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.
[From the Parish Newsletter March Edition] Lent, the church’s annual season of penitence and self examination in preparation for Easter, begins on Ash Wednesday March 6. In one of most majestic openings of the year, the priest at Ash Wednesday services stands up and begins with the ancient bidding to Lent. It reminds us of our connection to something larger and longstanding, and for many Christians throughout the world, this summons to something serious are the first and familiar words of Lent: “Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom for the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting.” Which brings me to a question I get asked often as we gear up for this important season: Do Episcopalians fast in Lent? A useful dictum in our church is “All may, some should, none must.” As part of an ancient church, many Episcopalians do observe the age-old custom of fasting throughout the forty days of Lent–from certain foods, alcohol, or perhaps a behavior in our regular lives we’re not proud of. The Book of Common Prayer encourages us to observe the days of Lent with “special devotion,” committing ourselves to “acts of discipline and self-denial.” This normally includes fasting. But again, we tend as Episcopalians not to define this too strictly. When I lived upstate in a heavily Roman Catholic community, one of my favorite times of the year were Fridays in Lent. My family, friends and I would truck up to the nearby firehouse and feast on huge plates of fried fish and french fries loaded with salt and ketchup, with a side of mayonnaise-soaked coleslaw. A big bowl of ice cream concluded this decadent repast. I couldn’t believe this was all in the name of Lent. Talk about having your cake and eating it too! I probably would have benefited by reading the following little blurb in the June 1961 edition of the Parish Messenger. It’s at the end of a very serious piece on the importance of fasting, and it’s by the Rev. Wayne Schmidt, former archivist of the diocese and (back then) frequent contributor to the St. James newsletter. A word of caution is needed here. To substitute an elaborate fish dish for a meat dish is not fasting at all. It is a duty to austerity for the sake of disciplining one’s life and in remembrance that Friday is the weekly anniversary of our redemption. Each Christian must think seriously about fasting, whether to abstain in the traditional way, or whether to abstain from drink or smoking or something else. Abstinence from food is no doubt the tried and tested method, but let us remember that to substitute one kind of luxury for another (lobster for steak) in the name of fasting is hypocritical and wrong! Our duty is to fast. How we do it must become part of the total rule of life. Lobster for steak may be too obvious, but point taken. Upholding the spirit as well as the letter of the law matters–and it’s our spirit Lent seeks to transform. So whether you fast, be it from food, certain behaviors or bad habits, be sure the goal is always before you: to become closer to God, your neighbor, and maybe even yourself.
Jephthah’s Daughter, by William Blake
Those of you who were here last Sunday know that, today, I have the honor of preaching a Scripture passage chosen by one of you. At our last Mardi Gras party, we auctioned off a Sunday sermon on any passage from the Bible, no matter how difficult, scandalous, or disturbing, and the one I’m about to preach on today is all of those.
The winner of the auction was Phillip Martin, up here in the choir. (Phillip, could you stand up for a moment so we know whom to thank?) Phillip came to me last summer after narrowing his selections down to his final choice. The runner up was Paul’s instructions in the New Testament that women should not speak in church, which might have made this a very brief and easy sermon.
But here’s the one he chose, and maybe once you hear it you’ll understand why I’ve put this off for so long. It’s about a man named Jephthah and his young daughter, and it comes from the Old Testament book of Judges. Jephthah was a warrior and he was asked by the people of Israel to lead them in battle against their enemy, the Ammonites. The story is much longer, but I’ll start right where Jephthah is traveling toward and then reaches the enemy territory, the battlefield.
“Then the spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.’ So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’ She said to him, ‘My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.’ And she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.’ ‘Go,’ he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made. She had never [been] with a man. So there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite.” The Word of the Lord.
One thought I had when I read this next to today’s regularly assigned Scripture readings was, How can this story be part of the same Bible as that beautiful section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians we read earlier? Love is patient, love is kind, it does not boast, or envy, or revel in wrongdoing.
