As the brothers of St Benedict’s Priory settle into Volmoed, part of that process is getting used to things. We desire to know Volmoed and its various communities and the Volmoed Community desires to know the Benedictine community in its midst. A little reflection on what monks might bring to Advent and Christmas may help.
Is there any difference in the way monks keep Christmas compared to other Christians? No and yes… No, in that monks are not more devout, or “better” in any way. And yes, in
that monks have the luxury of time for contemplation. While many struggle to find time for worship and prayer, we have it the other way round – we struggle to find time for cooking and laundry in a life filled with prayer and worship.
In the monastic worship tradition, the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings when she learns that she is to bear Christ into the world, is included in our evening worship – the service of Vespers. It is always there. Those familiar with the Anglican tradition of Evening Prayer or Choral Evensong will know that the Magnificat is a fixture there as well – because the Anglican Prayer Book tradition is built on the foundation of Benedictine worship.
Part of the fun of Monastic worship is the way pieces are introduced. We don’t just sing a psalm; it is introduced by an antiphon. In the same way, the Magnificat is introduced by an antiphon. The antiphon both sets up the music and provides some very brief reflection on the text.
In the season of Advent, as we long for the coming of Jesus, Mary’s song is particularly poignant. So over time monks developed seven particularly poignant antiphons for the Magnificat to lead up to Christmas; known as the Great O Antiphons. The larger church still shares these antiphons in the well-known hymn O Come Emanuel (which I see is even translated into Afrikaans). When we encounter these antiphons in hymn form, it is wonderful, but a few things get lost.
First, each of the antiphons gives one name used in Hebrew scripture to point to the
coming of Messiah. The antiphons use the references that the Jews used – Wisdom, Adonai (Lord), Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of all people, Emanuel. This comes through in the hymn, but monks (with apparently a lot of time to contemplate) had set these antiphons in an acrostic puzzle. The first letter of the God-reference in each antiphon, looked at backward, spells (in Latin) Ero Cras (tomorrow I come). This does not survive translation, but knowing it is there at some level adds greater urgency to these antiphons, and to our waiting.
Second, by parceling out these names day by day, we are given time to reflect on the significance of each. Each of these names has profound characteristics of God encoded within. Because these names are archetypes, each person can find multiple meanings and no two people need be the same. Just as God sees each of us as an individual, so each of these antiphons invites us deeper into our own relationship with God. But the monastic tradition that goes with this does not call us into private relationship, but personal relationship within the context of community.
What wisdom might this monastic expression bring to the Volmoed community? Let Advent do its work. As those faithful Jews waited and longed for the coming of Messiah, of Emanuel, so we wait and long for the coming of Jesus, God with us. What names do we give to this Jesus? What are we waiting for? And keep in mind that the God we want may differ from the God who comes to dwell with us. Blessings for Advent from the brothers at St Benedict’s Priory at Volmoed
Brothers from St Benedict’s Priory at Volmoed recently visited the Andrew Murray Centre of the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa. It was a wonderful trip. First and foremost, the drive from Volmoed to Wellington is breath taking. This region of South
Africa is a mix of great, rocky mountains and lush, vineyard-filled valleys. We drove through many post cards…
There is something much more profound than just beauty going on at the Andrew Murray Centre. The Centre was built as a seminary for the Dutch Reformed Church of South Africa and that was its life – until the Dutch Reformed Church moved their seminary to be at Stellenbosch University. The Centre continued to be a training center for mission workers, but that dwindled over
time. As the use dwindled, the buildings and grounds were left for a period of near dormancy. Rising from that is the Andrew Murray Centre.
Murray himself is a fascinating figure. Some of the astute might be wondering how a good Scots name like Murray winds up on a bastion of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa… In the 1800s, the Dutch control of South Africa gave way to English domination – and for the English, that meant dominating the tribal peoples AND the Dutch. To tweak the Dutch, the English stopped the movement of clergy from The Netherlands to South Africa. Dry up the clergy, dry up the Church, dry up the spirit of the people seems to have been the plan.
The leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church were a resourceful bunch. They turned to Scotland, always interested in tweaking the English, to import clergy. These were theologically well-trained folks in a sympathetic reformed tradition. The Rev. Andrew Murray, senior, came with his family to South Africa. His son, Andrew, became a major visionary leader within the Dutch Reformed Church. It appears that the English attempt to strangle the Dutch Reformed Church succeeded in giving it one of its greatest leaders and ushering in its richest epoch.
