We are just two days past the Feast of Christmas on which we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world as a tiny babe in Bethlehem. The familiar stories bring comfort and hope: the young girl and her husband searching for a safe place for the birth to take place, the shepherds in their fields surprised by choirs of angels in the heavens; the wise men guided by a mysterious star. Each story bears a promise, a promise from God.
To Mary God’s messenger proclaimed a son, to be named Jesus, which means “savior.” He would be great, the Son of the Most High, and would receive from God the throne of his ancestor David. He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
To the shepherds the angel announced “good news of great joy for all the people,” namely that the child born this day in the city of David would be “a Savior… the Messiah, the Lord.” “Glory to God in the highest heaven,” the choir of angels sang, “and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:8-14)
If you love domesticated animals like cats, dogs, and horses, or even some unconventional critters like monkeys, beavers, and squirrels, you have probably run across a website called ‘thedodo.com.’ The Dodo serves up emotional, visually compelling, and highly sharable animal-related stories and videos with the aim of making the care of animals a viral cause. The videos that bring a tear to the eye of a sensitive guy like me are the dog rescue videos. There are countless versions of this scenario: someone comes across a mangy, emaciated pup, that is tired, scared, weak, and not far from death. Animal rescuers are called to gather the animal, carefully and patiently doing what is necessary to subdue it while protecting themselves from the pups self-preserving, fear-filled growls, yaps, and snaps. Ultimately, the animal resigns and is taken to a veterinarian for rehabilitation with the hopes of finding it a forever home. The dogs are bathed, shaved, treated for mange, parasites, and other injuries, fed and nourished. Each video is a brief time-lapse record of its recovery, ending with the dog fully recovered, happy, and unrecognizable from the condition it was found in; it’s disposition one of unreserved love and affection.
One of the appealing characteristics of Father Benson, but also surely one of the more baffling for many, perhaps also for you, was his grasp of a heavenly reality, in the midst of a worldly existence. We know the famous story of the old woman, when asked is she could understand his preaching responded, that gentleman just opens heaven to me, and I can look right in.
Over and again, Father Benson calls us to an awareness of this heavenly reality. He writes, [do] I realize to myself that as I pray, I am truly in heaven, and that I ought to be experiencing the joys of heaven? If we would but look to heaven with more consciousness of present joy therein, we should find its power to set us free from earthly difficulty.
It is this consciousness of the present joy of heaven that was a motivating factor in much of his life. Reading Philippians, as we do today, he would have been perfectly comfortable with the notion that our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
St Francis of Assisi
The 4th of October is always a special day, because it is the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. I first fell in love with St. Francis when I was a student. I was staying with a friend who was studying to be a priest at the English College in Rome. It was January, and the biggest shock for me was how cold it was. The fountains of Rome were all frozen, and the marble floors of the college gave little comfort. So, one weekend, we decided to take ourselves off to Assisi. We took the train, and headed north towards the Apennine mountains. As the train journeyed inland and uphill, it started to snow, and it was quite exciting. After about two hours, we finally pulled into the station, and by now the snow was very deep, and it was getting dark. We got out and looked around, and I remember feeling actually rather disappointed. The town looked a bit dull. But then, I looked up, and there, high above us, clinging to the mountainside like a dream, was the medieval city of Assisi, lit up by the setting sun, shimmering in the snow. It was stunning, and has stayed in my mind’s eye ever since.
During the next few days we walked in the footsteps of St Francis, heard his story, prayed in the churches, played in the snow, throwing snowballs outside the church of Santa Chiara (nearly hitting a nun!), and I remember feeling full of joy. Francis had captured our hearts! And it was joy above all, which was the gift we received from Francis. I think he has been blessing the world with joy ever since.
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year A
Isaiah 55: 10 – 13
Psalm 65: 9 – 14
Romans 8: 1 – 11
Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23
My father was never much for television. Except for the nightly news, and the occasional serial drama like Upstairs, Downstairs, I don’t remember him watching TV in the evening. He and Mum would sit in their chairs reading, either a book or the newspaper, while we kids watched whatever it was we watched, splayed out on the living room floor.
What I do remember is how quickly he would get up and turn the TV off, the instant something came on that he did not think suitable for children. This was especially true if something about the Second World War came on. In a flash he would be up, out of his chair, and across the living room, to turn the TV off and say, by way of explanation, too tough for kids. I never knew what he was talking about, until as a teenager, I began to learn about the Holocaust.
“Let me hear thee softly speaking;
in my spirit’s ear whisper: ‘I am near.’ …
voice, that oft of love hast told me;
arms, so strong to clasp and hold me;
thou thy watch wilt keep,
Savior, o’er my sleep.”[i]
We have just sung this prayer for sleep and God’s safe-keeping. How is your sleep these days? Many of us are more tired from the stresses of our present suffering: changed work, isolation and separation, the pandemic increasing, so much death and loss, cries of injustice, racism and privilege further exposed. When is change? Where is healing? How do we sleep at a time like this?
Paul in his letter to the Romans acknowledges suffering. In today’s text he speaks of us groaning and not just us but all of creation, groaning as in labor pains, waiting for restoration in a new birth. He also speak of hope, of that which is not seen. What does having hope look like? Especially when we’re groaning, and when it is hard to sleep?