We could simply write this story off as an Old Testament thing. And this is what we do. We hear something like this from the Bible (albeit rarely) and we say Ah, that’s the Old Testament. That’s really not our God. You may not realize this but that’s a Christian heresy called Marcionism. Marcion was a scholar in the early Church who thought the New Testament replaced the Old Testament and that there was no need to keep it as part of our tradition moving forward. And isn’t that what most usually people think, on some level? It may be one of the heresies held by most Christians, unknowingly.
But according to official Christian doctrine, you can’t just say That isn’t our Scripture or our God. It fails to recognize, first, that there are many beautiful parts of the Old Testament, just as there are many ugly parts of the New. It isn’t all about love for us, or vengeance for them. To say so is basically to write off an entire religion’s God and its Holy Book, and I know we would never intend to do that.
Distancing ourselves from these stories also fails to acknowledge our complete dependence on the Jewish Scriptures and tradition. Without them our faith wouldn’t even exist. The Old Testament is as foundational to who we are as the New Testament. They are inseparably connected. But we also never want to distance ourselves from the humanity of the Old Testament, to say, well – those are their problems. This is not only part of our inheritance as Christians; it’s part of our inheritance (and heritage) as human beings. Everything that happened in the past is happening still. Or could happen still. And more likely will if we say “We’re past that.” Or, “That has nothing to do with us.”
Jephthah was one of the judges of Israel. The Book of Judges is the seventh book in the Old Testament. It tells of a period before the monarchy of Israel–King David, King Solomon. Right before there was a monarchy, Israel was a confederation of tribes loosely held together by whoever happened to be the strongest military leader of the time, called a judge (really more a warrior than a judge in our modern sense). Samson is the judge we know the best (of Samson and Delilah). There are twelve altogether in the Book of Judges.
Jephthah was another. His tribe was Gilead. The people of Gilead lived along the Jordan River, in what is today the Kingdom of Jordan. Gilead the name is associated with peace and happiness. There’s an old hymn you may know, There is a Balm in Gilead. The name itself means “happiness forever.” It is beautiful and was (at least then) a fairly fertile region.
Jephthah, however (and this all comes right before the part I read out loud) had no father, and his mother was a prostitute. He was rejected by his people, sent away from Gilead, only to be called back later because he had a reputation as a good fighter and they needed that to defeat their enemy. So, when he comes in useful, then and only then do they recognize his worth.
A lot is at stake for Jephthah. If he wins this war against the enemy, the Ammonites, he is back in the tribe, forgiven for having no parents, vindicated, accepted on his merits. Part of what makes the story so wrenching is that you sympathize with this man, this orphan outcast. You want to see him prove himself and be welcomed into his tribe. And it has such a promising start. When the war begins, the first thing the narrator tells us is that the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah. In Old Testament battles, whenever the Spirit of the Lord is said to be upon someone, you know it’s going to go their way. So everything is looking up for Jephthah and for the reader rooting for him. And then… he makes this vow. As far as we can tell, this totally reckless, impulsive and unnecessary vow. “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.”
St Augustine in the fifth century said that Jephthah expected the first person to greet him to be his wife, whom he intended to kill. Augustine was not known for liking women. Even still, it’s hard to imagine Jephthah thinking this vow was a good idea. Gambling that something inconsequential, not his wife or his daughter, would greet him at his homecoming. And we’re made to think, He felt already the power of the Lord on him. Why do this unnecessary thing?
This story raises so many questions, and practically no answers. Why did Jephthah keep his vow? And why did he make it in the first place? Was there no way to annul a vow that forces you to commit a grave sin? (Later Jewish law would say yes, you should annul it.) Why does his daughter go along with it? Why doesn’t she resist? Why doesn’t she go to the mountains and run away, rather than return to be killed? Where is the mother in this story? And what on earth is it doing in the Bible, anyway?
