Acts 6:8-7:2a, 12-15
The first-generation church at Jerusalem was in trouble. Its membership was drawn from two groups of Jews: those who were native Palestinians, and those who were outsiders, members of what was called “the Dispersion.” The “Dispersion Christians” were also Jews; however they had been born and raised outside of Palestine. Their native tongue was not Jewish, but Greek, and so they were also called “the Hellenists.” Rivalry between the native-born Palestinians and the Hellenists had been a drama in Jewish life for a long time. Converts to Christ brought their respective culture and history with them when they entered the Church. Greek-speaking members felt they were treated as second class, and they complained the poor people among them were not getting a fair share of the community’s food and financial support. To resolve the problem, the Apostles appointed seven of the Hellenists to administer the Church’s resources and care for those in need. Stephen, described in The Acts of the Apostles as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” was one of these seven.[i] He was authorized for this ministry by prayer and the laying-on of hands, and he became the first to do what the Church considers the work of a deacon.[ii]
Stephen was a very able administrator and preacher, and he was recognized to have a kind of supernatural power. That’s the only way to describe how or why things happened when he prayed. Amazing things. Miraculous. Too miraculous. His fellow Hellenists became jealous. They corralled false witnesses who accused Stephen of blasphemy and dragged him before the Jewish Council. Stephen denounced his accusers, which made them and their followers very defensive and very angry. Stephen was silenced by being stoned to death. Stephen is remembered as the first martyr of the Church.
The prophet Malachi – whom we heard in our first lesson – could not be using more extreme language to prepare us for the coming Messiah. Our messenger comes “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”
- A refiner’s fire is a metallurgy process dating back to antiquity. A refiner’s fire is a crucible for heating precious metal, like gold and silver, to a molten state, from which then the dross – the impurities – are skimmed off. It’s a searing process, at a precise temperature for a specific length of time, which produces the pure, precious metal.
- The fullers were the launderers. Fuller’s soap is a caustic cleansing agent, made from lye and other repugnant chemicals.[i] Fuller’s soap was used to purify fabric and make it white. The stench from this soap was so great that the fullers had to work outside the Jerusalem city walls as they stamped on garments with their feet or used wooden bats in tubs of this blanching soap.
Advent Preaching Series: “O Radiant Light: Come and Enlighten Us.”
This evening is the second in a three-part Advent sermon series on the “O Antiphons,” which have been prayed in Christian monasteries since about the 6thcentury. An antiphon is a short focusing sentence that precedes and follows the singing of a psalm or canticle. The seven “O Antiphons” are sung at Evensong before and after the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, between December 17th and December 23rd, in anticipation of Christmas. Each of the “O Antiphons” uses a title for the Messiah found in the prophecy of Isaiah.[i] These antiphons begin with “O,” in the sense of when something dawns on you, and you say with exclamation, “Oh!” This evening our theme is “O Radiant Light: Come and enlighten us.”
Light figures very importantly in this season. Look around. Candlelights appear here on the Advent wreath. Outside we find strings of light thread across streets, in shop windows, on housetop gables, on fireplace mantles, and on Christmas trees. These festive lights this season of the year actually have a Christian history, but not a Christian origin. Let’s take a step backward in history before we move forward.
