By the Rev’d Canon Lynne Thackwray, April 8, 2018
Last Sunday, you had in your bulletins, information on adopting a Rule of Life based upon that of St. Benedict. In the coming weeks we are going to explore the six rules put forth by St. Benedict. Today I am going to talk about prayer but first I thought it would be a good idea to briefly tell you about the man himself. St. Benedict was born in 480 A.D. into a world suffering through wars and political disorders and a church that was split theologically and torn apart. Sound familiar?
He was born into a ‘family of high station’ and went to Rome to study liberal arts but in response to the world he was born into, he abandoned his studies and chose to live in solitary in the countryside. He secretly lived in a cave for three years, and a friend used a rope to lower him food scraps. In the silence of the cave, Benedict prayed to God and fought with demons. To battle temptation he would throw his naked body onto thornbushes. I don’t recommend it but for him it must have worked! During this time he was discovered by a number of disciples and by 528 AD – at 48 years of age - he had established 12 small monasteries. Once a year he met with his sister St. Scholastica who had established herself nearby with her community of nuns. During this time, St. Benedict acquired a widespread reputation as a holy man. For St. Benedict, the monastery became a loving community and his Rule of Life was to enable the monks living together to serve God and save their souls. The Rule continually points beyond itself to Christ, sustaining those who journey together in love and service. Benedict’s philosophy is best summarized by his famous phrase “Ora et labora” – “pray and work.” He believed that prayer and work are partners. Prayer comes first, and work follows. His philosophy was well summarized by Ignatius of Loyola: “Pray as if everything depends on God and work as if everything depends on you.” St. Benedict was a great monk, in the truest sense of the word – he’s one of the few people honored in the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches.
Prayer lies at the very heart of Benedictine life; it holds everything together, it sustains every other activity, it’s the one thing that makes all the rest possible. For St. Benedict, praying can never be set apart from the rest of life, it is the life itself. As St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “always seek to do good to one another and to all, Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” So… how does one do that in a world that is so busy and time never permits half the things we would like to do.
Many of you have probably heard of Brother Lawrence, a Disclaced Carmelite ( 'discalced' meaning 'barefoot' and coming from the practice of wearing sandals.) He wrote a very powerful, small book called “The Practice of the Presence of God.” Lawrence’s goal was to continually keep God in his mind and heart, even while he cooked food or washed dishes or unloaded a shipment of wine barrels for the thirsty monks. He admitted it wasn’t easy at first. And I remember thinking to myself when I read that – not easy!? – like impossible. Then one day I was speaking to Sister Mary Adela – one of our Anglican nuns whom I greatly admired and she told me that she prayed over all the little often mundane tasks that had to be done at the convent like sweeping up and doing dishes and ironing, a job she particularly did not enjoy. So she said she learned to say a prayer and offer her ironing to God and she found that it became something she no longer disliked doing. This to her was practising the presence of God. Brother Lawrence’s little book has influenced the spiritual journey of hundreds of millions of people but when he died he simply disappeared. No headstone marks his place. But to quote someone who travelled trying to discover his burial place: “Brother Lawrence simply ‘walked faithfully with God; then he was no more.’ He practiced God’s presence, and now he stands in God’s presence. I think it’s more than enough” and I would agree.
There are two distinct types of prayer – corporate prayer and private prayer. Both are valuable and needed. We need to pray together as a community. There is power in communal prayer. We also need to pray in private. What we have to say to God is between ourselves and God and that is when we can bare our souls – when we can pray from the heart. As Anglicans we are people of the book. And there are many beautiful and meaningful prayers written in our books. Sometimes though people feel the need to move beyond the book and make the prayers their own. Either way, when we pray together, when we are united in prayer, we are stronger for it.
One of the most difficult things I had to learn when I was a chaplain at the hospital was to learn to pray in a personal way – without a book - with each patient I visited. I found it more meaningful and intimate if I prayed specific personal prayers for each person.
Sometimes we don’t know what or how to pray. I was taught the 5 finger prayer which I found helpful in my earlier days. There are many versions of this but the one I found best for me was to begin with a prayer of praise - of adoration and then offer a prayer of thanksgiving – what a beautiful day we have today and thank you Lord for creation, for the sunshine, the flowers and the birds that are chirping in the trees. Then prayers of intercession – praying for family and friends, those who are ill, in trouble or in need. We need to offer a prayer of confession – I’m sorry for snapping at my friend yesterday and I’m sorry for messing up your creation by buying plastic bottles which clog up our waters. I’m sorry for the white lie I told to my boss.
