The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
The Seventh Sunday of Easter
Happy Memorial Day Weekend! You know I love these quiet holiday weekends and the change of pace for our busy church.Tomorrow I will be giving the blessing at the Memorial Day Parade in the village, so we won’t be doing much here in church, but I hope you’ll join us for that. Right here next to the pulpit is a plaque that honors some of the men from our very own church who died in WWII. The cloister doors are dedicated to two brothers who also died in that same war; their names are etched there in the glass. They’re also buried in our graveyard, along with many of the young men whose lives were tragically cut short by war. We honor them and so many others who died this weekend. Again, I hope you’ll join us tomorrow.
I have to be honest, I couldn’t decide what passage to preach on this morning. This is one of those Sundays when all of our readings are good, each in its own right.
In Acts, our first reading, we have the conversion of Lydia, the first convert to Christianity in Europe. Paul the apostle is still in Turkey when he has a vision of a man, pleading with him to go to Macedonia, or Greece. When he and his travel companions arrive, they head to the city, I imagine looking for the man in that vision. They never find him. What they do find is a group of women, outside the city, chief among whom is Lydia, a merchant, or dealer, in purple cloth.
In her, we meet one of the many women of means who helped build and sustain the early church. I don’t think it would be going too far to say, without them, there would be no church. They provided financial support for Paul and his companions. They provided houses in which the early converts to Christianity could worship. In some cases, they themselves became the leaders of those houses of worship once Paul moved on.
For the past several weeks we’ve included in your bulletins a short write-up about our history at St. James. We’re calling it “Our Faith is our Foundation.” Carol, our Finance Director, has been writing these. The one for this week I saved specifically to go with this reading about Lydia. Here it is. “Vestry minutes, St. James the Less, 3/22/1965 - Mr. Randol asked if an Endowment Fund Committee had been appointed to administer the Fund. The Rector replied that it has not and that some other committees, likewise, have not been appointed, and urged all chairmen again to complete their committees without further delay by recommendations to him so all committees could get under way with the business at hand. He pointed out that a few outstanding men were wanted by many chairmen and felt that it is necessary and advisable to draw on a much wider field of men. He also pointed out that capable women are available for committees - like the Church School Committee - where women would be appropriate.“
My, how things change! Or – (I prefer to think) come full circle.
Our second reading is from Revelation. It’s the vision of the prophet and writer St. John the Divine at the very end of the book and of the entire Bible: “In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem–the New Jerusalem–coming down out of heaven from God.” John here draws on the prophets before him, like Ezekiel and Daniel, and all the others who dreamed of the restoration of this great city, placed right at the center of a renewed world. As St. John imagines it here, it will be holy, and fertile, a haven. There will grow there trees that heal nations and people. And water – running water, clean and bright as crystal. Like Eden, only better.
Martin Luther King preached a famous sermon challenging the use of this reading for a future hope, unattainable in this world (as it’s often used). It comes from his last sermon, the night before his assassination, at the Masonic Temple in Memphis, headquarters of the Pentecostal Church of God. A Pentecostal audience would be right at home with his use of images from the book of Revelation. But even for an Episcopalian, the meaning of his speech is clear, and the message as relevant as ever. He said: “It’s alright to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s alright to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”
Our final reading is from the Gospel of John. Jesus is in Jerusalem, and there’s a pool, called Bethsatha, around which the blind, the lame and the paralyzed gather. Jesus walks by that pool and sees there a man who’s been sick and unable to walk for thirty-eight years. So he asks him “Do you want to be made well?” That shouldn’t a difficult question to answer. And yet, we all know, Sometimes, it is. The man replies, almost as if trying to avoid giving an answer: "Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
What makes this unique from other stories like this in the Gospels is that this man never asks for the healing, he never gives thanks when it’s done, and it isn’t even clear that he wants it at all. And still, Jesus makes him well. Someone in a Bible study years ago–and I jotted this down–said “Even if you don’t ask, even if you don’t give thanks, there’s still compassion and love that exists for you.”
In the secular calendar it’s Memorial day tomorrow, but in the Church calendar, tomorrow begins what we call “rogation week.” Rogation comes from the Latin “rogare” which means “ask.” (The root is in our word interrogate.) We ask for God’s blessing (because of the time of year) on the fields. We ask for God’s blessing on our world. We ask for God’s blessings on our lives and those we love. The traditional reading for Rogation Day is from Luke: “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
It’s good to ask for things - and we must. But when we don’t think to ask, when we don’t know what to ask, or even when we don’t want to ask, God often blesses us all the same. I think of that collect that I sometimes say after the Prayers of the People: help us to ask only what accords with your will, and those good things which we dare not or in our blindness cannot ask, grant us for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
So, I hope now you can’t fault me too much for not being able to choose between these readings. They’re rich, each and every one of them. It’s just one more way Easter’s abundance spreads out everywhere, and in everything.