Where do people of faith find hope in times of trouble? Where do they turn in times of duress, when their world has been turned upside-down, when their expectations have been shattered, when their beliefs and assumptions have been called into question? Today’s lessons may give us a clue.
Scripture scholars tell us that Luke was writing to a group of predominantly Gentile believers near the end of the first century. Some ten or twenty years earlier, in the year 70, they had witnessed the destruction of the Temple and of the city of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans. It’s difficult for us to imagine how devastating these events were for the Jews and for these early Christians.
For several years prior to my coming to the Monastery I was a parish priest. A number of us pastors in the area took a monthly rotation as a night chaplain in the local community hospital. During these night shifts, we chaplains would spend most of our time on-call in the intensive care unit and in the emergency room, helping care for very sick, sometimes traumatized patients, family members, and the medical staff. On more than a few occasions I recall standing beside a hospital gurney that was weighted down by a tragedy-in-the-making, and my having little or nothing to say to the patient or loved ones or to the staff. What we often shared in those moments were tears, but I had few, if any, words. What’s to be said? Less rather than more, and for several reasons.
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
There’s a rich, very dense, chewy cake called pan forte that is an Italian specialty, especially in Tuscany. The version from Siena requires 17 different ingredients, one for each of the 17 contrade, or sections of the city. Honey, sugar, spices, fruits, nuts, flour. The pleasure is in the sheer complexity of this very dense confection, usually served with coffee for dessert, or even for breakfast. Pan forte.
Today we have the pan forte, the “strong bread”, of Gospel stories: the wedding feast at Cana. We have Jesus, the mother of Jesus, the disciples, the wedding guests, the servants, the steward of the feast, the happy couple, the parents and family of the newlyweds. It’s the beginning of a life together; and, indeed, new life could be conceived in the womb of a young mother this very night. And we have water, wine, water turned into wine, plenty of food, music and dancing, surely. It’s the “third day”. There’s the hint of some difficult mother/son dynamics. His hour has not yet come. “It most certainly has,” she might have said. “Do what he tells you.” The glory of Jesus is revealed; the disciples believe. It’s his first “sign”, as John puts it. Do have a look at the wonderful Coptic icon here with Jesus in the claret-red garment and his very pleased mother beside him.
As an almost daily grocery shopper I have become quite well known at the local Shaw’s in Newburyport. Each time I go someone on the staff calls out a greeting to me. Colin, at the fish counter is always asking me to bless his pens. He thinks that I have some kind of ‘in’ with God, so that if I bless his pens he’ll be more likely to win at the race tracks. Joyce, Jennifer, and Brandylee are always curious about how many guests we have at Emery House, and Ron and Jim at the meat counter have told me some pretty fabulous ways to cook various kinds of meat. If what I want isn’t out they gladly do up a special order for me. Just ask me sometime about Jim’s recipe for ribs wrapped in plastic and foil! In the last few months the manager has also begun to greet me whenever he sees me. By now most of them know I run a retreat centre. Some of them know I am a priest. A few of them know I am a monk. Curiously enough, it is not because I told them those things about me. Somehow they have figured that out. Now every so often one of them will ask me to pray for them, or they will tell me something that I don’t think they would tell one of their other customers.
“Bait and switch” is one of the oldest tricks of trade: pull ’em in promising one thing, then switch to something else. We may be guilty. This evening being a “First Tuesday”, invitations went out advertising a “meal with the monks”. And some of those invitations went out promising “Good Food and Good Company and Good Fun.” Good fun. This may be a historical first for the SSJE: a promise of some Good Fun. (I’m so glad for that qualifier….)
But what we’ve just been through is Job cursing the day he was born, then the most bitter lamentation of the entire 150 Psalms, and then Jesus “setting his face” toward Jerusalem (we know what happens there…). I don’t know…maybe the fun comes later—I’ve heard a rumor of hula hoops, but I don’t believe it and neither should you. But I guess we’ll find out—I have no idea what’s been planned.
O my God, you are here… but always you are where we are, and always you love us, calling us each by name. Amen.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday Jesus tells us that he “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Well, that’s a metaphor, no matter what sheep-like sounds we might make at odd moments or how much we might sometimes behave like sheep. It’s still a metaphor. We’re not sheep. I feel quite confident about that as an unequivocal statement. But though we are not sheep, we do respond to this picture of Jesus as our Good Shepherd. We respond because he says he has come so that we might “have life, and have it abundantly.” God really wants us to get the most out of life. If we love life, if we choose life, we respond with joy to the one whose deepest desire is to give us life in abundance. If we do not love life, if we choose death, then we respond more readily to the enemy of the Good Shepherd, the thief, who Jesus says, “Comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
I Samuel 1:1-20
We brothers are sometimes given the privilege of being in the company of people who are willing to share with us their pain. No doubt many of you have been given this privilege as well. I say this is a privilege because it is an occasion to be with someone in a moment of great vulnerability. They are revealing themselves to us with great transparency, admitting their poverty, allowing us to see and touch their deepest wounds, inviting us to share with them the painful losses, disappointments or unfulfilled longings that have broken and shattered their hearts. We sit in awe before them, feeling a sense of wonder at their courage, their perseverance, and their desire to find God in this place of pain.
Ephesians 1:17-19; Matthew 13:13-17
This concludes a four-part Advent preaching series entitled “Practicing Patience,” as we wait, watch, listen, and, this evening, look for the coming of Christ. What about looking? Where, at what, why, when should be looking? There is a difference, after all, between our experience and those who were waiting, watching, listening, and looking for the Messiah 2,000 years ago. We are not in the position of Mary and Joseph or Elizabeth and Zechariah, nor are we in the position of the shepherds in the hills, nor the magi in the east, nor nasty King Herod on the throne who were waiting for the first coming of the Messiah. As Christians we recognize Jesus born in Bethlehem as the Messiah, and that was 2,000 years ago. What we now celebrate on Christmas Day is a remembrance. It’s not a reenactment, nor is it a re-visitation – Christmas is not “the second coming” of the Messiah – but a remembrance, a living reminder, that Jesus the Messiah was already born among us, and is really present to us now, which invites a whole different way to look at life every day. That’s a promise, and that’s also a problem.