Suffering and Greatness

English: Mary and Jesus
English: Mary and Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

September 23, 2012 Homily
Season after Pentecost; proper 20.
Mark 9:30-37
Grace Church, Massapequa

 

 

 

For the second time now, as he did in the Gospel proclaimed last Sunday as well, Jesus pours out to his closest followers the truth of who he is, and of what this identity means regarding his fate: that he will be betrayed, suffer, die, and three days later rise again.

 

This teaching, even said right out loud and clear, cannot seem yet to break through their ears into their heads. The disciples cannot conceive of a Messiah who suffers, a Christ who dies, a God who empties himself completely to the point of death. It just does not make any sense. To make it worse, instead of asking Jesus what this means, what he is trying to tell them; instead of engaging him in conversation about this terrible and amazing teaching; instead of trusting him enough to raise the questions that are in them, they remain silent about it.

 

But not entirely silent. It sounds in Mark’s Gospel as if Jesus, after sharing this solemn word with his friends again, had separated a bit from them then along the road. Maybe he went on ahead, walking just a bit faster as he led the way. Or maybe he fell behind them a few yards in order to allow himself some time to contemplate, to take this truth of his mission deeply into himself, or perhaps to commune with his Father, his Abba, in prayer.

 

Wherever he was, Jesus apparently heard the disciples talking with one another with great animation. It sounded like an argument. Maybe Jesus hoped that the word he had just given them about himself had really struck them forcibly, had reached their hearts and engaged their minds: so that now as they walked along they were with energy discussing various understandings of how all this that Jesus had said could be true.

 

So it may have been with hope that his very slow followers had finally caught on that Jesus asked them after they reached the house: “What were you all talking about as we came along?” The truth, which they must have admitted with embarrassment, was that having just heard their beloved Rabbi tell them of his impending suffering and death, they strode along fighting over which of them was, or would be, the greatest in the Kingdom they expected their Messiah to inaugurate.

 

That must have hurt! They didn’t understand. They didn’t ask for explanation. Instead they turned in on themselves to fight like children might over who is the king of the hill. But Jesus takes his disappointment and turns it to something helpful. He patiently sits down with this ragtag bunch, and explains to them what real leadership looks like in God’s Kingdom. It is nothing like lording it over others. It is nothing like having the power to compel others to obey. It is, instead, choosing freely to be the last of all and the least of all. It is having the strength to let every one else pass on their way first and gain what they need, and then to follow along to guide and guard and love from an unexpected place behind.

 

That is what Jesus is doing for them, what he had done for them that very day, and what he was telling them he was going to do – despite the pain – for everyone in the days to come. He was showing them in his own flesh as well as his words, what it means to be the greatest.

 

To make this real for them, in an attempt to make this truth, at least, stick in their heads and take root in their hearts, he brings a little child into the midst of their group. Who was this child? Was it a boy or a girl? The son or daughter of one of the disciples maybe? Or a child from the neighborhood who was visiting in the house? We don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. The fact that we do not know let’s us – invites us – to picture this child as one whom we know and love. Picture there one of your own children, now or when they were small. Picture yourself there as a child. Picture there one of the hungering children of the world whom we see pictured all around us, waiting for our hearts to open in love.

 

Jesus brings this powerless little child into this circle of grown men hungering to know which of them will win the biggest prize and possess the greatest power. He puts his hands gently on this child’s shoulders. He smiles and looks into those new eyes as he says to his friends: “Whoever welcomes a child such as this welcomes me and the One who sent me.”

 

Jesus’ closest failed to understand him and were afraid to ask him anything to make it clearer. Now, he demonstrates that the one who is greatest in the kingdom is the one who, like this child, like most any child, is ready and willing to ask questions: “Where did I come from? Who is God? What is death? Why does the sunset have all those colors? If the world is turning so fast how come we don’t fly off it, or at least fall down? Why not? Why? … Will you always love me, no matter what?” These and a million other questions a child is able, without embarrassment, to raise to us, and through us to Jesus. That trust, that voice raised in trust, opens the gate of heaven.

