In our lections the past couple of Sundays, we have been hearing portions of the Letter of James. This Letter, I think, presents one of the most important themes that we of modern times need to consider closely: that of integrity of speech. At the outset, it reads like a collection of lessons straight out of a book of social etiquette. James’ words recall in my memory my mother’s admonishment: “Jimmy, if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I suspect most of us would consider this maxim to be good and sound. But, I also think to the days of my childhood when someone would speak to another person ungraciously, perhaps calling them a name. You may know the famous playground retort: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Unlike my mother’s advice, this saying I find questionable at best.
What is striking to me about James’ wise council, is that it goes deeper than just manners and childhood retorts. Considered “Wisdom Literature” of the New Testament, James’ Letter draws a correlation between word and action. And, he seems to know something about the nature of speech. His use of metaphor instantly captures our imaginations and brings into focus a truth that is both easy to identify yet difficult to master. This morning we read: Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.
At a time when there is so much tragedy around the Church’s witness to the native and First Nations peoples of North America, one wonders about the appropriateness of remembering a nineteenth-century man who spent much of his life as a missionary in Canada’s north. It’s hard to disentangle the very real harm that settler or western religion, culture, and institutions have done in our attempt to follow Christ’s command to go therefore and make disciples of all nations…from the desire to make known the God who is love.
An Englishman by birth, Edmund James Peck spent thirty years in the Canadian Arctic, often separated from his own wife and family for years at a time. We don’t know what Peck’s racial biases were. Like all of us though, at least all of us of European descent, he must have had some. Yet his work on behalf of the Inuit of northern Canada was prodigious. He took a syllabic writing method developed for the Cree of northern Manitoba and adapted it to Inuktitut. By the 1920’s Peck’s syllabic writing method was so widespread that most of Canada’s Inuit people could read and write, and pencils and pocket notebooks so popular, they were in great demand. In 1897 the four gospels were printed as were extracts of the psalms and the Prayer Book.
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 and see how impressed people are with your erudition! I love it because of the breathlessness with which Mark tells the story. You can hear the urgency, as in just six verses Mark tells us an awful lot, that is profoundly significant. I love it, because it harkens back to my childhood 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 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.
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, doing what he shouldn’t be doing. And that’s just the point.
Psalm 139:1—5, 12—17
From the time I first encountered it in earnest, this season of the church year has always spoken to me of identity. In particular, the play between the way we see our identities and the way God sees our identities.
On January 6, the Church kept the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, celebrating the manifestation of God to the world in Jesus. As she did, she called to mind (at least in the western rites) the story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. A story about an identity: the fullness of God’s identity, present in the frailty of a defenseless, dependent child.
As she kept the Feast of the Baptism of Christ on the Sunday that followed, she recalled yet another story about identity: the human identity into which God desired to be baptized in the flesh of Jesus beneath the waters of the Jordan River. The humanity into which Righteousness itself was pleased to be plunged and drowned. The humanity with which, by that act, God became unmistakably and eternally bound.
These two feasts are recognized in the lectionary as solemnities. They can sometimes pass us by in the daze that follows the whirlwind of Chistmastide, but they frontload the season of Epiphany with these themes of identity. I find it a grace that the lectionary does this in this way. And this year in particular. For as the Church celebrated the display of God’s presence in the world before the Gentile Magi on January 6, her eyes beheld a different kind of epiphany as violence swept through the Capitol. It was an epiphany of the very brokenness and division into which God deigned to be submerged.
The Baptism of Christ
I have a box in my room where I keep all my precious documents. You probably have something similar. These documents, such as passports, birth certificates, ordination papers, for many, marriage certificates, these documents are all very precious because they tell us what we belong to and who we belong to. That’s incredibly important, because belonging gives us our sense of identity. These documents remind me of who I am. Among the most precious of documents for me are my two passports. Whenever I hold these passports I have an enormous sense of gratitude to God that my own life, my very identity, has been formed by the traditions and values of two different nations.
