A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
September 16, 2018
“Finding God in Sacred Scripture.”
Millard S. Cook
in Baptism and Eucharist we are made one with you.
May we who have shared in holy things
always bear witness to your covenant,
in the name of Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”
There are a few experiences which I think every one should have—once! One of those experiences was to be a teacher in a boys’ Catholic High School. Actually, I did it twice—once in Savannah, Georgia and once in New Rochelle, New York. Yes, I do think that once would have sufficed! I also taught at a few colleges over the years—a much different experience. And so, my ears are clearly attuned to the talk about teachers which we hear today. I will say this, the vocation of teacher is a most important one. The etymology of the word “educate” from the Latin e ducare suggests “leading out.” The implication is that the teacher is one who leads from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge, from “cluelessness” to awareness, from a state of not knowing to truth. It is no mistake that the most important title given to Our Lord during his public ministry was “Rabbi,” a word which is usually translated into English as “teacher.”
Today, I would like to so something slightly different. I would like to share with you an ancient Christian and monastic method for entering into Sacred Scripture. This hallmark of Benedictine spirituality is called Lectio Divina, or “Divine Reading.” Traditionally, it has been divided into three components—or “movements,” Lectio—or reading, Meditatio—or meditation and Contemplatio—or contemplation. In the recent past, people have gathered in groups to share this Spiritual Practice—the most famous example of this would be “Contemplative Prayer,” or “Centering Prayer.” Traditionally, though, this was a solitary practice engaged in—in a private setting.
The first thing to note that it is normally based on a short reading from either Sacred Scripture or from the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict. It begins with a brief period of silence and continues by reading the passage aloud. This allows the passage to be accessed both visually (through reading with the eyes) but also to be “heard” with the ears.
The passage on which we will focus today is one which you have just heard—and is taken from the Holy Gospel according to Saint Mark. I invite you now to listen with me:
“Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”
Normally, there would be another period of silence following the reading of the passage. This provides a time to allow the spoken and written word to be taken in, to be devoured by the practitioner.
The second stage, ‘Meditatio,” the word does not mean what most people think it means when they hear it. In fact, historically, there has been a kind of internal Benedictine debate about what this should be called. Some have suggested that a better word is “Ruminatio”—or “to ruminate.” In this stage we apply our intellect, and all the knowledge which we possess. From a human perspective, we ask the questions: “What is happening in this passage?” “What is this passage all about?” “What can I learn from this passage?” “What is God saying to me—or to us through these words?”
As I prayed on this passage in preparation for today in Lectio, here are some things which occurred to me.
We are told that Jesus “went on with his disciples.” I like this image. Jesus and his closest companions are on a journey. They realize that to be safe on the journey they will need each other. And yet, this is time away from all the responsibilities and worries that face them every day. They are, as the French would say, “en famille.” They are at home. And in this free context, they are able to be themselves, without worrying what anyone else will think of them or say about them. Over time they have come to know and to love each other. And so, they are able to be completely open and honest with each other. They have no fear of saying what they think and feel—of sharing what is important to them. In this amazing intimacy, they are able to laugh and to cry with each other. Perhaps they even use nicknames for each other (at least they would if they were Southerners).
We are told that they are visiting a series of villages. Villages are amazing places. Then, as now, things move at a slower pace than in big cities. There is less noise, fewer interactions with others, and fewer distractions and interruptions than in the big cities. Thus, they are able to focus on essential things—on things which really matter. It is one of those times of “retreat” and “reflection.” In their solitude, perhaps they pray together. Perhaps they pray the Psalms as they walk along. Perhaps they sing Hymns or perhaps even secular songs which they have learned. This free time “away from the crowds,” provides an opportunity for them to have the most meaningful, significant and important conversations. It provides an opportunity for Jesus to teach them—and to model for them, what it means to teach, to guide, and to mentor others. It also gives them space—which every family needs—to hash out disagreements. It gives them the time to argue, to reconcile, and to share from their hearts.
