Lections: James 3:16-4:6 ; Psalm 1; Mark 9:30-37

The weather this morning when I got up reminded me of the west coast of Ireland, which I visited once with my son, when he was seventeen.  The walking trails crossed fields of grazing sheep and overlooked cliffs that fell straight down into crashing waves that foamed in the rocks below.  The air was moist, the skies clouded.  I had the sense of being on the edge of the unknown.  The world I was familiar with was on the other side of a vast, mysterious ocean.

Evagrios of Pontus (345-399 AD) likened the thoughts of our mind to sheep God entrusts to our care.  “As sheep to a good shepherd,” he said, “the lord has given to man intellections of this present world.”  In a very down to earth manner, Evagrios draws our attention to a way we can be like Jesus, whatever our circumstances: as Jesus shepherds the people who are the sheep of his pasture, we are to look after our thoughts.[i]  So let us consider what directions we might find in today’s prayers and scriptures for shepherding our thoughts. 

Our service this morning moves us across recently familiar paths.  The Collect for the day urges us “to distinguish between what is passing and what abides.”[ii] This was Paul instruction, in the Aug 16th lection from Ephesians, where he urges us to replace the selfish desire of habitual intoxication with the lasting joy of being filled by the Spirit.  Likewise, on the first Sunday of August, we recall hearing Jesus tell his disciples, “Do not labour for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of God will give you.”  As we said at that time, Manna, the bread of angels, prefigures Jesus, the bread of life. This bread of angels is described in the Wisdom of Solomon as “able to content every man’s delight, and agreeing to every taste (16:20).” The following Sunday we emphasized how unlike Jesus is from what we seek in the world; for what we seek in the world never satisfies us, leaving us to thirst again and again for what we do not have.  In contrast, what Jesus can give us puts an end to all our troublesome thoughts, and we are moved, instead, by love.

This week’s epistle reading from James makes the same point.  James contrasts the boasting, selfish ambition, and bitter jealousy of earthly wisdom with the wisdom from above.  Earthly wisdom causes quarrels, fighting, and murder, because “your passions are at war within you.” “The wisdom from above” James writes, “is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.”  The contrast between earthly and spiritual wisdom suggests, when we act as good shepherds of our thoughts, we lead them from earthly to heavenly fields.

Ephraim the Syrian, who lived in modern day Turkey during the 4th-century, authored a well-known Lenten prayer, in which he identifies four undesirable qualities of the earthly spirit with four qualities of the heavenly spirit.  The earthly qualities are sloth, despair, lust for power and idle talk. These are contrasted to self-collection, humility of mind, patience, and love. Ephraim prays to God that he might “come to see my own transgressions, and not judge my brother.”  Ephraim’s prayer is a good example of how to shepherd our thoughts; through repentance, we give them direction.  We turn our thoughts from the earthly to the spiritual path.  And by not judging others, we act like Jesus.[iii]

In today’s gospel account, Jesus and his disciples return to Galilee, where Jesus prepares for Jerusalem by retiring to Peter and Andrew’s house in Capernaum, so he can teach his disciples. This is second of three occasions in Mark’s gospel when Jesus taught about his impending death and resurrection: “and He said unto them, The Son of Man is delivered up into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and when he is killed, after three days he shall rise again.”  But the disciples “did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.”

The inability of the disciples to understand the sayings of Jesus seems remarkable, until you consider “the full force” of his sayings, that is, “the innumerable blessings” that would come from his death and resurrection.[iv] John Chrysostom says the disciples were “troubled, and not merely troubled, but exceedingly mournful,”[v]  because they did not understand completely, but in part; that is, they knew Jesus would soon die.  We might also suppose that the disciples recognized feelings Jesus himself was showing; given the poignancy of the loneliness Jesus must have felt, the disciples acted out of consideration for his feelings and did not ask him to elaborate just then about why he would be killed and what would happen afterwards.[vi]

The greatest difficulty facing the disciples, however, in trying to understand Jesus, is themselves; the disciples are unable to control the earthly thoughts at war within them. In the first teaching (last week) about his impending death, the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ identity, because they could not understand that a glorious deliverer could appear as a Suffering Servant. This week, the misunderstanding can be tied more directly to their pride.  The disciples have been arguing about who was the greatest.  They still cling to the things of this world, wanting to be held in higher esteem than those around them; they want to be honored for their association with Jesus.  This will not happen, of course, because God will hand Jesus over to the will of men, to be put to death in shame. Jesus therefore corrects his disciple’s attention: “If any man would be first,” he says, “he shall be last of all, and servant of all.”

Last week, Jesus emphasized the humiliation and suffering involved in self-renunciation (Mk 8:34); this week, he calls attention to servitude. The disciples are to be as children, because in Palestino-Roman culture, the child is regarded as a servant. Jesus shows the love he feels for children through his regard for them: “Whosoever shall receive one of such little children in my name, receiveth me, and whosoever receiveth me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.” Here the language of hospitality couches a legal principle:  the child is a delegate of Jesus, and Jesus is a delegate of the Heavenly Father; when the one is received, the one with authority is also received.  The disciples are to serve each other and the least of those belonging to the world, and the world, in turn, is to receive the disciples with honor, for kindness extended to a child abides with the wisdom from above.  So Tertullian says, “Do not receive without prayer one who enters your house, especially if that one is a stranger, lest he turn out to be an angelic messenger.  Do not offer earthly refreshments prior to receiving heavenly refreshment.”[vii]

Jesus takes the opportunity of conflict among his disciples to teach them about humility.   Humility is the shepherd’s staff.  When we are shepherding our thoughts, we rely on humility as the antidote to pride. Pride is the root of the earthly qualities that lead our thoughts astray.

