Today is the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost in Greek means 50 days, because we are now 50 days from Easter. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are this weekend also celebrating their Pentecost. This was a Jewish festival before it was a Christian one. The men and women in the reading from the book of Acts were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate that – the Jewish Pentecost (or Shavout, as they call it).
Pentecost in the Christian tradition is one of the five primary feast days in the church year for baptisms. And we have another–our last for a while–baptism today, of Stella Caramanica. Welcome to her and her family. They joined our parish about two months ago, after moving from Washington. Their former church was Christ Church in Alexandria, which is a big and historically important church for Episcopalians. Here’s something interesting: that church was built before the founding our country. George Washington had a pew there, which still has his name on it. It was founded in 1749, so exactly 100 years older than we are. We’re honored you all chose to make St. James the Less your new parish home. Welcome. Stella has an older brother Lucca and we welcome him, too.
All over the world today Christians are baptizing new members into the faith, many at this very hour. Kind of a lovely thought. Pentecost is really a celebration of Christianity’s reach and scope and of our religion’s diversity. So it’s appropriate that we are all doing this important thing together today of baptizing new Christians.
I had a picture in my mind of this sermon before the words came. I saw countless little red dots and lines on a world map, starting in Jerusalem. On the Day of Pentecost when the disciples had this ecstatic experience of the Holy Spirit, 3000 people, pilgrims there in Jerusalem from foreign lands, were converted that day (that’s mentioned just after our reading). So this picture in my mind’s eye started at Jerusalem with 3000 tiny red dots. Because many of those people went home after the festival to their faraway towns, in North Africa, in Turkey by the Black Sea, to Arabia, there would be a little line charting that course, and on the far end of it, more dots branching out as each of those people converted spouses, children, even households.
This keeps spreading out, and spreading out, dots and lines, dots and lines, Jesus’ word spreading to the north, to the south, east and west, across oceans, deserts, channels, borders, mountain ranges, across ethnicities, language, cultures, dots and lines, big red masses of many dots, extending further and further out, until south and north, east and west meet. That is the story of Christianity, beginning on this day.
The writer Philip Jenkins, who writes about the rise of Christianity in the Global South, said that our faith spread out to more cultures and languages in its first 100 years than any other religion in so short a time. To do that, you had to be zealous, and those first Christians were certainly that. You had to have some help from history: Roman roads, good ships, books–the codex, a new invention at the time Christianity began and certainly one that helped it spread. But you also had to have people who were adaptable, flexible, and who wanted to go out, to venture far afield of what is comfortable, and known.
It is traditional that, on the Day of Pentecost, we also read this story from the book of Genesis, the Tower of Babel. It’s an old folktale. The first 11 chapters of Genesis contain the “pre-history” of Israel. It’s filled with mythical stories of how things came to be: the earth, human sin, murder, cities, different cultures and, today, different languages. We meet these people in our reading as they’re plotting to build a tower. The story says less than we think it does. It doesn’t say anything about hubris, or vanity, or trying to overtake God in building this tower. What it does tells us by way of a motive is that they wanted to avoid spreading out. “Let us build a tower… otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
The implication being: we do not want that. Let’s huddle here. Let’s be as like each other as we can. Let’s take no risks, let’s build a fortress to protect ourselves from uncertainty and the unknown.
The Christian Pentecost story is sometimes said to be a “reversal” of the story of Babel. Until recently, that never quite made sense to me. If it were a reversal, then the many languages would become one again. What was undone at Babel, the one, unified language and people, would be restored. But that doesn’t happen in Acts. If anything, the diversity, and the chaos, only increase.
But now I get it: it’s a reversal not of many languages back to one, but of that desire to huddle, and not change or be changed. It’s a reversal of fear that keeps us in one place. It’s a reversal of monoculture. It’s a reversal of the need to always be safe, to always be buffered from risk by hiding in towers and fortresses of our own making.
Those early Christians had a mindset that couldn’t be further from the people of Babel. They got out there, in the world. They let the Spirit lead them to places and people unknown. And today on this Feast of Pentecost, we’re called (like them) to let God’s light shine as far and as bright as it possibly can. To expand our fellowship. To let the Spirit do its work, in us.
Welcome to the Cline family, whose daughter (second daughter) Hannah will be baptized today. Hannah was our baby Jesus in last year’s Christmas pageant. Her older sister Amelia was baptized almost two years ago, in the Parish Hall, where we worshiped as our new organ was being installed. So it’s fun this time around to use the big marble font. Also, I just learned earlier this morning that little Hannah’s baptismal gown, worn also by her sister and older cousins, was custom made out of the material from her grandmother’s wedding gown. And the fact that Amelia and many of those cousins–and the grandmother–are here today makes this even more special! Again, welcome to all of you.
Christians (I’m sure you’ve noticed) have a hard time agreeing with each other, from what we believe to how we worship to how we live our lives. I began my priesthood at Grace Church in Manhattan, which was where a priest named William Reed Huntington served as rector in the late 19th century, during a period of optimism about Christian unity. Huntington and others believed there would be a merger of Christian churches in their lifetime.
