I often wonder, as people who read the Scriptures in a world and a context so far removed from the ones in which they were written, how much we lose, or have lost, in our comprehension of them. Can we really comprehend what they are saying, if we don’t have some understanding of the world in which they were written? We hear the Scriptures read, or we read them ourselves, and because we either don’t know the backstory, or because we are so familiar with the text itself, we read and our hearts are not stirred; we read, and we are not convicted; we read, and a fog of incomprehension descends upon our minds, and we are not converted. Now I know this is not always the case. I know this is a gross generalization and exaggeration. But I know too, at least for me, many parts of Scripture leave me yawning. I don’t know why something is important, and I can’t be bothered figuring it out. It would be better if I were at least scratching my head wondering what it means. Instead, I simply move on until at last a ray of light penetrates the fog of my incomprehension. And that is the danger. When our incomprehension fogs our understanding, the meaning, and the power of Scripture is lost to us, and even for us. When that happens, Scripture loses its ability to stir, convict, and convert us.
One of the great joys and privileges of monastic life is dwelling in a world that is absolutely permeated with Holy Scripture, the Word of God. The creative force of God is all around us in our worship. The daily readings in morning and evening prayer, the Eucharistic lections, the psalmody which forms the heart of our office, as well as all the places it is woven into collects, canticles, and suffrages.
“The effect of the scriptures upon us in the liturgy is largely subliminal,” as our Rule states, but as we are enfolded into this life our hearts begin to be transformed in profound ways. As the Rule continues, “These hearts of ours are not empty vessels but inner worlds alive with images, memories, experiences and desires. It is the Spirit dwelling within us who brings the revelation of Scripture into a vital encounter with our inmost selves, and brings to birth new meaning and life.” The Word of God comes to us not only in a rarified Church language segregated to a single aspect of our lives. It comes to us in the language of our work and our play, our teaching and rebuking, our encouraging and counselling. The Word of God comes to us in the language of our hearts.
Jesus teaches using stories from everyday life, and he often uses metaphors and similes, sometimes with hyperbolic language which certainly gets one’s attention – like cutting off your own wayward hand. Yikes! We need to hear Jesus earnestly, but not always literally. Jesus has to be interpreted. We need to listen to Jesus on three levels: what did his words mean to his contemporaries 2,000 years ago in the Middle East; what do his words mean to us in our present day and culture; and what do we now learn from God’s Spirit? Jesus said that God’s Spirit, would “lead us into all truth.”[i] We need to pay attention to the guidance of Spirit to interpret the Scriptures and to find our way in life.
So what sense do we make of Jesus’ metaphor about salt? Jesus says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”[ii] Jesus says, we are “the salt of the earth.”[iii] So what is salt to Jesus? Where did salt figure into Jesus’ own life?
In Jesus’ day, salt was both precious and symbolic. The expression “sharing the salt” was a phrase describing eating with someone. It was not unusual for guests sitting at a dinner table to be ranked in relationship to the saltcellar. The host and the distinguished guests sat at the head of the table, “above the salt.” People who sat below the salt, further from the host, were perceived of lesser status. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, we see Judas the betrayer scowling, with an overturned saltcellar in front of him.
Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, from which comes the Latin word sal for these salubrious crystals. The Roman goddess of health was named Salus. Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove oxcarts full of the precious salt crystals from the salt pans at Ostia. A soldier’s pay – consisting, in part, of salt – came to be known as his salarium, from which we derive the English word “salary.” A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.[iv]
Feast of St Matthew
Proverbs 3:1-6, II Timothy 3:14-17, Matthew 9:9-13.
We are remembering with gratitude today the evangelist Matthew, author of the first of the four gospels contained in the New Testament. Matthew’s gospel was written to a Jewish-Christian audience and presents Jesus as the promised Messiah and King who has come to establish the reign of God upon earth. Matthew quotes the Old Testament (or Hebrew scriptures) extensively, arguing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the ancient prophesies that spoke of the coming of the Messiah.
Matthew opens his gospel with this proposition that Jesus is the Messiah, noting the circumstances that surrounded his birth, and explaining their significance. Then follow five sections, each containing narratives describing the words and actions of Jesus, and a block of Jesus’ teaching. The teachings elaborate what the kingdom of heaven is, and describe how those who belong to that kingdom are to conduct themselves in the world. The five sections bring to mind the five books of the law – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — all of which have been traditionally ascribed to Moses. The comparison is intentional: Moses was the great teacher of the Old Testament and of Israel; Jesus is the great teacher of the New Testament and of Christianity.
