Today we’re baptizing Grace Williamson Smith, daughter of Jenner and Kelly Smith and granddaughter of Cheryl and David, whom most of us know. Grace was born in January and has been a real gift to the family through the ups and downs of the past year with the loss of a beloved father, husband and grandfather. David will always be part of this parish, and I know his presence will be felt today.
Grace is a wonderful name. Of course as a priest I’m going to say that. The whole of Christian doctrine hinges on it. The Oxford theological dictionary defines grace as “the free and unmerited favour of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings.” And further down, “A divinely given talent or blessing.” My favorite definition of grace came from the sign outside Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights that I used to pass by on my way to a friend’s house: grace is “effortless beauty.” I think that can be said of all babies, and children. Their beauty is absolute, and effortless. And we’re so blessed to have them in our lives.
So welcome to the Smith family, their friends, and everyone here today for this happy occasion.
You’ll notice this year that we have moved our Annual Appeal to November. Normally this would be the first or second Sunday of asking you to help support our budget for 2019. The month of November seemed better for that, since we’re all in a grateful and generous frame of mind then (that’s what I’m hoping). But these readings we get in October can be so hard. They really don’t make it easy for those trying to convince people to give generously. This is the first time ever I haven’t had to link this Gospel reading in some awkward way to a stewardship appeal.
What we’ve just heard is a story we know well, and it’s an uncomfortable one. A rich young man approaches Jesus and asks him what he must do to gain eternal life, to go to heaven. The man says he has already followed all the commandments. Jesus replies Well then you lack one thing (just this one little thing!): sell all your possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come follow me. The man shakes his head and walks away, and then, turning aside to the disciples Jesus says that famous line: it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
In one of my favorite sermons on this passage, the preacher recalls reading this story for the first time as a child, a little girl. She was in bed, and found it so upsetting that she sprung up out of bed, ran downstairs to her mother and said “Mom, Jesus said that rich people won’t get into heaven!” To which her mother replied, “We’re not rich. Go back to bed.”
I’m not letting you off that easy. And please don’t come to me after the service and tell me–I think every time I’ve preached this passage in the past someone has done this–that the “eye of a needle” was the name of a small gate in the Jerusalem city wall. And that if you really squeezed, you could get your camel through.
If you haven’t gone to bed hungry in the last week. If you’ve had a roof over your head. If you’ve bought something you didn’t absolutely need for your basic survival. If you’re not worried (I mean really worried) about heating your home this winter, or buying groceries, then you are rich. This message is meant for you, and it’s hard, and there’s no getting around that.
However … however … if you look at it closely, there’s a surprising amount of kindness in this tough encounter.
Take the disciples. They were probably among the poor. The Gospels hint at their status when we find them gleaning one day in the fields. Farmers were required by Jewish law to leave the gleanings, the grain not gathered by the harvesters, for the poor. You and I would not need to glean in the fields. But they did.
When the rich young man walks away downtrodden because he can’t follow this hard command, the disciples don’t deride him or smirk or have a laugh at his expense. They’re not smug or self-righteous because they’ve left everything, what little they had. They take his side. “Who then can be saved?” In fact, they’re outraged, for him.
Then there’s Jesus’ attitude toward this young man. His answer to that question, “who then can be saved?” is one of the most surprising moments in the Gospels. Jesus doesn’t say, “Obviously not this man.” He says, “With God all things are possible.” He leaves open the door to salvation. The man can change still, or God can forgive his weakness. Who knows? That’s basically what Jesus says, Who knows? Only God knows who can be saved so let’s just leave it. We don’t ask questions about other people’s salvation.
But before even that, Jesus shows kindness to this rich young man. Notice how the encounter began. The man walks up to Jesus and the first thing he does is ask a brazen question followed by a brazen claim. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As if heaven can be purchased, or secured by just doing something. Follow the commandments, Jesus says. “I have kept all of these since my youth.” You sort of wonder if that’s true. But Jesus never questions the truth of his claim, never (as far as we know) looks at him askance. And the tone of his reply is not one of judgment, but compassion. “Jesus, looking at him [the rich young man], loved him.” That may be the most important line in this whole reading. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Before asking anything of him, any sacrifice, before even knowing the man’s response, Jesus loved him.
