Before I say anything about our reading from Acts on which I’m preaching today, let me just express our joint sadness about the situation in Boston this past week. As we know, life is fragile, and every day, whether we’re thinking of it or not, it takes a huge amount of faith in humanity to be among and around people. Maybe gratitude isn’t the first thing on our minds right now, but we’re grateful for all the goodness in people that makes our life together safe and possible so much of the time.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter on which we always read passages that share in common the imagery of God and Jesus as the good shepherd - most famously the 23rd Psalm, but also the passage from John where Jesus calls himself the good shepherd. Appropriate particularly to events this past week in Boston, it’s a comforting image. It’s also an image that was popular among the first Christians - the earliest depiction of Jesus in art that we know of is of him as a shepherd with a lamb draped over his shoulders. Being a Christian in those early days could be difficult and even dangerous, and so their love of this particular image makes a lot of sense.
We’re also encouraged on Good Shepherd Sunday to look at this from another perspective, thinking about our role as the shepherds who are called to tend and nurture others in Christ’s name. Our readings from the book of Acts, both today and, really, throughout the season of Easter - call to mind that side of Good Shepherd Sunday, with their stories of those earliest Christians who loved and cared for each other.
Today we meet a woman named Dorcas, or Tabitha - as the reading says, one is the Greek and the other is the Aramaic version of her name, perhaps reminding us how Christianity had its foot, at this point, increasingly in two worlds, both Jewish and Gentile. Tabitha is an early Jewish follower of Jesus - this is probably before they were even called Christians - and she’s actually one of a triumvirate of important women in the book of Acts who all share a common feast day in the church: Lydia, Priscilla, and Tabitha.
Lydia was a merchant of purple cloth, possibly one of the several wealthy women in the early church who provided shelter and meeting space for the Christians when they weren’t always safe worshiping in public. She met the missionary apostle Paul and his companions as they were traveling through her city, heard their message and then - and again, this is evidence that she was well-off - had her whole household, including her servants, baptized. Lydia is also considered the first European convert to the Christian faith because she was from Greece.
Priscilla was actually a travel companion of Paul’s. She delivered some of his letters, she was a trusted adviser, and seems herself to have been a prominent Christian preacher and maybe even writer. There’s a theory that Priscilla wrote the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews, one of the most complex books of our Bible theologically.
And finally there’s Tabitha from our reading today, a seamstress from the port city of Joppa, who used her skills to make clothing for the needy widows in her community.
All of these women have unusually robust roles in the early church, as teachers, church planters, possibly writers - roles women haven’t had again in the church until recently. And Tabitha has the unique distinction of being the only woman in the New Testament for whom the feminine version of the word “disciple” is used - something I could say more about someday, and maybe will, but for now I want to get to the rest of our story.
In the next part of our passage, we learn that, one day, Tabitha suddenly gets sick and dies. The women in her community gather around in mourning, and that’s when a couple of the disciples present there call for Peter, who happens to be in the nearby town of Lydda. Peter shows up and, in this really moving scene, the women show him some of the tunics and other clothing Tabitha had made for them. Then he sends them all out of the room, kneels down beside the body, and says “Tabitha, get up” - and she does!
On the one hand, this last part of the story is extraordinary, and maybe a little remote seeming. A story that was so human to that point crosses a line into the super-human, and it can be hard to know quite what to make of it. But on the other hand, there’s something very familiar about this, as well. How often have we, when someone important in the community dies, someone who’s made such a difference in people’s lives, wondered how the world will ever go on without them? If only we could just bring them back to life, then they can pick up right where they left off and everything will be as good as it was while they were living.
Peter’s impulse here is one we all share. And the world did continue to benefit from Tabitha’s work - for a while longer. But eventually she would die and leave the earth for good. Her good works, though, didn’t die; they were carried on by someone else who stepped in to take her place and became the Tabitha of her generation, doing the work that was now hers (or his) to do. And so it continued - and still does. From one generation to the next, we keep alive the good work of those women and men who went before us.
The earliest Christians knew they needed to become the hands and heart of Jesus once he was no longer on earth to do those works himself. And now today, as we’re reminded on Good Shepherd Sunday, it’s our work to be those hands and hearts - of Jesus, of Tabitha, and of so many others who, in the name of their faith, brought a little bit of God’s kingdom to earth.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!
I’m sure you’ve noticed that Easter falls a little early this year, and it’s not just that the weather makes it feel that way. Last week, one of you told me this was the coldest March on record in 40 years. (Now - I should say right up front that I wrote this sermon earlier this week while huddled in front of a space heater waiting for another snowfall, never dreaming today and yesterday would be so beautiful). But, even so, Easter still feels early to me, and it actually is early this year. The earliest Easter can fall is March 22, and the latest is April 25.
