Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Brother Scott Borden, OHC
Proper 19, Year B - Sunday, September 23, 2012
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire – and the tongue is a fire... somehow that observation from Letter of James jumps out at me this week.
There are two things that have been on my mind this week – one quite wonderful and the other quite terrible – and both having to do with the work of the tongue.
In a few days Sr Hildegard Pleva from the Redemptoristine Community just down the road will be giving a talk here at the Monastery on Hildegard of Bingen, whom we celebrate tomorrow – and so I've been focusing on the music of Hildegard. That is the beautiful thing.
The other thing is the shocking acts of violence in the middle east – big fires – incited by burning tongues in the United States... tongues which belong to people who call themselves Christian.
“From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing” says James. We bless God in our words, but curse those whom we despise. Yet those we curse are made in God's image. As James says “it should not be so.” A spring can not yield fresh water and foul water. Its a very sobering letter.
Devout Muslims in the Middle East have been reacting this week to a so called film produced in the US. The “film”, The Innocence of Muslims, can scarcely be called a film. It is childish and incoherent... a babbling mess... laughable in almost every way. It has, as its only purpose, to offend. And in that regard, sadly, it has worked its mischief. It has produced violence and even death. I don't say this to excuse or even explain the violent mobs. But as James says, the tongue can set mighty forests ablaze...
It is not enough, I think, for faithful Christians to ignore this film. It flows from a spring of foul water and it curses those made in the image of God. It is a flaming tongue and it must be quenched with the sweet water of God's love or it will continue to set forests ablaze.
What a contrast this vile little film is to the music of Hildegard of Bingen. To watch the film is to be degraded. To listen to the music of Hildegard is to be uplifted... transported... filled with light.
Hildegard was a medieval monastic, Abbess of a Benedictine community in Germany, in the city of Bingen, on the Rhine river. She was a mystic, a prophet, a writer, a composer, as well as an herbalist and healer. She used her skills in music and verse to share her mystical visions with those around her. The spring of her creative spirit brings fourth the purest, sweetest, and freshest of water – as fresh today as it was during her lifetime, nearly a thousand years ago.
Interestingly, tongues of fire featured in her visions. She saw, according to her writings, an image of her tongue aflame, but not consumed. She took that as a directive from God – she was to share what she had seen. There is that letter of James again. The tongue can set mighty forests ablaze. James is not calling us to silence, but rather to use our tongues in Godly ways.
There is a reason why Hildegard is a saint – and why the maker of that nasty little film is not...
As followers of Jesus we have an absolute obligation to tell the good news. We must, like Hildegard, use our tongues, our skills to share the beauty and wonder of God's love – and to share it far and wide... Not to curse those we don't like, don't understand, or don't accept.
The letter of James and the life of Hildegard of Bingen make an interesting prelude to the Gospel passage we heard today. Jesus says if we want to follow him we have to leave ourselves behind. To save our lives, we must loose our lives for the sake of the good news.
This observation by Jesus has the feeling of a zen koan about it... it leads us to paradox. And the Gospel is full of paradox... dying we live... to be fully free we must become totally enslaved... saving our lives means losing our lives...
One function of a koan is to destabilize our thinking. When we think we know the answer, we stop asking the question. If we think we know what it means to be a follower of Jesus, then we are no longer concerned with learning what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
So look what happens: Jesus describes to the disciples what is to come and Peter tells him off. Imagine that... Who would ever think of doing such a thing?... Certainly none of us...
Except that we all do, every day, in ways large and small. When we, as a nation, choose to build bombs instead of healing the sick or feeding the hungry, we are clearly telling Jesus off. When we, as a religious people, worry more about building grand houses of worship than about housing the homeless, we are telling Jesus off – just as Peter did. We can all find ways in which we do this... and we all know what Jesus said to Peter...
We set our minds on human things, not divine.
And so Jesus calls us to die to self – to take our minds off human things. To destabilize our thinking... to begin to learn that our ways are not God's ways...
My human nature loves comfort, loves privilege, loves pleasure... and the truth is my comfort frequently comes from someone else's sacrifice. Peter can't stand to hear Jesus talk about the sacrifice he is preparing to make because Peter can't think about sacrificing himself. Those who would save their lives must lose them... Peter isn't there yet – and neither am I.
Perhaps the most hopeful thing Jesus says in this passage is “If any want to become followers of mine...” He doesn't say “be”, but rather “become”.
I would like to say that I am a follower of Jesus, but anyone who knows me can easily and quickly form a list of all the ways that is not true. But I can say that I am becoming a follower of Jesus – and while I may fail now and then, misunderstand now and then, and be more attached to things of this world than Godly things now and then, I am, nonetheless, a more faithful follower of Jesus than I was a year ago, or ten years ago... we won't even talk about when I was in college... I am becoming a follower day by day. I can be very thankful that God is patient...
I started by reflecting a bit on the vile little film The Innocence of Muslims and the almost unbearable transporting beauty of the music of Hildegard of Bingen and I find they still resonate with me.
The film, to the extent it can really focus on anything (and it is such a confused mess, that is a limited extent), focuses entirely on things of this world – on power and domination – specifically the desire by some so-called Christians to dominate or eliminate other faiths. It calls us to cling to life. It has not the slightest whiff of becoming anything, let alone becoming a follower of Jesus.
Hildegard lifts our eyes to Godly things. If all she did in her life was create a legacy of transcendent beauty, that would be remarkable. But as an herbalist she tended to the sick – in an era when medicine was, to say the least, primitive. She quite literally wrote the book on what herbs could be used to treat what conditions.
Did Hildegard have bad days... was she always, relentlessly uplifting... I suspect she was every bit as human as you and I. But the arc of her life teaches us what it means to leave self behind and to be becoming a follower of Jesus.
Isaiah says it so beautifully – the Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. We are the teachers and at the same time we are the weary. The word that sustains is is Jesus, the very word of God. Our simple, yet lifelong task, is let go of the words that we want to speak and we want to hear, and give ourselves to the speaking and hearing of God's word.