The Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, has the distinction of being the only book in the Bible that counsels against putting your elbows on the table at dinner (41:19). Ecclesiasticus covers a wide swath of the human condition, from rapturous poetry in celebration of wisdom to the most mundane things, like how to behave at a dinner party. Don’t eat too much, do enjoy the wine, but don’t drink too much. Don’t interrupt the musicians. Don’t talk too much, don’t chew greedily. Don’t be the last to leave. (Ch. 31-32)
“[You are] like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” These words of Jesus may seem a bit perplexing at first, but Jesus’ subsequent explanation of them reveals that what he is objecting to in his opponents is their hardness of heart.
“John came neither eating nor drinking, and [you] say, ‘He has a demon’” Jesus observes; “the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and [you] say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Two messengers have come to you, Jesus is saying, and you have refused to believe both. One came as a desert ascetic, “neither eating nor drinking”; the other came as “a friend of sinners,” eating and drinking with all manner of persons. You rejected both. You would not open yourself to God’s call to repent and believe.
This word challenges us today to look into our own hearts, to see if they are open or closed, to notice if they are turning towards God or away from God. It seems especially important that our hearts be open during this season of Advent, as we attentively await the coming of the Lord.
Last week, I had a friend staying from England. The weather was glorious, and we went for a walk in Mount Auburn Cemetery. As we walked up one of the small paths, we paused at the top and looked over towards the lake, and we were stopped in our tracks. There was the most beautiful sugar maple, ablaze in color – orange and yellow and gold. Each leaf was shimmering in the breeze, and dazzling in the near horizontal rays of the sun. The tree seemed to be on fire. We just stood there, fixed to the ground, and stared. Wow! We finally said. It’s like Moses before the burning bush. We felt we were on holy ground. I thought of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins’ words, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
I remember as a young lad being given a wonderful gift by my parents: a telescope on a tripod. I was maybe 12 years old, and for several years I had been fascinated by searching the sky at night to recognize stars and constellations. I knew where to look for the Big Dipper; I could spy out the North Star and Orion; I could whisk with my eyes through the night and find the Milky Way. The stars probably told stories about life, I thought, and I had a childlike sense, like with the Psalmist, that the heavens declared God’s glory and splendor.1 I loved what I saw at night, lying on my back on the grass of our front lawn, peering into the night sky with my hands cupped behind my head. And so the gift of a telescope was so exciting. It was also a huge disappointment.
This cope I’m wearing today has great sentimental value: it was hand crafted as an ordination gift from my parents. As it happens, the process leading up to my ordination was rather harrowing, so this festal garment is a reminder that, in the end, things work out. Ultimately. As Julian of Norwich put it, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be very well”. At least ultimately.
Today Jesus gives Peter and James and John a preview of “ultimately”. A few days earlier he had told them that the Son of Man was to undergo great sufferings, rejection, death, and, after three days, be raised from the dead. The vision of transfiguration on the mountain was a kind of preview of resurrection. Perhaps because he knew the experience would be so harrowing he wanted the disciples to see for themselves how it was going to turn out in the end. All would be well—at least on the other side of the cross.
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.
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
This past October Br. David Vryhof and I were among the leaders in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where we explored the development of Christian monasticism in the early centuries. The first monastery we visited was in the desert just outside of Jericho near the Jordan River: St. Gerasimos’ Monastery, a very beautiful, active, welcoming Greek Orthodox community. On that site in year 460, Abbot Gerasimos built the original monastery. Today, when you enter the monastery precincts, the first image you confront is not a cross, nor stained glass window, nor ceramic tapestry, nor an icon – all of those are there – but rather at the entry you first confront a lion, a full-size bronze-cast lion.
I Samuel 2:1-10; Romans 12:9-16b; Luke 1:39-57
We have reason to celebrate tonight. This is a joyous occasion, a remembrance of a happy meeting between two expectant mothers who were to play important roles in God’s unfolding plan of salvation. It is an occasion of happy reunion, of babies leaping in the womb, of women filled with the Spirit proclaiming God’s greatness and shouting their thanks and praise. It is an occasion of rejoicing – not only in what is, but in what is to come. A time when faith proclaims what it has begun to see.
Luke prepares the scene by telling us what has happened to these two women. Elizabeth, he tells us, was a woman “getting on in years” who was barren. Her husband, Zechariah, belonging to a priestly order, was responsible for serving in the Temple from time to time. During his most recent service he had entered the sanctuary of the Lord and had there seen an angel who told him that the prayers that he and his wife had been offering for many years were now to be answered. They would have a son, whose name was to be John. “You will have joy and gladness,” said the angel, “and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” And so it was. Elizabeth, long barren, conceived a child, just as the angel had foretold.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy an angel was sent also to Mary, a young girl living in the Galilean town of Nazareth. To her the angel gave a similar yet even greater message: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son… (and) he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High… and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary was stupefied. “How can this be?” she asked, for she was not yet married. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” the angel responded, “therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” And as assurance that such an unlikely conception was well within the realm of God’s power, the angel told Mary of the remarkable pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth who had conceived even in her old age. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord: The First Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 43: 1 – 7; Psalm 29; Acts 8: 14 – 17; Luke 3: 15 – 17, 21 – 22
Did you notice it? Did you notice something different this past Christmas? There was something palpably different with our Christmas celebrations this year and I believe it had to do with the crèche.
It’s not, I think, that the crèche itself that was especially unusual. We have had unusual and thought provoking crèches in Christmases past. Some of you may remember the year we had the Holy Family as street people seeking shelter from the wind in the back corner of the chapel with Mary looking like one of the bag ladies we often see in Harvard Square. There was also the year that Mary was faceless, and in place of her face was a mirror so that when you gazed at her you saw your own reflection and somehow you knew that you too were meant to bear, and carry and give birth to the Incarnate Son of God in our world today. You may remember the year we had the almost life sized iconographic depictions of the Mary and Joseph and the Christ Child with the ox and ass peering over the stall. And last year we had that wonderful shadow-box Nativity scene carved from a single piece of wood. No, we’ve had unusual crèche scenes before, and oddly enough the crèche we had displayed this year was not all that unusual. No, what was unusual about this year was not the crèche itself, but rather how it demanded you to encounter it.
Br. Eldridge Pendleton (1940-2015) offered this homily on the prayer of adoration at the Monastery as part four of the Teach Us to Pray series, October 27, 2009.
Exodus 3: 1-15; 1 John 4: 7-19; Matthew 13: 44-53
Remember! Remember that in this chapel we are on holy ground. It is as holy as the place on Mount Horeb where Moses saw the burning bush and encountered God, and for the same reason. In this chapel for over seventy years many thousands of men and women have had equally momentous encounters with God, encounters that have changed their lives in profound ways. Some have discovered God for the first time here. Others, suffering or at life’s crossroads have found comfort and the answers they needed to make major decisions. The walls of this holy place have been hallowed and impregnated by their prayers. Many who worship in this space over time tend to forget its numinous quality, but are reminded of it by the comments of those who enter it for the first time and find themselves enveloped by its holiness. They tell us of the sense of peace they find here. Some even mention their conviction that God is in this chapel. We are on holy ground and should treat it with reverence and awe.