A visitor to a monastery went up to the abbot, and asked him, ‘What do you monks do all day? The abbot replied, ‘We fall down and we get up again. We fall down and we get up again.’ I think that is a pretty good description not just of the monastic life, but of the Christian life itself. It describes I think each one of us who try to follow Jesus Christ. As we try to live this life, we inevitably fall, mess up, we make mistakes, we sin, we fall short. But what is also true about this life of discipleship, is that when we do fall, Jesus is always there ready to pick us up. That is the paradigm of the Christian life: falling and getting up again, dying and being raised to new life.
Many years ago, I spent time living in a monastery in Belgium. It was very influenced by the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the monks had adopted many Orthodox practices. The one I loved most happened during Lent. Whenever we entered the church during Lent, each of us, including the oldest monks, would not just bow to the altar, but we would fall down onto our hands and knees and touch the ground with our foreheads, acknowledging that we are but dust. But we didn’t stay there! Having acknowledging our fallenness, we immediately jumped up, because Christ has raised us up. I used to love doing that!
Tonight, we remember a key part of our story, the rescue at the Red Sea. We retell the story as part of God’s people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel, and their twelve sons and daughter.
Sold as a slave, Joseph, saved the whole family from famine by bringing them to Egypt. Later expanding in number, they were made slaves and remained so for 400 years in Egypt, that mighty empire, whose wonders we are still discovering and marveling. Freedom from Egypt? Impossible!
Through a burning bush, God sent a shepherd, Moses, to say: “Let my people go.” When Pharoah refused, God turned the river to blood, sent frogs, gnats, flies, and more. Our people packed their bags and ate a meal of lamb with its blood above their doors so that coming death would pass over them. Finally, fed up, Pharaoh said: Go. Our people fled into freedom! But soon they were dead-end at Red Sea. Pharaoh came after them. Trapped between water and enemy, our people panicked: Why did we leave if only to be slaughtered out here?
Moses said: “Do not be afraid; stand firm and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”[i]
Feast of St. Justin Martyr
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
When I was inquiring about a vocation here at SSJE, my favorite musician released a new song, entitled “John My Beloved.” Given the charism of this community, I paid attention. One of my favorite lines occurs toward the very beginning: “Beloved of John, I get it all wrong, I read you for some kind of poem.” I like this line, because it is a direct challenge to the impulse I often have, many of us have, of reducing Christ, this beloved of John, to the realm of abstraction and metaphor. To be clear, the poetic and the abstract have their place, including in the interpretation of scripture. But when we behold the one to whom the evangelists point, we’re beholding not a metaphor, but a man, clothed in the very flesh and blood you have brought with you today.
Today is the feast of Justin, an early martyr. Justin would have been at-home in Harvard Square. He was born to a pagan family in Palestine around the year 100, and he was well-educated in philosophy. More than literate, he was an eager student and writer. But also (not unlike a great many of our local students and writers today) he was frustrated by the philosophies he encountered. He wanted something more. And he found it upon discovering Christianity, and hearing about, not philosophers, but prophets, who “did not use demonstration in their treatises, seeing that they were witnesses to the truth above all demonstration, and worthy of belief.” Justin began to see Christianity as a means to this truth, the beholding of God. He still appreciated philosophy, though, and argued that earlier philosophers were expounders of truths more fully revealed by the prophets and the coming of Christ.
1 Peter 2:19-25
‘Are you saved? Have you been saved?’—the usual opening lines of the would-be Christian evangelist’s speech when accosting a supposed unbeliever. Sincerely held convictions and good intention usually lie behind these expressions of concern for our ‘spiritual’ well-being. But a ‘one-step’ profession of accepting Jesus as your Savior leading immediately to the state of ‘salvation’ is simplistic and can be dangerously ego-centered. Personally ‘achieving salvation’ is not a check-list item for being ‘admitted to heaven’ when we die.
Listen for a moment to words from an Anglican Communion evangelism document entitled ‘God’s Sovereignty and Our Salvation’: ‘Salvation is at the very heart of the Christian hope and the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the gift of reconciliation and transformation, given to humanity by God, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ Salvation as transformation and reconciliation, proceeding from the Triune God who is love and relationship: this understanding and promise signals an ongoing, dynamic, shared process. In this understanding, salvation, ‘being saved’, is a never-ending and ever-deepening relationship of believers with Christ, and with one another.