This isn’t the only problematic story in the book of Judges. Here’s an excerpt from a short introduction to Judges that we read in our Bible study class last Wednesday:
“Sex, violence, rape and massacre, brutality and deceit do not seem to be congenial materials for use in developing a story of salvation. Given the Bible’s subject matter–God and salvation, living well and loving deeply–we quite naturally expect to find in its pages leaders for us who are good, noble, honorable men and women showing us the way. So it is always something of a shock to enter the pages of the book of Judges and find ourselves immersed in nearly unrelieved mayhem.”
There is a theory that this book was written by a woman, about 2600 years ago, perhaps a woman who wanted to show just how bad men could be at leading! I like that theory; it’s probably not true, though Judges does name and call out violence and particularly violence against women above any other book in the Bible. And the first thing we do to repair a problem (whoever wrote this, man or woman, knew) is to acknowledge it, name it out loud, and lament. Because if we forget and fail to do these things when we look at our past, then we’ll be right back there again.
When you think about it, we never really moved on from that ancient Israelite pyre 3000 years ago on which Jephthah’s daughter was slain. Our leaders today are still often blinded by self-regard. And women are sacrificed every day in our world. Sacrificed to domestic violence. The United Nations recently reported that 50,000 women last year were killed by a domestic partner or family member, the home being the likeliest place for a woman to die. That makes the Jephthah story very real, doesn’t it? Women are sacrificed in our world to human trafficking – girls, thousands of them every year. It was just reported that trafficking of girls is the highest its been in 13 years. Women are the sacrifices of war. I can’t bear to read about violence against women in the the many wars around the world, but I know that if I don’t, the problem isn’t going to budge. If I do make myself aware, I’ve taken at least the first step toward repairing it. So, too, when we read this passage and this horrible story of this poor, innocent girl and her father, himself a victim of cruelty by his peers.
The way this story ends gives me hope. After their friend was killed, the girls of Gilead went up to the hills every year for four days to remember her. To keep her memory alive and to do their part to keep this from ever happening again. Acknowledge it, name it out loud, lament, repair, and never repeat. That’s why we must read these stories and own them as our own.
So Phillip, I’m not mad at you for picking this passage. None of us wants to hear it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be heard. Amen.
Happy holiday weekend! I feel a certain solidarity with those who are here with me on holidays (especially such wintry holidays) since I don’t have much of a choice. We may be a small group, but I hope you’ll also join me after church for the forum on race in America, part of our series called “Conversions That Matter.” I obviously timed this to coincide with this weekend and the Martin Luther King holiday. We’ll be discussing together the topic of race in our country, while practicing the art of listening and respecting one another’s opinions. That’s why Susie and I came up with this series. It’s more important than ever to create spaces where we can listen with open minds and hearts. Because there’s not a lot of that going on in our culture right now.
I have come to think of this as one of the most important and relevant holidays of the year for our national life. King in the last year of his life was not the King of the I Have A Dream Speech in 1963. His last speech, given at the Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis in 1968 just days before he was killed, is hard to read. You can feel the foreboding, the heaviness. And other of his writing from that period has this same, beleaguered feel to it. He sensed by that point that the struggle would be long, longer than he thought that sunny day on the Washington Mall in 1963. He sensed that, even far out into the future, the shadow of racism in this country would be dark, and long. And that wore him down.
King was a prophet not just in the Biblical sense of seeing the present time clearly and honesty, but in the popular sense of seeing the future. Same as 50 years ago, black people are still trying to tell white people
you must look at us.
We must look at our history – not just your history. Our history, too.
We must be honest about the effects of our shared history still today.
We are not post-racial.
We are not done with this conversation.
We have not reached the Promised Land, and the dream is not fulfilled.
So we need to honor King’s legacy each year, with thought and action. As long as I’m a priest I will do everything I can not to miss this Sunday. It’s too important.
The readings given for today, the second Sunday after the Epiphany, are not selected to go with this holiday (King has his own feast day in our church, which is dated to the date of his death as we do with people we venerate–April 4.) Today’s readings for the second Sunday after the Epiphany were here long before Dr. King, before America itself–centuries before. The Gospel story of the Wedding at Cana is an old reading for this season we’re in, alongside the story of the Wise Men and Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan.
