Our reading from the Second Book of Kings would make would make for a great scene in an adventure movie or mythology novel: the Prophet Elijah’s ascending into heaven in a whirlwind with horses of fire and in a chariot fire. And there’s also the scenes when Elijah’s cloak – his “miracle mantle” – is used two different times to strike the Jordan River, which then miraculously divides in two, one side to the other, to open a dry passageway for a walkthrough. It’s such spectacular power!
A fascinating and inspiring way to read the Scriptures is through the lens of power. In virtually every page of the Bible, there is a supernatural manifestation of power, the intervention or infusion of God’s power in everyday life:
- Power in the form of words being given to someone who is otherwise inarticulate.
- Power in the form of knowledge about something which is otherwise unknowable.
- Power in interpreting signs, experiences, dreams, languages, or what could seem as “coincidence.”
- Power to be wise amidst what is otherwise so confusing and undecipherable in life.
- Power in the form of physical strength, or moral integrity, or courage when confronted with strong opposition.
- Power in the form of an inner peacefulness in the face of strife, violence, or threat.
- Power in the face of disaster, imprisonment, censure, or banishment.
- Power in the form of provision: food, money, shelter, access to people of influence.
- Power in the form of healing mediated through words, through touch, through oil, through spittle.
- Power to forgive the otherwise-unforgivable.
One question trailed Jesus throughout his earthly life: “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[i] And Jesus’ parting promise to us was about our being able to do “even greater works of power” than he did because of God’s abiding presence with us, because of God’s Spirit.[ii] Christianity without power is like a country club for nice manners and good taste. Christianity is about engaging the powers and the powerful needs of this world with the force and provision of God.
Annie Dillard writes, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour…? Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? …It is madness to wear ladies’ velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” [iii] We have been created by the power of God to know and mediate the power of God.
There are lots of things in life for which we could be fearful. And so Jesus speaks endlessly about our not needing to be afraid, about our not needing to be anxious because he is with us, always.[iv] You may be in touch right now with fear or anxiety where you feel your vulnerability and need. But there’s more. You may be equally afraid – maybe even more afraid – of how you are powerful. If you are afraid of your power – and you do have power – you need not fear your power. Don’t be afraid. Remember the Blessed Virgin Mary who was visited by an angel announcing Mary’s life mission, a very powerful calling.[v] Mary was afraid, afraid of being giving such power, and then she found the grace to say “yes” to God. She finally prayed, “Okay. Be it unto me according to your word.” And so for you. You probably already pray about poverty and need, yours and others’. Also pray for God’s power. Pray your “yes” to God’s power to be at work within you and through you.
[i] Matthew 13:54, 26:64; Mark 6:2, 14:62; Luke 6:19; John 1:12.
[ii] John 12:12-14.
[iii] From Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, pp. 40-41. Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975 and in 2014 received the National Humanities Medal.
[iv] Matthew 28:20.
[v] Luke 1:26-38.
Hosea 8:4-7, 11-13
Have you ever had one of those dreams when you’re trying to scream but you can’t? Or you try to run but your legs won’t move? It’s a real feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. I’m always glad to snap out of those dreams into the world where my voice and my body do the things that I want them to do.
When I read this passage about a mute demoniac, I sympathize. When I hear about people helpless and harassed my compassion is stirred. When Jesus says the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few I want to raise my hand. “Here I am, Lord! Send me!”
That’s why this is such a well worn passage for ordinations and calls to evangelism. It reaches into the natural sympathy we have for those who suffer. And immediately after this passage Jesus calls his twelve apostles and gives them power over all these demons and diseases. It’s a stirring recruitment call.
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. —Collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
One of the graces of this season spent in quarantine has been the lectionary’s course of readings through St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The narrative is at once dense and frenetic, while also a source of great comfort. We read of disciples not so different from you and me. People who faced gargantuan challenges and struggled with the solid weight of human poverty, weakness, and finitude—of going to bed each night completely and helplessly ignorant of any of the possibilities that God might give with the sun’s rise. I can only fantasize about the tenor of the prayers that Jesus’ little community must have prayed in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.