The way we set the date for Easter was decided by the Council of Nicaea in the 4th century. This is the same council that wrote what would become our Nicene Creed, the statement of belief that we say each Sunday after the homily. There were a number of these councils in the early church because, as Christianity spread out, there was a growing need for agreement on certain issues. And so, bishops from around the region would gather now and then to compare their practices and see if they could maybe find some common ground.
This particular council was ridiculously important and productive. For example, they formulated there the doctrine of the Trinity. They ruled out some practices and beliefs that would have taken Christianity down a very different path. They decided that the sacraments were still valid even if administered by a sinful or fallen priest (I’m not sure what the other options there would have been exactly!).
And they decided on the date we would celebrate Easter. Different churches were celebrating Easter on different days, and there was this feeling that for the highest holiest day of the year we should all be celebrating together. So, they took the spring equinox - March 21 - found the first full moon after that, and then found the first Sunday after that first full moon: and that would be the date for Easter - very similar to (but not quite the same as) the Jewish dating of Passover.
When Easter falls early like it does this year, there’s a part of me that feels like it isn’t a real Easter. A real Easter is one where the tulips are in bloom, the ground is soft and warm, and our heavy coats are packed away until next winter. But some years Easter insists on being more subtle, and maybe theologically that’s more in keeping with the Easter of the Gospel stories.
After all, that first Easter morning wasn’t as dramatic as you’d expect. In fact, the more I read and study these Gospel stories about that morning when Jesus rose from the tomb, the more it strikes me just how subtle it was. In Luke’s Gospel which we just read, the women come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, and he isn’t there. Two men then tell them he isn’t there, that he is risen from the dead, and has gone ahead of them. They then return to the other disciples to tell them the news, and those disciples call it an idle tale. Peter does return, but all he sees inside the tomb is a linen cloth, Jesus’ burial clothes left behind.
By way of contrast, there’s an account of the resurrection that was written about a hundred years after our Gospels, which didn’t make it into the Bible for all sorts of reasons. And what’s clear from his telling of it was that this writer was uncomfortable with how undramatic this event is in our four Gospels.
This account is known as the Gospel of Peter. To start, there are throngs of people standing outside the sealed up tomb after Jesus’ body was placed inside. As we understand it, there was nobody there - maybe a couple of sleeping guards, but none of Jesus’ friends and nothing like throngs. Then, as all of these people in Peter’s Gospel are looking on, the stone over the door of the tomb magically rolls away before their eyes. As we know it, there’s no mention of that moment as it’s happening. After the stone is rolled aside and in front of this throng of people, out of the tomb emerge three men - two of them with their heads and shoulders reaching up to the heavens, and the other - Jesus - his head overpassing the heavens: in other words, they’re giants! As we know this event, this was a private moment when Jesus stepped forth from the tomb; and when he does appear to people, he looks so ordinary that they hardly notice him. And then finally - and there’s no parallel for this in our Gospels - behind Jesus there appears a giant walking, talking cross!
It’s like something out of a comic book, not the Bible. And it makes you realize how quiet our resurrection stories are. A few women - women! - witnesses. A peaceful garden. A resurrection when no one is looking. An empty tomb. Some linen cloths. How will this appeal to anyone? some of those early Christians must have thought.
But of course it did then, and does today. There’s something to be said for things that are so real and so true that they don’t need a lot of fanfare. Like Jesus, when he first meets the disciples in John’s Gospel and they want to know if he’s someone worth giving their lives to. He spares them the miracles, the pomp of being the Son of God, and simply says “Come and see.”
There’s also something to be said for things that are so real and true that their meaning doesn’t come to us all at once - it can’t. The meaning of what happened that first Easter morning grows and blooms in our hearts with time, day after day, year after year. The message of Easter - that life conquers death and hope triumphs over despair - is just too wonderful to be otherwise.
Our hero isn’t eighteen feet tall - he’s a man, much like us. And he rose from the dead, promising us life. Amen.
Tonight is what we call the Great Vigil of Easter: the highest and holiest night in the church year where we mark the passage of Christ from death to life, the central mystery of the Christian faith. It’s a very ancient service, and because it celebrates such an important event for the church, the early Christians decked it out with all sorts of rituals that are unique to this one service of the year: the lighting of the new flame, to replace the flame that was extinguished when Christ died on Good Friday; the procession with the Paschal (or Easter) candle, which symbolizes the risen Christ and will stay here in the church for the remaining fifty days of Easter;
and the singing (or in our case, saying) of the Exultet hymn, which is one of the oldest pieces of liturgy in our Prayer Book, dating probably from before Christianity even existed. This comes (so it’s thought) from an ancient hymn to light that the Christians then adapted for their use. There are even sections in it that can be traced to the Roman poet Virgil who predated Christ – in particular a wonderful section in a longer version that we didn’t sing here tonight in praise of the bee who gives us wax for light.
