Hosea 8:4-7, 11-13
I enjoyed swimming in the ocean last week. A friend gave me earplugs when we went swimming last summer, but I didn’t wear them this time. In the moment, I frolicked without a concern. But that evening and the next day, all sounds were muffled in one ear. It took a lot more effort to hear and pay attention. The loss made me appreciate what I previously had. Why settle for something so much less? Remember what it’s like to lose part of your perception.
The psalmist tonight says idols, gods which humans make, are not worth worship. “They have mouths but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. … Those who make them are like them; so are all who put their trust in them.”
Idols cannot perceive. They are not alive. Don’t trust them, says the psalmist. Rather, “you who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord.” Likewise God speaks through the prophet Hosea, not about other nations but God’s own people. “With silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. … an artisan made it; it is not God. … Though I write … the multitude of my instructions, they are regarded as a strange thing.” Focused on what they made, they do not hear or pay attention. It’s like their ears are full, muffled to God’s voice.
It was Lent 1977, and Anglicans around the world were asked to flood the Ugandan postal service with Easter cards. A few weeks earlier, the Archbishop of Kampala, Janani Luwum had disappeared. The government reported he had been killed in a car accident while resisting arrest. Weeks later his bullet riddled body was found dumped by the side of the road. He had been murdered, not simply on the orders of Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, but probably by Amin himself. I took several addresses, and months later I received cards in return, expressing gratitude that the events in Uganda had been watched by the world, and that the people had noticed.
The history of the church in Uganda, indeed the history of the church, is a history of martyrdom. Today we remember the martyrdom of 32 young men, pages in the court of King Mwanga, who in 1886 refused to give up their loyalty to Christ, and so were martyred, in an attempt to wipe out the small Christian community in East Africa.
It is a cold November evening. The city streets outside your home are silent. The chill in the air is accompanied the thick feeling of foreboding. The silence of the empty streets breaks first as clocks throughout ring their peels to mark the 7:00 o’clock hour. Ten minutes later, the silence gives way a second time—not for the benign chime of mechanical clockwork, but for the sound you and your neighbors had been dreading for days: the distant rumble of military aircraft. You hold your breath for a moment. Perhaps they’re ours, you hope. But your hope dissolves into the sharp sour taste of adrenaline as the sound of the civil defense siren begins its dreadful wailing. They’re here, you think, God have mercy.
For the next twelve hours, you and the handful of your neighbors who made it to the safety of the bomb shelter huddle in terror as the night above you booms and the earth around you quivers. When the night passes and you emerge from the bomb shelter, the scene upon which you emerge is one of horror and devastation. A third of your city’s factories lay obliterated. The medieval streets you know so well are hardly recognizable—almost every building destroyed, the sandstone brick of structures that still stand glow red from the heat of incendiary bombs. And the building you perhaps hoped might have been spared—your town’s fourteenth-century cathedral, stands as but a shell of itself as the remaining wooden elements of its construction burn away.
Such is the scene that would have met the residents of the town of Coventry in England on the morning of 15 April, 1940. The night before, the Luftwaffe had littered this industrial center in the heart of England with hundreds of tons of explosives and incendiary bombs. Hitler’s goal had been to cripple England’s aviation production and chip away at the morale of the civilian population. The bombing lasted for 13 hours, spending, in total, some 30,000 incendiaries along with 500 tons of high explosive bombs. In one night, more than 4,300 homes in Coventry were destroyed and around two-thirds of the city’s buildings were damaged. 568 people lost their lives in the chaos.
Adjacent the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral’s fourteenth-century footprint stands the twentieth-century Cathedral. Although consecrated in 1969, plans for the cathedral’s rebuilding began the day after her destruction—not as an act of defiance, but rather as a demonstration of hope. Hope that a day would dawn when such violent conflict would be unimaginable. As a part of Bishop Walter Hussey’s aim to renew the arts in the Church of England, the new cathedral nave features exquisitely colorful abstract stained glass windows.
Yet as one enters the new cathedral, this glorious sea of color is not immediately apparent. Indeed, if one simply stands at the liturgical west facing the high altar but advances no further, there is almost no indication that the building has any stained glass in the nave at all. We have to move our perspective in order to detect this particular beauty. If we make the journey to the high altar and turn around, only then does the building seem to fall into place—for this beatific vision in glass is only visible from the liturgical east end, looking west.
I don’t think it is any accident that this particular aspect of this sacred space requires a definite turning. The act of turning aside from the paths we think we know is a theme that runs right through every invitation of the spiritual life, and Lent is a perfect season in which to practice this subtle but life-changing posture.
When Moses first encounters God in the resplendent flames of the burning bush, he has to turn aside from the path he had chosen for himself that day.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.
“I must turn aside and look at this great sight,” says Moses. We hear a distant echo of these words in this morning’s gospel, but we might miss what the author of Luke is inviting us to do—especially if we carry the kinds of baggage I know I certainly do around the word “repent.” In my own experience, this baggage—no, let’s be real, it is more like freight—this freight convinces me that repentance is something dreadful and scary. There are historical reasons for this, to be sure, and the church has had her own part to play in the ways we sometimes incorrectly receive Jesus’ call to repent.
