Based on the Bible readings we have heard recently, you might think we were in the season of Epiphany. Last Sunday, we had two accounts of divine epiphanies, one to Moses and one to Jesus’ inner circle. Today, we get another two epiphany stories, one to the prophet Elijah and one to a boatload of Jesus’ disciples.
Let me start out by setting the scene for the epiphany to Elijah. Elijah had bested the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al in a contest and ordered the losers in the contest to be executed. Queen Jezebel, in turn, ordered that Elijah be executed. He ran away to a cave on Mount Horeb to hide and to bemoan his fate.
There, in that cave, Elijah hears the voice of the Lord asking him what he is doing hiding in a cave. Elijah complains that he is the last faithful Israelite left in the land and is now under a sentence of death. The Lord then instructs Elijah to go out onto the mountain and await his appearance. Here is where things get really interesting! Instead of instantly obeying, Elijah waits in the cave for a sign. First, there is a great wind. Elijah stays put. Then, there is an earthquake. Elijah stays put. Then, there is a great fire. Elijah stays put. In each case, we are told, the Lord was not to be found in these terrifying phenomena. Last but not least, there is the faintest of whispers, the merest of murmurs. At long last, Elijah leaves the cave to meet with the Lord, rightly discerning that the Lord has finally arrived. We are told that he covers his eyes with his cloak, lest he be struck dead by the sight of the Lord’s face. Outside that cave on Mount Horeb, the Lord asks Elijah the very same question he had asked before. And again, Elijah gives the very same answer. It is as if he has learned nothing about the power of the Lord! He is still afraid. He is still discouraged. He is still bone-weary. At this point, the Lord shows him mercy, allowing him to retire after he has trained up a successor.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord. It is one of a very few feasts that are of such importance that they take precedence over a Sunday. In the appointed readings, we hear about two epiphanies. First, we hear about a very early epiphany to Moses on Mount Sinai—the prototypical mountaintop experience, you might say. Then we hear St. Peter’s brief recollection of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Finally, we hear a somewhat fuller account of the Transfiguration excerpted from Luke’s Gospel.
In that account, Jesus is transfigured on the top of Mount Tabor in the presence of the three disciples who formed his inner circle: Peter, John, and James. And these select few are granted a vision of the Uncreated Light of God, a glimpse of Jesus’ hidden glory. We are told that his face, and even his clothing, emitted a dazzling light, just as Moses’ face shone when he came down from Mount Sinai. The three disciples see Jesus talking with two famous figures from the Hebrew Bible, Moses and Elijah, with Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets. Their appearance confirms to the three disciples that Jesus is indeed the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. He is, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah, foretold in Holy Scripture. He is, in fact, the Light of the World.
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.
As I have mentioned before, I am a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason mysteries. More often than not, Gardner gave his novels a catchy, alliterative title. Here are a few choice examples: The Case of the Perjured Parrot, The Case of the Shoplifter’s Shoe, and last but not least, The Case of the Moth-Eaten Mink. Well, if Erle Stanley Gardner had written today’s Parable of the Sower, he might have been hard-pressed to decide whether to call it “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils” or “The Practical Parable of the Profligate Planter.” For each title gives a different insight into the meaning of the parable.
Let’s start with “The Symbolic Story of Sundry Soils.” In today’s Gospel, Jesus does something he rarely does—he explains a parable! The sower is Jesus himself, spreading the Word of the Kingdom of God. And one point of the parable is to explain the disappointing rejection of the Good News by so many people. Jesus explains that the rejection of the Gospel has everything to do with the condition of the soil, which allegorically represents the mindset of those who hear his message.
Jesus enumerates four distinct kinds of soil, four distinct mindsets. First, there are those who don’t take in what he is trying to tell them. Now, he doesn’t mean that they literally can’t understand his speech. He means that they don’t take his message to heart. It goes in one ear and out the other!
Last Sunday, I visited my mother in Salinas, and I got the chance to spend some time with the children of my niece and of my two nephews. Sometimes, the little kiddies played nicely together, and sometimes, they did not. (I’ll spare you the sordid details!) Well, in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus compares the unresponsive leaders of Israel to squabbling little children who won’t play nicely together. Some want to play the “wedding game” and dance to the piping of a flute; others want to play the “funeral game” and wail. The result of their squabbling is that they don’t play any game at all!
John the Baptist came to call the people to fast and repent, and the elite of Israel were largely disapproving. They didn’t like that game! And they accused John of being crazy. Jesus came to call the people to rejoice at the wedding banquet of the Messiah. But many refused to RSVP to the party. They didn’t like that game any more than the first! And they accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drunkard. The moral of the story is that sometimes you just can’t win.
