Ancient Answers


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Salt and Light

 

The Lord said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world… began our Gospel reading today.

But why not begin one verse earlier and hear the whole passage? “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16)

That first part, about salt, has puzzled people over the centuries. How can salt ever lose its saltiness? Sodium chloride is a stable chemical compound and does not lose its properties. Many Christians today prefer to ignore science – especially when it disagrees with their politics – so perhaps they can be excused for not thinking in terms of NaCl. But doing a little research I discovered this: In the ancient world what was often sold as salt was highly adulterated and the sodium chloride could leach out in humid weather, in which case the residue would be useless. Another similar possibility is raised by F. Perles in “La Parabole du Sel sourd” – salt produced by natural evaporation on the shores of the Dead Sea is never pure; when dampness decomposes it, the residue is useless. Is this what Jesus had in mind? I doubt it. Jesus uses salt as a metaphor for the disciples. Adulterated, impure salt has no choice but to lose its saltiness. Disciples have a choice whether they will be salt of the earth and light of the world.

So there may be something else going on here. 

The Greek text goes like this:  Ὑμεῖς ἐστε τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς· ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ, ἐν τίνι ἁλισθήσεται…

ἐὰν δὲ τὸ ἅλας μωρανθῇ. The verbs μωραίνω or μωραίνομαι mean “to make foolish” or “to become foolish,” and derive from μωρία, foolishness. There is no precedent in classical Greek for a meaning relating to salt. In my large Liddell and Scott Lexicon, the only meanings relate to foolishness. So the salt connection seems to be exclusively a result of what Jesus says in Matthew 5:13. But we should also remember that Jesus spoke Aramaic, and what we have in the Gospels are Greek translations of what Jesus spoke or what the Evangelists believe Jesus spoke or meant. Perhaps something got lost in translation. Often in the New Testament we encounter the adjective μωρός to describe various people as fools, unwise, lacking in understanding. So is Jesus warning his disciples not to become foolish, and thus useless?

You are the salt of the earth – τὸ ἅλας τῆς γῆς. Perhaps it makes more sense to translate, “You are salt for the earth/soil, and if you the salt become foolish/useless how can it [the earth, the soil] be made salty again?” There is a lot going on in this little metaphor. I don’t think Jesus was too concerned with the preservative quality of salt. He didn’t come to preserve the world from spoiling; he came to give the world life, dynamic life! Perhaps he was more interested in the stimulating properties of salt as fertilizer. That makes more sense. Jesus came to bring life, life abundant, life overflowing!

And thus it connects with what follows: You are the light of the world. Or perhaps better translated as, “You are light for the world”! Just as salt cannot lose its saltiness, so also a city on a hill cannot be hidden. Our light as disciples of Christ should shine; it cannot be hidden or put out. Unless we become fools, like salt that is not salty.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Notice how Jesus concludes these statements: We are salt and we are light for the world, so the world will give glory to God! Not to us. We become foolish, we lose our salt, we dim our light, when we seek glory and praise for ourselves. There is no salvation in that. When we receive the praise, we are not guiding the world to salvation. We are only attracting attention and praise to ourselves, to our egos. Dear friends, we are here for the world. And we will not convince the world by words, but by deeds, “that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Salt does not draw attention to itself – unless you overdo it – it simply enriches the taste. A light bulb does not draw attention to itself – it simply lights the path. We are here to enrich the world and to light the path for Christ. Not to draw attention to ourselves.


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What love enjoys to do

Last Sunday’s Epistle reading and today’s Epistle reading both speak of gifts and talents that God gives to members of the church…. Last week’s Clergy-Laity Conference in Boston brought into focus some of the ways God provides for the church to fulfil its mission…..

I’m not including any text today, preferring to allow the audio file to suffice:


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The bottom line according to Jesus – and Paul

 

Sisters and brothers, you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 

And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues. 

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way. 

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. 

Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Love never ends.

This is perhaps the most familiar passage in all of Paul’s writings. And yet it is not part of the regular cycle of Sunday readings. We read it today because July 1st is the feast of the unmercenary healers Sts. Cosmas & Damian – different from the saints of the same names celebrated on Nov. 1st.

Cosmas & Damian lived up to the teachings of Christ like few did in all history. Jesus told his disciples: Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give – δωρεὰν ἐλάβετε, δωρεὰν δότε. They lived in the third century in Rome. They healed without payment, and they healed not only humans, but animals too. So their Kontakion praises them: Having received the grace of healing, you extend health to those in need, O glorious and wonderworking physicians. Hence, by your visitation, cast down the audacity of our enemies, and by your miracles, heal the world – τόν κόσμον ιώμενοι εν τοίς θαύμασι. 