But the word used here by the author of Luke—μετανοιετε (metanoiete)—is a surprisingly light word; it does not drag the kinds of freight with which my own fears so often burden it. Metanoiete means, very simply, change your mind. Or, we might even say, consider things from a different perspective.
Before we do anything else—before we act or try to amend our lives—we need to try to see things from a different perspective. This is precisely what Jesus invites from his audience this morning.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’
His hearers have come to him with their own concerns and fears brought on by a reality of this world that the residents of Coventry knew; a reality that we, too, know. Terrible things happen—towers collapse and crush people, rulers intimidate and murder, the powers and principalities of this world attempt to lighten the darkness of life with the flames of their own power. But these flames only consume and destroy, for we “have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” When presented with an opportunity to explain the problem of theodicy—of why bad things happen to innocent people—Jesus doesn’t follow through and provide a cut and dry answer for us. Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.
And so I invite you to pray with those parts of your own experience where a change of perspective has brought a new radiance to otherwise dark and dreadful things. Where have you heard the spirit bid you “turn aside, turn around,” so that you might behold the glow and vivid colors of stained glass you hadn’t seen before? Or to encounter a new kind of light emanating from the flames of a fire that doesn’t consume the creatures of creation, but rather makes them more resplendently what they are?
Holy Spirit, inspire us with your holy and immortal fire, and grant us grace to change our minds and put on a new perspective, that we may more fully behold the radiance of God’s mercy and charity in all we encounter or experience. Only then can we amend our ways. Only then, by your power, can we be helped, can we be saved.
 Exodus 3:1—3 NRSV.
 Or, as Terry Holms has named it, “God’s gift of space to turn around in.”
 Luke 13:1—5 NRSV.
Jesus would have known and practiced this prophecy of Isaiah – perhaps known it by heart – as Isaiah speaks about the sabbath day. “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.”
One way to “remember the holiness of the sabbath” is by what you don’t do: not working with your hands; not traveling about. As Isaiah says, “refraining from trampling the sabbath… not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs.” However sabbath-keeping is also about what you do practice: to abide, to pray, and to share meals with your family and community. But there’s more. Isaiah says, to actually do some very specific kind of work on the sabbath: “to offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.”
Jesus heard the prophet Isaiah in both of these ways: the holy sabbath being both about restoration of one’s own personal life, and a call to action on behalf of others in need so that they, too, can have a life. This active service in sabbath-keeping is something Jesus practiced on behalf of the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the outcast. And, as we know, it got him into a great deal of trouble because it appeared he was working on the sabbath. He was. He was working, in a principled way, so that others would have enough of a life to be able to practice the sabbath. Jesus could say, “blessed are the poor”… and “blessed are the hungry” because of the responsiveness of God’s people to the poor and suffering in need.[i] Jesus did not say, “cursed are the poor” and… “cursed are the hungry,” but rather, “blessed are the poor”… and “blessed are the hungry” because their needs were being addressed, and work was being done by the faithful… sometimes even on the sabbath.
[i] Jesus’ Beatitudes in Matthew 5:2-12 and Luke 6:20-26.
Luke 6:27-38, Genesis 46:4-15
There’s an old story about the author and theologian C.S. Lewis, on his way out for drinks with a friend. Approached by a beggar asking for money, Lewis emptied his wallet and gave the stranger everything. His friend then said to Lewis, disapprovingly, “He’ll only spend it on drink,” to which Lewis responded, “If I kept it, so would I.”
Today’s Gospel reading is about love. More specifically than that, though, it’s about the risk inherent to genuine love. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. …love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” This is not just about doing good and being loving; Jesus is talking here about showing others love even when it is obviously risky, even when it obviously might result in our own pain or loss.
This is not the law and order Jesus many of us may have grown up with, the Jesus who commands us to do what is socially acceptable for the sake of a well-ordered society. Equally, though, this isn’t the Jesus we’re often likely to encounter in progressive, well-educated circles either. I grew up being told not to give money to beggars, because they should get a job. Once grown, and having rejected that teaching, and having moved from a red state to a blue state, I still get told not to give money to beggars, because I should really be giving that money to a shelter, and voting for the right people to enact official homelessness policies, because I don’t want to encourage someone not to use services that may better their situation, and I don’t want to fuel a person’s addiction or irresponsible use of money.
Hearing is one of those central and recurring themes in the Bible. Jewish tradition still marks this theme’s centrality. In the round of daily prayers in the morning and evening, the ancient practice of reciting a bit of text drawn from the sixth chapter of the book Deuteronomy (6:4-5) continues across centuries and continents. We know it as the Shema. Shema Yisrael, Adonai elohainu, Adonai echod, “Hear,” or, “Listen, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
Our own Episcopal strain of Anglicanism in the United States acknowledges this tradition (if you know where to look). When I was a chorister at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, the Sunday Eucharist would always include the singing of number 818 in Wonder, Love, and Praise before the Liturgy of the Word.
