Tag Archives: contemplation

A green olive tree in the house of God | Sermon for Proper 11C

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever. (Psalm 52:8)

Gethsemane

The earthy smell of the olive trees in Gethsemane, ancient and alive at the same time, reminds Jesus of Martha and Mary. He smiles in the dark, his face wet with tears.

His disciples follow him as best they can, but look at them sleeping over there on this night so heavy with decision!

The men and women who crowd around him are sometimes caught up in his vision of the kingdom of God, sometimes seem to understand what he’s trying to say, but it’s his friend Mary who draws the vision out of him, whose listening ear gives him space to talk.

And it’s Martha who makes a home for him to rest in, to eat and drink and recover from the stress of his ministry.

He’s in agony now in the grey moments before dawn on this Friday morning, his heart racing just as it was when he heard that his friend, their brother Lazarus, had died.

Lazarus

Martha challenged Jesus right there in the road when he finally arrived — “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Hands on her hips, she gets right in his face: “You should have done something!”

Martha’s love drives him to tears, the living water pouring from him in waves of grief and love, like healing oil for his friends, for her and Mary and Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” he says.

“Unbind him.”

The wailing of the mourners in Bethany is silenced, and all he can hear is tree limbs creaking in the breeze. The scent of the grave clothes is sharp and pungent, earthy and spicy.

Bethany

The first time he had come to Bethany, the whole house was warm, and the aroma of bread and spices filled his senses.

Martha was cooking something delicious – everything she made was delicious – and she gave him some green olives to eat before dinner was ready.

She chided Mary for not helping, but he laughed and said Mary had chosen the better part, and it would not be taken from her.

Mary held a rose in her lap, and she was listening, helping him to relax and put his thoughts in order while Martha busied herself in the background. The sharp taste of the olives kept his mind from wandering.

“You are busy with many things, Martha. There is only one needful thing.”

Like a green olive tree

On one knee in the crowded Jerusalem street, he struggles to rise. The earthy scent and the deadly weight of the wooden beam press him down, causing blood to flow freely from his wounded back and head.

Later, as he hangs from the cross, his breath getting shallower and more labored in the noonday heat, he is given a taste of sour wine.

His eyes close. What he wouldn’t give for another taste of green olives, for another evening in the warmth of Martha’s home!

Pain pierces his hands and feet in waves of grief and love as he stretches out his arms, offering himself with the same gesture she made when the meal was ready and she invited him and Mary to come to the table.

“Take, eat …”

“They know not what they do … but now I know what I am doing.”

“Lord, I know that the Messiah is coming.”

“I am the resurrection and the life … O Martha, believe.”

His vision of the kingdom completely clear now, he speaks to the one hanging next to him.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

“But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God.”

Jerusalem

In the garden of Gethsemane stand olive trees that are more than 2,000 years old.

Fr. Aran tells me they still smell earthy and spicy, ancient and alive, just as they did in Jesus’ time.

They have endured the endless agonies of men and women down the centuries, continually bearing fruit from their gnarled limbs and giving oil for healing.

Another beloved disciple and friend of Jesus did catch his vision and followed the Way of his Lord into old age. In a revelation, John glimpsed “the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

In the center of the heavenly city flows the river of the water of life, “and on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree – like a green olive tree in the house of God — are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).

Amen.

 

Truly yours when it impels you to action

Therefore contemplation, even at its highest, dearest, and most intimate, is not to be for you an end in itself. It shall only be truly yours when it impels you to action: when the double movement of Transcendent Love, drawing inwards to unity and fruition, and rushing out again to creative acts, is realised [sic] in you. You are to be a living, ardent tool with which the Supreme Artist works: one of the instruments of His self-manifestation, the perpetual process by which His Reality is brought into concrete expression.

This week, I am attending the Tri-History Conference on historical encounters between the Episcopal and Anglican Church and indigenous people, being held at Oneida (Green Bay) in the Diocese of Fond du Lac.

At the end of the Eucharist last night at Church of the Holy Apostles (pictured) we stood to sing the Te Deum in the Oneida language, a practice predating their arrival in Wisconsin in the 1820s.

At Morning Prayer today we commemorated Evelyn Underhill, the English writer and mystic whose book Practical Mysticism was published at the beginning of World War I.

The excerpt above, which we read during the office, really struck me for two reasons.

Not an end in itself

Perhaps responding to the charge that promoting contemplation in time of war would lead people to quietism, Underhill writes that “contemplation, even at its highest, dearest, and most intimate, is not to be for you an end in itself.”

Various presenters at the conference noted the strong tradition of hymn-singing among the Iroquois, and the Oneida Singers graced us with several lovely hymns.

Dean Stephen Peay of Nashotah House says that French Jesuits noted the singing of the Iroquois predating their arrival. Laurence Hauptman (citing Michael McNally’s book on Ojibwe singing) suggests perhaps 80% of the Oneida were baptized because of the hymn-singing even more than the claims of the institutional church.

Our praise of God is not for ourselves alone. We sing the Lord’s song in order to draw others not only into the worship and praise of God, but also into the life and ministry of the Body of Christ.

A living, ardent tool

Underhill writes, “You are to be a living, ardent tool with which the Supreme Artist works.”

Discipleship is about modeling our lives on the life of Jesus, becoming what Underhill describes as an “instrument of God’s self-manifestation.”

That “perpetual process” of becoming a disciple is renewed every day as we pray that we may be clothed in Jesus’ spirit, “reaching forth our hands in love” (BCP 100).

The specific shape of our discipleship will take many forms — from collecting oral histories to maintaining archives to serving at a meal program or coordinating disaster relief. Some will serve in public ways or in church settings, others in private or at home.

At all times, though, our work is best done with a song in our hearts.

A Prayer for Mission

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in their vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

There are no strangers

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness.

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

This changes nothing in the sense and value of my solitude, for it is in fact the function of solitude to make one realize such things with a clarity that would be impossible to anyone completely immersed in the other cares, the other illusions, and all the automatisms of a tightly collective existence. My solitude, however, is not my own, for I see now how much it belongs to them — and that I have a responsibility for it in their regard, not just in my own. It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers!

From Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton, excerpted here.

Thomas Merton icon by William Hart McNichols, from an article by Jane Christmas in the Anglican Journal.