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.”
Next Sunday is commonly called Palm Sunday, but it has another name: the Sunday of the Passion. Now, that word passion in modern English means desire, but it used to mean something quite different, namely, suffering. So in plain, ordinary English, next Sunday is the Sunday of the Suffering. It bears that title because the Gospel reading is the story of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Paradoxically, the first hymn of the Sunday of the Suffering is entitled “All glory, laud, and honor.” It is a song about Christ’s glory. Now, why sing a song about the glory of Christ on the day when you hear the story of his shameful torture and execution? Well, the answer to that question is given to us today in the reading from John’s Gospel.
Up till the events recounted today, Jesus had repeatedly downplayed the dangers he faced, defying death with equanimity. Again and again, he would say to this disciples, “My hour has not yet come,” meaning “My enemies cannot harm me, for the time appointed for my death has not yet arrived.” But in today’s Gospel story, Jesus says something quite different, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” Now, that doesn’t sound too ominous, till you realize that the means of his glorification will be crucifixion on a wooden cross.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, a period of 40 days of self-examination and self-discipline in preparation for Easter. Those few who were able to attend the Ash Wednesday service heard a lengthy address concerning the origins of Lent. For those here today who missed that, I will read just a brief excerpt: “This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.”
This explains why all three of today’s Bible readings deal in some way or other with the sacrament of Baptism. The first reading from Genesis gives us God’s covenant with the remnants of humankind, those who were saved from the Great Flood. As you may recall, God was disgusted with the sinfulness of his people, and he decided to “reboot the system.” He drowned all the creatures on Earth, with the exception of eight members of one family and the animals that they had collected into the ark. God then made a covenant with those eight survivors, and with their descendants, never to do such a thing again.
Now, if we take the story literally, it is horrific. Millions of people must have been drowned. But our ancestors in the faith, including St. Peter, sought a deeper, more spiritual meaning in this tale of mass destruction. And they accomplished this by reading the story of the Flood as a kind of allegory. The waters of the Flood were understood as symbolic of the waters of Baptism. In their understanding, the drowning of the Earth’s many sinners symbolically represented the drowning of our sins in the holy font. Noah’s ark of wood was understood as a symbol of either the wooden Cross of Christ or his salvific Church. Lastly, the covenant of the rainbow that we heard about in the first reading was seen as a prefigurement of the baptismal covenant.
The readings today are a problem for any preacher. We have an Old Testament reading about prophets and false prophets, a letter from St. Paul about food offered to idols, and a Gospel story about an exorcism. There would seem to be no discernible common theme. So how should a preacher proceed? Well, the best this preacher can do is to say a few words about each of the readings and then try to persuade you that each reading is, in fact, a divine guide to watching cable news!
Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’ call to Philip and Nathanael, as recounted in the Gospel of John. This week we get yet another story of a call to ministry, this time from Mark’s Gospel. It takes place immediately following Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness being tested by Satan. The news of John the Baptist’s arrest signals the end of Jesus’ testing and the beginning of his active ministry in the world. And so, he leaves the wilderness behind and heads for the Sea of Galilee.
The message that he proclaims at first is one of repentance: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Nowadays, after having heard so many hypocritical televangelists tell us that we need to repent of our sins, we have a hard time hearing Jesus’ message of repentance with fresh ears. And so we get it wrong. We take the word “repent” to mean “to be sorry for our sins.” But that’s not the core meaning of the original Greek term. A more literal translation is “to change one’s way of thinking.” In other words, Jesus was telling those who were willing to listen that the world was on the brink of a radical transformation and they would need to change their outlook. Yes, this would undoubtedly have included being sorry for one’s sins. But the call to change one’s way of thinking includes so much more than that.
Next, we are told, Jesus begins to call a group of disciples to help him in his work, starting with the two brothers Simon Peter and Andrew. Jesus calls these fishermen to follow him and become fishers of people. And they do just that—without a moment’s hesitation! They abandon their livelihood and their families to accept the invitation of this itinerant rabbi. Likewise, the brothers James and John drop what they are doing to follow Jesus. Now, Jesus must have been an incredibly charismatic man and his invitation to join him must have been incredibly persuasive. Even so, these fishermen displayed tremendous courage, and we should give them due credit.
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. It is traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for rejoice. This Sunday’s readings are noticeably less gloomy than the readings for the other Sundays of Advent—not a single mention of hellfire or the gnashing of teeth in the Outer Darkness. You will notice that the candle for today on the Advent wreath is rose-colored, not violet. And some parishes mark the semi-festive tone of the day by using rose-colored vestments and paraments. In my humble opinion, rose is just a fancy way of saying pink, and I don’t wear pink! But as you are probably not interested in my color preferences, let’s just move on and take a look-see at these “less gloomy” readings.
The first reading from Isaiah has virtually no hints of gloom at all—just one brief reference to “the day of vengeance of our God”! This oracle is from the third section of the book of Isaiah and dates to the time of the restoration of Jerusalem, after the Israelites had returned from exile in Babylon. If you read in between the lines of this prophecy, you see that things were not as they should be. The prophet is commissioned by God to announce “good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In other words, the people were suffering. But this situation, we are told, will not last forever! “The Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up.” And on that day, the prophet will “greatly rejoice in the Lord.”