Through efforts of leaders like Andrew Murray, seminary education at a high level
became standard in South Africa so there was no need to send folks to Europe – which was an arduous journey back in the day. The foundations for the Murray Centre were figuratively and literally laid in this time.
At the Murray Centre there are several wonderful original buildings that have been inventively renovated for this new purpose. A stable has been renovated into a chapel – the symbolism of this deserves a great deal of reflection… And the house built as Andrew Murray’s residence is now a
center of instruction.
Andrew Murray would be a significant figure if this were all there was to his story, but it’s not. Murray, it appears, was that thing that the reformed tradition in its various expressions, is quite uncomfortable with – he was a mystic. This puts him in good stead – Luther was, arguably, a mystic. Charles Wesley was certainly a mystic. Mother Ann Lee of the Quaker Movement was a great mystic. Still, in the reformation world, it’s a bit uncomfortable to talk too much about mysticism.
But Andrew Murray was intrigued enough with mysticism that he named his house
Clairvaux. What a statement. This name still remains on the building – etched in stone above the gate. This is the instruction building of the Murray Centre, so anybody participating in a program at the Murray Centre will be steeped, perhaps subliminally or more overtly, in Murray’s mysticism.
I could not help but focus on the notion of death and resurrection embodied by the Murray Centre. During the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, the Centre had a purpose within a church, the Dutch Reformed Church, which also had a purpose. But as the disease of Apartheid took root in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church took its place on the wrong side of history. At some point (the history is all easily available) new visionaries of the church began to call for change, and the Dutch Reformed Church (along with many other denominations) began a process of repentance and amendment.
Still, Apartheid and its aftermath have taken their toll – with the result that the Dutch Reformed Church is not the powerful institution it once was.
So, the visionary move of the Andrew Murray Centre is all the more astounding. It is a
collective dedication to the idea that we cannot continue on or near the path we have been on. Jesus calls us to transformation of life, to fundamental and existential change; Not just a different path, but a different way of travelling.
I left the Centre feeling really motivated and excited, not because of something I could see, but because of something I could sense and yet not see. The mystical spirit of Andrew Murray has a hand in things. And the Murray Centre is a thin place where something new is working to enter our world.
At first glance this short parable from the Gospel according to Luke seems like a rare treat – a parable that is short, clear, and easy to grasp… but things are not always what they appear to be at first glance…
We have these two different people in prayer – a tax collector and a pharisee. And we’re sort of conditioned to hear these two characters as two stereotypes – one good and one sinister…
For the crowd gathered with Jesus, they might have heard two stereotypes as well – one good and one sinister. That would be the Pharisee as good and the tax collector as sinister. We tend to hear it the other way around with the pharisee as sinister – because when Pharisees turn up in the Gospels, they usually to cause trouble.
In Jesus time, tax collectors really were quite menacing people. Whatever else we may think of SARS, we don’t tend to think they are menacing. But in Jesus day, tax collectors worked, more or less, on commission. They collected money, took their portion off the top, and the rest went to the government. The incentive to “over-collect” is more than obvious. The incentive to use any means necessary is also obvious. Tax collectors were in the league of loan sharks, repo men, and bounty hunters.
Pharisees, on the other hand, were really among the most admired religious folks of their day. They were faithful and thoroughly devout. Today’s equivalent might be the leaders of the churches. They would be on administrative boards and leading prayers. They would be on Altar Guilds and Mother’s Unions. They knew the expectations and the guidelines of the tradition and were thoroughly devoted to them.
Jesus frequently has a hard time with Pharisees. But it’s not because they were bad or ill-intentioned people. The Pharisees were especially devoted to the way things were and had always been… And Jesus, to be honest, was a troublemaker. Jesus still is…
But in this little parable we have the Pharisee and the Tax Collector meeting up in worship. Their posture and their prayer tell quite a story. The Pharisee is described as standing by himself. Luke doesn’t say exactly where he stood, but we can guess it was in a prominent place. The tax collector, meanwhile, stands out of the way… eyes cast down… avoiding attention.
And then there are the prayers. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” as
opposed to “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. The Pharisee drips so much condescension we have to be careful not to step in the puddles. The tax collector epitomizes humility.
The parable might be telling us that our preconceptions of who is good and who is bad are unreliable.
This is an important lesson for our time. We are conditioned to think that those who are wealthy and comfortable must be doing something right – must be worthy of admiration and emulation. Sometimes they are… but not always. And sometimes those on the outcast side of society are worthy of admiration and emulation, but not always.