However, probably the vast majority of Gospel readings we hear each week have some sort of link to King’s life and work. And so it’s not too difficult to see in the story of the Wedding at Cana a connection to this weekend.
Cana was a small village outside of Nazareth, about seven miles northeast. If you go there today you’ll find there the usual array of religious kitsch: clay jars filled with wine for sale, town fountains with water spurting out of decorative pots (I know. I sound like a boring Protestant Episcopalian who likes my religious sites factual and historical). At the center of the town is the location where this story is supposed to have taken place. A fairly new church now sits on the spot (though an original fifth century Byzantine Church lies beneath, at least closer to our Lord’s time. And that is something to see.)
Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan, he called together his first few disciples, and “on the third day” of all this activity, he and his new disciples are up in Cana, at a wedding of a someone they know. This would have been (as weddings were then) a multi-day affair, requiring a great amount of food and drink.
At some point in the festivities, the wine runs out. Mary, Jesus’ mother, is the one to notice this. She tells her son. Roman Catholic theology sees in this story a basis for Mary being viewed as mediator between us and Christ. Here, she intercedes on behalf of the bride and groom, whose wedding this is and on whom the shame of running out of wine would fall. Also important in that tradition (and to some extent in ours, too) is what Jesus calls his mother: Woman. It’s not a put down but rather an exaltation of her role, maybe even an allusion to her role as the “New Eve,” the perfect woman who redeems the sins of the first.
More prosaically, what I like about Mary’s role in this story is that she says something. She notices a problem, and she says something rather than just look away. That awareness, looking out for others and taking action is her lesson to us in this story.
Jesus, prompted by her concern, instructs the servants to fill six large stone jars with water and to draw some out for the chief steward. He tastes it, and marvels. It’s not only wine; it’s the best wine yet. “Everyone,” he says to the bridegroom “serves the best wine first and saves the inferior wine for after the guests have become drunk, but you have kept the good wine for last!” (In the vesting room where the clergy and Eucharistic Ministers get ready for the service, I’ve put up a little picture, picked up in Italy, of this wine steward painted by Giotto. He was a favorite in Renaissance art for some reason, where he’s usually a portly bon vivant. In this painting, he looks like he’s administering the chalice, so I keep it there to humor our chalice bearers. There are, by the way, loads of Eucharistic overtones to this story, you might have guessed.)
Scholars estimate Jesus produced eight hundred bottles of wine that day. To any early listener of this story, it would have brought to mind the Old Testaments prophets, such as Isaiah, who said that The Kingdom of God is like a great banquet where the food and the wine never run out. The Kingdom of God is a way of saying the world as we wish it to be. In that world, everyone has a glass and will drink his fill. Everyone has what the other has. We share in our rights and privileges, and in our joys. Maybe the reason the second wine tasted so much better is that there was enough to go around. Life is sweetest when others have what we have, and joy is felt most deeply when it’s shared.
This weekend we celebrate the life of a man who tried to teach this country that lesson, that joy sharedtastes sweetest. That there’s a place at this banquet for all of us. That there really is enough to go around. So may we honor Dr. King’s legacy and bring the Kingdom of God just a little bit closer to earth, in our time. As he did, in his. Amen.
A big welcome to the Sutherland and Lord family and all those here with them. Duncan, Lisa and their two daughters Peyton and Fallon will be baptized today. It isn’t often we get to baptize all together people old enough to make their own affirmations of faith. The girls will be answering my questions alongside their parents, and they’ve chosen godparents, too, who are here with us today.
It’s also not often we get to baptize an entire household! How exciting this is; it feels almost Biblical. In the Scriptures, which tell of the earliest years of the church, very frequently the apostles would baptize not just an individual but his (or her) entire household. It’s as if we’re entering something very ancient today.
And we are. We’re entering something very ancient whenever we do this service, but the more so today because this will be even closer to what those first baptisms were like almost 2000 years ago. We didn’t baptize infants and young children until the 5th century. Until then, candidates had to say these vows themselves. If you couldn’t, you couldn’t be baptized. Some Christian traditions still require people to be old enough to say their baptismal vows themselves.
