[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.
Don’t you just love on the Sunday before Thanksgiving a reading telling us not to worry? Did Jesus ever cook a Thanksgiving turkey? That’s what I want to know.
These are the readings assigned for Thanksgiving Day. I’ve found in my years of ministry that no one is thinking about Thanksgiving on the Sunday after. Everyone’s too busy cooking to come to a service the day of. So we’re celebrating on the Sunday prior, with Thanksgiving readings, and music, and decorations. (Isn’t this altar lovely by the way? Ruth Brooks from the Altar Guild does this every year. It’s my favorite altar arrangement after Christmas and Easter.)
So I know we’re not quite there yet, but Happy Thanksgiving!
Today is also the last week of our Annual Appeal, and that’s not an accident that it falls right before Thanksgiving. Our theme this year has been “Walk in Love.” We’ve talked a lot about love, about giving as a response to our love for God and each other. About giving as a way we walk in love, one of the many ways.
Two weeks ago Patrick Wynne told us about moving to the Episcopal Church from another tradition, and how since being at St. James he comes here not to fear God, but to hear God. I loved that. Last week, Andrea West told us about serving on the Altar Guild, the quiet time alone with God she relishes on Saturday mornings. That, and how growing up her mother used to hit her with a shoe to get her to wake up for Sunday services. Douglass Hatcher shared his experience growing up as a priest’s kid and reminded us of that wonderful hymn, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” There was the wardens’ letter, with Tracy and Pam’s memories of their children and grandchildren growing up here, and of Tracy’s daughter taking her first steps at St. James, walking in love.
And the videos! I’ve watched those so many times. Ruth Brooks talking about stern Mrs. Isom, the Sunday school teacher here back in the 40s and 50s after whom our Isom Room is named. The senior youth talking about the Midnight Run ministry to the homeless, the youth group, and loving the community here. The Whitney girls who grew up at St. James and their exuberance at seeing everyone two weeks ago at their goddaughter’s baptism.
Lorraine Hansen kept us on message with the goals of the campaign: 100% participation. Collectively raise our pledge 10%. And throughout you’ve heard over and over these three words from our weekly liturgy:
Walk in Love.
One word we haven’t used so much that we’ve always used in years past is Gratitude. How much our giving is a response to our gratitude–gratitude not just for this church, but for all of life. We say this a lot in church and nothing can be truer: All life is a gift. One of the most spiritually advanced states we can reach is when we see things not as our own, but as God’s, and the more we understand that, reallyunderstand, the more generous we’ll be. It’s that simple.
Some years ago I read a study where churches that use the language of obligation, debt and duty consistently raise more money than churches that use language of gratitude and love. Think about that for a moment. Churches that say you have to give, you’re obliged to give or it’s your duty raise more than churches that rely on language of gratitude and love.
I wish I could say that surprised me. It didn’t. When we talk about duty and obligation, what we’re talking about is fear. Fear of what might happen if we don’t do what we’re told. Fear is a powerful motivator. We see it everywhere. Just look at our politics. We use fear to motivate. Fear, to rally. To get quick results. To win. But love is the long-game, And it’s the long game we play in the church.
If you want to get somewhere fast, you use fear.
If you want to go far, and long, you use Love, and Gratitude.
So what if it doesn’t get the same results? We give because we want to give. What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world yet forfeits his soul?
This is the last week you’ll hear me up here talking about our Annual Appeal. Next week is Christ the King Sunday and then after that Advent begins and before we know it, it’ll be Christmas. So in the spirit of love and gratitude as we head into Thanksgiving week, let me conclude this appeal by saying how grateful I am for this church, for all those who support it in so many ways, for being your rector, and for the incredible blessing of walking the way of love with the people of St James.
Happy Thanksgiving … and Walk in Love.
I hope you’ve noticed by now that we are in the midst of our Annual Appeal. Next month your vestry will sit down and decide on the budget for 2019, as the canons of the church require they do, and that budget will be based on the number of pledges that we receive this week and next. So it’s democracy at work here!
What better passage could there be for a sermon about giving than our Gospel reading for today? This story is so well known it has its own name: the Widow’s Mite. A Mite is an Old English coin that was in use at the time the King James version of the Bible was written, and this name has stuck around even while the currency has not.
Jesus is sitting with his disciples in the Temple complex, and they watch as people bring their offerings. There were several large boxes around the courtyard of the temple for people to place their money in, money that would support the temple – its clergy, its worship, its buildings, everything sacred and mundane that goes into running a religious institution.
