By Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy
In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, we hear from Jesus at his most demanding. Jesus says “To follow me in the true way of love, to go all the way with me, you will be uncomfortable, confused, and even sometimes frightened. Jesus says: If you wish to walk the way of love with me, expect to be upset and confused, even cut off in a way from those you love. And through thick and thin you have to forget about yourself. This forgetting is freeing and it opens you up to find God.
There are times of life when I appreciate expert, no-nonsense advice. For me, this is one of those times. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and a crisis of injustice in our country, some straight from the hip advice gives me comfort. As a member of the leadership team here at James and Andrew I have been reassured by the expert advice from the CDC, the World Health Organization, state and local public health experts and our clergy and church leaders. Our data is not perfect, but it’s the best we have.
Jesus gives pretty straight forward advice about justice, he says that everything eventually will be out in the open, everyone will understand how things really are, so don’t hesitate to go public about God’s love…even if you are uncomfortable or confused. Don’t let anyone (even you), bully you into silence. Nothing can hurt you, the real you of body and soul, if you are motivated by God’s way of love. This love belongs to everyone: student/teacher, laborer/boss, those who are strong and healthy and those with weak immune systems, those who have, and those who have not.
We are instructed to stand up for love against world opinion, or anyone’s opinion, in spite of our discomfort. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and an uprising for justice, can we set aside our comforts? Can we remember the “greater good” and set our hearts on the hope that another, better world is possible?
The expert advice we hear from Jesus is that living out this love might cut like a sword.
Jesus did not come to make life cozy. Being comfortable is nice, but I recognize that it doesn’t always help us to get anywhere. If we stay inside a cozy domestic relationship with the world, or with a church institution, there’s no forward movement, no growth, no life.
My boys suffered from what we called growing pains in their preteen years, those years of rapid physical and emotional growth; they complained frequently of achy legs that bothered them mostly at night. Scientists will say that there’s no evidence that growth hurts, but I believe there’s much about the body/mind connection we do not understand. A broken heart surely hurts, and we now know that it can lead to changes in the heart muscle similar to a heart attack. We also know that the damage can heal.
The pain of lost comfort is real, but maybe that pain is a sign that we’re on the threshold of something new. Our EFM book group is reading Esther de Waal’s book “To Pause at the Threshold” She has wonderful things to say about how a threshold can be a sacred place, a place of openness and receptivity. The threshold leads to something new, something of greater fullness. It is good to remember that God is always with us, at our center and our comfort and also (as Heather says), at our raw and growing edges. Rachel Held Evans, in her book about Loving the Bible (for which Dan Carew will lead us in a Zoom discussion today at 11:30), Rachel says that scripture should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
So, even if we are dwelling in a place of discomfort or confusion, I hope we are dwelling in a threshold place, and that we can equip ourselves for change and growth. Jesus says it plainly: don’t be intimidated, don’t be bluffed into silence, stand up for me, forget about yourself and look to me, learn from me. So here is my plan: I will accept my discomfort, I will accept my growing pains, I will read and seek the truth, I will listen and talk it over, I will walk forward and I will try not to be afraid.
And I will pray for your plan too. Amen
Tonight we hear the moving story of Jesus’ and the disciples’ last meeting and meal. It is the story of ordinary actions; washing the dust off and sharing food, ordinary actions done with extraordinary love. That night the disciples gathered with Jesus, rumors about Jesus’ arrest were in the air. Jesus, of course knew what was about to happen, and, I think, perhaps the disciples did too. I expect they ate quickly and quietly, and on this most holy night, Jesus chose this everyday action of washing to teach us a most important lesson, a lesson about love. Jesus knew that Peter was about to deny him and that Judas had already conspired to betray him. In spite of this, Jesus stood up, wrapped a towel around his waist and bent down to wash the feet of his friends and enemies alike; a gesture of Love, the ordinary kind, given freely to everyone.
Such an ordinary action, foot washing, on this extraordinary night. Jesus teaches us about love in ordinary ways; a drink of water and a conversation by the well with a Samaritan woman, or a meal at Martha and Mary’s home. We know he breaks all the rules of the society of his day, but I think that on Holy Thursday Jesus also wanted to teach us that love, given through ordinary actions, with awareness and mindfulness, can be the most powerful love of all, the kind that passes all understanding. Ordinary expressions of love: the casserole you bring to a grieving neighbor, the therapy dog who visits nursing home patients, and the prayer shawl or comforting quilt.
It’s risky, isn’t it, this love freely given? Risky, because the more we open to love, the more we risk betrayal or loss or pain. We risk security and stability when we open to love. But it’s a beautiful and worthy risk, because without it we are stuck, stuck not moving forward, stuck without growth, without opening to the possibilities of the future.
Ordinary actions make up most of life. Excellence is wonderful, isn’t it, and who doesn’t want to pursue it, who doesn’t want to change the world? But life is really made up of one ordinary action after another, get out of bed, make your bed, show up on time and prepared for school or work, say thank you, help a neighbor, cook, clean, do it again. Washing the dishes might not just be a mindless task. If we are fully awake and aware, we can find God in the kitchen as well as in the chapel.