Infants were eventually baptized (with godparents as proxies) for a lot of good reasons, but if you were a Christian in the first five hundred years of the church, you would not have done it that way. And you would have had a lot of preparation to get to this point. Instruction for baptism in the early church lasted as long as three years, rarely less than one. During that time, you would come to church every Sunday, where you would be allowed to sit through first part of the service, what we call the Liturgy of the Word. After the sermon you would be escorted out for your lessons, and that would be your Sunday. Many would not have witnessed the Eucharist until the day they were baptized.
Baptismal fonts were a lot different back when it was just adults. They were typically pools, in the ground, or sometimes like tubs, that the candidate would be immersed in. Many of them were housed in separate buildings outside the main church, called baptisteries. Florence has a famous one, the Baptistery of San Giovanni, St. John. My family and I just last summer saw a beautifully preserved 5th century baptistery in Ravenna.
When you finally reached the day of your baptism–or night, since most baptisms back then took place on the night before Easter–you would be separated from the main congregation and taken to the baptistery outside the church. There you might be covered in oil, like an athlete about to contend for a prize (or an athlete victorious after battle); remember the apostle Paul uses this imagery in our Scriptures: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race,” he tells his friend Timothy in one of our New Testament letters, reflecting on his life of service. You most likely would also have received a costly white robe, symbol of the purity of new birth.
Then the service of baptism began. At the Arian Baptistery my family visited in Ravenna, which was about the size of our chancel up here, those about to be baptized began by standing outside and saying those portions of the service that we still say today, called the three renunciations:
“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” asks the priest, to which the candidates reply “we renounce them.”
“Do you renounce all the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”
“Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”
There’s a reason those three questions sound ancient: they are. The Church of England a few years ago gave priests the option of changing this part of the service. They’re now allowed to take out the word “Satan” if they feel that might deter new members from joining. But this strange terminology makes you stop and think. Who (or what) is Satan? Why might evil need to be expressed in such a way? What drives us to the Church, seeking new life? Importantly, this language links us to a past that is part of who we are.
After the renunciations outside the baptistery, you would then enter for the next three questions, called the affirmations. And these baptisteries were–still are–magnificent. To enter one after all that preparation and anticipation must have been glorious. Glittering mosaics, bright frescoes of John, Jesus, all the events of their lives, their own baptisms, the Holy Spirit high above, a hovering white dove, maybe God the Father’s hand in glittering gold tile dipping in at the way top, from up in the heavens. In the middle of it all, a large marble pool filled with clear, cool water. And a priest, maybe a bishop, waiting to baptize you.
The Apostles’ Creed, which we’ll say all together in a moment, grew out of these earliest baptisms. The candidate would enter the pool on one side, and the priest would ask three fundamental questions between dunkings: Do you believe in God the Father?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?” “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” We’re about to hear all this, more or less like it was then.
Finally, leaving the water, the candidate enters into the main church to be greeted enthusiastically by the congregation. We have a vestige of that in our joint prayer following every baptism, the one we say altogether: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” And then came the first time the newly baptized exchanged the peace. In fact, the ritual of exchanging peace with one another may have originated with the baptismal services, and this moment, when the people greet those who’ve just been baptized.
What we do here, every time we baptize a new person into the faith, is a continuation of those practices that began long ago and will continue far into the future. And yet every baptism is unique. With each person, the heavens open, and a voice from above declares “This is my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Just as it spoke to our Lord Jesus Christ so long ago.
There’s an old tradition that when Jesus was baptized, time stood still. Even the waters of the Jordan stopped in place while creation sang with joy. Every baptism is special in God’s eyes–yours, mine, and that of these four new members whom we now welcome into the faith. Let us now move to the back of the church and to the font for the Holy Baptism.
John the Baptist. We know Advent is progressing when he appears on the scene, like a wild man, dressed in coarse camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, shouting at people. As children we (some of us) learned about him in Sunday school. His diet fascinated us. Did people really eat locusts? What does camel’s hair feel like?
