Wisdom 8:1, 9:4, 9-10;
Psalm 78:1-6; 1
I presume there are a few of you in the congregation who like me had the experience of growing up an only child. I certainly can attest to the advantages of being an ‘only’ through my observances of family and friends who did not share my experience. For instance, unlike my cousin, I did not have a younger sister who liked to pull my hair or inform my parents of my every move. Unlike my best friend in elementary school, I did not have to wear the ‘hand-me-downs’ from an older sibling. And, contrary to the experience of a college friend, I did not have to live up to the standard set by more virtuous siblings who seemed to do no wrong. I definitely considered these advantages. Yet, even though I enjoyed being an ‘only,’ I did experience some jealousy of my friends with siblings. My mom liked to tell the story of the time when I was 7 or 8 years old when I came to my parents who were sharing a conversation in the kitchen and asked if I could have an older brother! My dad, probably a little amused but letting me down gently said, “I don’t think things work like that, son.” Being resourceful, I had a follow-up question prepared. “Could we adopt one?” Obviously, knowing now how things turned out, they did not work that way either. As I think back to that story from my youth, I wonder what was behind my desire for an older brother?
This evening’s reflection is the first in a three-part series entitled “Lord Jesus, Come Soon,” in which we explore the great ‘O Antiphons’ of the season of Advent. On the last seven days before Christmas, this group of antiphons book-end the Magnificat (The Song of Mary) which is sung every evening at Evensong. Each of them refer to Jesus using an attribute associated with this long awaited Messiah: Emmanuel, Rex gentium, Oriens, Clavis David, Radix Jesse, Adonai, and Sapentia; translated: Emmanuel (meaning “God with us”), King of the Nations, Morning Star, Key of David, Root of Jesse, Lord, and Wisdom. When arranged in a particular order they form a Latin acrostic: Ero cras, which translated means, “Tomorrow, I will come.” This evening we will explore Jesus as ‘Wisdom.’ The text of the antiphon is:
I was listening to public radio yesterday and learned of a new book written primarily for women – but with application for us all, I would imagine. It’s called Overwhelmed. The title struck me as particularly appropriate for the times in which we are living. Many of us find ourselves overwhelmed by the pace of life, by the expectations placed on us by our families or our work places, by the culture in which we live or by the demands of technology. We feel overwhelmed at times by the political tensions that are so evident right now in our country, or by the threats of enemies abroad. We worry about gun violence, climate change, and economic stability. Life can sometimes feel overwhelming and the temptation to desperation or despair very real. Perhaps you are even now in such a place, uncertain about your future or our future as a nation and a world.
Where do people of faith find hope in times of trouble? Where do they turn in times of duress, when their world has been turned upside-down, when their expectations have been shattered, when even their beliefs and assumptions have been called into question? A look at today’s gospel lesson may help.
2 Corinthians 6:1-10
Today we remember the Saints of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the Brothers who have gone before us. We remember them one by one reading aloud their obituaries at Compline.
They came from various backgrounds with a range of interests. Writers, poets, architects, artists, book-binders, and insect enthusiasts who served in England, Scotland, India, South Africa, Japan, Canada, and across the United States.
They were pastors, preachers, spiritual directors, teachers, retreat leaders and more. Sometimes much at once. I like the story of John Hawkes who during the Great Depression presided at a marriage, baked and iced the wedding cake, and supplied the rings.
Daniel 7: 9 – 10, 13 – 14
Revelation 1: 4b – 8
John 18: 33 – 37
Several years ago, while I was still a parish priest, some parishioners came to me with a question. Robin and Anne were actually Baptists, but since we were the only church on the island where they lived, they attended the Church of the Good Shepherd. Some of the things that we as Anglicans took as a matter of course, were of concern to them, or else simply puzzled them. On this particular occasion, they had questions about the use of the lectionary.
Since the lectionary was, they felt, simply a human construct, what would happen if I believed God desired me to proclaim a certain message that in no way related to the appointed texts on that particular day. Would I, they wondered, be free to choose other readings? I don’t remember my answer. I think it was pretty wishy-washy. What I do remember, after nearly forty years, is the question. It still haunts me.
