Today’s saint just might have the singular distinction of being among the (morally speaking) worst saints we honor all year, at least going from the first half of his life. Our saint is Bartolome de las Casas. He lived from the late 1400s to the mid 1500s, a period of tremendous change and flux in the West. Right now I’m reading a new biography of Martin Luther, leader of the Reformation, and am reminded of the radical and rapid shifts on the European continent at that time due to Rome’s waning authority and Luther’s hand in that. And even as all this was happening, colonization was in its heydey, Spain being the chief leader of the Western expansion into the Americas.
Bartoleme was one of the Spaniards who settled on the American islands, Hispaniola (Haiti/Domnican Republic). He followed in the footsteps of many others in taking natives by force and making them slaves. Hard to believe, but such were the times: he was a priest at this point, the first to be ordained in the Americas. And he was for many years very much a part of this unbelievably cruel treatment of the island natives. The Spanish were possibly at this time the worst, committing egregious atrocities against those they deemed “sub-human.”
Well, no one is beyond redeeming, the next part of his story reminds us. As he was preparing for a sermon on Pentecost Sunday, Bartolome was forced to wrestle with a Scripture reading that would turn his world upside down and change the course of his life. I’m reminded of the various saints in our calendar whose lives were changed completely by a single reading from Scripture, such as St. Francis who gave up all his possessions when he read about Jesus telling the rich man to do the same. Or St. Nicholas of Myra, who I believe converted on hearing that very same passage centuries before Francis.
The reading that changed Bartolome’s life was from the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament: "If one sacrifices from what has been wrongfully obtained, the offering is blemished; the gifts of the lawless are not acceptable. … Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes is the man who offers sacrifice from the property of the poor. The bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a man of blood.“
From there, he joined other Dominicans on the islands in condemning the Spaniards’ treatment of the natives. There had been many good priests all this time preaching against what they saw, even denying the rite of Confession to many of the encomenderos, the name for those who held lands and exploited people. This, he knew, carried considerable risk, as many of those were driven out and sometimes worse by the people who didn’t want to hear their message.
Frustrated with his lack of progress on the islands, Bartolome eventually traveled back to Spain in order to have influence in the Spanish court, but the power of the encomenderos was great, and he was time and again thwarted in his efforts. He made several attempts to create a new system on a small scale, creating plans for Spanish peasants to inhabit the lands, but these plans were constantly frustrated by larger forces.
Finally, he became a Dominican friar himself, moved back to Hispaniola where he spent the rest of his life among the brothers there, and he WROTE. He made the pen a sword to fight injustice, writing down the history of the Spanish conquests and all its atrocities that he not only witnessed, but early in his life actually took part in.
It’s a moving story. There’s nothing more powerful than a person trying to atone for past sins. They can be among the most zealous reformers, and today we remember this man, not overlooking his faults, but understanding them as the force that made possible the virtue we celebrate today.
Well, we had a baptism scheduled for today, but for various reasons we’ve moved it to next Sunday instead, so we’ll have multiple baptisms next week. And to be honest, I was a bit relieved at this change, given the Gospel reading for today: the beheading of John the Baptist. I don’t know why, but every three years smack in the middle of summer, they give us this reading, leaving us to grapple with what on earth it means for us today.
The end of John’s life actually has its own feast day, on August 29, called The Feast of the Decollation. “Decollation” is another word for “beheading.” Who knew? In fact, John the Baptist has a few feast days that most of us probably don’t know about, not all of which are observed in the Episcopal church. There’s the Feast of the Nativity, which was last month, in June. That one we do observe. The Feast of the Decollation next month in August (one we don’t observe). And then three additional feasts, all devoted to the three separate findings of John the Baptist’s head by his followers: once right after his death, then again in the third century, and then again the ninth century. There’s even one called The Feast of the Transfer of the Right Hand of the Holy Forerunner (“The Forerunner” is another name for John), to remember the transfer of the remains of John’s right hand from Antioch to Istanbul. You can’t make this up! So, not only in his birth and baptizing does John give us reasons to celebrate, but also in his death and dismemberment.
