The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10, Year A
Isaiah 55: 10 – 13
Psalm 65: 9 – 14
Romans 8: 1 – 11
Matthew 13: 1 – 9, 18 – 23
My father was never much for television. Except for the nightly news, and the occasional serial drama like Upstairs, Downstairs, I don’t remember him watching TV in the evening. He and Mum would sit in their chairs reading, either a book or the newspaper, while we kids watched whatever it was we watched, splayed out on the living room floor.
What I do remember is how quickly he would get up and turn the TV off, the instant something came on that he did not think suitable for children. This was especially true if something about the Second World War came on. In a flash he would be up, out of his chair, and across the living room, to turn the TV off and say, by way of explanation, too tough for kids. I never knew what he was talking about, until as a teenager, I began to learn about the Holocaust.
“Let me hear thee softly speaking;
in my spirit’s ear whisper: ‘I am near.’ …
voice, that oft of love hast told me;
arms, so strong to clasp and hold me;
thou thy watch wilt keep,
Savior, o’er my sleep.”[i]
We have just sung this prayer for sleep and God’s safe-keeping. How is your sleep these days? Many of us are more tired from the stresses of our present suffering: changed work, isolation and separation, the pandemic increasing, so much death and loss, cries of injustice, racism and privilege further exposed. When is change? Where is healing? How do we sleep at a time like this?
Paul in his letter to the Romans acknowledges suffering. In today’s text he speaks of us groaning and not just us but all of creation, groaning as in labor pains, waiting for restoration in a new birth. He also speak of hope, of that which is not seen. What does having hope look like? Especially when we’re groaning, and when it is hard to sleep?
Earlier in chapter 4, Paul wrote about Abraham as one who “hoping against hope … believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’” as God had said, with numerous descendants.[ii] Abraham believed despite overwhelming contrary physical evidence. Abraham was about 100 years old, and Sarah, his wife, was barren. Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do as promised.”[iii] Paul quotes Genesis 15 which says Abraham’s faith “‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”[iv] Remember what happened at that reckoning?
John 16: (16-23a) 23b-28
It’s difficult these days not to read every gospel text from the perspective of those whose lives have been so drastically altered by the coronavirus. Encountering this text from John 16, the word that captured my attention was the word “joy.” “You will have pain,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but your pain will turn into joy” (v. 20). Of course he is talking here of the pain the disciples will experience when Jesus is separated from them as he goes forward to his passion and death. “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me,” he says (v. 17). He knows they will suffer; he knows that the events of the coming days will test and try them; and he knows he cannot protect them from this pain. But he wants to keep their eyes fixed not on the pain, but on the joy that is to come.
“You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.” To help them grasp this promise, he offers the example of a woman in childbirth. The pain of birthing a child is intense, “but when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world” (v. 21) There is joy on the other side of this suffering, he promises. “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joyfrom you”(v. 22).
“The Father himself loves you,” he assures them, and therefore they can ask for whatever they need in his name and the Father will give it to them (v. 23-27). “Ask and you will receive,” he tells them, “so that your joy may be complete” (v. 24). Once again, God intends joy for his people, not endless sorrow, and God will provide all that they need to find real and lasting joy.
II Thessalonians 3:1-5
I’ve been listening to a lot of gospel music lately. I do it because gospel music makes me happy, and offers glimpses of hope in a world that at times seems overshadowed by darkness. One of the songs I’ve come to find solace in goes like this:
Life is easy when you’re up on the mountain;
you’ve got peace of mind like you’ve never known.
But things change when you’re down in the valley;
don’t lose faith, for you’re never alone.
For the God on the mountain is still God in the valley;
when things go wrong, he’ll make them right.
And the God of the good times is still God in the bad times;
the God of the day is still God in the night.[i]
The song acknowledges that life has its ups and downs, its mountains and valleys, and that it’s easy to talk of faith “when life’s at its best.” But when we’re “down in the valley of trials and temptations, that’s where [our] faith is really put to the test” (quotations from the 2nd stanza). Doubtless we know this to be true from our own experience.
St Paul knew it. He had been on the mountaintops with God, borne into the heavens by the Spirit; but he also knew what it was to descend into the valley, to encounter resistance, persecution and evil. It’s moving to see him, a great giant of the faith, beseeching the Thessalonian Christians to pray for him. It is a mark of his humility, I think, and a valuable sign for us. We need one another. We need one another’s prayers. Paul is well aware of his own weakness and of the enormous challenges that are part of his calling, and he is humble enough to implore his fellow Christians to pray for him.