As the evangelism document goes on to stay, ‘The gift of salvation is understood first and foremost by Christians as given by God through the incarnation, cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.’ This is the salvation, the being saved, which is boldly proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel calls us to examine what it actually means ‘to be saved’; to embrace the fulness of this salvation and to understand its meaning and urgency for our mortal lives and how we shall live, in these present days.
When I was a teenager I heard a chaplain say that God’s love for us is “unconditional.” On the surface, this sounded fabulous to me because I was a very mixed bag. Actually, I was a mess. And the thought that God actually loves me – me! – unconditionally was something I desperately (though very secretly) needed to know. By that point I was in high school, and it so happens I had trained to be a lifeguard. In actuality, it was like I who was drowning in my own stuff. I needed to be rescued; I needed to be saved from my self-disdain. That’s an adult term, “self-disdain.” As a teenager, I hated myself. So if it were true that God’s love for me, for us, is unconditional, then sign me up.
God’s love for each of us is vast and so personal. Who we are, what we are, however it is we’ve gotten to be where we are, God knows, God lures, God loves. Rather than calling this God’s “unconditional love,” I now think of this as God’s “conditional love.” Because life is inescapably full of conditions and circumstances, changes and chances, and God’s love for us is neither theoretical nor generic. God’s love for us is real and personal, woven into the fabric of our lives from the very beginning. God so loves our own world.
If you’ve ever gone astray –
If by choice or by chance, you have found yourself separated – from God; from belonging; from the integrity, the dignity, or the honesty that once anchored you;
If you have found yourself in a place bereft of the guidance, the reassurance, or the forgiveness you so desperately needed;
Or from the touch or the glance or the words that would weave you once again into the fabric of connection, relationship, and love…
If yes, the question Jesus poses in tonight’s gospel is meant for you.
Does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?
O God, by the leading of a star you manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: Lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence, where we may see your glory face to face; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
These wise men who had come from the East, who are they? The New Testament Greek name for them is “magi,” which means magicians, fortune tellers, wizards. [i] The Greek name magi also includes astrologers, and so it’s no wonder that they reportedly saw a certain star rising, knew its significance, and followed it.[ii]
The wise men came from “the East,” but whether that is near East, or middle East, or far East is only a guess. St. John Chrysostom, fourth-century archbishop of Constantinople, believed the three magi came from Yemen because, in those days, the Kings of Yemen were Jews. A very early Armenian tradition neither saw them as Jews nor as starting out together but rather meeting up along the way, each of them a king from a foreign realm, each of them following this star: one named Balthazar, a king from Arabia; another was Melchior, a king from Persia; and a third, Gaspar, a king from India. I am speaking of three magi, but we are actually not told how many wizards came to Bethlehem. Three is just a guess: three kings because of the three gifts so no one comes empty handed. The gifts were of gold, the most precious mineral on the earth[iii]; frankincense, a symbol of prayer, as the psalmist says, “let my prayer like incense be”[iv]; and myrrh, the fragrance of heaven, used in the anointing for healing and also in the anointing of the dead (ultimately Jesus’ own body).[v]
Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqLiH7AyU9A
O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life: Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen[i]
I’ve been thinking a lot this past year about the prevalence of shame in our society. While I cannot remember my first encounter with shame, I can recall many instances of it throughout my life; moments that have been seared into my memory by the branding iron of trauma. From being bullied by older boys in the changing room at the local YMCA while participating in an after-school swimming program in elementary school—to being unable to finish my college degree as a result in part of a learning disability that eluded me until only three years ago—shame has been a regular character in the drama of my life, lurking behind the curtain until its cue to enter and take center stage. Shame manifests in my mind like evidence presented to a jury in a court of law, which after a very brief deliberation declares the devastating judgement, “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Or, to put it simply: you are not enough.
In her book Daring Greatly, self-proclaimed ‘shame researcher’ Brené Brown defines this emotion as: the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.[ii] While you may not remember your maiden voyage on the sea of shame, my bet is that like me, you are able to recall instances of it throughout your lifetime. Brown goes on to say that we all experience the emotion of shame. And, even though it is universal, we are reluctant to talk about it.[iii] The insidious nature of shame insures that we dare not speak its name, giving it time to metastasize like cancer cells, breaking free from its injurious ‘ground zero’ and spreading throughout our lived experience.