The grown up John the Baptist appears in all four of the Gospels. We read about him each year in Advent because we’re called in this season to repent, to prepare for the Lord. To clear our hearts and minds just the way John called people to do 2000 years ago.
But in Luke’s Gospel, which we read every three years, we’re also taken back in Advent to the beginning of John’s life. Instead of a Psalm today (and this is rare) we read a “canticle.” Canticles are songs, just like Psalms are songs; there’s really no difference between them. Canticles are what we call all the songs in the Bible that are not in the Book of Psalms. They’re often part of a narrative. Sort of like in Broadway musicals when a song is thrown into a story to liven it up. Canticles do that. You can understand the story without them, but it’s so much more fun and joyous with them there.
The canticle we read today comes from Luke’s Gospel–Luke loves canticles, especially in the Christmas story and the events leading up to it. This canticle is quite famous. It’s called the Song of Zechariah, after John the Baptist’s father. This is the song he sang soon after John his son was born, the ebullient words of a new father.
Zechariah, John’s father, was a priest in the Jerusalem Temple, one of a caste of priests that only seldom were summoned to serve as priests and to offer sacrifices at the altar. There was a main, smaller group of clergy who did the daily work in the Temple and that was their sole job. Then there was a larger group, men who had other jobs who were summoned maybe once or twice a year to help keep this whole elaborate system going.
Zechariah’s turn came. He was given the job of offering incense at the high altar. As he was censing the altar, the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son. Now, like Abraham and Sarah long before them, Zechariah and Elizabeth were older and had never had any children. So understandably he voices his skepticism to Gabriel–and is punished by being struck mute. For the duration of the pregnancy he will be unable to speak. (Mothers out there, wouldn’t that have been nice, a silent husband throughout your pregnancy?)
The weeks pass. Elizabeth’s younger cousin Mary becomes pregnant herself, and Mary pays a visit to her older cousin. That’s a famous scene in the Gospels known as the Visitation. It’s here that Mary sings the Magnificat or Song of Mary, another canticle, and Elizabeth sings the Angelus: “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”
Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months then returns home. Then it comes time for the infant John the Baptist to be born. Eight days after the birth he’s taken to the Temple to be named. It’s assumed he’ll be named after his father Zechariah, but no. His mother gives him the name John (meaning “God has shown favor”). Zechariah the father, still unable to speak, affirms her choice by writing down the name John on a tablet. And it’s only then that his tongue is loosed and he can talk again. Zechariah’s first words after all those months are the canticle or song he sings, one of our readings today,
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of his servant David.
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.
How many of us can say that for our kids, that we want them not to be first and best, but to help others be those things? That we want their job to be to point the way, to enable and encourage greatness in others? How many of us can say we want that for ourselves? Second place, third place, even fourth?
We heard a lot this past week about George H.W. Bush. I hope you watched the service at the National Cathedral on Wednesday, by the way. Another great moment for us Episcopalians, which he was–devout and lifelong. One piece I read about him said that he was raised by his mother and father not to use “I” the first person pronoun but always “we.” His sometimes exasperated friend Jim Baker, at one point campaign campaign manager, said in an interview that just getting Bush to talk about himself even while campaigning was nearly impossible. When Bush finally agreed to speak in the first person on the campaign trail in a speech written for him, his mother promptly called and scolded him for his hubris.
Politics these days is not kind to the humble. If you watched any of the eulogies Wednesday you might remember one of the best lines of the whole service, given by his friend, the Senator of Wyoming Alan Simpson–a joke, wryly delivered. “Those who travel the high road of humility in Washington, D.C. are not bothered by heavy traffic.”
Humility seems scarce in halls of power. But it’s exactly that, that we need so desperately from our leaders. Servants. Whose aim in life is to put others first and make them great. “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”
Fast forward 30 years and this infant John, now a man, would cry out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And “I am not worthy so much as to untie the thong of his sandals.” And “One who is greater than I is coming after me.” And it all started here. With his father, himself a servant in the Temple, and his exuberant song to his newly born son.
