Genesis 3:9-15, 20
Ephesians 1:3-6, 11-12
Those of you who have joined us at one point or another for one of our meals, will know that most of the time, on most days, we listen to the reading of a book during the meal. It’s only on Sundays, Tuesdays and some feast days that we share in conversation. A number of years ago, our book of choice was a little denser than we normally read at meals, as we read Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin. Mother of God was a heavy read, and as we joked at the time, in the end we knew more about Mary than she knew about herself! One of the underlying themes of the book was that before she became known as the Mother of God, before she became known as the Queen of Heaven, she was simply Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus. In essence, underlying all the titles, and the various devotions, that is who she was, and that is who she remains, Mary of Nazareth, the Mother of Jesus.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, that young girl of Nazareth. It is a feast not spoken of in scripture but one deeply rooted in the tradition of the Church from ancient times, and one which says as much about us, and our life in God, as it does about Mary herself, and her life in God. So while the focus today is on Mary, we see in her the source, and ground, of our own life of faith. In looking at Mary we gaze not outwardly, or even upwardly, but inwardly to our own adoption as children of God because it is there that we find Mary’s true vocation, and ours as well, to be the adopted daughters and sons of God.
Given that Br. Luke (our acolyte today) went to a lot of trouble learning how to pronounce all those difficult names, I feel it’s only right that we should reflect on the lesson from Nehemiah this morning.
It might help to first establish a context for these words. You may remember that early in the 6th century B.C.E., the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians. It was a devastating defeat. The temple at Jerusalem was completely destroyed, as was the city itself, and the majority of the people were carried off into captivity. Only a small remnant remained. The period of exile lasted 70 years, and gave rise to the book of Lamentations and to several psalms of lament – Psalm 137, for example: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion” (Psalm 137:1). In the year 538 B.C.E., Babylon was conquered by the Medes and Persians. The Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great, was a wise and compassionate man who not only gave the Israelites permission to begin returning home, but also provided the resources they needed to rebuild the temple. A first wave of exiles left Babylon to return to Judah.
It took over eighty years before a second group of exiles returned to Jerusalem, led by the prophet Ezra, in 455 B.C.E. Ten years after this second group departs, we find Nehemiah, a Jew still living in Persia, serving as cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes. Nehemiah hears a report that deeply troubles him: the Israelites are still struggling to establish themselves in their home country. They have managed to rebuild the temple, but the walls around Jerusalem are still in ruins. After four months of prayer, Nehemiah decides to risk approaching the king. He asks for permission to return to Jerusalem with a third group of exiles, with the expressed purpose of rebuilding the city’s walls.
Feast of St. Alban the Martyr
Profession of Initial Vows: Brother Lucas Hall SSJE
Today is one of those days when we have the opportunity to pull back the veil, if ever so slightly, and look within, in order to catch a glimpse of a wonderful mystery. This mystery is at work all around us. Mostly, however, it works in secret, away from prying eyes, for it is too precious, sometimes too fragile, often too personal. But today we are allowed a momentary glimpse, and what we behold causes us to stop, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, to change our direction, even to offer our lives. It is only when we have stopped, and stepped aside to see, and ponder, does this mystery give us its name.
Today we see that mystery, and hear it speak its name.
We see the mystery and hear its name, in the life of Moses, the Servant of the Lord. Touched by this hand of mystery at birth, and snatched from certain death in a watery grave, he encountered that same saving mystery once again in today’s lesson from Exodus. This time he is not a baby floating in a basket made of reeds, but a man, a shepherd, keeping watch over his father – in – law’s flock, in the wilderness. There at Horeb, near the mountain of God,the angel of the Lord appeared to [Moses] in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.Such was the mystery that Moses encountered, that he could not but stop and look. ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’It was only when Moses stopped and turned aside, that the mystery spoke. When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’And in speaking, the mystery was revealed. ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Having heard the voice of God, Moses can do no other, but hide his face. But this mystery, who is God, asks for more. ‘Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’And having asked, God promises. ‘I will be with you.’
Having stopped, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, Moses’ life was changed, as he offered it to the service of the mystery who is God. And at this, the veil is lifted, and we glimpse, even just for a moment, the mystery of God at work in the soul of Moses. And there, in the heart of Moses, we see God making a home.
