One day Jesus was invited to dine at the house of a Pharisee. While they were at table, a woman “who was a sinner” entered the room with an alabaster jar of ointment. She began to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued to kiss his feet as she poured the costly ointment over them. We are not told who the woman was, or what had earned her the reputation of “a sinner,” or how she knew Jesus, or why she was weeping and anointing his feet. The gospel writer records only her simple act of profound love and devotion.
The Pharisee objected mightily to this woman’s presence in his house. He may have been irritated that she was distracting his guest and ruining his party. But it’s more likely that he objected to her very presence. He said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner.” For the Pharisee, that label had clear implications: it dictated how a righteous person would respond to her. Certainly a teacher like Jesus should understand these important social norms. Not only would he not have let her touch him, he would not have interacted with her in any way. To do so would compromise his own holiness.
So what do you make of the story we’ve just read from the Gospel of Luke? Do you believe in ‘demons’ or ‘unclean spirits’ that ‘possess’ people and cause physical and mental illness? Do you believe that these ‘demons’ can be ‘cast out’ and that Jesus had power over them, as this story testifies? Or do you suspect that this story so heavily reflects first-century beliefs about human behavior and illness that it has little relevance to us who live in the modern era? Is it difficult for you to make sense of “Jesus, the exorcist”?
Our ability to hear, to comprehend and to profit from accounts like this one from Luke’s gospel is certainly shaped by our modern context. On the one hand, we are enlightened people, with access to vast amounts of information about human psychology, human behavior, and human illnesses that simply did not exist in Jesus’ day. So we might naturally be skeptical about first-century assumptions about demons and demon-possession. It’s likely that we could come up with a number of other plausible explanations for what might have happened that day in the synagogue at Capernaum that would make more sense to our modern minds.
This is one horrific story – so senseless, so tragic. It recounts the death of a devoted servant of God who played a vital role in salvation history. His death is no martyrdom. This is not Stephen, who after testifying to God’s faithfulness lifts his eyes to the heavens and beholds Jesus, as the stones batter his body and end his life. No, this death is brought about by a drunken, lustful ruler who allows himself to be seduced by the sensuous dancing of his teenage daughter and tricked by his cunning wife into making a foolish promise that he must then carry out just to save face in the company of his equally-besotted guests. This is a silent beheading, without witnesses or testimony, of a man of God who had been imprisoned for his bold witness to the truth.
The “king” was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had married a Nabataean princess but then discarded her in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. The dishonored princess fled in humiliation back to her father, which led to a military conflict in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed by the Nabataean king and his forces. Nevertheless, Herod married Herodias, and no one except John the Baptist had the courage and moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was. No one except John made any attempt to hold this king accountable for his lies and deceptions, and for his evil actions. No one else had the courage to speak the truth to him. They were all afraid.
When I read the gospel lesson for this Eucharist, my first response was ‘how timely!’
This story feels particularly helpful and relevant to me right now because it deals with our response to fear, and while fear can be a threatening presence in our lives at most any time, it seems to me that it is particularly present in the current age. Our country is more polarized than at any time in recent memory.
We are witnessing the gaps widen between the rich and the poor,
between the privileged and powerful and the weakest and most vulnerable;
between the “right” and the “left,” between “conservatives” and “liberals”,
between Republicans and Democrats,
between viewers of Fox News and viewers of CNN;
between white people and the structures that support their place of privilege in the world and people of color who are fed up with being the victims of racism and xenophobia;
between government officials and the people they represent, and even between our country and other nations of the world, many of whom have been our allies in the past.
Fear seems to be at the heart of so much of the conflict and distrust: Some of us fear that our culture is changing in ways that threaten our values and beliefs. Some of us are afraid that others will take what we have – whether that be our property or our security or our way of life or our rights as human beings worthy of respect and equality with others. Fear is often at the core of our response to our “enemies,” real or perceived; we fear individuals and groups of people who have power over us and who seem willing to take us to places where we do not want to go. For many of us, fear has been the unwelcomed companion who forces his way into our lives against our wishes, and remains stubbornly in our midst while we try to imagine how we will ever get him to leave! It feels as if we are in an age of strife that is threatening our ability to live peaceably together and to work towards clearly-identified common goods. It feels like we are caught in a storm, partly of our own making – a perfect storm in which fear has been a primary catalyst.
You might have noticed that the gospel story read this morning contains two healing miracles, not one. What makes them particularly interesting is that they are interwoven – in fact, one story interrupts the other.
We find Jesus surrounded by “a large crowd” just after his return from a healing mission that had taken him across the Sea of Galilee. A man approaches him – not just any man, but a leader of the synagogue, a person of considerable social status and importance. He is desperate with worry and grief and, abandoning all dignity, he falls to the ground at Jesus’ feet and “begs him repeatedly,” the gospel writer tells us,to come and lay his hands on his sick daughter, who is at the point of death. There is a mixture of desperation and hope in his eyes. He is convinced that Jesus has the authority to make her well, if only he will come, and quickly. So Jesus went with him. The crowd followed.