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.
When Americans use the word election, we think of going to our local polling place and voting for the least bad choice of candidates for political office to lead us. But when Christian theologians use the word election, they mean something quite different. In a theological context, election is God’s choosing of a person or a people to lead the world to him. And in all three readings today, we get hints of such divine election.
The reading from Exodus is a clear example. God explicitly states that he chooses the twelve tribes of Israel to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” He offers to form a covenant with this ragtag federation of tribes. If they obey his voice, he will guide and protect them. And “the people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.’” Of course, they didn’t, in fact, do everything that the Lord had spoken! We are given no real reason why this group of people was chosen among all the peoples of the world. But more important than the question “Why were they chosen, and not others?” is the question “For what purpose were they chosen?” What does it mean to be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation”? Well, to be a priestly kingdom is to be a united people under God that serves as an intermediary between God and the Gentile nations. To be a “holy nation” is to be a people set apart and dedicated for God’s express use. In other words, Israel was elected by God to be a light to the nations of the world, so as to draw them to the living God and to salvation.
Today is the Day of Pentecost, one of seven principal feasts in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar. It has been called the “birthday of the Church,” but this title is hotly disputed. In any case, all agree that it is a day to “pull out all the stops.” And so we will have incense at the Offertory.
The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us the story of that first Pentecost, when the disciples encounter wind and fire and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They miraculously find themselves able to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ in languages that they do not know. The heart of their message to the crowd is found in the very last line of the reading: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” So far as we know, this miraculous gift of tongues did not remain with the disciples, but even so, they were not left bereft of spiritual gifts.
As St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Church has at divers times received a variety of gifts: the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, the proclamation of prophecy, the gift of healing, the discernment of spirits, and the working of all kinds of miracles. All of these have been useful to the building up of the Church, but later in that same letter Paul reminds us that the most important spiritual gifts are faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these three is love.
Since the Day of Pentecost completes the fifty days of Eastertide, we quite fittingly return to Easter Day in the Gospel reading from John, which takes place on the evening of the Resurrection.
Today is unofficially known as Good Shepherd Sunday, because all but one of the readings make reference to shepherds. That one exception is the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. So let’s look at that first before we move on to animal husbandry.
The first line in today’s reading from Acts provides the Church with a spiritual rule of life. The earliest Christians, we are told, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Like them, we too are to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. We do this when we meditate on the New Testament. We do this when we listen to a sermon or attend a Bible study. We devote ourselves to the breaking of bread and the prayers when we attend the Eucharist and when we pray our daily devotions. But what about devoting ourselves to fellowship? Don’t we do that at every coffee hour? Yes and no. The Greek word translated here as “fellowship” is koinonia, and it has a wide range of meanings, such as sharing, participation, communion, and even communal ownership. The earliest Christians understood this kind of fellowship as requiring them to “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This is so much more than signing up to bring snacks to the Sunday coffee hour! Such fellowship as is commended to us in the Acts of the Apostles requires profound mutual commitment, up to and including financial support for the poor in our midst.
How many here remember the film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray? It was about a man who was cursed to relive the same day over and over again until he learned to love others more than himself. I feel like we are in that movie, reliving the same day. For it is now two weeks since Easter Day, and we are still hearing a Gospel reading that takes place on the evening of the Day of Resurrection. Maybe the editors of the lectionary think we still have a lesson to learn from that great day. And maybe they’re right!
Today’s Gospel reading is the familiar story of the meeting on the road to Emmaus. It’s so familiar that we are tempted not to pay close attention. But we should!
It is early evening on the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, when two dispirited disciples decide to give up and head home. One disciple is a man named Cleopas. The other disciple is not named and could possibly be a woman. The two are discussing Jesus’ death when they are joined by a stranger. The Gospel says that their eyes were forcibly restrained, so that they might not recognize the stranger as Jesus. And unlike Mary Magdalene, neither do they recognize Jesus’ voice. We can only assume that Jesus was the source of this restraint. No reason for it is given. But I suspect Jesus’ plan was to open their minds and their hearts before opening their eyes.
Jesus inserts himself in their conversation, asking them what they are discussing. They go on to tell him, speaking of Jesus as a prophet who had been handed over by the Judean authorities and crucified. It is telling that they do not profess Jesus as the Son of God, but only as a prophet. They had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, sent from God to free Israel from Roman rule. They had hoped that he would be a great warrior-king. But now all their hopes are dashed. They go on to relate the story of how some women in their group claimed to have had a vision of angels, but it is clear that they think this but an idle tale.