I worked very hard on this sermon. I’ve spent a long time thinking about it.
Most of it was a waste.
Because I spent a very long time mulling over this Gospel text, of Jesus and Martha and Mary. I worked very hard to understand the story. But not because it’s some complex thing. No, the trouble is, it’s actually rather simple. It’s a story with, like, one plot point. So my effort to understand was not deciphering some crazy esoteric text, but rather, to think about how I might make this very simple text come alive in some fresh way. How I might use it to point out something new, something exciting, something we haven’t all heard a thousand times before.
Because that’s my job, right? That’s what the preacher is supposed to do. That’s my task, my role this morning. I’m supposed to come up with something good, something true, something real. To preach well is to point to Christ, and Christ is not boring. But the more I thought, the more I plugged away at this problem, the more I realized that I had nothing. Nothing fresh, anyway. Nothing alive.
For the preacher, the antidote to this problem is supposed to be prayer. Prayer, encounter with the eternal, the infinite, the Living God, should yield…well, something. And I have been praying! But it’s been harder than normal lately. Less intuitive. I’ve felt overwhelmed by work. I’ve felt stressed. I’ve felt incompetent, and discouraged by that feeling, I’ve tried even harder to work my way out of it, to push through and do something right, something where I wouldn’t be left with lingering doubts and anxieties over whether I’m good at anything.
So, more pushing. More striving. More petition to God to accomplish what I’d set out to do.
The Sea of Galilee is notorious for its surprising and violent storms. The Sea of Galilee, which is actually a fresh-water lake, lies 700 feet below sea level. Immediately to the northeast are the hills of the Golan Heights, reaching 2000 feet. The large difference in height and temperature between these cool, sometimes snow-covered hills and the semi-tropical sea causes large air pressure changes. Strong winds funnel down from the Golan Heights, sometimes creating the perfect storm over the water. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been calm and the sky perfectly clear. This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples and Jesus who are in a boat on the sea. Aside from the wind and waves coming at them, there was something else that surfaces: fear. They are terrified. You will probably know how it is to be sailing through life on the sunniest of days, where all is calm, all is bright… and then a storm hits.
In the Scriptures, nothing is talked about more often than fear. Fear is a dis-ease of the soul. The psalmist writes, “Do not fear, though the earth should change, the mountains tremble and shake in the heart of the sea, fear not.”[i]The prophet Isaiah says: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. Do not fear.”[ii] In the scriptures, we hear about fear from the very beginning: in the Book of Genesis, the story from the Garden of Eden. The angel of God comes to Adam and Eve, and they are terrified.[iii] We hear again about fear much later in another garden, the Garden of Gethsemane, where the women have come to anoint Jesus’ body. Once more the angel of the Lord appears, and the women are terrified. Fear is a very costly, distressing emotion when we’re in touch with impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to overwhelm us. I imagine that all of us here know about fear, either in a particular situation or perhaps recurringly. What are you afraid of? What causes your heart to tremble?
Are you afraid that you might be wrong, or afraid that you might be right? Are you afraid that you might be excluded, or afraid that you might be included? Are you afraid that you might fail, or afraid that you might succeed? Are you afraid that you might never finish, or afraid because you’ve come to the finish? Are you afraid of making a commitment, or of not making of commitment? Are you afraid of being sick, of dying? Are you afraid that you’re going to have to face being well again? Are you afraid of someone? Are you afraid of yourself? Are you afraid that you might be sent, or might not be sent? Afraid that you won’t get the attention, or maybe that the attention will be on you? Are you afraid of being discovered, or of never being discovered? Afraid of heights, or depths, or something else between? Most of us will know something about fear, maybe even right now. If so, why? Why are you afraid? That’s Jesus’ question for his disciples, and it’s his question for all of us. If you are afraid, why?
To be sure, there are therapeutic protocols to address our fears, and phobias, and anxieties. And there are medicinal ways to address fear, to chemically lower fear’s looming capacity to inundate us. And there is physical training and stress-reduction techniques that may enable us cope with or conquer fear… These may be helpful, even necessary. But what is it about fear that is a “spiritual issue” for you?
