“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
I Samuel 3:10
I once had a deaf friend, an earnest Christian, who asked me whether hearing people could hear God’s voice as clearly as they could hear one another’s voices. He had often observed hearing people responding to one another’s voices, mysteriously communicating meaning to one another through the movements of their jaws and lips, and understanding one another even when they weren’t looking at each other, or when the speaker was in another room. He had learned that they possessed a mysterious ability that he had never had, and now he wondered if the same ability that enabled them to communicate with one another even when separated by a wall or a door enabled them also to communicate with God. “Does God talk to you?” he asked; “Can you hear God?”
a sermon based on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once suggested the following definition for the word “vocation.” A vocation, he said, is “a purpose for being in the world that is related to the purposes of God.”
There can be no doubt that Jesus had a deep sense of vocation, a sense that his purpose for being in the world was directly related to the purposes of God. Again and again, he repeats the claim that he has been sent into the world by the Father – not to do his own will, but God’s will; not to accomplish his own purposes, but God’s purposes. The words that he speaks and the deeds of power that he does are signs of God’s light and life breaking into the world. He knows the Father and has come to reveal the Father’s will to those who believe, so that they may have power to live as “children of God.” He has come to “lay down his life” in order that they might have “eternal life.” He has come, not to be served, but to serve.
In the calendar of the church we remember today Aelred of Rievaulx, who was born in year 1109 not far from Durham, England. He was educated in Scotland and as a young man served in the Scottish King David’s court. At age 24, Aelred decided to become a Cistercian monk. Cistercian monks were 11th century French reformers of Benedictine monasticism, and they set out to more strictly follow the Rule of Saint Benedict.[i] By the end of the 12th century, more than 500 Cistercian monasteries had been built in France, England, and throughout Europe. Aelred, at age 38, was made Abbot of the great Rievaulx Abbey, the first Cistercian Abbey in the north of England, founded just 15 years earlier in 1132.
I imagine some of you here have visited the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey. It’s in the most serene, pastoral setting and with the most stunning architecture, something distinctive for Cistercians. Many of the most beautiful buildings of the Middle Ages were Cistercian monasteries: Fountains Abbey, Tintern Abbey, Byland Abbey, Aelred’s Rievaulx Abbey, to name just a few. More than one hundred Cistercian monasteries were built in England alone.
Cistercian architecture has been called the architecture of silence: austere and simple, focusing on stone and light, with open, proportional space, and visual harmony. The early Cistercian architecture drew inspiration from Romanesque, then Gothic architecture, two traditions which also inspired the architect of this monastery and chapel, Ralph Adams Cram.[ii] I’ll describe several architectural features of Cistercian monasteries which we also find here in this beautiful monastic chapel.
We could call this gospel story a picture of “lobbying” in the first century. “Would you do us a favor?” James and John ask Jesus. And like a good politician, Jesus responds, “It depends…” “What do you want?” And so there’s this story we’ve just heard: James and John jockeying to position themselves for when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and is, presumably, inaugurated. They want to be “at his right hand and his left hand….” Of course they think they are asking for key positions in his royal entourage, which would never materialize, at least not on the terms for which they are asking. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to be crowned, but crowned in thorns, not in gold. We have the benefit of hindsight. We can see that, in actuality, James and John get what they want but not what they thought, at least not what they thought at the time of their “lobbying” Jesus.
In 1973 an adventurous explorer named Peter Matthiessen set out on a journey by foot to the Crystal Mountain on the Tibetan Plateau of northwest Nepal.i The trip was to accompany George Schaller, a zoologist who had planned the expedition to study the Himalayan blue sheep called “bharal.” The Buddhist lamas had forbidden people to molest these sheep. And so, where the sheep were numerous, there was bound to appear that rarest and most beautiful of the great cats, the snow leopard. In the previous 25 years, only two westerners – George Schaller, this zoologist, being one of them – had laid eyes on the Himalayan snow leopard. For Peter Matthiessen, the hope of glimpsing this near-mythic feline beast in the mountains of Nepal was reason enough for the arduous journey lasting a number of months.
I Corinthians 1:18-31
It was said of St Francis of Assisi that “the crucifix was his Bible.” I suppose that what was meant by this was not that Francis did not read or highly regard Holy Scripture (there is plenty of evidence to the contrary), but that, for him, the message of the Bible was expressed most clearly and forcefully in the figure of Christ on the Cross.
Matthew 22: 34-46
We brothers sometimes have occasion to listen to people who are attempting to discern God’s will for their lives. They may have reached a certain juncture in life or they may be facing an important decision, and they want to know what it is that God wants them to be or to do in this next stage of their life. They’re often asking, “What is that God wants from me at this moment or in this particular situation?”