That didn’t happen. But if you look in the back of the prayer book, there’s a section called “historical documents,” in which is a statement Huntington wrote, called the Lambeth Quadrilateral. Lambeth, because it was presented at a church conference in Lambeth, England, and Quadrilateral because it attempts to boil down our faith to four core tenets. Baptism, performed with water and in the name of the Trinity. Holy Communion, performed with bread and wine. Third, ministers, in the threefold and ancient order of bishops priests and deacons. And fourth, adherence to Holy Scriptures and the Ancient Creeds. He felt that, if we could have some basic agreement on those four things, all of our other differences we could call non-essential, not affecting our unity as Christians. Baptism, Holy Communion, Ministers, and Scripture and Creeds.
It is amazing how much there is to argue about within each one of those. I used to chair the Episcopal Methodist dialogue committee for this diocese, and Episcopalians simply could not accept that Methodists use grape juice instead of wine. That was–is–anathema to us. The Quadrilateral specifies that it must be wine, so that already is a non-starter for Methodists.
The legitimacy of each other’s clergy is a huge issue. When women were first ordained in the 70s and 80s, some Christian groups simply gave up hope for any kind of agreement on what makes a priest valid. [pause] Episcopalians, as do the Catholics and Orthodox, have a very high bar for ordination; each priest must be ordained by a bishop, and each bishop consecrated by three other bishops. We claim this goes in unbroken succession all the way back to the twelve apostles. But if Lutherans haven’t had the same standard, is it their job to conform to us, or ours to relax? These are the kinds of questions churches have to ask when they dialogue with each other.
Holy Communion, I’m sure you can imagine, is a mess. The range of views Christians hold on that–what happens, what it signifies, who gets to consecrate the bread and wine–is so vast as to make reconciling positions almost impossible.
The deeper you look into these matters, the further from agreement we seem to get. So while Huntington’s quadrilateral seems simple enough, in reality, it’s not.
There has been one area of success, though: Holy Baptism. People often don’t realize that you can be baptized in the Roman Catholic Church and that is no different than being baptized in the Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Church, or the Episcopal Church. You can be baptized in the Lutheran tradition and your baptism is as good as the pope’s. Francis would say so himself (and has). That’s official Roman Catholic teaching–and Episcopal, and Presbyterian, and Lutheran, and Methodists. Since 1982. It took about a hundred years from the time the discussions began, but we now all agree to recognize each other’s baptisms as fully valid and interchangeable.
In today’s Gospel reading from John, Jesus begins to imagine his future church. Did he picture Notre Dame? Or Westminster Cathedral? I’m sure not. But he could see by this point, this last night of his life (because our reading takes place at the Last Supper), a growing community of followers. And he prays for them–for us–that we might be unified. “I ask not only on behalf of these [twelve disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” This prayer is sometimes called the “Prayer of Christian Unity,” and it’s the foundational text for churches in dialogue with one another.
There are other things to unify over, important things beyond what Huntington and his peers spoke of. Feeding the hungry. Helping the poor. Making sure no one has to suffer because of where she was born, or the color of his skin, or their sexual orientation. You may be interested to know that our baptismal covenant, where we promise to respect the dignity of every human being, and to seek and serve Christ in all persons, was written jointly with all those other traditions, as we worked our way toward agreement on the meaning of baptism. If it’s not the baptismal service that some of you older people out there remember, that’s because it includes changes made in the wake of recognizing each other’s baptisms.
If we can all just work as one on fulfilling these promises, then maybe it’s enough, and more than enough, just to agree on this one sacrament, Holy Baptism. Today we baptize another new Christian–an Episcopalian yes, but a Christian first. And we all remember as we repeat these vows together, what really makes us one with one other, and with Christ.
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.
This is a weekend full of transitions, and a busy weekend even by our standards at St. James. And that’s saying something!
Yesterday, many of us were down at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to see Susie ordained a Deacon, and it was a beautiful celebration–I mean, really beautiful. A lot of people from St. James were there, and I don’t know how many times after the service I heard someone say “This is why I’m an Episcopalian!” It was grand, and heartfelt, and the sermon by the cathedral dean amazing, all about the deacon’s role as one who keeps us awake to the needs of the world.
Susie will still be our Christian education director, but as a deacon she’ll be more than that; she’ll represent us in our community and our diocese, and she’ll continue to cultivate a side of herself that (as she’s told us before) was what got her into ministry in the first place, many years ago as a volunteer in Haiti. The bishop said yesterday that a deacon’s work is closer to Jesus’ ministry than a priest’s, and I think that’s true. A deacon’s sole responsibility is to engage the world outside the church, and help us to do the same.
So again – congratulations to Susie and it will be very exciting to work alongside her in this new phase of life and ministry!
Another transition we’re celebrating today is the baptism of little Rachel Frank. Her parents, Sam and Sherin, recently moved up here from the city, and have joined us as official members of St. James. You’ll recognize them. They sit back there with all the parents with babies over in that section of the church. Welcome to the Franks, and to their families and friends, and godparents. We’re so happy you’re now a part of this community.
And last but not least are our 2nd and 3rd graders who have just completed their four-week class on Holy Communion and are sitting right up here in front today: Hannah and Shields Hatcher, Stella Dugan, Lincoln Russell, James Brady, Elivia Thompson, Amelia Ryan, Quinn Cocco, and Rhyse Horner.
Some of them will be receiving Communion today for the first time, some have already been receiving. The Episcopal Church has no rule about when a child can receive Communion, only that he or she be baptized first. I explained to the kids at their class last Wednesday that we see this message–first baptism, then communion–in the architecture of our church. When you enter the main entrance in the back, you have to pass by the baptismal font in order to get to the altar. In many churches (as in ours) they’re placed on the same axis so the connection is more obvious. When you enter our church it’s clear, without even opening a prayer book or hearing a word spoken, what the most important thing we do here is: celebrating at this altar. And to do that (the official teaching of the church says), you have to be baptized. Nothing more.