Rather than presuming that fear, our own fear, is a sign of the absence of God, our fear actually gives witness to the presence of God. Our fear often arises out of something that is bigger than we are – perhaps concerning our health, or family, or vocation, or endurance. And we find that in-and-of ourselves, there isn’t enough: not enough strength, or patience, or hope, or encouragement, or provision. Our life is unmanageable. We come up short. And we’re afraid that our boat is going to sink, that we’re dead in the water. Fear raises issues that may well need to be dealt with on many levels; one of those levels being spiritual. Where is God in your fear? What is the invitation from God in your fear? Fear is like a beam of light pointing to that deepest place of need within your heart. Fear is very illuminating. What is the your fear exposing, where you are too small, too powerless, too needy to go on? What is it? Why are youafraid? Because in the fear is an invitation from God that God wants to be God in your life, to claim the ultimate authority and highest power in your life. We cannot live our life and be our own God at the same time.
We don’t need to be afraid, not because fear is “wrong.” We’re supposed to be strong and resilient. No, it’s not that. It’s not that we don’t need to be afraid because we shouldn’t be. This is not a de jure statement: “Don’t be afraid because strong people are not afraid.” No, it’s not that. This is a de facto statement: “Don’t be afraid because you don’t have to be afraid.” It’s Jesus’ promise that he will meet us in the experience of fear. He tells us, “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[iv]
“Why are you afraid?” Jesus asks us all. Jesus longs to hear why. Jesus longs to be invited into your fear. And if you’re afraid that you are going to lose your life, or lose some part life, you don’t need to be afraid even of that. Why is that so? Because it’s going to happen. We all are going to lose our lives; we’re all going to lose the life that we now recognize. But Jesus assures us that in losing our lives we find life. Not to fear.[v] The Scottish philosopher John Macmurray writes of an old adage about fear, an adage which some of us were probably taught… The old adage is: “Fear not; trust in God, and God will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.” That’s not true, in Macmurray’s view. On the contrary. Macmurray rephrases the old adage to say, “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.”[vi]Why not? Because Jesus tells us, “I am with you in this… This is the way into life. Trust me.”
Tell Jesus about your fear. This may be your most honest prayer. Tell Jesus about your fear. And if you’re afraid even to talk with Jesus about your fear, then start there: why it is that you are afraid to talk to Jesus about your fear. Tell him! Go ahead. Try it. Jesus is all ears. Jesus has an open heart. And he is waiting.
Here, an ancient Celtic prayer:
Jesus, from this world’s stormy seas
Give your hand for lifting me.
Jesus, lift me from the darkest night.
Jesus, lift me into the realm of light.
Jesus, lift me from my body’s pain,
Jesus lift me up and keep me sane.
Jesus, lift me from the things I dread,
Jesus, lift me from the living dead.
Jesus, lift me from the place I lie,
Jesus, lift me that I never die. Amen.
[v]Matthew 10:39; 16:25.
[vi]John Macmurray (1891-1976), a Scottish moral philosopher, writing in Persons in Relation (Humanity Press, 1998), p. 171.
Parting from someone we love is never easy. The lump in our throat, the tears welling up in our eyes, bear witness to the pain of separation. Even when there is good cause for the separation, when our friend or family member is going off to do something very worthwhile, something we agree is right for them, we still find it hard to say good-bye. We know that there will be an empty space in our hearts and in our lives that will not be easy to fill.
Imagine the emotion with which the words of our gospel lesson were spoken. Jesus, gathered with his closest friends, tells them that he will soon be separated from them. “I am going away,” he says, “I am going to the Father…” He has loved each one of them; they have left all to follow him. And now they face together the end towards which this path is leading them. As he has said to them, he is about to be betrayed and handed over to his enemies, and put to death. Imagine their anguish! How will they carry on without him? What has this time with him meant if it is to end this way? How will they fill the terrible void that his leaving will cause? They are filled with anxiety and fear– for him, for themselves, for all who have believed in him.
