This came to me a few weeks ago as I was driving to the home of a parishioner under hospice care. The sun was shining through the trees, and the golden light on the lively green leaves was a comforting contrast to the reality of mortality. I hope you enjoy it.
Date: March 8, 2015
Place: St. Joseph of Arimathea Episcopal Church
Scripture: John 2:13-22
When I was in college I was president of a student organization that brought in various speakers to address topics of interest in the humanities. My senior year we had read an essay by the theologian that you may have heard me mention from time to time, Stanley Hauerwas. I still enjoy Hauerwas’ work, and appreciate the fact that he is an honorary canon theologian at Christchurch Cathedral. At the time I didn’t know that much about the theological landscape and so had no idea when I contacted him at his office at Duke University that his schedule was booked up for appearances and speaking engagements a year or two out.
But he agreed to come and speak at our university, a fact for which I’m grateful. His topic was Just War and Christian nonviolence the two dominant ethical traditions within the church related to how we respond to violence and evil. At the end of his lecture, I asked him the question that had occurred to me which related to this gospel passage. I asked him what a person who holds to Christian nonviolence has to say about Jesus’s cleansing of the temple. Hauerwas, who is known for one-liners responded: “if you find a temple that needs to be cleansed, cleanse it!”
As I’ve been reflecting upon this Gospel passage during the week, those words have continued to present themselves in my mind. “If you find a temple that needs to be cleansed, cleanse it!” Jesus having performed a miracle at the wedding and Cana of Galilee, and having gone through Capernaum, goes up to Jerusalem. While there, being a pious Jew, he goes to the temple to worship. And upon entering he sees something going on that so angers him – a cold calculating sort of anger – that he goes and makes a whip of cords, a scourge, and returns to the Temple and drives out those people selling livestock for sacrifices, those selling doves, and the money changers. He uses the web to drive the cattle, he overturns the table of the money lenders, and pours their coins out on the ground in the temple courtyard. Then, turning to those standing there, he says don’t make my father’s house a marketplace.
This event in the earthly ministry of Jesus, has been one that has evoked a great deal of comment. It’s one of the few places recorded in the Gospels were Jesus gets angry. There are a couple more he gets frustrated, or at least were his actions could be interpreted as frustration. But this event stands out starkly as the clearest example we have of Jesus’s anger. And it is an ambiguous event in some ways because people have wondered what was Jesus so angry about?
As has been pointed out by commentators both ancient and modern, the money changers and those who are selling livestock and those for sacrifices were not doing anything that in themselves was evil or sinful. I mean, it’s pretty natural. You have a need to offer a particular sort of sacrifice, and rather than hope that there is a lamb or calf without blemish or that fits the other requirements in your flock or heard that year, and rather than bring this animal with you all the way to Jerusalem, why not simply by an animal that fits the criteria at the point where you need it. These folks were providing a service. Likewise with the money changers, if you’re going to the Temple and you are going to offer a monetary gift, the last thing you’d want is to offer a Roman coin with a big graven image of the Emperor with the words “The God, Caesar Augustus” or some such. It would have been blasphemous. So the money changers offered the opportunity to exchange this blasphemous currency for something known as the Tyrian shekel, a coin that’s rather than an image of any person, had an image of wheat.
Some commentators have been wondering what it is that causes Jesus to become so angry at these people. Weren’t they simply providing a necessary service? Well, I think the phrasing used by Jesus in the synoptic Gospels is instructive. In John’s Gospel Jesus says “do not make my father’s house a marketplace.” In the synoptic Gospels he’s even more clear and to the point: “do not make my father’s house a den of thieves” (Cf. Luke 19:46, Matthew 21:13). Jesus’ concern does not seem to be that these things are occurring in the Temple in and of themselves. Rather Jesus’s concern seems to be what people’s focus was. The temple was to be the place for people came to worship God. The sellers of sacrificial animals and the money changers, however in turning the Temple from a place of worship into a marketplace had transitioned from enabling worshipers, to actually impeding worship. In other words, their focus was not to ensure that people were able to worship God, but rather, they were concerned with their profit. And there is an intimation that perhaps they weren’t only concerned with their welfare, but that they were perhaps taking advantage of others. Much as the tax collectors of the day made their living by collecting as much as they could over and above the amount they were required to send on to Rome. It seems that rather than making a fair wage, those engaged in selling in the Temple, were taking advantage of others.