So, we are so happy to welcome these kids to share with us in this sacrament of Holy Communion. You will do this thousands of times in your life, starting (for some of you) today.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter when our readings always emphasize the image of God and of Jesus as the shepherd of his sheep. It’s a lovely image for a day on which we celebrate all these children, including this little baby. This is one of the earliest images for Christ among the first Christians. In fact, our oldest visual depiction of Jesus comes from the Roman Catacombs, where many of the Christians persecuted and killed by the Roman emperor were buried. It’s a faded picture but you can still clearly see the figure of a young, beardless Jesus, painted in vegetable dye, carrying a lamb about his shoulders. When my family visited Ravenna in Italy last summer we saw another very famous early depiction of Jesus as a shepherd in the form of a grand colorful mosaic (by this time Christianity was the official religion of the empire). In this one Jesus surrounded by adoring sheep all looking lovingly on their master. Jesus as the Good Shepherd also graces the window back there by our baptismal font for all the children to see each time they witness another baptism.
It was the first visual image of Jesus in Christianity, and it’s the first many of us encounter as children. Susie said she often uses this image in chapel services for the nursery school, and many of us can probably remember sheep on felt boards in our Sunday school classes growing up. I mentioned last year on this day having a drawing of Jesus with carrying a lamb on his shoulders in my bedroom as a child, an image so comforting and powerful to this day that I credit it with my never leaving the church as I grew up and matured.
The other appealing aspect of this metaphor is of us, as sheep. It’s not at all a flattering image, and yet that’s what draws us–even children–to it. Sheep are fluffy and wooly and cute, but the Bible stories make clear that they’re also helpless, get themselves often into dangerous situations, need a lot of guidance, need each other, and are vulnerable animals. They give expression to what we know of ourselves from a very young age: that we’re fragile, imperfect and vulnerable, and we need the guidance of loving people in our lives and, most importantly, of a loving God.
On Wednesday I had the privilege of teaching the last of four classes these kids attended to learn about Holy Communion. Deacon Susie and Lisa-Marie Hatcher taught them about baptism being the first sacrament we receive. They made pretzels, which are a symbol of blessing. They made little Paschal candles. And then by the fourth class I got to walk them through the church. We learned about the font and the altar facing each other, on the same axis. We visited the sacristy, the room in which we keep the sacred vessels and the bread and wine. We even set up the altar for this morning. This is their handiwork. Finally we practiced receiving the bread and the wine.
At the end of all this, we had a little extra time, so we sat up here at the altar and the kids were full of really good questions. What’s the difference between blessed and unblessed bread? Can you chew the bread since it’s God’s body? (The answer by the way is Yes. God comes to us as we are, human beings with teeth and mandibles for chewing.) What do you do if you drop your wafer? Where does the leftover bread and wine go if it’s been blessed?
I also put some questions to them: What does “Paschal mean?” When do we light the Paschal candle? What does the word “Eucharist” mean? What’s the name of the plate we serve the bread on?
At one point I asked What do you have to do before you can receive Communion? expecting the answer, baptism. But the first response was, “You have to be good.” Now, ideally that’s true. But we come to this rail throughout our lives in all sorts of states. We bring our best selves here some weeks, and others, our worst selves. We’re not angels, we’re sheep. Or just humans. Imperfect but always loved, and always welcome to this rail where we receive God and God receives us.
So again, congratulations to these kids, and now let us all open our hymnals and prepare to welcome this newest member into our faith.
Sermon for April 28, 2019
For the past several years, Mother Storm has asked me to give the sermon on the
Sunday after Easter. It is a little bit of a joke between us, because after the multiple
services in Holy Week and Easter, deacons, deacons to be, or curates are often
asked to preach on this Sunday, This Sunday is the day that we hear about Doubting
Thomas. I have grown attached to Thomas the apostle. Maybe it is because I like him,
having been filled with doubt during times in my life. Maybe it is because I am
fascinated by the possibility that he spent time in India converting early Christians. But
it is also because I have simply gotten to know him as a courageous, devoted, human
and a follower of Christ.
Who is Thomas and what do we know about him? His full name is thought to be Judas
Thomas or Didymus which means “The Twin”. He was one of the 12 apostles. We first
meet him in the gospel of John. In this passage, Jesus is going to Bethany to see his friend
Lazarus, who has just died.. The disciples are worried because they know that Jesus will risk his life
traveling so close to Jerusalem. There have been death threats made. Undeterred, Thomas says:
"Let us also go, that we may die with him. He is prepared to die with his friend. So we know that he
is a deeply loyal and committed disciple.
Later, at the Last Supper, Jesus is telling his disciples that he is going away to prepare a heavenly
home for his followers, and that one day they will join him there. Thomas reacts by saying, "Lord,
we do not know where you are going. how can we know the way? Thomas seems willing to go but
full of literal questions :Where is this place? How are we going to get there?
And of course we know him from today’s gospel reading. His disciples see the
resurrected Christ but Thomas is missing. Where was Thomas? Was he exhausted
from the week before or perhaps even traumatized by the events that had unfolded ?
