I was away recently on my annual personal retreat. Initially I slept a lot. I slowed down, tried doing one thing at a time. I gazed at beauty. I was more aware of being with God as my best friend. Jesus and I went on walks together . We wrote our initials (JC + LD) on a sandy beach and in snow-covered woods. We sat quietly, enjoying hot chocolate by the fireplace. Then Jesus gently asked a question. I said: “Oh, please, I don’t want to go there. We’ve been having such a nice time. I don’t want to talk about that.” I pushed back and ran. Continue reading
Anthony de Mello, the late Jesuit priest and spiritual writer, describes the nature of true love in this way: “Take a look at a rose. Is it possible for the rose to say, ‘I shall offer my fragrance to good people and withhold it from bad people?’ Or can you imagine a lamp that withholds its rays from a wicked person who seeks its light? It could only do that by ceasing to be a lamp. And observe how helplessly and indiscriminately a tree gives its shade to everyone, good and bad, young and old, high and low; to animals and humans and every living creature – even to the one who seeks to cut it down.” (The Way to Love, p.77) Continue reading
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. This day marks the beginning of a journey we will make together, a journey towards Jerusalem where we will meet the Lord in his Passion and Resurrection. This is a time for prayer and for fasting, a time for denying the false self and embracing the true self God intends us to become, a time for drawing near to God in the intimacy of love.
Isn’t this a delicious, made-for-the-movies rampage? In the verses just before Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding—but only after being borderline-rude to his mother: “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come”. If in that episode he was standard bearer for cheeky young men, today he is patron saint of the hot headed.
He probably didn’t go all the way in with that whip of cords. The merchants and money changers would have been in the outer precincts of the Temple complex. Herod had built an enormous platform with retaining walls for the Temple, which was surrounded by a broad plaza, divided into zones of access. There was an outer Court of the Gentiles. Jewish women could get closer to the Temple proper. Jewish men could enter the Temple, but not into the court of the Priests. The High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, but only once a year on the Day of Atonement. The Holy of Holies was the inner sanctum partitioned off by a great curtain. (The curtain rods of the baldacchino over our altar are a vestige of this.) Continue reading
Lenten Preaching Series: A Framework for Freedom
Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living within you (2 Timothy 1:14)
In the center of London, just off the Strand, lie the ancient Inns of Court where English lawyers or barristers live and work. One of the Inns of Court is called the Middle Temple and one Christmas, centuries ago, Queen Elizabeth I presented the barristers with a Christmas pudding “made with our royal hands.” Because this pudding had actually touched the royal hands, they decided to save a bit of it and add it to the mixture for the next year’s pudding. Then, a spoonful of that pudding was saved for the following year. And so it has gone on through the centuries until today. A sort of culinary apostolic succession!
This evening’s sermon, in our Lenten preaching series, takes its title from Chapter Three of our Rule: “Our Founders and the Grace of Tradition.” Tradition – from the Latin verb tradere – means literally to hand on, from one person to another, from one generation to another.
That story of the Christmas pudding is probably a source of fun to those lawyers today, but it says something of how important tradition is in our lives. It gives us our roots and it helps us establish our identity. We love to touch, to hold, to see, to feel, things from our past. There’s a church near here where, on the table in the sacristy, there is a chunk of creamy stone. I picked it up, and a label on the back said “a piece of Canterbury Cathedral!” I don’t know who managed to dig it out of the wall, but it was brought back 80 years ago to this country as a kind of relic – a physical, tactile contact with the mother church of our Anglican tradition. Continue reading
Colossians 3:12-17; John 15:9-17
The story is told of a weary man, aged beyond his years, who walked slowly into the office of a country doctor. The man appeared spent, even by the brief walk back to the doctor’s examination room, and he sat down heavily onto the examination table.
“What seems to be the problem?” asked the doctor.
The man answered, “Doctor, life is very short and very hard, and I find no joy.”
The doctor listened to the man describe his symptoms, then examined him. On finding no physical abnormalities, the doctor wondered how he could possibly be of help? Finally, the doctor’s face lit up when he thought he might have a remedy. The doctor said, “There’s an amazing clown appearing in our local theater. Prokevia is his name. He’s absolutely marvelous! Go and see him, and perhaps he will remind you of the joy that lies hidden in your life.”
The man looked up at the satisfied doctor, breathed a sigh and said, “My dear doctor… I am Prokevia.”
You may understand Prokevia’s suffering if you are a wonderful person. Continue reading
Looking to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Br. Robert L’Esperance invites us during Lent to the practice of self-examination. In this practice we are often reluctant to undertake, he uncovers the good news of temptation: Temptation, and an awareness of our own failings, are essential if the boundless love of a boundlessly loving God is to be real to us.