Fifth and finally, a prayer of supplication, a prayer for ourselves. Lord help me to be a better person. Help me to be more sensitive to the needs of others. Help me to deal with the pain of my arthritic knees.
Sometimes there are just no words for what we want or need to pray. Recognizing the presence of God in our lives there is nothing wrong with just sitting with God in silence. Or when words fail us, when we are in desperate need, there is nothing wrong with just holding that person or that situation in the light of God’s grace. We don’t need to say anything or add our agenda. Just by holding people in the light, God can do whatever God needs to do in their lives.
There are many ways to pray; The hymns we sing is prayer, the repetitive meditative Taize hymns are prayer; silence can be prayer; rejoicing in and enjoying creation can be prayer; reading the psalms can be prayer. We can pray on our knees, sitting, standing, walking or dancing (remember when liturgical dance was often done during a special service). In his book, Pray All Ways, Edward Hays describes sleep as a beautiful expression of prayer since it is resting in God, letting go of our control of life. There are many things we can say about prayer:
The Early Church didn’t have a prayer meeting; the early church was the prayer meeting.
Prayer is really about intimacy; It’s about becoming one with God.
Prayer is exhaling the spirit of man and inhaling the spirit of God.
Prayer is opening up your heart to God. In silence, it is letting God’s power come inside you.
There is a mighty lot of difference between saying prayers and praying.
He who has learned to pray, has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life.
And from Billy Graham: “To get nations back on their feet, we must first get down on our knees.”
There are many books, many resources regarding prayer and I would urge you to explore and find ways that you are comfortable with, ways that will encourage you to open up and have some real intimate conversations with our Creator. I would like to close with this prayer:
Almighty God, by whose grace St. Benedict, kindled with the fire of your love, became a burning and a shining light in the church inflame us with the same spirit of discipline and love, that we may walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018
Today, on this fifth Sunday of Lent, before we enter the week of our Lord's passion we hear the request of Greek visitors in Jerusalem, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Perhaps that stirs some- thing in us. Perhaps their very simple request can become our request. Perhaps we see life and glory and wonder and faithfulness all around us but our experience of the living God has grown old and tired and dusty and cold. Perhaps the words of the Greek visitors can energize us and instruct us; perhaps we need not only to hear these words but we need to say them as well.
"Sir, we wish to see Jesus" (v. 21). This was the request of the Greeks who had come to the festival in Jerusalem. There is disagreement among the commentaries as to who these Greeks were. Some say they were gentiles whom John mentions to make the point that Jesus came for all peoples not just the Jews. Others say that they were diaspora Jews which refers not to gentiles but to dispersed Jews who were outsiders, from out-of-town! They spoke to Philip, one of only two disciples with a Greek name. Perhaps they knew him from their past, maybe they just sensed that he wouldn't dismiss their request just because of their cultural background. Perhaps he was the one disciple who could understand their language, whatever the reason, it was to Philip that they said, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." They had missed the pomp and the chaos of the few days before; they had missed Jesus' "Palm Sunday" entrance on a donkey with the crowds and the children shouting "Hosannas." They had come into Jerusalem just in time to make preparations for their Passover meal and they found the whole city buzzing about this Jesus character and they wanted to see him for themselves.
It appears that Philip wasn't sure what to do with their request. There didn't seem to be a set of rules or a precedent in the disciples' training manual, of how to deal with Greeks or outsiders, so Philip consulted with Andrew, the other disciple with a Greek name, and together they went and told Jesus of the Greeks' request. Jesus' response, on the surface may appear a bit odd to us: "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified ... and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself"
Throughout the gospel of John, at various critical points of Jesus' ministry, when the crowds are either very upset with his teachings and ready to kill him or very impressed with his miraculous powers and ready to crown him king, he says repeatedly, "My hour has not yet come." But here, in today's reading, after this apparently innocent request by Greek visitors, he announces that the hour has come, that the glory they've been longing for was to be revealed, not in wreaking vengeance on his enemies or in doing even greater miracles, but by his falling into the earth and dying as a grain of wheat, in his losing his life, by being lifted up on the cross.