No one knows. It remains a mystery. What we do know, is that his friends quickly told
him about the appearance of Jesus. And here is where the famous doubting part
comes in. Thomas skeptically tells them, “Unless I see the mark of the nail in his hands
and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A
week later, Thomas is with his friends in the room, and this time Jesus appears once
more. Jesus asks him to put his finger in his hands and side. “Do not doubt but
believe,” Jesus says. Thomas responds with the exclamation. “My Lord and My God!”
My Lord and My God. These words have been called the most important statement of
faith in the New Testament. They are the only time, in the New Testament , that Jesus
is called God. And they are said by Thomas.
More is known about Thomas from the amazing discovery in 1945 in Nag Hammadi,
Egypt. Ancient manuscripts, were found in a clay jar hidden in a cave, by a local
farmer. In that important discovery, The Gospel of Thomas was found. This Gospel is
a non-canonical text ( meaning not sanctioned and not included in our
New Testament.) But scholars think that text may have been written as early as the
first century. It differs from the Gospels we know in that it is a series of sayings. Here
are two of them: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save
you. “ and “ Blessed is the person who struggled, he has found life.”
In the Acts of Thomas, another text from the fourth century, we are told about his early
ministry. It is a combination of tradition, history and legends. We are told that Thomas
first arrived on the shores of Kerala, India. Indian people in Kerala trace their faith
directly to Thomas and call themselves St. Thomas Christians. They are a multi Ethnic
group comprised of Jewish, Syrian and Hindu origins. Many of the prayers and hymns
that are sung in their liturgy, are spoken in Syriac, which is the language closest to
Aramaic, the ancient Language that Jesus spoke. Thomas baptized and built churches
including the world’s oldest church structure which was built in 57 a.d. There are 27
million Christians in India. Modern day pilgrims delight in crosses with elephants on
them and colorful celebrations and dances. Thomas was killed in 72 ad. He is said to
have exclaimed these words “My Lord and My God.” at the hour of his death.
Now that we have a little context for Thomas, let’s go back to that time so long ago
when Thomas shared his doubts with this friends. That day, he basically said, I’m not
believing you unless I see if for myself. No way. Show me the proof. We don’t know
what the disciples said to him afterwards. Perhaps they were irritated or angry. The
way you feel when someone doesn’t believe you. But they must have stood by him,
because there he was, the very next week with his friends, in that same room. They
didn’t abandon him in his time of doubt. Thomas asks to be present, mindful and
observant - to touch and feel Christ. And Jesus is accepting of that.
As humans, we know deeply what it is like to doubt. Life is full of times of doubt. We
doubt whether we can repair a relationship or whether a parent or friend will regain
their health. We have doubts about our jobs, marriages, children. Sometimes we have
doubts about the very meaning of our life. The important thing that we can learn from
Thomas, is that doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is a pathway to faith. Brother Mark
Brown is an Episcopal monk from the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Boston. He
believes that doubt is a gift. “We should have Just enough doubt to take this world
seriously,” he tell us. We are to fully embrace this world, in all its joy and sorrows.”
In his book, Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich, the great Christian philosopher and
theologian, tells us that “The affirmation that Jesus is the Christ is an act of faith and
consequently of daring courage. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of
As we come to church on Sunday mornings, each one of us, brings with us a wide range of
personal beliefs and views, imbedded in the context of our faith. Some of us have a deep,
structured set of beliefs, born of tradition and a formal religious upbringing. Others have a
mixture of personal interpretations and religious formation that has created a unique theology -
that fits into the world as they see it. If you have attended the Conversations that Matter forums,
you know this to be true. Take for example the last forum called “Holy Living, Holy Dying”, folks
had all kinds of stories and ways of understanding death, life after death and resurrection. This
is the beauty of the Episcopal Church. There is room for everyone in this faith community. .
Each walk of faith is different. You will go through periods of doubt and if you hang in there,
periods of renewed faith and joy.
Jesus has time for you and me. Just like he did when he stood before Thomas and said “Put
your finger here and see my hands”. He has time to stand there patiently, while we figure it out
and make sense of our faith. In the seasons of our life, as we move closer and then back away,
stop and then move closer to him again and again, he has time for each one of us. There is no
rush and no right path. For faith is as individual as the soul it resides in. In this Easter season,
let us rejoice in our own special journey and the acceptance of a Christ who loves us even when
we are filled with doubt. Who stands there in our life, unwavering and strong enough to
handle any of our human fears with his love, acceptance and an open heart.
The Feast of William Law, Wednesday April 10
Today we celebrate the feast of William Law, an English priest from the 18th century whose admirers are as diverse as the philosopher Aldous Huxley, the mystic William Blake, John and Charles Wesley, and the writer Samuel Johnson.
Law was a priest, theologian, philosopher, and writer on spirituality. Admirably, although he remained a priest in the Church of England for his entire career, he was hard to pin down. He loved the sacraments in our faith, but he also expressed Quaker views, was a pacifist, and in his later years became a follower of Jacob Boehme, a German mystic whose views could sometimes be way out there. In other words, William Law was a good, comprehensive, open-minded and eclectic Anglican priest, someone we might very well recognize today. For instance, at a clergy retreat a few years ago I happened to find myself sitting with a group of about twelve young(ish) fellow priests in this diocese. We got to chatting, and one by one we all started confessing our heterodox views on such matters as spirituality, healing, Eastern medicine, and so on. If this was a representative sampling of Episcopal clergy, we would seem to be a more eclectic and perhaps unorthodox group than many people may realize. Very much (I think) in the spirit of William Law.