John’s story begins in Luke’s Gospel, where he’s born six months before Jesus to the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, the Virgin Mary’s cousin. From his conception, John was regarded as the “Forerunner” of Jesus, the one who would fill the expected role of arriving right before the Messiah to announce his appearance. On the Feast of John’s Nativity in June, we remember how, already in utero, John was a prophet because he leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb as Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home, pregnant with Jesus.
The next time we meet John in the Gospels, he’s an adult, preaching and baptizing along the Jordan River, and here’s where his story becomes more familiar to us. One day, Jesus joins the throng of John’s followers and is himself baptized by John before he goes off and begins his own ministry of preaching and healing. Soon after that, John is imprisoned for preaching against the personal and political life of King Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas was the son of the Herod familiar to us in the Christmas story, who, like that Herod, his father, was a Jew put in a position of authority by the occupying Roman government. It wasn’t a popular position, especially to a strict Jew like John, who was less willing to accommodate the occupying Roman forces than Jews like Herod. John no doubt had a lot of complaints against Herod and all he stood for, but the one we hear about in this passage is about Herod’s marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. (Presumably, though the story isn’t really clear on this, the two of them got together before she divorced her first husband.) So Herod puts John in prison, where he continues to speak out against him–we can assume, I think, for much more than just his marriage.
And all that brings us to today’s passage. Herod holds a banquet to celebrate his own birthday (just the sort of thing he’d do!), and invites all sorts of important people to it. At one point, his wife’s daughter–it seems her daughter from her first marriage but that’s not really clear either; in any case, probably not Herod’s daughter, too–dances before Herod and his guests. Herod is so pleased with the dance that he offers the girl whatever she wants, even half his kingdom. At which point you know this isn’t going to end well. She consults her mother, who has come to hate John for publicly denouncing her marriage, and her mother tells her to ask for John’s head–on a platter. Herod, while not wanting John to die, feels he has no choice but to honor his oath, so he obliges, and John is beheaded.
I guess there are some lessons you could draw from this passage, lessons like Don’t steal your brother’s wife, Don’t make rash oaths, Don’t let your pride make you a fool. We can learn a lot from Herod’s stupidity, but that’s all (I hope) pretty obvious. Instead, the meaning of this story to me lies in its meaninglessness. John’s death was sad, senseless and cruel. His was a life cut short–he couldn’t have been but thirty–and just because he spoke his conscience to a capricious, vicious, insecure and too-powerful leader.
As is evident from the multiple feast days celebrating him, John and his remains have been a subject of fascination in Christian history. Everywhere you go, it seems like someone has a piece of him stashed away in a bejeweled box or crypt for Christian pilgrims to come see. Without meaning to, I myself have stumbled on various of John’s body parts four different times: parts of his skull in Rome, Istanbul and Munich, and one of his fingers in the museum in Kansas City (so random!). Apparently his right hand is in a monastery in Montenegro. A bone from his wrist is in a monastery in France. A piece of his arm is in Istanbul (next to part of his skull). And just a few years ago more of his skull and a tooth were found in Bulgaria.
John is everywhere, literally. But he’s everywhere in a much more serious and real sense: he’s in every man and woman throughout history and still today, and there are thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, who speak their conscience and then die a senseless death at the hands of some tyrant like Herod. I might have chosen something different to read this morning had it been up to me, but it’s good for us to remember that even on such seemingly carefree summer days as we’re in now, there are autocrats and dictators (like Kim, like Assad, like Putin) and people under them suffering and dying pointlessly, like John the Baptist. As we remember John’s death, let’s honor them, give thanks for our liberties, and work to make the world a place that’s as safe for others as it is for us.
Baptisms seem to be in high demand this month! We have several of them–in fact, just picked up another yesterday from a new family in town. That baptism will be next Sunday. Today we’re baptizing little Lucy Ritchie, whose father Neil and sister Beatrice (I just learned last week) were baptized here six years ago by Father Tom. Lucy’s mother, Catherine, grew up in Scarsdale. She and her family attended the Episcopal Church in Ardsley with some of you. There was a small migration of St. James’ers over to St. Barnabas in Ardsley when Father Godley, who was an assistant priest here, accepted a call there back in the 80s. How could you not follow a priest with that name? Father Godley.
