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.”
Power and authority. These are the subjects of our lessons from Scripture this morning. Later this month they will figure as key concepts in a trial scheduled to begin in Fulton County, Georgia. That trial will focus on an alleged attempt to disrupt, even to stop, what we have come to call “the peaceful transfer of power.” Historian Maureen MacDonald wrote a few years ago:
The swearing-in ceremony allows for the peaceful transfer of power from one President to another. It formally gives the “power of the people” to the person who has been chosen to lead the United States. This oath makes an ordinary citizen a President.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, part of which we heard this morning, the apostle writes about the power of Jesus Christ by quoting a liturgical hymn sung in early Christian communities:
At the name of Jesus?every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord.
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.
Today, in the normal course of the Lectionary, would have been the 10th Sunday after Pentecost on which, this year, we would have read the lessons known as “Proper 13” in which the gospel lesson is Matthew’s story of the feeding of the 5,000. However, since this is August 6, we don’t follow the normal course. We step away from the Lectionary to celebrate one of the feasts which, in the language of the Prayer Book, “take precedence of a Sunday,” the Feast of the Transfiguration.
The church’s understanding of the meaning of the event described by Luke in today’s gospel lesson is summarized in today’s opening collect: “[O]n the holy mount [God] revealed to chosen witnesses [God’s] well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening.” The collect expresses the church’s hope that Christians “may by faith behold the King in his beauty.” The Collect for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, on which we also read about this event, similarly summarizes the event as the revelation of the Son’s “glory upon the holy mountain,” and expresses the hope that the faithful may be “changed into his likeness from glory to glory.”
In other words, the Transfiguration is all about Jesus, but, while that’s true, nothing about Jesus is ever all about Jesus! It’s about Jesus to whose pattern his followers are to be conformed, so it is about us, as well. And, as any story is about not only its protagonist but also about the “bit players” who surround him, it is about James and John and Peter, who represent us.
When I was a sophomore in college, I lived in a dormitory suite with nine other guys: six bedrooms, two sitting rooms, and a large locker-room style bathroom. About mid-way through the first semester, one of our number, a 3rd-year biochemistry major, suggested that set up a small brewery in one of the sitting rooms. We all read up on how to make beer and thought it was a great idea; so we helped him do it. It takes three to four weeks to make a batch of beer, so over the next few months we made quite a bit of beer.
Then, late in the spring semester, one of our roommates had a chance to get some yeast from a famous California champagne producer, so we thought we’d use it in our beer. We thought we’d be super-cool making beer with champagne yeast and our beer would be magnificent; we weren’t and it wasn’t. In fact, it was downright awful.
It turns out that not all yeasts are the same!
When I was 19 years old, my parish priest, Fr. John Donaldson, died of cancer. I was privileged to be the acolyte and crucifer at his requiem and burial. It was a very formal, high-church affair. In all honesty, I remember very little of Fr. John’s funeral. I don’t remember Bishop Bloy’s homily at all, but I do remember the committal at the graveside. You see, it was my first experience of a burial using the liturgy of the Episcopal Church.
I had been to plenty of funerals by then: my father died when I was five, my grandfather when I was eight, my paternal uncle when I was twelve. But I had been an Episcopalian for only five years when Fr. John died and until then I’d never been to a Prayer Book funeral and I’d never heard the words spoken as dirt is tossed onto the coffin:
Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our brother departed, and we commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ….
Those words, “in sure and certain hope,” really hit me and have stuck with me through the years. They have been used in Anglican burials since Archbishop Cranmer first penned them for the original Prayer Book in 1549. We still use them in the Prayer Book of 1979. They are fundamental to the Anglican expression of the Christian faith.
This is an old and familiar story, a comfortable story if you will … the parable of the sower. We’ve all heard it before and we know what it means because Jesus takes the time to explain it. Jesus calls it “the parable of the sower,” but it really ought to be called “the parable of the soils.” The parable presents the variety of responses to the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses the metaphor of the different types of soil into which the sower’s seed is cast. That “soil,” he explains, is people.
Some seed that falls on the path which, says Jesus, represents those who hear the good news but do not understand it. Because of the hardness or dullness of their hearts, the evil one, who resists God’s purposes snatches it away. It is not clear, in the parable or in Jesus’ explanation, why the devil seems to be more powerful in influencing the human heart than is God’s word, but then that is not the point of the parable. That, perhaps, is a teaching Jesus meant to leave for another day.
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?
What are we to do with our first lesson today? The story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, called the Akedah in Hebrew, “exudes darkness and mystery, and it brings before us a thousand questions, most of which have no answers.” In the late 1300s an unknown English author penned a short treatise entitled The Cloud of Unknowing basically arguing that such “darkness and mystery,” and the thousands of unanswerable questions they bring, are really fundamental to our relationship with God. “[O]f God Himself can no man think,” he writes, “He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never.”
The Spanish mystical poet, St. John of the Cross, made a similar point in his poem known as The Dark Night of the Soul. He wrote in the first verse:
Once in the dark of night,?
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose?
(O coming of delight!)?
And went, as no one knows,
?When all my house lay long in deep repose….
“In this first stanza,” John himself said, the soul relates the way and manner which it followed “to attain to living the sweet and delectable life of love with God; and it says that this going forth from itself and from all things was a ‘dark night,’ by which . . . is here understood purgative contemplation.” This “purgative contemplation” has been called a darkening of the will, intellect, and senses, or more simply a “remain[ing] silent, …not thinking of anything.”
Do any of you know the story of Tubby the Cocker Spaniel? Well . . . remember Tubby’s name. We’ll come back to him, but first let’s put today’s gospel lesson in perspective.
This lesson picks up where last week’s lesson ended. You’ll recall that Jesus is sending the twelve out to do missionary work. “Go,” he tells them “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel . . . proclaim the good news . . . cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” In last week’s lesson, he warned them that this was not going to be easy, that they would face opposition. In this week’s reading, he continues in that vein and ups the ante, increases the volume: it won’t just be difficult, he says, it’s possibly going to be deadly!
There won’t just be arguments at the Thanksgiving table; there will be fights! Your father or your mother, your sister or your brother . . . they won’t just disagree with you; they will be your enemies; they will try to kill you. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”