Revelation 3:1-6, 14-22
It’s remarkable that our first lesson, from the Revelation to John, includes one of the most tender passages in the whole of the scriptures. The Book of Revelation, which is so full of nightmarish-like scenes depicting the cosmic battle between good and evil, includes a momentary truce, where we hear these very inviting words attributed to Jesus:
“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking;
if you hear my voice and open the door,
I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”[i]
Where I first learned this passage from scripture was not with my ears but with my eyes: from the painting of William Holman Hunt entitled “The Light of the World.”[ii] You, too, may have been a child when you first saw a reproduction. The original 1850’s painting hangs in the chapel of Keble College at Oxford University. William Holman Hunt produced a later version in 1900, which toured the world and now has its home at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Since that world tour, a century ago, this painting has been reproduced innumerable times in Sunday School papers, in illustrative Bibles, and in devotional literature the world o’er. The painting has also been a source of inspiration for many poets on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson.[iii]
1 Kings 17:8-16
In our Old Testament lesson we read of Elijah’s encounter with the widow at Zarephath. She lives in the face of imminent starvation. She pours out her heart to the prophet Elijah. She has only a handful of meal and little more than a drop of oil which will form the last supper for her and her son. And you know what happens. She shares her paltry rations with Elijah, and the meal jar and oil never thereafter give out. It’s a beautiful story. I’m not sure, though, that it literally happened. I mean, if we could somehow bring a CNN camera crew back some thousands of years to this particular incident, I have doubts whether this exact story, as it’s been told to us in the scriptures, could be captured on film. This particular encounter between Elijah and the widow at Zarephath, as it’s recorded in the First Book of the Kings, is too isolated, too exceptional a story to “make history,” to be remembered down through the centuries… and to show up in the Canon of Holy Scripture and in our Sunday lectionary every three years or so.
The reason the story about the widow’s oil has been passed down, generation to generation, is not because it literally happened. Maybe so; maybe not. The story has been remembered because it’s true. I suspect most every one of us here has our own version of this story: that when you don’t have what is required, you are given what you need.
What might be your version of this story? I think you have one. When you’ve come to your end. When the cupboard of your imagination is empty and you cannot, for the life of you, figure out how you can make it, how you will make it, given where things are with you financially, or emotionally, or spiritually, or physically; given where things are for you in relationship to your spouse, or partner, or employer, or children, or neighbor, or relative. When it all seems a dead end preceding a kind of death. Death, literally, or simply the death of hope, the death of a dream, the death of a possibility or of a chance. I don’t know how your story has come out… but it surely has come out, and in some amazing ways, because you’re here. You’ve made it to today… which is probably nothing short of a miracle. (It probably is a miracle.) The reason this story about the widow’s little jug of oil has been saved and shared down through the centuries is because it’s our story. It’s a true story, and on two levels.
On the one level there is the reminder about the miracle of provision. When what is absolutely essential for you to live, when what is crucial for your surviving the day (literally or metaphorically), provision somehow happens. It’s maybe in the form of finances or food. Sometimes it’s no more than almost crumbs of attention and care. This past week, one day I was having a particularly tough day. I found myself on kind of a roll… downhill. I mean, I was not about to literally die… but the day was really killing me. It may sound a little melodramatic, but there was a line from Psalm 116 floating through my brain at the time:
“The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me;
I came to grief and sorrow….”
And then late in the afternoon I passed one of my Brothers in a hallway here in the monastery. He spoke to me, just as we were passing one another. He said a few words to me that were exceedingly kind, and he smiled at me. And we parted … And I was a new man. Absolutely transformed. In the instant. From that moment the whole day – what had already transpired and what was to come – the whole day looked different. I could now see the day’s being the most amazing series of events, for which I was almost immediately given the grace to be thankful. That’s a word for it: grace. When you absolutely haven’t got what it takes, and you’re given what you need.
If your life is anything like mine, I suspect you have had a lifetime of experiences – big and small, so many they are without number – where provision and goodness, God’s provision and goodness, have come out of both the surest and the sorriest of situations. That sorrowful Psalm 146 about “grief and sorrow” that was on my mind the other day takes a turn for the better. The psalm continues:
“…Then I called upon the Name of the Lord:
‘O Lord, I pray you, save my life.’
Gracious is the Lord and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.”
Recently I was listening to someone who was talking about how bad things are in so many places around the world, and in our own country, and their own town, and – some days, because of it all – in their own heart. Bad stuff. This person asked for my “take” on things. I could not find any argument with what they were saying. But I had to add that what amazes me even more, with each passing day, is how good things are, and often times in the most unexpected and unpredictable of ways: where you discover abject goodness, greatness, beauty, nobility, provision in ways which you could never have even asked for or imagined. Like being surprised by joy. The widow at Zarephath would not have known the word, “grace,” but we do. We as Christians do, and grace is amazing. That’s one thing about this story of the widow’s bottomless vial of oil that is worth saving and savoring: life is positively amazing. When you think you’ve come to the end there is more.
