Sunday, July 11, 2004

Sixth Sunday in Pentecost
Deuteronomy 30:9-14
Psalm 25:1-9
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

St. Gregory wrote of St. Benedict of Nursia, “He gave over his books and, forsaking his father's house and wealth, with his mind only to serve God, he sought for some place where he might achieve his holy purpose; and in this wisdom he departed, instructed with learned ignorance and furnished with unlearned wisdom." Benedict was in his mid to late teens when he made the decision to leave his family and turn his back on the world for the sake of the kingdom of God.

He joined a small community of faithful and he lived there praying and studying the scriptures and writings of the early church fathers. After seven years, a miraculous incident caused him to leave. His nurse carelessly broke an earthen sieve and was devastated over the accident. Benedict prayed to comfort her and as he prayed the vessel was miraculously restored to wholeness.

It is interesting that this miracle would be over something as ordinary as a sieve. Benedict’s life and the order that he founded was focused on the everyday life of people. The Rule of Saint Benedict was not written for the clergy of the church, but for the common man, to guide the community of believers into a life of honoring God through the normal work necessary for living.

Unfortunately, the miracle of the sieve caused many to admire Benedict and so he left to go live a solitary life. Though the monastic lifestyle existed before the community at Subiaco was founded, Benedict established and enhanced the way of life for those who desired a closer and simpler walk with God. Benedictine life was not one set away from the reality of the world, but was designed to put God in the middle of it all. The monks at Subiaco and at the other monasteries founded on the rule of St. Benedict worked with their hands and got dirty with the work of daily living. St. Benedict said, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul.”

Prayer at a Benedictine monastery came after work. Benedict believed that humility was the first and most important form of prayer, humility in recognizing God’s presence in the ordinary. Thus, a person who works with his hands knowing that God is present in the activity is praying. Public prayer is next in importance; common prayer was the center of the common life they lived together. Least in importance was private prayer and is dependent on the individual’s gifts. Benedict wrote, “If anyone wishes to pray in private, let him go quietly into the oratory and pray, not with a loud voice, but with tears and fervor of heart. Our prayer ought to be short and with purity of heart, except it be perchance prolonged by the inspiration of divine grace.” That was all he had to say about personal prayer, except that he believed it was a natural response to the observance of a godly life. A person who lived well in the every day would easily grow in grace and maturity of faith.

July 11 is the day we remember St. Benedict of Nursia and the impact he had on the Christian life. The scriptures for this week enhance the lessons we learn from Benedict about the simple, godly life we are called to live. The lawyer in today’s Gospel lesson set out to test Jesus and he asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” We don’t really know his intent with this simple question. Perhaps he was intent on tripping up Jesus or he was just interested in knowing more about the Teacher.

Jesus turned the question back to the lawyer. “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The man answered with part of the Shema, a Jewish confession of faith which is found in Deuteronomy 6:5 and a statement from the Law in Leviticus 19:18. This statement ties faith and works together into the godly life.

Jesus answered the man, “You answered well, do this and you will live.” Since Jesus turned the question over to him and he knew the answer, the man got nothing from Jesus. To make himself credible and get the information he sought about Jesus, he asked another. “Who is my neighbor?” The first question was simple, but the second question really delved into the issue. How would Jesus interpret the phrase ‘my neighbor’?

Of course, the expert in the law had his own interpretation of the phrase. His neighbors were other pious Jews, the people with whom he lived, worked, ate and worshipped. It would never have occurred to the lawyer to consider a Samaritan his neighbor. As a matter of fact, the Jews and the Samaritans looked upon one another with disdain. The Samaritan was a hated foreigner. Though they had Jacob as their ancestor just like the Jews, the Samaritans were half breeds and they worshipped at an altar away from Jerusalem. He would never have expected a Samaritan to be merciful or to be godly. To the Jews, the Samaritans did not know God’s Word and certainly they did not have it written on their hearts.

Jesus answered the lawyer with a parable about a man who was beaten on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. He was left as dead. A priest and a Levite passed the man, walking on the other side of the road so as not to be made unclean. A Samaritan took the man to an inn and paid for his care, promising to return to settle any further debt. Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think was the man’s neighbor?” The lawyer was now the one being tested.

