April 11, 2021: Easter 2
April 4, 2021: Easter Sunday
April 2, 2021: Good Friday
March 28, 2021: Palm Sunday
March 21, 2021: Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 14, 2021: Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 7, 2021: Third Sunday of Lent
February 28, 2021: Second Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2021: First Sunday of Lent
February 14, 2021: Last Sunday after the Epiphany
February 7, 2021: Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 31, 2021: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
The beloved Rabbi of a large synagogue addressed his congregation one Sabbath: "My dear people, Messiah has come among us." Eyes opened, jaws dropped. Someone objected: "Rabbi, peace and justice will break out with Messiah's arrival." Another added, "prisoners will be liberated, the oppressed freed." " The wolf and the lamb will sleep together, and the leopard with the goat, " added a third. " I know, I know", responded the Rabbi, " we are still working out the details".
Working out the details is the mission Jesus assigns to disciples in Mark's Gospel. Today we get the first reactions to Jesus' preaching the Good News. The crowd marveled at the authority, the power of Jesus' words. They found such power lacking in the other teachers of the day. However, as we proceed in the Gospel, we will find that this Gospel has very few words of Jesus' teaching when compared to the other Gospel accounts. And we will learn that the crowd really doesn't understand what Jesus is teaching.
The demons, however, seem to know very well who Jesus is and what his presence and power and teaching mean. "You are the Holy one of God'', they shout. And the demons know why Jesus has come." "Have you come to destroy Us?" The answer is yes, as this first miracle demonstrates.
In Biblical times, sickness was ascribed to evil spirits. Hence, many of Jesus' healings are described as exorcisms, casting out the demons responsible for the illness. The focus is not that Jesus is a universal vaccine, but that Jesus possesses power over evil spirits and uses that power to break the power of evil in our lives.
If we pull back the camera on this Gospel story, we can picture Jesus' actions as the cutting down of a giant tree; cut off at ground level. The power of the demons, the source of evil, is cut at the roots. But like a large tree, the branches and leaves still look alive for some time. Just as the tree still appears alive, so evil still seems to have power in our day. But its roots are severed and in time the leaves will fade and fall off, the branches decay and rot. The power of evil has been destroyed.
But this is a vision that is not obvious. It is the vision of the faith Jesus proclaims. Disciples are called to work out the details of such a vision in our daily lives. The Gospel proclaims that not only does the arc of history bend toward justice, but that the future belongs to justice and compassion, peace and truth, hope and love. But if the devil is in the details, evil, though defeated appears very real and very present.
Just ask Paul. Today we find him in Corinth, busy working out the details. This conservative Jew from a small town in Palestine finds himself in what was perhaps the most cosmopolitan city on earth. Corinth is built on a narrow piece of land that divides two seas - the Agean and the Adriatic. Hence, it had two sea ports. It was a shipbuilding center, a military and manufacturing hub. The sports center of the day with a population drawn from across the Roman Empire. Excavations have found 33 taverns. The goddess of the city was Aphrodite- goddess of love; Venus in Latin. And here we find Paul, working out the details of God's presence among us.
The topic of today's reading is food, but the real focus is on the concern believers are to have for one another. At the time much meat was purchased from markets near temples. Animals offered for sacrifice were not entirely burned. Often just a small portion. The rest was sold to support the priests. Often, then, when one ate meat it was meat that had been offered to pagan gods. Some Christians had no problem. These gods don't exist so I can eat. Others thought to do so was participating in worship of a pagan god. Paul agrees that the first are right but that he would eat no meat if it would be a burden to the faith of the second group. The issue is care and concern for others. Our love for others.
The Letter we are reading is best known from what Paul writes 5 chapters further on. "Love is patient and kind, slow to anger and quick to forgive.." His famous poetic words describing love as the greatest of gifts. Paul tells us that one who accepts the call to follow Christ can do so because she is first embraced by God's love. So embraced, the Christian is empowered to love others.
