The theme for today’s lessons is clear . . . we are almost “hit upside head” with the concept of Sabbath. Our reading from Deuteronomy is the law establishing the mandatory day of rest:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.
Our Gospel lesson relates two of Mark’s stories of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees about Sabbath observance: first, a probably made-up tale about the disciples plucking wheat, and second, a probably true story about Jesus healing a man with a crippled hand in the context of a synagogue Sabbath observance.
So what is Sabbath?
What do you suppose it was like in Jerusalem on that Pentecost morning so long ago?
Did you watch the coverage of the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle yesterday? Did you see the crowds along the streets of London as they took their post-nuptial carriage ride? The narrow streets of ancient Jerusalem would have been something like that. Shoulder to shoulder people moving through the streets and alleyways, past vendors’ stalls, moving toward the Temple to make their festival offerings.
Our Christian holiday of Pentecost takes its name from the Greek name of the Jewish festival called Shavuot. The Hebrew name means “festival of weeks” referring to the fact that it takes place seven weeks after the Passover. The Greek name comes from words meaning “fifty days” referring similarly to its being the fiftieth day after Passover. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt remembered at Passover. This is why our Christian feast of Pentecost occurs fifty days after the Resurrection of Jesus which took place at Passover.
Our gospel lesson today is from John’s story of the last supper. This is part of a long after-dinner speech that Jesus gives including a section known as the “high priestly prayer.” In it, among other petitions, Jesus asks God the Father to look after his disciples. He prays:
All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost . . . .
As we gather today on this Sunday after the Ascension, essentially the last Sunday of the Easter Season, which also happens this year to be Mother’s Day on the secular, I am struck by how maternal this prayer sounds; it sounds like a mother leaving her children.
Today we are welcoming Reed C_____ F_____ into the Household of God through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. We are also commemorating Dame Julian of Norwich, one of the medieval saints of English Christianity. Twenty-eight years ago I was ordained a deacon on Julian’s feast day which is actually on Tuesday, May 8. So the lessons we heard this morning, and the second of the two collect I offered after the Gloria in Excelsis, were from the propers for Dame Julian’s celebration. But I would like to read you also the brief Gospel lesson appointed for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, which is also from John’s Gospel
Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
In this sermon, I hope to address the nature of the ministry to which all Christians are called and commissioned through the sacrament of baptism, for a small part of which some of us are set apart through ordination to the sacred diaconate or the holy priesthood. A few verses in particular are of interest: one from the gospel for Julian’s celebration: “The Father seeks such as these to worship him”, and two from the gospel lesson I just read: “You did not choose me but I chose you” and “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
In 2011 a young man in New York City named Gabriel went to a party. While there, he drank some of the alcoholic punch being served. Unknown to the young man, the punch had been spiked with a drug called Gamma-Hydroxybutyric Acid, commonly called GHB. Prescribed as Xyrem and also called by a variety of “street names,” it is known as a “date rape” or rave drug. It comes as a liquid or as a white powder that is dissolved in water, juice, or alcohol. In most people it produces euphoria, drowsiness, decreased anxiety, excited behavior, and occasionally hallucinations. For Gabriel, however, who suffered from medication-controlled epilepsy, it caused a seizure. Apparently interacting with his regularly prescribed medication, the GHB he had unknowingly consumed caused a fatal convulsion.
Every year, for as long as any of us can remember, on the Second Sunday of Easter the church has told the story of Thomas, Thomas the Doubter, “Doubting Thomas” who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen, the poster child for those who are uncertain. But, believe me, Thomas gets a bad rap! He was no worse a doubter or disbeliever than any of the others, including Peter!
Consider this from the end of Mark’s Gospel:
Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.
Sometimes I find myself at a loss for words. It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while I simply don’t know what to say about a person or an event or a spiritual feeling. On Good Friday, is one of the times when this happens. I don’t know what I want to say about Jesus or his crucifixion or the salvation we enjoy because of his death and resurrection.
When these speechless times happen, I find that turning to poets helps. I find that others have expressed that with which I am having such difficulty. So, today, I want to share three poems with you, actually part of an epic poem, a hymn, and a complete short poem. These aren’t specifically about Good Friday, but they give us some insight into this event, the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what it might mean for us.
Across the Kidron valley from Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, is a small grove of olive trees. In the midst of it is a church called “The Church of All Nations” and in the center of that church, surrounded by a low wrought iron fence sculpted to resemble brambles and thorns, is a large, rough, flat rock. It is called “the stone of agony” and tradition tells us it is the place where Jesus prayed on the night before he died.
Our gospel lesson for this evening, for Maundy Thursday, does not mention that olive grove, that stone, or Jesus’ prayers. Our gospel lesson on this day is always the same from year to year. We rehearse John’s story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. John’s Jesus is self-assured and in control. He “knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.” He knew “that the Father had given all things into his hands.” “He knew who was to betray him.” He gives his friends a “new commandment” (which, as a colleague of mine noted in our on-line bible study, isn’t really all that new): “Love one another.”
Today we are commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the week that would culminate in his death on the cross of Calvary. Somewhat contrary to common sense, this has come to be called the “triumphal entry.” I don’t know who first applied this term to Jesus making his way from Bethany and Bethphage, through the Kidron Valley, also known as the valley of Jehosophat or the valley of decision, into the holy city. I’ve often thought that whoever it was must surely have been a master of irony, or perhaps of sarcasm, for the procession was anything but a triumph!
Two scholars, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, have suggested that much more than a fulfillment of the Zecharian prophecy that the messiah, the king would come gently bringing salvation, riding on a donkey’s colt, Jesus’ parade was a mockery of the Roman tradition of military parades, particularly the sort Pontius Pilate might have used to enforce imperial domination.
To appreciate their suggestion, it’s necessary for us to understand the nature of these parades. We have a word in English, triumph, the adjectival form of which we apply to Jesus’ parade, which we use and understand as a synonym to the word victory. But it derives from the name of a particular sort of military parade practiced by the Romans, the triumphus. In Roman tradition, the triumph happened after a victory was won, but only in Rome, only after certain victories and only for certain victors. It has been said that the triumph was “one of the most dazzling examples of the theme of spectacle in Roman culture,” imbued with “theatricality” and designed primarily to persuade its audience of the greatness of the conquering general and of Rome itself.
There is a graphic artist named Brian Andreas whose work I can’t really describe to you. He uses a lot of primary colors, representational but non-realistic images, and words to create prints called StoryPeople. In one of them that I saw recently is this quotation (I don’t know if it’s original to Mr. Andreas or quoted from someone else):
I had no idea that when I invited life to take over that it actually would and now I’m somewhere miles away from any place I know and life keeps waving its arms and grinning like a crazy person saying “This. Is. So. Great.”
I thought of that when I encountered, again, what may be the most famous verse from the Gospel of John in today’s lesson: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”