We also have in this service, unique to it, what we call “The Great Noise.” Our service begins in the dark and in quiet, and then at a little over the halfway point, we throw up the lights and make a loud and joyful noise. This is meant to be the sound of the resurrection itself: the rolling away of the stone, the singing of angels in the heavens, the earthquake that happened in Matthew’s Gospel when Christ rose from the dead, the rejoicing of the disciples when they found out what had taken place – and, of course, our praise these many years later.
But above all, this was (and still is) the primary service in the year to welcome and to baptize new converts to the faith. There have come to be four major feasts in the church on which we baptize (though many churches don’t limit it to just these): there’s the Baptism of Jesus in January, the Feast of Pentecost in May, the Feast of All Saints’ Day in November, and this, the Easter Vigil, in March or April. And depending on which of those days you’re baptized, different meanings of baptism stand out above the others.
For instance, on the Baptism of Jesus, we’re reminded of how we’re baptized to carry out his work of service in and to the world. At Pentecost, which is the Birthday of the church, we remember how we’re called in Baptism to stay faithful to the church’s teachings, sacraments, and ministry. When we baptize on All Saints’ Day the emphasis is on baptism as belonging to a larger community of Christians, both past, present, and yet to come.
But tonight, on the Easter Vigil, the meaning that stands out above the others is on Baptism as dying with Christ to one’s old self, and being raised to new life. The early Christians acted that out liturgically in a couple of ways: first, they often had their baptisteries in the ground. They didn’t use these dainty fonts that we use now, but usually had something more like pools in the ground, which the convert would enter and be submerged in. Some of these were even designed to look like vaults; I’ve had the privilege of standing in one of the oldest ones we know of in Western Syria, and that vault-like baptistery is almost the only part of the church to survive the erosion brought by time and that harsh climate. But make no mistake: when you experienced baptism in that way, you really got that this was about being raised with Christ to a new life.
They also sometimes timed them to take place just before dawn, so that when the last person rose up from the watery tomb of baptism, the day would be breaking – again, the symbolism of new life in baptism not to be missed.
These were, I should add, adult converts. The church didn’t baptize children for several centuries. So they knew of the need to leave behind one way of being to turn to a new, better way. I have a feeling that might not be on little Willem’s mind, these five weeks new in the world. Nor on the minds of Livia, Rhys, or Brandt, so much of whose lives stretch yet ahead of them, full of promise and possibility. But they will come to understand with the rest of us what it means to need a new life, and another chance. They’ll walk down paths, as we have, that lead to death, and they’ll turn around, and choose the path to life. And in those times, they will always remember, as we also do this night, that Christ desires for them to be risen with him into a new life full of grace, and forgiveness, and love so strong that it conquers even death.
That’s what we’re all here to celebrate tonight, and we now welcome these four children to share with us in this wonderful promise, the promise of Easter.
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
When he preached last week, Father Fred mentioned having his favorite parables in the Gospels, as do probably many of us. We also have favorite events from Jesus’ life - not stories he told but things that happened to him - and this is one of those for me.
Jesus and his disciples are eating at the home of his friends Mary, her sister Martha, and their brother Lazarus, who live about two miles outside Jerusalem in Bethany. This is the home Jesus stayed in when he visited Jerusalem, and he became very close to these three. This visit will be his last, because the next day he’ll enter Jerusalem (in what we celebrate as Palm Sunday), and six days later, will be put to death.
As usual when he visits Martha, Mary and Lazarus, there’s a big feast - thanks largely to Martha, the domestic overachiever of the Gospels. Partway through the meal, one of his hosts, Mary of Bethany, enters the room with an expensive jar of perfume (the price given here is the equivalent of a year’s wages for a laborer), pours it on Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair as the others look on, shocked at the wastefulness of this. Judas points out that that money might have been better used helping the poor, and Jesus’ response is that you’ll always have the poor, but you won’t always have me, and this woman is doing a great act in using this perfume in this way.
It’s hard not to sympathize a little with Judas here. After all, Jesus has spent his whole ministry preaching about the need to be generous to the poor, only to now defend this act that seems so wasteful. One sermon I read compared this to going out to the wine store and buying a $40,000 bottle of wine to drink with your dying friend. That’s not a section I’m familiar with at Viscount (and you better not be, either!).
But what she does here is that important to Jesus, that it’s worth all that expense. So the obvious question is, Why? Why is it so important?
The way the Gospel writer Luke remembers this event is a little bit different from John, and I’m guessing, to the extent that we’re familiar with this story, it’s probably with Luke’s account. The woman there is anonymous - Luke gives no indication of who she is other than that she’s a “sinner.” She isn’t the host of the party and not even one of the guests; in fact, she seems to just barge in off the street, to everyone’s surprise. There’s also a reckless sensuousness in his telling of it that we don’t get quite as much in John’s Gospel: she breaks the neck of the bottle, then pours its contents over Jesus’ head, his face, and his hands. But most of all, it seems in the way that she anoints him that she means to anoint him a king. With this act, she’s saying that Jesus the Messiah, even before his own disciples have grasped that.
