This week a preacher is presented with an embarrassment of riches. Each of the readings deserves a sermon of its own. But, considering the state of affairs here at church, I have decided to preach on the story of Martha and Mary.
The story is short. The plot is simple. But the moral of the story is annoyingly ambiguous. Consequently, biblical interpreters throughout the last two millennia have proposed a wide variety of interpretations.
The Church Fathers were fond of allegorical interpretations. One Church Father explained the story of Martha and Mary as an allegory contrasting the contemplative life (represented by Mary) with active life in the world (represented by Martha). He thought that this story was included in the New Testament to encourage Christians to abandon life in the world for life in a monastery.
With all due respect to the Church Fathers, I think I might prefer a more literal interpretation! So let’s take a closer look at this story of a dinner party gone wrong.
Jesus arrives at an unnamed village and is welcomed by Martha into her home. Her sister Mary then sits at Jesus’ feet to listen to his teaching. Already we know that the women of this family don’t feel bound by custom. For according to custom, Jesus should have been welcomed by a male family member. And Mary should have been in the kitchen, preparing the meal.
But the violation of custom is not the real problem here. The problem is that Martha is going crazy trying to prepare a banquet for their distinguished guest, and Mary isn’t helping. Martha suspects that her sister won’t listen to her, so she tries to get a third party (in this case, Jesus) to take her side in this family dispute. (Nowadays, we have a word for this little trick, triangulation.)
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
Today is my 60th birthday, and I just came back from a weeklong vacation. So you might think that you would get a happy and relaxed sermon. Sorry! This sermon was written before my vacation, when pictures of drowned immigrants were still fresh in my mind.
In the Epistle appointed for today, St. Paul warns the Galatians: “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” I hope to God that the leaders of this nation, most of whom call themselves Christian, remember this warning. Desperate immigrants, who are tired of living in tent cities in Mexico, are drowning trying to find a place of refuge, a place of safety, for themselves and their children. They are dying of dehydration in the desert trying to escape the Hell they live in back home. They are willing to shred their flesh on barbed wire fences to get to this Promised Land. And the joking response of our President is that “the country is full.” “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked!”
The Collect of the Day that we prayed at the start of this service states: “O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor.” Well, folks, desperate Salvadorans are our neighbors. Desperate Hondurans are our neighbors. Desperate Guatemalans are our neighbors. Most of these would-be refugees are Christians, to boot. And as St. Paul reminds us, we are supposed to “work for the good of all, especially for those of the family of faith.”
Today is Trinity Sunday, and this principal feast is a bit of an anomaly. For it doesn’t commemorate an event or a person, but a doctrine, namely, the doctrine of the Trinity. Stating the doctrine of the Trinity is simple enough: “We believe on one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, however, is not so simple. You don’t need a degree in mathematics to see the fundamental paradox: we Christians say that we believe in one God; but when asked the Name of our God, we enumerate three separate persons, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
A fuller statement of the doctrine may be found in the Athanasian Creed. It states: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated, the Son is uncreated, and the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is incomprehensible, the Son is incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit is incomprehensible.” (To which one might add, this whole Creed is incomprehensible!)
Today, we find ourselves in that liminal period between the Ascension and Pentecost, and in the Gospel reading, we look back at Jesus’ prayer for the Church, given at the Last Supper.
That Jesus is praying for the unity of the Church is clear enough. But the language that Jesus uses isless clear. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…. [May they] be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” At first hearing, it sounds an awful lot like a line from a song by the Beatles: “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.” But that’s where the similarity ends. Jesus’ words are of the utmost importance for the Church and for the world—the Beatles’ words, not so much!
Now, Jesus’ call for unity has been taken seriously by the Church right from the very start. Unity is, after all, one of the four “marks of the Church” mentioned in the Nicene Creed, along with holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Of course, just because the Church takes unity seriously does not mean that the Church has done a very good job of maintaining it. It hasn’t. Christian history is filled with schisms and disagreements. In fact, Christians can’t even agree on the definition of unity!