Is this a hard teaching? Yes. There is no question Jesus thought money a serious impediment–to piety, spontaneity, justice, living the good life as he saw it. And he could be harsh to those who have it. But he could also be kind. Because if you really want someone to change, as he did this young man, you don’t (of course) yell at them or make them feel guilty for all that they’re not doing. You show them you love them, first. Then you treat them with kindness, compassion and respect.
The Christian faith doesn’t ask us to change so that God will love us. It asks us to change because God does love us. Because grace, unmerited and freely bestowed, has been given to us, and it will Never Stop asking us to respond. Really respond. Amen.
Talk Given to the United Methodist Women in New Rochelle, NY on September 28, 2018
What an honor it is to be with you today. Thank you, Barbara, for inviting me, and to all of you for such a warm welcome.
I’ve been an Episcopalian for over twenty years; before that I was a Baptist. The Methodist church, though, I have interacted with at various points. Growing up in Ohio my best friend’s family was Methodist, and her church was one of the first in our community to have a woman pastor. I credit that pastor with showing me that women can do this work when I would otherwise have had no idea. I certainly didn’t have that example in the church of my childhood.
More recently, my sister and her family as well as my parents have all become Methodists out in the Midwest, Kansas. My mother served as a delegate to her annual conference a few years ago and will again next year. (Though I’m quite sure she doesn’t always vote the way I and probably many of you here wish she might.)
I spent a number of years on the Episcopal Methodist Dialogue Committee in the Diocese of New York, and chaired it for two years. We met around four times a year to pore over documents and talk about what we share in common and where we differ.
And on a larger level, we’re connected through our history. Your founder John Wesley was an Anglican – what we in this country call Episcopalian – and he lived and died an Anglican. Most of us are not proud of the fact that our church at that point, 18th century, couldn’t accommodate the growing Methodist movement within it. You were way ahead of us on social issues, most notably the abolition of slavery both in this country and in England. When pastors were needed out on the frontier, you were the ones that raced on horseback to serve in far greater numbers than we.
So I’m an admirer of your tradition and it’s possible I even have you to thank for my being a priest at all.
I’ve been told that the choice of topic for today was wide open, and one of you sent me a few links to the sorts of things that the United Methodist Women are involved with. So I think I’ll be within range here. The issue I’ll talk about is one that is at the forefront right now of our discussions in the Episcopal Church, and will probably be debated and fought over for the next at least ten to twenty years. It’s by no means unique to our church nor is it a new topic: the use of gendered language for God.
Now let me say one thing about the way the Episcopal Church works which is, I believe, a little bit different from Methodists. Our Book of Common Prayer, which came out of the Reformation in 1549 but has been revised several times since then, is THE unifying document of our tradition. When we do approve a revision every fifty or so years, it has to be agreed upon by the majority because everyone will be using it. From the very beginning of our history, the most strenuous fights in our church have been over prayer book revisions because so much is at stake.
In past revisions of the prayer book, fights have been over going from Thees and Thous to You, changing rhythms and cadences, adding prayers with slight theological differences to reflect the changing times. Stuff like that. This time, it’s the language we use for God. And while there’s an expected uniformity or worship not asked of in all traditions, these are debates other denominations have had (and are having) as well. Including your own, I know.
Now to be honest, this is not a topic I’d taken much interest in in the past. At Divinity School I was surrounded by such famous feminist theologians as Letty Russell, Serene Jones, Margaret Farley. I took classes from two of them, but never on women’s issues. I would probably even say I tried to avoid the subject.
But then I became a priest, a rector, a mother, I reached my thirties then forties, and I started to look around me: at male colleagues as they moved up the ladder. At women colleagues who didn’t. For a brief time I had a boss who treated his women employees differently from the men. I got away from that situation by moving myself upstate to a tiny struggling church where I worked for next to nothing, but where I was the boss (that ended up being a miraculous and happy time). The woman who after 10 years took my place admitted to similar circumstances with her former boss. In fact, she endured far worse.