The scene we have just heard from Mark, I confess, appeals upon first reading to my lower nature—my unreflective sense of self-righteousness, my tendency to guard against anything alien or uncomfortable, my own carefully guarded picture of reality. And of course, a second reading always reveals to me the irony of this shallow appeal. For it is too easy to scorn the figures of the scribes and Pharisees in this scene. So easy, in fact, that we should be alert: the author of Mark is pouring out a necessary medicinal draught for us—we, the religious of our own time. While its taste may be bitter to the palette, we do well to drink all of it down, and slowly. For I believe Mark intends us to see our own reflection in this brew. That which we are easily tempted to deride about the scribes and Pharisees in this encounter may well be the very same hops and malt fermenting away in our own corporate body.
Jesus and his disciples have been healing throughout Gennesaret when a group of scribes and Pharisees confront him and his disciples, assumptions in tow, and begin to question the veracity and authenticity of their faith. Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands? What follows from Jesus is a firm rebuke of the inconsistencies in the practices so dearly observed by the Pharisaical community. Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother;’ and ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But if you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is [an offering to God]’—then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And to add just a little salt the wound, he continues, And you do many things like this.’
Jesus clearly knows how to engage with the sophisticated traditions and lexicon by which the Pharisees seek to live. There is nothing laissez faire about this Galilean preachers’ approach, and he recognizes that the gift of the Law is not an end in itself. He knows that as people of faith, hungry to know God’s presence and provision for us, we easily turn the free space offered to us by God into a patchwork of further subdivisions and contrived legality.
When I first claimed Christianity as part of my identity in my early twenties, I was in absolute awe of the richness of Anglican worship. Its rich symbolic universe, the inspiring spaces in which such worship occurred, a faith that didn’t seem to shun but indeed celebrated the intellectual life, and above all a corpus of musical heritage that drew me into previously unknown regions of depth, honesty, truth, and beauty. Those verses we heard from Psalm 84 became real for me: How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. / The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; * by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God.
Yet not more than three months into my sweet adoration of and participation in this tradition I found out it did not quite speak with such force or authority for everyone. One evening at a restaurant before a romantic interest, I poured out my praise and admiration for the liturgical life at St. Mark’s Cathedral, my then home church. With an air of dismissal I had neither expected nor understood, he said, “I don’t understand all you Episcopalians and Catholics and the like. All this music and theatrics and superstition! For what? No, real worship is simple, bible-based, quiet.”
An argument, of course, ensued. We were both making assumptions about the other’s faith based on the ways we worshipped. I could not understand how this man could encounter God without movement, color, song, and beauty, much less without any practices to connect him to the historic life of the church. He, I suspect, could not understand how I could encounter God through the din of hymns and anthems, smoke and processions, Sunday finery and Sherry Hour. We both felt the other had deprived themselves of something real and substantive; neither of us could recognize the seeds of God’s word at work in both charisms. For we were not focused on the actual object of worship, that is, God, but on our own subjective experiences of liturgical life, our own personal preferences, our own inherited human traditions. We had both made idols out of our respective inheritance. While I cannot speak for him, in retrospect it is clear I was more concerned with the holiness of beauty than with the beauty of holiness.
As Jesus admonishes this group of religious gatekeepers in the seventh chapter of Mark, so we must anticipate the experience of our own admonishment as members of religious communities. As churches, we are too often tempted to claim more than we are permitted, and can thereby become the pretended gatekeepers of our own time. It is easy to grasp at the boundaries we have been given to help us understand ourselves and our place in God’s sight; things like genuflecting, fasting, calendars, hymnals, and even style. While all good gifts in themselves, once we grasp on to them and claim them as our ground of being, we deny the True Ground to which they were only designed to point.
To be sure, Jesus has not come to take these things away from us. But he has come to reorient our relationship to them. He has come to remind us that God does not deal with sin, failure, or even death the way we do, would, or could. He reveals a God who once saved a lowly people from a mighty empire by leading them through the Red Sea. A God who did not ask them to earn their salvation, but instead delivered them by grace before issuing even one commandment. A God who comes to and rescues us not because of our goodness, virtue, or anything we can do for God, but because of His love and our need.
So my fellow religious—lay, ordained, cloistered or dispersed, fallen away, curious, devoted or doubtful—remember the reflection Mark has offered us in this scene, and let us mercifully hold one another up. We are not going to shed our assumptions about the faith of others over night. But if we are truthful and honest with one another, Christ will show us the true beauty of the holiness at work for the salvation of all of God’s children.
