The words of Isaiah, the prophet: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (Isa 49:4).
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? In that valley of desolation and discouragement; that place where we start wondering if our efforts have made a difference, if they have been appreciated, if they’ve been worthwhile, if we’ve accomplished anything of value. Isaiah is discouraged. The people are in exile and all his efforts to redirect them to God have been met with indifference. He feels like a failure. “I have labored in vain,” he sighs, “I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”
Discouragement is something we all experience from time to time. We may feel trapped in a dead-end job or a strained relationship, and have no sense of how to move forward. We may be enduring a chronic illness, with no relief in sight. We may find ourselves consumed with worry about our finances or our home or our work, and we wonder if things will ever get better. A sense of hopelessness settles over us, and we despair of our future. It’s difficult to imagine our circumstances improving and we’re not sure if we have the strength to go on. Continue reading
In the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome, the power of a name was very real. It was widely assumed that the essence of a being resided in its name, and that if people could gain access to the names of supernatural beings they could influence them and perhaps entice them into serving their purposes. Magicians and sorcerers abounded who promised to reveal their secrets to common people. Their spells often included dozens of divine names. It was hoped that at least one of them would “hit the mark” and force a supernatural being to bring about a desired result.
The ancient Hebrews did not normally engage in such magic; in fact sorcery was forbidden under their laws. But they shared the cultural assumptions of their Gentile neighbors about the power of divine names. The sacred name of “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” was a thing of immense power, so sacred that it could not be spoken. The essence of God’s being was carried in a four-letter word, YHWH (Yahweh) that could be recited only by a priest and only on special holy days. Another Hebrew word, Adonai, which we translate as “the Lord,” was used to refer to God in everyday discourse. Continue reading
Read by Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
I Thessalonians 5:18
I have a memory of my 5th-grade teacher asking us to write a short paragraph describing the things in our lives for which we were thankful. I don’t recall any of the specifics of that assignment, but I do recall having a terrible case of “writer’s block.” I sat for the longest time just staring at that piece of paper. I couldn’t think of a thing for which I was thankful.
Recalling it now, it seems shocking to me that a 5th-grade boy growing up in suburban America, with plenty of food and warm clothes and a comfortable home and a loving family, couldn’t think of anything for which he was thankful. I was surrounded by gifts, but I didn’t recognize them as gifts, and so I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude for them. I suppose I naively assumed that everyone had food and clothing, a loving family and a comfortable home. I was unaware of how privileged I was to enjoy these things on a daily basis, and simply took them for granted. Continue reading
Luke 14:1, 7-11
This story is reminiscent of another Gospel story, when Jesus found his disciples arguing about which of them would be greatest in the kingdom of God (see Luke 9:46-48 or Mark 9:33-37). He realized that they had not yet understood the import of his message: that what is valued and sought after in the world is not what is most prized in the kingdom of God. On that occasion he taught them, saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35). The aim of life in the kingdom was not self-exaltation, but self-offering, the laying down of one’s life in service to God and to one’s neighbor.
Here we see a similar situation – not among Jesus’ disciples, but among the dinner guests at a Pharisee’s house. Jesus notices them seeking the places of honor, motivated no doubt by the desire to be noticed and deemed important by the other guests. He tells them that when they attend such a banquet, they should deliberately choose the lowest place, because “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v.11). Continue reading
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
I’ve sometimes wondered what it would have been like to have seen Jesus in person, but I’m not sure I would have always enjoyed being part of his audience. Continue reading
Perhaps we can better understand this unnamed woman’s outburst if we recall that in Jesus’ time there would have been far fewer opportunities for a woman to distinguish herself from among her peers than there are today. To have given birth to and raised a “successful” son might have given a woman a sense of pride and accomplishment. Her peers, as evidenced in this story, might have admired her and thought her “blessed.”
It is not uncommon for us, too, to want to distinguish ourselves among our peers. For many of us, our accomplishments not only give us pleasure and satisfaction, they also offer a sense that our lives have been meaningful and worthwhile. Our identity is often wrapped up in these achievements. We learn to value ourselves, and others, based on what we have done. We may gain respect in the eyes of others by our academic or professional accomplishments, or by the fact that we have been able to build wealth or raise our social status. Even if we restrain from bragging openly about our accomplishments, we may savor a hidden sense of pride that we have made a mark on the world and distinguished ourselves in the eyes of others. Continue reading
I Peter 5:1-4
The Christian life is a life of transformation. The call to follow Christ is a call to a lifelong process of conversion. It requires us to let go of our former identities – built on our gifts, our achievements, and our social standing – in order to embrace a new identity in Christ. It asks us to set aside our selfish goals and pursuits to take on a new set of priorities and values. It invites us to become changed people: people whose lives are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and humility. It summons us to treat every person we meet with dignity and respect, seeing that they too are made in the image of God. “If anyone is in Christ,” writes St. Paul, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, there is a new creation!” (II Cor. 5:17) Continue reading
During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, silence, solitude, and recreation.
