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.
This is the second of three Sundays during which our lessons from the Gospel according to Matthew tell the story of an encounter between Jesus and the temple authorities. Jesus has come into Jerusalem, entered the Temple and had a somewhat violent confrontation with “the money changers and … those who sold doves,” gone back to Bethany, and then returned to the Temple the next day. In last week’s lesson, “the chief priests and the elders of the people” demanded that he explain himself, asking, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” In good rabbinic fashion, Jesus answers their question with a question and, when they cannot answer his question, he declines to answer theirs.
But, Jesus being Jesus, he doesn’t leave it at that: he goes on to tell three parables. First, a story about two sons, one of whom refuses to do as his father instructs but later changes his mind and obeys, the other of whom agrees to do as he is told but then fails to do so. The second, today’s story about a vineyard. And the third, a story about a wedding feast where the invited guests decline attendance so passers-by are dragged in off the streets, but one man (who fails to wear an appropriate wedding garment) is tossed back out into a place of perdition. We heard the first last week; we’ll hear the third next week. Today, we have heard “the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.”
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Last week, Evelyn and I were in Topeka, Kansas, visiting our son and his family. On Friday afternoon we were at loose ends while the grandkids were at school and their parents were at work, so we decided to visit the Brown vs. Board of Education National Monument. This memorial is a small museum in what was the segregated, all-black Monroe Elementary School south of Topeka’s downtown. I’m glad we went to see it. It is a remarkable place, and a fascinating if sobering reminder of how bad racism has been in this country and how much further we still have to go to remove that stain from our nation.
A clergy colleague suggested recently that this Sunday’s epistle reading makes a lot more sense if you add ‘Dear Diary’ at the start. I think he’s right. For seven chapters of his letter to the Romans, Paul the erudite and well-educated Greek-speaking rabbi has been going on at length about the Law and how it does or does not apply to Jews and Gentiles, how it does or does not apply to members of the church, and so forth. And then, all of a sudden, he’s no longer the learned Jewish Christian apologist; he’s just a guy complaining about life. He begins writing in the first person and bemoaning his inability to carry through with his best intentions. It’s like, “Dear Diary, I really screwed up and I don’t understand why!”
But this passage is not in Paul’s diary, it’s in his letter to the Romans, which the church has preserved as part of Holy Scripture, so here we are reading it during worship and trying to figure out just what the heck Paul is talking about! Is he, autobiographically and symbolically, describing a believer’s pre-conversion state? That is, does the misery described in these verses represent a person’s life before receiving the grace of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension? Or, alternatively, is he presenting himself as the stereotypical believer after receiving the grace of baptism? Does the conundrum Paul describes characterize the life of faith? And if he couldn’t get it right, who could?
“As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.” Something similar happens in the Genesis reading from the Hebrew scriptures appointed for today: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’ * * * So Abram went, as the Lord had told him….”
Abram’s immediate response to God’s call is the subject of Paul’s comments in the Epistle reading from the Letter to the Romans. Abram believed God, believed in God, and acted on that belief, and that combination of belief and action is what Paul refers to as faith and that “faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin , an 18th century French politician once said, “Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what you what kind of man are.” The 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said, “Man is what he eats.”
These observations have been distilled into our modern idiom. “You are what you eat” is a saying one hears or reads pretty regularly. And it’s true. Eating shapes our identities, defines who we are. A particular food and drink may highlight ethnicity, nationality, or age: tacos, lasagna, Coca Cola (over fifty), Pepsi (under thirty,) hamburgers, sushi. Food and drink defines the great holidays and important celebrations of our lives: champagne on New Year’s Eve, turkey at Thanksgiving, plum pudding at Christmas, hot dogs on the Fourth of July, eggs at Easter.
An ordained colleague of mine once commented that the Sacramental presence of the Eucharist has shifted location in the modern church. Once the table-fellowship of the church was centered on the altar; now, he said, it is found elsewhere depending upon denominational tradition. For Baptists, it is now found in the fried chicken dinner; for Methodists, in the potluck supper; and for Episcopalians, at coffee hour. He was kidding, of course, but there is an element of truth in his humor.
In today’s Gospel lesson we heard, as we always hear on the Second Sunday of Easter Season, the story of “doubting Thomas.” What is striking about the Thomas’s demand … “unless I see” … is that our Lord accepts and encourages it … “Reach out your hand.”
This deceptively simple story is a great encouragement to those of us who follow the Anglican path in Christianity. We have the inheritance of a method of engaging the Faith (and Life) which is described in the work of the seminal Anglican theologian Richard Hooker. Fr. Mike Russell, who has recently published a re-issue of Hooker’s Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, describes this method this way:
Anglicans frequently talk about the three-legged stool of authority that distinguishes them from Roman Catholics and Protestants. The former give more authority to Church traditions, the latter to Holy Scripture, but Anglicans somehow add them together and then mix in human reason. Once again, that mixture is Mr. Hooker at work re-framing the discussion. What emerges hardly fits our popular notion of a code of laws and, in fact, we come to understand that in talking about laws, Mr. Hooker is actually speaking throughout about the nature and exercise of authority.
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.
“In the Name of God the Broken-Hearted. Amen.”
In January of 1991, I was a student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, where there is a tradition of Thursday night community eucharists followed by dinner together in the seminary refectory. On the evening of Thursday, January 17, the Rev. Dr. John Kater, professor of ministry theory and practice, was our preacher and he began his sermon with the invocation I have just offered. You see, that was the day “Operation Desert Shield” became “Operation Desert Storm,” and we had all been glued to the TV sets in the common room, the dormitory lounges, or our apartments watching as the US Air Force began a bombardment of Baghdad that was to last for weeks and, eventually, lead into nearly three decades of war in the Persian Gulf region.
There was another American bombing of Baghdad just a few days ago in which the military leader of Iran, Qassem Soleimani, was killed. If the news reports are correct, his death may trigger more armed conflict in the region. So this weekend, as we read in our newspapers about the Iranian general’s death and tonight consider the visit of a group of Iranian scientists to Israel, it seemed good to repeat that invocation tonight.