Over in John’s Gospel, though, this isn’t so much an act of anointing a king as it is a preparation for burial, and to reinforce this point, it’s situated just days before he’s about to be killed. This oil may have been the oil that Mary bought to dress Jesus’ body after he died, but she decides in this moment to use it now, while he’s still with them.
I think the reason this act is worth the expense to Jesus is that she’s the first to really hear him say I’m going to die. He’s been trying to explain this to his disciples for days - weeks - and they can’t hear it. So when Mary of Bethany comes along and begins to prepare his body for the burial, he knows somebody gets it.
He also knows that he won’t be alone in the difficult days ahead. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed that about this story, but in most of the Gospels, all the men all vanish when Jesus is betrayed. It’s the women who stand by the cross as he’s dying, who follow the body to the tomb, and it’s the women who first witness the resurrection. And here, it’s a woman who finally gets what he’s trying to say, and where this is all going.
Next time we’re together, it will be Holy Week, and I think a reason this passage is here on the fifth Sunday of Lent is to remind us to stay with Jesus in these awful days ahead. Denying death, denying suffering, denying shame, vulnerability, or failure - Jesus’, our own, or anyone else’s - isn’t possible if we want to be followers of Christ. We’re supposed to be able to go where others can’t, to see what others turn away from.
That means remembering Christ’s suffering in his final days as we walk through those events liturgically, starting next week. It also means (for example) sitting with a dying friend or relative. Letting someone grieve without trying to fix it. Reading parts of the paper that unsettle us. Accepting and not running from the pain of another. These are also ways in our day to day lives we remain with Christ in his suffering. And if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of that kind of love and loyalty, you know it’s a rare and precious gift - far more valuable than a costly jar of perfume. Or even a $40,000 dollar bottle of wine.
The Third Sunday in Lent
Our readings for today I think were deliberately chosen for this point in Lent when we begin to get a little slack, because these - particularly the Epistle and Gospel, the last two - are tough readings! They really get your attention, and should.
In the Epistle, Paul continues his rather unsuccessful attempt to discipline the Corinthian church, whose local customs and social mores are not quite up to his standard of Christian living. You can almost see him getting more desperate as the letter continues, particularly here. He refers to the Israelites - the same group that God called Moses to lead out of slavery in today’s Old Testament reading - and basically says that if you behave like they did in their wilderness journey, then you’ll receive the same kinds of punishments they did: death by sword or serpents or “the destroyer,” meaning the devil or perhaps even God.
In other words, he links sin and punishment; everything bad that happened to them in the wilderness happened as a consequence of things they did wrong, like it will be for the Corinthians if they don’t shape up.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus (thankfully) seems to take a different view - and actually, there are a few places in the Gospels where Jesus takes on the relationship between sin and some of the terrible things that happen to people. For instance, in one passage, some people approach Jesus and ask him whether a man was born blind because of something his parents did wrong, and Jesus says No; his blindness is not a consequence of sin, his or anyone else’s. Then there’s another well known passage in which he says that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike; however good or bad you are, you’re going to be rained on every now and then.
And that seems to be the view he takes in today’s Gospel lesson. In the beginning of our reading, some people approach Jesus and tell him about a recent tragedy that happened in the Temple, the slaughter by the Romans of some Galilean Jews who were worshiping there. There’s no record of this event outside the Bible, but there are a lot of violent skirmishes like this mentioned by another writer in the first century, a Jewish historian named Josephus, who wrote an ambitious history book called The History of the Jewish People. Josephus' history narrates a lot of the oppression that Jews felt in that day at the hands of the Romans, which we see also in our Gospels.
So, they mention this event to Jesus - our reading never tells us why they brought it up - and he responds by telling them, In case you were wondering, that didn’t happen to those people as a result of their sins. It’s a random accident that could have happened to anyone. He then adds to this another recent episode where some people were worshiping near the Tower of Siloam - a tower just outside of Jerusalem and a holy place dating back to King David’s time - and the tower collapsed, killing eighteen people. Again, a random accident that could have happened to anyone.
In the end of the passage, he turns this into an opportunity to urge his listeners to reform their lives - not (I don’t think) so that things like this won’t happen to them, but just because he knows that tragedies, whatever their cause, have the potential to awaken awareness in people, stirring some desire to change and do better. You can point to any number of recent tragedies in our own time to see this dynamic at work, where right in the aftermath people are most eager to connect with others, to be compassionate, to do and be all those things we want to be, almost in defiance of the cruelty just witnessed. One of the most moving pieces I read shortly after the Newtown massacre was a simple piece about how people were inviting their neighbors into their homes to get to know each other - such a strange and small thing to make the news, except in that context, where it’s nothing short of a miracle. Jesus knew If there was a time to appeal to people’s desire to be better, it was here, in the wake of two sad and difficult events.