It’s easy to think in terms of stereotypes because they require no thought. They are quick. They don’t bog down in details. But in this short little parable, Jesus takes two stereotypes of his day – tax collector and pharisee – and scrambles them. By now, we have adopted Jesus’ scrambled versions as standard. But to grapple with this parable we have to re-scramble our stereotypes.
For the tax collector, the prayer is very simple. God be merciful to me, a sinner. If we were in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, we would hear this as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer is not as common in the western tradition, but it is very much part of it. This prayer of the tax collector is one of the foundations of the Jesus Prayer.
The power of the Jesus Prayer, of the tax collector’s prayer, lies in its simple, brief, and direct nature. Proverbs tells us, where there are many words, sin is not lacking…
For the Pharisee, who does not seem to have gotten the memo about too many words, it’s a different story. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” He’s already passed the tax collector in length… And then he has to elaborate on just who it is that he is not like… more words… We next hear the things he admires most… about himself. How he fasts, how he tithes. He doesn’t have to say it, but we can see that pride is a big part of his prayer life.
Jesus has slipped in a subtle little note – our Pharisee tithes more than the law demands; a tenth of all his income when the expectation was that only part of his income needed to be tithed. And he fasts more than necessary. Fasting weekly was expected, but for our friend its twice a week.
Learned theologians would describe these as works of “supererogation” – going above and beyond the call of duty. Jesus seems to endorse this when he tells us to go the extra mile, or if someone needs our shirt to give a jacket as well. But Jesus is not promoting supererogation.
My works of supererogation are for my own benefit – a sort of storing up of divine brownie points, if you will. The Pharisee seems to expect something in return for his virtuous behavior. But in just the previous chapter of Luke, Jesus has told us that when we have done what is asked, we are to stop and say we are unworthy servants. We have done our duty. The Pharisee seems to be asserting just how very worthy he is.
We don’t know much about the tax collector, but I wonder if his great humility in prayer translates into action in his profession. Or could his great self-deprecation in prayer based on his awareness that he is a total scoundrel in his work.
It’s easy to be critical of the Pharisee’s arrogance, but the bigger issue in his prayer life is his total lack of compassion. And while the Tax Collector seems to have some sense of sorrow which could be part of compassion, we just don’t know.
So how does this inform our prayer these days?
Few of us would pray something like the Pharisee – thank God I’m not like those people. But if I’m being honest, I have to acknowledge that I’m not immune to that prayer. When I see Nyanga* on the way to the airport, the squalor and danger, I am glad that I don’t live like that. And I don’t want to single out South Africa – parts of the US are every bit as violent and squalid.
In the US, we are particularly prone to an ugly, biblical twist of blaming those in desperate circumstances for their circumstances – just as those helpful neighbors of Job who were quick to suggest that his own sin must have brought on his misery… It’s as if we were saying that the residents of Nyanga choose to live in danger, they should just make a different choice…
To pray in a meaningful way is to pray honestly. There is certainly no use in lying to
God… And so, perhaps, to start near where the Pharisee starts – thank God I am richly blessed… perhaps it’s a good place to start.
But then I must move to compassion. Throughout the Gospels Jesus seems to always move in the direction of compassion. Whether he’s facing the rich young man who can’t walk away from wealth or looking at the crowd who have played a major part in crucifying him, compassion is the direction in which Jesus moves. Compassion, like justice, is the expression of love.
The founder of the Order of the Holy Cross, James Huntington, teaches us that love must act. God loves the world – and so must we. That love must lead us to action. George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community, felt that prayer that did not lead to action is not just empty, it is heresy.
Compassion, and its close friend justice, are what our world desperately needs. We pray that God will order our steps on the path of justice and loving compassion.
People in the US may not be familiar with Nyanga. It is one of the oldest townships in Cape Town, established in the 1940s as Apartheid was ramping up. It is directly across the N2 Highway from Cape Town International Airport – so just about everyone flying into the Western Cape will drive past this township. It is home to approximately 60 thousand people, some in nice houses, but many in what is euphemistically called “informal” housing – as you see in the picture. Its distinction is being, perhaps, the most dangerous place in South Africa. It propels Cape Town to top 20 list of murderous cities worldwide. And yet – it is home for many people.
The purpose of a sermon, I think, is to help folks encounter the Gospel – the good news of Jesus. So, I tend to focus on the appointed Gospel reading. But encountering the Gospel is not just an encounter with a written record. In fact, it is never just that. The Gospel is a living thing; our encounters are lively and intimate. Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John reliably point us in a good direction. But they are guides along the path, not the destination. And not the only guides.
I say that as a way of acknowledging that I’m not much focused on this morning’s Gospel… Because the passage from Isaiah is just too irresistible.