Every culture in every age categorizes some foodstuffs as too disgusting to eat. Often, it is the case that the foodstuffs that are rejected are the delicacies of another people. When I was in Portugal recently, I was told that salted codfish, octopus, and barnacles are particularly beloved of the Portuguese. Call me squeamish, but even if I weren’t a vegetarian, I don’t think I would want to eat any of those items! Well, the Jews of the first century also categorized certain foods as disgusting filth. And for them the food laws were not unwritten, social norms, but actual written laws. Certain foods were considered filth, and the people who ate them, namely the Gentiles, were also considered filth. And you know what happens when you touch filth, you get dirty!
So imagine the shock and horror of the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem when they heard that Peter had polluted himself by eating filthy food with filthy people. As we heard today, Peter had a vision in which God declared filthy foods to be clean and fit to eat. Peter took this as a sign that the filthy people who ate such foods had now been declared clean by God himself. In other words, part of the Torah had been abrogated! When Peter was summoned to the house of the Gentile centurion Cornelius, he witnessed the members of the household responding to the Holy Spirit by speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter then instructed them in the faith and baptized them on the spot.
When Peter told his story to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, who had called him to account, their criticism was silenced. And they acknowledged that God had done a new and astounding thing: he had extended salvation to the non-Jewish peoples of the world, something previously unimaginable. So, while it is St. Paul who deserves credit for extending the Christian mission to Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire, it is St. Peter who deserves credit for first discerning that God had torn down the wall separating the People of God from the Gentile peoples of the world.
Bom dia! And in case you didn’t understand that, it means “good morning” in Portuguese. As you may know, I just spent two weeks in Portugal on vacation. I had a great time, but I’m glad to be back home!
Today is unofficially referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday. The reason is pretty obvious. We get references to lambs, sheep, and shepherds in the Collect of the Day and in three out of four of today’s appointed readings. (The first lesson from the Acts of the Apostles is the sole exception.)
The purpose of this set of readings is to drive home the point that Jesus is the good shepherd of God’s people. For country folk, this statement might not need much explanation. But for us city folk, this seemingly simple idea needs more clarification, I think.
With apologies to St. Peter, I am going to skip right over his miracle in the Acts of the Apostles and begin with the appointed psalm, Psalm 23. This is the one psalm that most people can quote, even if only partially. And because of its promise of consolation, it is the favorite psalm at Christian funerals. The problem with this psalm is that we have heard it so many times that we don’t pay attention to it anymore. And we really ought to pay close attention to the very first line: “The Lord is my shepherd.” This verse is, in effect, a pledge of allegiance—not to the flag of our country, but to our God. When we recite that line, we declare where our ultimate loyalty lies. Above our dedication to any sports teams, above our commitment to any political party, above our patriotism to our homeland, we Christians vow to follow the Lord, just as sheep follow a shepherd.
Today, Holy Week begins, and by a quirk of liturgical history, we get the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem juxtaposed with St. Luke’s account of the Suffering of the Christ. For this reason, today is given two names in the prayer book: Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion (or as we would say in modern English, “the Sunday of the Suffering”).
This dual nature of Palm Sunday bothers some people. They rightly point out that it is redundant to read one Passion narrative on Palm Sunday and another on Good Friday. A few churches have gone so far as to omit the reading of the Passion Gospel on this day. But this first, shorter reading of the Passion does serve a couple of useful purposes. First, it reminds us that we humans are fickle. For the very same crowds that acclaimed Jesus as their Messiah, later shouted for his crucifixion. Second, this first reading sets the tone for the week ahead; it serves as a sort of “preview of coming attractions,” if you will. And the coming attractions are many!
The Gospel reading today is problematic. It is problematic from the perspective of history and from the perspective of social norms.
