To listen to the sermon click the image below.
Do you have a favorite line of scripture? There are a lot - 1 Peter – above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.
Have you ever attended worship in the Orthodox Church? Greek, Russian, Romanian – it doesn’t matter. While our sacramental theology is basically the same – the worship is very, very different. It’s more ethereal than our style of worship – less straightforward. The whole liturgy is sung or chanted – incense fills the air. For us, it’s certainly different enough for the sacred to be experienced anew.
When I lived in New York I made several visits to an Orthodox monastery upstate, called New Skete. The community was actually featured on 60 Minutes once because the brothers are well-known for how they raise dogs – The Art of Raising a Puppy, is one of their best-selling books. But that wasn’t how I learned about them.
One Saturday afternoon, I was in a bookstore on the upper west side of New York – a small, narrow bookstore. And to browse, you climbed up one of these ladders that rolled against the tall cases – because the books which were stacked very high. I was probably in the religion section and I pulled out a book for its inviting title – In the Spirit of Happiness – which was by the monks of New Skete.
The title summarizes the book well. An encouraging and explanatory take on cultivating daily and small practices to bring fulfillment and meaning. The power of daily prayer, acts of mercy, choices of compassion and devotion to God. For how we spend our lives is really how we spend our days.
I devoured the book. Who doesn’t want happiness? And immediately made a plan to visit the monastery. Which is a little northeast Albany, NY. The sisters of the community by the way – make cheesecake – and that was bound to make me happy.
If you’ve ever worshiped in monastic community – or even if you’ve been to a worship service that is different than what you’re used to – you know it can be intimidating. You want to do everything right. You want to be respectful – you see yourself through the eyes of everyone there who knows what they’re doing and your fear is that they are all looking at you and thinking you don’t belong. You feel – I felt very self-conscious.
The liturgy of New Skete is, thankfully all in in English – but it is still all sung. So, for the first daily offices I attended – I didn’t try to participate. I just decided to let what was happening wash over me – by being fully and respectfully present – which truly is sometimes enough.
The first evening vespers I went to – the monks chanted the last three psalms in the psalter, beginning with Psalm 148, which we heard this morning. Scholars believe these three psalms intentionally conclude the psalter as a culmination of our awareness of God’s glory. How everything, all of creation is constantly giving thanks to God - let everything that breathes praise the Lord.
When the brothers chanted Psalm 148 – they stood around a circular, wooden, lecturn – it had multiple sides, and rotated – so that standing in a circle the brothers could read their book. They started chanting Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise the Lord from the heights. And then kind of like a round, but not exactly, other brothers would start the next line, and so on and so on – until you had this cacophony of harmonies – with discernible words popping out here and there – but blending into this growing and expansive wall of sound that filled – the heights of that space.
The music covered you in a representation of our belief that that there is a constant choir of creation praising the Creator at all times and in all places – that is good and right and joyful always and everywhere to give thanks to God - joining our voices with angels and archangels who forever sing God’s praise. Those are the words we use in our worship to invoke the same. We are reminded, obviously, because we forget – or stop trusting – that this praise really is happening all the time. This never-ending song of creation reflecting the ongoing glory of God that covers the world.
Jesus connects with this glory in a pretty interesting way. Jesus says, at the last supper, now the Son of Man, Now God is glorified. Weird to go back, don’t you think? We’re in the He is risen phase – so why is our gospel from the night before he dies?
Well, just as we give greater importance to the last words of a dying person – or we replay conversations we’ve had with someone who is gone, and then recognize a deeper significance of what was said between us – we are doing that with Jesus in liturgical time.
And so we hear – At the last supper, when Judas had gone out – Jesus said, now the Son of Man has been glorified and God has been glorified in him. That one stage direction is pretty incredible – when, Judas, the person who will betray Jesus – leaves the room to get started, get started on lying, get started on selfishness – look how Jesus responds?
He doesn’t respond by badmouthing Judas to all the other disciples. He doesn’t start devising a way to subvert him. He doesn’t speak of vengeance or punishment upon his return. Instead, he turns to the first followers and models the new commandment he shares – love one another. People will know the depth of your relationship with me – he says – by the way you imitate my love.
Jesus’ love covered Judas’ sin. When someone he thought was close acts out of selfishness, Jesus chooses love. His response – praises God – glorifies God – is an immediate connection to that choir of love and creation.
In one of the chapters of the book – In the Spirit of Happiness – the question is posed– how in the world do all of you (the monks in community) love each other all the time? Surely you get on each other’s nerves. And the monk replies – oh you better believe we do! So then, how do you do it? How do you love people you don’t even like?
You pour the water, the monk replies. You pay attention to your gestures – your words – and choose to act in love. It’s not a feeling, it’s a choice. You remind your heart of the singular and overwhelming love God has for you – and you choose to let that direct your actions. It doesn’t matter whether or not you feel love for that person – you trust in the words of Jesus on the night he died – choose to follow an example and act out of the love.
And it is in the practice of the small gestures – the less important conversations – the pouring the water – again and again – something happens. We grow our compassion. Our eyes are opened to the challenges all of us are facing. Our ears are opened to simple gifts to be grateful for. And your heart is continuously shaped to reflect the source of love that is always with us, unto the ages of ages.
We have no idea what Jesus was feeling when he said these words – angry, disappointed, heartbroken. The gospel doesn’t share how he was feeling – because what mattered was what he said – and how he acted. His response was a choice.
Which is why – this week – the Spirit led me to the ever-present encouragement for us found in First Peter -
Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.
Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:8-11)
The Rev. Arianne R. Weeks