Four days ago, June Foray died at the age of 99. You probably don’t recognize her name, but you just might recognize her voice—at least if you are of a certain age! You see, she was the voice of a whole host of cartoon characters in “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show,” which was popular when I was a child. I bring this up for a couple of reasons. First, I was particularly fond of that cartoon. And second, “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” gives us some insight into today’s Gospel. You see, a regular feature of that cartoon was a segment called “Fractured Fairy Tales.” In it, they would retell a well-known fairy tale, but then give it an unexpected twist. You just never knew how the “fractured fairy tale” was going to end. I think that Jesus’ parables are like the fractured fairy tales of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” They all have some kind of twist to them.
Consider the well-known parable of the mustard seed. We are told that someone planted a mustard seed in his field, which according to the parable is the smallest of all seeds. But in reality, the orchid seed is smaller than the mustard seed. Next, we are told that the mustard seed grows into a tree and the birds of the air nest in its branches. This is even more problematic than the error about the mustard seed’s size. For mustard bushes simply don’t grow to the size of trees, and the branches are too flimsy to support bird nests. So what are we to make of this impossible parable? Here’s what I think: Jesus knew very well that mustard bushes weren’t trees, but he wanted his audience to suspend their disbelief for a moment…to imagine the impossible. For if we can imagine that the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and then imagine that it can grow into a large tree and provide nesting for birds, then and only then are we ready to imagine what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.
Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent. Traditionally, it is called Laetare Sunday from the Latin word for “rejoice.” On this Sunday, there is a lightening of the penitential austerity of Lent, and in some parishes, the celebrant wears pink vestments to mark this change. Since I’m not overly fond of pink, I’ve decided to stick with violet. However, in keeping with the lessening of our penitence, you will get a rather jaunty spiritual for the communion anthem.
Now let’s turn to Chapter 9 of John’s Gospel and the story of the man born blind. The story opens with Jesus’ disciples asking him whose sin was the cause of the man’s blindness, his or his parents. It seems a strange question to our ears. I doubt that most people today believe that their sins will be visited on their offspring. But in Jesus’ day, this idea was still prevalent. That explains the possibility of his blindness being due to his parents’ sin. But how on earth could his blindness be due to his sin, if he was born blind? The answer, of course, is that he must have sinned in the womb. According to Jewish tradition, this was possible. For example, if the mother worshiped an idol while pregnant, the fetus was considered guilty of idolatry as well.
In any case, Jesus dismisses both possibilities. The man’s blindness was due neither to his parents’ sin nor to his own. Instead, Jesus says, “He was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.” The Greek here is ambiguous. It can be translated “He was born blind in order that God’s work might be revealed in him,” implying that his blindness was part of God’s purpose. Or it can be translated “He was born blind, and as a result, God’s works will be revealed in him.” Here, there is no implication that God willed his blindness, only that good will now come of it. Needless to say, I prefer the latter translation. I prefer to think that God was pleased to bring good from a bad situation that he had not willed, rather than that God actually willed the bad in order to bring about the good. Continue reading →
Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, and the story of the Transfiguration completes the season by bringing us back full circle to the theme of manifestation. (As you may know, the English word epiphany derives from the Greek word for manifestation.) The season started on the Feast of the Epiphany with the story of the Magi, symbolizing the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Today’s Gospel story deals with another epiphany, the divine manifestation of Christ to his three closest disciples.
This year, we hear Matthew’s account. And in some ways, his version is the least difficult. In the other accounts, it’s not clear how we are meant to understand this story. Is it real? Is it describing something factual that any bystander would have been able to witness? Matthew’s Gospel helps us here. In this Gospel, Jesus himself refers to what has occurred as a “vision.” Is it real? Yes, but on a level of reality that transcends the everyday. Would any bystander who was at hand have been able to witness this event? Maybe not. Divine visions often belong to the realm of private mystical experience.
Given that the Transfiguration story is a vision, we should not be surprised by the occurrence of symbolism that requires interpretation. And we find such symbolism in the very first words of the account. The Gospel reading starts by telling us that six days after the Confession of Peter, Jesus takes his three closest disciples to a mountain top. Now in the Old Testament, many numbers had special numerological significance. But 6 isn’t one of them. There is only one place where the number 6 has a special significance—in the story of Moses on Mt. Sinai that we heard read in the first reading. For six days, a cloud covered Mt. Sinai; on the seventh day, God spoke to Moses from the cloud. In the story of the Transfiguration, the very timing of the event has symbolic significance. It hints that what is about to happen is as momentous as the giving of the Law to Moses.
This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. And today we consider the first advent of our Lord. More precisely, we look at the time just before Jesus’ first advent, namely, the annunciation to Joseph. Now the art world has always favored Luke’s story of the annunciation to Mary over Matthew’s story of the annunciation to Joseph. I don’t know about you, but I could not possibly rank one story above the other. Each has its own artistic and theological merits.
But before addressing the Gospel, let me say something about the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. We get this story about a prophecy to King Ahaz for one reason, and one reason only. It serves as a proof-text in the Gospel of Matthew. The original context of this prophecy is the Syro-Ephraimite War. King Ahaz is besieged by his neighbors and fears that Jerusalem will fall. At God’s behest, Isaiah comes to reassure him with a prophetic sign that Jerusalem will not fall, at least not yet. King Ahaz, feigning piety, refuses to accept a sign. Well, he gets one anyway! Isaiah famously proclaims, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and she shall name him Immanuel.” The child in question was probably King Ahaz’s future son, or just possibly Isaiah’s.” And there is no reason to believe that the young woman in question conceived in any way other than the normal way of doing it. For some reason or other, our lectionary omits the final verse of the prophecy, which portends the future fall of the kingdom to Assyria.