In his book, "The Art of Loving", Erich Fromm says love is not a feeling that sweeps over us but a disciplined decision to act in a certain way. The signs of the presence of love are care, respect, and a sense of responsibility for the other. Love, he says, is an active concern for the well being of the other, all others. Paul would agree.
We have been called to be disciples. We have realized that this is a gift and a great challenge. Words to describe the challenge are found in a love song by Billie Holiday. She sings: "the difficult I'll do right now; the impossible will take a little while".
And so it seems. Working out the details of God's presence is difficult, even impossible. And yet, that is what we are called to do. But this is not something we do alone. As we read the first words in Mark's Gospel. I am reminded of his last words in Matthew's: Know that I am with you always, even to the end."
I am with you as you work out the details. AMEN
January 24, 2021: Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Today we are invited to think about how God “calls” followers to help spread God’s word. We began with Jonah’s mission to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Jonah’s story is one of the most memorable of the stories of the prophets. Jonah is called to do something unimaginable, to preach against the misdeeds of a vast city of non-believers in the name of the Hebrew God. Predictably, he runs off in the opposite direction. After his traumatic experiences in the Mediterranean, he preaches as he is told to – finally. And he succeeds beyond imagination. He is so successful that he is embarrassed, because God relents of destroying the people of the city. Jonah then leaves in a huff and camps outside the city to grumble about the capriciousness of his employer. The book of Jonah is almost an extended comic tale. Everything is exaggerated and ridiculous, even the size of the city. What is the moral of the story? Don’t resist the call of God – but even when you accept it, you may end up looking absurd …
Then, in total contrast, we have the story of the call of the first disciples in Mark. John the Baptist has preached the coming of Jesus, and suddenly there he is. Jesus calls Andrew and Simon, and they follow at once. He then sees James and John, and he calls them. They leave their family, their work, their lives, and follow Jesus.
Let’s pause for just a moment (because Mark never does). The Gospel that we know as Mark is written, especially in the opening chapters, in a clipped, laconic style, as though Mark wants to write the absolute basics. Mark was written, we believe, either side of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, maybe a few years before or a few years after. In either case, it was a time of profound crisis for the Judaean people: it felt like the world, or at least the world they knew, was coming to an end. Time was very, very short.
In the past week, this country commemorated Martin Luther King. While reading Mark, I am constantly reminded of King’s famous expression about the “fierce urgency of now”.
King coined the phrase in his very controversial, sermon on the Vietnam War, preached at Riverside Church in New York City (just a few feet away from our seminary apartment) on 4 April 1967. King saw a choice between “nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation”. He went on: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late.”
That urgency, to get the message out as quickly as possible, is reflected in Mark’s style. One of his favourite words, especially in chapter 1, is the Greek word εá½θá½ºς (euthus). Mark uses this adverb no less than 11 times in the first chapter of the Gospel alone. It is used so often that translators of the Bible feel the need to use different translations to avoid repetition: in the King James Bible it is sometimes translated “straightway”, sometimes “forthwith”, sometimes “immediately”. For Mark, Jesus’s mission is invested with the same sense of deep urgency as Mark’s own re-telling of it. No-one pauses to think, no-one waits to consider alternative possibilities. No-one even waits to discuss and dispute, in a way that, then as now, came as naturally to Jewish religious thinkers as breathing itself.
We can understand why Mark tells the story in this way. But how can we benefit from, or even learn from, the extraordinarily abrupt way that the disciples are called, and begin their mission with Jesus?
One commentary that I read says rather grandly that “it is quite pointless to speculate, for example, on why the disciples responded without demur, or whether Jesus had met them beforehand. Mark is not interested in the psychology of the disciples or of their response”. Well, maybe not. But we may be interested; because, when we hear Scripture read and the Gospel preached, the disciples are us.