We can look at this story from different perspectives. I think we usually consider ourselves in the place of the Samaritan, called to be the one who gives mercy to the poor and hurting. Certainly the Benedictines lived a life of such compassion. Anyone who came to the door of the monastery hungry, naked or cold were provided with everything they needed – food, clothes and shelter. As more monasteries were established, the monks adapted to the needs of the local community. A monastery on a trade route provided refuge for travelers, another in a city provided aid to the poor. The work they did made a difference to the lives of their neighbors and Jesus was glorified through the spread of the Gospel.

We can also look at this story from the perspective of the one lying on the road. We do not know the nationality of the man who was beaten, but imagine how humiliating it must have been if he were a Jew. His own countrymen left him to die but the hated foreigner picked him up and paid for his care. Even if he was a Samaritan, it is often difficult to take help from a stranger. I have heard stories of people during the civil rights era refusing lifesaving blood because the donor was another race. Some folk would rather die than take money from family. We want to be independent, take care of our own problems. Yet, there are times when we need to receive with thanksgiving and praise.

This is indeed what Christianity is really about. It is about us knowing that we are beaten and dead, lying on the side of the road. Jesus is the Good Samaritan who came by and gave us mercy. He died that we might live, paying the debt with His own blood. Do we receive this grace with thanksgiving and praise?

The Old Testament lesson for this week tells us about the blessings that come to those who live according to the word of God. Again we see the common, ordinary work of daily living raised up as spiritual acts of worship. In these verses, God is found in the every day, giving prosperity to the work of our hands, our bodies, our cattle and our land. “For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off.” Living our every moment in praise and thanksgiving is not difficult because the Word is at hand, God is close. “But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.”

As St. Benedict said in the rule of his order, prayer begins with humility, humbling ourselves before God and recognizing His presence in the ordinary. From today’s Psalm, “Unto thee, O Jehovah, do I lift up my soul.” The psalmist also writes, “The meek will he guide in justice; And the meek will he teach his way.” This is the godly life we are called to lead – humble before God and merciful to our neighbor.

Paul wrote to the Colossians to commend them in the life they were living. “We give thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have toward all the saints.” Here we hear echoes of the rule for living – loving God and your neighbor. The Colossians had the hope of Christ that they heard in through the Gospel and that same word was continuing to grow through their ministry.

In today’s lesson, Paul encourages the Colossians by telling them that he is praying for their further growth. “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray and make request for you, that ye may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to walk worthily of the Lord unto all pleasing, bearing fruit in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God.” Here Paul tells us that God’s grace will bear out in everything we do and as we do so, we will come to grow closer to God and know Him better.

Benedict knew that the miraculous power of God was not something that should be used for his own benefit. He left when it seemed as though the people were focusing on him and not on Christ. He was afraid they might want to make him a saint, so he went to another place where he could live the simple life of faith working with his hands for the glory of God. His rule and the monastic order that bears his name continue to help the ordinary person – the average Christian like you and I – live a life that will glorify God and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.

It isn’t about being more spiritual. The Benedictines did not live an austere life where everything of the flesh was rejected. They did not sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. They gave of themselves in every way so that others would know the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. They learned to live for one another, to love God and their neighbor with their whole hearts. Most of all, they lifted their souls to God and looked to Him for all they needed.

We too are called to humble ourselves before God, to live in His Word which is in our hearts and on our tongues. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves and treat them with mercy and justice. We are called to receive the gifts of others, to praise God for the blessings we receive from one another. We are called to grow in grace that the Gospel will continue to spread to the four corners of the world.

Benedict’s life might have been much different. He might have continued his learning in Rome and become a lawyer or teacher himself. However, he heard the call of God and went where he could live out his faith and share the Gospel with others. He was like the dying man on the road, but the Good Samaritan, our Lord Jesus Christ, picked him up and gave him true life. Jesus does the same thing for each of us. He saves us from harm and sets us on a new path. He calls us to show mercy to our neighbor. By doing so, we bring glory to God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Through it all, God is never far away and He gives us the strength, courage, gifts and resources to live the godly life in His name.

Thanks be to God.

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