This passage often comes up during the five weeks of Lent, I think most obviously because Jesus tells his hearers to change and improve their lives, like we try to do in Lent. Time is short - life is short - and we have to keep at it with the urgency that life requires.
There’s maybe another message here, though, that’s relevant for Lent, and it’s about control. In Lent we try to take on certain disciplines. It might seem like we do this to order our lives and our world, but this reading reminds us it doesn’t work that way. We can observe a perfect Lent, not once yelling at our spouse, or reaching for that plate of cookies, or missing church, or forgetting the food pantry basket, and still get depressed, still be hurt in an accident, still lose someone we love. Nothing we do or don’t do, however faithfully, in Lent or any other time, will completely safeguard us against disaster.
Lent can seem to be about control, but it isn’t. If anything, it’s about giving up control by saying “I can do this and this and this and yet still not have my life go exactly how I wanted it to go.” God calls us to do good works without any guarantees of where that will land us.
But the flip side of this is that sometimes goodness also comes to us undeserved. Someone recently gave me his take on the verse where Jesus says that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. He said he always thought that, in the hot, dry Middle Eastern climate, you would want the rain to fall on you, and so Jesus meant that as a blessing, not a curse.
Quite in spite of ourselves, happiness sometimes falls on us, too. Or to use the image from today’s reading of the fig tree: even when we don’t produce the figs we’re supposed to, sometimes someone still gives us a nice heap of warm, tasty manure to get us through to next year. (There’s an image to take home with you!) And when this happens, we call it grace - God giving us what we haven’t earned, and for no other reason than That God is love.
Next week we will be honoring the members of our Altar Guild at the Candlemas service, Candlemas being the day on which we bless the church candles for the coming year, and honor the women who tend so faithfully to the altar each week.
In that spirit, today is a good day to honor, at least informally, all those who read in church, because that’s sort of the topic of our first and our last readings. In the Gospel, which I just read, Jesus goes to synagogue, stands up when it comes time for the reading, walks forward, reads an excerpt from the book of Isaiah, offers a few words of commentary (just like some of our readers do - ahem, Wally and Gayle), and then sits down.
That’s the Gospel reading. The Old Testament reading from the book of Nehemiah actually contains one of the earliest records we have of this tradition of reading Scripture aloud in an assembly of people - the very same thing Jesus did that day in the synagogue at Nazareth, and the same thing Jews and Christians still do today.
It’s set about 2500 years ago. At that point the Jews had just returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, one of the defining events for Jews in the Old Testament, like their slavery in Egypt 400 years before that. When they returned, Nehemiah (after whom the book is named) was the governor of Jerusalem, and Ezra one of the Jewish priests. And here they all are, gathered together to hear the Scripture (there was still no Temple at that time, so they’re gathered outside).
Notice how similar it is to what we still do: Ezra brings the book of the law before the people. He faces them, they all stand up (like we do with our Gospel reading), he then reads from the book and (the passage jumps around a little bit but this is how it seems to go), and then says a few words to help them understand what it means. We take it for granted that this is just how it always was, but it had to start somewhere, and that somewhere seems to be here, after the exile, when the Jews began to define themselves as people who read and interpret Scripture together. (Ezra is sometimes called the Father of Modern Judaism for this reason.)
So, historically it’s an important passage. But really the reason this passage stood out to me this week is what happens at the end: after Ezra is finished, all the people begin to weep. We don’t know what he read or why they cried. The service did go on, as the passage tells us, from morning until midday; I know you would all be crying if a service went on that long. But that wasn’t St. Nick’s.
It’s unfortunate we don’t know what Ezra read to the people that day. It would have been from the Scriptures they had at the time (or that were coming into being), the Torah, the first five books of what we call the Old Testament with its stories of Jewish history and the laws given to the people by Moses. Whether there was something in particular from these Scriptures that made them cry, we don’t know.
I do wonder whether they just assumed, as people do, that the Scriptures have nothing but bad things to tell us - that they stand in judgment over us, telling us everything we’re doing wrong and nothing we’re doing right. On that note, it’s so interesting to me that the priests at the end of the passage have to tell people to be happy about hearing Scripture. As a preacher, I sometimes feel like Ezra, standing up here and trying to help people understand that the Bible isn’t a book of judgment, but of love.
The other reason I thought the people might have cried that day is because they hadn’t heard their Scriptures read in so long, and here they were, all together for the first time in years, hearing these stories almost lost in their exile. Perhaps we take for granted the privilege of coming together and hearing these stories from our Bible year after year. Where else in our culture do people read corporately like this? Where else are you invited to stand in the shoes of men and women long ago, so distant and yet so familiar? Where else are you given a lifetime to think over and over again about the same story, which you’ll never get to the bottom of and that’s OK?