Isaiah, whoever we may mean when we use that name, wrote a long time ago. He, if it was in fact a “he”, wrote over a period of several hundred years… so “he” either lived a very long time, or he had some help.
The book of Isaiah divides neatly into two parts and it would be lovely if the parts followed some sort of linear, timely progression. But they don’t. The prophet offers us a landscape, not a road map.
As a very basic premise, we (the faithful Jews of Isaiah’s time, the disciples of Jesus’ time, and us) are given the Law of Moses to help us live our lives in a way that pleases God. The role of the Prophet is to help us understand the law, and to warn us when we aren’t getting it right – we still need that help today.
The pattern in much of Isaiah, as in other prophets, is to draw attention where we are in
rebellion against God’s law, and to call us to repentance and amendment of life… or else…
In recent times we have developed the notion that Prophets are in the business of predicting the future. This notion of prophesy is hard to resist when the Gospel writers appear to have scoured Isaiah for predictions of Jesus’ birth. But really the task of the prophet was to tell people of urgent issues in their own time, not some far-off future.
The imagery in the book of Isaiah is quite compelling and it couples with the Birth of Jesus in powerful and beautiful ways – but we need to keep in mind that while we may find predictions of the distant future in ancient prophets, Isaiah was not predicting anything. He was telling folks off…
If we let our view of prophets shift too far in the direction of predicting future events, then we lose the immediacy and relevance of the prophets in their own time. And the big danger in that is that we then lose the immediacy and relevance of those same prophets in our time.
So, what do we encounter in Isaiah from this morning’s reading? Well we seem to encounter a prophet who is in a bad mood… “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom… you people of Gomorrah.” This is a tough start. These are two cities that were wiped from the face of the earth. Their destruction hints that our own potential destruction may be coming… Rulers and citizens and all…
If you haven’t lost heart already, think about what comes next: “I (meaning God) have had enough of your offerings… trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile… Your new moons and festivals my soul hates… even though you make prayers, I will not listen.”
Yikes. God does not want us to come to church. God has had enough of our offerings. God will not even listen to our prayers. Where can we go from here? It seems that Isaiah has just read to us the sign that Dante places over the gates of Hell: Abandon hope all ye who enter here. How do we get from this point to the good news of Jesus?
The purpose of the Prophet is not to bring us to despair, but rather to bring us to repentance. And what Isaiah is doing in his pronouncement is telling us that lots of good words and lots of wonderful offerings and many beautiful liturgies do not add up to repentance. Repentance is going to have to start somewhere else.
Isaiah has some good starting places. Cease to do evil and learn to do good. Seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow. Of course, we will hear this list again… from the mouth of Jesus.
Orphans and widows had a particular place in the society of the time – and that was not a good place. Your value and status in the community came from the family and the family was a projection of the father. A widow had no status because it died with her husband. And orphans had no status because it died with their parents.
Isaiah is talking about the most powerless people in the neighborhood… the people nobody wanted to even notice… And Jesus, centuries later, is saying the same thing – apparently, we didn’t learn. In modern times, widows and orphans are no longer the great pariahs of society… but we have not eliminated that place, we’ve just relegated other people to it. Isaiah and Jesus are both calling us to repent…
But then Isaiah takes this marvelous turn. After we’ve been told that our prayers and our worship are worthless and that blood is on our hands, Isaiah says come, let’s talk. Let us reason it out… our sins, which are blood red, can be washed white as snow… if we are willing to become obedient.
If not, we will be devoured by the sword. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Following Jesus is about relationship. Our relationship with God, our relationship with our brothers and sisters, our relationship with all of God’s creation. Was Adam’s sin about an apple or about damaging the pure and direct relationship he had with God? Sodom wasn’t destroyed because of sex, but because they refused hospitality… they refused relationship with strangers and, in so doing, refused God. The sin of neglecting widows and orphans, or whoever it is that we wish to avoid, is in rejecting relationship.
The ancient Jewish understanding of the obligation to God is the ancient Temple creed – love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength. In Christian Tradition that is paired with the command to love our neighbors.
These days there are those who like to cast themselves as prophets – and they fill this role by predicting destruction. Natural disasters, like earthquakes and floods, as well as tragedies like airline crashes seem to bring these voices out of the woodwork. God is punishing us because… of whatever. The Rev Pat Robertson, a rather infamous televangelist, after the events of September 11, 2001, boldly asserted that God had lifted the veil of protection from the United States because of – and you can fill in the rest…
But notice that while Isaiah does hint that great destruction is possible, maybe even imminent, what he really wants is for us to love the people around us, especially the ones we don’t want to love – those persistent widows and orphans…
Br Andrew used to joke about a preacher’s message which seems to say that God loves us so very, very, extremely much that he just can’t wait to blast us to smithereens if we get one step out of line… That is not the good news of Jesus.