This sermon currently is available only in audio format.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. During this period of forty days we give ourselves to prayer, fasting and self-denial in preparation for the celebration of Easter, the day of Resurrection. In a few moments we will present ourselves for the imposition of ashes, drawing on a tradition of the Church that is over a thousand years old.
Why these ashes?
Ashes are an ancient sign of sorrow and repentance. They symbolized mourning, mortality and penance. There are numerous references to the symbolic use of ashes in the Hebrew Scriptures.
- In the Book of Esther, Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he heard of the decree of King Ahasuerus of Persia to kill all the Jewish people in the Persian Empire (Esther 4:1);
- Job repented in sackcloth and ashes after he was struck by calamitous circumstances (Job 42:6);
- Foreseeing the destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet Daniel “turned to the Lord God, to seek an answer by prayer and supplication with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Daniel 9:3);
- In response to Jonah’s call to repentance, the people of Nineveh proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth (Jonah 3:5-6).
The use of ashes as a symbol of repentance was a recognized practice in Old Testament times. Continue reading
Most of you are aware that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. For the next forty days, excluding Sundays, Christians throughout the world will follow Jesus into the desert and like him, confront a host of temptations, compulsions, and foibles, all in preparation for what my brother Jonathan so accurately calls the trauma of resurrection at Easter.
The example Jesus sets for us, of course, takes it cue from the experience of the children of Israel, led by Moses through the wilderness of the Sinai desert—though their forty year sojourn makes Jesus’ journey of forty days seem almost doable. And his desert experience, in turn, makes such modest inconveniences and minor deprivations that we “endure” seem rather slight by comparison. Continue reading
For centuries, the Church has reflected on the human condition and on temptation as a universal human experience. This fact probably has much to do with our observance of Lent that began last Wednesday. Lent is a forty-day period of self-examination, reflection, and repentance that calls to mind Jesus’ own struggle with temptation.
If you were to look at a calendar you might notice that there are actually forty-six days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. But, according to the Church’s age-old system of reckoning, Sundays, as feast days commemorating our Lord’s resurrection, are not Lenten days.
Forty days, out of a year, is a relatively short period of time. The longer I live, the shorter it seems. But when it comes to Lent it can’t seem short enough. Today is the first Sunday in Lent and I’m ready for Lent to be over. I don’t like Lent much. So this morning, I am consoling myself with the thought that there are only thirty-six more days of Lent. Continue reading
The passage read as today’s Gospel is a series of closely connected events occurring early in Jesus’ ministry; just after he had called Matthew to be one of his disciples.
We heard that as Jesus sat at dinner many tax collectors and “sinners” came and were sitting with Jesus and his disciples. (This was also recorded in the Gospels of Mark and Luke.) In Luke’s Gospel it says that Levi, whom we also know as Matthew, had invited Jesus to eat at his house. It may be that Matthew did not feel it necessary to say in his Gospel where it occurred.
The place where they were eating was apparently fairly big. It not only accommodated Jesus and his disciples, but we know also that many tax collectors and sinners, and some Pharisees were there. Continue reading
We conclude tonight our preaching series Breaking the Word where we have been examining several theologically complex words popularly used by the Church, but not always fully understood, and we have tried to break them open in understandable ways so that they may be more helpful in our conversations, but also in our concept of God and the ways in which we pray.
My word for tonight is “Passion”; a concept that is no less difficult to grasp than the others such as ‘conversion’ ‘forgiveness’ ‘grace’ and ‘redemption’ and perhaps even more difficult because of the popular way in which it is used both in our culture, but also in Scripture.
For most of us, and interestingly enough for most of Scripture the word ‘passion’ is connected mostly to the emotions of anger and lust. If you do a word search of the Bible, that’s what comes up.
- For the Lord’s anger and passion will smoke against them.[i]
- Then Judith came in and lay down. Holofernes’ heart was ravished with her and his passion was aroused, for he had been waiting for an opportunity to seduce her from the day he first saw her.[ii]
- Do not fall into the grip of passion,* or you may be torn apart as by a bull.[iii]
- Evil passion destroys those who have it, and makes them the laughing-stock of their enemies.[iv]
- But if they are not practising self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.[v]
I’m sure by now you get my point that passion in Scripture is not always regarded as a good thing, and some uses of the word might even make us blush if we used it in certain company. I joked last week that this sermon might have to be posted with a triple X rating if I used a couple of the passages that use the word ‘passion’ in them.