Jesus sees the fear in their eyes. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” he tells them, “and do not let them be afraid.” “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” Do not be afraid. I am leaving you to return to the Father, but you will not be abandoned, you will not be left alone. One who is called “the Advocate” is coming, the “Comforter,” the Holy Spirit – the One who will teach you everything you need to know, the One who will remind you of all that I have said to you and who will guide you into all truth.
I well remember in my early adolescence discovering these words from the Gospel: Jesus telling us when we pray, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”[i]That really got my attention! I began asking away, and for a great many things: that I would get an “A” on my geography test. That I would win the prize at camp. That Martha, my classmate with whom I was smitten, would like me. That Butch Hendricks wouldn’t beat me up after school. That my Aunt Ingeborg would get over her cancer. That I would make the cut on the basketball team, and get a uniform. I prayed almost without ceasing. I asked for everything and anything on my mind. It didn’t work most times. And so I got up early to pray. I stayed up late to pray. I clasped my hands when I prayed. I opened my hands when I prayed. I closed my eyes; I opened my eyes. I knelt beside my bed. I secretly carried my Bible to school in my backpack. I memorized Bible verses. I avoided cracks on the sidewalk. I avoided odd numbers. I promised to eat all my vegetables. I ate all my vegetables. I didn’t chew gum at school. I promised never to cheat. –It was like trying to open a safe which I knew was full of treasure. If I could only get the combination right, I knew I could make this verse work: that I could ask Jesus for anything, and I would get it. It didn’t work. Not often. It sure wasn’t anything to depend on, and I remember “dropping” this Bible verse, like dropping a fad.
It was the context of Jesus’ invitation that I only later discovered. The weight of what Jesus promises is not on the word “ask” but on two other words: the pronoun ‘you’ and the word ‘name,’ Jesus’ name. What about the name?
There is an extraordinary amount of power in knowing someone’s name and then using it. To know someone’s name gives you a clear access to them and a claim on your relationship. To use someone’s name gives you the power of identification. And I suspect we all know when that power is misused. It’s when someone “name drops.” When someone feigns to know another person – who they are, what they believe, how they can be accessed. If someone invokes the name of a person with power, but without the license to use that name, it will backfire, eventually… because other people will always know better… that this person whose name is invoked would not say that or could not have said that. It’s inconsistent or incongruous… and the pretender will be exposed.
Which is the key in claiming this invitation that Jesus gives us: that Jesus will give us whatever we ask in his name. We must know Jesus to invoke his name. We must know the mind of Jesus, the heart of Jesus, the words of Jesus to speak in his name. The purpose, the goal, the reason in invoking Jesus’ name is for one reason, one reason only: it’s for the sake of love, so that we may love Jesus, and be loved by Jesus and then love others in Jesus’ name, that is, as Jesus loves them. If we’re to take Jesus’ invitation and ask for whatever it may be, our asking cannot be just on behalf of our own private self, but on behalf of all whom Jesus claims.
And then, when Jesus says ‘you’ – “whatever you ask” – this is not a ‘you-singular’ but ‘you-plural’: “you all.” This isn’t about me; this is about us, what wecollectively need. The founder of our own community, Richard Meux Benson, calls this “the relative life.” Father Benson says, “Your life must be a relative life. The moment you are imprisoned in your own self-consciousness, in your own separate individuality, in the selfishness of your own separate existence, you commit a worse suicide than taking the life of your body. You destroy the very life of your person.” Father Benson says that we are a relative being, and we have no existence except when we live, ask, and act on behalf of another, in Jesus’ name.[ii]
We should take Jesus at his word, to ask away. Jesus assures us, “I will give you whatever you ask in my name….” In my adolescence, the problem wasn’t that I was asking for too much; I was actually asking for too little. We need to know a great deal about Jesus and the enormity of his love – what Jesus would want for those for whom we pray – and then pray our hearts out. And in our praying, we should presume that Jesus will very likely reciprocate, in asking us, asking you, to be a part of the answer to that prayer.
[i]To make a strong point, Jesus is here repeating what he has said in the previous chapter of the Gospel according to John (14:6-14).
[ii]Quoted from Further Letters of Richard Meux Benson, pp. 36-37; 297.
“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.
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.