“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (I Samuel 3:10)
I once had a deaf friend, an earnest Christian, who asked me whether hearing people could hear God’s voice as clearly as they could hear one another’s voices. He had often observed hearing people responding to one another’s voices, mysteriously communicating meaning to one another through the movements of their jaws and lips, and understanding one another even when they weren’t looking at each other, or when the speaker was in another room. He had learned that they possessed a mysterious ability that he had never had, and now he wondered if the same ability that enabled them to communicate with one another even when separated by a wall or a door enabled them also to communicate with God. “Does God talk to you?” he asked; “Can you hear God?” Continue reading
I have to confess that at times I am tempted to despair. These past few days we have witnessed yet another Black man shot and killed by a white police officer, this one slowly bleeding to death in the front seat of his car, in the presence of his girlfriend and her daughter, after being pulled over for having a broken tail light. We have watched defenseless police officers present at a peaceful rally being picked off by a sniper who was bent on ‘evening the score.’A few weeks ago we learned of a man who entered gay nightclub with a legally-obtained assault weapon and randomly spray bullets into the crowd – resulting in the worst mass shooting in our country’s history. And in the midst of such madness we hear some advocating more guns, not less; urging private citizens to arm themselves – to carry deadly weapons in shopping malls and movie theaters and in classrooms and even in church! – and to be ready to open fire when they sense they are in danger! And our ineffectual leaders, paralyzed by partisanship and intimidated by the NRA, cannot even bring themselves to limit the access of private citizens to assault weapons whose only purpose can be mass destruction. This seems like ABSOLUTE MADNESS to me, and I am tempted to despair. Continue reading
I’d like to begin with a question this evening: How many of you have been called to the ministry? Now I’m not going to ask for a show of hands, but I imagine that if I did there might be a few hands raised here, but not many. And most of you would be wrong in your answer. In fact, if you are a Christian, you are, by definition, called to the ministry.
Who are the ministers of the Church?, the Catechism asks. They are “lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons” through whom the Church carries on its mission in the world (BCP, 855). Ordinary people, like you and me, who have been loved and saved and reconciled by God, and whom God now asks to be channels of that same love, salvation and reconciliation to others. Continue reading
In the year 1883, on the 14th day of October, the Episcopal Church ordained Henry Winter Syle to the priesthood. Mr. Syle was born in China, the son of missionary parents, and became deaf at an early age after contracting scarlet fever. He went on to be educated at Trinity College in Hartford – the same institution from which Dick Mahaffy received his undergraduate education – and at Yale University.Syle was a student and a parishioner of Thomas Gallaudet and through Gallaudet’s influence, he became more and more involved in Christian ministry with Deaf people. Henry Winter Syle was the first Deaf man to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, and the first to be ordained in the United States. He went on to become the founder of All Souls’ Church of the Deaf in Philadelphia. Continue reading
The feast we are celebrating today is distinctive from other feasts in the Church’s calendar. On this day we do not revere a particular saint or recall an event from the biblical narrative, as we do on so many other occasions. Instead, this feast day points us to a specific date in the history of Anglicanism – June 9, 1549, the feast of Pentecost – when the Book of Common Prayer was introduced in the Church of England. It draws us back to the time of the English Reformation and the brief reign of Edward VI, son of Henry VIII, and to an event which set the direction and course of Anglicanism for centuries to come.
Why are this date and this particular event so important as to warrant a feast day of their own? What cause do they give us today for celebration? I might suggest three treasures this feast holds for us: First, it is a celebration of our faith. Second, it is a celebration of our unity. And third, it is a celebration of our mission in the world. Continue reading
Transforming Unjust Structures: The Fourth Mark of Mission
For the past several weeks we have been considering the Mission of God in the world by looking at the Anglican Communion’s “Five Marks of Mission.” We have been asking ourselves, “What is it that God is doing, in our lives and in the world? What is God’s mission and purpose? What does God care about most passionately?” This evening we examine the Fourth Mark of Mission, which is “to seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation.” Continue reading
Welcome to Church! Do you know why you’re here? Do you understand what we’re meant to beand to do when we gather to worship and then disperse into the world?
Let me see if I can describe it for you. Let’s start on the biggest possible scale: let’s think about GOD. God is at work in the world. God has a mission and a purpose. In the beginning God created the world, but the people whom God created to inhabit God’s world have spoiled it and now it doesn’t look much like the world God intended it to be. God is working on that. In fact, God is reclaiming the world, renewing the world, reconciling the world and its people. In the words of N.T. Wright, God is “putting the world back to rights.” God has in mind a world in which each person is honored and treated with dignity and respect, simply because he or she bears the image of God; a world in which there is no hatred, oppression or violence, no suffering or deprivation, where people live peaceably with one another,and with all the creatures that inhabit the earth. God has in mind a peaceable kingdom, where God reigns in love, and where all may share in the abundance of the Divine Life. This is the eschatological vision of God, the way things were meant to be and the way God intends them to be once more. This is God’s work, the missio Deior “mission of God”: to renew and restore the creation. Continue reading
I Corinthians 1:18-31
It was said of St Francis of Assisi that “the crucifix was his Bible.” I suppose that what was meant by this was not that Francis did not read or highly regard Holy Scripture (there is plenty of evidence to the contrary), but that, for him, the message of the Bible was expressed most clearly and forcefully in the figure of Christ on the Cross.