We see the mystery, and hear its name in the story of Alban, whose feast we keep today. Alban was a Roman soldier stationed in Britain. One night a Christian priest, fleeing from persecution, appeared on Alban’s doorstep. For some reason, rather than handing him over to the authorities, Alban took him in, and hid him. Perhaps likes Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, Alban knew that in the presence of this priest, he was on holy ground. And like Moses, the mystery who is God was revealed to Alban, and having stopped, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, Alban’s life was changed, as he offered it to the service of the mystery who is God. When the soldiers finally came to his door in search of the priest, Alban gave himself up, proclaiming his name to be Alban, and [that] I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.And at this, the veil is lifted, and we glimpse, even just for a moment, the mystery of God at work in the soul of Alban. And there, in the heart of Alban, we see God making a home.
For some of us, once we have encountered this mystery who is God, like Moses, like Alban, we can do nothing except to stop, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, and our lives are forever changed, as we offer them to the service of the mystery who is God.
Both Moses and Alban could have acted differently. Both could have failed to see what was before them. Moses could have walked passed the burning bush, failing to see in it the mystery of God. Alban could have left that priest outside, alone, in the dark, to face his persecutors alone, failing to see the mystery of God in the one who stood before him. But neither did. In both bush and priest, Alban and Moses heard the voice of God speaking their name: Moses, Moses, Alban, Alban. And hearing that voice, their lives were changed.
Father Benson, the founder of our community, puts it this way: It is a most blessed thing to [hear God’s] call. [When God] opens the ear of the soul to hear His voice calling, directing us by His providence, impelling us by His constraining grace to be wholly His, then we must continue in this life by a reliance on the Divine strength. The vow does not remove the uncertainties of the will, the fluctuations of feeling, the tendencies to depression, the uprisings of passion. It does not shut out the visions of the world or quench the fires within, or benumb the lower human will. But it brings down the pledged blessing in giving to the soul the unchanging assistance of God. The life-giving hand of the Eternal is given to the soul [that] is bound to Himself, enabling it to rise triumphant over all the temptations of the world. The soul becomes dead, not with the death of apathy, but dead to the world because alive to God.
Lucas, like Moses and Alban, you have heard the voice of God speaking your name, and as Father Benson reminds us, that is a most blessed thing. It is a most blessed thing to hear the voice of God speaking deep within a heart that it eternally aflame with love, aflame with the love of God, aflame with the love of all whom God has made.
For the last three years we have watched, Lucas, as your heart has burned, but not been consumed, with God’s love. And with Father Benson we can say, looking at you, that [it] is a most blessed thing to [hear God’s] call. [For when God] opens the ear of the soul to hear His voice calling, directing us by His providence, impelling us by His constraining grace to be wholly His, then we must continue in this life by a reliance on the Divine strength.
Today Lucas, the veil is once again lifted, if even for a moment, and all of us who love you, are privileged to see, if only just for a moment, that which is precious, and fragile, and deeply personal. And what we behold causes us to stop, to step aside, to look, to see, to think, to ponder, for we see that the God of Moses, and the God of Alban, has made a home in your heart, inviting you to [spend] your … life abiding in him and giving [yourself] up to the attraction of his glory.
But Lucas, there is more that we see, for having given yourself to God, as you do this day, God gives to you, as he gave to Moses. I will be with you,God promised Moses. I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you,Jesus promises us.
Again as Father Benson reminds us, [in] the vow of a Religious, there is to be the real trusting of the soul to the love of God, I believed, and therefore will I speak. God has promised all we can desire; we need not fresh promises. We trust ourselves to Him who cannot deny himself. We give ourselves up in perfect confidence to His love, and He will give more than human words can make known. Give up all to God, and God will give up His holy Being to us. All for all, the all of earth for the all of heaven, the all of man for the all of God.
Today, as you trust your life and soul to God, God in Christ gives himself to you. I will be with you, God promises you this day. I will not leave you orphaned, Jesus promises you this day.
