I remember, nearly a decade ago, watching a video on YouTube. In the video, the hosts of the show, consistent with their political leanings, filmed their infiltration of an environmentalist rally. There, they spoke with attendees and asked for signatures on their petition to ban a purportedly dangerous chemical. This chemical was largely unregulated, had been detected in our water supply along with countless food items, and could cause death within minutes if inhaled in sufficient quantities. The chemical in question was described with the scary-sounding name, “dihydrogen monoxide.” You might know it better by its chemical formula: H2O. Largely unregulated, in our food and water, it can cause death if inhaled in sufficient quantities, it was water.
I must confess that the gospel we meet this morning is not an easy one. There is good news for us here, but it is not a simple news. It is a news that will fortify us, but to my fallen palette it tastes a bit like bile going down.
In 1937, just over 80 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his now classic text, The Cost of Discipleship (or, in the original German, simply, Nachfolge). His text opens with a harsh admonition, “Billige Gnade ist der Todfeinde unsere Kirche”—“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” Bonhoeffer wrote these words to a church assailed by the claims of a dangerous ideology. An ideology that sought an illusory national purity. An ideology that marked one group as “fully human” while deporting, enslaving, and exterminating those groups deemed “less than human.” In the blink of an eye, the Nazi Party had leveraged itself into a fascist dictatorship. His church, Bonhoeffer worried, was at risk of missing the costly call of God, preferring instead billige Gnade, cheap grace that justified not sinners but sin itself.
Bonhoeffer found himself attempting to minister to communities who struggled to sense the cost of their allegiance to Jesus Christ—afraid to undertake the sacred labor of seeking Christ ready and waiting in their neighbors, enemies, and scapegoats. To preach the Gospel became an act of treason against a society that sought to deform and devalue the “teure Gnade,” the “costly grace” that comes with following Jesus Christ—the life-giving grace that only comes from the vulnerability of the cross. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, calls the church always beyond the narrow horizons of its own self-interest. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, makes no room for a spirituality that would simply treat God as a means to an end—even if that end is peace.
The sixth Temple of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, was rebuilt at Delphi in 320BC. Inscribed into the temple were the words “Know Thyself,” a popular pearl of wisdom, both then and now, attributed to a host of Greek sages from Pythagoras to Socrates, but whose origin has probably been lost forever. To “know thyself” has a variety of possible meanings, including as a warning against hubris or as a call to control one’s emotional life. But, the most compelling sense of that phrase, especially in light of the Gospel, is knowing who we are in the truest sense, the kind of knowing present in the depths of our heart. It’s this kind of knowing that allows us to claim our inner spiritual wisdom and authority.
In contrast to such inner authority, the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day held religious and spiritual authority for the Jewish people. Jesus said they sat on the seat of Moses, possibly referring to an actual seat they taught from in synagogue, but certainly, metaphorically referring to their role in maintaining and passing on the tradition of Moses, particularly as expressed in religious law.
Jesus also said to follow the scribes and Pharisees teachings, but not do as they do, because they did not themselves practice what they taught. I suppose that’s not too surprising given how often Jesus accuses them of being hypocrites, both for their actions and words, even accusing those on the seat of Moses of hindering people on their way to entering God’s Kingdom.
I had just loaded my suitcase into the car and was headed toward the back gate of the monastery. I was departing for a week of personal retreat and my mind was already settling into a cabin in the silent, sunlit forest at Emery House. One of my brothers suddenly thrust a small vase into my hands, with three flowers: a bright pink peony, a red rose, and a white lily. He beamed, winked, and then vanished: a guerilla ambush of kindness.
As I set the vase down on the desk in the cabin, and as I gazed at it in the days to come, it became something of a parable. The peony, by nature already large and attention-grabbing, unfolded and unfolded until she was only light and air, all her petals cast with abandon onto the floor by day two. The rose, generous but with a measured gravitas, let her petals drop more slowly. By day four, rose had departed. But the lily was a sharp, closed cone of white: fuller and rounder with every hour but cloistered within herself. I became quite certain that I would see the exact moment she blossomed. I took a long walk on the morning of day six, and of course I returned to the cabin to find her moment had arrived… under the watchful eye of God alone. Yet the fragrance filled the room, as if to thank me nonetheless for my faithful waiting and vigilant watching.
One summer, a couple of years ago, I was standing on the white cliffs of Dover, in southern England, staring out over the expanse of the English Channel, towards France.
In that same spot, 1400 years ago, a Benedictine monk called Augustine, with 40 other monks, landed their boats. They were on a mission to bring the light of the Gospel to the English people. They were scared to death. They had already tried to turn back once, because the people they had met in France had told them horror stories: those Britons are violent and barbaric. With Brexit, I think the French may well have the same opinion today!
But the man who had sent them on the mission told them no– don’t turn back. And he encouraged them and gave them new courage. That remarkable man, who had the vision and drive to send Augustine to evangelize England, was Gregory. And we remember him today.