Years ago, when the Betty Crocker company first began selling their cake mixes, they offered a product which only needed water. All you had to do was add water to the mix which came in the box, and you would get a perfect, delicious cake every time. It bombed. No one bought it and the company couldn’t understand why, so they commissioned a study which brought back a surprising answer. It seemed that people weren’t buying the cake mix because it was too easy. They didn’t want to be totally excluded from the work of preparing a cake; they wanted to feel that they were contributing something to it. So, Betty Crocker changed the formula and required the customer to add an egg in addition to water. Immediately, the new cake mix was a huge success. Unfortunately, many people make the same mistake when it comes to "packaging" or presenting the Christian religion. They try to make the call of Jesus Christ as easy as possible because they’re afraid people won’t "buy" it if it seems too hard.
You hear it expressed all the time in popular religion, from well-known gospel songs and best-selling books to earnest evangelists standing on your doorstep. "All you have to do is tell Jesus you love Him. All you have to do is accept Him as your Lord and Savior. All you have to do is pray to Saint Jude and put an ad in the newspaper classifieds. All you have to do is ask for what you want in the name of Jesus and it will be done for you.
"Do you feel that something is missing in your life, that your worldly ambitions and material rewards aren’t enough - do you have all that and still feel empty inside? Well, all you have to do is turn to Jesus - let him into your life! He’ll give you the spiritual sustenance you’re looking for and when you add that to the material success you already have, you truly will "have it all." Whenever you hear someone say "All you have to do" in relation to Christian faith, walk away as fast as you can! You don’t want to buy a religion where you don’t even have to break an egg, where it’s all pre-mixed for you in the box. That kind of faith has an immediate appeal, but it lacks the depth to sustain you over the long haul of Christian living. Jesus did not "package" Himself in this way. Jesus said a number of things about the blessings of faith and He talked about asking in order to receive, but He never presented the overall Christian life as being particularly easy. Jesus talked a lot about what God can do for you, but He talked even more about what you must do for God, and that’s the part which is usually overlooked in the profit-seeking business of popular religion.
Jesus describes the cost of Christian living and He clearly is not watering it down to make it seem palatable or "easy." First, He describes His own fate by saying that the hour has come for Him to be glorified, but He doesn’t use that word as most people understand it - by "glorified," Jesus means "crucified." Here in this Lenten season, the hour is coming for Jesus to be crucified. Then He compares Himself to a grain of wheat. If the grain of wheat doesn’t die and lie buried in the earth, it can’t yield anything and remains alone. So, too, with Jesus: if He is preserved, safe and secure, He will remain alone. But if He is crucified, dead and buried, then He can rise to bear much fruit, drawing all people to Himself. The Son of God must die if He is to bring to the world the gift of eternal life. Then Jesus applies the same message to the rest of us. He says that we, too, must die in order to live. This is definitely no easy, pre-packaged "cake mix" religion - Jesus says that if we want to be a Christian, we have to lose our life! The cost of faith is too high. If we are to receive the ultimate joy, we must be willing to pay the ultimate price.
At this point, many of us might be wanting to back away and say,. "No thanks, it’s too expensive. I love my life too much to lose it and I’m not quite ready to die as yet. I think I’ll find something to believe in which is a little less demanding." Or, "I think I’ll wait for the clearance sale after Easter, I’ll wait until the cost of Christian faith comes down to a level I can live with."
Maxie Dunnam tells this story about an American businessman who traveled to Europe to see the famous Oberammergau Passion Play. Following the performance the businessman had the opportunity to meet and talk with Anton Lang who portrayed Christ in the Passion Play. Seeing the cross that was used in the play, the businessman wanted his wife to take his picture with it. Handing the camera to his wife, he asked her to take his picture while he lifted the cross to his shoulder. To his surprise he could hardly budge the cross from the floor. "I don't understand," he said to Mr. Lang. "I thought it would be hollow. Why do you carry such a heavy cross?" Anton Lang's reply explains why this play draws people from all over the world to that little Bavarian village every decade. "If I did not feel the weight of His cross," he said, "I could not play the part." If being a disciple of Jesus costs us no pain to acquire, no self-denial to preserve, no effort to advance, no struggle to maintain, then just what is being Christian all about anyway.