As our Rule of Lifereminds us, it is a great privilege to be called to the religious life.And for us who love you Lucas, it is a great privilege to be with you this day, and behold with awe and wonder the fire of God’s love burning deep within you. Like Moses we cannot but stop and turn aside. And having turned aside, we too see a great mystery, and know that in your presence, we stand on holy ground. As you give yourself up to the mystery who is God today, we know also the promise God makes to you today, I will be with you. That promise comes again to you today from the lips of the Lord Jesus,I will not leave you orphaned.
Lucas, as you make your vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience today, we who love you are on holy ground, for in you we see a great sight: we see nothing less than the power, and the glory, and the majesty of God, burning within you, as the eternal mystery who is God, Father, Son, and Spirit comes and makes a home in your heart.
Exodus 3: 2
Exodus 3: 3
Exodus 3: 4
Exodus 3: 5, 6
Exodus 3: 10
Exodus 3: 12
John 14: 23
A Great Cloud of Witnesses, Church Publishing, 2016, June 22
John 14: 23
Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life, First Series, 1927, page 14 – 15
SSJE, Rule of Life, The Call of the Society, chapter 1, page 2
John 14: 18
Benson, Richard Meux, Instructions on the Religious Life, First Series, 1927, page 13
SSJE, Rule of Life, Prayer and Life, chapter 22, page 44
The Restoration of the Religious Life in the Anglican Communion:
The Profession of Marian Rebecca Hughes
“I was enrolled one of Christ’s Virgins, espoused to him and made his handmaid and may he of his infinite mercy grant that I may ever strive to please him and to keep from the world though still in it.”[i]
A twenty-four year old Englishwoman named Marian Rebecca Hughes wrote these words in her diary in the year 1841. On Trinity Sunday of that year, she stepped boldly but quietly into uncharted territory for a nineteenth-century Anglican: she vowed to remain unmarried in devotion to Christ and in service to the church. From John Henry Newman and Edward Bouverie Pusey, pioneering priests and theologians of what we now call the Oxford Movement, she had learned that such consecrated women had played a vital role in the early church. From her growing knowledge of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy in Ireland and of the social work of Lutheran deaconesses, she drew inspiration to live a life of service. Her vows were received by Pusey in a private home, but this private ceremony also included a humble, public act. Marian went immediately to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, where she knelt at the altar rail beside Lucy, Dr. Pusey’s daughter. Lucy, aged 12, was that day receiving her first communion. Both Newman and the young Ms. Pusey were fully aware of Marian’s consecration; they were, in a sense, co-conspirators. Upon receiving communion and completing the final prayers of consecration, Marian had become the first person to take up the vocation of vowed religious life in the Church of England since the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation. It is difficult from our historical distance to fully appreciate how counter-cultural this decision was. While she was amply resourced by highly sympathetic male clergy, Marian was a young Victorian woman in an age that still had no cultural reference points for the life she aspired to live. For the next nine years, she gathered information about Roman Catholic women’s religious life in France and cared for her aging parents. It was not until 1850 that she would take up life in a community of Anglican sisters, the newly founded Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. By the time Mother Marian died in 1912, in the ninety-fifth year of her age and the seventy-first year of her religious profession, she had witnessed the firm foundation of Anglican religious life for women and men – including the founding of our Society in 1866.
When I first read this passage from Acts, I was struck by how easy it seemed that the Holy Spirit would tell Paul and Barnabas exactly what He wanted from them. It all feels very immediate, and specific—and I’m sure there was more to it, but I couldn’t help but wonder: Has my experience with the Holy Spirit ever looked like that? Pray, fast, listen, and go? Is that how it is for you?
Well, I got to reminiscing, and I realized, for most of my life, I rarely approached God for anything other than to yell my thanks from afar. To ask for something?—His opinion?—for guidance? No, never did it, for the fear of appearing ungrateful. So, if He ever did speak to me in the Paul and Barnabas fashion… I wasn’t listening—not back then.
But that doesn’t mean He didn’t reach me. During that time, every life turn I took was, strangely, my second choice. From which high school I attended, to university, my first job… I never got what I thought I wanted, but all of those were what I needed. Before I was willing to actively engage God in my decision making, He led me through life by closing every door, except for the one that was meant for me. Let’s call that phase 1 of 3 in the progression of my communication with God: Him faithfully steering me in the right direction while I remained none the wiser.