1 John 4:7 – 12
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Mark 6: 30 – 44
Those of you who have heard me preach before know that when reading Scripture, my attention is often caught, not by the soaring passages, or the amazing miracles, but the details that often creep in around the edge. Yes, the majesty of the Prologue of John, or the poignancy of the Foot Washing at the Last Supper, or the beauty of the Psalms are not to be missed. However, there is more to Scripture than majesty, poignancy and beauty. There is also the ordinary routine of daily living. It is there, in the ordinary routine of daily living, that God can be found as well. And that is why I am drawn, not to the miracle of the loaves and the fish, but to what comes before.
Chapter Six in the Gospel according to Mark is one of those breathless sections of Mark. A lot happens, and I mean a lot. It begins with Jesus’ rejection by his hometown and carries on to the sending out of the Twelve on their mission, the dance of Herodias and the death of John the Baptist, the return of the Twelve from their mission, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the calming of the sea, and there arrival at Gennesaret. As I mentioned, in 56 breathless verses, Mark crams in an awful lot of action, so much so, that if it were read all at once, our heads would be spinning!
As you may know, this kind of concentrated action is typical of Mark’s Gospel. It reminds me of an excited child coming home from a great adventure trying to condense a whole day’s activity into a few sentences: and then we did this! Then we did that! Then this other thing happened! Then, guess what happened???!!!
Human beings have evolved in such a way that we do most of our sleeping at night. Under normal circumstances, even so-called “night owls” tend not to stay awake all night long without very good reason. Physical pain, insomnia, or intense anxiety may banish sleep from our eyes, but so also might sheer anticipation or overwhelming joy. A sense of urgency may compel us to remain awake, when something or someone simply cannot or will not wait until morning: a newborn infant, a dying friend, or an impending deadline. Night may afford a precious window of opportunity, when the world is quiet and we are unburdened by the duties of our waking hours. Artists, writers, musicians, aspiring comedians: all these know a form of passionate asceticism as they labor at their primary vocation long into the night, especially if they work during the day at other paid professions. And night has always been a sacred time for lovers of all sorts, giddy with the rush of newfound or newly rekindled intimacy. The night hours become an inner sanctum of privacy enfolding the union of lover and beloved.
In today’s gospel lesson we encounter one of the few, tantalizing glimpses of the nocturnal life of Jesus – who loses sleep for the love of God.
“Now during those days Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God.”
In one line, Luke’s subtle highlights and shadows render not just a person, but a personality. In Luke’s many portraits of Jesus, we meet a man who is drawn into intimate, moment by moment communion with the God he knew as Father. We encounter a person filled with power by the Spirit of God, led by the Spirit to astonishing new heights and depths of self-offering. It should come as no surprise, then, that Luke’s Jesus spends the whole night in prayer.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Saint Paul’s self-revelation about his “thorn in the flesh” is quite mysterious. Whatever this suffering is, Saint Paul has been praying fervently that this “thorn” be extracted from him, but to no avail. There are two mysteries here. For one, we don’t know what this “thorn” is. We’re never told anything further; however, that fact has not stopped endless speculation down through the centuries what the thorn might be. Is Saint Paul’s “thorn” something related to his family of origin, to his good standing in the synagogue, to someone who is out to get him, or who won’t forgive him, or who won’t respect him? Is the “thorn” related to his physical or mental health, to his sexuality, to an addiction, to an unmet desire of his heart? We have no idea, other than that it is very painful.
Saint Paul is writing an open letter to a local church. The letter hit home. The letter was saved, copied by hand, and widely circulated for more than two hundred years, only gaining in authority as the years passed. The letter was ultimately recognized as belonging to the Canon of Holy Scripture. Why was this personal letter saved, circulated, and so revered? Because Saint Paul wrote of a truth that others can relate to. He’s not just telling his story; he’s telling our story. Everyone has their own version of a thorn or thorns in the flesh that don’t go away. Thorns are very painful.
