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?
“Put things in order, … agree with one another, live in peace.” That’s Paul’s advice to the Corinthians and to us this morning. It’s a goal to which we often pledge ourselves. Sometimes, though, the world makes it hard to get there.
In January of 2013, a 16-year-old girl in Detroit, Michigan, was minding her own business in a public playground when she became the innocent victim of a drive-by shooting. Two years later, on June 3, 2015, on what would have been her 18th birthday, her friends decided to honor her memory by dressing in her favorite color, orange, which just happens to be the color hunters wear for safety. The next year, they decided to do it again and create a campaign for gun violence awareness. Thus was born Wear Orange Day which has since become Wear Orange Weekend. Also in 2016, some of us Episcopal clergy here in Ohio heard of their effort and decided to join it by making and wearing orange stoles on the first Sunday of June.
A book entitled Stories for the Heart was published a few years ago by inspirational speaker Alice Gray. It is a compilation of what Gray calls “stories to encourage your soul;” one of them is the following story, whose original author she says is unknown. It may not be true, but I (for one) hope it is:
It was a few weeks before Christmas 1917. The beautiful snowy landscapes of Europe were blackened by war. The trenches on one side held the Germans and on the other side the trenches were filled with Americans. It was World War I. The exchange of gunshots was intense. Separating them was a very narrow strip of no-man’s land. A young German soldier attempting to cross that no-man’s land had been shot and had become entangled in the barbed wire. He cried out in anguish, then in pain he continued to whimper.
Today marks the beginning of the season we call “Lent,” an old English word which refers to the springtime lengthening of the days. What is this season all about, these forty days (not counting Sundays) during which we are to be, in some way, doing what a hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says: “Keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast?”
A few years ago, Dr. Jonn Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, described Lent as a time for seeking and getting to know God better. Similarly, an essay about Lent in an issue of the National Catholic Register was titled “A Season for Seeking.” I’m not sure I buy that, however. As the Roman Franciscan author Richard Rohr says, “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” Lent is not so much a time for seeking God, who is always there, as it is for becoming aware of God.
And the interesting thing is that we are encouraged to become aware of God by becoming more aware of ourselves. Yes, Jesus does say to give with one hand not letting the other know what’s happening, but this seems more an instruction to follow the Deuteronomic command to “open your hand [to one in need] … to give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so” rather than a direction to act without self-awareness.
In 2014, Evie and I were privileged to join a group of other pilgrims from Ohio and Michigan and spend not quite three weeks in Palestine and Israel visiting many of the sites we hear about in the Bible, especially the Christian holy places of the Gospel stories. One of those was a hilly place overlooking the Sea of Galilee called Tabgha. Until 1948, when the Israelis uprooted its residents, a village had been there for centuries; now it is simply an agricultural area and a place of religious pilgrimage.
The name is a corruption of the Greek name of the place, Heptapegon, which means “seven springs;” its Hebrew name is Ein Sheva, which means the same thing. It is venerated by Christians for two reasons; on a bluff overlooking the place is where the feeding of the multitude is believed to have occurred and on the beach is where the Risen Christ is thought to have had a grilled fish breakfast with Peter during which he asked him, three times, “Do you love me?” At each location, there is a shrine and a church: the first is called The Church of the Multiplication; the second is called Mensa Domini (which means “the Lord’s Table”) and also known as The Church of the Primacy of Peter.
A Fourth Century pilgrim from Spain named Egeria reported visiting, in about 380 CE, a shrine where the Church of the Multiplication now stands; in her diary, she tells us that the site had been venerated by the faithful from the time of Christ onward. Shortly after her visit, a new church was built there in which was laid a mosaic floor depicting the loaves and fishes. That floor still exists today and a graphic of that picture of loaves and fishes is on the front of your bulletin.
In today’s gospel lesson from the sixth chapter of Mark, Jesus has come home to Nazareth immediately after last week’s two stories of healing. Apparently he is there for at least a few days and when the Sabbath comes he does as he has done elsewhere: he goes to the synagogue. In Luke’s version of this story, Jesus is given a scroll from the prophet Isaiah and reads from it:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 
And goes on to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 
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.
Our Old Testament lesson this morning is a very small bit of the Book of Job, that really sort odd bit of Biblical literature that tells the story of a wager between God and Satan. Some scholars believe that it may find its origins in an earlier Babylonian work known as the Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, that the Jews in Exile became familiar with the older Babylonian story and adapted it to their own theology.
Job begins with a scene in the heavenly court where God is in conversation with character called, in Hebrew, ha-satan which is translated into English as Satan. However, this is not the Devil of later Christian mythology, the ruler of Hell portrayed by Milton or Dante or even Walt Disney (in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in the movie Fantasia). Rather, ha-satan is a sort of heavenly district attorney or prosecutor who goes “to and fro on the earth, and … walking up and down on it,” scoping out sin and iniquity and bringing it to God’s attention for judgment.
Our kids this week have been “Shipwrecked,” but they’ve also been “rescued by Jesus.” They’ve been learning the truth of that promise emblazoned on neon crosses at innumerable inner-city rescue missions in nearly every English-speaking country in the world, “Jesus saves,” through the metaphor of being lost at sea and washed up on a deserted island. That’s something that happened to St. Paul at least three if not four times!
But, unfortunately, St. Paul’s experiences at sea are not in the lectionary this week. Our readings from the bible have nothing to do with ships or the ocean or being lost or getting rescued and aren’t really easy to tie to what the kids have been doing with all these shipwreck decorations in the church. Instead of shipwrecks, the readings this week give us trees. Ezekiel reminds us of one of God’s metaphors for Israel, the noble cedar planted on a mountaintop spreading its branches to provide homes for the birds and winged creatures of every kind (which represent all the nations of the world), producing mighty boughs and the plenteous fruit of righteousness and justice.
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.