This seems to be why Jesus says in the Synoptics, “stop making my father’s house a den of thieves!” These folks were inserting themselves between worshipers and God. They were thinking of themselves and not others, and people believed that they had to go through them to get to God. And so, when we look at it from this perspective Jesus’s actions make perfect sense and are in keeping with the frustration he expresses at the Pharisees among others who presume to put themselves between people and God. Jesus is concerned, is that people be able to have a relationship with God.
When Jesus is asked by those who witnessed his actions, “give us a signed as to why you do this” Jesus responds by telling them destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it. Well of course, his questioners think this answer is absurd. The temple has been under construction for 46 years they point out. But as the disciples understood when looking back from the post-resurrection context, Jesus was talking about himself and not the building of the temple. In this statement Jesus is making a claim about where the presence of God is to be found. The presence of God is no longer to be found in the temple, but rather in Jesus himself. This is the radical claim that separates Jesus from other critics of the Temple at the time. None of them would have claimed that God was uniquely present in them. But this is precisely what Jesus is saying.
We must be careful here, because of the fraught history of Gentile Christian interpretation of this passage, filled as it is with examples of the denigration of Judaism, discussion of how the sacrificial system was backward and has been supplanted etc. So to be clear, what is being discussed here is the movement of the holiness of God, the presence of God, the Shekinah, from the Temple to another place. This is not something that is foreign to Judaism. It is instead discussed as something that has happened multiple times. When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness the presence of God was with them in the pillar of cloud and later in the tabernacle (the tent) which served as a precursor of the great temple in Jerusalem. Within Judaism itself there has been an ongoing concept of the idea that God’s glory, God’s holiness, the Shekinah can move. After the destruction of the first Temple, this was the understanding that explained the distraction. Jews came to see the destruction of their temple as evidence of the fact that God’s holiness had left the building so to speak. And it was the absence of God’s holiness that explained the destruction. There were rabbinic stories–the inheritors of the Pharisees–which explained the destruction of the second Temple in similar ways. One of the most moving stories told to me by the Rabbi that taught the history of Judaism course I took in college, was of the chief priest during the destruction of the Temple by the Romans who climbed to the pinnacle with the keys to the holy of holies and threw them up into the air and as a hand–a divine hand–appeared and grabbed the keys, pulling them up into the sky. All this is to say the notion that God’s holiness can move is not something unique to Christianity. Indeed to the degree that is present in Christianity it is part of the shared inheritance that Christians have with modern-day Jewish believers.
What is unique about the Christian claim is about where God’s holiness now resides. For Christians the claim is that God is uniquely present in Jesus Christ. And through Jesus Christ, that God is uniquely present in each believer and present in the world through the body of Christ, the people of God. Us in Christ, Christ in us.
So Jesus, in cleansing the temple, is not doing so out of a sense that this is the only place that people could possibly worship God. Indeed in John’s Gospel you’ll recall, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman and has an exchange with her in which he says the time is coming and now is when true worshipers will not worship on this mountain (Gerizim) nor in Jerusalem but will worship in spirit and in truth; for such the father seeks to worship him (paraphrase of John 4:21-23). So the problem was not that folks were defiling the Temple in some way, except insofar as they were inserting themselves between God and the people who came to the temple to connect with God. And so Jesus cleanses the Temple. We likewise are called to cleanse temples. We are called to rid ourselves and our communities of anything that prevents us or others from having relationship with God.
If we find a temple that needs cleansing, we ought to cleanse it!
But since we are now worshiping God in spirit and in truth, and there is not a particular place where we say we are in closer proximity to God than others per se, then we are called to look not only to our communities but within ourselves to determine what sort of cleansing needs to take place.
As the early biblical commentator Origen put it, “When are there not some money changers sitting who need the strokes of the scourge Jesus made of small cords, and dealers in small coin who require to have their money poured out and their tables overturned? When are there not those who are inclined to merchandise, but need to be held to the plow and the oxen, that having put their hand to it and not turning round to the things behind them, they may be fit for the kingdom of God?” (Origen, “Commentary on John,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, 393 to 394).