The good news of Jesus is that God’s loving and forgiving grace is always poured out for us – even when we do not know it or accept it. And especially when we don’t deserve it – since we never deserve it…
Our response to God’s grace, as in the days of Isaiah, is to live in faith and to seek justice for all of creation. Martin Luther King taught that justice is the calculation of God’s love. The call from Isaiah and from Jesus to us is to seek to love all of creation, and to let ourselves be loved. Nothing more and nothing less.
This morning’s reading from Luke begins with a special type of question – a rhetorical question. It has a purpose that is not to get an answer. So, it’s not, in some sense, a true question. It’s a test.
What must I do to inherit eternal life? The translation we heard this morning describes this person as “a lawyer.” And it’s hard to resist making “lawyer” jokes… But this person is not a lawyer in our modern sense. He is a scholar in the Law of Moses – a scribe. Throughout the Gospel stories, scribes and pharisees are targets of scorn. We tend to hear the two terms together – as though the “Scribes and Pharisees” are a unified group, which they are not. But to be honest, the scribes and pharisees that we meet in the Gospels are little more than a collection of shallow stereotypes. Their purpose is to confuse or confound Jesus. And that, in fact, is exactly what this morning’s “lawyer” is trying to do.
So, the question is not a question and we need to let go of the notion that the scribe is really interested in knowing anything about eternal life. But how is it a test?
Well the scribe, or lawyer, or what have you, is not questioning eternal life. He is questioning Jesus’ authority to speak about things having to do with religious life. He, the scribe, is an expert in Jewish law and tradition. So, the obvious assumption for everyone else in the room is that he already knows the answer and he is testing to see if Jesus really knows…
So, Jesus responds by tossing back the question… what do you read in the law? What does it say? Jesus is basically asking “don’t you already know the answer to your question?” Now it is the honor of the scribe that is being tested.
And the scribe gives what is perhaps the safest answer for any question having to do with Jewish law – you shall love the Lord your God with all your strength and mind. This is the ancient temple creed that is the basis of all law. Except that the scribe has added something… The creed comes from Deuteronomy. But the scribe embellishes – you shall love your neighbor as yourself. That comes from Leviticus.
In Matthew and Mark, we hear this answer from Jesus – you shall love the Lord your God and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. We know it as the great commandment. But it’s curious that here in Luke’s telling, it is the scribe, not Jesus, who puts these two commands together. This may add a little credence to the combining of the commands – after all, the scribe is an expert in such matters. Or perhaps the scribe has already heard Jesus make the association and so he does as well to trick Jesus somehow.
Whatever the case may be, Luke is making an important point. At that time, study of the law was considered of greater value than living the law… We might tend to think of that as hypocrisy today, but that may be a bit unfair. In order to study the law, you had to live it – but you could study beyond your ability to live. Think of it this way: I can be a great student of music without being a good musician.
When the scribe says love the Lord your God and love you neighbor as yourself Jesus says “you have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.” Love is not a theoretical construct that you can learn about by studying… This must be frustrating to the scribe, who has built his life on the assumption that his quality of study is his most important quality. You must love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself. This is not a study opportunity – it’s a call to love.
If the scribe were sensible, he’d stop here. But that is not what he does. He has another question… The previous question was a test, this question is a trap.
Who is my neighbor? In the tinder box that was and is the middle east, this is an explosive question. By saying who my neighbor is, I also say who is not my neighbor. It is a question that has been at the heart of much violence.
Jesus does not give a direct answer. Instead he gives a parable. And by teaching in parable, Jesus manages to give an answer that is both timeless and always relevant. So, we must pay attention.
It is the story of the good Samaritan – and we all probably know the story well. But let’s review a bit.
A certain man is going from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is all we get to know about this man… Was he rich or poor? Jew or Gentile? Roman or Greek? We know nothing – because it doesn’t matter.
We do know that he has chosen a dangerous road. When Jesus tells us he was going down to Jericho, he really means down. Jericho is nearly twelve hundred meters below Jerusalem. That would be about 350 stories… The narrow and treacherous path goes through various gorges and drops, skirting cliffs and all sorts of hazards. And if the natural hazards were not enough, it is a road through wild country. There is no rule of law. No Highway Patrol. Sensible people do not travel this road by themselves… but here is a certain man, all by himself, on this wildly dangerous road.
