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.
Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude, Apostles
Today the church remembers that, in the words of W. H. Auden,
Without arms or charm of culture,
Persons of no importance
From an unimportant Province,
They did as the Spirit bid,
Went forth into a joyless world
Of swords and rhetoric
To bring it joy.
Today the church remembers the apostles Simon and Jude. Scripture tells us little about these two figures, but the church has maintained a handful of robust traditions about them. From Scripture we know of Simon only that he was one of the disciples, called “the Zealot.” Whether this means he was a member of one of the various first century sectarian movements who bore the title “zealots,” or simply a person of great zeal for the gospel, we cannot be sure (though, I suspect the latter is more likely).
John tells us of Jude’s presence at the Last Supper. The Epistle of Jude, according to one school, may be the work of the disciple Jude, the brother of James the Greater. He is often attributed the surname Thaddeus to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot.
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.
This is one horrific story – so senseless, so tragic. It recounts the death of a devoted servant of God who played a vital role in salvation history. His death is no martyrdom. This is not Stephen, who after testifying to God’s faithfulness lifts his eyes to the heavens and beholds Jesus, as the stones batter his body and end his life. No, this death is brought about by a drunken, lustful ruler who allows himself to be seduced by the sensuous dancing of his teenage daughter and tricked by his cunning wife into making a foolish promise that he must then carry out just to save face in the company of his equally-besotted guests. This is a silent beheading, without witnesses or testimony, of a man of God who had been imprisoned for his bold witness to the truth.
The “king” was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who had married a Nabataean princess but then discarded her in order to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. The dishonored princess fled in humiliation back to her father, which led to a military conflict in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed by the Nabataean king and his forces. Nevertheless, Herod married Herodias, and no one except John the Baptist had the courage and moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was. No one except John made any attempt to hold this king accountable for his lies and deceptions, and for his evil actions. No one else had the courage to speak the truth to him. They were all afraid.
In our worship, we speak of the glorious company of apostles, the noble fellowship of prophets, and the white-robed army of martyrs.1We speak of the angelic hosts.2 We might use language such as, “the Church militant,” or, “the Church triumphant.” Our founder, Fr. Benson, once had a conversation with a stranger while out in the city. When he described his life as a member of a religious community, she exclaimed, “Oh, you must have found so much peace!” Fr. Benson replied, “No, madam, I’ve found a war.”
This language resonates with me, because it gives expression to a truth of my own life with God. I experience God as peace, as rest, as calm, as love. But this is not passivity, and my own proclivity to sin, the corruption of my own human nature, fights viciously to dethrone God from my heart. In my life, and especially my prayer, I often must fight back, asking God not only for the gifts of calm, rest, and silence, but also for the gifts of strength, vigor, and power, to aid me in the war over my spirit.
Isaiah 50:4-9a John 13:21-32
In his The Gospel of John: A Commentary, scholar Frederick Dale Bruner headlines this day’s gospel reading as “Jesus’ Foot-washing Warning: (with the subtitle) Let Yourselves Beware of Yourselves.” Or, as Rudolf Bultmann puts it, “The consciousness of belonging to the body of disciples must not seduce any of them into the illusion of security.”[i] And, I would say that, a false sense of security from harm without is usually paired with such a sense within: a false certainty of our own steadfastness and loyalty, under any conditions. This passage from John, in the context of Holy Week, will not allow us to dodge a confrontation with the power of evil in humanity.
The gospels do not provide us with a clear explanation for Judas’ act in “handing over” Jesus to the authorities. And most of the answers we try to extrapolate from the evangelist’s words say a good deal more about us and our need to distance ourselves from the possibility of acting as Judas did.
Fifty years ago John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Over the past few days we have seen those horrific images repeated over and over again. And we watch the horror with a strange fascination, rather like 12 years ago on September 11th, as we watched again and again the horrific images of the falling twin towers, as they were repeated over and over again.
Evil has always been a source of fascination. We can hardly bear to look, but find it hard to look away. Writers over the centuries have been drawn to it constantly. In Dante’s Inferno and Purgatorio we have a riotous and fantastic description of hell and purgatory. By comparison, his depiction of heaven – Paradiso – is rather dull.
The thought of an enemy sowing weeds – typically, a particularly strain of weed whose early blossoms looked very much like wheat – into a farmer’s field was so real and so common that its punishment was codified into Roman law in Jesus’ day. This actually happened, an enemy sowing weeds among the wheat. There are three lessons we can draw from Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat.
Today is the Feast of St George, the patron saint of England and an heroic figure in the Eastern Church. As with many of the early saints, the life of St George is shrouded with legend. Little is known of his life or of his martyrdom. What we do know is that he was born of noble parents in the region of Cappadocia sometime in the latter half of the 3rd century. After the death of his father, he and his mother relocated in Palestine, where the family held some land. George was enlisted in the army of the Roman emperor Diocletian and became one of the emperor’s best soldiers. But his conversion to Christianity put George in direct conflict with Diocletian, who was a bitter enemy of Christians and persecuted them viciously. George spoke personally to the emperor in defense of the Christians. His opposition cost him his life; he was tortured and then beheaded at Lydda in Palestine in the early 4th century.