Merry Christmas! (And in case you wonder why I’m still saying “Merry Christmas” five days after Christmas Day, it’s because, in our tradition, Christmas lasts twelve days.)
For those of you who attended the Christmas Day Eucharist, the Gospel reading today must sound rather familiar. For reasons beyond my knowledge, the appointed Gospel reading for the First Sunday after Christmas is the basically the same reading as that of Christmas Day. The only difference is that four additional verses have been added to the end.
Now, if I were a particularly lazy person, I might just give you the same sermon that I gave on Christmas Day. Well, I may be lazy, but I’m not that lazy! So what I intend to do is to give you a brief summary of my previous sermon and then elaborate on one point that I think could benefit by further explanation.
Today’s Gospel reading serves as a prologue to the whole Gospel of John. It is like the overture to a musical or opera. It introduces the audience to themes that will be elaborated more fully later in the work. The purpose of this particular overture is to introduce us to Jesus Christ. But it goes about it in an unexpected way. St. Matthew and St. Luke start where most biographers would be expected to begin, with the story of Jesus’ birth. St. John starts at the very beginning, the beginning of the Cosmos!
He tells us about the relationship between God and a divine being called “the Word.” Now, in the original Greek, the name of this being is Logos. Yes, it can be translated as Word. But it can also mean Reason or Order. This Logos existed with God before time itself. Creation was mediated through him. And in a sense, one can even say that the Logos is God. This pre-existent divine person is the one who maintains order in the midst of chaos, the one who supports life in the midst of death, the one whose divine Truth illumines the darkness of ignorance.
This idea that God became human has a special name in Christian theology: the Incarnation. And as you know, our parish is named after that doctrine. In a nutshell, the doctrine of the Incarnation claims that the divine Logos, a Person of the Holy Trinity, came to us as one of us in order to save us. As St. Athanasius puts it, the Logos “became human that we might become divine … [and he] endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality.” Out of love, the Logos emptied himself of his deity and took the form of a finite, mortal human being. And he endured all that it means to be human, including death.
Merry Christmas, everybody! Welcome to Christ’s Mass!
In case you haven’t already figured it out, today is a special day for Christians. In the Episcopal calendar, it is ranked as a “principal feast” of the Church. But it’s an especially special day for this parish. You see, Christmas is the preeminent feast of the Incarnation, the saving event for which this parish is named. So in “church speak,” Christmas Day is our “feast of title.”
As is my custom, I will be focusing my sermon on the Gospel reading. To be honest, this prologue to John’s Gospel is somewhat abstract and difficult to understand. Now, if you attended Midnight Mass or a sunrise service on Christmas, you would get the much more understandable story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s Gospel. You would hear about the infant lying in a manger and about angels from the highest heaven announcing the Messiah’s birth to a group of lowly shepherds. But if you attend the main Christmas Day service, this service, you get something completely different. You get an excerpt from a mystical poem about the doctrine of the Incarnation. (To be honest, I miss the charming stories of St. Luke, so to make it up to you, we will be singing a couple of carols about “angels from the realms of glory” and “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.”)
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice! And we mark the semi-festive tone of the day by lighting a pink candle on the Advent wreath, instead of a purple one. Some parishes go so far as to have the celebrant vest in pink vestments. (Thankfully this parish doesn’t own pink vestments!) Likewise, the appointed Bible readings for this Sunday are supposed to be markedly less gloomy than on the other Sundays of Advent. Too bad no one informed St. Luke!
Most of you are familiar with the old saying that if you want to get a donkey to move you need a carrot and a stick. The carrot is dangled in front of the donkey to entice it forward. The stick is used to threaten it from behind. I sometimes think that is how God deals with us sinners. The first two readings today are the carrot. The reading from Luke’s Gospel, containing the threats of John the Baptist, is the stick. Since I would like to end this sermon on a happy note. I’m going to start out with the stick.
Happy new year! In the U.S. civil calendar, the new year starts on January 1. In the Chinese lunar calendar, the new year usually falls on the second new moon after the winter solstice. But the church’s new year starts on the first Sunday of Advent, which just happens to be today. The basic meaning of the English word advent is “coming.” In Christian terms, it refers more specifically to the Two Comings of the Messiah. The first is the coming of the Messiah some 2000 years ago in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The second is the anticipated coming of the Messiah on the Day of Judgment. And in one way or another, all of today’s readings deal with the Coming of the Lord.
