Going to camp often means away up a mountain, or in my experience, out to a desert island. One gift of camp is the night, though it may be scary. With no neighbors and limited electricity, new guests, especially youth, swing flashlights the first nights, anxious at seeing much less. They point to the path and all around trying, it seems, to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We are similarly afraid these days in the deepening darkness of our world. With questions increasing, anxiety swirling, violence striking, fear infecting, prejudice multiplying, and sadness swelling, we want to poke, prod, and push back the dark.
We just sang: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance and we shall be saved.” We ask for the light of God’s face turning toward us. Small yet significant. When another’s face lights up at seeing ours, we are loved.
In the days of our Gospel story, Mary set out and went quickly to visit Elizabeth. A normal visit turned extraordinary. By divine power and blessing, now both Mary, a young virgin, and Elizabeth, a barren elder, are pregnant. Dark days since they also bear the burden of public shame. The scandal since Mary claims pregnancy through the dream of an angel. Who did she think she was? The long years of ridicule for Elizabeth who had never born a child. Rumors swirled about why she was now.
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.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-28, 32-12:2; Psalm 37:28-36; Matthew 22:23-32
When we brothers were on pilgrimage to the UK a little over a year ago, we stayed at Keble College while in Oxford. Among the prominent features of Keble College is its chapel. It is not that there is anything outstanding in its architecture that makes it stand out, but rather, once you walk through the doors you are thrown into a sort of sensory overload, especially because all around the perimeter of the chapel are beautiful, multi-colored mosaics. Once you get over the initial shock and begin to study the mosaics, you will note that most of the scenes portrayed are from the Old Testament. You see Noah and the Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Joseph, and others. It may seem odd at first to experience a Christian chapel that predominantly features scenes from the Old Testament. That is until you take a closer look and note that in each of the scenes there is a thinly veiled reference to Jesus Christ.
In the image of Noah we see a dove flying between the Ark and the rainbow, a symbol of the Holy Spirit hovering over both the waters of Creation and of the waters of Baptism. Directly below that we see in the story of Abraham the priest Melchizadek offering bread and wine, the emblematic food of the Christian, the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.[i] And as you go around the chapel observing these mosaics you can see that Jesus is subtly there and that each story from the Old Testament is giving a knowing nod to the Word (sometimes referred to as the Wisdom of God), who the prologue of John’s gospel says was present in the beginning with God. For the leaders of the Oxford Movement, the Old Testament is “one vast prophetic system, veiling, but full of the New Testament,” and, more specifically, “of the One whose presence is stored up within it.”[ii]
When I read the gospel lesson for this Eucharist, my first response was ‘how timely!’
This story feels particularly helpful and relevant to me right now because it deals with our response to fear, and while fear can be a threatening presence in our lives at most any time, it seems to me that it is particularly present in the current age. Our country is more polarized than at any time in recent memory.
We are witnessing the gaps widen between the rich and the poor,
between the privileged and powerful and the weakest and most vulnerable;
between the “right” and the “left,” between “conservatives” and “liberals”,
between Republicans and Democrats,
between viewers of Fox News and viewers of CNN;
between white people and the structures that support their place of privilege in the world and people of color who are fed up with being the victims of racism and xenophobia;
between government officials and the people they represent, and even between our country and other nations of the world, many of whom have been our allies in the past.
Fear seems to be at the heart of so much of the conflict and distrust: Some of us fear that our culture is changing in ways that threaten our values and beliefs. Some of us are afraid that others will take what we have – whether that be our property or our security or our way of life or our rights as human beings worthy of respect and equality with others. Fear is often at the core of our response to our “enemies,” real or perceived; we fear individuals and groups of people who have power over us and who seem willing to take us to places where we do not want to go. For many of us, fear has been the unwelcomed companion who forces his way into our lives against our wishes, and remains stubbornly in our midst while we try to imagine how we will ever get him to leave! It feels as if we are in an age of strife that is threatening our ability to live peaceably together and to work towards clearly-identified common goods. It feels like we are caught in a storm, partly of our own making – a perfect storm in which fear has been a primary catalyst.
Anselm of Canterbury, Kind-hearted Theologian
Romans 5:1-11, Matthew 11:25-30
Do you ever wonder how you will be remembered after you are gone? Have you ever given any thought to how you want to be remembered? Someone has said that what people will remember about us is not so much what we said and did, but how they felt when they were in our presence.
Today we remember one of the Church’s great theologians, Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm was born in northern Italy in 1033. He was intellectually curious, but also devout. At the age of 17, he entered the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy and gradually grew in reputation and status until he became its Abbot. After a long and memorable tenure as Abbot of Bec, Anselm was pressured to become the Archbishop of Canterbury when he was about 60 years old, a position he embraced reluctantly but in which he was very effective.