Were Robin and Anne to appear today and ask me the same question, I would have a very different answer. The real question is not, what if God wants me to address something outside the scope of the readings on any particular day. The real question is what to do if the lectionary forces you to look at something you would rather not!
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]
Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-8
I suspect like most good Episcopalians, apocalyptic literature and signs of the end of the world make me a little anxious. To be honest, the other morning when I began exploring the texts for today’s sermon, I just wanted to crawl back into bed. Ever since I was a kid growing up in the Baptist church, I have always been fearful of what “The Rapture” would be like and if I would be one of the unlucky ones to be left behind on the earth as it met its doom.[i] Rather, I prefer a good uplifting message. As a good Anglo-Catholic, I love the passages in Revelation chapter five about the glorious worship in heaven by the elders and angels that number myriads and myriads singing: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing! Amen!’[ii] But all the stuff about wars, beasts, whores, plagues, famine, death, dragons, and creatures that I imagine resemble the Nazgul from Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, you can keep that. For me it is what nightmares are made of. So what are we to make of our lections this morning?
In our gospel lesson from Mark, in a section from the thirteenth chapter known as “the little apocalypse,” we observe a disciple of Jesus marveling at the magnificence of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. Considering the architectural feats that surround us in our modern age, this disciples’ astonishment might be lost on us. But it is important to note that the second Temple, completed by Herod the Great, was constructed on a scale comparable with the great Pyramids of Egypt. Part of Herod’s legacy was the massive building projects he undertook during his reign: the port at Caesarea Maritima, the fortress at Masada, the Herodium, and the second Temple.[iii] How the large stones that made up the supporting walls of the Temple were placed atop each other without the help of machinery we would use today, is an architectural wonder! “Look teacher,”the disciple says, “what large stones and what large buildings!” When Jesus responds: “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down,” his disciples are stupefied. How could that be possible? Certainly, nothing could bring down this monstrosity. Perhaps we can relate to this when we remember that fateful September day in 2001, when we witnessed the twin towers of the World Trade Center topple to the ground. Who could have predicted that, and who would have ever believed that prediction?
Hugh of Lincoln
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. […]Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives.
I sometimes wonder what it would be like if the gospel writers had left us a few more details about the delivery and reception of Jesus’ parables, and this morning’s lesson piques my curiosity. We know, for instance, that they would have been markedly longer than the forms in which they come to us and the form itself—the parable—would have elicited from the crowd objections and almost certainly some good, old-fashioned heckling. While we know this would have occurred, we have no record of the content.
If you’re anything like me, you may be inclined to heckle Jesus over the parable he tells us today. In fact—and I’m outing myself here—these words of Jesus do not always come to me as “good news.” They may even bring up dread, anger, and even incredulity. And so I heckled Jesus this week.
Phillipians 3:4b-14; Matthew 20:17-28
What comes to mind when you hear the word “servant” or “slave”? Most of us imagine a person who is not free to do what he pleases, one who lacks the power or freedom or resources to direct his own life, one who must work to fulfill the desires of another. We think of a servant or slave as powerless in relation to his superior. His station in life demands that he constantly set aside his own desires to fulfill the desire of his master. For most of us, it is not an enviable position. How many of us would willingly sacrifice our independence and autonomy to become the slave of another person?
And yet this is what Jesus asks of his disciples, that they imitate him as one who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (v.28).
In his letter to the Christians at Corinth, St Paul writes, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” (I Cor. 4:1,2) “Think of us in this way,” says Paul, “as servants of Christ.” He says this with pride, not shame. He is not embarrassed that he has been reduced to the role of a servant; he does not regret that he is no longer free to do his own will and is compelled to do the bidding of another. Nor is there any suggestion that he has been forced to become a servant – in fact, the opposite is true: Paul has voluntarily chosen to take up this role. He sees it as a glorious privilege to be considered a servant of Christ. He sees it as a blessing to live no longer for himself, but for Christ. He is honored to have been entrusted with divine mysteries, and feels both an obligation and a desire to be found trustworthy in this responsibility.
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.