A friend of mine, a successful residential realtor recently shared with me one of his secrets for selling a house. Prior to showing a property on the market, he made certain that the owners had purchased a package of frozen bread dough and baked it, timing its coming out of the oven to within minutes of the arrival of the potential buyer, who upon opening the door was greeted with the scent of not just a house up for sale, but of a home, warm with love and already full of fond memories. Our own Ellen Brockman tells me my friend’s secret is not really so secret. It’s common knowledge in the industry, and, further, she says chocolate chip cookie dough works just as well as fresh bread.
There is a curious request in Psalm 7, which we’ve just prayed together. The psalmist asks for God’s judgment. “Judge me, O Lord.” And this request, this desire for God’s judgment, doesn’t just appear in Psalm 7. It’s repeated a number of times in the scriptures, particularly in the psalms.[i]
Being judged is a sore subject for many people, maybe for you personally. You might have faced a kind of corrosive judgment in growing up; you may live with it now. The worst kind of judgment, demeaning judgment, is not what we hear from other people, which may be terrible. The worst kind of judgment is what we hold in our own hearts against ourselves. Demeaning self judgment often takes on an internal shouting match: silently yelling at ourselves how we should be better or different or changed in some way. A proclivity to be self-judging, in a way where we always lose, not only zaps the life out of us, but also compromises our hope for the future. It’s a minefield from which there may seem little prospect of escape. And so, to hear the psalmist ask to be judged, to seek it out and solicit God’s judgment, may seem incredulous. What are we missing here?
Tonight I want to talk about redemption. It’s also the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, so as I begin my reflection on this theme my mind turns to Ireland, with thanksgiving to God for the work of redemption which has happened over these past years among the people of Northern Ireland.
I spent three summers working in Belfast at the height of the troubles. I saw the ravages of broken relationships, divided communities, fear, suspicion and despair. But I also met extraordinary people who gave of themselves sacrificially to offer reconciliation, hope and redemption to a people in great pain. There have always been such people in Ireland who have given of themselves in order to mend what is broken, to redeem what is lost. In those months when I lived in Ireland I heard time and time again a story which is very dear to me, and speaks to me very profoundly about the deep mystery of our subject this evening. It’s a story which took place in the 15th century in Dublin. Two clans were locked in bitter conflict: the Ormonds and the Kildares. There was a lot of violent killing, and there came a point where the leaders of the Ormond clan locked themselves inside the chapter house of St. Patrick’s Cathedral to escape death. For many weeks the Kildare clan waited outside, swords drawn, besieging them. But one day something amazing happened. The Earl of Kildare “came to himself,” and said to himself, “This is foolish. We are two families: we believe in the same God, and here we are acting foolishly.” So he walked to the cathedral, approached the great door of the chapter house, and shouted. “Let’s call this off. Let us shake hands.” But there was no answer.
What he did next has gone down in Irish history. With his sword, he began to gouge a hole through the wood of the door. When the hole was big enough, he thrust his hand and his arm through it. (On the other side there were desperate men with swords.) And his hand was grasped by the hand of the Earl of Ormond. They shook. The door was flung open, and the feud was over.
This was an extraordinary act of courage, risk and sacrifice; a great act of redemption; an image of the redemption wrought by God. For in Jesus Christ, God thrust the divine hand of friendship, forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption, through the great door separating us from God. And we grasped the hands of Jesus, those hands of love, and hammered nails through them, and hung him on a cross to die. To those looking on it seemed that this man’s life and mission were a miserable failure. Yet, and this is the heart of it, a deeper mystery was silently at work. Through the death of Jesus Christ a far deeper and cosmic act of redemption was actually taking place – the redemption of humanity from sin and death. As the Letter to the Ephesians puts it, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.” Eph. 1:7
There was once a man whose younger son wanted to make his own choices in life. Now it pained the father to let him make these choices because he suspected that his son was not really mature enough to make wise choices – but still he gave him the freedom he wanted. (There are times when this is a good thing for love to do.)
At any rate, his son was pleased, and he began to make his choices. He chose, first of all, to have his share of his father’s inheritance turned into spending money. Then he chose to leave his father’s home, taking all his money with him. Next, he began to choose some new friends, and together with them he chose some ways to spend his money. And with each choice that he made, that deep inner part of him, the part of him that made choices, was becoming something a little different than it was before. Until at last he found that his choices had ruined him.
That was the turning point. Continue reading
This evening we continue our series, “Breaking the Word”. We’re taking some of the great big words in church-talk and giving them a closer look. We’ve had now “conversion” and “forgiveness”. Next week we’ll have “redemption”; the following week, “passion”. This evening’s big word: “grace”.