Anselm is best remembered as a brilliant theologian, and primarily for two important works:
He was an exponent of what was called the “ontological” argument for the existence of God and posited that God is “that than which nothing greater can be thought.” Since the greatest thing that can be thought must have existence as one of its properties, Anselm argued that God exists and is not dependent upon the material world for verification.
Although the verses read as today’s Gospel reading come from an earlier part of the Gospel according to St. John, the theme of that passage fits well into the Easter Season. If we think prayerfully about it I think you can see that it is possible to understand it on several levels. In the original context of these verses I think that Jesus was speaking of bread as representing the spirit of his teaching about God and about love.
When those words were spoken at the synagogue in Capernaum nobody would have understood them as we can today. At most it might only have been seen in terms of the love that God has for us, and the love that we have for one another.
Only when we think about it prayerfully can the Gospel Reading for today’s Eucharist be understood as referring to the Bread and Wine of the Holy Eucharist as Jesus presence with us and for us in the Holy Eucharist, as well as being his presence with us in his teaching. But that would be reading a later meaning into it than either Jesus or St. John may have intended originally when those words were first spoken..
This morning we hear one of the most quintessential stories in all of the gospels; so definitive in fact that it has given birth to a term that is used to label a person we deem as a skeptic. When someone we know is unwilling to believe something without concrete evidence, we call them a ‘doubting Thomas.’ Beginning with Easter Day we hear an abundance of post-resurrection stories witnessing to the disciples and those close to Jesus seeing, speaking, and eating with Him, giving credence to the fantastic rumors that His body had not been stolen, but that He had in fact risen from the dead three days after his gruesome crucifixion, just as He had prophesied. Our lection from John begins with one of these accounts: it is the first day of the week following the crucifixion and Jesus’ disciples have hidden themselves behind locked doors out of fear for their lives. Jesus appears among them bidding them peace, and then he immediately shows them his hands, feet, and side: the wounds that were inflicted on him to assure his torture and resulting death. John says: ‘Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.’
But the gospel writer says that one of them was missing: Thomas, who was called ‘the twin.’ Where was Thomas? Was he out surveying the scene, plotting a safe exit from Jerusalem for the others? Was he discreetly purchasing food and other provisions that they needed? We don’t know, all we can surmise is that Jesus’ disciples were hiding in fear and that Thomas was not with them. Considering the little we know about Thomas, this is not altogether surprising. There seems to be an implicit bravado associated with him. Earlier in John’s gospel, it is Thomas who exclaims “let us also go [with Jesus}, that we may die with him,” demonstrating that Thomas was utterly devoted to Jesus at the most, and at a hothead at the very least.[i]
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-12, 23-28, 32-12:2
Almighty God, in the midst of your people Israel you raised up many saints who through faith in your eternal covenant conquered kingdoms,did justice, and won strength out of weakness. Grant us to hold in glad remembrance their holy lives and fearless witness, that by your grace we may press on towards the goal for the prize of our heavenly calling;through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Studying history is both illuminating and humbling: illuminating because of the great benefit of perspective. Life in-the-present can leave us quite myopic. What’s going on in-the-now is very close to us – it’s “in our face” – so much so that we often can’t see around it. Our perspective is inevitably blocked in some ways. We could take, for example, the political campaign rhetoric during this past year. Without the benefit of an historical perspective, the long view, we could simply react to various campaign statements just for their “face value,” but miss the wisdom gleaned from history. Studying history can also be quite humbling. It can put us in our place as individuals and as a nation in a very long line as life unfolds down through the centuries. Today’s celebration of the Saints, the holy ones, of the Old Testament takes the long view, and that’s important for several reasons[i]:
When I read over this lesson I could feel that it was a farewell address. Paul was giving advice and encouragement for the time when he could no longer be with the people of Ephesus. It was a prayer for spiritual strength; for courage and perseverance. (Vv. 16-17)
At the beginning of this 3rd chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus he referred to himself as a prisoner for Christ Jesus.
After a series of trials before several tribunals Paul had appealed to the Emperor. He was on his way to Rome by way of churches he had founded. (Cf. Acts 25:10-12) He did not want the concern that these people of Ephesus had for him to hinder the growth of their faith in God. Having said this, look at the main thrust of today’s Epistle reading.
Isaiah 60: 1-6
Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3: 1-12
Matthew 2: 1-12
We’ve all had that experience of living “in between” things. As children we lived most of our lives “in between” weekends, or vacations and holidays. We would count off the days until the next holiday came along so that we could escape school, even if just few a few days. Later we lived in that “in between” time between relationships, or jobs or children. Now some of us live “in between” seasons of Downton Abbey, anxiously awaiting the next fix to see what will become of Lady Edith or who Lady Mary will marry next.