That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Saints Vote: Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018

Today, by translation from Thursday, the 1st of November, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.

All my life as an Episcopalian (we didn’t have All Saints Day in the churches where I spent my childhood), I’ve been told that this day is about remembering all the saints who didn’t get a day of their own. Sure, we include Hildegarde and Francis and Richard Hooker and all those other folks with a feast day, but it’s really about those of whom the Book of Sirach says “there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed,” although they “also were godly [people], whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”[1] All Saints Day (and, thus, this Sunday) is a Christian festival celebrated in honor of all the saints, known and unknown, and frankly more in honor of the unknowns. It acknowledges the powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (those we call the “Church triumphant”) and those of us still here on earth (we who make up the “Church militant”).

I’ve also been told, as I’m sure you have, that included in this commemoration are all the baptized who have ever lived and died. After all, the Catholic faith teaches that all faithful Christians are saints. St. Paul addressed his correspondence that way: for example, “To the saints who are in Ephesus…”[2] or “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae…”[3] So we are paying tribute to all departed baptized Christians.

Which is great, but then I am left wondering what November 2 is all about… If All Saints is about all those dead baptized Christians, what makes it different from the feast the next day that we call “All Souls” or the “Feast of All the Faithful Departed”? Why do we even have that day if that’s what All Saints Day is about. There must be something about All Saints that makes it different. According to one source, All Saints is about those dead who are believed to be already in heaven, while “All Souls was created to commemorate those who died baptized but without having confessed their sins, and thus they are believed to reside in purgatory.”[4]

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An All Saints Drive: Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2019

Cleaning a WindshieldToday is the first Sunday in November which means that instead of the normal sequence of lessons for Ordinary Time, we are given the option of reading the lessons for All Saints Day, which falls every year on November 1. So today we heard a reading from the Wisdom of Solomon (a part of the apocrypha in which we hear that the righteous are in the hand of God), a psalm reminding us that the saints pledge themselves to truth rather than falsehood, a bit of the Book of Revelation describing the “new Jerusalem” where God will make God’s home with the saints, and (oddly enough) to the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel.

Early in my meditations and study for preaching today, I thought I would explore with you the meaning of these various readings, but the more I thought about the less I wanted to do that.

So, instead of dealing with these bits of the Bible right now, what I’d like you to do is come with me for a drive. Let’s just set the Bible aside and go get in our car and head off down the road. It’s a country road, a hard-pack dirt country road out in the farm country. We’re taking a country drive on a fine, beautiful spring day. It’s been raining, just like it’s been doing here for the past week, but it’s not raining now.

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Blind Bartimaeus – Sermon for Pentecost 23, Proper 25 (28 October 2018)

Two weeks ago, Mark told us the story of the rich man who came to Jesus asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”[1] Today, in contrast, we have the story of Blind Bartimaeus.

The rich man came asking what he could do to earn salvation. Jesus gave him what turned out to be an impossible task, give up his wealth for the benefit of the poor, then come and follow Jesus. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, sits at the side of the road and simply calls out to Jesus asking for mercy. Though the crowd tries to silence him, Jesus hears him and asks what he wants. “To see again” is his reply and this request is immediately granted. “Go,” says Jesus, “your faith has made you whole.” The rich man is told to give everything up and then follow, but he goes away. Bartimaeus, in a sense, is given everything when his vision is restored and told to go away, but he follows.

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Christology & Ministry: Sermon for Pentecost 22, Proper 24B, 21 October 2018

Christology is one of those odd words of the Christian tradition that one doesn’t hear much in church but which one hears a lot in academic circles. Christology is defined as “the field of study within Christian theology which is primarily concerned with the ontology and person of Jesus as recorded in the canonical Gospels and the epistles of the New Testament.”[1] That’s really helpful, isn’t it? Begs the questions, “What is theology? What is ontology? What is a ‘canonical Gospel’?”

Christology in its basic form is just the attempt answer some deceptively simple questions: Who was Jesus? Who is Jesus? Who will Jesus be? What did he do? What is he doing now? What will he do in the future?

Today’s lessons from the Prophet Isaiah, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Gospel according to Mark present us with three different Christologies: the suffering servant of Isaiah, the high priest following in the footsteps of the Old Testament character of Melchizedek, and the kingly messiah following in the line of David the Shepherd King of Israel. Jesus debunks the latter in his conversation with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, but it remains a prominent feature of Christian understanding. All three shape our understanding of who Jesus was, who he is today, and who he will be tomorrow.

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Guardians of Praise – Sermon Pentecost 20, Proper 22B, October 7, 2018

Our gradual this morning asks a question of God about human existence:

What is man that you should be mindful of him?
the son of man that you should seek him out?[1]

Whenever I read this psalm, my mind immediately skips to lines from William Shakespeare, to words spoken by the prince of Denmark in the play Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals![2]

I have always been certain that Shakespeare was riffing on Psalm 8.

The prayer book version of the Psalm uses the word “man” in the generic sense asking the question about all of humankind, then literally translates the Hebrew ben adam as “son of man” recalling to us a term Jesus often applied to himself. While that may make a certain amount of liturgical sense, it distorts the importance of the Psalm. As translated in the New Revised Version of scripture, Psalm 8 asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” This is a little closer to the initial meaning of the verse, but the original Hebrew is not pluralized. This translation loses the awe and wonder of a singular individual gazing up at the night sky and overwhelmed by the presence of divinity.