Jesus visits his dear friends Martha and Mary in their home. Martha is upset that Mary sits listening rather than helping her with the work as host. Some hear this as about work versus prayer or balancing action and contemplation. Paul Borgman points to parallel structure. This story is right after the lawyer who tries to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus ‘Then who is my neighbor?’”[i] The lawyer and Martha are both anxious and trying to justify themselves.[ii] I am doing what is right, am I not? I know and follow the law. I am upholding our virtue of hospitality. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”
Jesus replies to the lawyer with a story of a man robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both pass him by, but a despised Samaritan stops to cares for him. Which one was a neighbor? The one who shows mercy. Jesus says: “Go, and do likewise.”[iii]Jesus replies to Martha. “You are worried and distracted by many things. … Mary has chosen the better part.” What does it mean to inherit eternal life? Listen to God’s Word like Mary, and do it like the Samaritan.[iv]
How are you relating to Jesus? Like the lawyer and Martha, where are you anxious? How are trying to justify yourself? What good is getting in the way?
“The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.”
Sharp like a scalpel, scripture cuts through our pride, confusion, and the made-up stories we tell ourselves to reveal the truth. Scripture convicts us, reveals what we lack, what we’re grasping and need to let go. Scripture points to our deep need and to God’s great love.
Jesus, the very Word of God, sees us as we are. Jesus looks with love. Jesus’ words may be surprising, confusing, or confounding; they “reveal the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Revealing, for we find ourselves “naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
Malachi 4: 1 – 2a
Thessalonians 3: 6 – 13
Luke 21: 5 -19
Before coming to the community, now just over thirty years ago, I was rector of a small parish on the west coast of British Columbia. The Parish of Salt Spring Island, was, as its name suggests, on an island between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The rectory was just perfect for me; a small two bedroom house built in the 1920’s or so. It was situated at the head of the harbour, facing southeast.
I had two favourite rooms in the house. One was the living room that had a fireplace and newly refinished hardwood floors. Shortly after I moved in, I came downstairs for my coffee one morning, and stood breathless as I looked into the living room. The sun was just coming up, and the living room glowed. It reminded me of one of my favourite prayers.
Gracious God, your love unites heaven and earth in a new festival of gladness. Lift our spirits to learn the way of joy that leads us to your banquet hall, where all is golden with praise. We ask this through Jesus Christ the Lord.
That morning watching the sun come up in my living room, I had a vision of that banquet hall where all is golden with praise. I loved my little house from that instant.
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???!!!
Daniel 7: 9 – 10, 13 – 14
Revelation 1: 4b – 8
John 18: 33 – 37
Several years ago, while I was still a parish priest, some parishioners came to me with a question. Robin and Anne were actually Baptists, but since we were the only church on the island where they lived, they attended the Church of the Good Shepherd. Some of the things that we as Anglicans took as a matter of course, were of concern to them, or else simply puzzled them. On this particular occasion, they had questions about the use of the lectionary.
Since the lectionary was, they felt, simply a human construct, what would happen if I believed God desired me to proclaim a certain message that in no way related to the appointed texts on that particular day. Would I, they wondered, be free to choose other readings? I don’t remember my answer. I think it was pretty wishy-washy. What I do remember, after nearly forty years, is the question. It still haunts me.
Were Robin and Anne to appear today and ask me the same question, I would have a very different answer. The real question is not, what if God wants me to address something outside the scope of the readings on any particular day. The real question is what to do if the lectionary forces you to look at something you would rather not!
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
When I was a pastoral intern in Nebraska, we gave a Bible to each third grader on a particular Sunday. The Bible is a good gift; it’s a source of hope, love, encouragement, inspiration, and life. I told the congregation: pay attention. We are giving children a knife. As we heard this morning from the letter to the Hebrews: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow.”
Scripture is sharper than a sword. Like a scalpel, it cuts through what is diseased and damaged, cuts through lies and confusion, cuts through the stories we tell ourselves to reveal the truth. The stories of scripture surprise, disturb, confound and with good intention cut. We and our children need help and practice to listen, to receive powerful, sharp, healing words of life.