Another reason why this story about the widow at Zarephath is true is because it’s a kaon about generosity. There is a risky principle about life which may seem counter-intuitive until you’ve tested it: what you give away seems to be in direct proportion to what you receive. And I don’t even mean one-for-one. It’s much more than that; it’s like a hundred-fold. There’s a de facto principle in life that in giving you receive. As if to say the one makes the space for the other. St. Catherine’s Episcopal School in Richmond, Virginia, has as its motto: “What we keep we lose; only what we give remains our own.” Marvelous! There is something about participating in life as a gift, not clinging to it, not hoarding it, but cherishing it, participating in it, then sharing it with a kind of reckless abandon that is the real deal, because that’s like God. It’s for us to be generous with the things in life to which we’ve been entrusted. But it’s deeper than just about things. It’s to be exceedingly generous with our kindness, attentiveness, gratitude, gentleness, and interest for others.
This generous predisposition certainly can have an effect on our custody of things – on our stewardship of money and property and other things; however the a priori principle is that life gives us the invitation to participate in God’s generosity. We have been created in the image of God, whose opening act in creation in the Book of Genesis is generosity. The words “genesis” and “generosity” spring from the same etymological source.[i] We have been created in the image of God, who, from the beginning, is generous. Long before death pulls from our grip what you cannot take to the grave, acknowledge it all as gift, and gift it back to God as an offering for God’s use. Collaborate with God. It’s a prayer that we re-present God in all that we are, and in all that we have: God, who from the beginning is generous.
The scriptures appointed for today herald widows. There is this wonderful story about the widow at Zarephath in the First Book of the Kings. There’s also a tender remembrance of widows in Psalm 146, appointed for today: “the Lord sustains the orphan and widow.” And then today’s Gospel lesson recalls the poor widow who shares two pennies, “the widow’s mite.” This, too, is a story that is bigger than life and, it’s also a true story. Jesus’ point is not that this poor widow, in giving her two pennies, gave a better gift than the rich person who gives large sums. They both are benefactors, and both are giving from their personal treasury. What’s distinctive about the widow’s mite is simply in her willingness to give her gift, her little gift.
Life is not so much big events; life is a lot of little events which can become profoundly significant. The story of the widow’s mite is quite similar to the story of the widow’s vial of oil in terms of a generous availability in even the smallest of ways. From these widows’ stories, we are reminded about the greatness in small things, which we also see lived out in Jesus Christ who, as we read, “… emptied and humbled himself….”[ii] I recall Mother Teresa’s saying, “We cannot do great things on this earth. We can only do little things with great love.”
There’s a moral in these wonderful and true stories about the widow’s oil and the other widow’s mite:
- In the beginning, from the genesis of life, we witness God’s generosity. We have been created in the image of God whose essence is generosity.
- Giving opens the door to receiving… beyond what we might imagine.
- There is no such thing as a small gift. All gifts are great.
- There will be provision. God will provide. God will provide for you, and God intends provide through you. We are an answer to God’s prayer.
[i]The root gene-means “give birth, beget,” which forms both the Greek and Latin words, genesis, yielding engender, generation, genetic, genuine…
[ii]See Philippians 2:1-11.
Jesus calls us “the salt of the earth,” a loaded metaphor which his listeners would have understood. In Jesus’ day, it was not unusual for guests sitting at table to be ranked in relationship to the saltcellar. The host and the distinguished guests sat at the head of the table, “above the salt.” People who sat below the salt, farthest from the host, were of less or little consequence. And so the expression “sharing the salt” came to be a way for Christians to refer to table fellowship. In Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper, the scowling Judas is shown with an overturned saltcellar in front of him.