Our core identity is intimately bound up with the values of the country to which we belong; so, when we see these values violated, as we have seen on Capitol Hill during these past days, we feel a visceral shock to our very core.
Belonging and identity are so bound together, that an even worse experience is to actually have your ‘belonging’ taken away. I will never forget a time of ministry some years ago in South Dakota, when I spoke with some elderly native Americans who told me the harrowing story of how they had been made to leave their ancestral lands and at school were forbidden to speak their native language. ‘We don’t belong here anymore’ they said. How terrible to belong nowhere and belong to no one. Those sad and haunted eyes we have seen on the TV of refugees, thrown out of their country, ‘cleansed’ or fled in terror from their homes and from a country where they are told they don’t belong.
Happy New Year!
Today is the first day of Advent, the beginning of the Church’s calendar year. The lectionary gives us a great gift when it begins the year with this short passage from the book of Isaiah: Isaiah 2:1-5. Here we read the account of a vision given to Israel’s greatest prophet. Isaiah sees a mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – raised high above all other mountains. And to this place, he tells us, “all the nations” shall stream. They will say to one another, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”
The mountain Isaiah refers to is, of course, Mount Zion, on which stood the Temple, the dwelling place of God on earth. The revelation given to Isaiah in this vision is that this mountain – “the mountain of the Lord’s house” – will be a source of wisdom and right judgment for all people. The Law of Moses, given initially to the people of Israel, will instruct all the nations in the ways of God and teach them to walk in God’s paths. The result of this will be universal peace, the promise of peace with justice, which will allow humankind to “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks,” so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
“They begged him to leave.” With this, the townsfolk in today’s Gospel reading confess that there are more than two demoniacs among them.
Jesus comes to the country of the Gadarenes and encounters two men, possessed. He rebukes the powers that ensnare the men, allowing them to flee into a herd of pigs. The animals are driven mad and throw themselves into the water to drown. This terrifies the swineherds, who rush into town, recounting the whole story. At this, the townspeople come out to meet Jesus, and beg him to leave.
This story is consistent with Christ’s promise to bring not peace, but a sword. Christ is a calmer of storms for the afflicted, but a harbinger of upheaval for communities built on and preserved by sin. By begging Christ to leave, the people have preferred livestock to humans. They have preferred to abandon and exile the afflicted, selling their neighbors to purchase stability. For the sake of peace, they have preferred pigs to men. But this is a false peace, a veneer that serves to obscure the brutality of their society. And it is into this peace that Christ, God’s right hand, thrusts his sword.
On this Holy Innocents Day, my mind goes back to Salisbury Cathedral where I was ordained. The cathedral is twinned with Chartres Cathedral, and the year after my ordination a huge new East window was put into Salisbury – an incredibly beautiful and powerful window, made in Chartres at the famous workshop of Gabriel Loire – and incorporating that marvelous blue so characteristic of Chartres. The window is called “Prisoners of conscience” and it was dedicated by Yehudi Menuhin, who had worked so tirelessly for Amnesty International.
It’s been a very long week. How many different emotions we have experienced, from the shock and horror of the bombings on Monday, the profound sadness and grief for those who lost their lives or were so terribly injured, to the growing anxiety as the police identified the two suspects, and then the days of tracking them down, culminating in the weird, almost surreal experience of Friday’s lockdown of the city, and the final relief when the second suspect was arrested on Friday night.
You will each have your own thoughts and experiences of Friday: being locked down, unable to go out. What I remember most vividly was having to lock the door of the Chapel. And then all though the day, the Brothers and our guests worshipping here together, with the door locked – and always just audible from outside, the eerie, unsettling sound of sirens.
Every year it strikes me, as if for the first time. On December 25 we celebrate the wondrous story of the birth of Jesus. We meditate on the coming of the Prince of Peace. We gaze adoringly at the crèche, at the Holy Family – the love between Mary and Joseph and their beloved child.