And looking to ourselves we can consider St. Augustine’s sermon on this passage. Augustine has this wonderful imagery he uses, of Christ having made the whip of cords out of the very sins of the merchants and moneychangers. In other words he envisions them being run out of the temple metaphorically, by their own sins. Taking up that imagery, and combining it with some imagery from Psalms and some of the Gospels, Augustine warns us that we can sin, and then sin in order to cover our sin, with the result being that we take a single sin, one cord, and bind together with others until we have a rope. A rope with which to bind ourselves. Much better he says that we be scourged now with the small sins and be preserved from being bound by long ropes of sin and cast into the outer darkness (Augustine, “Homilies of the Gospel of John,” Post-Nicene Fathers, 70-72 )
If you find a temple that needs cleansing, cleanse it!
Lent is the perfect time to discuss the cleansing of our temples. We’re all temples of the Holy Spirit; what in our lives is getting in the way of our faithfulness? Of our relationship with the father? Picking up on Augustine’s metaphor, could we not lay out for ourselves the cords of our sins, and making a weapon of them, cleanse our hearts, casting them out and reorienting ourselves toward God? If we want to talk about what this means, I think this could be seen as a metaphorical representation of the process of confession and absolution. When we confess – and even during this general confession that we have in our services, I hope that we’re all thinking about particular sins which are separating us from God and one another – we are laying out before us the cords that could be turned into rope. But the very act of remembering, of calling the sins to mind, helps to deprive them of their power and in turn gives us the opportunity to once again be faithful. Lent is a time of introspection and reflection. Perhaps we should put this active, if violent, imagery to work and understand that when we confess, when we pray, when we ask for forgiveness – these are the tools with which we can run off the things that separate us from God.
And if we want to temper the aggressiveness or violence of this imagery a bit, we can do so by considering the fact that this action is not taken in order to make us worthy of God, or of forgiveness. It is rather taken, out of gratitude for the forgiveness already received, for the reconciliation already achieved.
In seminary I had a T-shirt that had a slogan on it that amused some of my class mates, and I know that one Episcopalian theologian, Paul Zahl, also had this T-shirt. It said “I bring nothing to the table.” The reality of that slogan is that there is nothing that you or I can do to win God’s favor, or to earn our salvation. But out of gratitude for what God has done in my life, I can reflect upon the ways and I have fallen short of the great gift I have been given, and I can seek to live a holier and more faithful life, a life where I am more closely identified with Jesus. And so as we come to this table–this altar–today let us recognize that we bring nothing with us with which to purchase the grace of God. Instead we come to this table and receive the grace of God, and having been bought by it, enabled to cleanse ourselves and be more like Christ, not out of necessity but out of gratitude. Amen.
About a year ago I found a note someone had slid under my office door following a service: “Talk to us about the Devil,” it read. “Is he real? How do we tell if he’s messing with us?”
I freely admit that I’ve never been one to ascribe supernatural import to most events. I was raised in the sort of household where fatherly wisdom over concern about the possibility of ghosts consisted of the statement (filtered through combat experience in Vietnam): “I’ve been around the world, son, and I can tell you, there’s no reason to worry about dead people. It’s the living ones you have to worry about.” Or, to put it another way, quoting a Cumberland Presbyterian classmate of mine from seminary, we don’t want “to see a demon behind every tea cup.”
An angel said: “Get up.”
He got up, and took wife and baby to Egypt.
The angel said “wait.”
On foreign soil.
Soil his ancestors
mud and desert to escape.
So that a prophet’s words might be reheard.
“Out of Egypt I have called my son…”
An angel said: “Get up.”
He got up, and took wife and child to Israel.
The angel said the ones with murder in their hearts:
The little family
The Holy Family
And the boy lived
On a Good Friday.
And on that day, we live.
“For he will be called a Nazorean.”
An angel said “get up.”
And Joseph did.
Easter followed him.