Law was born in 1686, just before the Glorious Revolution in England, which restored the monarchy to the Stuarts after the English Civil War. As a young man Law began to teach at Cambridge; however, the last Stuart who was Protestant (English law at that time said that only a Protestant could become a monarch) died, and the throne was handed over to a distant relative, George I, a German of the Hanoverian line. Law would not swear allegiance to the Hanoverians, remaining loyal to the Stuarts, and so lost his post at Cambridge. He wound up becoming a tutor to the Gibbons (he tutored the father of Edward Gibbons of the famous Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire). So although he lost his post at Cambridge, he did pretty well for himself. In fact, had he remained in the good graces of the monarchy and government, he probably would not have had the liberty to range theologically the way he did. And we would be the much worse off for it.
Eventually Law wound up connected to a wealthy widow, an acquaintance of the Gibbons family, and lived out the last twenty years of his life with her and her daughter, writing some of his best known works. The one book that he’s really known for today is A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. It very much influenced the Wesley brothers with its rigorous piety and belief that the Christian life should be lived out in everything that we do. (Methodism was born partly from this belief that Anglicans were too morally lax in their day-to-day lives.)
Law’s writing is so lucid and easy still today to read. I like this particular paragraph, which sounds like it could have been written yesterday.
“[W] e see such a mixture of ridicule in the lives of many people. You see them strict as to some times and places of devotion, but when the service of the Church is over, they are but like those that seldom or never come there. In their way of life, their manner of spending their time and money, in their cares and fears, in their pleasures and indulgences, in their labour and diversions, they are like the rest of the world. This makes the loose part of the world generally make a jest of those that are devout, because they see their devotion goes no farther than their prayers, and that when they are over, they live no more unto God, till the time of prayer returns again; but live by the same humour and fancy, and in as full an enjoyment of all the follies of life as other people. This is the reason why they are the jest and scorn of careless and worldly people; not because they are really devoted to God, but because they appear to have no other devotion but that of occasional prayers.”
I should add to this that Law was not a strict moralist like the Wesleys or the preachers of the Great Awakening who were also influenced by him. His views were much more expansive and subtle. He demanded a lot but wasn’t dogmatic or judgmental. What a great thing to have said of you: that you demanded a lot of your faith without being dogmatic and judgmental. I think this is what made him appealing to people like Aldous Huxley, and makes him so appealing to people still today. Here’s what Huxley said of him, and I’ll conclude with his words:
Granted that the ground of the individual soul is akin to… the divine Ground of all existence…what is the ultimate nature of good and evil, and what the true purpose and end of life? The answers to these questions will be given to a great extent in the words of that most surprising product of the English eighteen century, William Law…a man who was not only a master of English prose, but also one of the most interesting thinkers of his period and one of the most endearingly saintly figures in the whole history of Anglicanism.
Amen to that. We give thanks for William Law–a true prophet and saint.
Today is the fifth and Last Sunday in Lent, and I don’t think I can remember a Lent quite as beautiful as this one’s been. I think this bodes well for the kind of Easter we’re going to have this year! But we’re not there yet. Next time we gather together on Sunday it will be the beginning of Holy Week with the Palm Procession followed by the reading of the Passion story. And already in our reading for today, we have intimations of what’s ahead. Lent 5 always serves as a pivot to Holy Week, foreshadowing it in some way. This year that foreshadowing happens with the story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus.
There are many depictions of this story in art, where Mary is typically portrayed with her long wanton red hair. You get the sense both from her appearance and the look on the disciples’ faces that she’s doing something inappropriate. Those paintings are based partly on the version we get over in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, and partly on tradition. The other Gospel writers don’t give this woman a name or identity. She seems to just barge in off the street while Jesus and the disciples are having supper. There’s a reckless sensuousness in their telling of it. She breaks the neck of the bottle and pours the oil all over his body – his head, his arms, his legs and feet. Even though she’s not given a name, tradition identified her with Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ friend, whom the later church fathers labelled a prostitute. Another legend identifies this woman, whoever she was, with Jesus’ wife.
But we don’t have to concern ourselves with any of that today because, in John’s handling of it, we have a very different story. This is Mary of Bethany–not Mary Magdalene or Mary the Mother, but Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. We meet the three of them a few times in the Gospels. First, when Jesus and his disciples come to their home for a meal. Martha the oldest sister gets busy working in the kitchen while Mary the younger sits idly at Jesus’ feet along with the men. Martha, the dutiful one, scolds Mary for her indolence. But Jesus defends her: Mary, he says, has chosen the better part in sitting here with me and listening. Women with sisters will be familiar with this dynamic, the diligent sister and the dreamer. I have a Martha for a sister and I love this story as much as she hates it.
Another visit to their home that the Scriptures tell us of Is when Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus gets sick and dies. Jesus arrives to their home late, only after Lazarus has died, and Mary comes running toward him crying and upset that he didn’t arrive in time to heal her brother. We know the story from there: he enters Lazarus’ tomb and brings him back to life.