The experiences many of us women were having were confirmed by a study in the Episcopal Church of women clergy. That was back in 2009 so I suspect a bit has changed then, but I remember when that report came out. I was in my struggling church up the Hudson River. The report, named “Called to Serve,” examined the status of women by looking at the ratio of ordained women to men in leadership positions, pay disparities between women and men in comparable positions, geographical locations of male and female clergy (women, they found, were likelier to be in smaller rural churches than men, where they also made less money). The Methodist Church did a similar study in 2006, with results very much the same as ours.
Things have changed since both these studies were conducted, but more recent reports, at least in our church, suggest Not very much.
Like feminists in the church I once had little to do with, I began wondering about root causes, and why these problems persisted after forty years of women’s ordination (longer for you Methodists). It was inevitable that sooner or later I would begin to wonder whether the liturgy might play some role in keeping women from moving forward.
Is there a link between gender disparity in deployment and the language we use for God?
Is there a link between the pay gap and the language we use?
Is there a connection between the liturgy as it now stands and the anonymous letter I got after church one day telling me that I’d used up all my political capital in just being a woman, that I better not ever try to talk about world events or our current political leadership in church?
There are many deep seated structural forces that make it difficult for women in this profession, as in other professions. I just never wanted to admit that this might be one of them.
The language of worship then matters. The language of prayer matters. Wil Gafney, a professor of Hebrew at Brite Divinity School in Texas and one of the standard bearers of this issue in our church recently said “As long as ‘men’ and ‘God’ are in the same category, our work toward equity will not just be incomplete … I honestly think it won’t matter, in some ways.”
I don’t think I’d take it that far, but more and more, I’m not sure.
Think about what people experience the most, of church. They come to church on Sundays. Services. Theologians for years have been mixing up pronouns and metaphors for God, but most people don’t read theology. They hear the priest (or minister) preach, they hear the words of the service, the prayers, and then they go home, back again the next week. It’s HERE that we learn the language for God that we take out into the rest of the world with us. The language that shapes not only what we think of God, but what we think of our church, others, ourselves. We encounter it most in public worship, “liturgy.” That word, liturgy derives from two root words in the Greek, laos and ergas: work, and people. Liturgy is “the work of the people.”
In one of the most famous books on this topic, She Who Is, theologian Elizabeth Johnson writes “The symbol of God does not passively float in the air but functions in social and personal life to sustain or critique certain structures, values, and ways of acting.” And then, as she says multiple times, a refrain, really, throughout her introduction to that book “The symbol of God FUNCTIONS.”
Are there multiple factors keeping women leaders from moving forward in the church at the pace we should expect? Yes. But this is surely a significant one that we have to take more seriously.
At this point I’m curious – maybe just a show of hands – who practices inclusive language in your church. And I mean, regularly hears pronouns like “she” along with “he” OR whose pastor doesn’t refer to God as any gender.
And who’s not sure?
How many of you are Methodists? Other denominations? Congregational?
Other religions? Reform Judaism, as I understand, is way ahead of us on this matter.
There are certainly groups in the Episcopal Church that use authorized liturgies with more variety of language for God, but I doubt many people in the pews even know that. I’d be surprised if anyone in my congregation is aware of this issue.
The burden for Episcopalians, at least, is tradition. The aesthetic of tradition, which is important in many Episcopal Churches. Near the entrance of my church is a sign with a slogan I recently came up with: “Traditional Worship, Modern Values.” I thought it was catchy. But I’m also aware that “traditional worship,” worship that has for so long identified God as predominantly masculine, butts up against “modern values” when it comes to this issue.
But it doesn’t have to. There are myriad images of God in Scripture, male, female and neither. In one of my favorite passages from Deuteronomy, God goes from being a father to a mother, all in the span of just a few verses. Likewise in Luke’s Gospel, God goes from being the (male) shepherd looking for a lost sheep to a woman looking for a lost coin – again, in the span of just a few verses.