Let’s deal with the historical problem first. This same story is told in all four Gospels, but the Gospels don’t all agree on the facts of the matter. In Matthew and Mark, the anointing took place at dinner in the house of a Pharisee named Simon the Leper. And there, Mary anointed Jesus’ head, not his feet. In Luke, it is a notoriously sinful woman of Galilee, not Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus’ head and wipes her tears from his feet with her hair. Now, these discrepancies don’t mean that the Gospel story is fake news. It just means that, as this story was handed down from one generation to the next, some details got lost in transmission.
Now for the issue of social norms! We live in a new age, in the age of the “Me Too” Movement. One major concern of this movement is the protection of “personal space.” The need for such protection is clear. A couple of years ago, Donald Trump was caught on tape bragging about how he liked to kiss and grope women without their permission. More recently, Joe Biden has been criticized for making unwanted physical contact with women he didn’t know very well. In our society, the perpetrators of such boundary violations are, more often than not, men, and the victims are women. But in today’s Gospel story, the “perpetrator” of the boundary violation is a woman, and the “victim” is a man. There is no doubt about it: Mary of Bethany violates Jesus’ personal space without permission. One wonders what the leaders of the “Me Too” Movement think about this Bible story!
In the Episcopal calendar, today is known as the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the color of the day is rightly green. In other denominations, it’s called Transfiguration Sunday, and the liturgical color is white or gold. For some reason, our Episcopal lectionary insert displays a gold heading, instead of a green one. I have a theory about this: I think there’s a Methodist mole at Church Publishing Incorporated!
But no matter what we call this particular Sunday, it marks the end of the season of Epiphany, and it does so with three Bible readings about epiphanies. The first is an epiphany to Moses on Mount Sinai—the prototypical mountaintop experience, if you will. Then, we hear St. Paul’s take on what that event meant to him in his context as an evangelist to his fellow Jews. Lastly, we hear the story of an epiphany to three of Jesus’ disciples on Mount Tabor.
Let’s begin with Moses. After spending forty days on Mount Sinai with the Lord, he comes down the mountain to bring his people the Ten Commandments, the covenant between the Lord and the Israelites. Moses was transformed by the time that he had spent in God’s presence. How exactly he was transformed is not clear. The Hebrew text says that “the skin of his face was horned.” When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, he translated the Hebrew literally. That’s why Michelangelo’s Moses has two horns! Most modern-day Bible translators understand the phrase to mean that Moses’ face emitted rays of light, which the Hebrews might very well have called “horns of light.”
Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is a continuation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. We heard the first part last Sunday. Remember the Beatitudes and the Woes? For some reason, Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain has never achieved the popularity of his more famous Sermon on the Mount. Maybe it has something to do with the aforementioned Woes. Or maybe it’s because of three demands that Jesus puts on would-be disciples: love your enemies, do not judge anyone, forgive everyone.
Now, that word “love” has a multitude of meanings, but Jesus makes clear what he means in this context. To love your enemies means to “do good to those who hate you, to bless those who curse you, to pray for those who abuse you.” Jesus is not asking us to “like” our enemies. “Love” in this context has less to do with feelings, than with actions. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans said, “‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:20–21).” The idea is that doing good to your enemy might bring about a conversion. Having said that, this approach isn’t always successful. St. Ignatius of Antioch, in a letter written while he was being escorted to Rome to be executed, famously commented how, the nicer he was, the worse his guards were in return. At least he tried!
Jesus then touches upon the question of retaliation when he speaks of “turning the other cheek” and surrendering your clothing. At first glance, it might seem that Jesus is advocating absolute passivity in the face of active evil. But something more nuanced is going on here. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is mentioned that the cheek being struck is the right cheek. Believe it or not, this little detail makes all the difference. For, if the attacker is striking the right cheek of his opponent, he is either using his left hand to do it (which was forbidden by Jewish custom), or more likely, he is giving a backhanded blow with his right hand. And in first-century Judea, a backhanded blow was reserved for social inferiors. Turning the other check to your attacker is meant to lure the assailant into striking again, but this time as he would strike an equal.