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 16:19-31
Our first reading today is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Over time, Jeremiah has garnered for himself the nickname, “The Weeping Prophet.” He’s earned it. Called to be a prophet at an early age, he is initially reluctant, but trusts in God, and diligently urges his people toward repentance. They don’t listen, and respond with dismissiveness, hostility, and violence. As such, the disaster Jeremiah has been foretelling comes true; the armies of Babylon come and overthrow the houses of Israel and Judah. Jerusalem is captured, and the Temple is destroyed. Jeremiah is cast into exile in Egypt, where he dies, estranged from his homeland and his people. He can do nothing but lament; he has no other option but to weep in the desert.
When Jeremiah tells us, then, that the one who trusts in God shall be like a tree planted by water, unafraid of the drought, still producing fruit, it is reasonable to ask, “Where is Jeremiah’s river? Where is his fruit?” His life appears to be a drought, from start to finish. Does Jeremiah condemn or contradict himself? Where are the waters to cool his scorched tongue?
It is further reasonable to ask this about ourselves. When we are in seasons of drought, when we are striving our hardest to live in faithfulness to God rather than to the flesh, it makes sense to say, “I feel like I’m withering; where is my fruit? I feel like I’m in the desert; where is my river? I’m a poor beggar and sore all over; where is the refreshing water to cool my tongue?” Indeed, it can be difficult to offer any prayer at all in this state of mind. When the tongue is dry, when the lips are cracked, it is a great, even painful effort to speak. We may feel we are living in the poverty of Lazarus, and yet receiving the treatment of the rich man, begging for a cool drink. Not only the mouth, but the soul itself may be parched. In the desert of Lent, we are especially prone to this drought. How, then, can we pray?
Here, Jeremiah’s story is instructive. The lament, the weeping, the tears in the desert are no sign of God’s abandonment. These tears are rain to the thirsty land, the wellspring of the river of life in the midst of the desert, the water that soothes the dry mouth and the tormented soul.
“Jesus wept” is the most iconic depiction of the tears of grief leading to life; Christ’s tears both show his human sorrow and foreshadow the abundance of life that will literally burst forth from the earth at the resurrection of Lazarus. Hagar’s tears in the wilderness after she and her son had run out of water are met with God revealing a well. Writing around the year 600, the monastic saint John Climacus wrote in his Ladder of Divine Ascent that, “Prayer is the mother and daughter of tears…If God in His love for the human race had not given us tears, those being saved would be few indeed and hard to find. Groans and sadness cry out to the Lord, trembling tears intercede for us, and the tears, shed out of all-holy love show that our prayer has been accepted.” St. Symeon the New Theologian, another monk, writing at the end of the 10th century, argued that holy weeping is a recurring gift of immersion in the waters of baptism, cleansing us and giving us life whenever we are bathed in our tears. Tears in the desert are no sign of God’s abandonment; they are a sign of repentance, a sign of sorrow for the world, a sign of awe, a sign of love. They are the waters within, just waiting to course through the desert when words are too much and not enough.
We are in Lent. It is the season of the drought. We can look around and see plentiful sorrow, and we may be unable to fix it. We may find no words, no actions, are sufficient to dress the wounds of the world. So, take heart; do not shun your tears. Do not be ashamed or afraid or dismissive of weeping, for when the heat of the desert seeps into our bones, tears can be living water.
I sometimes reflect on living the monastic life – how all-consuming it can be. There is always the next thing, and it can be very demanding. But the other week I was talking to my niece Katharine. She had a baby last year and she adores him, but she was telling me what hard work it is – day and night looking after a young child, on call 24 hours a day. Many of you will have had that experience and know exactly what it is like.
I remember a remarkable woman in my parish in England. She had five young children. When I used to visit there it was a maelstrom as they all came bounding up to the front door to greet me. So much energy! So much noise! I said to her once, “Gosh, how do you manage? How do you cope?” She said, “Well, I’ll show you.” We went into the hall and she opened the walk-in cupboard under the stairs, where most people stored their vacuum cleaners. I looked in, and there was a cushion on the floor and a candle. She said, “Every morning I go in there for 20 minutes, and spend time with God.” The children all knew that that was Mum’s special time. In fact, she put a sign on the door when she was in there. The children would never disturb her for those precious 20 minutes. “And that,” she said, “is what keeps me not just sane, but actually very happy.”