Readings for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)
This sermon was preached by Fr. Daniel London at Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka CA and at Sts. Martha & Mary parochial mission in Trinidad CA on February 4, 2018.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus continues to defy messianic expectations by healing people rather than raising an army to challenge Rome, as the Jewish Messiah was expected to do. After first healing a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue, Jesus then heals Simon’s mother-in-law, cleanses a leper and cures many others who are sick with all kinds of diseases. Jesus does this all within the first chapter of Mark’s jam-packed Gospel and it all seems to take place within a few days, at the beginning of his ministry (see Mark 2:1). Jesus is very busy.
At the center of our Gospel reading is this sentence about Jesus getting up early in the morning, while it is still dark and going to a deserted place to pray. As I said last week, the source of Jesus’s authority is the healing love of God, which he embodies perfectly, as the Son of God. And yet we need to remember that Jesus is also fully human and that he occasionally needs to retreat from his active and probably hectic healing ministry to reconnect with the Father and to hear the divine voice of love. Jesus gets up in the pristine stillness of the dark and early morning to hear the still small voice of his Father, which empowers him and refreshes him and renews his strength. The Gospel says that Jesus goes to “a deserted place.” This is a translation of the Greek phrase ereymon topon ( ejrhmon topon). Now topon means “place” and it’s where we get the word “topography,” like a topographic map. And the word ereymon means “uninhabited” or “solitary” and it’s where we get the word “hermit.” So Jesus essentially finds his own little hermitage to retreat and pray because Jesus knows that in order to embody God’s healing love in the world, he needs to cultivate a regular practice of prayerful silence and solitude.
This Gospel passage and this phrase (ereymon topon) are some of the crucial seeds that produced the Christian monastic movement that continues to this day. This movement first began to germinate in the 4th and 5th centuries when Christians ventured into the harsh deserts of Egypt and Palestine to find their ereymon topon (their “deserted place”), to practice silence and solitude, and to be renewed by the divine voice of love. These people were known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The movement then spread and moved west and north into the British Isles where it manifested in some beautifully unique ways among the Celtic saints and mystics (whom we as Anglicans can claim as our spiritual forbears). The movement then really took off when St. Benedict of Nursia and his monastic Rule became popular and dominant throughout Western Europe, thanks to the missionary efforts of Pope Gregory the Great. This Benedictine branch of the Christian monastic movement expanded and evolved over hundreds of years, galvanized by the wisdom and leadership of people like Bernard of Clairvaux and Hildegard of Bingen and, more recently, Thomas Merton and Joan Chittister.
It was this Christian monastic movement that inspired two young Episcopal women named Eva Lee Matthews and Beatrice Henderson to find their own ereymon topon, their own spiritual hermitage. Like Jesus, Eva and Beatrice knew that in order to embody God’s healing love in the world they needed to cultivate a regular practice of prayerful silence and solitude.
They did this by making religious vows to get up early in the morning every day and go to a quiet place to pray. Eva and Beatrice eventually became the founders of a community of sisters devoted to prayer and service. Their biblical models were Martha (who was known for being very busy and active with ministry) and her sister Mary (who was known for being more contemplative and prayerful). Eva first wanted to name the community after Martha and Mary (like the name of our parochial mission church in Trinidad). However, when they found out there was already an Anglican Society of Sisters named after Martha and Mary (the Sisters of Bethany), they decided instead to name their community after an event in the life of Jesus, the one who perfectly balanced the active life with the contemplative life (as we see in our Gospel today). They named their community the Community of the Transfiguration; and the sisters of this community continue to this day to get up early in the morning and go to their ereymon topon to pray. And I am personally grateful for their discipline of prayer and for the many spiritual seeds they have already planted within this community.
The Sisters of the Transfiguration and the monastic movement of which they are a part invite us all to find our own ereymon topon, our own place of silence and solitude where we can hear God’s voice and be renewed. Although many of us have not made vows to be hermits or monks or nuns, many of us have made baptismal vows in which we promise to continue in the prayers; to continue praying like the Sisters of the Transfiguration, like the Benedictine monks, like the Celtic Saints, like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and like Jesus of Nazareth.
Where is your ereymon topon, your place of prayerful silence and solitude where you can hear most clearly the still small voice of God? What pushes you to go there? And what prevents you from going there?
As Christ Church Eureka begins a new season, I invite us to root ourselves deeply in a daily practice of prayer so that we can hear God’s invitations to us, as individuals and as a community. We don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn every morning, but I encourage us all to find our own ereymon topon and spend some time there each day. This is how Jesus can continue his healing ministry through us and how God, in the words of Isaiah, can renew our strength, so that we can mount up with wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not be faint. Amen.