On April 12, a little more than seven months ago, I was privileged to officiate and preach at a service of Choral Evensong at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland. Following the service, on our way home to Medina, my wife Evelyn and I stopped at a Lebanese restaurant in Middleburg Heights for a late dinner in celebration of our 43rd wedding anniversary, which that day was. After a lovely meal of hummus, baba ganoush, spicy beef kafta, and chicken shwarma, we went home to bed. A few hours later, around 2 a.m., I woke up with a horrendous case of heartburn. I took some antacid and went back to sleep sitting up in my favorite armchair. At 7 a.m. the next morning, I woke up knowing that I hadn’t had indigestion after all; I was having a heart attack.
We “boast in our sufferings,” writes Paul to the Romans, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us….” It sounds, doesn’t it, like Paul is encouraging the Romans to brag about their problems and how well they handle them, as if endurance, character, and hope were the prizes handed out in some sort of “affliction Olympics.”
Well, he’s not. The Greek word here is kauchaomai which the lexicon interprets as “to glory in a thing.” The New American Bible rendered this injunction as “we exult in our tribulations.” The old Revised Standard Version translated this word as “rejoice.” I rather like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this text in The Message: “We … shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles.” So, no … Paul is not encouraging competitive bragging.
Well, then, what is he doing?
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” advises the author of the letter to the Colossians (whom I shall call “Paul” even though there is some scholarly dispute about that). Is Paul echoing the Teacher who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes? Is he also asserting that “all the deeds that are done under the sun [are] vanity and a chasing after wind”?
And what about Luke’s Jesus? When he says that God calls the rich man a fool is he condemning his wealth or his saving for the future as a waste of time?
No, not at all! None of our biblical authors this morning – not the Teacher, not Paul, not Luke (and certainly not Jesus whom Luke is quoting) – none of them is saying that life is futile or that our earthly existence is unimportant.
Come Holy Spirit, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
everywhere present and filling all things.
Treasury of Blessing, Giver of Life,
Come, dwell within us and between us… Amen.
On the day of Pentecost, the disciples, “filled with the Holy Spirit” rushed out into the streets of Jerusalem “and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability,” proclaiming the Good News to the crowds of people in town for Shavuot and answering their inevitable questions. Jesus had told them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” The Spirit, as Jesus promised, had reminded them and empowered them, and now here they were.
Scholars and preachers go through all sorts of hermeneutical contortions to interpret this event as some sort of reversal or overcoming of the linguistic scattering of the nations at the Tower of Babel. I suppose that’s why our lectionary pairs that Genesis story with the reading from the Book of Acts, but I don’t think that’s what Luke, the author of Acts, was trying to convey. I’m always left wondering, “If that’s what he was trying to put across, why didn’t he just say that?”
This sermon was first preached on Easter Sunday, 2001, at St. Francis of Assisi in the Pines Episcopal Church, Stilwell, Kansas, where I was rector from July 1993 to June 2003. I had thought it lost when that parish abandoned its internet domain after I left that position. However, at the urging of a friend, I searched for it on the Internet Archive’s “wayback machine,” and was surprised to find it. I have updated some of the references and corrected some mistakes to publish it here. I have always thought it a pretty good sermon, and I guess others have thought so, too: in the course of researching sources to update the footnotes, I found that a rather large chunk of it had been reproduced in full, without attribution, as the pastor’s 2019 Easter letter in the newsletter of a Roman Catholic parish in Scotland.[A] (As my fellow Anglican cleric Charles Caleb Cotton wrote in 1824 – and Oscar Wilde later quoted and expanded – “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.”[B])
Easter is a joke. Amen.
(The Preacher steps out of the pulpit, perhaps even returns to his chair, then returns to the pulpit.)
OK … I guess I should explain that. What is a “joke”? Princeton University’s WordNet Dictionary says, in one of its definitions, that a joke is an “activity characterized by good humor.” Can you think of a better way to characterize the resurrection of Jesus than as an “activity characterized by good humor”? The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was God’s activity of the highest and best humor!
I wrote in our newsletter, The Canticle, that the Sunday we call “Easter” is really not a separate feast day; it is the third part of a three-day celebration that begins at sundown on the previous Thursday, the day we call “Maundy.” This three-day celebration is called by an ancient Latin name, “the Triduum.” The Triduum is a single celebration in three acts. We have arrived at Act Three in the drama of redemption.
A Buddhist tells this story:
Once upon a time, there was a tavern owner in Mumbai. He had a hard-working bartender, who was always trying to be helpful by inventing new ways of doing things. One hot day, the tavern owner wanted to go to the beach. So he left the bartender in charge while he was gone. The bartender had noticed that many customers ate a little salt after drinking their liquor. He didn’t know why, but not wishing to show his ignorance, he never asked. He thought it might be that the liquor needed salt to taste good, and he wondered why taverns didn’t just add salt to their liquor. He decided that if he did so, the business would make much higher profits, and the tavern owner would be very pleased. So he added salt to all the liquor, not knowing that the actual reason the customers ate the salt was to chase away the aftertaste of the liquor. To his surprise, when the customers came to the tavern and drank the salty booze, they immediately spit it out; they left and went to a different bar. When the owner returned from his day at the beach, he found his tavern empty, and all his liquor ruined.