There are myriad images of God in church tradition, too. St. Anselm, St. Clare, St. Julian of Norwich, all used diverse pronouns and images for God.
So there is really no excuse, not even tradition, and certainly not aesthetics, for failing to expand our language and understanding of God. Keep Lord, Father, King, he and him, but add or sometimes replace them with Mother, Midwife, she and her. Or Rock, Fortress, Light, Creator, Righteous One.
“The Lord is risen indeed” becomes “Christ is risen indeed.”
“Blessed be his kingdom for ever and ever” becomes “Glory to God for ever and ever.”
“In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit” becomes at points “Praise to the Holy and undivided Trinity.”
Or this lovely blessing, which picks up on the fact that “Spirit,” in the Greek of the New Testament, is feminine. Again, what’s new is old.
“May the blessing of the God of Abraham and Sarah, and of Jesus Christ born of our sister Mary, and of the Holy Spirit, who broods over the world as a mother over her children, be upon you and remain with you always.”
Examples like this abound. I’m guessing you Methodists have many more than we because you have more local autonomy over issues of worship. Masculine language can be reduced, and other images (from tradition) come in to take its place. Not solely, but to balance it out. And tradition is reinvigorated, not compromised.
But this will be a challenge. Once again quoting Elizabeth Johnson in She Who Is: “More solid than stone, more resistant to iconoclasm than bronze, seems to be the ruling male substratum of the idea of God cast in theological language and engraved in public and private prayer.”
More solid than stone, more resistant than bronze. Women (and men): There is work to be done.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
A close friend of mine recently said that when she was a little girl, her father told her that in the summer, God always goes on vacation I literally thought, he went away until camp was over, she said.
Even though God was not on vacation, and we have seen many of you over the summer, it is wonderful to welcome the month of September and to see all of the children back. This is a really special time of year for Christian Educators. On Sundays, The classrooms are filled with young people as they get to know their teachers and each other. There are new faces and familiar ones. We miss the young men and women who have left for college but rejoice in their new journeys. Mother Storm blessed our backpacks two weeks ago and hopefully those blessings are taking hold. Homework is getting done! Last week the Music and Arts program began. Dr. Matthew Lewis, our music director, taught our children musical scales and new songs. Please send your children to the chapel at 11:15 to join us!
And so this is the perfect Gospel lesson for this Sunday because we need to be reminded of how Jesus loved, treasured and valued children. He is very clear about that. Think back to the lesson we just heard from Mark. Jesus asks the disciples what they have been talking about and they are filled with embarrassment. You can almost hear them quareling like kids in the back of the mini-van. . “No, he thinks I’m the best.” They tell each other. I’m the smartest, I’m the most trustworthy, the coolest.”
But Jesus takes a little child in his arms and says to them,
“ Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but one who who sent me.”
“Welcome the Child”. Which when you think about world that Jesus lived in, was not a typical thing to say. Rev. Amy Allen, a professor at Vanderbilt, tells us that “Children occupied an interesting place in the first century household (for Jews and Romans alike). They represented the future—they would carry on the family name, provide for their aging parents, and produce the next generation. But in the present, they were a liability. Small children, especially, were more likely to contract an illness and to die. They participated in the household labor, but were not yet fully productive, and still represented another mouth to feed. Many historians of this time period compare the status of children in such a situation to that of a slave. However, the power dynamics were more powerful than that. On the one hand, an adult slave could be “worth” more in the present; on the other hand, even the smallest child was a member of the “household”—an honor to which a slave was unlikely (and in most cases unable) to attain.”