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Protecting God? Sermon Pentecost 19, Proper 21B, September 30, 2018

Today the Lectionary gives us what, at first glance, are two stories about leadership, but what they really are are stories of people trying to protect God (or God’s appointed leader) in inappropriate ways

First, we have the story from the Book of Numbers which tells of the complaints of hunger voiced by the Hebrew wanderers to Moses. I have to admit that, growing up in Nevada as I did, I always thought that “fleshpots” was a much more lascivious word than it turns out to be; all it means is “stewpots.” The people yearned for the foods with which they had become familiar in Egypt.

Living along the Nile, they had been able to fish and get that source of protein for free. When they worked on whatever project they were assigned as “slaves of Pharaoh,” apparently they were fed from the fleshpots. Bible commentator Adam Clark writes, “They were doubtless fed in various companies by their task masters in particular places, where large pots or boilers were fixed for the purpose of cooking their victuals.”[1] They had grown used, perhaps, to receiving a ration of a stew probably made of lentils, some sort of grain, and mutton flavored with leeks, garlic, and onions. Even though they were getting manna from God, they longed for the familiar flavors of Egypt, the familiar certainties of slavery. As a colleague of mine has commented, “You can take the people out Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the people.”

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Simple Wisdom: Sermon for Pentecost 18, Proper 20B, September 23, 2018

The collect for today from The Book of Common Prayer:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[1]

On the positive side, the side of “things heavenly,” there is what James calls the “wisdom from above [which] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”[2] On the negative side, the side of “things that are passing away,” there is “wisdom [which] does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, [and] devilish.”[3] The text from Jeremiah and the Gradual Psalm remind us what this sort of “negative wisdom” leads to. How do we learn wisdom and how do we learn to choose one sort over the other?

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The Socratic Method, Jesus, and Birmingham – Sermon for Pentecost 17, Proper 19B, September 16, 2018

Fifteen years ago when I came to Medina for the first time in my life to meet the people of St. Paul’s Parish and, with them, make the mutual determination whether our life-paths were to converge, Earl and Hildegarde picked Evie and me up at the Cleveland airport. They first took us to Yours Truly Restaurant where we had a bite of lunch and then they brought us here, so that we could see the church.

I walked into this worship space and, quite forgetting that the patron saint of the parish is Paul the Apostle, I looked up at the altar window and I thought, “Why do they have a stained-glass window of Socrates?” As some of you may know, there is a bust of Socrates by the Greek sculptor Lysippus in the Louvre museum in Paris that the man in that window looks a good deal like; I suspect the 19th Century artisan who made that window took it as his inspiration. Of course, it’s not Socrates in the window; it’s Paul holding forth amongst the philosophers of Athens at the Hill of Mars, a story told by Luke in the 17th chapter of the Book of Acts.

Nonetheless, I thought of Socrates and our window this week as I contemplated this Sunday’s lessons, two of which (the prophecy of Isaiah and the Letter of James) discuss the ministry of teaching and one of which tells the story of Jesus’ instructing the Twelve.

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Transforming Generosity: Jesus & the Syrophoenician Woman – Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 18B, September 9, 2018

Last week we began our parish’s annual fund campaign with the theme “Transforming Generosity.” You should have received your pledge card for 2019 together with a letter about the nature of stewardship and generosity. There was an article in the newsletter similar to that letter, and early in the week you received an email (if you receive email) which is repeated on an insert in your bulletin this morning. Your parish leadership team has asked and will continue to encourage you to do two things that may seem contradictory: first, to make your financial commitment for 2019 earlier than usual, and second, to take your time in doing so. Our hope is that you will submit your estimates of giving on or before the first Sunday in November, but that you will give real prayerful and careful consideration to how your financial support of your church reflects your relationship with God. Stewardship, as that letter said, is not a matter of fund raising; stewardship is a matter of spiritual health. The “Transforming Generosity” theme hopes to inspire you to be a faithful steward and so to give as an expression of your relationship with God.

So, I’d hoped to preach a stewardship sermon this week, but . . . alas . . . the Lectionary saddles us this Sunday with a story that doesn’t much lend itself to discussing stewardship and generosity; it’s the story of Jesus basically insulting a Syrophoenician woman who comes to him begging healing for her daughter. Instead of doing so, he says to her, “It is not fitting to throw the children’s food to the dogs.”[1] I have wrestled with this text from Mark more times than I like (at least ten times as the lectionary has cycled round in my thirty years of ordained ministry) and I have yet to win. Scholars have been wrestling with this text for two thousand years and I don’t think they have won either. There are just no commentaries which offer any sort of exegesis of the story that I find satisfactory; either Jesus’s use of the term “dog” to refer to the Gentile woman is excused away or it is ignored. The commentaries which acknowledge the rudeness, the downright vileness of the comment do no more than that; there’s little or no help in resolving our dilemma.

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Teach Your Children (Labor Day): Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 17B, September 2, 2018

You, who are on the road
must have a code
that you can live by.
And so become yourself
because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well . . . .

If you are as big a fan of the folk rock of the 1970s as I am, you will recognize the opening lines of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young’s 1970 hit Teach Your Children.[1] Graham Nash who wrote the song has said that it was inspired by a 1962 photograph take by Diane Arbus of a young boy in New York’s Central Park playing with a toy hand grenade. I have no reason to disbelieve that, but I wonder also if today’s lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell address to the people he has led through Sinai to the brink of the Promised Land, might also have been in Nash’s mind. The song is a neat paraphrase of what Moses says.

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