This is beautiful, what we do here. I sometimes see people come back to church after many years away - a kind of self-imposed exile - and their overwhelming joy on hearing these stories again reminds me not to take it for granted, this custom of reading these stories in community with others.
In the Jewish tradition, at the end of the annual cycle of readings in Synagogue before they start the readings all over again - for us, that’s at the beginning of Advent, for them it’s in the fall - they hold a celebration called Simchat Torah, where they get out all the scrolls of Scripture and dance with them. We Christians - Episcopalians at least - aren’t just people of the Book. We’re people of the Word and Sacraments. But today, our readings encourage us to celebrate our book - and, with that, all those who come forward each week and read from it so faithfully.
Today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, the day on which we always read the story of Jesus’ baptism (hence its other name “The Baptism of Our Lord”). In many Eastern Orthodox churches Christmas and Epiphany are dated slightly later than in the Western tradition. So, their Christmas was celebrated last week, around the time of our feast of Epiphany, and their Epiphany celebration is later this week. (These are the sorts of things I learned not in seminary, but through the alternate side parking rules while living in New York City.) Moreover, for them, Epiphany is about the Baptism of Jesus rather than the arrival of the wise men, like it is for us. So I think one of the reasons this is a reading for us at this time of the year is to kind of be in sync with each other.
It’s also the case that this is really the next event in Jesus’ life from where we last left off with the wise men. There’s almost nothing in the Bible about Jesus’ youth, other than that he once went to Jerusalem as a boy and got accidentally separated from his parents while holding forth in the Temple. But other than that, the next time we meet him after the birth stories is here, at his baptism on the banks of the Jordan River.
The baptism is one of those rare events in Jesus’ life that appears in all four of the Gospels. Believe it or not, this doesn’t happen very often. You can’t say that for the Resurrection, which Mark’s Gospel mysteriously omits. You can’t say that for the birth stories, which aren’t in Mark’s or John’s Gospels. You can’t say that for the Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration, or the Ascension, where he rises into heaven leaving the disciples once for all - all events we think of as defining Jesus’ life and purpose on earth.
But you can say it for the baptism. How each Gospel presents it, though, is slightly different. Mark’s is the oldest, and probably historically the most reliable. It’s also the story we know best: at about 30 years old, Jesus went down to the Jordan River where John the Baptist was preaching his message of repentance and baptizing. He was then baptized by John, and when he rose out of the water, he saw the heavens open up and a dove descended on him and a voice spoke to him.
Matthew’s account is similar to that, except that he adds in there a dialogue between Jesus and John where John first insists on his unworthiness to baptize Jesus, saying “You should be baptizing me”. A lot of people think this has to do with the fact that, in the early Christian movement, some people were followers of John rather than Jesus. So the Gospels maybe try to take John down a notch in the way they narrate the baptism. Or it could be that the early Christians were nervous about Jesus having to be baptized, because John’s baptism was all about remission of sin. So, having John baptize Jesus as though he were just anybody would suggested that Jesus had sinned.
Which brings us to Luke. Luke’s Gospel gets around these problems altogether by not having John present. Our passage leaves out a few verses right in the middle, verses in which John is carried off to prison by Herod. Meaning Jesus arrives at the Jordan to be baptized and John isn’t there. Luke never tells us who baptizes Jesus - maybe he did it himself? And why not? He's Jesus, after all.
And finally, the last Gospel, John’s, follows Luke’s lead by leaving it even more vague as to who baptized Jesus or whether John was around by that time.
So they’re all a little different. But one thing they do all share in common is this beautiful moment of affirmation right after Jesus comes up from the waters. The sky opens up above him, a dove - or something looking like a dove - appears and alights on him, and then a voice is heard saying “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”
We did a lot of baptisms here last year, as all of you know (in fact, many of those baptized are right here in the room). Each of them is special to me in its own way, but one that stands out was of a girl with whom I met beforehand to go through the service, as I do with everyone. When we finished talking about each vow and what it meant, I asked her if she had any more questions. She said Yes: Am I going to feel different after I’m baptized? I did what all parents and priests who don’t know an answer do: I turned it around on her. She said she wanted to feel different, but she didn’t know how. Better, in some way - maybe happier, or more peaceful.
As adults we get used to not demanding that our faith and our feelings be in sync all of the time. We know that we don’t have to feel something for it to be real. Love for God, love for spouse, our parents or our children, love for our work - it can be there, somewhere deep within, but not always accessible at the level of our feelings. At some point, we come to understand and make peace with that.
And yet, I still wonder whether we forget too easily what our baptisms should make us feel. For Jesus, it was this overwhelming sense of being loved, of belonging, of peace and security. The heavens opened, he heard God’s voice, and he felt he could do and get through anything with God’s love there to support him.