On the way a curious thing happens. Jesus suddenly stops and looks around. “Who touched me?” he asks. This strikes even his own disciples as an odd question, given that throngs of people are surrounding him and jostling against him. But he is “aware that power had gone forth from him” and he wants to know to whom it has gone. There is a pause, until a woman slowly comes forward and admits that it was she who reached out to touch his robes. Her situation is similarly desperate. The gospel writer Mark underscores the seriousness of her case by telling us that not only had she been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, she had “endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse”! Unlike Jairus, the man whose daughter was gravely ill, she has no high social standing. Her disease has impoverished her and isolated her; anyone coming into contact with her would have been rendered ritually impure. For twelve years she had been in pain physically and ostracized socially! It is no wonder that she took the risk she did in reaching out to touch the man of God.
a sermon for the Feast of the First Book of Common Prayer
I’m thinking today of our friend, Dick Mahaffy, as we celebrate the feast that marks the publication of the first Book of Common Prayerin the Church of England in the year 1549. Dick is an Episcopal priest, a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School, and a member of the Fellowship of Saint John. He is also profoundly Deaf, and has been since birth. He currently serves as the President of the Episcopal Conference of the Deaf (E.C.D.), an association of Episcopal churches that minister to and with Deaf people throughout the United States. I’m reminded of him today because I think this feast would be one that he would especially value.
The 1549 Book of Common Prayer was the first book of services written in English, the language of the people. As such it was a powerful sign that the liturgy belonged to the people and not just to the educated priests who could read and speak Latin. It was an invitation for all to participate in the worship of the Church with full comprehension of what was being said, for all to join in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” of the Eucharist in their own tongue, for all to be not merely spectators but actual participants in the Church’s worship. The publication of the Book of Common Prayer in the English language in 1549 was an act of inclusion.
Sermon for The Feast of Julian of Norwich (c.1342-1416)
I’d like to address my comments to the middle school students and their chaperones who are with us this afternoon from Hilltop School in Brattleboro, Vermont. Of course, it’s okay if the rest of you want to listen in. Nothing I’m going to say is secret. But I want to speak mainly to these young people because I think the message we have today is especially important for them to hear, to learn and to remember.
Today we are celebrating the feast of a very interesting woman who lived in England in the 14th century. Her name was Julian, and she lived in the city of Norwich, so she’s usually referred to as “Julian of Norwich.” I’ll tell you more about her in a minute, but first let me say that she was born in the year 1342 and that it was a very difficult time to be alive. In the 14th century, Europe suffered through a terrible plague called the Black Death. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It was highly contagious and deadly and it swept through towns and villages killing all kinds of people — rich and poor, old and young, it didn’t matter. No one was safe. In the end it was estimated that somewhere between 75 and 200 million people died from it, which was about one-third of the population of Europe at that time. Can you imagine a disease so terrible that it took the lives of one out of every three people?
Anselm of Canterbury, Kind-hearted Theologian
Romans 5:1-11, Matthew 11:25-30
Do you ever wonder how you will be remembered after you are gone? Have you ever given any thought to how you want to be remembered? Someone has said that what people will remember about us is not so much what we said and did, but how they felt when they were in our presence.
Today we remember one of the Church’s great theologians, Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm was born in northern Italy in 1033. He was intellectually curious, but also devout. At the age of 17, he entered the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy and gradually grew in reputation and status until he became its Abbot. After a long and memorable tenure as Abbot of Bec, Anselm was pressured to become the Archbishop of Canterbury when he was about 60 years old, a position he embraced reluctantly but in which he was very effective.
Anselm is best remembered as a brilliant theologian, and primarily for two important works:
He was an exponent of what was called the “ontological” argument for the existence of God and posited that God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” Since the greatest thing that can be thought must have existence as one of its properties, Anselm argued that God exists and is not dependent upon the material world for verification.
The Spirituality of the Cistercians
On the Feast of St Robert de Molesme (Cistercian monk, 1029-1111)
Genesis 12:1-4 and Matthew 19:27-29
It’s not easy for us to imagine a group of 22 men, in the latter half of the 11thcentury, heading into a remote and thickly forested region of France to establish a new monastery. With whatever tools they had brought with them, they began to clear the trees and bushes, and to build small individual huts out of branches. They had little to eat, few possessions, and none of the comforts that we so routinely take for granted. In addition to this, they set for themselves a rigorous daily schedule, based on the Rule of St Benedict: four hours of sleep in the night, followed by four hours of prayer, both private and communal. A meager diet of roots and herbs. Hard manual work during the day, off-set by more worship and periods of reading or study.
Like Abram and like the apostles in our readings tonight, they left everything– homes, families, possessions, livelihoods, friends, one could say even civilization itself – to give their lives (as completely as they knew how) to God. Their leader was a 69 year-old man, Robert de Molesme, who had become a Benedictine monk at the tender age of 15. Not long after having entering the monastery, he began to be recognized for his piety and sanctity, and at a comparably young age, was elected as its prior.
There is a word that is used to describe Christians, a word that sets them apart from others and captures the essence of who and what they are. It is a word that has been with us from the very beginnings of the Church, when those who identified themselves as followers of Jesus began to gather together to worship and to share their lives with one another. The word is “believers.”
Christians became known as “believers” because they believed and trusted
that Jesus was the Son of God,
that he had come into the world to reveal to us the true nature of God,
that after his death on a Cross he had been raised from the dead,
and that he was with us still, and would be to the end of time.
“Believing” is one of the principle themes of the Gospel of John, from which our gospel lesson today is taken. John begins his telling of the Good News by revealing to us, his readers, who Jesus is and why he came into the world. It is as if he is drawing aside the curtain, letting us in on the secret, true identity of this humble teacher from Galilee, letting us glimpse what he and others have come to know over time. John begins his account by telling us that Jesus is “the Word” who was “with God” and who “was God” from the very beginning of time (John 1:1). He tells us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14), bringing “light” and “life,” in order to reveal to us the nature and purposes of God. “No one has ever seen God,” he tells us, “it is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). And “to all who receivedhim, who believedin his name,” he proclaims, “he gave power to become children of God” (1:12).