Healing is at the heart of love. Love is healing – healing for the world! So Paul is able to wrap up all the wonderful things that Christians are capable of with that one single word, agape. If we read further in that chapter from which we read this morning (1 Corinthians 13), we come to Paul’s climactic statement: And now faith, hope, and love remain, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The tragedy of human history is that not only is healing love rarely happens, but it is also rarely received. Isn’t that the message of today’s Gospel reading? Jesus heals the two demoniacs. But in the process he messes up the economic system of the town. So the inhabitants ask him to leave; they don’t want him to mess around with their economy any further.

Whether you want to admit it or not, Jesus was a troublemaker. He messed things up. He had no attachment to the economic and political rules of the human game. And wherever we attempt to fit our conceptions of love into the rules of the game, we end up betraying love. Love cannot be defined by economics, by budgets, by political or religious ideologies.

So we have today two saints who represent the full gospel message of Jesus Christ – not with words and hypocritical platitudes, but with acts of love and healing. We celebrate their memory by reading the portion in Paul’s letters that most clearly elevates love above all other characteristics of Christian life. And we read a Gospel passage that shows the healing love of Christ coming into conflict with money and economics. And the people who see it choose to drive out Jesus. He drove out evil from their midst and they, with ungrateful hearts, drive him out from their midst. How long do you think before demons come back to that town? Nothing attracts evil more than ingratitude. And nothing heals and sanctifies like love. Never place any obstacles to love. Never look for the bottom line when it comes to love – because love is the bottom line with Jesus. Always!


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Was Jesus naive?

 

A study published this week offers startling facts about the behaviour of 62 mammal species – from opossums to elephants. Because of fear of humans, more and more animals are shifting their activity to nighttime in order to avoid encounters with humans. In parts of Africa, antelopes are more active at night – even though they’re more likely to be attacked by lions at night! So they’re more afraid of humans than they are of lions. And it’s not just human hunters that animals are afraid of. They increasingly seek to avoid contact with normal human activities!

Many people, even Christians, find the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading to be naive and irrelevant to our lives. Really? Jesus really expects us to be like birds of the air and lilies of the field, caring not for tomorrow, trusting that God will provide?

Perhaps the words are naive if they are taken literally. People who take everything in the Bible literally often end up seeming ridiculous to their friends and associates. Jesus is not telling us to be irresponsible and lazy. Have you ever really observed birds and animals? How hard they work to provide their basic needs? Birds, animals, insects, and yes, flowers of the field, work. Jesus’ message is not about waiting for handouts. Jesus’ message is about anxiety. Don’t be anxious. Work, take care of your responsibilities to the best of your talent and physical ability. But never lose hope, no matter how bad things appear. Don’t be anxious. Anxiety kills the spirit. Anxiety destroys your strength. Anxiety easily leads to depression and despair. Anxiety kills!

The animals that shift their essential activities to nighttime show us the wisdom of avoiding conflict, stress, anxiety. They become teachers to us of the same message Jesus preached. There is wisdom in nature. There is strength in nature. Environmentalists have been mocked as “tree huggers.” Every time you mock someone or something you may be missing at an opportunity to learn a means to harmony. Perhaps hugging a tree is more therapeutic than 20 sessions with a therapist at $200 a session. Or one of those empowering weekends that baby boomers spend thousands of dollars attending in the hope of enlightenment and stress relief. Learn from the birds and the flowers and the trees, Jesus tells us. And it will cost you nothing.

Two of the most enlightened men that this country has produced are Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Merton. Both lived in close contact with nature, and their brilliant books are filled with the wisdom of nature. Thoreau lived by Walden Pond and there wrote his most famous book. He traveled the forests of Maine, the rivers of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. He preferred the solitude of the wild to being around humans. Merton was a monk. And he was as much an observer of nature as Thoreau. These two men represent the best of America, in my opinion. 

To go out to walk silently in this wood—this is a more important and significant means to understanding…than a lot of analysis and a lot of reporting on the things “of the spirit.”

Questions of liturgy, questions of psychology, questions of history. Are they the right questions? In the woods there are other questions and other answers, for in the woods the whole world is naked and directly present, with no monastery to veil it.