Naturally, things go badly. Robbers set upon him. Everyone could see this coming. The robbers take all his stuff and leave him for dead. This is exactly what the listening crowd would expect. A man sets of on the Jericho road by himself… this is the only possible outcome. Like in a horror movie where there is a noise in the basement, and somebody heads down the stairs… It always ends badly.
But Jesus adds some details to make the story interesting. There are other strangers on the Jericho road this particular day. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan… A cluster of three is an ancient story telling device. We still do this today with jokes that begin with something like a doctor, a nurse, and a lawyer walk into a bar…
The third person is supposed to follow the pattern of the first two. Jesus’ third person breaks the pattern. A priest and a Levite are respectable and powerful. But the Samaritan doesn’t just break the pattern, he shatters it.
It is as though my joke started: A doctor, a lawyer, and a pig walk into a bar… By convention, these people should be equal or of ascending importance… by putting the Samaritan in the final position, Jesus has insulted the priest and the Levite. This is certainly his point. The priest and Levite are no more precious in God’s sight than the Samaritan – just don’t tell them. The doctor and lawyer in my joke are no more precious in God’s sight than anyone else. This is something we can be reminded of day by day.
But just in case we don’t get it from the setup, Jesus fills out the story. The priest does nothing for the man by the road, and nor does the Levite. We can make all sorts of assumptions about their need to get to some appointment, or their fear of taking a risk, given how dangerous the road is.
But the Samaritan does intervene. And he withholds nothing in his intervention. He even follows up at a later date to see that things have gone well.
Who is my neighbor? asks the scribe. The one who shows mercy – the scribe answers his own question. And Jesus says go and do likewise.
Surely Jesus instruction to the scribe is an instruction to all of us. And to whom should we show mercy? I believe that is why Jesus tells us nothing about that man on the Jericho road. Was he a good man? A criminal? A thief taking a dangerous road to escape arrest? A religious person or a total non-believer? I tend to feel sympathy for him, but for all we know he is a predator. He may have been on that road to rob others… It doesn’t matter.
The call from Jesus is for us to show mercy not just to those who we think deserve mercy… We are called to show mercy to all who are in need of mercy.
Luke’s Gospel this morning gives us a number of difficult messages. It’s hard to tell if Jesus is being sarcastic, or nasty, or what… and it’s not easy to see what this Gospel reading calls us to do.
It’s helpful to have a little context. This passage occurs in a section of Luke’s Gospel that scholars call “The Journey to Jerusalem”. Easter is well behind us by now, but in this part of the Gospel, Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem… toward Crucifixion. The disciples seem to be doing their best not to think about this, but it’s clearly on Jesus’ mind or, as Luke would seem to have it, on Jesus face.
This is not the only telling of the Gospel with a journey to Jerusalem, but Luke’s journey is strangely cluttered. It starts with rejection. Jesus and the disciples enter a Samaritan
village, but the Samaritans will not receive them. This is a major breach of social custom in the middle east, where travelers are always to be welcomed. While there has almost always been tension between the various religious and ethnic identities in the region, tensions still very present today, there was also an understanding that strangers were to be welcomed. So, Jesus and the disciples had every reason to expect that they would be welcomed and good reason to be quite offended when they were not.
James and John, the hot-tempered disciples, are all set to take action. They want to call down fire from heaven and destroy the Samaritan village. They want to go from bad etiquette to an act of war in one easy step. And not just an act of war, but what we today would consider a war crime – they want to destroy the community, women and men, adults and children, everyone and everything.
This might be a distant echo of the destruction of the city of Sodom, which also refused to welcome strangers. But it seems quite presumptuous. We don’t have any indication from anything in scripture that James and John, or any of the disciples for that matter, have the power to call down fire from heaven. We don’t have stories of Jesus calling down fire from heaven. Where on Earth do James and John get the idea that this is something Jesus may want them to do? Or that they have the power and authority to do it?
Luke has been drawing subtle parallels between Jesus journey to Jerusalem and the Prophet Elijah, whose last journey was to Gilgal. The Lord sends messengers ahead of Elijah to prepare the journey and Jesus sends messengers ahead to the Samaritan village.
Elijah is renowned for calling fire down from heaven… But Jesus has brought a new covenant, a new relationship with God. The God of Vengeance that Elijah knew is now known as the God of Love – the three-personed God: God – who made us in love; Jesus – God’s beloved and our beloved; and the Holy Spirit – love overflowing and surrounding us.