Sermon notes for Proper 14 A, 2014
Scripture: Romans 10:5-15
Last week we considered Romans 9:1-5, where Paul opens his consideration of the fact that the bulk of the Jewish people did not accept Jesus as Messiah. In part, I took the occasion to unpack some of the themes introduced in that section, that flow throughout chapters 9-11 of the letter to the Romans. If I were to summarize this whole section briefly, I would do so by quoting Robert Jenson’s statement that “God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having before raised Israel from Egypt,” and I would add that, having raised Jesus from the dead, God will not now allow Israel to perish, for Jesus is the seal of the promises and covenant, and not their abrogation.1
The question then, is how the good news of Christ is to be proclaimed to those who have nor heard, or who have heard previously and rejected it. This is a concern that committed Christians must deal with in regard to all those who are not believers in Jesus Christ, but with whom we would like to share the gospel. Strangely enough, I believe that Paul encourages us to see humility as our watchword in these endeavors. More on what that looks like later.
To call Jesus the end of the Law, is not to say that Christ makes the Law null, but rather, it is to say that every word of the Law points toward Christ, the Messiah, God with God’s people, as the Telos, the end or purpose of the Law.2
There is no sugar coating the disagreement between Christians and Jewish people on the person of Christ. This was the source of Paul’s great anguish. But religious folks who are honestly seeking to follow God, and be faithful, owe one another honesty and fidelity to their own traditions. It is only from such a place of honesty and fidelity that true dialogue and unity of purpose can emerge. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist of the 20th century, the difference between traditions is more like a pie than a continuum. Those who move deeply into their own traditions–that is, those who move more deeply to the center of the pie–will find, somewhat paradoxically, that they are closer to ardent believers from another tradition, than they are to the semi-committed members of their own, who are at the fringes. Lewis, of course, was thinking about this in terms of various Christian traditions, but there is, I believe, a sense in which is also true between the great monotheistic traditions. It doesn’t completely map, but it conveys a truth: those who seek to be faithful and love the Lord God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and their neighbor as themselves, will find that they are inhabiting a place where a fruitful exchange of ideas is possible, and where Paul’s vision of outdoing one another in righteousness, and holiness can really come into play. 3
- Jenson, Robert Systematic Theology v. I: The Triune God, p. 63″ [↩]
- As Bryan notes in A Preface to Romans: “Greek telos (like Latin finis and English “end”) commonly bears a range of meaning all the way from “fulfillment, completion, consumation” to simple “finish, termination” (as in telos echein, “to be finished”) (LS τέλος, BAGD τέλος). The older Greek interpreters were generally clear that Paul intended the former of these senses at Romans 10.4–notably Origen (who in Rufinus’s Latin paraphrase says of 10.4, Finis enim legis Christus: hoc est perfectio legis [Migne, Patrologiae 14.1160]); John Chrysostom, who compares the phrase ‘Christ is the telos of the Law” with the notion that “health is the telos of medicine” (Homilies on Romans 17.2); and Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who notes that “the Law led us to our master, Christ [ton Despoten,] of the Law” (Migne, Patrologiae, 82.164). No doubt this unanimity of interpretation was in part a result of the influence of Matt. 5.17 (so Eusibius, Demonstratio Evangelica 8.2.33), but it remains impressive.” p. 171 [↩]
- Matthew 22:37-40, as cited in the Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 324). [↩]
Sermon notes & Background research for Proper 13 A 2014, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Romans 9:1-5
Recording (Note: the delivered sermon differs from the text, as this is more background information etc… and the sermon is delivered without notes in most instances):
When I was in High School one of my close friends shared a story with me, about something that had happened to him when he was in elementary school. More accurately, it was about something he did while in elementary school, and its repercussions. A female classmate of ours had come up in conversation because of some recognition she was receiving, and he mentioned to me that they had once been friends in elementary school, but that he had said something to her that resulted in her slugging him. No… it was nothing like that… remember, it happened in elementary school. You see, our classmate was–is–Jewish, and as a naive elementary school student, when he heard this revelation one day, he blurted “But Jewish people don’t believe in God…” at which point, he received due penalty for his sin, in the form of a fist to the face.
