I entered the chapel at the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist exhausted by the long day of travel from Madison. I’d had only enough time to drop my things in my room before the evening Eucharist. Stressed, tired, distracted, as I entered the space, I was immediately reminded why I had come here. It’s a remarkable space, perfectly, beautifully designed. You’re suddenly thousands of miles and a thousand years away from Harvard Square in Cambridge. Designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram in the Romanesque style, the walls are stone, with roman arches throughout, lovely stained glass windows dominated by deep blues. Continue reading
I’m glad to see that all of you are surviving the crazy weather we’ve been having. We’ve survived it at the church and our ministries as well. I’m sure most have you have heard or seen stories of how Madison has coped with the bitter cold and especially how the weather affected our most vulnerable neighbors. The men’s shelter was well over capacity; the total number of guests on Tuesday night was 170. The Beacon was over capacity, and our friends at First Methodist provided emergency overflow shelter during the day for homeless families because there was not enough room for them at the Beacon. Through the coldest weather, our food pantry remained open, thanks to Vikki and her intrepid band of volunteers. I’m grateful to all of you who reached out to me or to others with offers to volunteer.
In times like these, we see both the strength and the weaknesses of our community—among the strengths, the resilience, cooperation, and all the amazing people who do so much to support our most vulnerable residents. But we also see the gaps or inadequacies of the services we do provide as well as the deep inequities and the number of people who lack adequate shelter or for other reasons struggle in weather emergencies. Our hearts ache as we see the need and we reach out generously but at the same time, it should become clear that our community needs to do more. As followers of Jesus and members of the body of Christ, we should help those in need but we should also call for policy changes that would help all members of our city flourish and thrive. With the mayoral campaign heating up, our voices are especially important.
It’s not always easy because calling for justice and an end to oppression, to proclaim release to the captives, can rouse opposition. That certainly happened to Jesus in today’s gospel reading.
Last week we heard Luke’s version of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. After a preaching and healing tour of the surrounding towns, he comes home to Nazareth, goes to synagogue on the Sabbath, reads a passage from Isaiah:
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He sits down and says, “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s where today’s gospel reading picks up, with a repetition of that verse. And that’s where the trouble starts. While Luke reports that the people were amazed by what they heard, it’s pretty clear that Jesus wasn’t impressed with their response.
It’s almost as if he goads them to their negative response. It’s after that question that Jesus seems to provoke them. First he quotes the proverb, “Doctor, heal yourself;” and says that they will want him to do the sort of healings in Nazareth that he has done elsewhere. Instead of answering those objections directly, Jesus cites the two examples from Hebrew Scripture, the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, and their healing of two gentiles.
The meaning of this exchange is obscure. Does Jesus want to incite the crowd’s anger? Or is something else going? Is his challenge to them a response to the question, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” If we think back to what I said last week about the Isaiah text quoted by Jesus. It serves in Luke as what we could Jesus’ mission statement and his identity as Messiah is measured by the extent to which he preached good news to the poor, gave sight to the blind, etc. So, he is basically laying out his future ministry to his listeners, identifying himself as the Messiah, and declaring the year of the Lord’s favor. And the response from the crowd was not recognition that he is the Messiah, but recognition that he is one of their own, Joseph’s son. They are given everything they need to see him as the Messiah, but all they can see is the one who grew up among them.
There’s a great deal of discussion and debate about how churches and Christians should express their faith publicly and what that public expression or proclamation of faith should be. We have people who claim to be Christians on different sides of every hot topic in our culture and politics, from climate change to immigration, from abortion to criminal justice and we are often likely to say that those who disagree with our political view aren’t Christian at all or are perhaps “fake Christians.”
It’s easy for us to justify our political views with scripture. We, all of us, cherry-pick verses that seem to support our pet causes or political convictions, extracting them from their contexts and twisting their meaning beyond recognition. A good example of that comes from the first reading which is the story of the call of the Prophet Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;” which has been made to do some heavy lifting in the debate over abortion, and the doctrine of predestination. But it is about neither of those things. It is about the prophet’s call and identity.
Scripture becomes a mine from which we extract the necessary means to do battle rather than a treasure house in which to explore God’s beauty or a library in which to learn of God and of Jesus Christ. We impose our political views on the text rather than wrestling with scripture and seeking to follow Jesus.
Think about what happened in that synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus read from scripture, sat down, and interpreted it. Luke says the people were amazed by his words.