The ancient Celts understood something about this. Esther de Waal, in her book, “Every Earthly Blessing” describes it as an approach to life in which God breaks in on the ordinary, daily, mundane and earthy. It is the sense that God informs daily life and transforms it, so that any action can become the time and place for an encounter with God. She says, “nothing is too common to be exalted, and nothing is so exalted that it cannot be made common”. The Celts everyday actions were infused with images of the way God interacts with his people. For a blessing on a journey they would pray: “May the road rise to meet you” or St Patrick’s beautiful litany: “Christ be with you, before you, behind you, when you sit down, when you arise.” A blessing was spoken as the fire was laid and as the children went out the door. A Mother would commend her new- born infant to the Trinity. The baby would be handed across the hearth fire three times and then carried sun-wise three times around the fire with the help of the neighbors who had assisted at the birth. Three drops of water would be placed on her forehead and then the prayer spoken: “And I beseech the Holy Three to bathe this child and to preserve it to themselves. All the people in this house are raising their voices with the watching-women, giving witness that the child has been committed to the Holy Trinity.” This was called the “Mother’s Baptism”. It preceded the formal “clerical” baptism when the child was received into the church.
Washing is a very ordinary activity, and my hands are in the dishwater many times each day. I have washed countless baby parts and wiped many baby noses. A cool cloth on a feverish brow is very ordinary, but when I have looked down on the beautiful faces of my kids and grandkids, and when I’ve been awake and fully present in the moment, I have felt indescribable love and the presence of Holy Spirit.
So many of our ordinary acts of love are on hold right now. There are rituals and routines we miss. We long for the kind of community we have each Sunday, which gives us strength and courage to go out into the world with love. I hope we are trying to remember that it’s not the location or the details that matter, it’s the love that matters. A friend is reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” to her Granddaughter at lunch every day. There is music in the air, the birds are singing more beautifully than ever. There are lots of ways to cultivate new “habits of grace”. Join in for Compline on line before bedtime or listen to sung Compline by the Compline Choir of St Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. It is broadcast on a number of airways every Sunday night. There’s even a “Compline Underground” blog for those of us geeks who want to learn more about the text and the music! Presiding Bishop Curry gives a weekly video message. His expressions of love are moving and timely.
Whose feet can you wash tonight? How can you show extraordinary love to someone in these strange times? Maybe that someone is you? Here is a simple recipe for a calming foot soak: a basin of warm water, ½ cup Epsom salts, and a few drops of an essential oil like lavender. I promise you will sleep better after a 15-30 minute soak.
The ordinary/extraordinary things we need to do in these strange times are pretty clear: Be good to yourself, and be good to your neighbors in creative ways. Find ways to make the ordinary extraordinary, and remember that our great teacher, Jesus will show us the way. Amen.
The Gospel of John sometimes mystifies me. We have been hearing these mystical-miracle stories each Sunday during Lent. There is much controversy about John’s Gospel, when it was written, who wrote it and why, and why it differs so much from the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. In the Synoptic Gospels Jesus uses more common language, short simple statements that go straight to the point. The author or authors of John’s Gospel dare to try to describe mysterious things like the incarnation and divinity of Jesus, the divine Logos, the Word that was with God and that is God. Jesus tells us that the man was not born blind because his parents sinned, but so that the works of God could be revealed in him. He tells the Samaritan woman that the water he gives will become a spring of water gushing up to new eternal life, and to Nicodemus, that no one can enter the kingdom without being born again of water and the spirit. I read these passages with a childlike faith, loving the beauty of the words, not really trying to make sense of them and simply believing that Jesus truly is God, man, the bread of life, the light of the world, the resurrection and the life. I try not to make sense of it, but to hear something new.
This morning I’d like to share some thoughts about waiting.
Here’s what I know about waiting:
#1. Waiting is hard.
#2 Waiting is something I’m not very good at. I don’t like to cue up, I’m impulsive and I’m usually in a constant hurry. I can remember being anxious to graduate, then to get that great job and then to retire. (My Mother called this “wishing your life away!”) and..
#3. I know that miracles can happen during the waiting, especially if we wait with hope and keep faith, that the Holy Spirit will help us make something new of the waiting. These are confusing times. There is so much happening that we don’t understand. Someone said that God is not interested in making sense; God is interested in making something new.
How long did the whole House of Israel have to wait? They waited until their bones were dry and rattling. They felt their hope was lost and that they were cut off completely, but they were not. They finally let the breath of the 4 winds blow upon them, and they lived and stood on their own feet.
The Psalmist cries out to the Lord…”I will wait, I will get my hope from God’s word, where there is mercy and redemption, as the Watchmen wait.”
In Biblical terms the 4th watch, from 3 to 6 am comes from the ancient Romans’ way of dividing the military guard hours.
