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.
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?
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.
I can still remember as a young boy watching Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. I remember being awe-struck by the amazing miracles depicted on screen, especially the parting of the Red Sea, even with 1956 special effects. But what I also remember is wondering, why ten? Why ten commandments as opposed to, say, 8, 12, or 15? How many do we really need? And for that matter, why have any at all?
Well, I don’t know if this answers the question, but we humans do seem mightily attracted to lists of all kinds, especially numbered ones. Marketing research has even shown that you’re more likely to click on an article or a video online if the headline references a numbered list. “Top 10 Ways to Lose Weight Fast,” “6 Cutest Animals on Earth,” “5 New Theories for Game of Thrones,” etc. And then besides their ability to peak our curiosity, a numbered list can serve as a practical way of remembering something.
So probably for both these reasons, numbered lists are very popular in most faith traditions.
For our part, we begin with the ten commandments, although, as I found out quite a while after watching Charlton Heston, it could depend on who’s doing the counting. The coveting commandments, for example, are most often counted as one, but Lutherans single out the one about your neighbor’s house, while Catholics single out the one about your neighbor’s wife. And besides different ways of numbering them, we could easily decide to add a few more commandments that seem particularly relevant. I mean, if we’re going into enough detail to mention coveting our neighbor’s ox or donkey, why not include some other specific, and maybe even more helpful prohibitions.
Isaiah 35: 4 – 7a; Psalm 146; James 2: 1 – 10 (11 – 13) 14 – 17; Mark 7: 24 – 37
I love this story of the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter from the Gospel of Mark! I love it in part, because I get to say the word Syrophoenician! Just throw that into the conversation next time you are at a dinner party and see how impressed people are with your erudition! I love it because of the breathlessness with which Mark tells the story. You can almost hear the urgency in Mark’s voice, as in just six verses he tells us an awful lot, that is profoundly significant. I love it, because it harkens back to the church of my youth, and it calls to mind growing up at St. Mary’s, Regina. It is from this passage, among other sources, that Cranmer created, what some of you will remember, as the Prayer of Humble Access, or the Zoom Prayer, as a friend of mine calls it:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, Trusting in our own righteousness, But in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy So much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the Flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his Blood, That our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, And he in us. Amen.
But mostly I love this story because it shouldn’t have happened! There is a hint of the forbidden. We see Jesus acting out of the box. He shouldn’t be where we find him today, doing what he shouldn’t be doing. And that’s just the point.
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.
“Do you want us to go and gather them?” He replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.” O Lord of hosts, * happy are they who trust in you.
This may only be true for me, but my guess is that somewhere along the way we’ve all known a very particular kind of longing: a longing to be, in the words of Fr. Basil Maturin, “as though [we] had never sinned,”—a “longing of the heart… at any cost to pluck up the tares which have been left to grow so long.” This morning Jesus invites us into another agricultural parable of the Kingdom; and unlike the parable of the sower, which we hear in the same chapter of Matthew’s gospel, this one draws us into the uneasy fields of yielding—yielding to God’s wisdom alone. As we tread upon the soil of this parable, let us keep the words of Our Lady near at hand: be it unto me according to your word.
Matthew 9: 9-13
I believe that to be true. Probably, so do you. We believe that Jesus saves us from sin – our own and the sins of the whole world. Jesus saves us from death: by his Incarnation, by his freely given human life, and by his freely chosen death on the cross. Jesus saves us from the worst in ourselves: from our daily blindness, ignorance, resentment and failure to love. Jesus saves. For us, that is good news.
But just imagine that somewhere there is a person who doesn’t believe he is in need of saving. The message that “Jesus saves” rings hollow in his ears. In fact, he and his many friends hear this proposition and yawn, or chuckle, or roll their eyes. The offer of a Savior is not what they need.
I believe that, also, to be true. Probably, so do you. We believe that Jesus, our Savior, was also a Healer at heart, spending himself, spending his life bending down and reaching out to touch the leper, the blind, the deaf, the lame, the bleeding and broken and forsaken of the world. In healing bodies, he healed hearts and souls, and lives even now to do the same. Jesus heals. For us, that is good news.
Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.
On many, many occasions in my millennial life, more than I care to recall or admit, I have lifted my head, refocused my eyes, and come to my frazzled senses after mindlessly staring at my iPhone or computer, those glowing rectangles of distraction and dispersion in front of which I spend an alarming percentage of my time. In those moments I think, “What did I just waste my time on?”
It’s often then that I find myself with the prayer we just heard in the Psalm on my heart and in my mind: “Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways.” In other translations, it reads “turn away mine eyes from beholding vanity,” and “avert my eyes from seeing falsehood.”
Vanity, falsehood, worthless. These words pretty well describe the substance of much of the digital content so effectively designed to capture my monetized attention. The fascinating thing is that this verse appears in Psalm 119, a prayer of one whose heart delights in the law of God. By including this petition for God to keep his eyes from what is worthless, the writer shows that the inclinations of the heart are inextricably bound up with the things our eyes behold.