What does it mean to “Welcome the Child?” and what can we can we learn from this lesson? Angela Schwind a mother and homeschooler profoudly said
“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”
Children are innately spiritual beings. They are wired for God and sense the mysterious and the sacred around them. In church, their senses naturally draw them to the Holy - to the candles on the altar, smell of the fragrant flowers, glorious colors of the altar linens, choral voices and beautiful music. If you read a bible story to a child, they seem to have no trouble grasping the essential meaning. Teaching them about prayer seems natural and easy, requiring little explanation and instruction. They really get that God is listening to their concerns. Their prayers are direct and to the point. Prayers in children’s chapel could be about a sick cat, a neighbor who is ill or a grandparent in heaven. They can be disarmingly candid. A little girl in our spring communion class once said to me.. “Miss Susie, I wish i had known Jesus.” When I asked her why she said. “Because he seemed like he would be really fun to hang around with.”
Even when their senses are compromised, they feel the presence of God.My brother in law has a 16 year son who since birth has been blind, autistic and in a wheelchair. When he brings my nephew to church, even if he is initially restless and vocal, once he hears the Lord’s Prayer being recited. He sits still and in complete silence .
Children have much to teach us if we listen. Long forgotten lessons about generosity, sincerity and honesty - the values that are really important in life.
To welcome the child is to do everything we can to leave them a world that has clean water and air, enough food and shelter and protection from physical harm. A place where they feel loved for who they are.
Nelson Mandela said that “safety and security doesn’t just happen. They are the result of the collective consensus and public investment. We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence”
Last Saturday, a large group of staff, educators and clergy gathered in the Isom Room to take the Diocesan workshop called Safe Church. It is a five hour course that looks at recognizing and preventing child sexual abuse as well as sexual misconduct between adults. The Diocese mandates that staff, vestry, teachers and youth group leaders take this course. The Episcopal Church is deeply committed to this critical issue and has made it a part of their mission and platform. This includes regular background checks for staff and childcare workers.
Jesus holds a child in his midst in order to hold up that which is so important in life. It is as true now as it was then. Jesus tells us, Pay attention to children and they will show you glimpses of the kingdom of heaven. It doesn’t matter what your job is, how much money you make, how powerful you are at a board meeting, or how many likes you get on Facebook. What is important, is your trust in God, a faith in that which cannot be seen, a sense of wonder and awe of God’s creation and the ability to love and serve one another. Welcome the Child.
We Pray for Children
by Ina J. Hughs
We pray for children who sneak popsicles before supper, who erase holes in math workbooks, who can never find their shoes. And we pray, for those who stare at photographers from behind barbed wire, who can't bound down the street in a new pair of sneakers, who never "counted potatoes," who are born in places where we wouldn't be caught dead, who never go to the circus, who live in an X-rated world. We pray for children who bring us sticky kisses and fistfuls of dandelions, Who sleep with the cat and bury goldfish, Who hug us in a hurry and forget their lunch money, Who squeeze toothpaste all over the sink, Who slurp their soup. And we pray for those who never get dessert, who have no safe blanket to drag behind them, who watch their parents watch them die, who can't find any bread to steal, who don't have any rooms to clean up, whose pictures aren't on anybody's dresser, whose monsters are real. We pray for children who spend all their allowance before Tuesday, who throw tantrums in the grocery store and pick at their food, who like ghost stories, who shove dirty clothes under the bed, and never rinse out the tub, who get visits from the tooth fairy, who don't like to be kissed in front of the carpool, who squirm in church or temple and scream in the phone, whose tears we sometimes laugh at and whose smiles can make us cry. And we pray for those whose nightmares come in the daytime, who will eat anything, who have never seen a dentist, who aren't spoiled by anybody, who go to bed hungry and cry themselves to sleep, who live and move, but have no being. We pray for children who want to be carried and for those who must, for those we never give up on and for those who don't get a second chance. For those we smother and for those who will grab the hand of anybody kind enough to offer it We pray for all children and our own.
