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Posts Tagged ‘San Damiano Retreat House’

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Christ is in the Tangles of Life

[This is a sermon that I delivered on 29 October.]

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been troubled by today’s passage from chapter 22 of the Gospel of Saint Matthew.  After all, Jesus seemed to be a pretty nice guy, who wouldn’t hurt a flea.  He always meant well, and mainly he only wanted to help people.  Given that, why in the world would the Sadducees want to trip him up?  And why would the Pharisees think they would succeed where the Sadducees had failed?  Why did it matter to them?  And why should their experience matter to us?

When the Pharisees asked Jesus to single out the most important law, they already knew what to expect from him.  The love of God and love of neighbor took highest priority in the Jewish tradition, and they and Jesus and everyone else knew that already.  Had Jesus named any other law, everybody would have been very much surprised.  And had Jesus done so, they would have sprung the trap.  But Jesus didn’t take the bait;  he said the right thing.  Meanwhile the Pharisees heard what they had expected to hear, but not what they had wanted to hear.  And so they quietly walked away to come up with Plan B.

IMG_5701What they preferred to hear, I suspect, was something along the lines of the laundry list of duties and responsibilities that God had enjoined on his people in the first reading for today, taken from chapter 22 of the Book of Exodus.  In that passage God is quite specific about the kind of behavior he expects to see in his people.  They must not oppress the aliens in their midst.  They should not wrong widows and orphans.  They should not lend money and then extort interest from people.  If they take anyone’s cloak as security for a loan, then they should return it before sunset.

God could have gone on and on, piling one regulation on top of another, but for the moment that was enough.  However, elsewhere in the Old Testament God does return to these kinds of specifics — particularly in the words that he puts into the mouths of the prophets.

That may be the sort of detailed answer that the Pharisees had hoped to hear from Jesus.  About those sorts of issues there could be endless debate, because the devil is often in these sort of details.  But in those details is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to living out the Two Great Commandments.  So it’s fair, for example, to ask how the words of Exodus apply to us.  What exactly does God expect us to do about the alien in our midst?  What exactly should we be doing for the widow and orphan, besides not oppressing them?  How exactly does God’s law figure into ethical business practices?

IMG_5703In all these issues there is grist for endless debate, countless books and articles, and the caution that gives us plenty of excuses not to act.  And if Jesus had only spoken about those things, then the Sadducees and Parhisees would have backed him into a corner and kept him there for a long time.

But for the moment Jesus refused to get bogged down in the devil’s details and went to the core of God’s law.  We must love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our being.  Into every fiber of our being and into every moment of our day we must allow the grace of God to flow.  And from that unity with God derives the second great commandment:  we must love our neighbor as ourselves.

The important thing, it seems to me, is to realize that Jesus was not trying to avoid the hard and detailed questions of life — the very sort of things that the Pharisees and Sadducees tried to trip Jesus up on.  And it’s definitely not because these things did not matter to Jesus.  In fact, when Jesus singled out the two great commandments, by extension he underlined the importance of all those other items.  The details matter — not as debate topics or excuses for inaction — but because they are the expression of whether we take love of God and neighbor seriously , or not.  How we treat aliens and widows and orphans and the poor matters because we love God and neighbor.  Those peoples are the detailed handiwork of God, just as are we.

I’m fond of quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, especially when he offers insights into his own troubled pilgrimage through life.  Augustine was troubled for lots of reasons, but not because he thought that life or God had been unfair with him.  Rather, he came to realize the fundamental connection that we have with God and how that makes all the difference in the details of the here and now.  For him there will always be uneasiness  until we bring into alignment our love of God on the one hand, and how we choose to tease that out into our lives.  And so it is that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

IMG_5704It should not surprise us, then, that we might be restless in our own pilgrimage of life.  As Jesus suggests,  our religious commitment is grounded in our love of God and our love of neighbor — above all other things.  And so it is that as members of the Order of Malta, and as Christians, we deliberately keep before us the need to weave the love of God and neighbor into the smallest details of our service to the poor and the sick.  There, not surprisingly, we at times encounter the devil in the details;  but yet we carry on, no matter the cost.

Does our work make a difference?  Will our lives matter?  On the one hand I think we need to forge ahead anyway, regardless of the answers.  And we do so in confidence that ultimately God will be the judge of those things.

But on the other hand, only when we take the plunge and immerse ourselves in the messy details of life, only then will we discover a great surprise.  We may have thought that the devil was in the details.  But in fact it is the Lord Jesus whom we see in the details.  And through the tangle of life it is the face of Christ peeking out at us.

IMG_5705Notes

+My major activity of last week was the retreat that I gave to members In Obedience in the Order of Malta.  It is a yearly gathering that takes place at San Damiano Franciscan Retreat Center, located in Danville, CA.  Danville is in the East Bay, south of Oakland, and it was spared the fire that had ravaged nearby Napa and Sonoma Valleys.  Had we been scheduled to have the retreat during those fires, we would not have met.  The smoke was intense, and in the event of a fire we would have been toast.  The center sits on the top of a small mountain, and there is only one winding road up (and just as obviously, one road down.)  Today’s post is a sermon I gave to them on October 29th.

+By coincidence a group of extern sisters from Carmelite convents from around the country were also gathered at San Damiano.  The extern sisters are the ones who deal with the business of the convent, while the nuns in the community remain cloistered.  This brought to mind stories my mother had told of her contact with the Carmelites.  Before she married she worked at a school run by Carmelite sisters in Oklahoma City, and years later she often visited the cloistered Carmelite nuns who lived in nearby Piedmont, OK.  I mentioned this to one of the sisters at the meeting, and her face brightened as I spoke.  She was from the community in Piedmont.  So it was a small world that day.