Today as we remember not only Jesus’ baptism that day in the Jordan, but also ours, let’s try not just to know, but to feel what it all means. Because that same love, safety, hope and belonging that was his - is ours, too.
That is the good news of this Sunday, the Baptism of our Lord.
Today is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent, though this year it feels like we should perhaps call it “Women’s Sunday.” Not do we have as our Gospel reading the story of the Visitation featuring Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, but we're also baptizing three girls into our St. Nick’s family: Eden, Astrid and Orly Breuning.
As you'll recall from the Biblical story, after the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to conceive and bear a son, she traveled to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary then stayed with Elizabeth three months before making the journey back to Nazareth; this whole scene is called (as I said) “The Visitation.”
A theme in some of the art of this story caught my eye this week for the first time. While Elizabeth and Mary embrace in the foreground, off in the distance you see Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, peeking out from the door of their home. Zechariah, as you may remember, was struck mute for the duration of his wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy as God’s punishment for not believing the angel’s announcement that she had conceived. (As I’ve said in years past, seems like a pretty good deal for Elizabeth!) So at this point, all he can do is stand off in the distance and look on.
And really, all the men in this story are, for now, silenced. They’re either mute like Zechariah, still in utero like John and Jesus, or back home and miles away, like Joseph, Mary’s husband. Which allows us - and this is rare in the Bible - to focus just on the women and what they have to say.
It’s interesting what they come up with. When Mary first approaches her cousin, Elizabeth exclaims “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” - of course, famous to us as part of the Angelus that Christians have been reciting for centuries. But what’s especially striking to me in this scene is Mary’s response, known as the Magnificat for the first word in Latin:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed. The Almighty has done great things for me and holy is his name.”
And here we get into what makes this song so incredible:
“He has mercy on those who fear him in every generation. God has shown the strength of his arm. He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”
I learned this week that the Guatemalan government in the 1980’s actually prohibited the public reading of the Magnificat because it was too subversive, with all its talk of casting down the mighty and lifting up the poor. I also read where this song goes a long way toward explaining why Jesus sat with tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, the poor and ritually unclean: he learned from his mother, whose hope for the world her son would inhabit is the same world he tried to create in his own life and ministry.
Which means, when you think about it, that all of this began with a girl and her beautiful yet subversive song. It’s a wonderful reading for a day on which we baptize three girls. In the vows that we say for them and that we’ll reaffirm for ourselves, listen for Mary’s vision to lift up the poor, to care for the weak, and to strive for justice for every human being.
And then admire the power of this young woman, and of all women - especially those we baptize here today - to change the world.
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, which almost always features John the Baptist baptizing at the Jordan River. John was the forerunner of Jesus, and his appearance here helps remind us that Advent is a season for preparing room in our hearts for Christ, particularly here at the beginning of a new church year.
John also figures into our canticle for today, and because we have several canticles that we’ll be reading in place of our usual Psalm in the coming weeks, I thought I’d spend a little time this morning talking about canticles.
Canticle comes from the Latin “canticulum” and just means “a little song.” They’re the same thing as psalms, “psalms” just being the Greek word for “song” and “canticle” the Latin word. In general, canticles are what we call the songs that appear in other books of the Bible - songs outside the Book of Psalms - and that’s probably just to avoid confusion.
We read so many canticles around the Christmas season because many of those we know best come from the stories of Christ’s birth. First, there's the Song (or canticle) of Elizabeth, the Virgin Mary’s cousin. When Elizabeth was sixth months pregnant and Mary newly pregnant, Mary visited Elizabeth. And Elizabeth’s first words on seeing Mary were - we all know this well - “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you...”, part of the Angelus.
The next canticle comes right after that in Mary’s response to Elizabeth, also known as the Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant...”
A few months after that encounter between Elizabeth and Mary, John the Baptist is born, bringing us to our canticle for today, the Song of Zechariah. Zechariah was mute throughout Elizabeth his wife’s pregnancy - that was his punishment for not believing the Angel Gabriel’s message that his wife would conceive and bear a son - but once John was born, his father’s tongue was loosed and he burst into a song we call The Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel. He has come to his people and set them free...” And the most famous part: “And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the most high, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”
So, that’s canticle number three, and we’re still only in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel.
Six months later, Jesus is born, and on that night the shepherds in the fields nearby see a host of angels singing in the sky part of what we now call The Gloria: “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace to his people on earth.”
And finally, after a forty day purification period following the birth of her son, Mary presents herself and Jesus at the Temple and is greeted by an old priest named Simeon who utters what we call the Nunc Dimittis - “Lord, Now you have set your servant free to go in peace as you have promised, for these eyes of mine have seen the savior...” That’s part of the season of Epiphany, coming just after Christmas.
So, five canticles in the first two chapters of Luke's Gospel - canticles that, as we know, have become such a cherished part of our tradition. They're sung (or said) on Sundays, at morning and evening prayer, in private devotions throughout the centuries, and it would be hard to imagine Christianity without them.