We know the rest of the story, and perhaps that can tempt us to presumption. It is easy for us to overlook the yawning jaws of despair that likely followed at the heels of Jesus’ followers after his ascension, hungry for their fear. Tempting them to rely on themselves. Begging them to deny God’s faithfulness. Yes, we know the rest of the story, but even the gift of hindsight is just that, a gift. Yes, we know that in a week’s time God’s faithfulness—however providentially awkward—will be attested by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. A faithfulness, which will change the course of history. Yet I cannot help but wonder what the followers of Jesus must have made of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost.
If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
To my mind, the final line of this morning’s gospel is at once an indescribable consolation and a never-ending source of perplexity. Perhaps even frustration. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. How many of us have been caught off guard or even startled by this phrase? Did he really just say what I think he said?
During the so-called “Farewell Discourses” of John’s gospel (chapters 14—17), we greet a host of similarly enigmatic phrases such as:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” “I do not give to you as the world gives.” “As the Father has loved me so have I loved you; abide in my love.”
These dense discourses clearly deserve much more than a superficial listening. There is an infinity in these words, fertile and receptive to the whole texture of human experience. John’s Jesus therefore speaks to each of us in the voice of that wind as he says If in my name you ask for anything, I will do it. There is an infinity in his words.
Yet this infinity is lost to us if we simply hear what we would like to hear. Because of this, I believe there is wisdom in praying with a sensitivity to what a text is decidedly not saying. Yes, he really did just say something remarkable, but whereas I would like to hear Jesus say to me, “if you ask me for anything, I will do it,” this is not what Jesus says. We have to reckon with those three little words: in my name.
In today’s parable, Jesus paints the picture of two people. A judge, a man with authority who does not fear God nor respect people. He won’t be ashamed. Perhaps accepting a bribe, but otherwise immoveable. A widow comes repeatedly to this judge. As we see often in scripture, widows are most vulnerable and to be cared for. In Middle Eastern culture, men represented women in court. That she is here means she has no male relative to assist her.[i] On one hand, she is weak and vulnerable. Yet she is present and persistent, not accusing, asking for justice.
In Middle Eastern culture, there is also a social code of respect such that women sometime have unusual access that men do not. Kenneth Bailey, who taught seminary for many years in Lebanon, tells of seeing a violent militia take up residence in a neighborhood. An elderly woman came regularly telling the guards to go away. They responded by politely telling her to not be upset. If a man had done so, he would have been shot.[ii]
The widow keeps coming asking for justice. The judge relents, giving her what she asks so that he is no longer bothered.
Romans 8:22-27; Psalm 42:1-7; Matthew 5:13-16
Today in the calendar of the church we remember the sixteenth-century nun, abbess, and mystic Teresa of Avila. Born Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada to a family of partly Jewish ancestry, she lived at a time of incredible persecution of the Jews known as the Inquisition. Educated by Augustinian nuns, she began to feel called to the consecrated life and joined a Carmelite Order. She eventually became distracted by the mollified Rule of the Order and set out to found a reformed Order called the Discalced Carmelites. The word ‘discalced’ is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘without shoes.’ Throughout the course of 25 years, she traveled frequently establishing 17 convents of the reformed Order. She wrote many letters, poems, books on the religious life, as well as an autobiography: The Life of Teresa of Jesus.
While it would be easy to project a certain saintly color of piety on Teresa, her autobiography proves her to have been very unconventional for what we imagine a contemplative nun to be. She is said to have been a very passionate person, describing in her autobiography mystical visions, highly erotic in nature. She writes viscerally of one of these visions in which an angel repeatedly thrusts a golden lance into her heart: ‘I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it.’ We can hear overtones of the Song of Solomon that seem to mix the essence of eros and agape, that is erotic love and Godly love. In her vision we experience her desire to be one with God.[i]
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.