We could infer from this Gospel account that John and Jesus had met for the very first time the day before, when John baptized Jesus. John had said, “I myself did not know him.” Not so. They did know one another. They were cousins. They would have known each other since their births, their impossible-to-believe births, which had been predicted by angels. Angels, no less! Jesus, born to an unmarried mother who insisted she had not had a sexual union; John born to a mother who was old enough to be his great grandmother.
If it was important enough for Mary, while she was pregnant, to travel the 90 miles from Nazareth to the Judean hills to see her pregnant Aunt Elizabeth, John’s mother, it is unimaginable that they would not have visited each other after the births of their miraculous sons.[i] Visited many times. No one in the world could understand one another like these two couples could: Mary and Joseph, and Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah. These two boys, Jesus and John, had to have known one another, and probably looked to each other, befriended each other, confided in each other, shared the burden of their imposed identities with one another. Both of them loved going into the desert. Maybe they camped together? They were cousins, virtually the same age, the only child of their parents. Neither son had married; neither had pursued a profession that was identified; neither, it seems, had found their voice to fulfill the “angelic predictions” until rather late in life. Both of them, at the time of this Gospel account, were about age 30. They had to have known one another. And known each other very well.
We have heard it before. In fact, some of us have heard the Christmas story so often, that like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, large swaths of it can be recited from memory. Perhaps we can’t recite it word for word in the idiom of the King James Bible, but we know the story cold. If our inner Linus has not memorized it, we can certainly tell the story in our own words, and little would be lost. In fact, in telling the Christmas story in our own words, some parts it might even be embellished, the details highlighted, the emphasis personalized.
We all tell stories. We tell stories to convey information, and many stories are just that, information. We tell stories to amuse, and many stories are just that, amusing. However, we tell stories not just to convey information, or to amuse. We tell stories because stories have power. The most powerful ones are told over, and over again. It is those stories, the powerful ones, that we have in common. It is those stories, the ones in common, that are the most powerful. It is those stories, the powerful ones, the ones we share, that forge our common identity. They shape our corporate imagination. They foster our sense of community and belonging. It is those stories, the powerful ones, that change us, and in turn, are changed by us.
There is something to stories then, especially the powerful ones, that are transformative. These stories that change us, may not be about us, but we nevertheless find ourselves in them, or rather we find ourselves, and we find ourselves in them.
That’s what we are doing tonight. We are finding ourselves by telling a story. Indeed, we are telling many stories. That story, or those stories, are both, deeply personal, and amazingly universal for they have forged, shaped, and fostered us as individuals, even if we think they haven’t. It does not matter if you are a professed Christian, or a casual attender this evening, your life has been shaped by this story, even if you claim not to believe it. That same story is also amazingly universal. It has forged nations, shaped laws, and fostered education and the arts. In either case, a deeply personal story, or an amazingly universal one, the Christmas story is a story of discovery because through it, we find ourselves, and we find ourselves in it.
I want to begin by saying how glad I am to be back among you, and to express my gratitude to the Brothers for the opportunity to be on sabbatical for the last 10 weeks, and especially to Brother Keith who covered for me. I also want to say thank you, to all of you who have held me in your prayers these last weeks, as I did you in mine.
My time away was extraordinary. I was able to see members of my family, some of whom I have not seen since before 2019. I spent time in Oxford, which, as you know is where the community began in 1866, and is a place over the last years I am coming to know well, and where I feel at home. The Sunday before I left Oxford, I preached in Father Benson’s former parish, standing in the pulpit where he once stood, which for me is always a thrill.
The bulk of my time away however I spent walking in Wales. The experience was exhilarating; the scenery spectacular; the people constantly generous. Even on the day, which my sister described as level 2 fun (in other words, not fun at the time, but fun in hindsight) when it took me 8 hours to walk 9 miles, which included the equivalent of 82 flights of stairs, and along paths far too close to the cliff edge for my liking, I never once thought of giving up, or wondered why on earth I was doing this. Every afternoon at the end of my walk, I was simply glad of a beer, a hot shower, a good meal, and a comfortable bed. Every morning, except for a few days when it was pouring rain; the day of the Queen’s funeral; and a couple days when all I wanted to do was sit in a coffee shop with my novel, I was ready to head out once again and walk. Of a possible 190 miles, I walked 135 of them, so I’m totally thrilled.
Today’s Gospel reading is an uncomfortable one for us to hear.
A trusted servant mishandles his master’s property. After being caught, he worries that he will have to labor or beg to support himself. So he plans to ingratiate himself with his master’s debtors, ensuring he will find a warm welcome after he departs his master’s service. And his master, perhaps acknowledging the clever scheme, commends his dishonest servant.
And Jesus commends this story to his disciples, and us: “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
It is uncomfortable to hear that we should be more like the dishonest manager. But if we strip away all the details of this story—the manager’s dishonesty, opportunism, and abuse of authority—what remains? A man finds himself in trouble, reflects on and names his desire, and works to achieve it. If you’ve ever set a goal for yourself, I’ll bet this script sounds familiar.
In the world of spiritual care, there is an oft-quoted adage. It seems especially common in the world of hospital chaplaincy:
“Don’t just do something. Stand there.”