Jesus had an eye for ostentation. He notices several people making a display of their appearance and their giving. And then an old poor widow walks up with two tiny coins in her hand, nickles or dimes maybe. She places them both in the offering, and walks away with nothing. Then he says to the disciples: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
We’re used to hearing these as words of praise for the woman, right? An example to be followed. She “gives out of her poverty.” That’s an expression we clergy like to use to describe a higher form of giving, one where we don’t wait until it feels safe, until we can give from our excess and not feel the pinch of our giving. Whether times are flush or lean, we just give, like this woman. Giving out of our abundance is fine (I won’t complain if you do that!), but giving out of your poverty, that is the moral high ground Jesus calls us to.
In our parish discussion about Christians and wealth last month, we talked about how we define “enough.” It’s always–not just for our group but in studies, too–it’s always just a little bit more than we have. And when we reach what was once our “little bit more” it becomes still a little bit more. And more again. And so it goes, this ever receding horizon of contentment.
And when we think like this, then always ahead of us, too, is that generous Us we want to be. If we get There, we’ll be able to be more generous. Then we get “there.” And “there” moves farther out. No, to be more generous, I really need to be … there. First, it’s when we’ve paid off our student loans, maybe. Then, it’s when have a well paying job. Then it’s a downpayment on a house. Then it’s when our kids get through college. Then it’s when our kids have a well paying job. Then it’s when we’ve retired and we’re sure we’ll be okay. Then it’s when we know our grandkids will be provided for. Then it’s when we’re sure we can leave our kids enough for them and their kids to be okay. Then it’s when … and then it’s when … and on it goes.
So you can see why “giving out of our poverty” is a compelling idea. If you can learn to give even when it doesn’t seem like there’s enough, even when you feel like all you have are just two little coins, then you won’t one day be looking back on your life and asking yourself, Why wasn’t I more generous? Why didn’t I just trust I always had enough? Giving out of your poverty.
I like that message, a lot, and I think it’s an important one for us to hear. This woman is an example of how to give. The only problem is, set within its broader context, that’s not what this story is about.
All around this section of Mark’s Gospel Jesus is condemning the corruption of the Jerusalem Temple. Its priests buy and wear fancy robes. They take the best cuts of meat and the best offerings for themselves. They’re so shameless in their quest for power and riches that they “devour widows’ houses.” They take from rather than give to the class of people they’re supposed to serve. When this poor woman walked up with her two coins, someone should have come to her to help her. Someone should have stopped her from giving the last little bit she had. Instead, they let her do it, taking from the poor. And what (the passage tells us) did they do with that money? Not use it to serve those in need, like her, but to amass more for themselves.
These aren’t words of praise, Jesus for this woman as she drops her two coins into the treasury box. They’re words of lament and disgust for a system that took advantage of her in this way. You can almost see Jesus shaking his head and saying the words. “[S]he out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
Last Sunday, Patrick Wynne stood up here and talked to us about why he and his wife Deidre pledge to the church. He told us he was brought up in another Christian tradition, and that he had no idea until he came to the Episcopal Church what it meant to be part, truly a part, of running a church. He pledged, and so had a say in the governance of St. James. He was elected to the vestry, to make decisions on behalf of his fellow parishioners. He was asked to be on the search committee to select a new priest. The more he got involved, the more he realized the Laity, the people in the pews, really do run this church. The priest has say over some things, but when it’s all said and done, it’s not very much. The real ministers and supporters of this church are you, our members.
When power concentrates toward the top, you get corruption and exploitation and all of the things Jesus despised about the temple. But when it comes from below, you get institutions that serve the common good.
Last week many of us went to the polls to vote. Now, Episcopalians have an urban legend that the constitution of the Episcopal Church was written right across the street from and by many of the same people who wrote the Constitution of the United States, 250 years ago in Philadelphia. Actually there was some overlap, but the way we’ve been known to imagine it, of our founders writing the country’s constitution and then crossing the street to write our church’s constitution … that didn’t happen.
Yet we share in common certain beliefs: the importance of participation; faith in people to make choices for the collective good; authority granted not to those at the top, but dispersed broadly, from the top all the way down to the bottom. We Episcopalians don’t always get it right; no institution does. But inscribed in who we are as a denomination are these ideals.
When we invite you, each and every person who walks through these doors on a Sunday, to pledge, it’s because we need your financial support. Our major source of income comes from our parishioners, and all that supports what you see around you. But it’s also because we want (and need) everyone’s voice and vote here. The more of us who are involved in running our church, the stronger, the better, we’ll be. 100% participation. You’ve been hearing that a lot the past couple weeks. 100% participation. From the largest pledge to the smallest, the input of every one of us matters. With God’s help, We Will Do It. Amen
Welcome to the Murphy family, and their wider families, the Murphys and the Whitneys and others here with us, friends and family alike. This is a big group!