As Anglicans, we have I think a special closeness to Gregory. The Venerable Bede affectionately called him “our own apostle.” Gregory was a man of many gifts, but essentially he was a monk, a Benedictine monk, like Augustine, living peacefully in a monastery perched high on the Coelian hill in Rome. But Rome was anything but peaceful. He was experiencing the horrors of war – barbarian invasions, plague, and famine. Although Gregory wanted to live the monastic life, he was one of the most gifted men of his time, and he was almost dragged out of the monastery. And both the secular and religious authorities pleaded with him to help. His energy and abilities and holiness were so great that after a few years, he was elected Pope – the first ever monk to become Pope.
As Pope, his three greatest gifts came to the fore. First, he was a remarkable administrator. He personally organized the defense of Rome against the barbarian attacks, and he fed its people from the papal granaries in Sicily.
Secondly, he was a man of profound prayer and spirituality. Much of the worship life of the churches was in a terrible state, so drawing on his own monastic experience, he re-ordered the church’s liturgy, including the introduction of a beautiful chant, later named after him: “Gregorian chant.” In many ways his genius for worship and liturgy has molded the spirituality of the western Church till the present day.
But thirdly, he was a wonderful pastor. The Gospel reading today includes words which get to the heart of the kind of pastor Gregory was. From Mark’s Gospel, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be a servant.”That was Gregory’s mandate. So, of all the titles which were conferred upon him, the one he chose for himself was “Servus, servorum Dei”: servant of the servants of God. For him to be a leader was to be a servant, like his Lord. And this colored all his pastoral theology. He expressed his theology in beautiful writing. His most famous work is the Regula Pastoralis, or “the Pastoral Office.” It’s a wonderful work, written for new priests and especially new bishops. It’s still very popular, and it’s still probably the best held ever written about the inner life and work of a bishop.
It was written 1400 years ago, but still packs a punch. His harshest words were against bishops who did not preach God’s saving word. Listen to him: “There is a feature, dear brothers, in the life of pastors, which causes me great affliction. We have descended to secular business. We abandon the duty of preaching, and to our disgrace, we are bishops in name, and have the title but not the virtue that befits that dignity. For those committed to our care abandon God and we are silent. They commit sin, and we do not stretch out a hand to correct them.”
Gregory was ferocious about bishops who were guilty of the sin of silence. They allowed grave disorders to go on in their jurisdictions and they were silent. They were silent because they wanted to avoid trouble. They worked to maintain the status quo. They wanted to remain comfortable and secure, and highly thought of.
Over these past months, details of sexual abuse which had taken place over many decades in the Church of England have been brought to light. And it is clear that bishops had kept quiet. Over the past year, the extent of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has been revealed, and it is clear that bishops have kept quiet. “They have the title, but not the virtue that befits their dignity,” says Gregory. Guilty of the sin of silence. Those powerful, courageous words of Gregory, uttered 1400 years ago, still have the power to convict us today. But not only the bishops, but each one of us who follow Jesus.
Through the centuries Gregory’s words ring out with the same conviction and point to each one of us, and ask us, “Where were you silent when you saw injustice being done? When were you silent when you heard others saying things which you knew were untrue – gossip or cruel words? When were you silent because, well, I just don’t want to get involved? And so you said nothing.”
Today we celebrate a man who was a true servant of God. And man of huge courage, who spoke out the truth without fear or favor. A man who spoke out whenever he saw evil or injustice both within and outside the church. A truly great man, holy and courageous.
Shortly after his death the church unanimously gave him the title of great honor: Gregorius Magnus – Gregory the Great. But for Gregory himself, Gregory, the humble follower of Jesus the Benedictine mon, the only title he ever aspired to was the one modeled on his Lord: “Servus, servorum Dei:” the servant of the servants of God.
While working as a psychotherapist I would occasionally receive a profound gift, witnessing someone in the very moment of a miraculous transformation. I would watch, always amazed and humbled, as they seemed to physically lighten, their countenance brightening, their posture shifting to being more alive and vital and present, their tears often taking on a baptismal glisten. Sometimes, spontaneous laughter and joy sprung forth, and other times they simply rested in a lingering sense of surprise and fragility, as if just getting acquainted with a new way of being. But what I remember most is a particular look flashing briefly in their eyes, the look of recognition. It was the look you might see if you paid an unexpected visit with a friend. Imagine knocking on their door, and when they open it, in that very first instant, you catch a brief sparkle of recognition in their eyes.
I’m willing to go out on a limb here, and say that true healing always has a spiritual component, an experience of knowing something to be true, not with our minds but with our hearts. And this heart knowing is not like learning anything new, but more like remembering something forgotten, something that has always been true, and we realize that a part of us deep within always knew this. Maybe that’s the kind of knowing or healing those religious leaders were hoping for when they demanded Jesus tell them if he were the Christ or not. Like most of us, they may have felt a nagging, perhaps unarticulated suspicion that something very important was missing in their lives. They knew the law, they kept all the commandments, they were successful, but still something didn’t feel quite right. Their minds tried to articulate what they wanted, but their hearts weren’t ready to accept it, to recognize who Jesus was by accepting who they themselves were.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.