I find it instructive that Jesus elicited such a negative response in his hometown. What was it about what he said that roused the ire of his neighbors and fellow townspeople? The examples Jesus cited, Elijah and Elisha, were the two great prophets of the Jewish tradition. Elijah, alongside Moses was a mythical figure, in part because of the tradition that he did not die but was carried up to heaven. In Jesus’ day, many expected Elijah to return. The two of them were model prophets and Jesus cites their example to justify his own ministry. Two of their most spectacular healings took place away from home; they healed outsiders, Gentiles, not Jews.
For Jesus to cite these examples was to challenge his listeners’ expectations, to confront them with their biases and assumptions and encourage them to think differently about them.
To be honest, this incident is a challenge to me as well. Whenever someone says to me after a sermon, “That was a really good sermon,” I wonder whether they liked it only because I confirmed their biases and assumptions. The gospel should be unsettling. It should make us uncomfortable. Jesus certainly made his listeners uncomfortable. When we’re reading scripture, when we’re listening to a sermon, we should be asking ourselves whether we are being challenged to see things in a new way, whether our world and our worldview is being upended and unsettled, whether our deepest held values are coming under scrutiny. If we say yes to these questions, it may be that we are hearing the voice of Jesus.
But discomfort is not the only point of the good news or of following Jesus. It’s worth recalling the lesson from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, the famous “Love Chapter” which has nothing to do with marital love, but rather with the love that binds the body of Christ together, and binds us all to God in Christ.
In the course of this beautiful and profound meditation on love, Paul reminds us that our perspective is narrow, faulty. “Now we see through a mirror darkly; now we know in part.” Recognizing our limitations, the limitations of our knowledge and perspective goes a long way toward teaching us humility, an important lesson in the divided world in which find ourselves. And finally, Paul tells us, at the end, there is only love. Love abides. May we know something of that love in this life, in our common humanity and in our community and congregation, and may we all experience the fullness of that abiding love in the age to come.
A week ago Saturday, the vestry held its annual retreat, gathering to reflect on the previous year, to strategize and dream about the future, and to do the usual business of the first meeting of the year. We were meeting at a significant moment in the life of our congregation. As most of you know, there is in the works a proposal to develop much of the block on which we are located, with the center of the project a proposed new State History museum. That development may affect both our property and our congregational life. In addition, we have seen significant growth over the past years, bucking the overall national trend in the Episcopal Church and in American Christianity in general. We are located in a downtown that continues to experience development and growth in population, while many of the challenges that we face as a city are most evident in our immediate vicinity—racial and economic inequities, homelessness and the scarcity of affordable housing, and Wisconsin’s broken and oppressive criminal justice system. Continue reading
Last month, I found myself following and to some extent participating in a twitter conversation or debate about the practice and theology of baptism. A number of people from various backgrounds took part as they discussed the relative merits of adult believer’s baptism or infant baptism, and explored the meaning of the rite—does it wash away original sin? Is it primarily a sign or symbol of membership in a community? Does it transmit grace, but only if the one being baptized makes a mature confession of faith or commitment? Continue reading
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. While it is a major feast day of the Church, unless it falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, most Christians, most Episcopalians, don’t really observe it. Epiphany marks the end of Christmastide in our calendar, so while the church is still decorated for Christmas today, the decorations will be removed after today’s service. There’s a bit of confusion or controversy there, because many people take down their Christmas trees and other decorations on 12th night, which occurred yesterday, the 12th day of Christmas. We keep our decorations up largely because we want to retain the crèche and enjoy seeing the magi and their entourage worshiping the christchild at the crèche. If you weren’t here for Christmas, they spent the entirety of Christmas season on the table in the rear of the nave.
Our focus may be on the star and the magi or wise men on Epiphany, but it’s a feast that has other connections in the larger Christian tradition. It is also associated with Jesus’ Baptism and with Jesus’ first miracle recorded in John, the turning of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana.
Both of those stories point to the deeper meaning of the feast of the Epiphany. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek word that means “appearance,” or “manifestation”—especially of the divine or of God. It was used in the Hellenistic world of Jesus’ day to describe those appearances of the divine to humans, moments when the gods seemed especially near. It was also used often as a title for rulers and became associated with the imperial cult, as emperors came to be understood as manifestations of the divine.
We see elements of that notion in our familiar gospel story, the story of the coming of the wise men following the star. It’s a lovely story, but one that’s been very much domesticated by the Christian tradition, so that we miss the deeper meaning and power of Matthew’s larger purposes in telling it. First of all, the wise men, or kings. Well, they’re not kings, are they? Associating them with kings derives from other scriptural references such as those from today’s reading from Isaiah and from the Psalm. When we call them “magi” we’re getting closer to what Matthew had in mind, astrologers from the East, very likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran—who were astrologers, using the movements of the constellations and planets to predict the future.