Today we’re baptizing Kenley Murphy, daughter of Ashley and Mike Murphy. Ashley, Kenley’s mother, grew up here at St. James, along with her sisters, Rachel and Alison. Her husband Mike is a lifelong Episcopalian; his mom is here with us on Sundays when she’s in town. Two years ago we baptized Teagan, Ashley and Mike’s first child. In fact, Teagan was one of the first babies I baptized here, so I’m especially fond of her, and all them. Again, welcome.
Today is All Saints Day. This is one of the four principal days in the church year for baptisms. Of course we baptize on other days as well, but this one of the feasts when Christians all over the world together baptize into the church their newest saints. And I do mean to use that word, saint. Today we’re making a new little Christian saint.
Saints for us, of course, are those people who have lived exemplary lives. We have a calendar of saints; we commemorate them on Wednesdays at our morning Eucharist. Saints like Anselm of Canterbury, theologian. St Francis of Assisi. St. Jerome, Latin historian and scholar, and, not to be missed, our St. James, as well as Saints Andrew, Peter, John and all of the apostles. More recently named saints are Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. We share these and many more with our Roman Catholic neighbors. But some are unique to us as Anglicans: St. George Herbert, English priest and poet. Julia Chester Emery, an American Episcopalian who founded the United Thank Offering–and a member of St. James the Less, buried (in fact) right out here in our own graveyard.
Those are all “saints” in the sense that most of us think of saints. People way up here, at a height we’ll never reach or even come close. But there’s an older definition of saint, one that goes all the way back to the beginning of our tradition, before the Gospels were even written. The apostle Paul used the word “saint” in his letters to mean any and all Christians who were baptized into the faith. “Saints in Christ,” was how he addressed his readers in the Epistle to the Ephesians. It was probably what Christians were called before anyone thought to give them the name “Christians.” Saints not because we’ve done incredible things, though many of us have and will, I hope, but simply because God in his infinite and incomprehensible grace made us saints in his church the moment we were baptized.
That’s what being a saint meant in the earliest sense of that word in our tradition, and still today. We’re part of the Communion of Saints because God saw fit, for whatever reason, to make us so. If we really grasped that deep in our being, perhaps we would have the strength and courage to act more like those great saints we celebrate in our church calendar.
Including ourselves into this heavenly assembly of saints–or as we say at the Eucharist, “joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven”–also reminds us on this day that we are part of something much larger than us as individuals, us as members of our families, of St. James, us as Episcopalians and even Anglicans worldwide. We’re part of a body of Christians all over the world, and on All Saints’ Day especially, that means the living and the dead.
In a moment, just after little Kenley is baptized, I will anoint her with oil. That oil was consecrated by the Bishop of New York, who himself was consecrated by other bishops, who were consecrated in turn by bishops before them and back it goes, unbroken, all the way two thousand years to our Lord’s choosing of the disciples. That little drop of oil that we all received as a cross on our foreheads is a symbol of our initiation into something vast and ancient of which we are a part. A small, but in God’s eyes, important part, of this Communion of Saints.
On our altar stairs, etched into the marble, is an inscription. Unfortunately it’s slightly covered by the red carpet so you can only see a bit of it. But look at it (what you can see of it) when you come forward for Communion. It reads:
“In Memory of Many Saints (top step)
(next step) Blessed are the Dead who Die in the Lord
(next step) May Light Perpetual shine upon them
(and last step) Because I live ye shall live also.”
A former parishioner, Jean Ellis, took that inscription and wrote a poem about it. I found it in the 1949 Parish Messenger and it’s titled “For All Saints Day, November 1 1949″ (that was, by the way, the 100th year of our founding as a parish). I’ll close with this lovely reminder of this vast and varied Communion we belong to as children of God.
Dear “Many Saints” who built our altar here,
Whose high example helps us year by year,
Today we join your memory to recall,
And thank you, for our church; each stone within its wall,
Each pew where you knelt too, each window dear,
And this blest altar, which brings God so near.
I never knew you when you served Saint James’,
To me at first you were but aged names,
Graven on bronze or marble, glinting dim on glass,
But you grow clearer as the sacred seasons pass,
And I think how you too bedecked with holly, frames,
You, Easter lilies brought, you shared our aims
To build a perfect church upon this holy hill–
Your part is played, and now we must fulfill
Our share, extend these walls, so that our sons
Be better taught–perhaps they’ll be the ones
To raise the finished tower! But until
That day, dear “Many Saints,” inspire us still.
– (parishioner and saint) Jean Ellis
St James The Less Episcopal Church - ALL ARE WELCOME!
10 Church Lane