In today’s very brief gospel lesson, we get a glimpse into the heart of Herod Antipas, the Roman Jew who was the ruler of Galilee and Perea during Jesus’ lifetime. This short text from Luke’s gospel reveals that he is both frightened of Jesus and fascinated by him. It calls to mind Herod’s relationship to Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist. We read in Mark 6:20 that Herod “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” We know the rest of the story, don’t we… John’s popularity posed a threat to Herod and he had John arrested and imprisoned. Not long afterwards, in a state of drunkenness at a party he was hosting, Herod made an extravagant promise to his daughter, which led to John’s beheading. It was a promise he deeply regretted. It is clear that he was both fascinated by John and fearful of John’s influence.
Saints Agnes and Cecilia of Rome, Martyrs
In the calendar of the church we remember today two early Christian martyrs: Saint Cecilia and Saint Agnes. Saint Cecilia, as a young woman, was married. She converted to Christianity members of her own household; however in the face of the demand from the Roman government to offer sacrifice to pagan idols, a demand she refused, Cecilia was martyred year 280. Saint Agnes, a 12-year old child, was brought to a civil magistrate, before whom she refused to renounce her Christian faith, and she, too, was martyred, this in year 304. Saint Ambrose of Milan wrote about Agnes that “all were astounded that she should come forward as a witness to God when she was still too young to be her own mistress.” The various accounts of Cecilia and Agnes’ martyrdom are appalling, which show something of the impact of the life and death these two young women made upon their contemporaries and succeeding generations.
The word “courage” comes to mind in remembering martyrs such as Cecilia and Agnes. Our word courage comes from the Latin word for heart, cor, then the Old French, corage. Courage emanates from the heart, the heart symbolizing the essence of a person. We hear Jesus say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid.”[i] But courage is not something to work on. Becoming courageous is not a spiritual calisthenic. Courage comes as a byproduct, a characteristic or an action which is quite invisible to the person themselves. I have never once heard someone described as having done something courageous who sees this about themselves. Courage is in the eye of the beholder, not in the awareness of the actor.
I don’t often think of Jesus’s courage, but that’s what has come to mind during my prayer with today’s Gospel passage. Knowing that his end was near, Jesus shows his closest friends how unlike their world his kingdom will be. The Teacher and Lord humbles himself and performs the work of a servant or slave, overturning all expectations and proprieties.
This act takes courage—courage that we can look to; courage, no doubt, that our departed Brother David Campbell looked to in his challenges of leadership. Facing an English Congregation that was ageing and declining in numbers, Father Campbell managed the withdrawal from the longstanding missions in India and South Africa, closed the Mission House in Oxford, and dispersed the remaining Brothers to continue the Society’s ministries as long as possible. His actions took courage, as did the humility to accept that the Society in England’s end might be coming.
I want to begin by saying how glad I am to be back among you, and to express my gratitude to the Brothers for the opportunity to be on sabbatical for the last 10 weeks, and especially to Brother Keith who covered for me. I also want to say thank you, to all of you who have held me in your prayers these last weeks, as I did you in mine.
My time away was extraordinary. I was able to see members of my family, some of whom I have not seen since before 2019. I spent time in Oxford, which, as you know is where the community began in 1866, and is a place over the last years I am coming to know well, and where I feel at home. The Sunday before I left Oxford, I preached in Father Benson’s former parish, standing in the pulpit where he once stood, which for me is always a thrill.
The bulk of my time away however I spent walking in Wales. The experience was exhilarating; the scenery spectacular; the people constantly generous. Even on the day, which my sister described as level 2 fun (in other words, not fun at the time, but fun in hindsight) when it took me 8 hours to walk 9 miles, which included the equivalent of 82 flights of stairs, and along paths far too close to the cliff edge for my liking, I never once thought of giving up, or wondered why on earth I was doing this. Every afternoon at the end of my walk, I was simply glad of a beer, a hot shower, a good meal, and a comfortable bed. Every morning, except for a few days when it was pouring rain; the day of the Queen’s funeral; and a couple days when all I wanted to do was sit in a coffee shop with my novel, I was ready to head out once again and walk. Of a possible 190 miles, I walked 135 of them, so I’m totally thrilled.