When I was a kid growing up first in southern Nevada and then in southern California, the weeks leading up to Christmas (we weren’t church members so we didn’t call them “Advent”) were always the same. They followed a pattern set by my mother. We bought a tree and decorated it; we set up a model electric train around it. We bought and wrapped packages and put them under the tree, making tunnels for that toy train. We went to the Christmas light shows in nearby parks and drove through the neighborhoods that went all out for cooperative, or sometimes competitive, outdoor displays. My mother would make several batches of bourbon balls (those confections made of crushed vanilla wafers and booze) and give them to friends and co-workers. Christmas Eve we would watch one or more Christmas movies on TV, and early Christmas morning we would open our packages . . . carefully so that my mother could save the wrapping paper. Then all day would be spent cooking and watching TV and playing bridge. After the big Christmas dinner, my step-father and I would do the clean up, my brother and my uncle would watch TV . . . and my mother would sneak off to her room and cry. You see . . . no matter how carefully we prepared, no matter how strictly we adhered to Mom’s pattern, something always went wrong. We never got it right; Christmas never turned out the way my mother wanted it to be.
Some years later, I read the work of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and I understood what our family problem was.
While making a presentation at a conference about teaching English as a second language, an expert in the field remarked that one of the difficulties is that there are many instances in English when a double-negative renders positive meaning and this is confusing for non-English speakers. “It’s fortunate,” she said, “there’s no way in English that a double positive can convey negative meaning.”
From the back of the room a voice spoke up, “Yeah, right.”
Now when that story is written, the sarcasm of that double positive giving negative meaning is hard to indicate; in fact, it is impossible. And yet it will probably be understood by a native speaker. For the non-English speaker, however, discerning the sarcasm and humor is difficult. Inflection and tone of voice can and do drastically alter meaning and understanding.
Lenten Journal, Day 11 – Second Sunday in Lent
It has been a busy St. Patrick’s Day although Evelyn and I did nothing in the nature of Irish celebration other than pick up some deli corned beef and Swiss cheese for lunch sandwiches and in the evening meet friends for Mexican food. Margaritas are green; they count, right? We went to church where we heard a sermon about God’s faithfulness, stopped at the store to by that corned beef, and came home to do the things married people do on a Sunday afternoon. By which I mean laundry and housekeeping.
Yesterday, I listened to an NPR interview with a musician promoting her art at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival. In the course of the interview, while she was talking about making a political witness through her art, she said, “There are so many things I don’t want to believe….”
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. – John 2:1-2
I know that the natural inclination of preachers during the season of ordinary Sundays after Epiphany is to focus on the gospel stories of “manifestation” and we certainly have one this week, the miracle of water-into-wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. The story is ripe with focus possibilities: the miracle itself, the presence of the Holy Spirit as the activating force of Jesus’ power (suggested strongly this year by the lectionary pairing of this gospel tale with Paul’s listing of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12), the always popular look at the relationship between Mary and her son, Jesus’ attitude toward his public ministry at this time.
What is seldom preached on this Sunday is the context of the story: a wedding! So I think I might go there this week if I were preaching. The lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures positively invites us to do so; marriage is Isaiah’s metaphor (as it is other prophets’) for the relationship between God and Israel:
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
I’ve been thinking a good deal recently about the nature of the marital estate. I recently had major orthopedic surgery (a total knee replacement) and find myself absolutely unable to attend to many of the everyday activities of life, some of them quite mundane, some quite intimate and personal. I am dependent upon my spouse to whom I have been married now for nearly 40 years. As she attended to one of my needs the other day, I quipped, “Ah yes, I remember well that part of the service where we promised to do this for each other” (which, of course, we hadn’t). We make formal promises in weddings to love and honor, to cherish and comfort, to faithfully keep one another “in sickness and health,” but we don’t get into the nitty-gritty details. Perhaps we’ve been counseled in advance of the wedding as to what these vows mean and what that nitty grit might be, but no pre-marital instruction can cover everything.
My father-in-law probably didn’t realize in 1947 that those promises would commit him 50 years later to caring for an invalid wife suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the last eight years of their marriage, feeding her, bathing her, wiping her bottom, and all while she tried to fight him off because she didn’t know him. Those vows long before the onset of my mother-in-law’s disease had become water under the bridge, replaced by the fine, strong wine of human love and commitment. And though she hasn’t (I hope) had quite the same level of difficulty to handle, my in-law’s daughter follows in her father’s footsteps taking care of her temporarily invalided husband.
So . . . if I were preaching this week, I’d consider that context, a wedding. Weddings become marriages, brides become wives, grooms become husbands; those are transmutations, transformations, and differences as profound as water become wine. That alchemy of marriage manifests the Lord in our midst everyday.
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.
 Isaiah 62:5
 The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 424