I didn’t witness the event, but I got a good laugh out of his recounting of it. And I gave him a hard time about his ignorance, but of course, I couldn’t tell you when exactly I came to an awareness of the details–including the theism or non-theism-of other religions. And I can even see, based upon his protests, how he could’ve come to that conclusion, so closely was Jesus identified with God in his upbringing, and then also hearing that Jews do not share our faith in Jesus. But as humorous as this particular event is to think about on one level–probably more so for me, since I know the parties involved–it points to something dark at the heart of our own faith.
In many–ok, most–cases, religions are ambivalent about other faiths. Inter-faith dialogue is really still in its infancy. But religions that developed out of a particular faith, especially when the parent faith rejected the new insights or ways of considering the divine, tend to have particularly fraught relationships with their predecessor and sibling religions. This has certainly been the case with Christianity and Judaism. Episcopalian theologian Ephraim Radner, who teaches at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto has highlighted what this tension has meant for Christians:
The Jew, quite distinctly, becomes a “heretic” and the “heretic” becomes a “Jew.” In other words,intra-Christian discord becomes completely coincident with apostasy and/or the denial of Christ, and Christian division is read in terms of religious antagonism in a strong modern sense. Those who “call themselves Christian”—“heretics”—are in fact the same as Jews and Saracens…1
As Radner notes, this polemic gets mapped on to intra-Christian divisions, so that every time someone who says of Roman Catholics “They leave Christ on the cross,” also negatively compares the Roman Catholic Church to Judaism, this more fundamental division is revealed. As one commentator put it: “The point Radner is driving home here is profound. By showing how Jews came to be understood as heretics and later Christian heretics become to be understood as as Jews (i.e. apostates), Radner is suggesting that Christians have been so bad to each other because we were so bad to the Jews. Thus, the inability to handle division and conflict internally, or inability to see the conflict as internal, is a result of how Christians have understood themselves over against their Jewish religious ancestors and neighbors.”2
All of this challenging history makes my friends comment, and others like it, ominous, even if they are not particularly informed by the tradition. They come out of this context, and so, they have an edge to them that we cannot deny. That edge is provided at its root, in large measure, by this section of Romans (chapters 9-11). From the beginning, many Christians have used the phrase “The Rejection of Israel” to describe this section of Romans. It is a phrase that cuts in two directions, but by far the sharpest is in the direction of claiming that God has rejected Irsrael/The Jewish people. The reality is however, that Paul is emphasizing that God has not rejected the Jewish people, but that a portion of the Jewish people have rejected Christ because of a misguided reading of the Torah.
- Radner, Ephraim (2012-01-15). A Brutal Unity (Kindle Locations 2065-2068). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition. [↩]
- Furry, Tim. “Radner’s BFB, Part I” from Theology Studio. Radner offers many pertinent thoughts on this matter–pick up the book!–here are a few that really hit home: “But just as in Rwanda it is inescapable that a central element of the violence was that Christians killed, not simply that killers “happened to be” Christians, so, in the case of the Holocaust, there is a consensus that we must face the fact that Christians killed Jews and that these identities given in terms of violent hostility were not only self-consciously defined but carefully supported by religious arguments and traditions. There is no longer any question but that elements of Christian theological understanding and practice—and not only discrete (and somehow Christianly uninformed) acts by Christians—motivated these killings, if in ways that were hardly exhaustive.”
Radner, Ephraim (2012-01-15). A Brutal Unity (Kindle Locations 904-909). Baylor University Press. Kindle Edition. [↩]
Several months ago I posted some thoughts inspired by a little research on the history of English (primarily, though not intentionally) church architecture. I was interested in looking at the way children were or were not welcomed in worship by our predecessors. I think this is important because I have a feeling that many of the issues the church is facing today come, at least in part, from a sort of social or institutional amnesia. We’ve forgotten what it means to play, learn, converse, and therefore, worship, in a multi-generational setting.
This lack is exemplified in nothing so much as the drive to program for children and the difficulty in finding adults willing and able (whether because of schedules or lack of formation on their part) to volunteer to lead such programs.
In my first post, Worshipping as the whole body of Christ, I made the following statement: “All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.”