Advent is a season of waiting and expectation, of repentance and preparation, and also of humility. These are stories of relatively unimportant people–Mary, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph–who raised children who gave, who sacrificed, and for that, were great. Would that there was more of this in the world. In the homily Wednesday by former President Bush’s rector at St. Martin’s in Houston, he said “Some have called this the end of an era. But it doesn’t have to be.”
It doesn’t have to be. May every era raise up parents who teach humility and greatness. May every era raise up humble servants of our Lord. In this, the church’s new year which begins in Advent, let us strive to do better. With God’s help, we will. Amen.
Today we commemorate Clement of Alexandria, born in the year 150 in Athens. He was what we call one of the early church Fathers, among the several dozen men who wrote about Christianity in those very early years and helped shape what would eventually become some of the doctrines and creeds we still profess today. (I should add that there were early church Mothers, not many but a few, women who wrote theology.)
One of the things I like about Clement is that he was a robust supporter of women’s roles in Christianity. He reasoned that if salvation is extended to all humanity, women and men, then there is no reason women shouldn’t be able to have the same rights and authority as men. He even went so far as to describe God as both male and female. One of the Eucharistic prayers that we have in our book of alternate liturgies–I use this book at the Sunday night services–is inspired by some of Clement’s imagery for God. For example, he described the Eucharist as milk from the breast of Christ. Isn’t that lovely?
Clement was born (as I said) in Athens, it’s thought. He was raised in a non-Christian home where his mother and father practiced a variety of religions. As a young man he left Athens and began a long journey across Asia Minor, studying with various teachers along the way.
He ended up in Alexandria, Egypt, where there was a famous Christian catechetical school. In those early days of Christianity, there were differing views on how much Christians should incorporate Greek ideas and concepts into their faith. There were two competing schools, one in Antioch and one in Alexandria, the first being rooted in Jewish thinking and the second more in Greek thought. This was a very sharp divide in early Christianity, and had been a sharp divide in Judaism long before Christianity even came along. It’s still with us today: how much should Jews assimilate? How much should they allow foreign thought and practices to infuse their own? Same thing, 2000 years ago.
Some of Clement’s theology stuck with us, some didn’t. He had all sorts of what seem today like bizarre theories on angels and cosmology, imported from Greek thought. But he laid the framework for later theologians, who would use the language and concepts of the Greek Logos, or Word, to form our creeds.
In the Roman Catholic tradition Clement is not a saint, though he is in ours. Clement was unpopular in the Reformation because he seemed too far-out in his thinking. The Reformers didn’t like to think that pagan and Greek thought shaped Christianity as much as it did. Interestingly, the Roman Catholic Church agreed and dropped him from their lists.
But we never did.
I like to think that’s because Anglicans appreciate two things that those churches that dropped Clement don’t as much: the world around us and what it can teach about our faith, and the importance of scholarship. And, I should add, creativity.
I want to finish by reading a small part of a homily by a Canadian Anglican scholar and priest. I found this online. It begins like this:
“St. Clement of Alexandria has never been a very popular saint. There are no legends about him, no miracles, no heroic asceticism, no martyrdom. He was really only an academic, and, as everyone knows, academics don’t make very good saints.”
Then he talks about Clement’s life and works, ending his homily with this remark (which brings him back to where he started):
“The diversity of the saints exemplifies the principle of reciprocity in the Kingdom of God; and surely it’s nice, especially in an academic community, to be able to celebrate a sanctity which is “only academic”. In the church, we are a great diversity, and, at our very best, we are all one-sided. We see parts of the truth, and we emphasize important things in one-sided ways. But in and through that diversity - and not without it - we are one in Christ; one in the community of reciprocity - the community of charity - which is the fellowship of the saints.
