When I was a parish priest in England, my church, St Mary’s, stood right in the middle of the town, and in many ways was at the center of the community. Every year on our Patronal Festival, we organized a week of celebrations, with a carnival and street market, and concerts and events taking place every day inside the church. A large proportion of the town community thought of St Mary’s as their church, even if they only worshipped there occasionally, or not at all! Many of them were baptized there, and expected to be married and buried there. We were open and welcoming to anyone who turned up.
The only other church in the town was one of the oldest independent churches in England. Its members were direct descendants of those Puritan men and women who set sail a few hundred years ago to land on these shores of New England. They took a very different view of the local community, having little to do with it, and certainly nothing to do with us. Those who worshiped with them had first assented to some very specific theological doctrines, and tended to keep themselves separate from the secular world, which they saw as essentially ‘fallen’.
I just finished reading a marvelous book, Dancing with Sherman. Sherman is a donkey. Ostensibly, the book is about donkey-racing with their human partners in the Amish-Mennonite country of Pennsylvania. Sherman is a real winner. In actuality, the book is about trust, the interdependence of trust woven into the whole of creation. The author, Christopher McDougall, writes that “donkeys operate on one frequency – trust. They do nothing on faith, but everything on certainty.”[i] Donkeys operate on trust, not faith. We have the capacity for both, for both trust and faith.
Trust and faith are related. They’re like cousins. Faith operates with the eyes of our heart.[ii] We read in The Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[iii] Faith… the conviction of things not seen. Faith in God is a gift from God, though it’s not based on evidence. Faith is a kind of inner knowing. Which is why so many people – even in the face of tremendous fear or overwhelming suffering, even now – have not lost their faith in God. Many people’s faith in God is awakened in suffering, which is such a paradox. In our opening prayer,the Collect for today, we ask God to “open the eyes of our faith” to behold God. The eyes of our faith is a kind of inner seeing, which can even be contrary to the evidence we actually see. Saint Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.”[iv]It was Saint Anselm of Canterbury who, in the 11th century, described the preeminence of faith as coming from the heart, not the mind: “faith seeking understanding,” he said.[v]
Most people will say that they remember exactly where they were and whom they were with at the time of an epic historical event, such as a tragedy or something shocking and unbelievable. Usually it is when the life of the world is altered in a split second, leaving no one unchanged. My mother would tell the story of how, as a young teenager, she was at Junior All-County Band clinic when she and the other students found out that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. In my own lifetime, the Challenger disaster and of course 9/11 are etched in my mind in vivid detail. Not only was 9/11 shocking, but it invoked a great deal of fear that shook the world. No one was the same after that day and we all recalled our stories to each other as we tried to process our emotions and begin the very long journey to healing.
I imagine that this is probably the experience of the shepherds in our gospel lesson from Luke this morning. This particular evening was just another speck in the sea of time, poised to be like all the others, keeping watch over the sheep in their care. These men were country dwellers who lived on the margins of society. To the temple leaders and social elite, they were among the dregs of society, unclean due to the nature of their profession. Because their jobs allowed them little time away, they were unable to make the appropriate temple sacrifices with any kind of regularity. They were literal outcasts because they tended the flocks in the rural regions on the perimeter of town. Yet, it was their job to see to the well-being of sheep that were most likely to be presented in the temple for sacrifice by people who could afford it.
Feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Psalm 85: 7-13
Acts 13: 14b-26
Luke 1: 57-80
It doesn’t take much: a young girl, barely a teenager, lowering her bucket into the village well, listening for the splash when it hits the water; an old man, hands shaking with age, alone in the sanctuary of the Lord, spooning incense onto the red hot charcoal of the altar brazier. It doesn’t take much, and suddenly there is a moment, a movement, a presence, a strange voice, a greeting: ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you’; a command and a promise: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
It doesn’t take much, a young girl, barely a teenager, going about her daily chores; an old man, whose hands tremble with age, performing a duty he had done, perhaps countless times before, yet something is profoundly different.
Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
In the Gospel according to Luke, there is a scene where Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”[i] Here is my hunch. All who heard Jesus were amazed at his knowledge: a precocious, 12-year old boy from Nazareth (which was a Podunk) and being so smart. There is a somewhat similar reaction after Jesus begins his public ministry. By this time, Jesus is about 30 years old, a relatively old man in first-century Palestine. Once more, people are astounded with him. Luke reports that people asked themselves aloud, “Where did this man get all this?” What are they talking about? Not just Jesus’ knowledge. Luke reports Jesus had grown, and become strong, and was now filled with wisdom.[ii] The crowds were amazed and asked, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?[iii] Evidence of Jesus’ wisdom is what we hear in this Gospel lesson appointed for today: “[Jesus] taught as one having authority.”[iv]
In the scriptures, wisdom is the gift extolled above all others for how to make meaning and how to navigate life. Wisdom is a deep knowledge, much deeper than simply information. We have today an information glut. As you well know, it’s possible to browse through a virtually-infinite stream of data with simply a click: an endless array of “horizontal information.” It’s possible to browse life only at the surface, none of which automatically translates into wisdom. Information alone may make us competent, or make us look smart; information alone may breed arrogance; information alone may overwhelm us; information alone may make us conversant in multiple platforms.[v] Information alone is not wisdom. Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist, said that, “Wisdom is knowledge and the knowledge of its own limits.”[vi]
The gospel tells us that two followers of Jesus were walking and talking as they made their way to the village of Emmaus, a distance of about seven miles from Jerusalem. Just a couple of days had passed since the tragic death of Jesus, and the confusion, fear, disappointment, and grief of that event weighed heavily upon them. Some of those closest to Jesus had contributed to the tragedy: he had been betrayed by one of his own disciples, denied by another, and abandoned by his followers and friends, who had fled for their lives. Furthermore, the body had apparently gone missing! Some women who had visited the tomb earlier this same day had reported a strange encounter with“two men in dazzling clothes,” who had greeted them with the amazing news that Jesus was not there, but risen! They had reported this curious and inexplicable experience to the disciples, but the disciples took it to be “an idle tale” and sent them away.[i] And now, as these two were walking along, they were trying to make sense of all of this, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible, trying to work through their grief and confusion, trying to find some point of light to illumine the darkness and despair that had overshadowed their hearts.