While several months have passed, I am no less interested in reflecting on this question, and trying to come up with some “traditioned innovations” that might help us–at my parish, St. Joseph of Arimathea–or elsewhere, to face the question of properly passing our faith on to our children (and our adults, might I add!).
In keeping with this interest, I recently picked up (or rather, downloaded, then picked up my Kindle) the book When Children Become People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. There’s a lot of interesting information in this book, and I heartily commend it to you.
Of particular interest to the question of how, in the early Church (or let’s just say the church of the first four centuries) children participated and were nurtured in the faith, is the description of the role children played in worship.
First, Bakke indicates that children were indeed present during the service, and took part in it. They were lectors (readers of scripture), they sang the responses–with particular emphasis on the Kyrie, which in at least some settings, they sang first, followed by the adults–joined in hymns and were cantors. While many of the functions of lector, in particular, were reserved for boys, the fact of such participation is, I think, the important lesson to take. And such participation began at an early age. Justinian passed a law setting eight years old as the minimum age of a lector, for example.1
Bakke sums up children’s participation in the worship of the early church by writing the following:
From the mid-third century, and perhaps from the New Testament period onward, children received the sacraments: in a wide geographical area, they were baptized and took part in the Eucharist. This implies that they were regarded as subjects with needs of their own and with the capacity to receive the same spiritual gifts as adults. The fact that they received baptism and communion also shows that they were perceived as full members of the community. Children’s active participation went further, however. The sources tell us that they played an active part in hymn-singing, that they were cantors, and that they had a special responsibility in praying the Kyrie eleison. They also read scriptural texts in the liturgy. In other words, they were visibly present and made their own contribution to worship. 2
In looking at this list, the questions arise: in what ways could children be involved in our worship today? How can such liturgical involvement translate to a better grasp of scripture and the Christian traditions?
- “It is in any case indisputable that boys served as lectors from a very early age. This is confirmed by a decree promulgated by Justinian in 546, which laid down the minimum age of eight for those who were to assume the office of lector.153 The need to establish a minimum age may be related to the desire of ambitious parents-or (perhaps more likely) poor parents-to ensure a future career in the clergy for their sons.”
O. M. Bakke. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3827-3829). Kindle Edition. [↩]
- O. M. Bakke. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3898-3899). Kindle Edition. [↩]
I was trying out a new search engine the other day. Actually, it was a digital library, and it is pretty cool. You should check it out. It’s part of the Digital Library Project, and is called HathiTrust Digital Library, and it has some great texts available. As I was satiating my curiosity about their holdings, by searching for random topics, I did a search for the term “Anglican.” One of the texts that popped up was Anglican Church Architecture with some remarks upon ecclesiastical furniture by James Barr, architect, published in 1842.
As I skimmed it’s pages, my eye was caught by an earlier illustration. It was a floor plan, and a good example of some common elements one is likely to see in village churches in England. Take a look:
I wonder what you notice about the lay out?
When I looked at it, the first thing I took note of was the tower, and the porch which serves as a main entrance to the church building. I noted that the font is located at the entrance of of the church, and that the pews are shorter at that side of the nave to accommodate it. I noticed that the vestry (vesting room, not the group of people that we name by the term) was sort of tacked on, seemingly as an afterthought. The position of the reading pew (B) right in front of the pulpit (C) struck me as interesting, but indicative of a particular time frame; my understanding is that the clerk would sit there and lead responses during the service. Then I noticed the pews that were sideways at the front of the church, around the pulpit. But there were also pews running sideways in the chancel area. Generally speaking (assuming there aren’t transepts) pews oriented that way tend to indicate the presence of a choir. But, in my experience, the choir is almost always seated in the chancel area. So where would the choir sit here?
Then I noticed it on the key. Letter H. Referring to the pews in the chancel. Do you see it? Children’s seats.
Now, when I brought this up to Anna, she had the same initial thought that I did: perhaps they had a boys choir. But then I thought that it would make more sense, even if it was a boys choir, to actually refer to it as the boys choir or even just choir. Also, the word children has always been inclusive of both sexes, so add to that the fact that at this date the Church of England would not have had children’s choirs consisting of boys and girls. So, could it be that the chancel area was reserved for the seating of children?
