Howard Thurman, the great African-American teacher and pastor, wrote extensively on what Jesus said “to those who stand with their backs against the wall: the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.”[i] Thurman drew his inspiration from Jesus, who grew up in poverty. Because of their race and religion, Jesus’ people had for decades been cruelly subjugated by the oppression and discrimination of the Roman Empire. For his first thirty years, Jesus would also have faced the ignominy of his own birth. Either he was born to a mother out of wedlock; or his mother and father, Mary and Joseph, were fabulous liars and blasphemers; or both parents were mentally unsound. How could this be, the “miraculous” story of Jesus’ birth? Jesus faced prejudice and persecution from the very beginning of his life.
When Jesus finds his voice, one word recurs in Jesus’ speech and actions: power. People would ask, “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[ii] In the end, as Jesus was coming down from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). And his departing words were about power: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts of the Apostles 1:8). Power.
St. George the Martyr
Preaching on the saints can be, at times, a real challenge. This is especially true with some of the early saints, including some of the apostles, about whom we know very little, and what we do know, is largely legend. Does the preacher simply stick to the texts, or do they focus on the legend? The problem with dismissing the legend out of hand is that many of the legends have within them shards of historical truth, and if they don’t, the legends are so archetypal, they still contain truth, and those archetypal legends have the power to shape and influence lives.
This is especially true of St. George, whom we remember today. What can be said about him, or at least about his feast historically, is that his feast was being kept as early as the mid fifth century. The legend of George and the dragon can’t be traced back earlier than the twelfth century. It is thought he died a martyr in the early years of the fourth century, during the persecution of Diocletian. He may have been a soldier, which gave rise to him being recognized as the patron saint of soldiers in twelfth century. As patron saint of soldiers, the Crusades were fought under his banner, which is how, ultimately, devotion to George was carried back to England, where in 1347 he was declared the patron saint.
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying, “Arise, go to Ninevah, that great city, and cry against it.”
Now the word of the Lord came to Simon and Andrew, and James and John, as they were casting and mending nets, saying, “Come, follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
When Jonah heard the Lord’s voice calling him he immediately got up and hightailed off in the opposite direction! When Simon and Andrew, James and John heard the Lord’s voice, they immediately left their nets and followed Jesus. Two very different responses to the call of God. And as I was reading the two stories set in today’s Scripture readings, I was reflecting on the mystery of vocation, of how God is always calling us to larger life – and our very mixed and not always very impressive or heroic responses!
And certainly, in Scripture, it seems that most people whom God calls, don’t immediately leave their ‘nets’ and follow. Most of them, like me, are more like Jonah. Or like Moses. He tries to wriggle out of it when God calls him to confront Pharaoh: ‘O Lord, I’ve never been eloquent: I’m slow of speech and tongue.’ Or poor Jeremiah. ‘O Lord, truly I don’t know how to speak, for I’m only a boy.’ Or poor Isaiah, in the midst of a stunning vision of heaven – ‘O Lord, woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.’ But after the Lord cleanses him he does manage to say, ‘Here am I Lord, send me.’ We used to joke that he was probably feeling more, ‘Here am I – send HIM!’
Feast of the Holy Innocents
King Herod was scared of a baby. King Herod was so scared of a baby, that he ordered the massacre of every child under the age of two in Bethlehem just to try to kill that one baby. Thanks be to God, baby Jesus escaped the wrath of Herod. Today, the feast of the Holy Innocents, we remember all those babies who did not escape the wrath of Herod. All those babies who were killed due to one man’s fear.
The slaughter of babies is not a pleasant subject, especially during the Twelve Days of Christmas. The Christian church has been observing the feast of the Holy Innocents for over fifteen hundred years. That’s a long time. Clearly something important is going on here. Some lesson that needs to be relearned yearly, again and again over the course of centuries.
Consider what parts of the story are timeless. What is just as true now as it was then? Certainly the evil ordered by Herod to slaughter babies is timeless. It is just as evil to us now as it was then. It was an evil fueled by fear, anger, and power. Three poisons with timeless potency.
A master entrusts property to slaves before going on a journey: five talents to one, two talents to another, and one talent to the third. Some scholars say this is a huge amount, a talent as a lifetime’s wages.[i] It’s extravagant, an amazing invitation. I’m entrusting you with all of this. Either way it is a surprise, a gift, and an invitation to act. They are differing amounts, “according to the ability of each.” The master trusted with particularity, noting the unique ability of each.