The Beheading of John the Baptist
II Chronicles 24:17-21
Hebrews 11: 32-40
It takes courage to speak truth to power. There can be real consequences to boldly speaking the truth, especially when it challenges political, social, economic or religious systems that favor the powerful. Speaking the truth to powerful people can result in the loss of one’s job, the loss of one’s friends and allies, the loss of one’s liberty, and even the loss of one’s life.
We have a powerful example of this in tonight’s gospel lesson, which presents us with a shocking contrast. On the one hand there is the prophet John, the “voice crying in the wilderness,” now alone in his cell, doomed and helpless to save his life; on the other, the king, surrounded by the ‘successful’ and powerful members of his court. John is in prison because he has dared to criticize Herod for marrying his brother’s wife; he is paying a heavy cost for speaking the truth.
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.
Ask… and it will be given. Search…and you will find. Knock…and the door will be opened for you.
What prevents you from asking, searching, or knocking?
It might be literal lack of clarity. Who should I ask? Where should I search? Is this the right door, or is it that one?
It might be an emotion on the fear continuum: anxiety; suspicion; pessimism; insecurity; loneliness. What if I hear “No” in reply? What if I spend all that energy searching but find nothing helpful, nothing worthwhile? What if I knock and that door remains shut tight, with not a light to be seen behind the dark window panes as night falls?
It might be a well-intentioned desire for independence or self-sufficiency; or the desire to appear competent or smart. What if I can just figure this out by myself? That way, I won’t have to be a burden or impose my question or need on someone else…
Our Gospel tonight is full of misunderstanding. Jesus and his Disciples are frustrated, confused, and struggling to communicate with one another. To make matters worse, they are all stuck on a boat. It is an unpleasant situation. This Gospel passage would probably not be the best text to choose for a wedding, profession, or any other happy occasion. However, we do get to witness Jesus navigate through this misunderstanding and we have a lot to learn from how he handles it.
Just like any other misunderstanding, the background to this story is important. Jesus and his Disciples had just been confronted by a group of Pharisees. This group of Pharisees demanded that Jesus perform a sign to prove he was the Messiah. Jesus refused and chastised the Pharisees. Then he got on a boat with his Disciples and sailed away.
We’ve all been in similar group situations like this before, when there has just been a major confrontation and tension is in the air. No one is quite sure what to do or say and everyone is on edge. We are also told by the Gospel writer that the Disciples had forgotten to bring any more bread for their boat ride and there was only loaf of bread to split among the thirteen men. This is when the drama begins.
Jesus, still simmering from his confrontation with the Pharisees, tell his Disciples on the boat to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees”. Jesus is offering his Disciples very practical advice here. Jesus is warning his Disciples that the self-righteous mindset of the Pharisees is contagious, and like yeast, just a little bit of it can go a long way and give rise to all sorts of bad.
The Disciples completely misunderstand Jesus’ words. As soon as they hear the word “yeast”, they think Jesus is talking about literal bread. They think Jesus is admonishing them for not bringing any bread for the boat ride. This is common in tense situations, for group members to internalize what tension is in the air and become very self-conscious about what they have or have not done. Telling ourselves we have done something wrong gives us a narrative to hold on to rather than just sitting with the anxiety the group is experiencing.
Jesus, being the talented teacher he is, immediately picks up on his Disciples’ misunderstanding. He tries to explain himself and how ridiculous it would be for him to be angry about having little bread because he can always multiply more. Jesus reminds his Disciples that they have seen him firsthand multiply enough loaves of bread to feed thousands of people.
We have a lot to learn from how Jesus handles this misunderstanding. First of all, Jesus does not ignore the misunderstanding. Not only does Jesus immediately pick up on what his Disciples are confused about, but he also addresses it right away. It’s always tempting in times of misunderstanding to just not want to deal with it, to say you don’t have the time and energy to work through the conflict. Ignoring misunderstanding only leads to more misunderstanding down the road. Jesus does not do this and that takes courage.
Second, Jesus asks questions. In the span of seven verses, Jesus asks nine separate questions. Asking questions can be a powerful way to channel the aggressiveness we may feel during a misunderstanding. Good heartfelt questions can simultaneously get us closer to the truth while still expressing whatever emotions we are feeling.
Third and finally, Jesus moves on. Right after this Gospel passage ends, we are told that Jesus heals a blind man. Holding on to resentments over a misunderstanding is dangerous and gets in the way of us being servants of God. Jesus shows us that we need to constantly be moving on to stay focused on the work in front us, and that work is the will of God.