Today’s story takes place soon after that. Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus and all twelve of the disciples are gathered in Bethany six days before the Passover–Saturday before Holy Week, and the day before Palm Sunday. That’s why we read it here in the church: this is the last event to take place before Jesus enters Jerusalem (next week’s reading). Once again, Martha puts on a meal for Jesus and his disciples at her home. Once again, Mary avoids the kitchen. At some point in the evening, Mary brings out an expensive jar of perfume and begins pouring it on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. The other disciples are shocked at her lavishness, especially Judas. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
It’s hard not to sympathize a little with Judas here. After all, Jesus has spent his whole ministry preaching about the need to be generous to the poor, only to now defend this act that seems so wasteful. One sermon I read compared this to going out to the wine store and buying a $40,000 bottle of wine to drink with your dying friend. That’s not a section I’m familiar with at Zachy’s (and you better not be, either!).
It’s lavish, but John, alone of the Gospel writers, frames this as an important ritual act, an anointing for burial.
This is at a point in the Gospel where Jesus has tried over and over to tell the twelve disciples he is going to die. And how do they respond? With denial, scolding, outright refusal to hear him. Peter’s rebuke when Jesus tells him on the road to Jerusalem that he must suffer, and die, and on the third day be raised. The disciples falling asleep when Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah about his death on the Mt of the Transfiguration. James and John’s oblivious squabble over which of them is the greatest even as Jesus explains to them his need to die. No one is willing to hear him talk about his death, much less help him prepare for it. Until Mary. Mary, who opens that bottle of expensive ointment, probably bought with his burial in mind, pours it over his feet, and with this gesture, says “I am listening.”
On the one hand, this was an extraordinary event that happened between people we would never presume to be–this is about Jesus’ death and burial. But it’s also a completely familiar interaction. Just like the disciples, we sometimes deny someone their grief, their pain and fears, because we’re afraid to lose them or we don’t want to be burdened with their weaknesses. We let our own needs or fears get in the way of what they need. I’ve seen over the years (and you probably have too) this struggle at the deathbed of loved ones. I’ve said to those close to death when no one else will, even when I haven’t wanted to, You can let go, it’ll be OK. And you can just see the relief pour into their faces. I’ve witnessed people struggle to just listen to someone without trying to fix their problems. I’ve struggled with that myself. Many times.
As we move into Holy Week next Sunday, Mary of Bethany is our example. She and the Church call us to walk with Jesus through his suffering and death. To remain at his side and not look away. And just as we do that with Jesus liturgically, through the rites and rituals of the church, we’re to do that with one another. We re-enact these events from the past so that we can make a difference in the present.
These final weeks leading to Easter are full of practical lessons of the compassionate Christian life. May God give us grace to hear them, and to follow him, through his suffering and death to his resurrection. Amen.
Today is Laetere Sunday, the fourth Sunday (and midpoint) of Lent. Laetere means “lightening.” It’s traditionally been a day of reprieve from your fastidiously observed Lenten disciplines. The lighter vestments that I’m wearing are symbolic of the tone of today. The readings, you’ve noticed, are a lot brighter and more hopeful than last Sunday’s.
In England, this day is known by another name, as well: Mothering Sunday, not to be confused with our Mother’s Day. On Mothering Sunday, people who had left their hometowns for work (household servants, factory workers) were permitted by their employers to return to their homes for the weekend. This was before labor laws gave people regular, weekly time off. Once home, the custom was to attend your “Mother Church,” the church you’d grown up in.
Here at St. James we’re also baptizing a new member of the faith, Henry Hudson Casterline. And it’s fitting that it’s on Mothering Sunday – not only because it’s a more celebratory day in Lent, but also because Henry’s mother, Regina, actually grew up here at St. James. So, here you are in your Mother Church, the church you were baptized in. Dorothy Heyl, Regina’s mother and Henry’s grandmother, was also baptized here. She and her husband, Tom (Regina’s dad), have been active members for many years. Dorothy sings up here in the choir. So, three generations, all connected to St. James and here under one roof this morning. This is really special.
You have today for little Henry’s baptism what is without question one of the best Gospel readings one could have, the parable of the Prodigal Son. It comes from the Gospel of Luke and has been called the “Paragon of Parables.” Like the best of them, No matter how many times we’ve heard or read it, it can seem both familiar and strange. “There was a man who had two sons,” it begins. The younger son asks for his inheritance early, and then travels with it to a distant country where he squanders it all. To ask for an inheritance early was as good as rejecting one’s father; the Old Testament commands its followers never to pass on or ask for inheritance before the death of the one granting it. So he was defying that rule and, in so doing, also the fifth commandment to honor your father and mother.
After that money is spent, the land is swept by famine, and the youngest son is forced to seek work taking care of someone’s pigs. There are of course details here a Jewish audience might appreciate more than we do – the early ask of the inheritance and, here, the offense of having to care for pigs, ritually unclean animals in the Jewish faith. This, then, is a very dramatic fall for this once privileged son, and it’s in this, his lowest state (as happens) that things begin to change: our translation says he got up and “came to himself.” Another that he “started to think straight,” and still another, more simply, he “repented.” To “come to oneself” is a nice translation, implying that who we really are is what we are at our best, not our worst. That’s the benefit of the doubt the Christian tradition always gives us.
The Prodigal returns home, apologizes for what he’s done, and is greeted with open arms by his father, who spares no expense in welcoming him back: kill the fatted calf, find the best robe (this might remind some of the Old Testament story of Joseph, whose doting father Jacob gifted his son a gorgeous robe, token of his dad’s favoritism).
At this point in the parable, all is well, only there’s another son. As the feast for the youngest son is taking place, the eldest son returns from a day’s work in the fields, finds out that his father has killed the fatted calf for his returned, wayward brother, and he becomes angry and resentful. The father assures him that his love for both brothers is the same, unconditional and unwavering, then pleads with him to join the festivities. We never find out if he does.