The world needs some consolation right about now! Babies are being starved to death in Yemen by our nation’s allies. A journalist was murdered and his body dismembered by those same allies. College students are massacred in a California nightclub for no apparent reason. Hurricanes have decimated city after city. The ironically named town of Paradise has burned to the ground. And the air is so polluted that we are being advised not to breath it! And so, we find ourselves asking, “When will it end? And where is God?” Regrettably, the answers are not apparent.
Now, as bad as things are today, things were no better in Jesus’ day. And his disciples undoubtedly had the very same questions that we have. They looked around them and saw the oppression and cruelty of the Roman Empire, and every so often they must have despaired. Believe it or not, Jesus’ prophecy about the destruction of the Jewish Temple and the end of the age was meant to provide encouragement. For reasons beyond my understanding, the editors of the lectionary have included only the start of Mark, chapter 13, only the bits about doom and gloom. What Jesus says provides us hope only when understood in a larger context. So, I will do my best to fill in the gaps and provide that context.
Let me start out by thanking those of you who attended the installation service yesterday and then faithfully came back for even more church. I thank you, and God thanks you!
Today is officially called the 25th Sunday after Pentecost. But it ought to be called the Sunday of the Two Widows. The first widow is a poor woman on the verge of starvation living in the Gentile region of Zarephath during the time of the great prophet Elijah. The second is a poor woman on the verge of starvation living in the vicinity of Jerusalem about 900 years later. Both are remembered. Neither are named.
That first widow, the widow of Zarephath, was probably a pagan, an unbeliever. And yet, God sends Elijah to stay with her during a time of devastating drought. She has only enough food left in her house for one last meal. And then, this foreigner comes to her house and asks to be fed. He promises that, in return, his God will miraculously provide food for her and her son for as long as the drought endures. Now, as I said, she probably did not believe in the God of Israel. Even so, she takes a leap of faith and trusts this emissary of a foreign god. She then feeds Elijah with the last of the flour and oil. And we are told that God was true to his word. “The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail.” This is what we in America call a “Hollywood ending.”
Then, we come to the story in today’s Gospel reading. As a child I always heard this called the story of the “Widow’s Mite.” I found this strange, since in modern English a “mite” is an insect. Well, it turns out that “mite” is also an obsolete word for a small coin. Who knew!
The story of the Widow’s Mite is prefaced by a condemnation of the scribes. These were religious professionals trained in the art of reading and writing, as well as in the Jewish Law. Jesus condemns them for their pride and for their lack of mercy. They like to dress up and be noticed. They like to be perceived as particularly pious. But at the same time, they “devour widows’ houses.” What exactly Jesus means by the phrase “devour widows’ houses” isn’t clear. What is clear is that the actions of the scribes somehow leave the most vulnerable people in Jewish society without a roof over their heads.
As I stand before you in a long robe and prepare to declaim long prayers in public like a scribe, I am acutely aware of the irony of my situation. And to be honest, the sin of pride is not completely unknown among Episcopal clergy! Be that as it may, I can truthfully claim to be innocent of the charge of “devouring widows’ houses.”
Then, we come to heart of today’s Gospel, the tale of that second widow who gives all her money to support the Jewish Temple. Now, in the English translation read today, it says that the two coins she put in the treasury were worth a penny. But in point of fact, her donation was worth about $1.88. It wasn’t much. But it was enough to buy some flour to make pita bread or to buy enough lentils for a bowl of soup. Instead, she gives it to support the Temple. Unlike the story of the widow of Zarephath, this widow’s story doesn’t have a “Hollywood ending.” We just don’t know what happens to this penniless widow. We can only trust that, as before, God will provide.
This Gospel story presents us with a bit of a paradox. While the story of the Widow’s Mite commends the sacrificial giving of the faithful widow, the surrounding text condemns the same religious institution that accepted her sacrificial giving. Consequently, biblical scholars have interpreted the story in two very different ways. The first is that Jesus is praising the widow’s utter devotion and faith. The second is that he is lamenting the utter depravity of a Temple administration that would take a widow’s last two dollars. Frankly, it may be the case that both interpretations are true.
Clearly, the widow’s absolute trust in God’s providence is to be commended. When she gave to God, she quite literally held nothing back. For the love of God, this widow gave her life to support the unworthy administrators of a doomed institution. In a real sense, the widows’ sacrifice foreshadowed Jesus’ own sacrifice on the Cross. For all too soon, he too would be called to give his life for the sake of the unworthy—namely, all of us!
And that brings us to the here and now. I have no doubt that Jesus would commend the sacrificial giving of many of you, some of whom are widows. And if the truth be known, a few here give more than they should. Some, in terms of money; others, in terms of blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Your contributions do not go unnoticed. I thank you, and God thanks you.