So, when James and John want to go nuclear, Jesus says no. Jesus has not come to destroy us, but to save us… all of us… Jesus has come not just for the faithful Jews but for the Samaritans… The disciples have trouble sharing Jesus. And we still have trouble sharing Jesus, sharing God. But Jesus doesn’t belong just to Episcopalians, or just to Christians… or even just to people… Jesus is Lord of All Creation. And it is Jesus’ desire, God’s desire, that none of that be lost.
So far, the message in today’s Gospel is challenging, but not shocking. We know that God’s love, expressed in Jesus, is boundless and unconditional. We know that God loves our enemies and that we are called to love our enemies as well. This would be much easier if our enemies would just be more lovable… Or if we could somehow rationalize that calling down fire from heaven on our enemies was a loving act… And, to be honest, contemporary Christians often find ways to rationalize vile behavior as somehow loving.
But Luke goes on – and he seems to wonder off into the tall grass. As Jesus and the disciples walk on someone (One of the disciples? Someone who just happens to be there on the road?) volunteers that he will follow Jesus anywhere. We know that Jesus is not
just out for a stroll. He is walking toward Jerusalem to be executed. Jesus replies that foxes have dens and birds have nests, but he has nothing. Jesus seems to answer a question that has not been asked…
Foxes and birds are at the mercy of nature, but even that mercy is greater than what Jesus and the followers can expect… Jesus wants to be sure this person knows what they are volunteering for.
Another is ready to follow just as soon as he buries his father. It’s not clear if the father is dead or alive at this point – but it’s a reasonable assumption that he is dead. So, the son has a matter of hours to bury him. Jewish funeral customs were complex, but quick. Nobody, friend or foe, could be left un-buried. But Jesus says let the dead bury the dead… you go and preach the Gospel. It sounds harsh because it is. One of the greatest duties in the Jewish faith is the duty to bury the dead, but Jesus is saying that there is an even greater duty – one that supersedes all other duties, and that is the duty to share the good news.
So, a third person volunteers that they will follow – just as soon as they say goodbye to friends and family. And Jesus, who seems to be in a pretty foul mood, says if you put your hand to the plow and look back, you are unfit for God’s kingdom.
This is also part of the subtle relationship Luke is drawing between Jesus and Elijah. Elijah calls Elisha to follow him – and at the time of the call Elisha happens to be plowing. Elisha asks to be allowed to kiss his father and mother before he follows. Elijah, it seems, is a bit more permissive than Jesus. Why is Jesus so harsh?
Some speculate that if you look back while plowing, then you are likely to have a crooked furrow. And if you have one crooked furrow, then all the subsequent furrows will be crooked – and your field will be a mess… I’ve never had my hand on a plow – but I have
in fact seen ox-drawn plows at work. So, I don’t buy this explanation at all… Ox-drawn plows are, to say the least, tools of contemplation. You move very slowly. The person with hand on plow gets to look all around at everything… Oxen will not be rushed… And none of the furrows that I have seen are particularly straight.
I think what Jesus is talking about is our attitude and commitment. When we set about building the Kingdom of God, we can’t do so by looking backward. If we are looking to the past, we will bring the past – the old injustices, old vices, old affections – with us. These things have no place in the Kingdom.
They will, in fact, keep us from the Kingdom. This is why it is hard for those who love money to enter the Kingdom – their affection is divided. Loving and wanting to honor family hardly seems like a vice – certainly not in the way of loving money or power – but in God’s Kingdom, we are all one family. Our identity on this earth is not our identity in Heaven.
While acknowledging family and loved ones seems harmless enough, a great deal of evil has come from this practice. Our identity with family, with tribe, with clan, with political party, with nation, with whatever, all become ways of dividing our people from the “others.”
James and John, when they want to have fire rain down from heaven on the Samaritan village, have to see the Samaritans as “others.” We want fire to rain down on them… we don’t want fire to rain down on us…
And Jesus says no. There is no us or them… There is no Jew or Greek… No Christian or Muslim… No male or female… No liberal or conservative… There is us – Children of God. Creatures of God’s creation. We are one with all of God’s creation.
This is the path we walk with Jesus. It is a path where our identities of who are come to an end just as Jesus’ human flesh and blood identity comes to an end when he reaches Jerusalem.
In this morning’s Gospel we are being reminded of just how vast the cost of this discipleship is.