There is within us all a very sacred place, a gift of stillness, light, and love central to our being. We could call it our heart or soul or the indwelling of Christ. It’s at once a point of utter nothingness, while also giving birth to all things in heaven and on earth. It’s a place capable of holding with infinite gentleness both incredible beauty and terrible pain. Against all reason, it’s the place God chooses to call home, and so it’s our home, too. It’s the place where Christ is born, and from where we share Christ’s love and compassion in the world. It’s God’s eternal Kingdom within us, our common inheritance as children of Light.
Very often, though, it seems so difficult to even visit this place, let alone claim our inheritance. We live our lives as if in a dream, where we’re separate from God and from all there is, and often we don’t even realize we’re dreaming. But then something happens, we start feeling restless, a part us senses our perpetual slumber, and we desire something more: to awaken to God’s Loving Presence, and dwell in that sacred place. And our Beloved God is encouraging us all the time, tirelessly offering this generous gift. Unfortunately, we tend to slumber deeply, but there is a way of being more receptive to this gift, and it’s truly very, very simple.
Marina Abramovic has spent many hours of her life completely motionless, silent, and fasting. She has endured voluntary poverty and physical pain for the sake of her vocation. She is not a nun or a mountaintop hermit, but a performance artist – sometimes called the “grandmother of performance art.” Born in Yugoslavia in 1946, her childhood was shaped by the Eastern Orthodox spirituality of her grandmother and the intense, communist discipline of her distant parents. Her performance pieces, most of them ephemeral or time-based, explore the limits of the human body and the mind. All of them challenge our cherished definitions of art. In 2010, Abramovic performed a piece at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, entitled “The Artist is Present,” part of a retrospective of her forty years of work. For this, she sat motionless and silent in the center of the Museum’s atrium surrounded by four bright lights. An empty chair stood opposite the artist, in which anyone who cared to was invited to sit and engage in a silent, mutual gaze with her. Abramovic was present in this way for three months, six days a week, for 7.5 hours a day. While the curator of the museum advised her to be prepared to face a frequently empty chair, her simple offer to be unflinchingly present touched a collective nerve and awakened a widespread hunger. That chair would be occupied by a total of 1,545 people, many of whom lined up before the museum opened or slept on the pavement to get a spot in line. People smiled uncontrollably, laughed or silently wept. Each face was met with the same gentle, mysterious, steady gaze, in a physical environment that framed each encounter as a moment of art enfolding a moment of life. Of the piece, Abramovic said, “The hardest thing is to do something which is so close to nothing that it demands all of you, because there is no story anymore to tell, no object to hide behind. There’s nothing – just your own, pure presence.”
During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, silence, solitude, and recreation.
1 Kings 19:9-13 a; Psalm 62; Mark 4:35-41
Last week there was an interesting factoid released on Boston.com rating the ten busiest Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority stations in Boston.You’ll be very proud to know that our very own Harvard Square Station ranked third just under South Station (#1) and Downtown Crossing (#2) with an average of 23,199 travelers entering the station on weekdays.[i] So it comes as no surprise that at any time of day you can find a diverse and frenetic populace bustling through the Square and its surroundings on an infinite variety of missions be it school, work, or play. And with all this activity comes a cacophony of sound that you’d expect to accompany the bronze medalist of busyness. At any moment you could witness a motorcade transporting high ranking government officials or foreign dignitaries speaking at Harvard’s Kennedy School, or an acrobat thrilling an audience with an impromptu performance of stunts, or hear any and all kinds of music being played live while waiting for the T to arrive. Sometimes the sounds are not so pleasant. The other day when I was taking a run along the Charles River, I experienced someone laying on their car horn to signal their displeasure at someone trying to make a illegal left turn onto JFK Street from Memorial Drive. The sound was immensely disconcerting.
During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, rest, and recreation.
Acts 16: 9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21: 10, 22 – 22: 5; John 14: 23 – 29
Over the last several weeks I have been busy building raised garden beds. If you have been to Emery House, you may have seen them, or even inspected them. In one I have spinach and beets, in another lettuce, radishes and carrots. In a couple of smaller ones I have planted potato onions, shallots and Egyptian Walking Onions (now isn’t that a great name!). Last week I transplanted the creeping oregano into one and one of the guests carefully transplanted most of the perennial onions into another.