And in this age, in which many church leaders are promoting a version of religious ‘inclusivity’ (as they call it), such as to abrogate the finality of Jesus Christ, perhaps St. Clement can point the way to an authentically Christian inclusiveness, which can truly embrace the wisdom of the Greeks, and need not ‘destroy the wise men of Babylon’. ‘Destroy not the wise men of Babylon’, says the prophet Daniel. Rather, let the star lead them from Babylon to Bethlehem, where the wisdom of all nations is summed up, and the desire of all nations is fulfilled. Amen. + “
Happy Advent, happy new (church) year! This is the first Sunday of the church’s year, which goes from today all the way to the Feast of Christ the King, at the end of November. Time in the church goes like this, around and around, repeating itself year after year. Advent – Christmas – Epiphany – Lent – Easter – Pentecost – Advent – Christmas – Epiphany – and so on. Its constancy helps us to see how we’ve changed each time a new church year begins.
We never go through a year in the church the same person. Scripture readings take on a new hue, we occupy a different perspective in its stories. Our relationship to the church changes, our understanding grows. I’ve been most aware of this in the times I’ve tried to preach an old sermon, only to find halfway through preaching it that this isn’t who I am now.
Whether we change for the worse or (I hope) for the better, we change. There’s an inscription on the threshold of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles; it’s by the artist Robert Irwin and it says: “Ever changing, never twice the same.” So here as we stand on the brink of another church year, may you change in ways that are good. And pass through each season a wiser, better person. I pray that for all of you - all of us.
Advent has such a curious beginning. No matter how many times I go through the liturgical year, I’m always surprised by the way it starts. Portents will appear in the sky. There will be distress among nations. People will faint from fear and foreboding. Two will be in the field, working, one will be taken, one left behind. False messiahs will come and deceive the innocent. Pregnant women and nursing mothers will run in fear. This is all part of the same discourse from which our Gospel reading for today was taken.
Jesus says all this to the disciples, near the end of his life. We call it the “Little Apocalypse,” “apocalypse” just meaning revelation or insight. The insight he has is of the fragility and impermanence of the world and of his own world in particular. In the context of Luke’s Gospel, these are words Jesus said in the last days, hours even, of his life. You can see how it makes sense there, in those dire moments. But why does the church then put it here at the beginning of Advent and of the new year?
Advent is a very old season. So is Christmas. Christians have been celebrating the two since at least the fourth century. It’s only recently that Christmas in our culture has taken over all of the month December, in some cases reaching back into November, even late October.
Priests love to complain that we rush into Christmas too quickly, forgetting Advent. That we’ve forgotten the old custom of Christmas beginning on December 25 and ending January 6, Epiphany, the twelve days of Christmas. For our culture, Christmas ends on December 25, which for the church is the first day of Christmas. Just when we start to sing our carols, everyone is packing up their ornaments, ready to move on.
But back when Christmas began later in December, it would not have seemed so strange to come in early December to church and hear of Christ’s judgment, things ending. The harvest is past, the first frosts have come, every bit of green withered, the trees dormant. Preparation for winter is mostly finished. The seeds for growing next spring are safely stored away. All we have to do now is wait, for winter to come. Then we’ll retreat indoors and start the festivities that help get us through the long winter. Now is the perfect time to think about last things, judgment, the second coming.
Advent hasn’t changed. Our culture has. And so we’re left with this strange dissonance between what we expect when we come in the door at the beginning of December, and what we get.
The writer Nora Gallagher calls liturgical time a “counterweight” to the culture’s time. She says it’s as if we set “One time against another.” In Advent especially, it feels that way. We come to church expecting to see what we’re getting in the world around us, especially here where the stories come from. Instead, the decorations still are sparse. The baby Jesus nowhere in sight. The color is blue, not red and green. And the readings all about judgement and destruction. We enter an older time, time that’s slower. We look inward. We think about judgment, accountability, how ephemeral life is. We take inventory of our lives, our labors, examining our faults, asking forgiveness, resolving to do better.
Then, and only then, are we ready to hear the story of our salvation all over again, from the birth to the death to Christ’s crowning as king. As we begin this new church year, may we begin it with open hearts, open minds, a clear conscience and an examined life. May that be the gift we bring to Christ later this month, at Christmas.
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