If we are so willing to sacrifice and even suffer for things which matter for us in our worldly lives, why shouldn’t we do even more for the sake of our spiritual lives? Why should we shy away from the full meaning of what Jesus said: "If you love your life you will lose it, but if you hate your life in this world, you will gain it for eternal life“.
Over the past month, when we watched the Olympics, what did we see but young athletes who had made enormous sacrifices over the years? They’d sacrificed a normal childhood for countless hours of hard work and pain and solitary training and they did it all just for that moment when they would stand on the winner’s platform at the Olympic Games.
If few of us are Olympians, many of us are parents and what is parenthood but a whole slew of sacrifices? You sacrifice all of your privacy and a piece of your sanity. You sacrifice a neat, orderly environment in which to live, where things stay just where you left them. You make a huge financial sacrifice - between children and taxes, you’re lucky to have a dollar in your pocket at the end of the day - but you do it all for the sake of something which money can’t buy. In these and in many other ways, we are perfectly used to the idea of losing one thing in order to gain something else.
It all makes me wonder: if we are so willing to sacrifice and even suffer for things which matter for us in our worldly lives, why shouldn’t we do even more for the sake of our spiritual lives? Why should we shy away from the full meaning of what Jesus said: "If you love your life you will lose it, but if you hate your life in this world, you will gain it for eternal life“. After all: “When a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it surrenders to new life and bears much fruit.” That is what we are - Grains of wheat. Through death, however, we can become the bread of life. Is this not what Jesus was getting at?
The Third Sunday in Lent
March 4, 2018
Have you ever had one of those times when you had just had enough? One of those times that you have held your breath, you have turned away because you just don’t like what you see going on? Then finally you come to the point that you just can’t turn away one more time? You’ve had enough, and you decide you just can’t be silent any longer. So you do something fairly dramatic. Looking back on it, it may not have been all that smart, but you’d had enough and so you did it.
Anger can be a deadly emotion. Does that mean that it is always wrong to be angry? Not at all. Anger, like all our emotions, is a gift from God. It can either be a positive in our lives or a negative.
Anger is a great motivator. Martin Luther used to say, “When I’m angry, I preach well and pray better.”
Anger sometimes is the only emotion that will get people into action to solve a personal or societal problem.
The slave trade in Great Britain came to an end because a deeply religious man named William Wilberforce became angry. He saw human beings treated like cattle, and he resolved that he would give his life to seeing that the practice was obliterated from his homeland. There are some things that ought to make you angry.
Pastor Charles Hoffacker tells about a group of farmers in Brazil. These farmers are regarded as peasants in the country with few rights and practically no political power. They are near the bottom of the social scale, and for the most part have accepted their situation.
But finally there came the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back. The lands belonging to these peasant farmers have been subject to illegal seizure by national and international corporations acting with the connivance of the military and local politicians. But some of the farmers did the unthinkable. They got angry and stood up to the political and corporate powers. Subsequently, they were arrested and hauled off to town to be jailed.
But a group of their fellow farmers did something that was even more unthinkable. They also got angry. They decided that they were no less responsible than those who had been jailed, and so hundreds of them marched off to town and filled the judge’s house, demanding that they also be jailed. The judge finally sent all of them home, including the prisoners. (4) There are times when the proper response to a bad situation is to get angry. Otherwise the bad situation is perpetuated.
It’s not that I am advocating that we stoop to the level of those who make us angry. But I am saying that it is ridiculous to say that a Christian never gets angry. Jesus got angry. Anger is not a sin.
In fact, there are times when not getting angry is more of a sin. There are times when Christians ought to get angry about some of the inequities and injustices in our world. As Melvin Wheatley once said, “There are situations in life in which the absence of anger would be the essence of evil.”
How could William Wilberforce not get angry over slavery in his country? How could Dr. King not get angry over segregation in this land? How could Christian people not get angry over some of the injustices that are committed in our country and around the globe--like hunger and poverty and sexual abuse and terrorism, and the list goes on and on? Maybe the greatest sin that you and I commit is not getting angry often enough, angry over some of the injustices that still exist in this world.
There are times when a Christian ought to get angry. Jesus was angry when he drove the moneychangers out of the temple. They had turned a place of worship into what he called a “den of robbers.”