+On October 27th we had our first snow of the season at Saint John’s.  The two inches did not last long, but it is a reminder that seasonal change is in the offing.  Just a few days earlier it had reached 80 degrees, so this is a rapid transition.

+The photos in today’s post come from the Cité de L’Architecture, a museum in Paris.  The museum houses plaster casts of historic architecture from around France, and it’s the perfect place to go if you want to see a lot of stuff without having to go very far.  The photos above depict the Abbey of Sainte Foi in Conques.

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img_0130Behold, He Speaks Our Language Too

I’ve always been in awe of Jesus’ words in the Beatitudes.  The same goes for his invitation to consider the lilies of the field and to remember that we are worth more than sparrows.  Then it suddenly hit me.  Did Jesus always talk like that?  Did he speak in elegant turns of phrase when he was a kid at home with Joseph and Mary?  Did he always declaim like a Shakespearean actor when he was hanging out with the disciples?  Probably not.

I’m not sure why this issue popped into my head, but I know exactly when it did.  Last week, as I was preparing a homily on a text from the gospel of Luke, it all of a sudden hit me.  Some Pharisees had warned Jesus that Herod was out to get him, and Jesus for just a moment let down his guard and called Herod a fox — as in “go tell that fox….”  Thankfully Jesus regained his composure before saying anything salty, and that was that.  Why Luke decided to include this in his text I can’t be sure.  But I’m glad he did.

Whatever else may have been going through the mind of Jesus at the time, there seems to be here a hint of grudging respect for Herod.  Herod was nobody’s idea of a good guy, but Jesus did spot in him a singlemindedness of purpose.  Herod knew what he wanted, and he would stop at nothing to get it.  Herod was a suitable opponent in the eyes of Jesus, even if Herod would never win.

img_0129Jesus was just as singleminded, and that was Luke’s point.  He had come to do the will of his Father, and by now there was no going back.  It meant going up to Jerusalem, where he would get a mixed reception.  He would preach, he would be tested, and he would die.  By now Jesus had accepted the consequences of his mission, as his agony in the garden would later show.  He was committed, and nothing or no one would deter him — including a fox like Herod.

Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus showed a grudging respect for those who were knowledgeable in the ways of the world.  In one parable he spoke of an unethical steward who was not above forgiving those in debt to his master — in hopes of buying grace for himself.  He also cited those who rushed to the seats of honor at banquets.  That was sometimes unwise, but at least they too were willing to risk something (including embarrassment), because the rewards could justify it.  Common to all of these people was the grim determination to claw their way to the top, no matter the price.  That singleminded quest was something that Jesus could admire, even if the goals were unworthy.  So it was that he urged his disciples to be as cunning as serpents and as innocent as doves — which I’ve always thought to be a rather odd combination.

img_0131What in the world is Jesus thinking here?  It seems to me that what really irks Jesus are wishy-washy people who hesitate to risk anything at all.  The fence-sitters who take no chances go through life with few if any bruises, but they also have little or nothing to show for their minimal investment.  They live on the naive assumption that sitting on the sidelines is always the wisest course, never quite realizing that life is not a spectator sport.

Jesus wants more from anyone who would be his disciple.  Just as his Father asked of him the supreme sacrifice, so he asked his disciples to go to the ends of the earth.  He acted;  they acted;  and he expects us to act as well.  He suffered;  his disciples suffered;  and so his followers should realize that success doesn’t always come delivered on a silver platter.  The achievement of anything of consequence requires risk, but such is the reward of a life well-lived.

And why did Jesus let slip some pedestrian language every now and again?  I think Luke included it just to remind his readers that Jesus speaks our language too.  It’s nice to orate in high-minded phrases, but when push comes to shove, Jesus is more than ready to talk our talk.  He’s ready to be blunt;  he’s capable of using slang;  and he’s more than happy to chatter away in the language of our choosing.  That’s what he came to do.

img_0134Notes

+From 25 through 30 October I participated in the annual retreat of the Subpriory of Our Lady of Philermo of the Order of Malta.  As has been the custom, the retreat took place at San Damiano Retreat House in Danville, CA, and I have included several photos of the site in today’s post.  It’s located high on a hill (or small mountain) with amazing views.  It is run by the Franciscans, who are always good hosts.  Coincidentally I discovered from our junior monk, Brother Aidan, that he had once lived and gone to high school in Danville.

This year we used as the focus for our discussions a book by Sherry A. Weddell, entitled Forming Intentional Disciples.  A friend of mine from Minneapolis had recommended it to me, and it turned out to be surprisingly stimulating for discussion.  It has the virtue of being written in clear and energetic language; and it’s not overly long, for those who worry about such things.

img_0133On Sunday the 30th our newest member in the Subpriory, Jon Rewinski, made his promise of Obedience in the Order of Malta.  Jon and his family now live in Los Angeles, but we first met ages ago when we were both students at Yale.  It’s been nice to renew on the west coast a friendship that began on the east coast.

+I and many others were naturally saddened by the recent earthquake in Umbria in Italy, and especially because it destroyed the basilica of the Abbey of Norcia.  The monastery is on the site where tradition says that Saint Benedict was born, and I have taken groups to visit there twice.  I also count one of the monks as a friend.  On the plus side, the monks had vacated the site after the earthquake in August had weakened the structure.  But this tremor finished off the 14th-century church, and now only the facade remains.  I’m not sure to where the monks will relocate, but at least they are all safe.

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