James’ words recall in my memory my mother’s admonishment: “Jimmy, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I suspect most of us would consider this maxim to be good and sound. But, I also think to the days of my childhood when someone would speak to another person ungraciously, perhaps calling them a name. You may know the famous playground retort: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Unlike my mother’s advice, this saying I find questionable at best.
What is striking to me about James’ wise council, is that it goes deeper than just manners and childhood retorts. Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, James’ Letter draws a correlation between word and action. And, he seems to know something about the nature of speech. His use of metaphor instantly captures our imaginations and brings into focus a truth that is both easy to identify yet difficult to master. This morning we read: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.
Following the death of our beloved Brother David Allen last summer, I became the senior member of our brotherhood – both in years of age and in years in the Society. My Brother Superior James Koester dubbed me the “Brother of collective memory.”
Over the thirty-seven years that I have been in the Society, I’ve come to see how entirely our particular monastic vocation – vowed love, community life, and service – is rooted in the baptismal vocation shared by all Christians. Perhaps this is one reason why so many people are able to find transformative wisdom in our monastic Rule of Life. We created this text to shape, inform, and inspire our community quite specifically. Yet by God’s grace, its reach has proved far more expansive. Over and over again, we hear how others have found illumination for their lives in the same forty-nine chapters that shape ours.
In this spirit, I’d like to offer here a collection of some of the teachings from our Rule of Life which have most struck and stayed with me over decades of living and learning with this text. Of all its many topics, the Rule is particularly rich in its teachings navigating the challenges and rewards of life in community. These teachings point the way ahead for all of us who are trying to live together in recognition of the fact that we are bound to one another by Christ’s loving authority.
Howard Thurman, the great African-American teacher and pastor, wrote extensively on what Jesus said “to those who stand with their backs against the wall: the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.”[i] Thurman drew his inspiration from Jesus, who grew up in poverty. Because of their race and religion, Jesus’ people had for decades been cruelly subjugated by the oppression and discrimination of the Roman Empire. For his first thirty years, Jesus would also have faced the ignominy of his own birth. Either he was born to a mother out of wedlock; or his mother and father, Mary and Joseph, were fabulous liars and blasphemers; or both parents were mentally unsound. How could this be, the “miraculous” story of Jesus’ birth? Jesus faced prejudice and persecution from the very beginning of his life.
When Jesus finds his voice, one word recurs in Jesus’ speech and actions: power. People would ask, “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[ii] In the end, as Jesus was coming down from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). And his departing words were about power: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts of the Apostles 1:8). Power.
“A great deal of our politics, our ecclesiastical life, often our personal life as well, is dominated by the assumption that everything would be all right, if only some people would go away.” – Rowan Williams, The Way of Benedict
Of course, other people are not going to “go away”! But there has been, throughout history, this continual assumption, at least in politics, that if you gain enough power, you can effectively make these other people whom you dislike or fear, disappear, through systematically disempowering them, disenfranchising them, or at the most extreme, ethnically cleansing them. For the Christian, all such attempts to make other people “go away,” are essentially sinful and a gross abuse of power. For the Christian, every single person is a beloved child of God “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). For the Christian, power and authority are given to us by God in trust, for the building of God’s Kingdom on earth. In God’s Kingdom everyone is important, because our faith teaches us to see the face of Jesus in the face of every person, however unlike me they are. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
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.
One of the things which surprised me when I became the Superior in our community was my relationship to the vow of Obedience. At our Profession, we promise “to Almighty God, and to you my brother, the Superior of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and to your successors in this office, that I will live in the life-long observance of Poverty, Celibacy, and Obedience, according to the Rule of this Society.”
As we know, the English word “obedience” comes from the same Latin word as “audio,” so that in the monastic tradition, obedience is primarily about listening. At times we are called to “be attentive to the voice of the Spirit within our hearts.” On other occasions we are challenged by obedience to “let go of attachment to our individual preferences and [learn] to trust in the wisdom of the community.” As a Brother in the community, it was my experience that there was one Superior. Now as Superior, I find that I am constantly challenged to listen to the wisdom of the community. In doing so, I find that, as Superior, I have twelve superiors.
