John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7)
I’m not preaching this Sunday, but if I were I would have to congratulate John the Baptizer on his social skills! He sure knows how to warm up and relate to a crowd.
What is John saying by greeting his audience thus? Is John speaking to the Pharisees and the Sadducees at all, or rather to the rest of the crowd? Or, more likely, is Luke saying something to us, his later readers?
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?” 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.
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.
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.” 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.
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. 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.
Five weeks ago we began our month long journey through the world of bread with what Presbyterian scholar Choon-Leon Seow called the “remarkably mundane” story of food for the hungry, the feeding of the 5,000. In the context of that story, we considered the need for budgets and plans, the need to be sure that one has enough bread to the crowd, enough materials to build a tower, enough resources to fight go to war or fight a battle. The metaphor of bread reminds us of the need to plan ahead.
The next Sunday, as Jesus launched into the long discourse on bread which is the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, we looked at the origins of the metaphor in our faith tradition with the unleavened bread of the Passover and the gift of manna, the bread from heaven given in the desert of Sinai, and how in the faith of the Hebrew people the bread of affliction, the bread of slavery in Egypt, was transformed into the bread of justice. We heard Jesus extend this metaphor with the graphic, almost disgusting, image not merely of eating symbolic bread but of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. How, we wondered, can we work with this disturbing metaphor in our modern world?
Most of the Bible texts from the Revised Common Lectionary this week present us with the well-worn and comfortable Biblical image of sheep and shepherds. Jeremiah rails against the shepherds of Israel “who destroy and scatter the sheep of [the Lord’s] pasture,” pronouncing God’s intention to come and be the Shepherd in their place. “I myself,” says God, “will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord.”
The Psalmist picks up the ball and runs with it in what may be the most famous piece of Hebrew poetry ever written: “The Lord is my shepherd,” he declares and we proclaim it with him. And then Mark’s Gospel continues down the field with the observation that Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
The odd man out is the Epistle lesson, part of a letter claimed to be from Paul to a church in the Asia Minor port city of Ephesus. Not a single sheep or shepherd to be found. Instead we get talk of circumcision, of aliens and strangers, of dividing walls being torn down, and a “holy temple,” the “household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets.”
Yesterday, July 14, was the 185th anniversary of the preaching a sermon which is said to have been the beginning of the Catholic revival in the Church of England. The sermon was preached at St. Mary’s Church Oxford by the Rev. John Keble, Provost of Oriel College and Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The sermon marked the opening of the Assize Court, the summer term of the English High Court of Justice. The Assize sermon normally would have addressed matters of law and religion, but in the summer of 1833 the Parliament of the United Kingdom was debating whether to abolish (or in the language of the time “suppress”) some dioceses of the Anglican Church of Ireland which, at the time, was united with the Church of England. It was an entirely financial issue in the eyes of Parliament, but Keble and several of his friends believed this to be an encroachment of the secular establishment upon the religious and an altogether wrong thing, and so it was this portending legislation that Keble addressed in his homily, which he titled National Apostasy. He began with these words:
It had gone on so long she couldn’t remember a time that wasn’t like this. She lived in constant fear. She wasn’t just cranky and out-of-sorts; she was terrified. Her life wasn’t just messy and disordered; it was perilous, precarious, seriously even savagely so. It was physically and spiritually draining, like being whipped every day.
Many in her situation might have given up, given in, curled up, and died. But not her. She was determined to stay alive. She was, after all, a daughter of Eve, created by God to join her husband as partners with God in conceiving, bearing, and giving birth to other human beings. She had had those children and now she had to look after them, to raise them, to ensure their survival.
But . . . she was going to die. She was convinced of that. If she continued to live in those circumstances she would die. There is simply no doubt about it.
For recreational reading these days, I’m into a novel entitled Winter of the Gods. The premise is that the ancient gods of Greece are still with us, immortal but relatively powerless beings blending into the human world around them. The story is set in current-day New York City where the goddess Artemis, mistress of the hunt and twin sister of Apollo, lives and works as a private detective. As the novel opens, Selene (as Artemis is called) and her partner Theo, a professor of classics at Columbia University, are consulting with the NYPD about a bizarre murder. What they know, and the police don’t, is that the victim is Hades, god of the underworld.
This is the first death of an immortal god in millennia and the rest of the gods are thrown into turmoil. They have to join forces and work together to solve the murder before another one of them killed. This is difficult because if the Greek gods are nothing else they are a dysfunctional family. After all, they are all descended from Kronos, the divine son of Uranus, the sky, and Gaia, the earth. Kronos overthrew his parents and ruled during the mythological Golden Age. He married his sister Rhea and fathered several children, but prevented strife by eating then as soon as they were born. Eventually, Rhea grew tired of this and tricked Kronos into not devouring Zeus, who overthrew Kronos and cut open his father’s belly and freed his brothers and sisters.
As a theologian and a preacher, I am very glad I don’t have that mythology to deal with on a weekly basis! Finding something good to preach based on the stories of that dysfunctional family would be a task I don’t think I’m up to.