Their very exoticism, their “otherness” is part of Matthew’s point. Coming from the east, they had no knowledge of Jewish scriptures or traditions; they were Gentiles. In part, Matthew wants us to see them as part of the larger mission of sharing the good news—to all the world, as he has Jesus command his disciples in the last verses of his gospel. But he also wants us to understand that even apart from scripture, Gentiles can come to some understanding of God and of God’s saving work—all it took for the magi to begin their quest was to see a new star rising in the East.
The magi’s intuition of God’s new actions in the world provide a sharp contrast with that of Herod who had know clue about the birth of the “king of the Jews” and was terrified when he heard of it. He had to bring in scripture experts to answer the question the magi posed to him.
Let me tell you a little bit about Herod the Great. Herod’s father and grandfather had been supporters of Rome and rulers of provinces in Palestine. Herod’s father appointed him Governor of Judea. Eventually, in the midst of conflict over succession to Julius Caesar, Herod fled to Rome and succeeded in getting declared King of Judea by the Senate; returning to Palestine, he also gained control over Galilee, and eventually, by marrying the daughter of his chief rival, became de facto King of the Jews. He was a ruthless ruler, known for his excessive taxation. He built Roman style cities such as Caesarea Maritima and began the rebuilding and expansion of the Jerusalem Temple. He also had considerable conflict within his domestic life—he had five wives, one of whom he had executed, and killed two of his sons when he feared conspiring against him, and just days before his death, had a third son executed.
All of this is backdrop to Matthew’s story and while we didn’t hear the next episode of this story—the flight to Egypt and the execution of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two, and while there’s no independent evidence to support this episode, it’s entirely in keeping with what we know about Herod historically. If he killed his own sons because of their efforts to wrest power from him, it’s likely he would have had no qualms with large-scale executions of whole demographic groups.
Matthew is drawing a sharp distinction between Herod, King of the Jews, and Jesus, King of the Jews. He is also drawing a sharp distinction between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. When Herod heard the news of these visitors from the East in search the child born “king of the Jews” Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. The magi say their intent is to go to the newborn child and pay him homage—we should have in mind a formal act of obeisance a subject might offer to a king or ruler.
So there are two kings in this story, not three. The two kings are rivals—both King of the Jews, one is Jesus, one is Herod. Herod represents the power and ruthlessness of the world, willing to take any action to gain and consolidate power, and once in power to use everything and everyone at his disposal to display and project his wealth and power.
On the other hand, the king of the Jews, born in Bethlehem, born to ordinary, poor, people who are at the mercy of the other king—whose experience of his kingship is terror and fear, who flee their home for another country in search of safety. That king of the Jews will grow up to proclaim the coming of God’s reign, a reign not of power and fear, maintained by bloodshed, but a reign of peace and justice. Jesus’ life will end as he is proclaimed “King of the Jews” by the charges leveled against him by the Roman Empire, a revolutionary, a rabble-rouser.
Like the magi, we stand between these two kings, these two kingdoms. Our journey in search of Jesus has brought us to this place, to this crossroads. We may want to make homage to the king of the Jews, but do we know what that truly means? Are we able to make that journey? Herod’s kingdom may beckon to us with its power and wealth, even with its ruthlessness, but the kingdom of the one who was born in Bethlehem, whose parents fled with him toEgypt, who preached mercy and peace, and whose life ended on the cross in Herod’s city of Jerusalem, beckons to us as well. To whom will we pay homage, before whom will we offer our gifts?
The shepherds were doing their job. It was a thankless, underappreciated life. They were little more than vagabonds, outsiders, feared and despised because they spent most of their time in the wilderness, living more like animals than humans. But it was a job someone had to do, like all those people who are doing their jobs tonight while we worship and celebrate: cashiers at convenience stores, employees at fast food outlets, hotel workers, doctors, nurses, orderlies, first responders. Continue reading
I’ve been reading W. H. Auden’s great poem: “For the Time Being” this Advent. Published in 1944, it very much reflects the mood of the time, the great struggle of good and evil that was playing out in World War II. It also reflects the struggles in the poet’s personal life. And yet, it is also universal and speaks to our situation, our world. It is a poem, meant to be an oratorio, of Advent and Christmas, of Incarnation.
It begins on a somber, dark note. And even if we haven’t felt blasts of cold winter air or snowstorms yet this year, we do know the darkness of the season. I’m grateful for a sunny day today but it’s not just that Friday was the shortest day of the year, it seems like we’ve had more overcast days this December than usual and the gloom outside can be oppressive. We are also aware of all of the suffering in the world. Auden writes:
The prophet’s lantern is out
And gone the boundary stone,
Cold the heart and cold the stove,
Ice condenses on the bone:
Winter completes an age.