Why do I live alone? I don’t know.…I cannot have enough of the hours of silence when nothing happens. When the clouds go by. When the trees say nothing. When the birds sing. I am completely addicted to the realisation that just being there is enough, and to add something else is to mess it all up… I can only desire this absurd business of trees that say nothing, of birds that sing, of a field in which nothing ever happens (except perhaps that a fox comes and plays, or a deer passes by). This is crazy. It is lamentable. I am flawed, I am nuts. I can’t help it. Here I am, now,…happy as a coot. The whole business of saying I am flawed is a lie. I am happy. I cannot explain it.…Freedom… This is what the woods mean to me. I am free, free, a wild being, and that is all that I ever can really be. I am dedicated to it, addicted to it, sworn to it, and sold to it. It is the freedom in me that loves you.…

I am telling you: this life in the woods is IT. It is the only way. It is the way everybody has lost.…It is life, this thing in the woods.

It is life, this thing in the woods – for Merton, but maybe not for you or me. We must every one of us find what life is for each of us. Don’t be quick to reject or overlook the wisdom that God has planted in all the unexpected places. Don’t be quick to call Jesus naive. He didn’t speak as a philosopher, or a scientist, or a theologian. He was wisdom incarnate. Wisdom in the flesh. Don’t be anxious. Don’t complicate things with big fancy words of theology. There is a deeper wisdom in each of us, if we could only take a break from our anxious, busy, gadget-filled lives.


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Permission to “Be”

 

The first chirps of the waking birds mark the “point vierge”

of the dawn

under a sky as yet without real light,

a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence,

when the Father in perfect silence opens their eyes.

They speak to Him, not with fluent song,

but with an awakening question

that is their dawn state,

their state at the “point vierge.”

Their condition asks if it is time for them to “be”?

He answers “Yes.”

Then they one by one wake up, and become birds.

They manifest themselves as birds, beginning to sing.

Presently they will be fully themselves, and will even fly.

Meanwhile, the most wonderful moment of the day is that

when creation in its innocence asks permission

to “be” once again,

as it did on the first morning that ever was.

All wisdom seeks to collect and manifest itself

at that blind sweet point.

Man’s wisdom does not succeed,

for we have fallen into self mastery and cannot ask

permission of anyone.

We face our mornings as men of undaunted purpose.

We know the time and we dictate the terms.

We know what time it is.

For the birds there is not a time that they tell,

but the virgin point between darkness and light,

Between nonbeing and being.

So they wake: first the catbirds and cardinals.

Later the song sparrows and the wrens.

Last of all the doves and the crows.

Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us

and we do not understand.

It is wide open. The sword is taken away,

but we do not know it:

we are off “one to his farm and another

to his merchandise.”

Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves

cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static.

“Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.

My 40-year-old worn copy of this Merton book

Thomas Merton wrote this in the early 1960s (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp 131-32), when indeed there were radios in every home and electric shavers did create static in those radios. Long-play records have made a comeback – they call them vinyl now – so perhaps radios too will come back. We live in a retro age.

But the more important things reflected in this meditation will not come back. The silence of the morning that Merton experienced in his Kentucky hermitage is not ours to experience. The new creation that takes place every morning in the depths of nature are beyond our understanding. 

And yet, we can be like those birds. We can wake up each morning and ask permission from God “to be”! God’s answer will always be “Yes” to that question. 

As we get older many of us wake up each morning grateful to be alive. Don’t stop there. Ask permission from God to be! To become a new creation each day! Nothing pleases our heavenly Father than to see us rise each morning and become more fully human than we were when we went to sleep the night before.

Thomas Merton’s study in his hermitage

This meditation by Merton seeks to enlighten us with God’s wisdom. But man’s wisdom stands in the way. The tragedy is that “we have fallen into self mastery and cannot ask permission of anyone.” Not even of God. So we pursue our own “undaunted purpose.”

“Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand….Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static.”

“Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.

“Wisdom, let us attend,” our Liturgy also calls out several times. There is wisdom here. There is wisdom all around us. Sophia!


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Rediscover the Greatness of Spirit

 

While waiting for my MRI on Friday, I was reading a book by Rob Riemen, To Fight Against this Age: On Fascism and Humanism. It actually felt good to have a book with me instead of looking at my iPhone while waiting. The pleasure of holding a book is rapidly being lost, and that’s a shame. But hey, long-play records are coming back – they call them vinyl now – so perhaps people will rediscover books as well and become less brainwashed by social media.

Riemen lives in Holland and writes primarily from a European perspective. He describes the loss of spirit and values in the 20th century which led to the rise of fascism in Europe; and he sees much the same happening in our own 21st century. Much of the book consists of quotes from great thinkers of the past. It is not political, economic, or military history. But spiritual history!

He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, who discovered during his tour of America in the early 19th century a new form of repression never previously experienced in history:

The old words despotism and tyranny are not suitable. The thing is new, therefore I must try to define it, since I cannot name it. I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of others… Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate…It likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided they think only of enjoying themselves… I have always believed that this sort of regulated, mild, and peaceful servitude, whose picture I have painted, could be combined with some of the external forms of freedom and … established in the very shadow of the sovereignty of the people.