The moneychangers were originally an answer to a problem raised by Roman coinage. Roman coins had on them the image of Caesar. Since they carried a graven image, they were unacceptable for Temple ceremonies. At that time, every person entering the temple courtyard itself was required to pay an admission fee of one-half shekel of Tyre, which was a fairly common coin in Jerusalem at that time.
However those coming from out of town were probably carrying money from their home location, which more than likely meant they did not have one-half shekel of Tyre. So before entering the temple to offer their sacrifice, the people were forced to change their Roman coins into coins that were acceptable. Thus they had to visit one of the many moneychangers who were scattered among the vendors, and who were known to charge whatever exchange rate they could get from those needing their services.
Those of you who have traveled abroad have probably traded currency at a little shop set up for that purpose. It can be a very profitable enterprise for the moneychanger. The moneychangers Jesus confronted, however, had brought their little shops right into the Temple itself.
Even worse, they were also selling sacrificial animals right there in the temple precincts. They were clearly running the risk that an animal might get loose and violate the sanctuary. Worse than that was the competitiveness among the shopkeepers vying for the business of the worshippers. The most sacred shrine of the Jews had become a tawdry, commercialized circus.
This made Jesus angry and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. This was his Father’s house and they had desecrated it. Suddenly he was turning over tables, scattering coins across the pavement. Then he took a whip and forced the traders out of the temple and drove the sacrificial animals out into the courtyard.
When the dust cleared, people probably wondered what had hit them. Nobody, however, protested. Everybody knew deep down Jesus was right. Christ’s example tells us there are times when a Christian ought to get angry.
So get the picture. Noise, crowds of people needing to buy a sacrifice, going from vendor to vendor who are all yelling about their pricing. The animals are running everywhere, and there are the sounds and the smells that come with having animals running around all over the place. You have moneychangers and people arguing and bickering over exchange rates. You watch the people paying to enter the courtyard and humbly presenting their sacrifice to the priests, and watch as their “holy” sacrifice is quickly turned into just another revenue stream for those who are running the show. Was it no wonder that Jesus found himself angry.
As members of the Christian community we might, by extension, say to ourselves: "It's okay for me to be angry, as well." But look at the difference between what triggers our anger and what led Jesus to become vexed. We are apt to get annoyed when the supermarket fails to open that additional lane when all the others are backed up; when we encounter a driver going fifty miles an hour in a seventy mile an hour zone; when someone grabs the very Beanie Baby we wanted and there are no more.
Like all of us, Jesus got angry and received anger too but Jesus' anger was light years from the kind of vexation that often grabs us.
The second chapter of the Gospel of John shows a startling contrast in Jesus’ behavior. At the wedding in Cana of Galilee Jesus changes water into wine accommodating a wedding host in a delicate predicament. Then in the Temple a few days later John tells us that he uses a whip to clear the Temple. The Temple is for prayer he says not a place to make money.
In today's gospel reading we see an angry Jesus, and it is rather refreshing. It is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild as the old hymn describes him. Jesus tells his followers that anyone who lives by the sword will die by the sword but he is not above using aggression in the proper context to overcome injustices.
Sometimes violence is the only way to stop the wrong. Desperate times call for desperate measures, they say. Sometimes circumstances warrant a whip rather than a word and when words of diplomacy fail the whip of justice must be administered.
What do we take from this story, other than understanding a bit more about why Jesus did what he did that day in the temple? The story’s message seems clear. Our task is to zealously make sure that our church, this house of God, never becomes a place in which any one person is treated as less equal to, or less valuable than, any other person. Our task is to keep the house clean of those things that might cause any person to feel less at home here, less safe here, or less welcome here. And perhaps we need to consider that our task shouldn’t just stop at the door of this house but extend outward to the rest of God’s creatures and creation.
Sermon, Lent 1, February 18, 2018
By the Rev’d Canon Lynn Thackwray
Mark doesn't waste any time getting us involved in the beginning of our Lord's ministry. In these first few verses, we experience Jesus baptized by John in the River Jordan, followed by the Holy Spirit descending upon him. Immediately after, a voice from heaven proclaimed pleasure in Jesus. Moments later, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness where we learn he is to be tempted by Satan. And by verse 14 we discover that Jesus is back in the Galilee region preaching, "The kingdom of God has come near."