Enter phase 2: In 2017, I hit a crossroads. I’d been in Japan for 4 years, and I had a beautiful life there. But a strange inkling… I wanted to go on extended mission. It was a very uncomfortable juncture. Should I leave my friends, my job, my stability… and go? I was at a complete loss—so, I approached God… and I asked. Now, in my mind, Paul and Barnabas were this unattainable model that I could never hope to reach. I was just me. Super regular—altogether unworthy. I thought I’d be met with excruciating silence. But, no. He dropped hints—a lot of hints—a comical amount of hints that I could only imagine reflected His delight that I had engaged Him in conversation. And in the end, I left on a life-changing adventure to Germany, and then Nepal.
So, enter phase 3. My last story, I promise. For this 2018-2019 academic year I had my sight set on going to graduate school. I had been accepted. I was going—but this time, God approachedme, and whispered, “Hey,monastery.” And I said, “Haha, I’m sorry…one more time?” And the difference is, this time He didn’t drop hints. And He didn’t shut the grad school door. He left it, wide open, alongside the opportunity to live in this wonderful community. And I asked Him, “Which one?” And He said it—and I heard Him—and I did it.
As I’ve grown in faith, our interactions have changed. Unlike those decisions earlier in life, He didn’t shove me onto the path that was right. He presented me with two amazing options, and then He stepped back—because now I could hear.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my pondering of this passage, it’s that some people are built for pray, fast, and do the thing. Some of us aren’t, or we dabble in it, amongst other kinds of communication. And even if we can’t identify what that is exactly… we don’t have to. Because God gets you. He gets you at phase 2, He got you at phase 1, and He’ll get you at phase 3. He’ll identify the growth in you far before you’ve noticed the change.
God will meet you where you’re at. He knows how you can hear Him—and that’s how He’ll talk. What’s phase 4 gonna look like? I don’t know. But I’m excited.
Life Profession of Nicholas Bartoli SSJE
Exodus 33: 7 – 11
Psalm 139: 1 – 12
1 John 4: 7 – 12
John 15: 9 – 19
If truth be told, I am more than a little surprised to be here today. Indeed, I am more than a little surprised that any of us are here today. I am actually most surprised that Nicholas is here today!
There was a time, not all that long ago in the scheme of things, that I was convinced that this life profession of our Brother Nicholas, would never happen. And I am not the only one. I think Nicholas was even more convinced that it would never happen! He was so convinced in fact, that he went around telling Brothers individually, that he was leaving the community!
In the midst of all of this, I tried to convince Nicholas that leaving, at least leaving when he was thinking about doing so, was not a good idea. But in case you didn’t know, Nicholas has a stubborn streak in him as wide at the Brooklyn Bridge! What saved the day was a conversation he had with a good friend of ours. In the course of that brief conversation, our friend put a couple of questions to Nicholas. In less than an hour Nicholas’ mind was changed as whole new possibilities opened up. A little more than a year later, here we are. Here we are to witness, and support, and encourage Nicholas as he makes his life profession in our Society, promising to God and before the whole company of heaven and in the presence of this congregation … that [he] will live in life-long observance of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, according to the Rule of this Society.
So friend, if you are out there, we owe you our profound thanks, because if it weren’t for your intervention, today’s profession would not be happening! (Although, there may be days in the future we blame you that it has happened!)
There are two ways we can hear this Gospel account appointed for today: This is a two-thousand year-old story about Simon Peter, James, and John who fished by trade on a lake in Palestine. This is history – rather patchy history – about how Jesus began assembling his inner ring of 12 apostles in the northern region of Galilee.
or:This Gospel story is autobiographical. Like Peter, James, and John, we each have been summoned by Jesus. Jesus has caught our attention, and we have followed him. This story gets us in touch with our ownstory. It’s part of the backdrop of why we’re here today.
Is this Gospel story about them, or is it about us, about you? The answer is “yes.”