The English word grace belongs to a large cluster: Grace, graceful,gracious, gratis, grateful, gratify, gratuitous, congratulate, ingratiate. All grounded in Latin gratus: pleasing, beloved, agreeable, favorable, thankful.
And in the hinterland of the Latin-derived words are a cluster of Greek words: chara, joy; chairo, to rejoice; charizomai, to give freely; charisma, gift; eucharistia, gratitude, thanksgiving; charis, grace. The core word in the Greek cluster is chara, joy. There’s something of joy in grace.
If I were to stand in Harvard Square and conduct a survey on the subject of “sin” – asking people, “What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘sin’”? – I would hear quite a variety of answers, from apathy and indifference to strong-held convictions. To hear the word, “sin,” a good many people would probably roll their eyes and talk about the things that you’re not supposed to do or say (things which one is perhaps prone to do or say). Some people would immediately talk about guilt, real or imagined. Some might say that the concept of sin is too over laden with psychological baggage, or with radio preachers’ histrionic rhetoric, or with naïve or impossible standards. Even among Christians there is quite a diversity of opinion on the notion of “sin”: sins of commission and omission, what they are, why they matter, how they get done and how they get undone, that is, forgiven. For a Christian, one’s convictions about “sin” is informed by their interpretation of the Scriptures. (Virtually every page of the Bible has some reference to sin, in one form or another.) In the early 1970s, the great psychologist and clinician Karl Menninger wrote a book entitled, “Whatever Became of Sin,” acknowledging that this notion of sin is as old-fashioned sounding as it is pervasive.
There is a qualifying adjective for sin in the psalm appointed for today, Psalm 19. The psalmist prays, “Keep your servant from presumptuous sins” , also translated, “keep your servant from being insolent.” The word insolent comes from the Latin, īnsolentem, meaning “arrogant,” which is an unwarranted pride or self-importance; a haughtiness. This “presumptuous” qualifier brings some clarity to this subject of sin: arrogance, unwarranted pride or self-importance, haughtiness, a “presumptuous sin.” Now I’ll mention here, as an aside, that the great Boston preacher, Phillips Brooks, said that “all sermons are autobiographical.” For the sake of full disclosure, I want you to know that I can speak with some expertise about “presumptuous sins.” Continue reading
This evening we continue our Lenten preaching series, Breaking the Word: Feeding on the Language of Faith, in which we consider key words from the church’s vocabulary that are commonly consumed but perhaps not so well digested. Tonight we’re serving up forgiveness.
One of my favorite poets, the late Vassar Miller observed that death breaks “the habit such as binds a life to one unlovely spot” in time.[i]
She’s certainly right, death does indeed break the habit that binds our lives to unlovely spots in space and time, but I wonder if there isn’t something even more fundamental to which this poem points. With all due respect to a great poet, I want to suggest that it is not death but rather, forgiveness, that truly breaks the habit that binds our lives to some unlovely spot in time and space, or maybe many unlovely spots.
Think about this in your own life. Is it not usually the case that where there is a lack of forgiveness, we are bound, chained as it were to some unfortunate event or offense or person? Is it not usually the case that we are tortured, as Jesus says we will be, by rehearsing the grievance of petty debts that are owed us? Do we not suffer the lack of freedom and the burden of bondage when we harbor resentments? I know I do. And I know that I am not unique in this.
When I first started high school my two elder brothers, Christopher and Michael, were already there. It was a rather old-fashioned school, and we were called by our surname. “Come in Tristram,” the teachers would say. With three Tristrams in the school that could sometimes be confusing. So to distinguish us, rather light-heartedly, Christopher was referred to as Tristram. He was the oldest. Michael was known as Tristram Minor. Then I arrived. I was to be Tristram Minimus – which I didn’t much like!
That stayed with me over the years at school. I think it so often happens – in a family or a community – that although you have grown and changed, others still see you as you were, or remember something you once did, and still define you in those terms. And we want to say, “I’m not that anymore – I’ve changed. Haven’t you noticed?”
It was quite a liberation to leave school and go to university where no one had met Tristram Minimus – but only Geoffrey. Like the lobster which grows and changes and needs to burst out of its old shell, it felt wonderful to make a new beginning, changed from a school boy into an undergraduate.
“To live is to change. And to be perfect is to have changed often.” Famous words of John Henry Newman. They reflect one of the great inner dynamics of the Gospels, which is Christ’s call to each one of us to change. It is not always welcome; it’s not always comfortable; it’s not always easy, but like it or not, if we refuse to change we will die. That goes for us as individuals, and for us as Christian communities. “To live is to change. To be perfect is to have changed often.” Continue reading