But, why did Jesus preach? Why didn’t he write a book, organize an army, run for public office, issue decrees, write letters to the editor, or send petitions to Rome?
The answer is that he came to be the proclaimer - the bearer, the teller, the talker, the preacher, teacher, actualizer of God’s kingdom. He came to tell people what God was doing, was about to do, would do in the present and future. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:9-15)
Jesus came to be a preacher, a proclaimer. He did not come to be a leader, an organizer, a general, a doctor - a doer of wonders, a miracle worker, a performer of signs and magic, a personality, a celebrity. He came to proclaim God’s kingdom.
The theme of his preaching and teaching was the Kingdom of God. Miss that, and you do not understand anything about Jesus.
Today we begin the season of Lent, that forty-day period that leads us to the cross and the empty tomb. We begin our journey in the wilderness. That is where the Spirit had driven Jesus, according to Mark's Gospel. The wilderness was not a safe place, certainly not for our Lord who didn't have a large group with him as he faced the temptations of the devil. Not only did Jesus face the barrenness of the wilderness, no doubt he faced the creatures of the wilderness and of course whenever we're in solitude we have the opportunity to face our own inner voices.
Jesus did not choose to go to the wilderness, nor did he choose to be tempted. The leading by the Spirit and the tempting by the devil were imposed upon him from the outside. There had to be room for free will, for personal response once he found himself there, but he did not design or create this wilderness. So what might this speak to us as we begin our journey into this Lenten season
Perhaps Jesus was seeking a time of self-examination. Perhaps he wanted time to reflect on the ministry that he was about to begin. Perhaps he knew this would be the last opportunity he would get to truly be alone. Whatever the motivation, it was in the wilderness that Jesus confronted Satan face-to-face.
There comes a time when all of us must confront Satan. There are times when all of us are tempted. None of us ever escapes some form of temptation. Of course, some of us are tempted more than others, but none of us is too old or too young, too sophisticated or too naive, to escape. Temptation can lead us into all kinds of problems. It is a very real fact in our lives and it brings all matters of complications. Thank God Jesus was victorious over the Tempter.
If Jesus had given in to temptation, he would have been a very popular figure, not just with Satan but with all Israel. He would have established himself beyond dispute. Imagine for a moment stones turned to bread to feed the hungry, a spectacular descent from the pinnacle of the Temple as the crowds gasped in amazement and awe, political appeasement as the foundation of the Kingdom program rather than righteousness and justice. According to Dostoyevsky's view, Satan offered three easy means of inciting belief - miracle, mystery, and authority and Christ refused all three.
None of us is beyond temptation. It is a foolish Christian who treats temptation as no threat, believing he cannot fall. We are all susceptible at times, and if we are not vulnerable in one area, we usually are in some other.
During the early days of the Civil War, body armor became a bit of a fad, especially in the North. Some of this body armor did not work very well. In other words, it failed to stop bullets. Some of it actually saved some lives, however. The danger lay in believing it made one invincible.
When the 21st Alabama unit was skirmishing with Union soldiers in Mississippi, one Union soldier was boldly exposing himself to fire from the rebels. He was wearing body armor. Twice Confederate sharpshooters hit him but with no effect. Then a third sharpshooter aimed for the arrogant soldier's head. That ended the matter.
Only a fool deliberately exposes himself to gunfire or temptation! Just think of (and I know I don’t need to even begin to start naming them), the well-known persons in the world of Hollywood or politics who have yielded to temptation of some kind or another. Better persons than you or I have given in to the Sirens' song. Temptation is a reality for all of us.
The Tempter in the Garden of Eden was a serpent. From the first pages of the Bible we are introduced to the way sin comes into our lives. It slips in and grabs a quiet foothold before we are aware of it. Temptation slips up on us before we recognize the seriousness of what's happening.
Someone has put it this way: "Who's there," I cried, "A little lonely sin." Came the reply. "Enter," I said, And all hell was in.