The disciples whom Jesus called were neither religious professionals, nor were they social outcasts with nothing to lose. They were ordinary people, men and women (we read elsewhere that both men and women travelled with Jesus) with lives to lead and business to do. There was nothing predictable about what Jesus was calling them to. In ancient Israel, travelling prophets typically went on their own or maybe with one pupil. Religious leaders taught their pupils in formal schools to study the Torah, as they still do. Maybe only John the Baptist before Jesus began the custom of calling multiple followers to go around with him and help him teach. So, the call to the disciples was to a completely new and rather terrifying vocation, something for which there was no direct precedent. That they responded so positively should be included among the miracles of the New Testament – and not the least.
There are two possibilities: either the disciples were so captivated by Jesus’s instant charisma that they obeyed his words, and followed him silently, like automata deprived of any agency or any control over their own movements. Or they made a decision to follow their teacher, just as any of us makes a decision, based on what and whom they knew, and where their values and hopes led them.
It does not sit well with the reality of faith to suppose that the apostles just moved, as though in a trance, unable to control their movements or make a conscious decision. Nor could they have confronted the enormous risks and challenges of their ministry without having embraced in their inmost selves the choice that they made. We know that the disciples considered the possibility of running out of money, because they kept a common purse. We know that they often muddled in their minds Jesus’s call with those of many “messiahs” who promised the restoration of a physical kingdom by insurrection.
No, I believe that the disciples responded in the same way that any of us responds to a call: consciously and intentionally, because they saw the path of their life and the urgency of their call in a new light, and responded to that call.
And who is to say that the wonderful power of God was not at work in every step in that process, as it brought the disciples to their moment of decision?
Earlier this week, I suspect that many of us watched at least some of the inauguration ceremony for the new President of the United States. In what seemed to me quite a fine speech, there was a good deal of the language of call: calls to the country to unite in order to address the health challenges, the social and economic challenges, and the challenges of deep political division that abound at the present time. The speech ended with a hope that the country would be seen, in future ages, to have answered “the call of history”.
The sentiments were good, and much needed. But we may never confuse calls to do the earthly business of improving our material world, with the call of God to build God’s kingdom. The call to build a community of mutual love and respect, for all our fellow human beings and all of God’s creation, is both intensely practical, and at the same time terrifying in its all-embracing ambition. God asks the impossible of us, calls us to repair the damage of centuries of fear, division, self-centredness, and exploitation, both of the earth and of each other.
Yet in the life of the disciples, we see that God does not call us, without at the same time giving us the means and the inspiration to respond. It was not easy for them. A hymn in our hymnal, which I briefly considered for today’s worship, speaks of how the first disciples were “contented, peaceful fishermen, before they ever knew / the peace of God that filled their hearts / brimful, and broke them too”. Yet I have no doubt that their response to Jesus felt like the most profound and essential thing that they could ever have imagined doing in their entire lives, even though it cost them so much.
We are all a bit like Jonah: we could so easily be tempted to run as far as possible in the opposite direction. But in every word that we utter, every ordinary interaction that we have with others, we can find ourselves building God’s kingdom. It is not a solo endeavour, but a shared work. Most of all, it is not humanity’s call, but God’s message, that makes the difference. The Spirit of God will know, and will tell us in due time, how to dispose our gifts in the best way. Let us be attentive, and when the call comes, as it does, be ready to respond obediently, with confidence and joy.
As our Collect says: Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
January 17, 2021: Second Sunday after the Epiphany
"Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening." This is the key sentence in the scene painted in our first reading. The one who makes this commitment is Samuel, one of the great figures of the Hebrew Scriptures. He lived around 1100 BC, a crucial time in the history of Israel. After entering into the land they considered "promised" to them, Israel found themselves in conflict with the tribes who already lived there. Israel had separated into tribal regions, which made them militarily weak. When attacked by other nations, the tribes would join together under a leader to deal with the threat. When the threat was thwarted they returned to their tribal areas. Hardly an efficient way to defend themselves. Many were calling for a more efficient government. A more centralized government - a king.
Some opposed the idea, saying that Yahweh was their king. Many opposed any centralization of power. Samuel was the figure who led Israel into this new age. He was the spiritual and political leader who convinced a reluctant people to establish a monarchy with David as "God's anointed", "messiah" in Hebrew.