I read this past week where one person compared the role canticles play in the Bible to songs in Broadway musicals. I liked this comparison because - and I’m very embarrassed to admit this - I grew up watching a lot of Broadway musicals. I won’t even guess how much space in my impoverished brain is taken up by lyrics from Oklahoma or The Music Man. In musicals, you have the narrative, and it moves along just fine on its own, but then every now and then someone stops, gets that faraway look in his or her eyes, and bursts into song.
And it’s a little like that with these canticles I mentioned. You could take every one of them out and still know exactly what’s going on. Mary is pregnant and happy. Zechariah is overjoyed at his son’s birth. The shepherds see angels and know something special is taking place. And so on. But what you wouldn’t have, without the songs, is the sense of overflowing joy we get in these stories. I guess that’s what I love about musicals, and about these canticles: the superfluous, extravagant joy that just can’t be contained in regular words. It needs a song, maybe a little dancing, some clicking together of heels and spurs when you find out the girl loves you.
That kind of joy comes rarely in life after a certain point, but it still comes. And this is the season when we get to see it played out again in the lives of these men and women - hopefully making their joy OUR joy. So - as we ponder today John the baptist’s call to prepare our hearts, let’s make room in them for the Joy this season brings.
Our warden Diane and I spent much - as I always think, too much - of yesterday down at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine attending our diocesan convention. The convention takes place every year, and is a chance for clergy and lay people from around the diocese to do things like approve the diocesan budget, hear from the bishop about the coming year, and - perhaps most importantly - take positions on current issues. I can’t say they’re that interesting most years. Probably the best part of the convention is just that it takes place in our beautiful cathedral, St. John the Divine.
If you haven’t seen our cathedral, it’s worth the trip. The cathedral is the seat of the diocese (“cathedra” actually means “seat” and refers to the bishop’s chair because it’s where the bishop presides). It was begun in the late 19th century, and the great thing about it - not everyone feels this way, but I do - is that it’s still very much unfinished. You can see this as a symbol of the folly of building such a huge structure - it’s the fourth largest cathedral in the world - or you can see it as a sort of monument to change.
There’s an inscription etched into the ground as you first enter the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and I always thought it would be good for the cathedral, too. It says “Ever changing, never twice the same; ever changing, never less than whole.” Changing and yet being whole aren’t things we think of as going together, but if we can learn to take each thing for what it is in that moment, it’s whole. It might not be the same “whole” as in the next moment, but it's still whole.
I guess where I’m going with this is that, in our Gospel reading for today, we have another grand religious structure - of course one that (let me be clear!) is much more important historically than our cathedral, and, particularly for its day, was much grander: the temple in Jerusalem. This temple that Jesus and his disciples visit in our reading was the second Jewish temple to be built in Jerusalem. The first was built by King Solomon and it was destroyed when the Babylonians conquered the Jews in the 6th century BC, carried them off into exile and then destroyed much of what they left behind. That’s the subject of a number of our Old Testament prophets, and a defining event in the history of the Jewish people.
The second temple was what they rebuilt when they returned from exile in Babylon, and it’s the one that Jesus and the disciples stood in that day. It was, from what we can tell from writings about it and what remains of it, a massive and elaborately ornate structure - much grander than the first temple. And according to Mark’s Gospel, this was the first visit of Jesus and the disciples, ever, to Jerusalem and to this temple. So, imagine you’re from little New Hamburg and you visit New York City for the first time - it was sort of like that. And, as you would expect of young men from the countryside, the disciples are amazed. But Jesus looks at this temple and, rather unexpectedly, begins to utter these prophecies about the day when it will lie in ruins.
As it turned out, that temple was completely destroyed just forty years after their visit, when the Jews and Romans went to war against each other and the Romans won. But at this point, when the temple was at the height of its powers and grandeur, the possibility of that happening must have seemed so remote, and Jesus’ words ridiculous.
We read this passage every year as our church year draws to its close - next week is the last week of the liturgical year, the new year beginning on the first Sunday of Advent. In this hemisphere at least, the reading of it coincides with the last leaves falling from the trees and the steady creep of winter. The passage becomes in this context a sort of meditation on change and impermanence. Everything - even our most solid and sacred structures - will change and eventually fall.
Sometimes it’s good to look at the world like Jesus does here and see past the present to the ruins that everything will one day be. What seems so solid to us now, be it our structures, our ideas, our politics, even our very selves - our hands, our limbs, our minds - will be tomorrow’s ruins. It that weren’t the case - if everything on earth lasted for ever or we thought that it did - imagine how unbearable and fiercely attached to things we’d all be. But, more importantly, there wouldn’t be room for anything new to be born.
Advent and then Christmas are just around the corner, with all of their suspense and promise. But today we meditate on what’s past, or passing away, having faith that, with God, there is always something new about to be born.