Cat and Neil and Beatrice and now Lucy have been such committed members of our parish and it’s a joy to welcome their youngest to St. James and the Episcopal Church. Welcome to their friends and family, too. I hope we’ll all greet them after the service.
Our Gospel reading for today is probably familiar to all of you, if only for the famous proverb that Jesus quotes, “Prophets are not without honor except in their home town, among their own kin, and in their own house.” I don’t know about you, but I’ve used that more than a few times. Dignity and respect can be hard to get from those who know you well. We’ve all been there.
This is probably not original to Jesus, but it’s certainly the best known use of this proverb. And certainly the most legitimate use of it. When Jesus traveled back to his hometown of Nazareth, he was at the high point of his ministry. He’d just healed the 12 year-old daughter of a Jewish religious leader, as well as a woman with a 12-year hemorrhage. We read those stories last Sunday. Before that he calmed the waves, healed a man of his demons, and drove the sickness out of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus basically goes from strength to strength, gathering disciples, attracting crowds, preaching, teaching, healing. He seems unstoppable. And so, he decides it’s time to go home, to Nazareth. To pay a visit there. His reputation is secure. He’s his own person by now.
The first thing he does when he gets there is enter the synagogue in which he’d grown up. By the way, if you go with us on the pilgrimage to Israel that Susie and I are putting together for 2 years from now (in 2020 – this is a plug!), we will see this synagogue. It’s a Christian Church today, built overtop the remains of what was thought to have been this very school where Jesus learned the Scripture and returns to in this passage. Mark’s account doesn’t tell us what Jesus said to his congregation that day that so offended them, but Luke’s version of this same event does. Jesus sits down. He opens up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He chooses and then reads aloud the part where Isaiah tells the people his (Isaiah’s) mission: to set free the oppressed, restore sight to the blind, and bring good news to the poor. Then Jesus closes the scroll, and says to those listening “ Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
In other words, Jesus boldly takes his place alongside one of Israel’s most important religious figures. You can imagine why people in his hometown might have found this outrageous. One person says “What?! Isn’t this Mary’s son, and aren’t his brothers here with us, and his sisters?” There’s a subtle (or not so subtle) dig here. By calling him “Mary’s son,” this person meant to suggest that Jesus’ paternity was in doubt. Make no mistake, Jesus: you’re not going to be able to reinvent yourself in this town, where we know who you really are and what kind of family you’re really from.
So Jesus quotes this proverb, “Prophets are not without honor except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” Because of their unbelief, we’re told that he couldn’t do any acts of power there … except lay his hands on a few sick people and cure them. (Don’t you love that “exception?” I mean, he is still Jesus, after all.)
It’s easy to put ourselves in the place of Jesus in this scene, because we’ve all been here. Probably all of us grown-ups here, at some point in our young adulthood, found our way in the world, managed to convince people that we’re somebody with something important to contribute, only to return home and have the people there see us as nothing but the awkward, annoying kid we once were. (Our graduating seniors will soon get a taste of that, though I hope we’ll be a lot nicer than the people of Nazareth!)
After that rite of passage, we go out and create new families and homes for ourselves; but before long, we find we’re not always taken very seriously there, either. When we leave the house, we’re the priest, the builder, the lawyer, the teacher, the doctor, the businessman or woman who has it all together. But when we come back home, we’re just that guy who forgot to take out the trash, or the woman who left the back door open letting the dog run off, again. (We just got a dog in my house.)
Sometimes relaying advice to a spouse or a child is so difficult that we resort to asking a friend or acquaintance to approach our spouse with a piece of our own advice, saying “You tell him because he’ll never hear it from me!” We’re just not heard the same way at home, among those who know our histories and weaknesses. So what Jesus experiences here resonates, and it’s not hard to put ourselves in his shoes.