Not only did salt serve to flavor and preserve food, it made a good antiseptic, from which comes the Roman word sal for these salubrious crystals. The Roman goddess of health was named Salus. Of all the roads that led to Rome, one of the busiest was the Via Salaria, the salt route, over which Roman soldiers marched and merchants drove oxcarts full of the precious salt crystals up the Tiber from the salt pans at Ostia. A soldier’s pay – consisting in part of salt – came to be known as his salarium, from which we derive the English word “salary.” A soldier’s salary was cut if he “was not worth his salt,” a phrase that came into being because the Greeks and Romans often bought slaves with salt.[i]
Salt was involved in Israel’s covenants with God, with grain offerings, and in the incense used in purification sacrifices to give flavor to the “food of God.”[ii] Newborn babies were rubbed with salt, from which has come the Christian practice of adding a few grains of salt to baptismal water.3 Over the years salt has been a commodity for exchange, so valuable in some places that in the sub-Sahara in the centuries following Jesus’ life, merchants routinely traded salt sometimes ounce-for-ounce for gold. Salt: something of almost inestimable worth, but not because it is eaten by itself. Salt is not food. Salt is added to food to bring out the fullness of their flavor. Salt gives wholeness. Salt has its own taste, yet it loses itself in transforming the food that it seasons. It becomes one with that to which it is added, and both salt and the food are transformed.[iii]
When Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth,” he asks what was meant to be a rhetorical question: “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” For some of us, Jesus’ question may be more literal and rhetorical, you feel spent or spilled and you’ve lost track of some of your inestimable essence as salt. How can your saltiness be restored? There is a biological principle called homeostasis, that we crave what we actually need, that we crave the food that has the nutrients that our bodies need. What does your soul crave?
- What would bring light to your eyes to counter the darkness?
- What would bring melody and harmony to your soul to counter the cacophony of noise that ring in your ears?
- What would bring a lilt to your gait that would counter the crushing toil others ask you to carry or stomach?
- What would be like salt, like the perfect seasoning, to bring zeal to your heart to counter the tyranny of urgent demands that are incessant?
- What are you craving?
- To use the image of a salt shaker, what would be the equivalent of the rice in the salt shaker to absorb what would otherwise cause the salt to get stuck and cease to flow?
Those things are worth attending to for you to savor and be grateful for your gift of life. Jesus said that “you are salt,” something which is of inestimable worth. You are salt, created to give a distinctive flavor to life, you like none other. By your presence, your witness, your gifts, you help others “taste and see that the Lord is good,” the language of the Psalms.
[iv]To use a pun, I’m saying don’t just flavor, but savor who you are. You are the salt of the earth.
[i]Insight about salt in the Roman world very liberally drawn from “A Brief History of Salt,” in Time, March 15, 1982; p. 68.
[ii]Leviticus 2:13; Numbers 18:19; II Chronicles 13:5.
[iii]Salt also had a practical and symbolic function of purifying, suggested, for example, in the memory of Elisha’s making the “foul water” at Jericho wholesome by use of salt (II Kings 2:19-22); Exodus 30:35; See Leviticus 21: 6, 8, 17, 22; Ezekiel 16:4. See “Salt” in The Dictionary of Biblical Theology, by Xavier Leon-Dufour.
The story is told that Winston Churchill stuttered as a young child. This is the Winston Churchill whose later eloquence was probably the single-most important factor in saving western Europe from tyranny in the 1940s. Churchill stuttered as a self-conscious, frightened little boy. Now there’s a developmental theory that would say his oratorical brilliance as an adult developed as a compensation for his childhood sense of inferiority.[i] This “compensation theory” says that, for example, in our childhood or youth the challenges, say, of birth defects, of illness, of discrimination, of poverty, of family craziness, or of other unfortunate circumstances provide the very stimulus for all later higher achievements. In other words, this compensation theory would say that small, sickly, self-conscious, or sad children are driven by this principle of compensation to develop into towering leaders of activity and strength. Churchill would seem an example of it, and some of us here may identify with that very notion.
But there’s another “take” on why it is we grow into who we are, which is called the “acorn theory.”[ii] Growing up is not about compensation; it’s about recovery. Each of us enters the world, something like an acorn, with the seed of calling, with a sense of identity, with a vision of destiny. And so, of course Churchill stuttered as a child! Given this nascent, daunting sense as a child that his voice, his voice would be the instrument to save the western world, of course he stuttered as a child. Wouldn’t you? We may well have glimpsed our destiny or life’s calling when we were yet a child, but we might have avoided it, or denied it, or run from it. In Jesus’ words, we may have put the light of our calling under a bushel basket.