The centrality of this theme of hearing or listening to the people of God is at the forefront of my imagination as I hear this scene from the Gospel According to Mark. The psalm we just prayed front-loads our imagination with this theme. There are references to hearing all over the place. (Hear, O my people… O Israel, if you would but listen to me… and yet my people did not hear my voice… O, that my people would listen to me.)
Have you heard the news? That question often makes my heart sink, because it’s usually bad news! The year started with the violent attack on the US Capitol. Then all those cataclysmic climate events, racial attacks, mass shootings, a deeply broken and divided nation and world. And perhaps most disheartening of all, the devastating effects of the Covid virus. Such a diet of bad news, day after day, can profoundly affect the way that we see our own lives. We can look back over this year and see only the bad news: bad news for ourselves, our families, our lives.
And if certain newspapers, eager for a story, honed in on you, wanting to dig up some bad news about you, that you’d rather the public didn’t know, I wonder what they would find? They would likely find something sooner or later, because there is bad news about all of us, if you look hard enough: things we have done or said, which we maybe wished we hadn’t, and which we’d hate to be made known.
But today is Christmas. We are here to celebrate GOOD NEWS; wonderful, joyful good news. Not make believe, or wishful thinking. The good news is this: that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ Yes, there is darkness – God knows there is darkness, darkness and all sorts of sinful, hurtful, shameful things in all of us and in our society. But the good news is that when God looks closely at you and at me, he is not like that newspaper looking for bad news. When God looks at us he looks at us with the eyes of love. Just as when you look at the person you love, you see how lovely they are: all that is beautiful and good about them. And when the person we love – our spouse, our children, our partner, our brother – when they are in trouble, or mess up, or fail an exam, or lose a job, or do something stupid or wrong, we don’t point the finger at them, or condemn them, or tell everyone about it. No, we love them even more, and we do everything in our power to help them – because we love them. And when things go wrong we love them all the more.
In the Holy Land, there is much solid rock, whether exposed, under a couple inches or under ten or more feet of soil. To build, one digs down however far it takes to use the foundation of solid rock. People build in the summer when it is dry not raining, yet it is hot. It is very hard work to break through the clay and dig down to solid rock. One may be tempted to skip the harder part, yet a sure foundation is essential to survive the winter floods.[i]
Jesus said, “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them.” Hearing and doing Jesus’ words take great effort, like digging down through hard clay under hot sun. This parable ends Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in Luke and another version ends the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew.[ii] Jesus ends with a call for necessary, risky, costly action.
My mother grew up, at least in the summers, with her Methodist minister grandfather who was quite a strict Sabbatarian. As a grown woman she remembered the Sundays of her childhood as full of rules, regulations, and restrictions. She could not swim unless it was over 100 degrees. She was not allowed to call on her friends but had to sit quietly with her younger sister reading. Sunday dinner, which had been cooked the day before and in spite of being kept warm in the oven, was cold, overcooked and tasteless. To me, and obviously to her as she spoke of it, it sounded dreadful.
Today’s gospel pulls us in to yet another confrontation between Jesus and a group of Pharisees. This time the argument is about sabbath keeping. It’s an argument I think my mother would understand.
It’s easy for us read this passage and once again to vilify the Pharisees, setting them up over and against Jesus, and always on the loosing side. Rather than doing that, let’s dig around and see what we can discover about the nature of the sabbath, and the point Jesus might have been trying to assert.
Our lesson from the Book of Genesis recalls Jacob on his deathbed. To listen to him recounting his life, claiming his lineage with Abraham and Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, in the presence of his sons, and naming the ancestral ground on which he wants to be buried is quite beautiful. This is noble, faithful Jacob at the end of his life. But this is not the picture of Jacob in is younger years: Jacob, the schemer and the cheat, who behaved so disreputably with his very family. The psalmist remembers Jacob: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” But in the verses before that, the psalmist speaks quite biographically about Jacob, “Though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea…The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”[i] In his younger years, Jacob’s ambitious, disreputable life had come toppling down, and then, over his lifetime, he was rescued by God.
Our founder, Richard Meux Benson, writes about our conversion being lifelong. Lifelong conversion can seem onerous and full of duty and repentance on our part.[ii] I am daily reminded of my own need for ongoing conversion. I am a work-in-progress, and there’s plenty of work to be done. You, too, may know about this. But lifelong conversion also comes with the hope that God is at work in our lifetime, going back in our past, undoing, remaking, redeeming, reforming what was lost, spent, and misdirected. Father Benson speaks the comforting words, that “we cannot bound into the depths of God at one spring; if we could we should be shattered, not filled. God draws us on.” God draws us on. Which is clearly the picture of Jacob, and a hope for us.
[i] Psalm 46:1-4.
[ii] Richard Meux Benson, SSJE (1824–1915).