Earlier in chapter 4, Paul wrote about Abraham as one who “hoping against hope … believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’” as God had said, with numerous descendants.[ii] Abraham believed despite overwhelming contrary physical evidence. Abraham was about 100 years old, and Sarah, his wife, was barren. Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do as promised.”[iii] Paul quotes Genesis 15 which says Abraham’s faith “‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”[iv] Remember what happened at that reckoning?
Jesus does not sugarcoat his words in today’s Gospel. He tells us that the road we have to walk is hard. There is no way around it. Life will not always be easy. Such brutal honesty from Jesus may seem jarring, but he is preparing his disciples for the long journey ahead of them in which they certainly face hard times.
When I was a senior in college, I went to bed one night with a slight pain in my left leg. I thought I was just sore from exercising. I woke up the next morning and my leg had swollen to the point that I could barely walk. Soon after I started sweating and shivering uncontrollably.
The first doctor I saw in the hospital walked into my room holding the biggest syringe I had ever seen. The syringe looked like a water bottle with a comically oversized needle on one end and a plunger on the other. He explained that he had to drain my leg immediately and there was no time for anesthesia. Then he looked me in the eye and told me that this was going to be painful.
My memories of that week in the hospital are a blur now, but I still remember the tone of voice the doctor used as he lovingly did not sugarcoat telling me what pain I was about to feel. Jesus has the same love for us disciples when he tells us that the road we will walk in his name will be hard. The straight and narrow path will never be pain free.
The situation is dire. Jesus’ life is coming to an end. In the verses immediately following this Gospel lesson, we learn of Judas’ betrayal, then Peter’s betrayal, then Jesus’ interrogations by Caiaphas, the high priest, and by Pilate, the Roman Prefect. And then comes Jesus’ crucifixion which Jesus fully anticipates and will readily submit. Which is his prayer. Jesus here is praying for protection – not his protection but our protection – and Jesus prays, “I speak these things… so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Joy in the context of suffering.
Joy goes without saying when all is well: the exhilaration of life and company of laughter, the wonder of life that is so palpable, the burdens of life lifted and whisked away like clouds. Joy – this melding of delight and gratitude, freedom and hope – goes without saying when the burdens of life are lifted, when the flow of life turns into a beautiful harmony or a consoling fragrance, when – to use the language of the psalmist – “when we have wings like a dove.”[i] Joy goes without saying when all is well and we experience the sheer freedom and bliss of being alive. But the weather, and the weather of the heart, changes. And that is where joy is such a paradox.
Jesus is speaking about joy in the context of suffering, that his joy may be ours, in our suffering. Saint Paul writes continually about joy: joy in the context of suffering, or in the aftermath of suffering, or in the anticipation of suffering. It is the same in the Letter to the Hebrews and in the First Letter of Peter: how the crucible of suffering becomes the wellspring of joy.[ii]
John 16: (16-23a) 23b-28
It’s difficult these days not to read every gospel text from the perspective of those whose lives have been so drastically altered by the coronavirus. Encountering this text from John 16, the word that captured my attention was the word “joy.” “You will have pain,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but your pain will turn into joy” (v. 20). Of course he is talking here of the pain the disciples will experience when Jesus is separated from them as he goes forward to his passion and death. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me,” he says (v. 17). He knows they will suffer; he knows that the events of the coming days will test and try them; and he knows he cannot protect them from this pain. But he wants to keep their eyes fixed not on the pain, but on the joy that is to come.
“You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” To help them grasp this promise, he offers the example of a woman in childbirth. The pain of birthing a child is intense, “but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (v. 21) There is joy on the other side of this suffering, he promises. “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joyfrom you”(v. 22).
“The Father himself loves you,” he assures them, and therefore they can ask for whatever they need in his name and the Father will give it to them (v. 23-27). “Ask and you will receive,” he tells them, “so that your joy may be complete” (v. 24). Once again, God intends joy for his people, not endless sorrow, and God will provide all that they need to find real and lasting joy.
Dear Brothers, as this season in the world continues to unfold, I think there is no hyperbole in saying we live during an apocalyptic moment. No, not the end of the world (though, surely the end of a world), but an apocalypse in the purest sense: an unveiling or uncovering. Apo, to take away; kalypto, veil; apokalyptein, to remove the veil. Innumerable dimensions of a great global illusion now appear uncovered, revealing arrangements born of what proves to be an unsustainable way of life. For some, this period of epidemic is seen as a mere annoyance, an interruption; the sooner we return to the way things were, the sooner we can get on with our own projects, plans, and dreams of infinite growth and material security. For others, however, the apocalypsis of this season reveals the inevitable result of a way of life inherently at odds with the limits of nature and the poverty of our humanity. Now, with the kalypto plainly removed, we find ourselves confronted with urgent realities, larger than coronavirus, larger than individual or national dreams; realities as sharp as life and death. Realities that ask us to change our minds—that is, repent.
Today we remember St Mark the Evangelist, whom tradition remembers as John Mark, a disciple of St Peter. Mark, whoever he was, writes to a community in the very midst of apocalypse. His is the first gospel we have in any written form, and we find it permeated with the literary cues of apocalyptic language. The narrative is urgent and fast-paced as Mark seeks to uncover something for his hearers. Indeed, one of the most frequent words in this gospel is immediately. It not only moves quickly, but also seems mysteriously to imitate the confusing velocity with which the reign of God began its invasion of the world through that most unique and mysterious uncovering: Christ crucified.