After a long time, the master returns. The first two say: You entrusted me with this amount, and see I have doubled it. “Well done, [you are] good and trustworthy.” Having been trustworthy, I will give you more. The master doesn’t say: You are successful. Rather: you are good and trustworthy.[ii] You stepped out on my behalf buying and selling property, investing what I handed over. It appears that engagement and participation are more important than a particular return.
So where are we now?
We have come, at last, to the end of one of the most bitterly contested national elections this country has ever seen. For many of us, finally naming a winner doesn’t bring the resolution we hoped it would; it feels like we’re all on the losing side in this contest. We are like two battered and weary fighters standing in the middle of the ring, faces bruised and bleeding, bent over with exhaustion, waiting for the referee to raise the arm of one of us. Our country is as divided as ever. Our political leaders are locked in seemingly irresolveable conflict that limits their effectiveness at home and diminishes our influence abroad. We are facing the largest public health crisis the world has ever known, with the numbers of new cases soaring to unprecedented heights in half of our states. We’re tired – of this pandemic, its restrictions, and all the pain and loss it has brought. We’re weary – of this toxic political deadlock, of the vilifying that characterizes election campaigns, of the threat of violence and lawsuits, of the seeming intractability of systemic racism, and of so much more.
What message of hope can the Church possibly offer?
Our answer begins with a reminder of who we are. We are human beings, created in the image of God, knowing ourselves to be loved by God in all our diversity. We are people who belong to God, who have been invited to live in a relationship with love with our Creator, who have been forgiven and redeemed by Christ, and who can reflect God’s glory in the world. The prophet tells us that God has called us by name, and we are precious and honored in God’s sight: every one of us. There is not a single human being that God does not love.
Our reading from the Second Book of Kings would make would make for a great scene in an adventure movie or mythology novel: the Prophet Elijah’s ascending into heaven in a whirlwind with horses of fire and in a chariot fire. And there’s also the scenes when Elijah’s cloak – his “miracle mantle” – is used two different times to strike the Jordan River, which then miraculously divides in two, one side to the other, to open a dry passageway for a walkthrough. It’s such spectacular power!
A fascinating and inspiring way to read the Scriptures is through the lens of power. In virtually every page of the Bible, there is a supernatural manifestation of power, the intervention or infusion of God’s power in everyday life:
- Power in the form of words being given to someone who is otherwise inarticulate.
- Power in the form of knowledge about something which is otherwise unknowable.
- Power in interpreting signs, experiences, dreams, languages, or what could seem as “coincidence.”
- Power to be wise amidst what is otherwise so confusing and undecipherable in life.
- Power in the form of physical strength, or moral integrity, or courage when confronted with strong opposition.
- Power in the form of an inner peacefulness in the face of strife, violence, or threat.
- Power in the face of disaster, imprisonment, censure, or banishment.
- Power in the form of provision: food, money, shelter, access to people of influence.
- Power in the form of healing mediated through words, through touch, through oil, through spittle.
- Power to forgive the otherwise-unforgivable.
One question trailed Jesus throughout his earthly life: “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[i] And Jesus’ parting promise to us was about our being able to do “even greater works of power” than he did because of God’s abiding presence with us, because of God’s Spirit.[ii] Christianity without power is like a country club for nice manners and good taste. Christianity is about engaging the powers and the powerful needs of this world with the force and provision of God.
Annie Dillard writes, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour…? Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? …It is madness to wear ladies’ velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” [iii] We have been created by the power of God to know and mediate the power of God.
There are lots of things in life for which we could be fearful. And so Jesus speaks endlessly about our not needing to be afraid, about our not needing to be anxious because he is with us, always.[iv] You may be in touch right now with fear or anxiety where you feel your vulnerability and need. But there’s more. You may be equally afraid – maybe even more afraid – of how you are powerful. If you are afraid of your power – and you do have power – you need not fear your power. Don’t be afraid. Remember the Blessed Virgin Mary who was visited by an angel announcing Mary’s life mission, a very powerful calling.[v] Mary was afraid, afraid of being giving such power, and then she found the grace to say “yes” to God. She finally prayed, “Okay. Be it unto me according to your word.” And so for you. You probably already pray about poverty and need, yours and others’. Also pray for God’s power. Pray your “yes” to God’s power to be at work within you and through you.