The story of Pentecost is already rich, but I want to add another bit of reading to the morning. This is part of a sonnet by Kenneth E. Boulding. Professor Boulding was not primarily a poet. He was a highly regarded economist and lecturer in economics. And he was also a highly convicted Quaker with a zeal for peace and justice – my kind of economist.
We know not how the day is to be born, whether in clouds of glory, tongues of flame, as once at Pentecost the Spirit came, or whether imperceptibly as dawn; But as the seed must grow into the tree, so life is love, and love the end must be.
The day of Pentecost is a day of excitement and of power – of the in-breaking of the spirit. God taking on the flesh of the disciples and using them to speak. Not just God with us, God in us.
The events described are so startling that they can almost seem magical. A group of people suddenly start speaking languages that they have never spoken before. Witnesses attest that these aren’t new or unknown languages – they are the native languages of those gathered around; As though just by being in South Africa I could understand and speak Xlosa, or Zulu, or Afrikaans. That would be a miracle.
I’ve heard various attempts to try to rationalize what happened. These languages weren’t, after all, from the other side of the planet – they were from the same region and were routinely heard in Jerusalem. Perhaps the disciples had subliminally learned these languages and then, through some type of hypnotic parlor trick, were coaxed into speaking them.
Almost nothing in that rationalization appeals to me – and I love to rationalize… But we might take a cue from the notion of a parlor trick, from modern day conjurors of parlor tricks. The key to understanding the work of illusionists, of magicians, is to not be distracted by the thing that demands your attention – by the waving hand or wand or whatever. The real action is someplace else. The skill of the magician is to distract us. This approach, of course, ruins the fun of the illusion, but does give clearer insight into what is going on.
So, I look again at this passage from Acts, but looking away from the Disciples and their wondrous ability to speak in tongues – the thing that seems to demand attention…
And what do I notice? The thing that jumps right out at me is that the crowd is not amazed by the ability of the disciples to speak in tongues. They are amazed at their
ability to understand. “How is it that we hear in our own native language? In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
I have always thought of Pentecost as a story about the miraculous ability to speak but those eye witnesses experienced it as a miraculous ability to hear.
So much of our Christian practice these days is about sharing, about spreading the good news. That is wonderful and good. But a great deal of our Christian practice needs to be about listening. What is God saying to us? How is God calling us? If I am to carry God’s good news into this broken and hurting world, I surely must spend a great deal of time listening to God. Otherwise I’m likely to carry my idea of God’s good news into the world – in other words, my news. And that is not God’s call to us.
As monks here at this monastery (and this is true of all monk’s in all monasteries) we spend a big part of each day in silence. We eat many meals in silence. We spend a large part of our prayer time in silence. We do this so that we can hear God.
Someone asked me once why God only speaks when we are silent. It’s not that God only speaks, it’s that we can only hear when we are silent. God speaks in a still voice – and uses few words. The silence is about our ability to listen. God is always speaking to us, always present with us. We, and I include myself at the head of the list, are often not ready to listen. Thankfully God is forgiving as well as persistent.
So, this miracle of Pentecost is that an entire crowd of people could hear God speaking to each of them in their own language.
We know this about God: God comes to us where we are. God reads our innermost thoughts and ideas. God knows our hearts. And God loves us, each and every one of us. It’s incomprehensible. We, as humans, can have a great deal of superficial love. We’re human, we do the best we can. But God’s love is never superficial. God knows us more deeply than we know ourselves. And God loves us.
So here we are on this day of Pentecost. In the great cycle of the Church Year, this is the turning point. Jesus has been present in the flesh with the faithful – but now Jesus has ascended, gone home as it were. And we’re still here. But we’re not alone or abandoned. We are surrounded by the Holy Spirit – not just surrounded… Filled!
This is part of the symbolic meaning of our Eucharistic celebration. By partaking of the body and blood of Jesus, we become part of the body and blood of Jesus.
It starts with listening – just as on that first Pentecost all those years ago. As Kenneth Bouldling reminds us, we don’t know how the day is to be born. It’s not a story about the ability to communicate, it’s a story about the ability to listen. The more we think we know about what we’re listening for, the more likely we are to drown out that voice of God.
Are we prepared to be surprised by God speaking to us, through whatever means, in our own native language? It sounds simple enough, but I have to admit that I probably listen more for God to speak in some exulted “language of the temple.” And the miracle of Pentecost is that God speaks in the languages of our hearts.
We can’t even restrict our listening to spoken language – since God speaks to us in music, through flowers, through other creatures that share our lives, through all of creation. All these things speak to us of their creator… of God.
And so, we pray for open hearts and minds that will let us hear the voice, the music, the dance of God that is all around us.