The invitation in our Gospel to "Come and see" was uttered 1100 years later. David's throne had, for centuries, no longer been a political reality. We are now in a land under the heel of Roman domination. The arrival of a "messiah" to free Israel was a hope that united the Jewish people. The belief that a new leader, a new David, a new "messiah" would be raised up by God to liberate God's people. In today's reading we see Jesus, of the House of David, come to Galilee and begin to gather followers. One, Philip, joins the small band following the one whom Moses and the prophets wrote about, the hoped for messiah. Phillip immediately went to invite Nathaniel to "Come and see.". When Nathaniel came, he met this Jesus who showed he already knew him. Nathaniel is led to proclaim "you are the Son of God You are the King of Israel!"
We have all been invited to "Come and see". None of us was as clearly called as Samuel. But we were called. Both Samuel and Nathaniel learned that the journey was difficult. Samuel had anointed Saul as King first. Saul had failed to meet expectations and Samuel replaced him with David. Nathaniel will come to realize Jesus was not the messiah he expected. He joined the other disciples who abandoned this "Son of God, king of Israel."
Our journey has not been over a physical trail but a life lived. We have experienced moments of joy and beauty and awe, but we have lived long enough to know that life's journey has hills and valleys, disappointment, dry spells, doubts and feelings of being lost. A number of years ago I was at a lecture by a man who traveled up and down the trails of America. He said there were four rules that one must follow on the journey. 1) Never go alone; 2) Take only what you need; 3) expect difficulty; 4) Pause often to enjoy the beauty.
In these days of confinement to our homes the image of a journey is more inward. We have become aware of how important the companions are who journey with us. Zoom does not replace gathering around the table of the Lord. We don't want to travel alone. We have also learned what is essential and not. We all have a lot of "stuff"; much more than we need. We have been reminded again that life is difficult. We cannot protect loved ones from suffering, from illness, from death. And yet we have become more aware of the beauty around us. The beauty of love and friendship, the support of companions. We are grateful.
So, my dear companions on the journey, let the love we have for one another nurture you on the journey. You are not alone. We have much. Things are difficult, but let us not forget to be grateful for the beauty in nature, in each other, in oneself.
Another companion on the journey is Martin Luther King, Jr. At least we shared life on this earth at the same time. Tomorrow is the day dedicated to his memory. It is a fitting day, in these challenging days to pause and reflect on what he said, how he lived and how he asked other people to live. It is ironic, to put it mildly, that the FBI considered him the most dangerous person in his day. It is also said that at his death, only 35% of White Americans had a positive attitude toward him. I am reminded of what a seminary teacher said: "To live with the saints in heaven, Oh what glory. To live with a saint on earth - that's another story".
Dr. King was certainly a prophet in the Biblical sense. They were the "conscience of Israel", as one scholar describes them. Dr. King called each of us to live out the creed of our faith as well as the creed of our country. He showed a deep respect for our democratic institutions, Constitution, and human life even though he was a person denied so much of the justice these were to protect and preserve. I marvel at his insistence of non-violence. It is a demand so absent from our day. Included in this material I send is a link to one of his most famous writings, "A Letter from Birmingham Jail". It is long but I encourage you to read it. I also include some of his famous quotes. They have only grown in power and importance over the years. Today they offer hope, direction , faith and a path this nation can take to become more of the "beloved community" than the divided nation we have become.
"There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one it is right."
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
"The ultimate measure of a person is not where one stands in normal times of comfort and convenience, but where one stands at times of challenge and controversy."
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."
"Let no one pull you so low as to hate them."
"The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people."
"We may have all come on different ships but we're in the same boat now."
"We must live together as sisters and brothers or perish together as fools."
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."
"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetuate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.
[Included in this material is a link to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail. It is a long letter but well worth the time. Written on Good Friday in 1963 from the jail in Birmingham Alabama where Dr. King had come to assist local Black clergy in organizing a boycott of local businesses to shed light on segregation and oppression. Seven local White clergy wrote an open letter to the Black community asking them to disassociate themselves from Dr. King. The letter is Dr. King's response.]