Probably the most effective way for most of us to deal with temptation is to avoid it in the first place. We are not Jesus. He could take on the Tempter and win. Every day there are many Christians who think they, too, are strong, but find themselves, too late, weaker than they ever imagined. Yes, some of us are strong. I discovered that one of my colleagues preached on temptation on Ash Wednesday and went on to indicate that he was going to deal with the seven deadly sins throughout Lent. Can you name them? I couldn’t until he listed them for his congregation: Lust, greed, gluttony, pride, envy, wrath and sloth. I don’t think we need go into detail about them. We just need to be aware that they are there to temp us and with God's help we can be victorious over them. For many of us, though perhaps the majority, victory will be the avoidance of temptation from the very beginning.
An old Indian legend sums up our situation: Many years ago, Indian braves would go away in solitude to prepare for manhood. One hiked into a beautiful valley, green with trees, bright with flowers. There, as he looked up at the surrounding mountains, he noticed one rugged peak, capped with dazzling snow.
I will test myself against that mountain, he thought. He put on his buffalo hide shirt, threw his blanket over his shoulders and set off to climb the pinnacle. When he reached the top, he stood on the rim of the world. He could see forever, and his heart swelled with pride. Then he heard a rustle at his feet. Looking down, he saw a snake. Before he could move, the snake spoke. "I am about to die," said the snake. "It is too cold for me up here, and there is no food. Put me under your shirt and take me down to the valley"
"No," said the youth. "I know your kind. You are a rattlesnake. If I pick you up, you will bite, and your bite will kill me."
"Not so," said the snake. "I will treat you differently. If you do this for me, I will not harm you." The youth resisted awhile, but this was a very persuasive snake. At last the youth tucked it under his shirt and carried it down to the valley. There he laid it down gently. Suddenly the snake coiled, rattled and leaped, biting him on the leg.
"But you promised," cried the youth.
"You knew what I was when you picked me up," said the snake as it slithered away. That is a powerful little parable. The snake could be drugs or alcohol or extramarital sex or greed or a host of those other deadly attractions forbidden by God and our good sense. The best protection we have is in avoidance. The surest path to victory lies in avoidance and leaning on the power of God in our lives to steer us in the right direction
Epiphany 5: February 4, 2018
By the Rev’d Canon Lynne Thackwray
As you are probably aware, the gospel according to Mark is the shortest of the 4 gospels and is also thought to be the earliest. Like the other gospels, the text does not identify its author, but early church traditions attributed it to “Mark,” who was a companion of Peter in Rome. In his Gospel Mark referred to upheavals and civil disturbances in Israel which probably reflected the persecutions ordered by Nero and the Jewish war that was going on at that time. The community for which he was writing was comprised of Jewish and gentile converts of lower socioeconomic status living outside of Palestine.
The intent of Mark’s gospel is to introduce the good news of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. And he wastes no time, beginning with Jesus’ baptism, then in two verses his stay in the wilderness and 5 verses later he has called his first four disciples. Then he preaches in the synagogue and begins healing and we are barely half way through the first chapter. The Gospels only record about three dozen of Jesus’s healings or miracles altogether and they occupy roughly a third of Mark’s Gospel.
This early sequence of events in Jesus' ministry seems to set the stage for his growing reputation. Mark says, "at once his fame began to spread everywhere throughout the surrounding region..." (v. 28), "the whole city was gathered around the door" (v. 33), "everyone is searching for you" (v. 37), "Jesus could no longer go into a town openly ... and people came to him from every quarter" (v. 45).
Invent a better mousetrap, the saying goes, and the world will beat a path to your door. Well, Jesus simply healed people, treated them for the demons that traumatized them and their families, and the people came to him in great mobs and multitudes. So without having moved beyond the very first chapter of Mark's gospel, Jesus' ministry seems to have turned into an overnight success.
The disciples came to him in a rush of misplaced enthusiasm, "What are you doing out here praying in the desert? The whole town is looking for you, your ministry is a success, come on back and greet the multitudes." Jesus' response was not to go back, but rather to press on in pursuit of what he "came out to do." And that was to "proclaim the message."
In a word, he came out to preach. He came out to proclaim the truth about God. Everything else about his ministry was secondary to that ultimate goal, to tell the world the truth about a gracious, loving God, who would stop at nothing to communicate his love for them.
The very first thing said of Jesus' ministry in the gospel: is that "he came proclaiming the good news of God." And that is the clue that helps us understand why, when the mobs were beating a path to his door, and the disciples came to find him so he could continue in his high-growth ministry opportunity, that he chose instead to move on to neighboring towns so that, as he said, "I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do" (v. 38).