[i] Matthew 13:54, 26:64; Mark 6:2, 14:62; Luke 6:19; John 1:12.
[ii] John 12:12-14.
[iii] From Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, pp. 40-41. Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975 and in 2014 received the National Humanities Medal.
[iv] Matthew 28:20.
[v] Luke 1:26-38.
Exodus 12: 1-4 (5-10) 11-14
Psalm 116 1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
John 13: 1-17, 31b-35
One of the most chilling scenes in all of Scripture, at least for me, comes within the context of tonight’s gospel reading from John. While we did not read it this evening, it forms a piece of the story of that first Maundy Thursday. Jesus and the disciples were gathered in the Upper Room. The foot washing has taken place, and Jesus speaks of the one who would betray him. Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me….So when [Jesus] had dipped the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas son of Simon Iscariot…. [After] receiving the piece of bread, [Judas] immediately went out. And it was night.
Whenever I read those four words, and it was night, a chill goes up and down my spine.
For our first century forebears, and perhaps for you as a child, night was a time of uncertainty, of loneliness, of isolation, of fear. Who has not, at one time or another, been afraid of the dark, been afraid of the night? Perhaps you still are. I know that as I child, I was. I was afraid of the darkness under my bed, and worse, the dark void of the open closet. I would whimper until one of my older brothers, with whom I shared my bedroom, would get up and close the closet door. Perhaps there is still something about the night that frightens you. Who has not been nervous walking down a dark street in the dead of night? I know that sometimes I am. Perhaps there is still something about the dark that frightens you.
Every time I hear these words, and it was night, a chill goes up and down my spine, because it reminds me that night still has the power to make us afraid.
Psalm 71, appointed for today, speaks to a calamity. Psalm 71 is both a diagnosis and a prescription for those who suffer. The issue the psalmist confronts, specifically, is about the insecurity and vulnerability of old age and the fear of abandonment. But this psalm applies just as well if you are young and sick, or if you worried sick because of your own health and wellbeing, or because of someone else’s.
On the one hand, the psalmist has known the presence of God, stretching back to childhood, “my confidence since I was young.”[i] Because of this, the psalmist has reason to be hopeful about the future, “For you are my hope, O LORD God.”[ii] But this is not cheap hope. In such transparent candor, the psalmist says, “I have become a portent to many.”[iii]A portent is a sign or a warning that something bad, especially something momentous or calamitous, is likely to happen.” Old people are portents. Old people are like the canary in the coal mine. We all become old. I am old. Unless we die young or from some other tragedy, we all become old. It’s not your fault for becoming old. However, old people are often forgotten and dismissed. Old people often lose their voice – that is, the power to be heard by others – and then they lose their control to manage their own life and to choose where to go or how to be. At the very end of the Gospel according to John, we hear Jesus, at the very end of his own life, say, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”[iv] Old people can be terribly needy, inconvenient, even embarrassing. The psalmist knows about this firsthand. So do we.
But then we hear the psalmist find some equilibrium. With courage and confidence, the psalmist draws from life’s experience knowing God’s presence: “For you are my crag and my stronghold.”[v] A crag is not a sheltered cave. It’s quite the opposite. A crag is a steep, rugged mass of rock that projects upward and outward. A crag is a stronghold. If you were a rock climber, you would reach up to a crag to take hold, to keep you secure, to enable you to ascend. In a desert culture, where the land is endlessly flat leaving you exposed and vulnerable, you will find safety and perspective in height, in being able to ascend, lest you be laid low, powerless, and vulnerable… like you often are when you are old or when you are sick. A crag is a miniature Masada, the hilltop fortress in the Judean desert. In medieval times, castles were oftentimes built upon crags. So we hear the psalmist recite from memory, and with strength and comfort: “Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; you are my crag and my stronghold.”[vi]
And then, it’s like the psalmist “loses it.” The psalmist falls into despair. You know how it is when you feel vulnerable and needy. When you have thin skin. Oftentimes a little help and encouragement feels like a great help and encouragement. It’s transformative. For the moment, all is well! But then your mood can easily swing from cheer and confidence to despair and hopelessness, and then back and forth. Having just claimed God as a “crag and stronghold,” the psalmist becomes disconsolate and implores God, “Do not cast me off in my old age; do not forsake me when my strength fails.”[vii] In such transparent need, the psalmist cries out to God, “O God, be not far from me; come quickly to help me, O my God.”[viii]
The psalmist then expresses one last plea to God: “Now that I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me…”[ix] Feeling very vulnerable – either because you are old, or sick, or afraid you will be – is very difficult, don’t we know. And then something amazing happens for the psalmist, true to life. It’s like an answer to prayer. The psalmist is reminded of God’s presence and God’s provision in the past: “You will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.”[x] It’s a kind of resurrection-like experience, when the sun bursts through the clouds and health or hope returns. The psalmist’s concluding words are triumphal:
“You strengthen me more and more; you enfold and comfort me,
therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God…
My lips will sing with joy when I play to you,
and so will my soul, which you have redeemed…
My tongue will proclaim your righteousness all day long,”[xi]
“All the day long…,” “all day long…,” until the cycle of fear and impending death returns. Death and resurrection, death and resurrection, death and resurrection.