Here was evidence of how “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
Here was the sign of how far that Love was willing to go, offering its own life for the sake of sinners, giving itself completely for the redemption of humankind. Continue reading
This sermon is part of a Lenten preaching series on “Growing a Rule of Life.”
Rules of Life & the Rhythms of Nature – Br. James Koester
Our Relationship with God – Br. Geoffrey Tristram
Our Relationship with Self – Br. Mark Brown
Our Relationship with Others – Br. David Vryhof
Our Relationship with Creation – Br. Keith Nelson
Living in Rhythm and Balance – Br. Luke Ditewig
Growing a Rule of Life: To subscribe to a daily morning email with a short video and download a PDF of the accompanying workbook enter your name and email.
More information here: SSJE.org/growrule
Romans 12:9-21, Luke 6:27-36
This evening is the fourth in a series of sermons on “Growing a Rule of Life.” In the three previous weeks, we have looked at how we might make use of the monastic concept of a “Rule of Life”
- to weave healthy practices into the rhythms of our lives,
- to focus our time and energies on what we value most,
- and to live more intentionally the abundant life God offers us in Christ.
We have examined how a Rule of Life might support our relationship with God, and our relationship with our own selves. Tonight we consider how a Rule might inform how we relate to others. Continue reading
I have been praying during Lent with a 12th-century icon called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” I had an opportunity to see the original version some years ago at St Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, while on a pilgrimage with St George’s College.
The icon pictures a ladder extending from the lower left to the upper right, on which are a number of monks, steadily climbing towards heaven, where Christ awaits them in the clouds. A choir of angels looks down on them, presumably to encourage them on their way to their eternal home. But floating in the air around the ladder are small demons, some with drawn bows, poised to shoot their arrows at the vulnerable pilgrims. Others have ropes with which they try to entangle the monks and pull them off the ladder. Several of the monks have been ensnared and are seen tumbling into the fires of hell below. Continue reading
It can be difficult to discern how instructions given to early Christian missionaries might be applied to modern-day Christians. Mark’s description of this interaction between Jesus and his disciples is meant to inform and encourage early followers of Jesus who were convinced that Jesus would soon return in triumph, probably in their lifetime. The disciplines of traveling lightly, of accepting whatever hospitality was offered to them, and of impressing on their hearers the seriousness and urgency of their message were crucial to helping them stay focused on their important task.
But what do such instructions – to take no bread, no bag, no money; to wear sandals and a simple tunic – have to do with us, who seek to carry out the mission of God in the context of an institutional church embedded in an affluent society? What might these admonitions mean for us? Continue reading
I suspect that many of you will remember the 1990 movie classic, “Home Alone,” in which a frantic family jets off to Paris for Christmas only to discover that they have left their youngest child behind. The movie’s plot is, admittedly, a little difficult to swallow.How does a family leave their house, ride all the way to the airport, hang out in the waiting area, board the plane, and only then, midway over the Atlantic Ocean, realize that one of their children is missing? If you can get past that question, you still have to believe that this very clever eight year-old boy, entirely on his own,is capable of successfully defending his home against two adult burglars, using a series of ingenious traps and gimmicks;and all without losing his composure, even for a moment. Extraordinary child, to say the least.
The gospel story today may also stretch your imagination a bit. How did Mary and Joseph travel an entire day before discovering that their son wasn’t with the group? And how did a 12-year-old Jesus survive three days in the city on his own, apparently without any sign of anxiety or stress, all the while successfully matching wits with Temple scholars, most of whom had likely spent their whole lives studying the Torah? Continue reading
This afternoon marks the conclusion of our four-part Advent preaching series, entitled “Salvation Revisited,” in which we have been exploring the meaning of “salvation,” a concept that is at the heart of the Good News that Christian faith offers and proclaims. If you’ve missed any of the three previous sermons in the series – by Brothers Curtis Almquist, Geoffrey Tristram, and Mark Brown – you can read or listen to those sermons on our community’s website, www.ssje.org. This afternoon, our focus is once again on the meaning of salvation, this time asking the question: “Salvation: From What? To What?”
The very notion of “salvation” rests on the assumption that there is something wrong that needs to be put right; if all is well, there is no need for a savior. What is it, then, in the view of Christianity, that is wrong and needs to be put right? Frederick Buechner summarizes it when he writes:
I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated: God creates the world; the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which God created it.[i] Continue reading