John’s gospel takes up the theme of truth with notable frequency, and it is worthwhile for us as Christians constantly to take up this theme as well. Whether in our prayer, work life, or social life, our play, creative pursuits, or our time alone, we should remind ourselves that Jesus has claimed to be the Truth. Truth for us is therefore not some celestial force or an impersonal ideal; it is rather a person who graciously invites us into a deep and intimate knowing.
It is this very personhood, however, that begins to present our normative categories with some resistance, confusion, and misunderstanding. We may theorize about an idea all we like; but the depth and profundity of a personality will never fit easily into any theoretical category you or I propose. For if God is not simply an impersonal force or ideal, but a person, we may know of God only that which God has revealed. About a force, we may speculate; but to know a person is to open one’s self to the vulnerability of encounter. Encounter that might even change the nature of the inquirer.
It is clear that we need to be careful and discerning about the ways we speak and think about truth and the ways we suppose we understand who God is. St. Gregory of Nazianzus whom we remember today, spent his life thinking deeply about God’s nature and defending a particular way of understanding who God has revealed God’s self to be: namely, a trinity of persons ὁμοούσιονin one substance.
2 Corinthians 3:12 – 4:2
One doesn’t hear this often these days, but like some of you, I grew up in the church. Indeed, like a few of you, I grew up as an Anglican. When Sunday rolled around in our household, there was never any question about what we would be doing when we got up, or what clothes we should put on, it was simply part of our routine. The Koester family got up, put on our church clothes, and went to church. As kids, this meant that we weren’t available to play with our friends on Sunday, until after lunch. At times, such a routine was a great imposition on our social life, but we also knew that the only way to get out of church was to be sick, but all that meant is that Mum or Dad stayed behind with you, and everyone else headed out the door. Not even our ploys to break free of the routine were worth trying very often. Even as sick (and especially if it was only one of those mysterious childhood illnesses, which lasted only as long as Church did) we had to stay in bed all day. Even church wasn’t as boring as being forced to stay in bed, when bed was in fact the last place you really wanted to be.
Such a childhood had a great many advantages, but it has meant that, unlike some others of you here, I never made a conscience decision to be an Anglican, much less a Christian: that’s just the way things worked out. At times, I have missed what sounds to have been an important moment in a life as the decision is made as an adult, to become an Anglican or accept the truth of Christianity. At times I have missed that opportunity to make a mature adult decision, because every once in a while I think that my faith hasn’t progressed much past the stage it was in when I sat at those little tables in Sunday school colouring various Bible stories.
Growing up, I shared a bedroom with my older brothers, Charlie and Chris. This wasn’t a problem, except when it was. On one occasion, they and their friends decided to play parachute, jumping from the top bunk, where Chris slept, down onto my bed. By the time my mother got home and discovered what we had been up to, my bed was a wreck, and my mother was furious. Needless to say, a new mattress and bedspring had to be purchased in order to make my bed usable again.
More problematic, at least for me, was the closet. As the youngest of the three boys, I went to bed earlier than Charlie and Chris. By the time they came to bed an hour or so later then I, it was usually much darker, and the darkest place of all was the closet directly opposite the foot of my bed. Now, I wasn’t afraid of the dark … well, not much at least. What I was certainly afraid of was the darkness of the closet. It seemed like a great gaping black hole, and I was terrified of it. I thought that I could get lost in that darkness forever. I would only be able to fall asleep again if the closet door was closed. And that was the problem. Either on purpose or accidentally Charlie and Chris would frequently leave the door open and I would have to timidly ask them to close it. By then they too were in bed with the lights out, and they would sometimes refuse to get up and do my bidding, so in fear and trepidation I would either whimper until they did so, or steel up my courage and do it myself, scurrying back to bed as quickly as I could, once the dreaded task was completed.
That was a long time ago, and by now, most of us are too old, or too sophisticated to be afraid of the dark. We no longer need big brothers to protect us from whatever is lurking in the back of the dark closet. We no longer dread falling asleep with the closet door open, with that great gaping darkness threatening to swallow us whole. We’re no longer afraid of the dark … well, not much at least.
Shopping these days feels like sensory overload. We’re bombarded with messages: Your home can be the best with these trees, ornaments, garlands, and nicknacks. Here’s the present for you. Get ready—Christmas is coming! December and year round, our culture tells us to look good and to have the right stuff. That what we have and how we look determines who we are.
We want to have our living spaces in order before anyone comes over. Don’t drop by because it—and I—might not be together. This is hard for me. I have always strived to keep my rooms organized with my loose ends and junk nicely hidden under the bed, in the closet, or under carefully draped fabric.
While it may not be an orderly space, what’s particularly important to your presenting image? We’re taught to consider what we wear, the stuff we own, the people we know, the places we’ve been, and what we have done. We consider what we let others see and for what they don’t see. Get ready—someone is looking at us!
In our Gospel text, someone is coming. God comes to John in the wilderness: not a fun place out in nature, but a harsh land where few people go. John looks odd, dressed in camel’s hair eating locusts and honey as Matthew and Mark tell us. An odd man in an odd place, and lots of people came from all around the region. John is not fancy nor fashionable, but many people listen and do what he invites. John is not the awaited guest; he points to Jesus. Get ready—God is coming!