Mark the Ascetic (5th century) elaborates on the list of earthly qualities given by Ephraim.  Everything heavenly is corrupted by “envy, jealousy, strife, quarrelling, hatred, anger, bitterness, rancor, hypocrisy, wrath, pride, self-esteem, love of popularity, self-satisfaction, avarice, listlessness, self-indulgence, especially of sensual desire, unbelief, irreverence, cowardice, dejection, contentiousness, sluggishness, sleep, presumption, self-justification, pomposity, boastfulness, insatiateness, profligacy, greed, and despair which is the most dangerous of all.”[viii]   The list of troublesome thoughts goes on and on.  The good shepherd leads his thoughts away from these rocks by relying on humility.  Gregory of Nyssa comments, “Let vanity be unknown among you.  Let simplicity and harmony and a guileless attitude weld the community together.  Let each remind himself that he is not only subordinate to his brother at his side, but to all.  If he knows this, he will truly be a disciple of Christ.”[ix]

“No one can become a true Christian,” Mark the Ascetic says,  “unless he gives himself up completely to the cross in a spirit of humility and self-denial, and makes himself lower than all, letting himself be trampled underfoot, insulted, despised, wronged, ridiculed and mocked; and all this he must endure joyfully for the Lord’s sake, not claiming for himself in return any human advantage:  glory, honour or praise, or the pleasures of food, drink or clothes.”[x]   Mark the Ascetic and Gregory of Nyssa hand down the teaching Jesus gives his disciples, a guide for how to control our thoughts as we live our daily lives, not just on this or that particular occasion, but always, all the time. Discipleship is to be a way of life. We cannot turn our thoughts often enough, for once we begin to mind them, we realize how dependent we truly are on the mercy of God.  We are called to constant repentance, to an abiding humility, and to eagerly accept the difficulties of putting into practice the teachings of Jesus.

What will this look like for us?  Our lifetimes go past in an instant, and as we grow older and our strength wanes, what are we to do to be like Jesus?  Jesus tells us that we are to become more like children.  When we pray every day, when we pay close attention to our thoughts, we strengthen our humility. No matter where we are or how we are feeling, we can be watchful over the thoughts in our mind.  God shows us how to shepherd our thoughts, even as he shows us his mercy. He gives us the opportunity for repentance, to turn thoughts from earthly to heavenly things.  As good shepherds, we can be like Jesus.

Let us be guided by today’s Psalm; let us be like trees, “planted besides streams of water.” Let us meditate “by day and by night” and yield our fruit “in its own season,” knowing “our foliage shall not fall.”

One way of praying that we can try, if we haven’t already, is daily reading through the Psalter. Here is a practice we can do together:  we can read aloud nine psalms a day.  This is a good sized bit of prayer, enough for us to settle into its rhythm.  When we come to longer psalms, we can read less.  We should be able to read through the entire psalter in about three weeks.  So once a month we finish, and then we start again.  I am going to try and do this, with any of you who will join me, until Easter.  When I pray the psalms, I like to preface the psalter reading with the introductory prayers of a prayer book.  If I miss a day, I pick up where I left off the next time.  Each day, when I am done with the psalter reading, I pray for the people on my prayer list.

In the last of the August sermons, we looked at Paul’s encouragement to pray “all kinds of prayers and requests” while being alert “to always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” We need to pray for family, friends, relatives and neighbors, but also for the saints:  prayers for our brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those we gather with in worship, that we may all be steadfast in our faith and avoid the schemes of darkness. When we pray for particular persons, such as those we know are experiencing health challenges or have unmet needs, we can visualize them as we pray.  Also helpful is to be specific in prayer about why we are praying for them and what we are asking for.

Through our prayer life, we learn to take humility to heart; we become worthy of our call and we discover the opportunities for service that Jesus in his mercy puts in our path.   We learn to recognize and recollect our blessings.  Each of us, to quote again from Mark the Ascetic,  “grows in love, is adorned with gentleness, rejoices greatly in spirit, is ruled by the peace of Christ, led by kindness, guarded by goodness, protected by the fear of God, enlightened by understanding and knowledge, illumined by wisdom, guided by humility.”[xi]  In this way, we restore, by grace, through faith, the divine likeness we were created in.  I have heard this likeness called “our original face.”  Through humility, we make ourselves new.

In conclusion:  the remedy for all, writes Isaac the Syrian, is humility of heart; “in proportion to your humility you are given patience in your woes.”[xii] “Resist the devil,” James says, “and he will flee from you” (4:7), for “a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (3:18).” When our life as a worshipping community is grounded in prayer, God will grant us the wisdom to serve each other and to renounce the long list of vices that lead to conflict. If we pray the psalms together, grounding our life in the shepherding of thoughts and the recognition of God’s grace and compassion, we will, all of us, draw near to God, secure in his gift of humility.

“Prayer is a great blessing,” Hesychios the Priest wrote, “and it embraces all blessings, for it purifies the heart, in which God is seen by the believer.”[xiii]  Amen.

[i] Christopher Cook, The Philokalia and the Inner Life:  On Passions and Prayer.  Prologue.

[ii] Journey into the Heart of God, p. 319

[iii] see Donald Sheehan, “The Syrian Penitential Spirit,” in The Grace of Incorruption.

[iv] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Mark (NT Vol 2).

[v] ibid

[vi] Lane, The Gospel According to Mark, 337.

[vii] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Mark (NT Vol 2).

[viii] The Philokalia, Vol 1, p. 151.

[ix] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Mark (NT Vol 2).

[x] The Philokalia, Vol 1, pg 149-150.

[xi] ibid, p. 153

[xii] The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily 42.

[xiii] The Philokalia, Vol 1, p 173.

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