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.
In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus summoned the Twelve Apostles and sent them out to proclaim the Good News to the lost sheep of Israel, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to cleanse the lepers, and even to raise the dead. Before sending them on their way, he instructed them. Today’s Gospel reading is a continuation of that instruction.
Now, Jesus’ words are meant to give encouragement to the Twelve, and to us. But the great demands he makes of his disciples just might have the opposite effect. For unless our faith is strong, the costs of discipleship that Jesus warns about might overwhelm us.
Jesus begins by telling the Twelve to expect no better treatment that he has received. In other words, they should expect to be mistreated and threatened and lied about. Even so, he urges his disciples to have no fear, but to proceed with their mission at any cost. They are not to fear those who can destroy their physical bodies. They are to fear the One who can destroy both their bodies and their souls, that is, the Lord God.
This week a preacher is presented with an embarrassment of riches. We have the great Old Testament story of Abraham’s hospitality to the Lord in the form of three travelers, a famous proof-text for the doctrine of the Trinity. We have the reading from Colossians, which begins with an awe-inspiring hymn about the Cosmic Christ. And we have the familiar, but disturbing, story of Martha and Mary, found in Luke’s Gospel. Well, taking into account the overwork that I regularly witness in this parish, I have decided to focus on those five verses from Luke.
The story is short. The details are sparse. And most annoyingly, the point of the story is not readily apparent. The result is that biblical exegetes throughout the last two millennia have offered a wide variety of interpretations.
Our early Christian ancestors were fond of so-called “spiritual” interpretations. One Church Father by the name of Origen 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). While not excluding some value to a more literal interpretation, he thought that this story was included in the New Testament to encourage Christians who wanted to advance in spiritual attainment to abandon the world for either life in a monastery or life in a cave. St. Augustine, another advocate of allegorical interpretation, taught that Martha represented our current life in this world, where we suffer worry and distraction, and that Mary represented life in the Kingdom of God, where our carefree life will be focused solely on God.
My sense is that we here today might benefit more from a literal interpretation of this story. So let’s take a closer look at this story of a dinner party gone wrong.
On April 25, 1993, Mathew and I attended the LGBT March on Washington. That Sunday, we worshiped at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, the so-called “church of the presidents.” Some 800,000 people were gathered right outside the doors of that church. Yet, the preacher never once mentioned the event. And the only hint that anything was going on outside was in the Prayers of the People, where there was a brief intercession for “those who struggle for justice.” I left dismayed and disappointed by that particular Episcopal church. While today’s sermon is not exactly a Pride Day homily, I don’t intend to repeat the mistake of that preacher in 1993. About one million people will line Market Street today to celebrate Pride Day. This celebration will remember the advances made in the 47 years since Stonewall, as well as the tragedies along the way, such as the massacre just two weeks ago in Orlando. Undoubtedly, there will be a continuing reminder that the AIDS epidemic is still with us. I am proud to say that our bishop will be marching in the parade, and Episcopalians will be marching alongside other Christians to spread the message that God’s love is more inclusive than we can even imagine.
But enough about Pride Day! Let’s take a look at today’s scriptures. The reading from First Kings is about the calling of Elisha to be an apprentice prophet. It’s helpful to recall the context. Elijah was tired to the point of despair, and he had been sentenced in absentia to death. So, he sat down under a tree and prayed for a swift and painless release from life. Instead, God gave him a mission: first to anoint new kings for Israel and Aram, and then to anoint a successor for himself. Elijah obeyed…sort of! Instead of anointing the two kings, he sought out his successor first and ordained him as his apprentice by placing his cloak over him. The anointing of the two kings would have to wait—for Elijah needed his helper!
Today is the feast of the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ, one of four feast days in the liturgical calendar reserved for baptisms. On these days, if there are no baptisms, it is recommended that the congregation renew their baptismal vows instead. So, at the 8 o’clock service we renew our vows. But at the 10 o’clock service, we are blessed to have three baptisms. And I do mean blessed! For we are both blessed and privileged to participate in the incorporation of three new members into the Body of Christ through the action of the Holy Spirit.
We learn something about the working of the Holy Spirit from today’s readings from Luke and Acts. In the Gospel of Luke, we have the story of the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. John the Baptist is preaching repentance to the people of Judea and inviting them to be cleansed of their sins through a baptism of water. But he freely admits that one greater than he is coming who will offer a greater baptism, a baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire. That greater one is, of course, Jesus Christ. And that greater baptism is baptism in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.