 

For any of us, no matter how long we’ve been a member of Christ’s Body, no matter how often or not we come to church, no matter how many educational events we attend or not – we all have unanswered questions about God, about his Christ, about faith, about suffering, about dying, about rising again.

 

Do me a favor. Promise me that this week every one of you will take one of your own questions – one that is real for you, that you have been holding in your heart since you were a child maybe – and speak that question with trust to someone you love. Ask what you need or yearn to know, and talk about it in trust. And then receive with respect the question your loved one will raise to you in return. In doing so, quietly and gently you will raise a corner of the curtain behind which shines God’s Kingdom.

 

Oh … and because it is good to hear the power and the truth and the laughter behind the questions children dare to ask, listen to this. Jeffrey, 6 years old, was standing at the back of the church one Sunday morning, intently studying a bronze plaque on the wall, inscribed all with names. Seeing Jeff there for several minutes, the minister approached and stood next to him. Looking up the boy pointed and asked, “Reverend, what is this?” His pastor responded, “These are the names of all the men and women who died in the service.” Thoughtfully, Jeffrey looked back up at the plaque for another half a minute. He then looked up again at the pastor and asked, “At the 8:00 or the 10:00?”

 

John P. McGinty
September 22, 2012

 

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Visiting: convergence of present, past, and future

 

English: Photograph of Glenstal Abbey house, C...
English: Photograph of Glenstal Abbey house, Co. Limerick, Ireland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Having a dog assures that you are up early every day. You may go back to bed, but if you want to avoid a problem of greater or lesser proportion, it is worth rising early and getting out with the pooch.

 

This morning at 5:30 am I came out the back door of my Mom’s house in southern New Hampshire in the company of Gracie, the miniature Australian Shepherd. The land was still covered in the darkness of night. It was silent. Taking a breath there, I immediately knew that the fields and lawns here had been mown yesterday afternoon. The air was filled with the sweet, living aroma of fresh-cut grass, testimony to the goodness of creation and dare I say, to the continuing care of the Creator.

 

Something about that set of early morning circumstances brought me back immediately and powerfully to early mornings in the summer of 2005, across the ocean from here, dogless, where I nonetheless rose early each morning to head to the first prayers of every new day in the monastery church at Glenstal Abbey in Limerick. Leaving my room in solitude, as I walked downstairs and along the paths of the monastery enclosure, I would fall into step with companions on their way to the same destination. It was a place of praise of the divine. And it was also a beautifully human place, as the group of us of all ages and backgrounds had heaved up our bones and dragged ourselves a few hundred yards to the place where this common enterprise would enliven our spirits, remind us of God’s long-term care and call, and launch us gently into the new day.

 

All that came rushing back this morning, in the darkness and silence of the New Hampshire countryside, with the same God of the psalms looking on. It was a moment of both powerful noatalgia and full gratitude.

 

This past week I began work in the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island with responsibility to pay loving attention to formation in Christ throughout the diocese. For me it is a question, at every age, in early morning and restful night, of how well we introduce one another to the God of love, to the Son he has made incarnate among us, and to their Spirit who longs to dwell within every human person.

 

For me the key it seems will be to keep focus on the person of Jesus and on the Gospel his friends have given us. I was once privileged to teach ecclesiology, the theology of the church, at Saint John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts. My study and reading at that time convinced me for all time that the church is off-base when we are primarily and obviously concerned with the good of the church itself. Our focus is not meant to be on the institution. The institution exists for the sake of the call we have received from Jesus Christ. It is a tool in the hand of that mission. Yes, as any tool it will need at some intervals to be sharpened, repaired, renewed. That is true without a doubt. But for the vast predominance of the moments God gives us to act in this world, our goal is not to protect the church. It is to invite people to the Gospel life. When we are about the work, the true beauty of Christ’s Church shines forth as a beautiful by-product.

 

A Benedictine friend at Glenstal Abbey has recently written of the unfortunate “narcissism” of the church over his lifetime of more than seventy years. I know what he means.

 

My job will be to open to human hearts the possibility, the genuine possibility, of their living heart to heart with the God we met in chant in the church at Glenstal Abbey every morning. That same God in Christ is present on the streets of Brooklyn, by the hospital beds of the suffering, in the rooms of the lonely, in the laughter of children wherever they live; in short, within the needs and the abundance of everyone everywhere.

