When I was a student, one phrase always sent my spirit sinking, “group work.” Invariably I would be assigned a partner or two who, to my mind, were only there to drag me down or distract my self-esteem by their more finely formed intelligence and work ethic. “Couldn’t we just do these assignments on our own?” I would ask myself. I wanted to be in sole control over anything I had to surrender for the teacher’s scrutiny. So focused was I on the state of my own GPA that I dreaded the idea of having to compete with, or worse still, depend on another. “Surely,” I thought, “real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
I think it is safe to say that we live in a culture that suffers, to varying degrees, from this pivotal misunderstanding. While cooperation and mutuality are concepts routinely praised from the political podium, in classrooms, and in many an ideological platform, at the end of the day, we still notice something unsettling: individualism and individual choice, the right to be an island, and the desire for private ownership still guide so much of the world around us as goods in themselves. It is clear that we know we should temper these behaviors, but we still manage to miss the mark. We seem to be uncomfortable working beyond our own, or our community’s, assumptions. We want to be in control.
“Surely real lifewill be a test not of our cooperation but of our self-reliance.”
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???!!!
Recently, you may remember, I preached on The Incarnation of Jesus Christ as the Prime Holy Mystery. Today I shall add to that the additional mystery of the relationship between Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
The Gospel reading tells us that at a certain point, six months after the Angel Gabriel had made his announcement to Mary, she “set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
The Bible tells us that Mary set out with haste to go to Zechariah’s house in the Judean hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. We know that most people travelled in those days by foot. What we don’t know is where she was starting from, and how long it would have taken her. Do we really need to understand that?
When I was in eighth grade, I decided that, despite attending church every Sunday, being in the Church Youth Group, and being a pastor’s kid, I was not in fact Christian. As I saw it, there were too many beliefs, ideas, and propositions that I either couldn’t figure out or couldn’t get behind, so, with much thoughtfulness, sincerity, and all the wisdom of a fourteen year old boy, I set out to figure out my own religion: a set of beliefs, statements, and positions that I could fully get behind. It took me about an hour, and came out to a little more than one page, single spaced, in Microsoft Word. I picked a cool font, slapped a title on it in WordArt, and called it done.
That was about nine years ago, and while I hope that my relationship to Christianity has matured somewhat since then, I have to admit that I often find myself back in eighth grade, struggling with a complex faith, trying to figure it all out in my head, trying to make it work intellectually, to make it logical and comprehensible. It often feels like Christianity is a puzzle that I am trying to solve. Trying to somehow get it right.
It seems that the end is already present in the beginning.
Jesus commences his public ministry just as John the Baptist is arrested. Before we even perceive this John as the one coming in the spirit of Elijah, his witness to Jesus’ coming hastens his murder by the powers of this world. Now the one whose appearance John foretold is walking among us, proclaiming as he goes, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” Mark tells us that Jesus is not simply announcing the time. Rather, it is Jesus himself who fulfills the time, both in his words and in his full humanity. For this is the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In him the coming time is always now—the present.
But how can Mark’s Jesus preach that the time is fulfilled when the world’s history continues with disaster upon disaster, injustice upon injustice, violence upon violence, hatred upon hatred, and greed upon greed? If the time is already fulfilled, then what are we to make of the redemption, much of which is clearly yet to come?
Yet Jesus, who still walks among us, doesn’t set about explaining or making excuses for God. Rather, Jesus calls upon people, using an imperative, to respond to his declaration, “Repent, and believe in the good news!” Jesus walks among those of his own day, and continues to walk among us in our own. Jesus invites us to assume our full identity, new each day, even those of us who have begun to experience his call in our lives.
“Because he is bound to me in love, therefore I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my Name.” (Psalm 91:14)
Many nights, if I am awake enough by the time the Compline bell rings, if my attention has not been too blunted by the heavy-laden hours of the day and the familiarity of daily repetition, this verse from Psalm 91 finds its way into my heart and brings me peace.
Acts 14: 19 – 28
Psalm145: 9 – 14
John 14: 27 – 31a
When I was 7 or 8 I made a book of coupons for my mother, which I presented to her on Mother’s Day. Each coupon was good for something different. One was for taking out the garbage. Another was good for breakfast in bed. I don’t remember what the other ones were good for, but the idea was that she would take out one of the coupons, return it to me and I would do whatever the coupon was good for. Curiously, she never used them. I found the coupon book years later among her things. My hunch is that my book of coupons said more to my mother than any number of breakfasts in bed.
Each of us have different ways of showing love. We might be one of those people completely comfortable telling another I love you. Or we might be one of those whose love for another is shown, not so much in words as in deeds: flowers, acts of kindness or generosity, thoughtful gestures, small favours. That may be the way we show love.
François de Sales, the 17th century Bishop of Geneva, was revered for his insights about prayer. His recommendation for prayer: every day, “half an hour’s listening is essential except when you are very busy. Then a full hour is needed.” (1) François de Sales presumes three things about prayer:
1. Our prayer begins and ends with listening.
2. When life is very busy – like when you’re beginning a new school term, or a new internship, or a new job, or when life is very full – our discipline around prayer can easily be lost and yet it’s all-the-more important.
3. It’s essential to demarcate some time each day for prayer.
When I entered the monastery back in 1985, I knew nothing about icons. I had never visited an Orthodox church and had no idea that icons had been used by Christians for centuries in both public worship and private devotion. Towards the end of my novitiate, I read my first book about praying with icons: Behold, the Beauty of the Lord by Henri Nouwen, published in 1987. In it Nouwen describes several icons with which he had prayed for some time, noting their distinguishing characteristics and describing the insights he had gained from praying with them.
One of the questions that I get asked as a monk quite often when I travel around is, “Are you a silent order?” Kind of a difficult one to answer. No – we don’t take a vow of silence, and we do talk quite a lot. But silence is a hugely important part of our monastic life. Guests sometimes say – “Oh, being silent – is that sort of part of the Brothers’ penance?”