 Mark 7:5
 Mark 7:10-12
 Psalm 84:1-2
Today is Candlemas and it’s a feast I’m very fond of – but then I like candles! I remember when I was a young child, we lived in the South of England, deep in the Sussex countryside, and we were often having power outages. It was so exciting to slowly walk upstairs to bed, carrying a candle, and then tuck up in bed, nice and cozy, looking round a once familiar bedroom – now mysteriously alive with flickering shadows.
Later as I came to faith, looking at a candle, holding a candle, staring at the flickering light of the candle helped me to pray. The flickering light spoke to me of the light of Christ: of warmth, comfort, and the mystery of God.
The candles that we light in this church – all over the church and on the high altar today – help us celebrate the event which took place 40 days after Christmas, when Jesus, the Light of the world, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem by his parents to fulfill the required ceremonies of the law. He had already been circumcised on the eighth day and received his name, “Jesus.” But because he was the first-born, he was regarded as holy. In other words, belonging to the Lord, and his parents had to, as it were, buy him back by paying a shekel to the sanctuary, and he was then presented to the Lord. At the same time, his mother Mary had, according to the law, to be purified after childbirth. This was achieved by offering two burnt offerings either of turtle doves and two pigeons.
Happy New Year!
Today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s calendar year. The lectionary gives us a great gift when it begins the year with this short passage from the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 2:1-5. Here we read the account of a vision given to Israel’s greatest prophet. Isaiah sees a mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – raised high above all other mountains. And to this place, he tells us, “all the nations” shall stream. They will say to one another, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
The mountain Isaiah refers to is, of course, Mount Zion, on which stood the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. The revelation given to Isaiah in this vision is that this mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – will be a source of wisdom and right judgment for all people. The Law of Moses, given initially to the people of Israel, will instruct all the nations in the ways of God and teach them to walk in God’s paths. The result of this will be universal peace, the promise of peace with justice, which will allow humankind to “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks,” so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
There’s an old story told from when God was creating the world. God assigned the angel Gabriel to distribute stones and rock. Gabriel did this faithfully, flying here and there with a very large sack of stones on his back. But when Gabriel was flying over the mountains around Jerusalem, the sack broke and the entire load fell.[i] It’s a charming story. What’s for sure true is that the Holy Land is a very rocky place.
It is no surprise that rocks figure into Jesus’ teaching. In his parable of the sower, Jesus speaks about a farmer “sowing seed, some of which falls among the rocks,” because farm fields would need to be endlessly cleared of rocks. Jesus speaks metaphorically of those who walk in the daytime “will not stumble,” won’t stumble over rocks. Tombs and burial boxes – “ossuaries” – were carved out of stone, and to this day; water cisterns were chiseled into rock, and to this day. Jesus would give a new name to Simon, the designated leader among his disciples. What’s the most powerful name Jesus could bestow on Simon? Peter, which means “rock,” the rock on whom Jesus would build his church.
I recently returned from spending a few weeks in Colombia. I was invited by the bishop, and worked in three Episcopal parishes in Bogota and Medellin. It was an extraordinary experience and I am still thinking and praying about everything I was privileged to see and do, and remembering especially some of the wonderful, generous people I met. The people of Colombia have lived through decades of violence. Terrorized by guerilla groups like the FARC, and suffering through the murderous days of Pablo Escobar and narco-terrorism. What is less well known is that Colombia has the world’s highest number of internally displaced people – more even than Syria. These are Colombian men, women and children who over the past 30 years have been forcibly driven from their homes by armed groups, and who have become refugees in their own land. Eight million of them – many now living in poverty in the outlying barrios, which cling to the mountainsides of the great cities.
I spent much of my time living in one such barrio in Bogota. It was a tough place to be, but the great blessing I received was to meet and talk with men and women, who in the midst of great suffering and hardship, radiated a profound faith and trust in God.
In the scriptures, illustrations that come from the land – metaphors about farm and field, about gardens and vineyards, trees and orchards, flowers and fruit – recur repeatedly. People who live close to the land will immediately understand the analogies about how things grow: about seeds, and soil, and sowing; about cultivating, watering, weeding, pruning, and harvesting. Jesus was well versed in these things, clearly, and he has a lot to say. In this gospel lesson, we hear Jesus asking rhetorical questions: “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” No. Clearly not. Grapes are not gathered from thorns, nor figs from thistles. What’s the point?
Jesus’ point is about outcomes. If your end goal, your heart’s desire, is to harvest succulent grapes and figs, how will this happen? Only with intention.