What would be the possible benefits of this?
Folks who study congregational development and children nearly universally suggest that children sit toward the front during the service so that they can see the action. Perhaps that was part of it. Sitting in the chancel would’ve given the children a good view of what happened in both the liturgy of the word and during communion. There may have been another benefit, in that, while they would be able to hear the sermon because of their proximity, being positioned behind the preacher may have made the noise from fidgeting and the occasional whispered comment less likely to carry into the nave.
Still, I was curious. I had never heard of or seen anything like this before. So, I started to dig a bit. I ran across another, modern text: Buildings, Faith and Worship: The Liturgical Arrangement of Anglican Churches 1600-1900. I searched this book, and found several references to children. In discussing the design and renovation of congregations in England during the 19th century, he notes that of the parishes in this region “Most had seating for the congregation provided by open benches rather than box pews; some had stalled chancels but for children rather than choristers […]” (page xxiii). In another text, I saw reference to a parish church that was renovated in in the 1680’s and put small box pews in the chancel for children.
All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.
Sermon Notes for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C, 2013
Scriptures: Isaiah 43:16-21 • Psalm 126 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • John 12:1-8
The big news in the Christian world last week was the election of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis. Some have asked why I, as an Episcopal Priest, and we as Anglicans/Episcopalians, should care. Fundamentally, we care because Francis is the newly elected leader of over a billion of the world’s Christians. We also care because, unlike many other non-Roman Catholic Christian traditions, Anglicans have, at least since the time of Queen Elizabeth (see Jewel’s Apology of the Church of England) and certainly in our more recent dialogues, recognized the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, while rejecting universal jurisdiction. All of which means, Anglicans are in the position of honoring the Pope, while simultaneously upholding the principal of autonomy and conciliarism (when we’re at our best).
This is in great contrast to the position of some other traditions, such as the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, and a number of staunchly Reformed denominations, which specifically refer to the Pope–or the office of the papacy, if not the person–as Antichrist. Such language is a vestige of the polemics of the Reformation era and is unsurprising, when you consider the high tensions of the time. Consider how frustrated Martin Luther was with the actions of the papacy, most especially actions such as selling indulgences to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther was so frustrated with what he viewed as the excesses of the papal court, that he wrote the following in On Christian liberty:
The Church of Rome … has become the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell; so that not even antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness” (Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty).
In his frustration, Luther both echoed and foreshadowed criticisms of the papacy, and the church more generally.
Many of these criticisms, over finances, buildings and so forth, are familiar to us, not only because they’re regularly hurled at the Roman Catholic Church, but at churches of all denominations. And there are times the accusations are all too true. At other times, they serve as evidence of a sort of miserliness which seeks to avoid responsibility for one’s neighbor by calling from some disembodied and disconnected “church” to provide social services or resources. I’m sure many of us have either heard or even voiced criticisms of the church for spending this or that amount of money on buildings, items for worship, or salaries and so forth. In many cases, these criticisms are overblown, but they are also understandable from the perspective of history.
In this area of concern, Francis has already begun to make a name for himself, as he has done things such as pay his own hotel bill, retrieve his own bags, and ride in the bus with his fellow cardinals, rather than taking one of the papal cars. This is all in keeping with the way he seems to have conducted himself in Argentina, eschewing the Archiepiscopal Palace and instead living in a simple apartment, and refusing a car and driver, to instead ride public transportation. The facts that such actions have been so warmly received indicate a degree of legitimacy to the complaints of the way in which churches have used funds and of the way in which Christians and Christian leaders have conducted themselves.
But as we celebrate simplicity, we need to remind ourselves not to slip over into the easy and selfish mode of being tightfisted with money and other resources. Ours is not a God of scarcity, but plenty. This was the dynamic of the conflict set up in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel. Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the disciples about multiple facets of generosity and appropriate extravagance.
Jesus returns to Bethany to the house of Martha and Mary. While there he and the disciples dine with Martha, Mary and Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. In the course of dinner Mary comes forward to Jesus, takes a pound of perfume or fragrant ointment and anoints Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair.