My many years of night shift nursing taught me some things about watching and waiting, most especially that important things can happen in the darkest hours, or perhaps that we can more easily tune ourselves in to those important things. Our hearing and all of our senses are more acute. We are removed from the usual distractions of our light-filled hours. This dark stripped down time can help us to see and hear more clearly. I loved Barbara Brown-Taylor’s book “Learning to Walk in the Darkness”, she says that darkness is divine and that it is where God dwells. In Isaiah 45 we hear “I will give you hidden treasures in the darkness”.
Sometimes Jesus is the Lord of urgent action in the brightness of daytime. He is swift to reach out his hand to save a drowning man, he restores sight to the blind man and he feeds thousands of hungry people on the beach, but in today’s Gospel story, the last miracle story before his own passion, death and resurrection, Jesus shows us how to wait.
In the midst of his own grief over the loss of his dearest friend Lazarus, the Gospel writer tells us: 1st; Jesus waited. He was greatly disturbed and deeply moved, he did not hide his grief and he wept. He raised his eyes to God and He spoke a prayer of thanksgiving, praise and hope, that the Glory of God would be revealed in this dark hour. Here is our great teacher, again, showing us how to be human.
All of Lent is a waiting, and next week, on Palm Sunday, we are privileged to begin waiting and watching with Jesus as he begins the final leg of his journey to resurrected life.
What might come of our present waiting? What is the new thing that God will reveal to us? My 2 year old grandson Zooms in for story time with his nursery school teacher and classmates every morning, and some of our older parishioners are using computer skills that they never could have imagined using. Kids are getting to know their parents in new ways and a teenager in Northampton figured out how to make plastic face shields for healthcare workers on his 3-D printer. We witness many acts of Love every day. What new thing will be revealed for us in our waiting?
I pray that we might tune our senses more acutely to the breath of the 4 winds, to the silence of the 4th watch and to the Word of God, that God’s glory will be revealed to us in our time. Amen.
By Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy
The parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge is one of a set of lessons Jesus uses to teach his disciples about prayer. Jesus has many things to say about prayer in various places in the Bible.
In Matthew 6 He says that we should pray without the desire to be seen, “go in secret to your room”. “ In Matthew 5 he says that we should reconcile with others before we pray. He says that we should pray without empty phrases or too many words (you’ve heard this suggestion: “Pray unceasingly, if necessary, use words”).
In the Parable of the unjust judge we are instructed to pray with faith that God will answer, and to not give up.
The judge in this story is unjust, arrogant, and irritated. Perhaps he is waiting for payoffs from wealthy citizens in trouble with the law. He can’t be bothered listening to the poor widow cry out for justice. (The Greek word translated here as widow, means “powerless one”; you can make a long list of others who are powerless: people living in poverty, those suffering from chronic pain or addiction, immigrants, people living in the shadow of violence and fear, for example).
I think most every human has suffered from a feeling of powerlessness; when a mountain of grief, pain and fear seems insurmountable.
The widow in the story is persistent. She knows what she deserves and she comes back to the judge day after day. She does not lose heart. To me she is a heroic figure. There is danger in speaking up about injustice, but she is brave and carries the candle of her cause, having faith that right will prevail. She has faith that the law is on her side and that this hard-hearted judge will eventually hear her case and grant her petition, and he does.
Unlike the unjust judge, our God is a just and fair God. This is one of those lessons which go from less to more: As in Matthew 7: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
If an unjust judge will answer the widow’s pleas, how much more readily will our just and loving God respond to us?
The question I asked in prayer this week was: If God is, as I believe, all knowing, all merciful and well, all-everything, why do we need to pray persistently. Are we nagging God, needling for attention from God who knows what we need before we do? And why the waiting? I suppose we wait because we are living beings and all of life takes time: growth, decay, understanding and discernment, they all take time.
I think perhaps God gave us prayer, not because God needs it, but because we need it. “Pray always and don’t lose heart”. Jesus said. Without prayer we can lose heart. We humans need prayer, in the way that the body needs breath. There is a prayer practice that goes back to the desert fathers and mothers called “breath prayer”. When we are heavy-hearted in this smartphone-obsessed, stressed out, frantic, sometimes scary world, breath prayer offers us a way to respond, a way to benefit from mindfulness and deepen our relationship with God at the same time.
For a moment, if you’re comfortable, close your eyes and pay attention to the rise and fall of your breath
In and out, in and out, in and out.
In through your nose, and out thru your lips.
Now, combine that rhythm with a simple prayer:
Lord, have mercy, hear my prayer.
Lord have mercy, hear my prayer.
Lord have mercy, hear my prayer.
Breathing, this very basic bodily function, one that opens the lungs and feeds the heart, can unite our hearts to God, and in this way we will not lose heart. Breath prayer can quiet our hearts and open us up to the peace of God’s presence. God knows that we are too busy, too tired, too hurting and too hungry to hear Him, so we are given prayer as a great and useful gift. Chanting the psalms, praying the rosary, repeating the beloved words our savior gave us….these are all ways to breath and pray and hear the quiet loving voice of God.
So like the persistent widow, let us breathe and pray and never lose heart. Amen
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