 

Looking in that direction, there is both plenty to do and much to celebrate.

 

Come, My Beloved!

Homily September 2, 2012 at Grace Church Brooklyn Heights

on the Song of Solomon (Song of Songs) 2:8-13

Brennan Manning was born in Brooklyn in 1934.  He served in the Korean War and when he came home, he went to college.  His studies didn’t do much to inspire him, and he went looking for something else, something more; talking to friends, keeping his mind and heart open and focused on all around him.  In early 1956 he had an experience in prayer that changed his life from that moment forward.  He described it this way: “At that moment, the entire Christian life became for me an intimate, heartfelt relationship with Jesus.” For him that meant that life itself became all and only this intimate, heartfelt relationship with Jesus Christ, and with the Father of Christ, whom Manning always calls by the term Jesus used, “Abba,” Father.

Now this does not mean that the time from 1956 until today has been smooth sailing for Brennan.  He went to seminary.  He became a Catholic priest, a member of the Franciscan religious order.  He left the Franciscans and the priesthood.  He married.  He left the Catholic Church.  He eventually was divorced.  He began to write and to travel the world as a preacher.  He returned to Catholicism.  He became an uncontrollable alcoholic and lived on the streets of Florida, homeless, and at the doorway of death.  He moved into recovery and began to write and to preach again.  Today he is infirm, unable to walk by himself,  barely able to speak.  But when he speaks, some of the words he repeats most often are those we hear from the Song of Solomon in the first lesson from scripture today.  These words he hears as the words of Jesus Christ to his heart, and to yours, and to mine, amd to the hearts of every human person who lives and ever has lived or ever will live.  These words he understands as the words of undying, undeserved, unbreakable love of an incarnate God for us, incarnate spirits, often very messed up, desperate, broken and breaking – but always always always loved:

“Arise, my love, my fair one,   and come away;   for now the winter is past,   the rain is over and gone.    The flowers appear on the earth;   the time of singing has come,and the voice of the turtle-dove   is heard in our land.    The fig tree puts forth its figs,   and the vines are in blossom;   they give forth fragrance.Arise, my love, my fair one,   and come away.”

In one of the many stages of his amazingly apparently unstable and yet profoundly focused life, Brennan was serving as the chaplain to the last hospital left in this nation to attend to men and women suffering and dying with Hansen’s disease, leprosy.  The hospital was in Louisiana.  One day as he arrived to make his rounds, the nurses asked him to hurry to one of the patients, a Mexican-American woman in her late 30’s named Yolanda, who was dying that day.  It’s worth hearing Brennan’s own description of what happened when he reached Yolanda’s bedside:

“… I went up to Yolanda’s room on the second floor and sat on the edge of the bed. Yolanda is a woman thirty-seven years old. Five years ago, before the leprosy began to ravage, she must have been one of the most stunningly beautiful creatures God ever made.  . . . But that was then.
Now her nose is pressed into her face. Her mouth is severely contorted. Both ears are distended. She has no fingers on either hand, just two little stumps.
Two years earlier, her husband divorced her because of the social stigma attached to leprosy, and he had forbidden their two sons, boys fourteen and sixteen, from ever visiting their mother.  . . . As a result, Yolanda was dying an abandoned, forsaken woman.
I… prayed with her. . . .  [T]he room was filled with a brilliant light. It had been raining when I came in; I didn’t even look up, but said, “Thanks, Abba, for the sunshine. I bet that’ll cheer her up.”
As I turned to look back at Yolanda – and if I live to be three hundred years old I’ll never be able to find the words to describe what I saw – her face was like a sunburst over the mountains, like one thousand sunbeams streaming out of her face literally so brilliant I had to shield my eyes.
I said, ‘Yolanda, you appear to be very happy.’
With her slight Mexican-American accent she said, ‘Oh, Father, I am so happy.’
I then asked her, ‘Will you tell me why you’re so happy?’
She said, ‘Yes, the Abba of Jesus just told me that He would take me home today.’
I vividly remember the hot tears that began rolling down my cheeks. After a lengthy pause, I asked just what the Abba of Jesus said.
Yolanda said:
‘Come now, My love. My lovely one, come.For you, the winter has passed, the snows are over and gone, the flowers appear in the land, the season of joyful songs has come.The cooing of the turtledove is heard in our land.Come now, My love. My Yolanda, come.Let Me see your face. And let Me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful.Come now, My love, My lovely one, come.’
Six hours later her little leprous body was swept up into the furious love of her Abba. Later that same day, I learned from the staff that Yolanda was illiterate. She had never read the Bible, or any book for that matter, in her entire life. I surely had never repeated those words to her in any of my visits. I was, as they say, a man undone” (The Furious Longing of God, by Brennan Manning, David C. Cook Publishers, 2009).