In the process of his proclamation, healings were signs of the message. Signs meant to serve the message, not the other way around. Jesus fed his own ministry by retreating to quiet places to pray and reflect. He did not become a hyperventilating television preacher pursuing a non-stop popular ministry. His own disciples seemed eager enough for him to do this, but Jesus knew the focus of his ministry. It included healing and doing good, but healing and doing good did not exhaust the purpose of his ministry. Jesus saw the danger that his healing ministry might so overshadow his proclamation, that he would be reduced to little more than another itinerant sideshow miracle worker. He rejected this role, left Capernaum, and went out through Galilee pursuing his ministry of proclamation, while certainly assisting his message with signs and wonders, but keeping the content of his message ever before him
Jesus is a healer, not a curer. Jesus pays virtually no attention to the symptoms of illness, so crucial in medical diagnosis. He is not a super-doctor! He does not attempt to explain the causes of illness, either in medical or spiritual terms (eg as a result of sin). The healings are messianic actions indicating the presence of the saving actions of God
It is also interesting to note that a fundamental feature of the healing narratives is the restoration of community. As we heard this morning, Peter’s mother-in-law is healed in order to participate in the Sabbath meal (with all the importance that attaches to table fellowship). The end of the first chapter concludes with the healing of a leper. Lepers are healed in order to be re-integrated into the community. Back in Jesus’ time, the purity system excluded sick people from participation in communal life and blessing, and the healings that Mark records almost invariably entail the restoration of the healed person to the wider community.
So just what are we supposed to do with Jesus’s healing stories, here, today, now? Is it just me, or have things changed rather drastically since he walked the earth two thousand years ago, ushering in God’s kingdom with all manner of miraculous signs and wonders? Where has all the magic gone? For the most part, any of those doing miraculous healings today are suspect. So many have proved to be fraudulent.
“The problem with miracles,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “is that it is hard to witness them without wanting one of your own. Every one of us knows someone who is suffering. Every one of us knows someone who could use a miracle, but miracles are hard to come by.”
One of my all-time favorite church magazine cartoons pictures a physician in his office, speaking with his bookkeeper. The subject of their conversation is a patient's bill, which apparently had been in the accounts receivable file for a long, long time. The bookkeeper says to the doctor, "He says that since you told him his recovery was a miracle, he sent his check to the church."
No wonder people flock to churches that promise prosperity, healing, and happiness Sunday after Sunday — why not grab hold of the magic if it’s out there to claim? Why not demand glitter and spectacle?
In this week’s story, the “whole city” came to Jesus, and he healed “many” — not all. Though the crowds continued to look for him the morning after he healed Simon’s mother-in-law, he left them unhealed and skipped town. In short, Jesus only healed a small number of people in one tiny part of the world before he died. He came to proclaim the kingdom of God, not to eliminate the world's disease and despair. And unlike us, he never glamorized healing — if anything, he seemed embarrassed by the attention his miracles attracted, as if they were beside the point. Most of the time, he told people to keep their healings and exorcisms quiet.
What does this mean? I’m sure that at one time or another, all of us have prayed for a miracle – healing for someone we love or for something that we desperately need to happen. And sometimes we feel that a miracle has occurred and other times we wonder why God either didn’t hear our prayer of chose not to give us the miracle that we prayed for.
Maybe it means that we’re the ones who’ve turned Jesus into a magician. Maybe it means that if we look more carefully, we’ll find a Messiah who is much more mysterious — elusive, subtle, quiet — than our consumerist and quick-fix culture wants to follow. Who, for example, is the Jesus of verse thirty-five of this week’s story, the Jesus who eludes the crowds, seeks out deserted places, prays in the dark, and hides from his disciples such that they have to “hunt” for him? Clearly, this isn’t a Jesus who will appeal to faith healers or prosperity preachers. But he is the Jesus of the Gospels.
Many of us have held out for magic, believing that it's the harder thing, the better thing, the more worthy thing. But it’s not. Magic is easy - the easy way out. The shortcut. Mystery is hard. Not knowing is hard. Living well in the tension between the already-and-the-not-yet is hard. But mystery is where Jesus is. Let’s pray for the courage to dwell there.