Jesus is walking southward with his disciples to Jerusalem, a journey he would have made many times… but probably not on this particular route.[i] On this occasion they are walking from Nazareth – which is up north in the Galilee region – through the region of Samaria to get to Jerusalem. It’s 90 miles straight, following the hypotenuse of the triangle. However most Jews, walking from Galilee to Jerusalem, would set off east on a right angle, crossing over the Jordan River, then following the river southwards until cutting back westward over the river to go up to Jerusalem. This turned the 90-mile direct trek-on-foot into 120 miles; however it avoided Samaria.
Samaria was in the center of Palestine, 40 miles from north to south, and 35 miles from east to west. The Jews hated the Samaritans; the Samaritans hated the Jews. The Samaritans were colonists established by the Assyrians in the territory of Israel. The Samaritans claimed that they, too, were among God’s chosen people. But the Samaritans did not go up to Jerusalem to worship; they went up to Mount Gerizim in Samaria. There was “bad blood,” sometimes vitriol racism, between these two groups. Samaritans stayed amongst themselves. Jews taking a shortcut through Samaria were easy targets for hatred, sometimes for vindictive robbery.
1 Peter 4:7-11
It’s oftentimes quite fascinating to read the scriptures forensically, that is to search the scriptures like a good detective. If what we’re being presented in a scriptural passage is the answer to a question, or a solution to a problem, or the right way to live and act, what’s the presenting issue? Why does this need to be said, whatever we’re being told? So in the First Letter of Peter – our first lesson today – why are we being told what we are being told? If this is the solution, what’s been the problem? What’s the “back story”?
- “Maintain constant love for one another…” (What’s that about? There’s been a breakdown in love. Love has been patchy, inconsistent, unpredictable.)
- “Love covers a multitude of sins…” (“Sins,” plural. The people around you have been disappointing and disingenuous… repeatedly, which has elicited disdain, not love.)
- “Be hospitable to one another…” (To be hospitable is to be welcoming and generous to others… especially those whom you otherwise find irritating and off-putting. Have space in your heart and space in your home for those whom you could easily distance. Be hospitable.)
- Don’t be “complaining.” (The issue here is not about expressing a complaint, a dissatisfaction, a disagreement. No, the problem is not about a complaint. The issue here is about being a complainer. Having a predisposition that someone or something is always wrong and should be different. The issue here is about a state of being: being a complainer.)
- We’re to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” (So what’s that about?) Peter writes we are to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serving one another with whatever gift each of you has received…” (So each of us is gifted, but not gifted in the same ways. Our gifts are not our possessions. Our individual gifts have been temporarily entrusted to us. We are to be “stewards” of our gifts, not possessors. If we don’t learn about our temporary stewardship of our gifts earlier in life, we will learn later in life… because our gifts are fleeting. Our gifts diminish and then go away.) We’re to be temporary “stewards” of the gifts we’ve received from God. And we’re to use our God-given gifts not to lord over one another but to “serve” one another.
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
This Gospel account speaks of Jesus’ miraculous birth; however our celebration today remembers the miraculous birth of his mother, Mary. There’s no record of this in the Scriptures. The best we can do is found in the Gospel of James, which dates back to about year 145. The Gospel of James is “apocryphal,” i.e., it doesn’t have the authority of the Scriptures but it does give us an early picture of the piety that developed around Jesus’ mother, Mary. According to the Gospel of James, Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, fervently prayed and prayed for a child, to no avail. But then they received a miraculous promise from God that Anna would conceive a child, and this child would herald God’s plan of salvation for the world. God was especially present in Mary’s life from the beginning. Two second-century teachers, Saint Irenaeus and Saint Justin Martyr, who lived at the same time as the Gospel of Thomas appeared, wrote that if Jesus is the new Adam, then Mary, his mother, is the new Eve.[i] Saint Augustine, writing in the fifth century, said that through Mary’s birth and the birth of her son, Jesus, the nature we inherit from our first parents Adam and Eve is changed from “original sin” to “original blessing.”[ii] Mary, then Jesus, change everything.