Similarly, like cancer, the longer it roams free, the further out of control it becomes. The loss of innocence to shame often results in the learned skill of taming this wild beast and wielding it as a weapon to our advantage through the instilling of fear in another. So fluent are we all in the language of shame that often times our employing of it is not intentional. Shame can be used as a method of motivation to steer others from engaging in behaviors we find questionable, unacceptable, or dangerous according to our own lived experience, which can be skewed because of our own experience of being shamed. Shame begets shame, fear begets fear. When we force shame upon others, we rob them of their dignity as we venture to recreate them in our own image. Brown continues, “Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.”[iv] Forcing a square peg into a round hole will damage the integrity of both.
In John’s account of Jesus’ passion, we observe a first-hand account of the destructive nature of shame. We watch as Jesus is abandoned by all but a handful of those close to him. We see Jesus as he is stripped of his clothes and his dignity; mocked, scourged, and spit upon. We stand with Jesus’ mother and the beloved disciple at the foot his cross, gazing at His body: bruised, bleeding, and naked. Perhaps, it is in gazing at Jesus nakedness that we harken to another place and time: a garden where we hid ourselves in shame, hearing the voice of our creator asking, “Who told you that you were naked?” Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”[v] It is in this garden, called Eden, that we encounter our first experience of the shame that is so difficult to remember. The trauma experienced here was not the result of forbidden fruit, eaten and digested, but through the seductive language of shame: Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden? You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’[vi] Or, once again to put it simply: you are not enough.
It was then that we observed God’s first acts of mercy. God clothes the man and woman and then says, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.’[vii] The expulsion from Eden was an act of mercy, lest humanity live in perpetual shame.
The gospel news of the cross is that God took on our human nature in the face of Jesus and endured the shame of the cross for our sake. It is in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that God restored our nature, giving us the ability to stare shame in the face and eradicate it with a different language: the language of love.
But, we do have to face the cross as Jesus did. We have to summon the courage with God’s help to face what we know to be true, that we are worthy of love and belonging, that we are enough. How is it that you know shame? What is your experience of being weighed in the balance and found wanting? How have you wielded shame as a weapon for the sake of self-preservation? Who has been a source of shame for you in your life? In a few moments, we will have the opportunity to venerate the cross. As you approach, bring your shame, your experience of not being enough, your struggle for control, or the shame you’ve felt at another’s hands; and as you kiss the cross, imagine that shame being nailed to the cross and know that in Jesus victory over death, that shame will be transfigured. For those of you joining us online, you may want to take a cross you have in your household, pull an image of a cross on your screen, draw a cross, or simply pick a brother to enact the veneration for you.
I close with words from Hymn 162:
O tree of beauty, tree most fair,
Ordained those holy limbs to bear
Gone is thy shame, each crimsoned bough
Proclaims the King of glory now.
Blest tree, whose chosen branches bore
The wealth that did the world restore,
The price which none but he could pay
To spoil the spoiler of his prey.[viii]
Lectionary Year/Proper: Year One
Solemnity or Major Feast: Good Friday
[i] Collect for Tuesday in Holy Week, Book of Common Prayer, p. 220
[ii] Brown Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. Avery, 2015.
[v] Genesis 3:11
[vi] Genesis 3:1-5
[vii] Genesis 3:22-24
[viii] Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?); ver. Hymnal 1982
If you feel you have walked into the middle of a conversation today, you have! No wonder, if you are shaking your head, and thinking, where on earth did all this come from? You’re not the only one to feel that. Any number of people are thinking, did I miss something?
Our gospel today is the second half of that famous encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. You’ll remember the story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, in secret, declaring Jesus to be a teacher who has come from God. It is perhaps the first glimmer of faith by Nicodemus, who we will see again at the end of the gospel, when, with Joseph of Arimathea, he makes provision for the Lord’s burial, by bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.  But all of that comes later, much later, almost at the end of the story. Today we’re near the beginning, and Jesus and Nicodemus have that mysterious, almost mystical conversation, about water, being born again, and entering a second time into a mother’s womb.
Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
Commemoration of George Herbert
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the calendar of the church, we commemorate today a 17th-century Church of England country parson named George Herbert.[i] Down through the centuries, he is most remembered for his arresting, revealing, passionate poetry.
How Herbert’s life ended is not how it began. The combination of his family’s tremendous wealth and privilege, his keen mind, his excellent education, his charismatic oratorical skills, his internal drive to be fabulous, and who knows what else, had brought him to the top of the heap. By age 30, he was counselor to two kings and a member of Parliament. He had gained the whole world but never found his soul.[ii] Two things happened, two breakdowns.