We may see ourselves in one or both of these brothers, probably depends on when we hear it and what we’re going through at that time. Someone in Bible Study last Wednesday surprised us by likening herself to the father in the parable, forgiving to a fault and easily taken advantage of (to which several people with older children then chimed in in agreement). Many of us saw ourselves in the older brother, dutiful Scarsdalians that we are. A few related to the Prodigal, or could recount moments in life when we felt this way. All these characters describe a little bit of us at different times. That’s why it’s so powerful and enduring a parable.
But today, on this Mothering Sunday and a day we’re baptizing a new child into the faith, I see this as a story about home; having a place to come home to; having a place that will always take us in no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done. In our faith, that place is here, God’s house, the church. That’s why, after Henry is baptized, we will all together as a congregation say these words: “We receive you into the household of God.”
When we baptize our children, we’re giving them something more than even the best parents can provide. For one, a physical space that doesn’t change. We move, we change homes. Physical spaces and all the memories they contain may come and go from our lives. But the churches we grow up in don’t. They stay in the family. Their doors are always open to us.
When we baptize our children into the church, we’re giving them a place that will always take them back, wherever they’ve been, whatever they’ve done. We say that about our own homes, but families aren’t perfect; familial love not without limits. When our children wander off, there may be (much as we don’t like to admit this) limits to what we can take back. Things we can’t accept. Times we may even have to close the door, or delay forgiveness. But not here, in God’s house.
The father in this parable, welcoming home the son with open arms unconditionally sometimes exceeds the abilities of human love. But even if we can’t always give it ourselves, we promise our children this love when we introduce them into God’s house, the church. God can be what we can’t be. God’s household is our true and lasting home. And the one to which we can always, all of us, no matter what, return. Amen.
Well, it’s definitely Lent when you have readings like this! Towers falling and cutting people down. Pilate slaughtering innocent men and women as they’re worshiping in the temple. Or, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: twenty-three thousand idolaters falling in a single day. Others being eaten by serpents, still others destroyed by the destroyer. This is what we think of when we think of Lent!
One image that comes up without fail during Lent is the fig tree. Jesus uses examples from nature and from everyday life to illustrate his lessons – that’s one of the ways his teaching is so arresting – and the fig tree, being prevalent in the dry arid climate of the Middle East, makes frequent appearances, not just in Jesus’ teachings but throughout the Bible. The leaves of the fig tree covered our first parents, Adam and Eve, after they ate of the fruit and saw that they were naked. The prophet Jeremiah had a vision of Israel as a basket of gorgeous and perfectly ripe figs – and of her enemy as a basket of rotten ones.
One of the most poignant parables of the Old Testament is “Jotham’s Parable.” Jotham was the sole survivor of a brutal massacre carried out by his older brother, King Abimilech, who murdered all forty of his brothers and sisters in order to gain the throne. Somehow Jotham managed to escape this carnage. So he fled to the top of Mt. Gerizim where he shouted out to the Lords of the Kingdom this parable of warning:
Listen to me, you Lords of Shechem: The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, “reign over us.” The olive tree answered them, “Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which the gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?” Then the trees said to the fig tree, “You come and reign over us.” But the fig tree answered them, “Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?” Then the trees said to the vine, “You come and reign over us.” But the vine said “shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals and go to sway over the trees?”
Finally they ask a lowly bramble bush, the only one they can get to agree to rule over them. In other words, the good men don’t become kings; they have better things to do. Those who seek high office are more like bramble bushes, good for nothing else. No further comment on that!
But more relevant to Jesus’ teachings, the fig tree was a favorite image of the Old Testament prophets, for whom a ripe fig tree portended Israel’s coming judgment. When you see the ripe fig tree, warned the prophets Amos and Hosea, you know the end is near. And that explains why it comes up not once but twice during Lent, particularly as we really start to move toward Good Friday and the Passion.
In the parable in our Gospel reading, a vineyard owner has planted a fig tree and after three years it has borne no fruit. He wants to cut it down. But his gardener says, Not so fast. Let’s put some manure on it, dig around its roots a little, see if we can’t make this tree come to life and live out its purpose. I actually bought a fig tree myself last year. After years of preaching these agricultural parables you find yourself wanting to know what it’s like to grow these plants yourself. And to see what they look like, whether there’s anything you missed in the parable before actually handling and caring for the plant it describes. My fig is now dormant, and covered, and looks very much dead (I hope it’s not). Andrew is convinced it is dead, so I know a little bit what it’s like to be that gardener in the parable, perhaps a little defensive about the plant and my care of it before the vineyard owner.
The parable never tells us what the fate of this fig tree ends up being. Does the gardener succeed in persuading the owner to let the tree live? Or do they cut the tree down then and there? If he does let it live, do the gardener’s efforts help it to produce fruit and so live on? Or is it again barren and cut down after a year? We simply don’t know.
There’s another fig tree that comes up this time of the year. It’s our reading for Monday in Holy Week. Jesus is walking along with his disciples, this is the day after Palm Sunday, and they pass by a fig tree without fruit on it. For reasons not entirely clear in the reading, Jesus curses it. “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” The disciples are standing there but nobody seems to think much of it in that moment. But the next morning they walk back by that tree and see that it has withered and died. If you observe all the days of Holy Week, you know that this incident is one of the fixtures of those five days leading to Easter.
