Meeting of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, New Brunswick, NJ
Br. Robert Sevensky, OHC, Superior
Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. October 18, 2012
Gospel: Luke 4:14-21
I was delighted to hear our Presiding Bishop say, in her opening remarks on Monday,
that this gathering would attempt to live these days under the model of a Benedictine
monastic community, balancing prayer, work, recreation and healthy living, an ideal
which I found again in the Norms or “Rule of Life” for this body adopted for the previous Triennium. It is a noble ideal and, like most ideals, it is one that is often approximated but rarely attained. Yet it sets our eyes in the right direction and call us back again and again to what we hold most dear and to how we hope to live.
Monastic rules, including the famous Rule of St. Benedict, are important documents, and like all documents—including canons and resolutions and even Sacred Scripture—they are open to both misunderstanding and reinterpretation. I was reminded of this as we heard today’s Gospel passage, the very familiar and defining story of Jesus reading Isaiah in the synagogue aloud at the start of his public ministry.
There is a similarly defining passage at the outset of Benedict’s sixth-century monastic Rule, Chapter 7 on Humility. It is a beautiful chapter that sets before us what has been traditionally called the steps of humility, underscoring both the centrality of humility in the Christian journey and explaining how it it is attained not by climbing up but by climbing down: “...we descend by exaltation and ascend by humility.”
In discussing the so-called twelve steps of humility, Benedict begins with the fear of God, the need for obedience, for honesty and self-disclosure, for the embracing of
hardships — even unjust ones — and the right use of silence and speech. But it is advice
that is couched in language that is alien or sometimes even repugnant to us. So, for
example, the seventh step of humility states that: “...a man not only admits with his
tongue but is also convinced in his heart that he is inferior to all and of less value, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: I am truly a worm, not a man.”
One of our elder brothers, upon reading this aloud at one of our daily chapter meetings, closed the book and said: “Well, there goes seven years of psychotherapy down the drain.”
And he was right... or would be, if this passage were some sort of 12-Step program, a
series of prescriptions on how to behave, how to cast your eyes to the ground or avoid raucous laughter or content oneself with menial treatment. And it would be misguided, even dangerous.
But monastic historians and scholars have discovered the deeper truth that this is not a program or set of commandments or prescriptions. It is, rather, a description, a portrait of what happens to a person over a lifetime of following Jesus, a picture of the trajectory of growth and development that occurs in and through intentional Christian living. Each of these “steps” then is not so much a task or a burden but is rather a mark or indicator or measure of just how far we have come in the long journey of discipleship, more obvious to others, perhaps, than to ourselves.
So it is, I think, with the Isaiah passage that our Lord reads at the outset of his ministry: anointed to bring good news to the poor, sent to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor.
We are tempted to see this as a program or a “to do” list — and as programs or lists go, it is a great one. But it is much more than a program, even other than a program. It is rather an indicator, a mark, a measure of our discipleship. A way of noting our progress in holiness, in Christian living, in growth in grace... both individually and corporately.
These are “marks of mission,” if you will, marks of prophetic witness and above all, of conversion... the conversion of our hearts, our minds, our manners. St. Benedict
concludes this portion of his Rule on humility by teaching that the source as well as the goal of this development is the perfect love that casts out fear. The closer we come to live in that perfect love, the more we naturally exhibit the marks of humility. And the closer we come to live in that love, the more we come — personally and communally — to exhibit these marks of mission proclaimed in today’s Gospel naturally, as if that was what we were created for in the first place. Because, in fact, that is what we were created for.
Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury addressed the Roman Catholic Synod of Bishops in Rome on the topic of the New Evangelization. Now whatever one might think of his leadership over the past ten years, I think it worth hearing him in this matter,
especially on this feast of Luke the Evangelist. The Archbishop speaks at length of
contemplation, that is of prayer, as the root of transformation in the self and in society.
It is vintage Rowan, from start to finish. He concludes his talk by reminding his Roman Catholic brother (alas, no sister)
“...evangelization is always an overflow of something else — the disciple’s journey to maturity in Christ, a journey not organized by the ambitious ego but the result of the prompting and drawing of the Spirit in us. In our considerations of how we are once again to make the Gospel of Christ compellingly attractive to the men and women of our age, I hope we never lose sight of what makes it compelling to ourselves, to each one of us in our diverse ministries.”
I hope this for myself and I hope this for all of us here today and for all the Church. May we never let us lose sight of what makes the Gospel attractive to us today. Of what converts us. Of what empowers us. Of what raises us up with Christ. My guess is that it is passages such as we hear in today's Gospel that give voice to the reasons we are gathered here today.
At the very end of his talk, Dr. Williams says to his Roman Catholic audience:
“I wish you joy in these discussions — not simply clarity or effectiveness in planning — but joy in the promise of the vision of Christ's face, and in the fore-shadowings of that fulfillment in the joy of the communion with each other here and now.”
It has been said that joy is the one infallible mark of holiness. And there has been joy here in these meetings these days, along with anxiety and curiosity and energy and challenge and engagement. Real joy, deep joy.
It is for this joy that the world hungers and which the world desperately needs. And it is among the Gospel's greatest gifts: joy rooted in the person and the promises of Jesus Christ and in the hope of glory through and beyond our struggles and our sufferings, our successes and failures, our institutions and our mission.
It is the pure joy of being children of God and co-heirs and fellow workers with Jesus Christ. So that we too can say:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, because he has anointed us to bring good news to the poor. He has sent us to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
This is a promise, a hope, a call rooted and grounded in love. And whether it knows it or not, the world waits for us to live that love and spread that joy day by day. And so we begin again.