The final context which we are given is that they are in the region of Caesarea Phillipi. Wow! Now the trip becomes really interesting. In the time of Alexander the Great, there was apparently a shrine there to the god Pan. During the reign of the Herodians, a kind of “model Greek city” was built there and dedicated to the Roman Emperor Augusts. So, for observant Jews, this would definitely have been a kind of “foreign territory.”
One of the amazing things which often happen when one visits a place in which there is a different culture and often a different language spoken is that one is given an opportunity to learn and to grow. Foreign places provide an option to be “open to the new” in a way that one can not do at home. And if it is a place in which there is some tension with one’s own native place, there is often the amazing opportunity for “self-discovery.”
To give a small example of this, in the Fall of 1981, after my graduation from Avery County High School, I traveled to France and lived for a semester with a French family in the village of Cormentreuil—a suburb of the large historic city of Reims. Imagine that you are 18, and for the first time, travel outside the Blue Ridge mountains—and to another country and culture. The greatest discovery for me in France was that I was “an American.” The French whom I got to know (and to love) had some interesting ideas about “America,” and about ‘Americans.” To my surprise, they thought I was one. They were suddenly lumping me together with people from California and Iowa—and yes, with people from New York and Pennsylvania. And they had concluded that the movies and television shows which they had seen represented the whole country. I had not been raised in an inner city—I was raised on a farm some ten miles from the smallest town. I had only seen Cowboys and Indians in movies! And, I had never given much thought to how the policies of the U.S. government would be perceived—and at times, in a very negative way by others. I was a farm boy, a mountaineer, perhaps a Southerner. But an American—that was a concept which was too big for me!
Jesus and his friends, quickly learn the importance of sticking together—of supporting and depending on each other. That is what it means to travel as a group into “foreign territory.”
As the discussion unfolds, Jesus takes the opportunity to ask them what others are saying about him. To paraphrase, “What is the word on the street about me?” “What do you hear others saying about me?” The response is quite informative: There is all kinds of speculation about you. To be honest, many people don’t know what to make of you. Some are comparing you to John the Baptist or to Elijah—perhaps even Moses or one of the other prophets.
Fascinating—a prophet! Someone who boldly proclaims the truth as God sees it. Someone who speaks truth to power. Someone who makes everyone uncomfortable by asking difficult and unpleasant questions. Someone who may be attacked, persecuted and even killed by power structures which are threatened. Someone it may be dangerous to know and to hang out with. Someone who may call others to conversion, to change, and to service. Not someone to be taken for granted or to be treated casually. Someone who will insist that every person be treated with love, respect and dignity. Someone who will insist that the hungry be fed, the naked be clothed, the sick be nursed and prisoners visited. Someone who will welcome the outcast, the alien—anyone who is “other.” Someone who will build bridges and tear down walls! That is a prophet.
The most important question, though, is one which is addressed not only to his friends, but also addresses to each of us. “Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus, who are you to me? What does it mean to say that you are the Messiah–my teacher, my Lord, my Savior? Are there things in my life which cause me to be a “Satan,” –an opponent–someone who gets in the way of your ministry, service and love? What do you call me to give up, to renounce to follow you? What is my cross that you ask me to carry?
The final stage of this Spiritual practice is called contemplatio or contemplation—and is a step which I will invite you to take at some point during the coming week. It is said that we do the first two steps but that it is God who does the third. In the silence in which we rest after listening and the hard work of trying to understand the passage, God speaks to us. This is a gift which God gives us.
Perhaps we receive answers to the many questions which arose in our rumination or perhaps we receive guidance. Perhaps we are just comforted by God’s love and care. Perhaps nothing appears to happen at the time—and it is only later that we realize that we received strength and energy to continue. Perhaps in our tiredness and frailty we fall asleep and rest as the disciples did in the Garden.
There is an old prayer derived from Scripture, ‘May God bring to completion the good work which he began in you.” Through our entry into Holy Scripture may our hearts and lives be transformed to be the people that God has lovingly created us, called us, and empowered us to be.