Nietzsche, the great German philosopher who stood at the doorstep of the 20th century without entering it, identified “The danger of all dangers: nothing has meaning.” And if nothing has meaning then there is no knowledge of good and evil, there is no compassion, there is no courtesy, conversation, and appreciation of quality and value, no place for great art. Freed from all spiritual values and from anything that might make life meaningful, modern man simply wants all his desires to be satisfied – and if that does not happen, he would become violent.

If you really want to understand what is happening in the world, stop watching Fox News or MSNBC. Read the thinkers of the past. They’ll tell you more about what’s happening today than the talking heads on cable news. The repression that Tocqueville could not name 200 years ago, we can name today. It’s the culture of technology, speed, money, fame and celebrity, outward appearances. These are the things that rule our lives. Socrates, 25 centuries ago criticised the life that “focuses only on pleasure and ignores the highest good.” 2,500 years ago!

One of the most impressive quotes in Riemen’s book comes from the French poet Paul Valéry. In the 1920s he wrote: “Our emotional life can be transposed into works of art…A man can break free from himself, imagine himself in the place of others. Each person is thus equipped with the intellectual capacity to observe and criticise his own actions and values. But the human mind has become derailed.” He goes on to describe the derailment:

Nothing is durable anymore. Farewell cathedral, built across three centuries; farewell masterpiece that required a lifetime of experience and attention to perfect. We live passively. We defer to telephones, our jobs, fashion… We have the best toys that man has ever possessed. What a lot of fun! Never had so many toys! But what a lot of worries! Never had so much panic!

He wrote this a century ago. Does it sound like you and me and our even bigger toys…and worries of today? But here is the clincher that wraps up Valéry’s vision of the modern age:

Due to the demands of technological progress, society has a growing need for “professionals,” replaceable intellectuals. There is no longer any use for a Shakespeare, a Bach, a Descartes, poets and thinkers, irreplaceable intellectuals.

ReplaceableIrreplaceable. Think about that contrast and what you value. 

I fear that we have turned the “Saints” into the “professionals” of the Christian practice. That’s the impression we get from today’s Epistle and Gospel readings. They are the extremes – the supermen and superwomen of faith – while the rest of us are consigned to live our lives of work and whatever pleasure we can afford while paying lip service to our religious heritage. I prefer the Apostle Paul’s way. He addressed all Christian believers as “saints” – άγιοι. Do you want to be limited by the society that Riemen and the thinkers in his book describe? Why not choose to be a saint instead? Why not choose to live a life of meaning? And return to the spirit of greatness?  


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A Community of God’s Spirit

 

Let’s start with an interesting contrast of biblical paradigms:

Exodus paradigm: Revolution →→ Revelation

Pentecost paradigm: Revelation →→ Revolution!

The Pentecost paradigm can be illustrated with these two passages from the New Testament.

Luke 6:12-19 == Prayer (Solitude) →→ Community →→ Ministry (Mission)

Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

The events at Pentecost followed the same pattern.

Acts 2 == Prayer/Spirit →→ Community →→ Ministry & Mission

A Coptic icon for Pentecost. It’s a wonderful feature of Coptic icons to include women, in contrast to the more heavily or exclusively male presence in Byzantine icons.

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability….

[Peter preached to people of many races in Jerusalem…] 

… So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Awe (φόβος) came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Can you see from that last paragraph why I speak of revolution?

Henri Nouwen wrote (in Bread for the Journey):

It is the Spirit who offers us the life that death cannot destroy.

God’s selfie. Baptism of Christ icon in our Holy Trinity church

Dynamic images for the Spirit – wind, cloud, fire, water – all essential to life. The dove? Ah, that was just God’s selfie – a one-time shot. Nothing more. The other images are the important ones!

So today we celebrate life. The life the Spirit gives. The life that is revolutionary. Pentecost is an invitation to join the revolution of God’s love and the love that we humans are capable of giving and sharing. Yes, we are capable, if we can just overcome the ease with which we fall into selfish and combative ways.

As the  Spirit hovered over the darkness that covered the earth at the beginning of time (Genesis 1:2), may the same Spirit move among us in the prayer and community of this day, and prepare us for new life.

A beautiful blessing that I found in the book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. I slightly modified it so that instead of “the peace of the Lord Christ” I have “the Spirit of the Lord Christ.”

May the Spirit of the Lord Christ go with you: wherever he may send you;

may he guide you through the wilderness: protect you through the storm;

may he bring you home rejoicing: at the wonders he has shown you;

may he bring you home rejoicing: once again into our doors.