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.
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
As you may know, the word “Gospel” literally means “Good News,” but in my humble opinion, today’s Gospel reading is utterly devoid of Good News. Fortunately, the Epistle is chock full of it. So let me say a few words about the Gospel, and then finish with the Epistle, so that we can end on a high note.
We all know the outline of the story of John the Baptist’s judicial murder, either from the Bible or from the movies or from the opera by Richard Strauss. But I bet that there are some pertinent details that you don’t know. I’ll start with some history that sets the scene for today’s Gospel reading. The prophet John the Baptist, while in his early 30s, reprimands Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, because he had married his half-brother’s ex-wife. (Oh, and did I mention she was also his niece?) Under Jewish law, the marriage was both adulterous and incestuous. As I mentioned last week, the main purpose of a prophet is to call the people back to a right relationship with God and with one another. And that is just what John does, publicly denouncing Herod’s marriage as an offence against God and demanding that it be annulled. Herod has no desire to repent, and he arrests John to shut him up. But he is reluctant to go so far as to execute the pestilent prophet. Perhaps he is afraid to kill a holy man, or perhaps he is just afraid that John’s disciples will riot
On May 26, while I was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I had the opportunity to take a ride on something called the “Jesus Boat.” And I have a certificate to attest to the fact! The boat takes pilgrims and tourists on a short trip out on the Sea of Galilee. The point is to give one a feel for what it must have been like to sail on the sea in Jesus’ day. As much as I enjoyed the little jaunt out on the water, it lacked a certain authenticity. For one thing, the afternoon was sunny and clear, with only the gentlest of breezes. For another, the boat didn’t look a thing like a first-century fishing boat. When we toured the nearby museum, we got to see a genuine “Jesus Boat.” It was about 25 feet long, 8 feet wide, and might possibly have held a dozen people. And unlike the “Jesus Boat” I sailed on, it didn’t have a large deck with deck chairs and a gasoline-powered engine. Looking at the genuine “Jesus Boat” taught me one thing: every trip out on the water in Jesus’ day entailed a risk to one’s life. Maybe that’s why the Old Testament portrays the sea as some sort of creature of chaos, opposed to the orderly rule of God.
Last Sunday, we began that long season commonly called “Ordinary Time.” This season is marked by green vestments, and during Year B of the lectionary, we hear Gospel readings from the Gospel according to Mark. Despite the name “Ordinary Time,” some of the readings during this season are anything but ordinary. Today’s reading from chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel is a case in point.
Jesus has started his ministry of teaching and healing and proclaiming God’s love. The crowds are so large that he can’t tend to them all. So he appoints twelve apostles to assist him. That same evening, exhausted and hungry, Jesus returns home to Capernaum longing for a meal and some rest. But the desperate crowds follow him home and won’t give him the time or the space to eat that meal.
That is where today’s Gospel reading begins. Then, we are told, back in Nazareth, some 25 miles away, Jesus’ family hears a rumor that Jesus is out of his mind, and they decide to intervene, to put a stop to his ministry. Perhaps they are afraid for Jesus’ safety. Perhaps they are concerned that Jesus might really be mentally ill. Or perhaps they are just embarrassed by the all the gossip. We don’t know their motivations.
Customarily, when I preach, I focus on the appointed Gospel reading. But for some reason, I just didn’t feel like preaching on grapevines this Sunday, so I’m not going to do it! Likewise, it would make good sense to preach on the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch; after all, Eastertide is traditionally a time to explore the Christian sacraments. But I’m not going to do that either! Instead, I am going to focus on the Epistle and talk about love.
If there is a single key to understanding our God, it is that simple sentence: God is love. That statement explains why God created the earth and all its creatures, including our good selves. It explains why God repeatedly sent prophets to guide his children when they had strayed like sheep. And as St. John points out today, it explains why God became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, lived among us as one of us, and died on a cross for our sake. It was all because God is love.
Now, we need to be a little careful about that statement. For the converse statement, love is God, is just not true. We do not worship love per se. We worship the God who is characterized by love. And out of love for him, we try our best to imitate that love. We respect all our brothers and sisters, without exception. We wish them well. We pray for their wellbeing. We help them when they are in need. And we are patient with them. Now, that doesn’t mean that we will always agree with our brothers and sisters. It doesn’t even mean that we will necessarily like our brothers and sisters. But love demands that we respect them as fellow children of God and treat them accordingly. I will admit that this is not always easy to do. To be honest, some folks make it pretty hard to love them!
But if we would be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, if we would be dutiful children of our God, we really don’t have any other choice than to love. St. John warns that “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” In a real sense, our ability to love is a test of our faith. You can believe every statement in the Nicene Creed and every word written in the Holy Bible, but if you do not love, you are not a faithful Christian.
Now, if we were on our own, without any help, we all might fail the test of love. But we are not, in fact, on our own. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to us at Baptism and renewed at every Eucharist, God lives in us, and among us. And with God’s help, his divine love can be perfected in us. In the Eastern Church, this growth in divine love is called theosis, often translated as “divinization.” The idea is that as we grow more perfect in love and conform ourselves ever more closely to the God who is love, we will share more and more in his divine energies and come to experience eternal life in the here and now. That, my friends, is the proverbial carrot!
Now for the proverbial stick! If we stubbornly refuse to participate in God’s love, if we put our own well-being above the well-being of all others, there will be a price to pay. St. John mentions the fateful Day of Judgment. Likewise, Jesus makes a rather scary reference to unfruitful branches being lopped off and burned in a fire.
Beloved brothers and sisters, each and every one of us has a choice to make this very day. We can choose to live for ourselves alone, always fearing the fateful day when our selfishness will be judged. Or we can choose to love our brothers and sisters as God has loved us, casting aside all fear of judgment and living in complete freedom. For “perfect love casts out fear.”
And as a first effort toward loving your brothers and sisters, I would ask you today to carefully consider what you are doing when you share the Peace. That moment of the liturgy is as sacred as any other, though we rarely treat it that way. We tend to think of it as an informal break in the worship that allows us to have a quick conversation about the upcoming book sale, or to catch up with someone we haven’t seen in a while. But the Peace is not, in fact, a break in the worship; rather, it is an integral part of it. It is the time in the liturgy when we are asked to demonstrate our love for one another by word and gesture, and more importantly, to reconcile with anyone in the room with whom we have had a disagreement. So when you share the Peace today, please remember to share some love! For “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”