But I do not want this parish to fall into the same sin that the Jewish Temple did. So I say to you now: “Do not give your last two dollars to the church! Do not work so hard at church that all the joy of life is drained right out of you!” I tell you this, not because God does not appreciate your sacrifice (for he does!), but because I don’t want this parish ever to put institutional survival above the well-being of its members. So, yes, please continue to give generously, even sacrificially. But know your limits, and feel free to hold back what you need to enjoy a full and healthy life. Trust me, the Lord will understand!
Today is the day of our annual pledge ingathering, a sort of Stewardship Sunday. We fill out little cards each year, promising to support the church, and we offer these cards to God as a token of our gratitude. Likewise, Fr. Webber has donated an altar pillow to the church out of gratitude for the many years that God gave him with his wife Peg. After the Creed today, we will be dedicating this offering. (And if you are wondering what an altar pillow is, think of it as an overstuffed book stand.) At first glance, today’s Gospel story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus seems like a bad fit for a day devoted to stewardship and gratitude. Well, folks, first glances can be deceiving!
As today’s Gospel story begins, Jesus and his disciples, along with a considerable crowd, are leaving the city of Jericho, and a blind man, called Bartimaeus, is sitting begging at the side of the road. Now, in first-century Palestine, to be stricken by blindness was considered the ultimate catastrophe, because along with it came complete dependence on others. By their social standards, it was deeply shameful for an adult to be so helpless. Moreover, beggars of any sort were relegated to the bottom rung of the social ladder, having neither status nor honor. Being both a blind man and a beggar, Bartimaeus had two strikes against him.
If we were to take today’s Gospel reading literally, this room would be filled with folks with only one hand, one foot, and one eye. Fortunately for us all, not everything in the Bible is intended to be taken literally. Seriously, yes. Literally, no.
The Gospel starts out with John complaining to Jesus that a non-Christian exorcist has been successfully healing using Jesus’ name. Now, it was the practice of first-century exorcists to call out a long list of the names of God, archangels, angels, and prophets in order to torment a demon into departing the body of an afflicted person. Evidently, one enterprising exorcist had added Jesus’ name to the list. John is bothered by the fact that it’s an unauthorized use of Jesus’ name.
Jesus, on the other hand, isn’t bothered in the least and tells the disciples to leave the exorcist alone. And he makes a little pun on the word power: “No one who does a deed of power in my name will have the power to speak evil of me soon afterward.” Jesus then quotes a proverb: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Now here is where things get a bit complicated. For in two other Gospels, Matthew and Luke, Jesus quotes a seemingly contradictory proverb. There, he says, “Whoever is not with me is against me.” I think it’s a case where the context makes all the difference in choosing which proverb to quote.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be
acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
There is a common thread throughout the readings today: the consequences of human speech. In the Gospel reading, St. Peter finds out that speaking out of turn and rebuking the Son of God is not a good idea. St. James, in his letter, warns of the cosmic dangers of an unbridled tongue. And Isaiah rejoices that “the Lord God has given [him] the tongue of a teacher, that [he] may know how to sustain the weary with a word.”
Now, when I was a child, I learned a saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” I have read that a version of that saying dates back to the year 1862. Another, much more recent saying I learned in my youth, went like this: “I’m rubber. You’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you!” Of course, neither saying is true. Words can, and do, hurt people. And verbal assaults do not, in fact, just bounce off their victims.
In today’s Gospel reading, we hear how St. Peter erred most grievously by rebuking Jesus for speaking about his impending death. Peter spoke, when he should have held his tongue. If Peter had spoken out of pure love of the Lord, Jesus’ reaction might have been different. But Jesus implies that Peter was motivated by human shame at what he perceived to be “defeatist” words. Peter warrants the rebuke that he receives. Even so, it must have hurt to have his master call him “Satan” in front of his fellow disciples. It’s a difficult story for us to hear, I think. And it should give us pause. How often do our words offend the Lord? And what rebuke do we deserve?
If the headlines are to be believed, many Americans today seem to think that our current situation is somehow unique. It is not! The authors of our prayer book, and more importantly, the authors of the Holy Bible describe a world, that in many ways, looks very familiar. And we would be wise to listen to their counsel.
The Collect of the Day reminds us that ours is a God who “always resist[s] the proud who confide in their own strength.” The psalmist advises us not to put our trust “in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.” And St. James marvels at how we honor the rich and despise the poor, when, in fact, it is the rich who oppress the poor, who drag their opponents into court in order to extract the last penny from them. In contrast, we are told, the poor in the world have been chosen by God himself to be “rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom.”