1. In you, O LORD, have I taken refuge;
let me never be ashamed.
2. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free;
incline your ear to me and save me.
3. Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;
you are my crag and my stronghold.
4. Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.
5. For you are my hope, O LORD God,
my confidence since I was young.
6. I have been sustained by you ever since I was born;
from my mother’s womb you have been my strength; my praise shall be always of you.
7. I have become a portent to many;
but you are my refuge and my strength.
8. Let my mouth be full of your praise
and your glory all the day long.
9. Do not cast me off in my old age;
forsake me not when my strength fails.
10. For my enemies are talking against me,
and those who lie in wait for my life take counsel together.
11. They say, “God has forsaken him;
go after him and seize him;
because there is none who will save.”
12. O God, be not far from me;
come quickly to help me, O my God.
13. Let those who set themselves against me be put to shame and be disgraced;
let those who seek to do me evil be covered with scorn and reproach.
14. But I shall always wait in patience,
and shall praise you more and more.
15. My mouth shall recount your mighty acts and saving deeds all day long;
though I cannot know the number of them.
16. I will begin with the mighty works of the Lord GOD;
I will recall your righteousness, yours alone.
17. O God, you have taught me since I was young,
and to this day I tell of your wonderful works.
18. And now that I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me,
till I make known your strength to this generation and your power to all who are to come.
19. Your righteousness, O God, reaches to the heavens;
you have done great things; who is like you, O God?
20. You have showed me great troubles and adversities,
but you will restore my life and bring me up again from the deep places of the earth.
21. You strengthen me more and more;
you enfold and comfort me,
22. Therefore I will praise you upon the lyre for your faithfulness, O my God;
I will sing to you with the harp, O Holy One of Israel.
23. My lips will sing with joy when I play to you,
and so will my soul, which you have redeemed.
24. My tongue will proclaim your righteousness all day long,
for they are ashamed and disgraced who sought to do me harm.
[i] I take inspiration from Herbert O’Driscoll’s Finer than Gold; Sweeter than Honey (Path Books), pp. 150-151.
[ii] Psalm 17:5.
[iii] Psalm 17:7.
[iv] John 21:18.
[v] Psalm 17:3.
[vi] Psalm 17:3.
[vii] Psalm 17:9.
[viii] Psalm 17:12.
[ix] Psalm 71:18.
[x] Psalm 17:20.
[xi] Psalm 17:20-24.
Mark 4: 35 – 41
Some of you will know that this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the theft of a number of art treasures from the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum. It was the night of 19 March 1990 that two thieves, dressed at Boston policemen, broke into the museum, stole 13 paintings, and literally vanished into thin air. It’s the biggest art theft in American history, and no trace has ever been found of either paintings, or the men. Still to this day, because of the terms of Mrs. Gardner’s will, which stipulates nothing can be moved or changed, you can go to the museum and see the empty frames where the paintings once hung.
One of those stolen paintings was Rembrandt’s 1633 oil on canvas painting of The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.
If you have ever been caught in a storm on a body of water, you’ll know exactly how terrifying they can be. The world seems to be moving every which way, all at the same time, and there is nothing between you and certain death by drowning except what seems to be a flimsy bit of wood or metal, even if the vessel you are on is a great ocean going liner.
The terror on the faces of the disciples in Rembrandt’s painting is clear, as they strain at the oars, or try to control the sails. Yet in the midst of this is a calm Jesus, roused from his sleep with the urgent query, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ Matthew’s version of this same story has an even greater sense of urgency, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’