So tonight let us pray for the strength, patience, and courage to navigate through the misunderstandings in our lives, all for the greater glory of God, amen.
Given our proximity to the ocean, we might imagine a vast body of water when we read in the Gospels about the Sea of Galilee. But the Sea of Galilee is no ocean. The Sea of Galilee is a lake, a large fresh-water lake in northern Israel/Palestine. The lake is 33 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is fed by the Jordan River which flows from north to south, and also by underground springs.
The Sea of Galilee is as dangerous as it is distinctive: distinctive because it is the lowest freshwater lake on earth – it’s surface almost 700 feet below sea level, with a beautiful shoreline, pristine drinking water, and a plentiful stock of fish. Anddangerous because of its surprising and violent storms. From the Golan Heights in the east, fierce, cool winds meet up with the warm temperatures of the lake basin, sometimes creating the perfect storm. Storms literally come out of the blue, even when the waters have been tranquil and the sky perfectly clear.
This must be the very thing that happened here with the disciples. They had set off in their small fishing boat in seemingly tranquil waters, when suddenly a violent storm arose. Their tiny boat was being battered by the wind and the waves, and there seemed to be no possibility of safely reaching the shore. They were swamped by fear. They had fished on this lake for a living. They knew this water, they knew these storms, and they were terrified!
And you? You probably know how it is to be sailing through life in radiant sunlight when swiftly and unexpectedly a storm arises and you suddenly find yourself swamped by mighty waves and tossed about by terrible winds. Perhaps something tragic or frightening has happened to a family member or friend, or to you; maybe it’s a health issue, a financial disaster, an accident, some kind of assault, or some other unforeseen suffering. There is so much to be afraid of in life, and our fears can seem so great when we feel so small. Fear is no respecter of age, or gender, or social standing. Fear may be the most common experience we share with all of humankind: the consuming, crippling, sometimes-irrational visitation of fear. We can experience fear when we face impending danger, or pain, or evil, or confusion, or vulnerability, or embarrassment. Whether the threat is real or imagined does not matter. What does matter is our sense of powerlessness. We don’t feel we can stop or divert or control what threatens to swamp our lives and make us sink. Whatever its source, our fear is real.
Jesus speaks a great deal about fear and anxiety, which is quite revealing. He would have learned his lessons about fear from two sources, one being the Hebrew scriptures. The scriptures which he would have known – what we call the “Old Testament” – are replete with messages about worry and fear. We are told very plainly that we do not need to be afraid, and this is because of God’s promise and provision, God’s steadfast love and unfailing faithfulness. Fear’s tight hold on us is loosened, the Bible assures us, when we put our trust in God.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me,” the psalmist says, “and delivered me out of all my terror.” (Ps.34:4)
“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” another psalmist declares. “The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? …. Though an army should encamp against me, yet my heart shall not be afraid; and though war should rise up against me, yet will I put my trust in him.” (Ps 27:1,3-4)
“Whenever I am afraid,” the psalmist says to God, “I will put my trust in you.” (Ps 56:3)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” writes another, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea; though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult…. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” (Ps 46:1-3,11)
Jesus would have known these words, just as he would have known the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“But now, thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isa 43:1-3)
Jesus would also have learned about fear from his own life. I am not talking about the fear he observed in other people. I am talking about his own personal fear, what he experienced. We don’t know the specifics of what Jesus feared, but we do know that Jesus lived a fully human life, and therefore he must have been acquainted with fear, undoubtedly. If you want to imagine what Jesus feared, use your own life as an example. Of what have you been afraid? If you went back in memory to your earliest childhood, then your adolescence, then coming into your twenties and beyond into adulthood, what has caused you to fear?
Were you afraid there would not be enough of something, or afraid there would be too much of something? Were you afraid because you might be excluded from something, or afraid because you might be included in something? Were you afraid because you might be asked to speak, or afraid because, when you spoke, no one would listen, or no one would understand? Were you afraid because you might be left alone, or afraid because you would not be left alone? Were you afraid because of too much work, or afraid because there was no work, or no meaningful work? Were you afraid because you stood out, or afraid because you felt unnoticed, lost in the crowd, forgotten, invisible? Were you afraid because you were bullied, or because you faced prejudice or persecution? Were you ever so afraid that you feared for your life? Or were you afraid because of your own temper? Some of our fears are pathetic: tiny, tedious, embarrassing to even admit… and yet they are very real. We suffer with our fears – which are the kinds of things Jesus must also have been afraid of, because these are the kind of fears that visit us in life.