But that story won’t be for a few more weeks. For now, we’re not even halfway through Lent, and the fig tree in this parable is a different one, whose fate is as yet undecided. It’s as if to say, there’s still time for this tree, just like there’s still time for us. We get this one season of the year to really think about the fruit we produce, or what we bring to the world. If we’re not producing fruit or doing enough in this season, this parable is put before us now, well before the end, to assure us there’s still time.
But that time won’t last forever. We may not be cut down in our prime like those poor people in the Gospel reading, on whom the tower of Siloam fell. But it’s still coming, for all of us - our individual endings, our death.
John the Baptist said to his followers Repent, for even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree ready to strike it down. But Jesus here takes a different view: Repent, for even now, a kindly gardener, God, is loosening our roots and spreading manure and trying to give us one more chance to live a fruitful life. So let’s make this Lent count. Let’s use this time the church gives us to grow strong, and to bear fruit. Amen.
“Almighty and everliving God, you hate nothing you have made, and forgive the sins of all who are penitent.” Those are the opening words of Lent. They began our Ash Wednesday service last week: “Almighty and everliving God, you hate nothing you have made.”
I know not all of you were able to make it here last Wednesday, or you received your ashes somewhere else. But those opening words, that opening prayer, is so important as we begin this season of Lent together. It was written by a church reformer in the 16th century. He wanted to be sure people understood that Lent is not about appeasing an angry God, or earning the love that is already there. The things we do this season, the extra disciplines we take on for these forty days, the self-examination, the reconciliation with those from whom we’re estranged–these are our response to love. Think of it as our chance in the year to give God more proportional devotion and attention than what we give the rest of the year. “You hate nothing you have made.”
So now that we have a right beginning, Welcome to Lent. Each year we start the season with a familiar Scripture reading, Jesus’ Temptations in the Wilderness. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. The proximity of this event to his baptism is important. The baptism was a joyous moment when the heavens broke open and God’s voice was heard: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” But no sooner does he receive that message than he is driven out to the desert for forty days and forty nights. Mark’s Gospel adds “immediately.” We’re to assume this was all in one day. It’s like when everything in life is going fine, the kids are OK, our mood is upbeat, work is humming along … and then the phone rings, with bad news that, in an instant, knocks our world off course.
“Whether I fly with angels, or fall with dust / Thy hand made both and I am there.” That’s from a poem by English priest George Herbert. “Thy power and love, my love and trust / make one place, everywhere.” It’s all God’s domain, the rivers and the deserts of our lives.
In the wilderness, Jesus fasts and prays for forty days, just like Moses and Elijah did before him. When he’s famished and more than a bit delirious, Satan comes to him with three temptations. Someone last week at our Bible study pointed out that this hardly seems historical. You can’t go without food that long, and who was there to even witness the event? How do we know this happened? The genre of this story is unclear. But Isolation and Testing are certainly part of any good leader’s development. I’ve heard it said that Myth is something that never happened but is always happening. Temptation certainly happened to Jesus throughout his life. Temptation is always happening to us, too. Nobody is spared temptation. It’s universal. It’s unending.
His three trials in this story are to turn stones into bread, thus break his fast; to throw himself down from the temple pinnacle, putting God to the test; and the sort of Faustian bargain, to rule the kingdoms of the the world in exchange for serving the devil. They’re grand but familiar, and made manifest in many ways. The temptation to lord it over others, to test God, to give up. We know these well.
Last week I spoke about how the Bible is hyperlinked. Literary critics call it “intertextuality.” One passage links to another and to another and so on. This reading is another good example, only it’s even less subtle than last week’s. Each time Satan tempts Jesus, he fends off the temptation with a quote from Deuteronomy. “Man shall not live on bread alone.” That’s from Deuteronomy 8, and also reference to today’s Old Testament lesson, where the supplicant is instructed to take his first fruits to the Temple, to worship before feasting. Then he quotes a slightly later passage in Deuteronomy, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” And finally “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Satan even does his own quoting of Scripture, from today’s Psalm, Psalm 91: “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The Church Fathers who put these readings together many centuries ago deliberately made them link up. We’re supposed to recognize and make these connections.
Learning from Jesus here, in times of difficulty, what we draw from to withstand the hardship must already be in us. As our Epistle reading from Romans says, “The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” That was true for Jesus here. He had absorbed his tradition, its Scripture, so completely that he could summon them even here, starving and thirsting in the desert.
That’s an important lesson for Lent. The poet Brad Leithauser, in an article called “Why we memorize”, wrote that “memorized poems are a sort of larder, laid up against the hungers of an extended period of solitude.” Memorized poems are a sort of larder, a pantry, cupboard where we store our food and from which we draw, for sustenance. It’s a fitting metaphor for Lent. The night before Lent begins is Shrove Tuesday when it’s the tradition to empty your larder of all the fat and sweets. It’s exactly what we’re called to do spiritually this season. Empty our larders, our hearts, of the stuff that isn’t good for us, and then begin stocking it with what is. Words from Scripture, our Sunday prayers or hymns, time in silence and meditation, poetry, music, art. That way, when we’re undergoing our own trials in the wilderness like Jesus in this Gospel reading, we already have within us all we need to survive.
Lent is an archaic word for spring. It means lengthening, for the lengthening of the days. Clear out what won’t save you, and begin to stock your larder with what will. That’s the calling of Lent. Amen.
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