January 10, 2021: First Sunday after the Epiphany
Around the time of my second Christmas on earth, the poet W.H. Auden wrote:
So that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, put the
decorations back into their cardboard boxes - We've eaten
too much - attempted to love all our relatives, and, in
general, grossly overestimated our powers.
Some of this is true, but this Christmas has been unlike any other. This year, taking down the decorations, especially the lights, seems, to me, a great loss. Why don't we leave them up till St. Patrick's Day. But even the Gospel pulls us away from Christmas. Another poet captures the reality:
When the song of the Angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins: to find the lost,
to heal the broken, to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among sisters and brothers,
to make music in the heart, (Howard Thurman)
We should have known this was coming. For many weeks we have been reminded that every celebration in the Christmas Cycle proclaims the paschal mystery of the Lord's passion, death, resurrection and coming of the Spirit. Now that is the Easter proclamation, but the events in the Christmas cycle are rooted in the meaning of the events of the last days of Jesus' life. The events recorded in the story of Jesus' Passion are the foundation of our faith and the reason for our interest in Jesus' beginning.
Last week we were reminded that the first Christians' interest in Jesus' beginning did not focus on the birth. Epiphany, January 6th, was celebrated hundreds of years before December 25th, and the earliest focus of Epiphany was the Baptism of Jesus.
The baptism of Jesus manifests that Jesus entered into the depth of our human condition, shared our strength and weakness, joy and sorrow, success and failure. Also, in Christ we are all members of one body - neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, but one in Christ.
Our first reading, the great poetic hymn of creation, paints a similar picture. The entire work of Creation presented in Genesis paints a picture of a loving God, who gives existence to a world that is good, sacred even. All creation is interrelated and interconnected.The vast expanse of the universe, the natural world, the beings with whom we share this earth are all related, all good. And we human beings are made in the very image and likeness of the Creator, and are all sister and brother equal in dignity, equally loved by the Creator.
It is a beautiful and challenging image and, in these days of pandemic and social and civil strife, an image we need to be reflected upon and acted upon. The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Heschel has said that the major responsibility of religion is a continual proclamation that life is sacred, that each human life is sacred.
In a way, the pandemic has affirmed the interconnectedness of all human life. The virus is not prejudiced. It attacks all of us. The behavior of one affects the health of all. Our genes tell us we are one human family.We have a responsibility for and to one another.
The civil life of our nation is experiencing challenges that strike at the foundations of our faith. If the major responsibility of religion is the continual proclamation that all life is sacred, there have been serious sins of neglect. If baptism declares that in Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, then we have much work to do.
I have been thinking these days that in my life there have been two movements fueled to a great extent by Christians - the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's and 60's was nurtured by Black Churches, and the current Make America Great movement is strongly supported by White Evangelical Christians.
One movement was non-violent, demanding justice for all, seeking inclusion of all people in the rights proclaimed in the Constitution. The scriptural visions of the sacredness and interconnectedness of all life was proclaimed in this movement. Inclusion into the civil and political life of the nation was demanded through non-violent resistance. The building of a "beloved community" which includes the whole human family was its vision and its goal.
The other movement, which is largely supported by Christians claiming a literalallegience to the Gospel, has its roots, however, in the defense of slavery and segregation. A theme proclaimed is that divisions must be maintained. There is not one human family. God's favor belongs to some and with that favor they are privileged. People who believe differently from them, whether it is religion or politics are to be shunned, defeated, even oppressed. Only some life is sacred. Creation bears nothing of the "goodness" of the Creator. Jesus is the vaccine for the pandemic. On the feast of Epiphany, many in this group applauded an attack on the symbol of our Constitutional Government.
Abraham Heschel also said that true religion begins with the awareness that something is asked of us. We learned this at Baptism when we were "sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own". The work of Christmas is the work we accepted at baptism. We live in a world at a time that needs us to do this work.
So, let's do it.
I invite you, as we remember the baptism of Jesus, to renew our own Baptismal Vows. BCP 292