I first heard it from the novelist John Green, whose experience as a hospital chaplain shaped his authorial approach to empathy. During my own months as a chaplain intern last Fall, this deceptively simple reminder kept me centered in the demands of my role. While I in fact did, and said, and asked many things, it was ultimately just standing or sitting there in loving availability that God would use to open a healing space in a patient’s experience.
Allowing ourselves to be loved by God, as Jesus did, also requires some degree of just sitting there, as Mary of Bethany did in Jesus’ presence. But consenting to this transformation at the core of our being is anything but passive: it is our single greatest challenge. To the world, that process looks like nothing. But to Jesus, it is the one thing necessary.
My brother Michael used to live in Manchester in northern England. I went to stay with him one August during a heat wave. His apartment was hot and claustrophobic, and the city felt suffocating. So, one day we just took off. We got on the little pay train which wound its way slowly, out of the city and up, up into the glorious Peak District. The train stopped at a tiny station surrounded by magnificent hills. We got out and we climbed and climbed for several hours till we reached the top of the highest hill, Kinder Scout. We were exhausted, but wonderfully exhilarated. We drank in the cool air in great thirsty gulps, and as we breathed we felt quite intoxicated, and I remember we started leaping around, and shouting and laughing with sheer joy. Way below us a couple of hikers looked up, and I think they probably thought we were drunk!
Today is the Day of Pentecost. On this day the gift of divine power came to the disciples, and there was no mistaking it; for it was accompanied by an experience which pounded their senses. Divine power was invading them. An intense, ‘catastrophic’ experience. A rushing wind, tongues of fire, a power beyond human lives invading human lives. Perhaps the disciples started leaping around, as extraordinary words came out of their mouths. Certainly, others thought they must be drunk!
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]
I must confess that I have always been envious of those who are able to acquire another language. I have always struggled to learn a second language.
As a child my parents enrolled me in private French lessons, but when French became available at school, it was like starting over again. Each year was the same. I struggled all year to learn a few basics, scrape by with a pass at the end of the school year, and then forget everything over the summer. I would start again from square one, once again, each Fall. I finally dropped both French and Latin in high school. In the first year of seminary, I enrolled in New Testament Greek. Early in the term the professor arranged for us all to take a language aptitude test. My years of struggling to learn another language all came together with that test. Finally everything made sense.
If you have taken the language aptitude test, you will know that it is based on learning a few simple elements of Kurdish. The idea is to see how quickly you can learn it and then answer some questions. A week or so after the test, I sat in the professor’s office to hear my results. He began by telling me he didn’t understand why I was having such difficulty learning Greek, as I had a perfect aptitude for foreign languages. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks. Mumbled oh and said to me, James I see why you are having such difficulties. I was reading the score backwards. You have absolutely no aptitude to learn a second language
I don’t know exactly how that language aptitude test works, but after years of trying to learn French, Latin and then Greek, I didn’t need a test to tell me what I already knew. There is something about my brain that simply can’t absorb languages. I joke that even after thirty years in this country, I still don’t understand and can’t speak American. It has been explained to me countless times, what freshman, sophomore, junior and senior mean, but it needs to be explained to me again each time someone uses those phrases. And please don’t tell me you are a rising sophomore because that will just confuse me even more.
This spring we’ve watched as a pair of morning doves built a nest on the outdoor crucifix located in our cloister garden. Nestled on the shoulder of the crucified Jesus, the mother sat motionless on her eggs for days and days. At last the chicks emerged.
I had the extraordinary good fortune to be watching the nest this past Monday evening. The two chicks are now adolescents, about 2/3 the size of their adult parents and darker in coloring. They were sitting side by side in the nest, eagerly looking out on the world. Their mother appeared and, standing on the head of the crucified Jesus, she fed them. Then she flew off and perched nearby where she could keep a close eye on them.
You could tell there was something happening. The young birds began rocking back and forth in the nest, as if working up their courage to leave the warmth and security of the nest. Finally, one of them took the leap. It flapped wildly around the cloister, unable to control its flight, banging into the walls and ceiling until it finally fell stunned to the floor. The second one readied itself for its first flight, rocking in the nest before finally launching its body into the air. Like the first, it flapped wildly about, crashing into the ceiling and walls, and then landing on the floor. It waited for a bit, then took off again, this time successfully navigating its way through the arches and out into the garden.
Jeremiah is sent by God to the potter’s house, where he learns an important lesson. The image of the potter fashioning a vessel on his potter’s wheel would have been very familiar to Jeremiah’s audience. It is familiar territory for us, too, since the shaping vessels of clay by hand on a potter’s wheel is still done in much the same way today.
What does Jeremiah notice as he observes the potter at work?
He notices first the clay. As he watched the potter shape and mold the clay, Jeremiah knew that he was looking at a picture of himself, and of every person, and of every nation. We are the clay, fashioned into useful vessels by God, the potter. Jeremiah isn’t the only prophet to draw on this image: Isaiah and Zechariah also use it, as does Paul in his letter to the Romans. Jeremiah watched as the clay was fashioned into a vessel. Then, some imperfection in the clay spoiled it in the potter’s hand and the potter crushed it and began the process again.