On the one hand, we’re introduced to Peter, James, and John, who continue to figure into Jesus’ life and story. These three leave everything to follow Jesus. Sort of everything. Peter is married, and he doesn’t leave his wife. None of the three leaves his ego behind. That will become obvious. All three of these men are shown to have very mixed motives for following Jesus. Complicated. Sometimes quite duplicitious. Tradition has it that all three ultimately and willingly accept martyrdom for being followers of Jesus… but we’re a long ways from that when we first meet them here in their boats.
Phillipians 3:4b-14; Matthew 20:17-28
What comes to mind when you hear the word “servant” or “slave”? Most of us imagine a person who is not free to do what he pleases, one who lacks the power or freedom or resources to direct his own life, one who must work to fulfill the desires of another. We think of a servant or slave as powerless in relation to his superior. His station in life demands that he constantly set aside his own desires to fulfill the desire of his master. For most of us, it is not an enviable position. How many of us would willingly sacrifice our independence and autonomy to become the slave of another person?
And yet this is what Jesus asks of his disciples, that they imitate him as one who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (v.28).
In his letter to the Christians at Corinth, St Paul writes, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” (I Cor. 4:1,2) “Think of us in this way,” says Paul, “as servants of Christ.” He says this with pride, not shame. He is not embarrassed that he has been reduced to the role of a servant; he does not regret that he is no longer free to do his own will and is compelled to do the bidding of another. Nor is there any suggestion that he has been forced to become a servant – in fact, the opposite is true: Paul has voluntarily chosen to take up this role. He sees it as a glorious privilege to be considered a servant of Christ. He sees it as a blessing to live no longer for himself, but for Christ. He is honored to have been entrusted with divine mysteries, and feels both an obligation and a desire to be found trustworthy in this responsibility.
The story is told that Winston Churchill stuttered as a young child. This is the Winston Churchill whose later eloquence was probably the single-most important factor in saving western Europe from tyranny in the 1940s. Churchill stuttered as a self-conscious, frightened little boy. Now there’s a developmental theory that would say his oratorical brilliance as an adult developed as a compensation for his childhood sense of inferiority.[i] This “compensation theory” says that, for example, in our childhood or youth the challenges, say, of birth defects, of illness, of discrimination, of poverty, of family craziness, or of other unfortunate circumstances provide the very stimulus for all later higher achievements. In other words, this compensation theory would say that small, sickly, self-conscious, or sad children are driven by this principle of compensation to develop into towering leaders of activity and strength. Churchill would seem an example of it, and some of us here may identify with that very notion.
But there’s another “take” on why it is we grow into who we are, which is called the “acorn theory.”[ii] Growing up is not about compensation; it’s about recovery. Each of us enters the world, something like an acorn, with the seed of calling, with a sense of identity, with a vision of destiny. And so, of course Churchill stuttered as a child! Given this nascent, daunting sense as a child that his voice, his voice would be the instrument to save the western world, of course he stuttered as a child. Wouldn’t you? We may well have glimpsed our destiny or life’s calling when we were yet a child, but we might have avoided it, or denied it, or run from it. In Jesus’ words, we may have put the light of our calling under a bushel basket.
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
“It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.”[i]
In her masterful study of the book Genesis, Jewish scholar Avivah Zornberg notes that this is the first statement uttered by God in the creation narrative that does not immediately bring something into being. It is a brief soliloquy, an aside, a window into God’s thoughts. God does not act upon this thought directly. He creates the animals, and brings them to Adam to receive names. Among them, “there was not found a helper as his partner.” In his commentary on this text, the medieval rabbi Rashi proposes that God knew this would happen. He imagines Adam, the Human,as the one who seeks yet does not find, as God presents the animals to him already in pairs. At the conscious, painful realization of his human aloneness, sleep overwhelms him. Like God, Adam has been great in this aloneness. He has stood vertically, upright, among all the animals who creep, slither, and swarm horizontally upon the earth. But in greatness, aloneness, verticality, he has known no equivalent Other. For this to happen, Zornberg writes, Adam “must, in a sense, diminish himself” and “come to know the rightness of a more complex form of unity.”[ii] He falls, horizontally upon the earth, as if under divine anesthesia. Eve comes into being.