This relationship between power, authority, and obedience is difficult to keep in balance. We know what happens when the authority of some comes at the cost of disempowering others. We know too the terrible tragedy that occurs “when in the name of obedience human beings have gladly abdicated responsibility and taken refuge in passivity and conformity.”
It is not an accident that this issue of Cowley is devoted to these connected dynamics of power, authority, and obedience. Nor do I believe that it is an accident that, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, these issues have been thrust onto center stage. As the pandemic has unmasked many inequalities in society, we have seen and experienced what happens when the balance between power and empowerment, authority and authoritarianism, obedience and listening have resulted in division and dominance rather than reconciliation and cooperation.
It is our hope that these reflections, rooted in our monastic tradition of obedience, will help in some small way as we practice the art of listening to one another deeply, and with open hearts and minds.
That kind of deep listening is not, I assure you, simply empty monastic talk. It is something we Brothers are engaging in currently as we attempt to navigate how best to consider re-opening the Chapel and the Guesthouse. Trying to balance the hopes, needs, and concerns of guests, members of our congregations, staff, and Brothers is not an easy thing. As we are discovering, every decision delights and relieves some, and concerns others. Nor are we trying to address concerns about health and safety issues without abdicating responsibility or giving way to fear. As we carry on these conversations about re-opening, I know we can count on your patience. We ask for your prayers for wisdom.
I cannot conclude this letter to you without once again expressing our gratitude to each of you for your abiding care, support, friendship, and prayers over these past challenging months. They have been sources of strength, grace, and hope to each of us, and especially to me. We Brothers are enormously thankful for the gift of your friendship.
Please know that just as you pray for us, we pray for you.
Faithfully in Christ,
James Koester, SSJE
St. George the Martyr
Preaching on the saints can be, at times, a real challenge. This is especially true with some of the early saints, including some of the apostles, about whom we know very little, and what we do know, is largely legend. Does the preacher simply stick to the texts, or do they focus on the legend? The problem with dismissing the legend out of hand is that many of the legends have within them shards of historical truth, and if they don’t, the legends are so archetypal, they still contain truth, and those archetypal legends have the power to shape and influence lives.
This is especially true of St. George, whom we remember today. What can be said about him, or at least about his feast historically, is that his feast was being kept as early as the mid fifth century. The legend of George and the dragon can’t be traced back earlier than the twelfth century. It is thought he died a martyr in the early years of the fourth century, during the persecution of Diocletian. He may have been a soldier, which gave rise to him being recognized as the patron saint of soldiers in twelfth century. As patron saint of soldiers, the Crusades were fought under his banner, which is how, ultimately, devotion to George was carried back to England, where in 1347 he was declared the patron saint.
Today, on this Wednesday in Holy Week, we have just heard read one of the most emotionally charged passages in all the Gospels. In an act of intimate, self-giving love, Jesus has just washed his disciples’ feet. But he then turns from love, to betrayal. We are told, laconically that Jesus is ‘troubled in spirit’; perhaps an understatement. For he has just washed Judas’ feet. Jesus loved Judas, as he did all his disciples. Jesus’ heart likely burned with a deep sorrow at what Judas was about to do.
But love and betrayal exist side by side. And there is a very close parallel between what Jesus did by washing his disciples’ feet, and what Judas was about to do. That parallel is made very clear by one word in the text, and that is the word betrayal. But that is only one translation of the word used by John. In the Greek of the original text, the word translated as ‘betrayal’, is ‘paradidomai’. This literally means ‘to hand over or give over power to another, or to hand over another into the power of another’. Here, that verb is translated as ‘to betray’ because this ‘handing over’ of Jesus by Judas is done treacherously. But elsewhere in the New Testament this very same word is used in a beautiful and loving way. In the letter to the Ephesians for example, we read that Jesus ‘has loved us and given himself for us.’ The same verb, paradidomai. Jesus so loves us that he freely gives himself over to the power of another. And this is what Jesus was expressing so beautifully when he laid aside his robe and washed his disciples’ feet. So great is his love for us that he laid down his divine power and became as a servant; became vulnerable and ‘woundable’. Through love he exposed himself to the power of Judas, he gave himself over to the power of the darkness in men’s hearts, ‘and it was night.’