What this story challenges us to do, though, is to put ourselves in the shoes of the people of Nazareth. The people who struggled to hear God speaking through someone close to them. It’s much easier to hear God speaking through people at a safe distance from us – the preacher, the lecturer, the writer, the poet who inspires us. They can tell us we’re too critical, or stubborn or impatient. But try hearing hard things from your son, your daughter or your spouse. It’s a lot more difficult.
The people in Nazareth refused to hear Jesus because he was too familiar, and so: Nothing happened to them. They weren’t challenged or changed in any way. It takes real courage, and humility, to hear and honor the prophets among us. Especially the prophets among our own kin, And in our own house. Amen.
Welcome, and Happy Fourth! You may not have realized, but the Fourth of July is a feast day in the Episcopal church. It wasn’t always thus. Just after the War of Independence when the country was celebrating our newfound freedom from England, the leaders of our church got together in Philadelphia and, in the spirit of the country’s victory, made July 4 a Feast of the Episcopal Church.
Only there was a slight problem with that, as one of our first bishops William White pointed out. The vast majority of our clergy had sided with the British during the war. How silly would we now look, with those same clergy celebrating the American victory? He may have been thinking about the rector of the very church he was probably standing in when he said this, Christ Church Philadelphia. Between Sundays, the Americans declared victory, leaving that church and its rector to make a decision, fast. Would they honor and pray for the king, or their new country in the Prayers of the People that coming Sunday? To the suspense of everyone in the congregation, when the moment came … they just left out the prayers. Though eventually, perhaps grudgingly, they began praying for the new leadership.
So again, just two years after making this day a feast in our church, we nixed it, and it took about 150 years —1929—before it was brought back.
It’s good that it came about this way. No church should completely embrace this day, but neither should we reject it. We’ve had almost 250 years to feel both ways. To consider the dangers of celebrating our nation in church, and the benefits. The dangers, I trust, are obvious to any self-reflective Episcopalian. It’s never a good idea to align God too closely with an institution of our making. We can make God look very bad, very fast, when we do that. And thinking God is on our side tends to make us abusive, exclusive, awful people.
I’ve seen churches–I grew up in one of them–that celebrate the Fourth of July like it was more important than Easter Sunday. I sat through too many bad patriotic medleys sung by men’s quartets right there in our sacred sanctuary. Though you knew they were only celebrating a small sliver of our country, the white evangelicals with a certain social and political platform… which of course also happened to be God’s.
John Danforth the Republican Senator from Missouri wrote a wonderful op ed piece back in 2005 about the role faith plays in politics for what he calls “Moderate Christians,” a term I think probably characterizes us in this room. I thought what he had to say here about the dangers (or at least shortcomings) of combining faith and politics worth sharing.
People of faith have the right, and perhaps the obligation, to bring their values to bear in politics. Many conservative Christians approach politics with a certainty that they know God’s truth, and that they can advance the kingdom of God through governmental action. So they have developed a political agenda that they believe advances God’s kingdom, one that includes efforts to “put God back” into the public square and to pass a constitutional amendment intended to protect marriage from the perceived threat of homosexuality.
Moderate Christians are less certain about when and how our beliefs can be translated into statutory form, not because of a lack of faith in God but because of a healthy acknowledgement of the limitations of human beings. Like conservative Christians, we attend church, read the Bible and say our prayers.
But for us, the only absolute standard of behavior is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Repeatedly in the Gospels, we find that the Love Commandment takes precedence when it conflicts with laws. We struggle to follow that commandment as we face the realities of everyday living, and we do not agree that our responsibility to live as Christians can be codified by legislators…For us, living the Love Commandment may be at odds with efforts to encapsulate Christianity in a political agenda.
So those are the dangers, and shortcomings. But then there are the benefits: celebrating a dream that, though it will never be fully realized, was far from being realized even as it began almost 250 years ago, is informed by the aspirations of ours and of all the great religions: equality and dignity of persons, protection of an individual’s relationship with his or her maker, respect for difference and even the belief that we’re at our greatest when we are diverse.
Reality is messy, but that shouldn’t stop us from dreaming. And we do that today as we celebrate this great day in our country. God bless America.
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