I was reminded of Brennan Manning and the little I know of him – this man who calls himself a Ragamuffin of the Gospel, and invites others to be the same – not only by the obvious link to the Song of Solomon, but also by the part of the good news we hear today in Mark’s Gospel, chapter 7.  There Jesus is confronted by some very important religious authorities who had traveled into the hinterlands all the way from Jerusalem to challenge him.  They see Jesus’ disciples failing to keep some of the traditions that were dear to them – about cleanliness, about what is to be eaten and what not.  They challenge, and Jesus who, we have every indication, knew and respected the God-given Law of his people, responds with a challenge of his own.  God has asked certain things of us.  Sometimes we fail to keep those things and focus instead on our accepted interpretations and additions to what God has asked.  We get more caught up in the way we have come to do things than we do in the way God does things.  And when we do, in the very name of God we can move away from the experience of God and God’s own love.  

In his response, it looks to me like Jesus is asking us to stop, to back up a bit, and to consider whether the things we consider to be time-honored, and perhaps even vital in our relationship to God, really are all that.  Jesus seems to intimate that it is very easy for us, as human individuals and as human communities, to go off the mark, to go right off the road, and not even realize.  The things that are vital don’t have to do with our diet, or how well we keep ourselves clean, how spotless our speech is, or whether we hardly ever sin.  The things that are vital might not be those we most value either, even the time-honored traditions of Grace Church, of the Anglican Communion, or indeed of all Christianity. 

What is vital, as Brennan and others like him throughout Christian history have heard in this text, and throughout Scripture, is that we are loved.  You are loved.  I am loved.  We are loved by God.  Who won’t ever stop loving us.  Who will forever refuse to give up on us.  Ever.  Who loves us not because we are perfect, because we aren’t; but rather, who loves us in the face of our radical imperfection.  Who moves us toward perfection precisely by loving us.

The collect for this Sunday points us gently and beautifully in this same direction.  Hidden in the middle are two phrases that need, as they are, to be heard together as they complement and unveil one another.  We asked the Lord: “increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness.”  

True Religion?  What does this phrase mean in our time, besides being a line of popular jeans?   The word “religion” has its roots in the Latin, re-ligare that is, to tie, to bind, to fasten.  The sense is that some things that have been separate are being brought together to form a union, a whole again. That is, we humans are being bound together and fastened to the Center of all that is, what we call God, by one bond: love.
Only if we have ‘true religion’ in this sense will we ever be open to receive the nourishment of ‘all goodness’ from the hand of God.  

What God wants from us, as Jesus says clearly today, is what those closest to us in life want from us.  God wants our hearts. The deepest center of our inner affections, focused Godward, so that there is opened up a wide and open highway between us and God, along which God can send us better gifts than we ever would have thought to ask. 

Brennan Manning is almost silent these days. He is, peacefully and with full confidence, at the end of his earthly living.  But listen: every generation needs men and women who look and see through all the layers of interpretation and tradition and history and teaching and confusion and discussion as argument and human striving and push their way through it all to a quiet clearing where they find themselves eye to eye with Love, with God directly.  Every era needs these people. Some of them may be here now in this room. 
“Arise, my love, my fair one,   and come away; for now the winter is past,   the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth;   the time of singing has come,and the voice of the turtle-dove   is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs,   and the vines are in blossom;   they give forth fragrance.Arise, my love, my fair one,   and come away.”