William Blake, the Sun at his Eastern Gate We had a wonderful start to our year last Sunday, Banner Sunday, and if you weren’t here then, welcome back. There are a lot of new faces, a lot of new people to get to know. And I want to welcome back anyone who was visiting with us last week for the first time. This is a great church to be a part of. If you can believe it, it is still summer, technically. Fall officially begins in exactly one week, September 23. Making this our last summer Sunday together. It doesn’t feel that way, and our Scripture readings at this time of the year definitely take a turn toward the more serious. But for those of us not quite ready to move on yet, there’s this holdout, Psalm 19, one of the most exuberant, joyous psalms in our Bible, widely considered one of the best. Anglican theologian C.S. Lewis considered it the best of all 150 psalms. He called it “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” Beethoven, Bach and Haydn have all set it to music. The first two verses of this Psalm are the basis for one of the movements in Haydn’s Creation Oratorio: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The choir will be singing that as today’s offertory anthem. There’s also an adaptation of it in our hymnal. It is one of the few hymns that has been in every single revision of the hymnal for almost 400 years. This is a Psalm that deserves all these accolades. What many love best about it is its picture of creation: teeming with life, chatty, full of personality. This isn’t the fierce face of nature that we’re seeing down south right now, but the gentler side. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The firmament, sometimes translated dome, or just sky, refers to the ancient belief that there was a dome covering the earth that would periodically open up and let in the rain. There’s a firmament in Genesis chapter 1. It’s a name that makes you take the sky seriously. It’s not just vapor and gas, but a firmament, a substantive thing. A dome. Creation in this Psalm doesn’t seem to be in any way concerned that there are no human beings around. On the contrary. “One day tells its tale to another,” and “one night imparts knowledge to another.” My kids, 7 and 3, share a bedroom, and this verse where the days and nights talk to each other each night and each morning reminds me of their chatter between themselves after we say goodnight and close the door. It’s magical to hear them, their own words, their own life, apart from us. I almost wonder if the person who wrote this Psalm knew what that was like. Nature talks. Its elements, “although they have no words or language, their sound has gone out into all the lands, their message to the ends of the earth.” One of the debates around the revision of our current prayer book (it’s scheduled to be revised by the year 2030. The last one was 1979) is its depiction of nature and our relationship to it. For example, one of the Eucharistic prayers declares us the “rulers of creation.” I doubt that will be in the next version. So much has happened since the last revision, so many discoveries made. We now know nature can talk. Birds communicate more than we used to think. Dolphins speak to one another. I just read a piece in the paper where parrots barter tokens for food. How arrogant we’ve been not to think nature has a life and language apart from us. Even this Psalmist knew that when he wrote, more than 2000 years ago. He saves the best part about creation for last, his description of the sun. “In the deep, [God] has set a pavilion for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber; it rejoices like a champion to run its course.” Of course we now know the sun doesn’t sleep in its pavilion each night. It keeps blazing, as we on the earth run our course around it. Still, I like this intimate picture of God setting up a tent for the sun, maybe turning down the sheets (I’m thinking this is a princely, middle Eastern tent). And then of the strong, youthful sun strutting each morning, doing a little victory dance like a groom on the day of his wedding. “It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again.” There might be, behind this verse, an ancient hymn to the sun that this Psalm writer took and set within the framework of his own beliefs. The Psalms often appropriate bits and pieces of other religions. These authors were well read, and ecumenical. And in the case of whoever wrote this Psalm, clearly in love with life, and creation. He (or she) respected it deeply. So much so that he imagines it without us. And it isn’t suffering for our absence. After all that, we come into the picture. The Law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul. The law of the Lord brings light to the eyes. Now, in the second half of the Psalm, we’re in the human realm, with its laws and commandments and customs – made more beautiful by the Psalmist with this comparison of them to the natural world. But the Psalm isn’t quite the same after we come in, and you almost wonder if it’s all downhill from there. Are we the rulers of creation? Were we made at the climax of it, or was it just another day for God when we were formed from the dust? The Bible answers this both ways. Maybe we shouldn’t know which it is. I believe it was Ash Wednesday two years ago that I you the story of a rabbi who kept two pieces of paper in his pocket; on one, he had written “remember that you are dust” and on the other “you are but a little lower than the angels.” Then he would pull the one or the other out of his pocket depending on which he needed: a little humbling, or a little confidence. In the same way, there are the two parts of Psalm 19 to remind us of this strange yet comforting paradox of our relation to God: We’re not that important. We are entirely important. Amen.
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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