When Jesus talks about not being afraid, he is not speaking clinically, nor is the source of his teaching primarily from external observation. He is rather speaking from his own experience. He is speaking about fear from the inside-out, autobiographically. He had as much to be afraid of as you and I have. And then, something slowly happened to Jesus. Something shifted in Jesus in the nearly 20 years between when he was, at age 12, discussing theology with the elders in the Temple in Jerusalem, and when appeared before his cousin, John, to be baptized in the Jordan River. These 20-some years are often called Jesus’ “hidden years,” and we are not told where Jesus was or what he was doing. The scriptures are silent on this period of Jesus’ life. I am certain he was making peace with the terms of his life, and that included facing his fears.
When Jesus finds his voice – at around age 30 – he speaks a great deal about fear, worry, and anxiety: he tells us that we need not be afraid, that we need not worry, that we need not be anxious. Why is that? Because of God’s powerful presence and provision; and because of God’s enduring faithfulness. Jesus learned this. In facing his own fears, he discovered he was not alone.
Going back to the Gospel lesson appointed for today: When a violent storm descends upon the disciples in the boat, Jesus appears to them. The disciples are terrified. Whatever we make of Jesus’ walking on the stormy water, we can see that he is not afraid. Had he ever been afraid of storms on the Sea of Galilee? I’m sure he had. He had grown up in Nazareth, which is not far from the Sea of Galilee. He knew storms, inside and out. But he is no longer afraid of storms. And he tells his disciples, he tells us, not to be afraid. He isn’t scolding us; he is reassuring us not to be afraid, because we don’t need to be afraid. He has come to know this, from the scriptures and from his own experience. And he promises us his power, his provision, his presence to be with us always, to the end of the storm, and to the end of life.
If your life now is swamped with fear, or if you are afraid about an incoming storm in your life – and I presume that all of us are acquainted with fear – remember this: our fear is not an obstacle to God but rather an invitation from God to take Jesus at his word. We need not be afraid. Jesus will know every reason why we could be afraid because he’s been there. He assures us not to be afraid, not to have anxiety, because he is with us: his presence, his power, his provision. For us, fear can seem such an inmovable impediment. But for God, our fear presents an opportunity to show forth God’s presence, and power, and provision; and an opportunity for us to learn to trust. Our fear is God’s invitation, and Jesus will make good on his promise to be with us always. There is so much of which we could be afraid in life, but Jesus assures us not to fear.
Saint Francis De Sales, a 17th century Bishop of Geneva, who lived during a very stormy time in history, left us with these words of assurance:
“Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life;
rather look to them with full hope that as they arise,
God, whose very own you are, will lead you safely through all things;
and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in his arms.
“Do not fear what may happen tomorrow.
The same everlasting Father who cared for you today
will take care of you then and every day.
“He will either shield you from suffering,
or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.”
Jesus has the last word: “Do not fear, for I am with you, always.” (cf Mt 28:20)
Occasion: Birthday Celebration of Isabella Stewart Gardner
Place: Chapel at the end of the Long Gallery, Gardner Museum
There are a number of words that we might use to describe Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose birthday we are celebrating today. We might use the word audacious. We could describe her as scandalous or provocative. We might call her stubborn. We could call her eccentric. We could certainly call her rich. I am sure that she was called these, and many others besides. But there is one word which we might not normally associate with her. That word is courageous.
I saw that word downstairs in the gallery where the works of one of the Museum’s artists in residence are exhibited several years ago. The works, a series of miniatures, included an excerpt from a letter written to Mrs. Gardner by her friend Matthew Stewart Prichard an art historian and one time assistant curator of the neighbouring MFA. In the letter to Mrs. Gardner, Prichard he wrote: Be generous, generosity is a symptom of courage. If you fear; you are selfish.
We are all here today, because of Mrs. Gardner’s courage. She had the courage to be generous and by her generosity both the Monastery in Cambridge and the Museum here on the Fenway continue to thrive as important cultural and religious centres in the Boston area. Without her generosity neither Museum nor Monastery would exist.