4 Pentecost, Year A
4 Pentecost, Year A
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Obviously Psalm 116 is a favourite among those who compiled the revised common lectionary, since this is the third time today’s psalm is listed among the lections during Year A, (see Maundy Thursday and 3 Easter). Today, I invite you to explore with me a little verses ten and eleven in particular, which address at least one significant theme for all of God’s people, that of keeping the faith—especially when the “chips are down,” when the natural, easy thing to do would be to abandon faith. Listen again to those words of our psalmist, who seems to be experiencing a lot of conflict and suffering—doubting and scepticism, maybe even severely hurt by the perceived ill-will of others, who, in the form of an affirmation as well as a lament, says it like this: “I kept my faith, even when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”; I said in my in my consternation, “Everyone is a liar.”
It is, so it seems, in the context of widespread unfaithfulness and hardships that the psalmist kept the faith. Perhaps the psalmist’s reference to being “greatly afflicted” is one of serious illness; perhaps it refers to political or spiritual crises; perhaps it describes a combination of several things; we cannot be totally certain. However, what seems to be happening here is a time of personal hardship and testing of the psalmist, who feels abandoned, maybe even betrayed, but certainly deceived by other people. Was the situation so corrupt and bankrupt ethically and spiritually, as well as politically and socially that the majority resorted to deceit and lies in order to survive? This could be quite probable—as that’s certainly the critique of a lot of the prophets in their assessments of the overall state of the nation. In today’s world too, a lot of individuals, companies, corporations and governments have resorted to lies and deceit in order to obtain, exercise and secure personal and public goals. No doubt a lot of people in today’s world feel immense pressure to abandon their faith, to resort to lies and deceit in order to survive and get ahead in life. However, usually the truth will be revealed—it may take time, sometimes a very long time, but nonetheless the truth comes out into the light of day eventually. When it does, often those—sometimes a very small minority, a remnant—who have kept the faith all along are vindicated, just as were, for example: the Jewish people throughout history, who have faced countless persecutions, pogroms, expulsions, and hardships, including the Holocaust. In the case of the Holocaust, when Jews in concentration camps must certainly have felt that the world had gone mad, and was living the most evil lie against the Jewish people; this very significant affirmation of faithfulness was found on the walls of a cellar in Cologne, where Jews were hidden: “I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I do not feel it. I believe in God, even when He is silent.”
This is the rock bottom affirmation of our psalmist’s words today too. This also has been the affirmation and experience of countless other faithful people of God down through the ages too. There are countless wonderful stories of faithfulness that instruct and inspire us. Here is one out of the tradition of the Desert Fathers that has the capacity to encourage us all in our faithfulness, and to be willing to take risks in our faith journey; even if such risks of faith might be misunderstood and condemned by others. In the end, faithfulness is ultimately vindicated, if not in human eyes, certainly in God’s eyes.
Many years ago a group of holy men went to the desert to pray and learn to be totally dependent on God. In an age when people judged success only by the amount of things they acquired, the Desert Fathers, as they were called, offered an alternative lifestyle, and so began a reform movement in the church.
One of the men who made his home in the wilderness was Abraham or, as he was known to some, Abba Abraham. For nearly 50 years Abraham ate neither bread nor meat. His life was simple and quiet.
One day his only brother died and left a young daughter, Mary, an orphan. Abba Abraham adopted Mary and housed her in the outer room of his cell. Through the small window between the two rooms, Abraham taught Mary the Psalms and other passages of Scripture. She eagerly prayed and sang with her uncle and even abstained from eating meat and rich food as he did. For 20 years Mary lived with Abraham in full devotion to God.
One day a monk, perhaps a monk in name only, came to visit Abraham for edification. He was overcome with desire for Mary and began to speak tenderly to her. She had never known the attention of a man and was flattered by his advances. After many months of quiet conversation, she left her cell and walked alone with him. In the heat of passion they came together, but when the deed was done, she trembled with guilt. Weighed down with anguish, she felt as if she had shamed her uncle, herself, and her God.
Silently, without speaking to anyone, she left for another city, taking refuge in a brothel.
Abraham was greatly grieved when he discovered that Mary had left. In prayer it was revealed to him that his niece was living a wanton life. After two years he discovered where she was and exactly what she did. He sent a friend to go to the brothel and return with as much information as possible.
When the friend returned, Abraham developed a plan to bring Mary back. He disguised himself as an army officer and went to the inn where she worked. The normally quiet monk swaggered into the main room of the inn and bellowed, “I hear you have a fine young wench here. Let me have a look at her.” When they were introduced, the blessed Abraham nearly dissolved in grief to see her clothed in a harlot’s dress. Disguising his grief, he said in a loud voice, “I’ve come a long way for the love of Mary!”
Abraham invited the woman to join him for a huge meal. Though his stomach had not tasted meat or most of the other foods for nearly 50 years, he ate and drank with gusto. When the meal was over, the young girl invited him to come up to her room to lie with her.
Once upstairs, Mary knelt to untie his shoes. Speaking softly, the old monk said, “I’ve come a long way for the love of Mary.” Immediately she recognized her dear uncle.
At first she resisted the old man’s invitation to return to their home. “I cannot even look at you,” she cried. “I am so full of shame.”
Then Abba Abraham told his beloved niece stories of Christ forgiving and freeing an unclean woman who later repaid him by washing his feet with her hair and her tears. He told other powerful stories, and through them Mary remembered the great redeeming love of the Saviour. But of even more importance to her was the action of her uncle. She realized what a great sacrifice he had made to break his vow. She knew how much he loved her, and through that love she could imagine God’s love for her.
She returned to the desert that day to resume her life of prayer and meditation. She provided inspiration, counsel, and understanding to all who visited her cell. There were no sins she could not understand. After her death she became known as St. Mary the Harlot. 1