There is an undeniable oddity and awkwardness to this situation. As one commentator put it, you might think of this as the sort of uncomfortable over-the-top emotional display that puts everyone else on edge. The disciples would have additionally been uncomfortable with this kind of display between a woman and a man. Beyond these elements of discomfort, there is the issue of the value of the ointment. Check the size of any perfumes or colones in your house. Do any of you have 1lbs bottles? This was extravagant; a sign of abundance.
In the midst of this, the contrasting actions of Mary and Judas are held up: Mary, giving far more than would ever be expected or considered appropriate. Judas, voicing the concerns of an overly rigid culture and faith. An uncomfortable part of this lesson is that many of us would likely respond similarly. Not simply because of the amount of perfume, but because of its cost. When the house is filled with the fragrance, Judas blurts out: “why wasn’t this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John, of course, tells us that Judas wasn’t really concerned for the poor, but he does highlight the bizarre excess of what Mary has done. 300 denarii was a year’s wages for the ordinary laborer. I don’t know about you, but I can’t recall plopping down a year’s wages on a single thing.
Jesus’ response to Judas’ challenge, “leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” serves to highlight the proclamation Mary’s actions constitute. Of all the disciples, it is Mary of Bethany who understands what is about to transpire in Jerusalem, and responds accordingly. On the opposite pole stands Judas, who, of all the disciples, not only can’t understand Jesus’ mission, but comes to actively reject it and betray his Lord.
Jesus’ statement, that she had brought it so that she might keep it for the day of his burial, clears up any confusion about whether this was some act of welcome–such as washing the feet of a traveler–or some other strange form of a normal act. Instead, we are informed that Mary of Bethany is anointing Jesus for burial: the time really is at hand.
In this sense Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene stand as bookends of the passion & resurrection account: Mary of Bethany, who recognizes what is to transpire beforehand and seeks to prepare Jesus for the grave, responding to the extravagance of the gift of his life, with the most open-handed gesture of giving and thanksgiving she could imagine, and Mary Magdalene who becomes the Apostles to the Apostles, proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.1
It is upon this note of extravagant giving that our lesson turns: Jesus’ giving of himself, the dramatic offering it inspires in Mary, and finally, the acts of abundance to which we are all called as Christians.
You see, some have seen in Jesus’ rebuke of Judas, a justification for poverty: You always have the poor with you. The poor are always going to exist, so soothe your conscious and move along.
No. That’s not the message of Christ.
The point of this interlude is to emphasize Christ’s coming work on the cross, but also to emphasize the appropriate type and degree of response from Christ’s people: complete and utter extravagance and giving. In other words: The poor will always be with you, and you will always be called to give beyond what the world finds reasonable. The poor will always be with you. Where Christ’s disciples are, there the poor will gather. Where the poor are, Christ’s disciples must gather, so that God’s extravagant love can be appropriately proclaimed.
You will always have the poor,
You will always have the sick,
You will always have the grieving,
You will always have the lonely,
You will always have the widow,
You will always have neighbors,
You will always have
people to love,
to pray for,
The need to seek forgiveness
The opportunity to offer it.
You will always have the assurance of salvation.
You will always have Christ with you. And the chance to share the good news with others.
This is the extravagant gift of God, and we are called to respond in kind.
- It should be noted that the Latin tradition has conflated Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the repentant woman of Luke. Greek tradition maintains they are three distinct individuals and protestants move between two and three. [↩]
It’s strange to consider that we will shortly be entering the season of Lent. Strange because time seems to be moving at such a rapid pace. Where did 2012 go again? 2011? 2010? But strange also because I believe we were thrown into a spirit of mourning even as we prepared for the celebration of Christmas.
When we heard about the deaths of the children of Newtown Connecticut, the bitter taste of ash and the sting of loss and grief punctuated the coming remembrance of the first advent of Grace in flesh. Of course, there have been mass shootings before, all too common in fact. But less common than the more widespread murders that darken the streets of our cities and towns throughout each year. The Newtown massacre brought home to us the senselessness and the human loss of all of these tragedies, I believe, because of the clear-eyed innocence of the victims.
It was in the context of thinking about Lent and Lenten mourning that my mind was drawn back to Sandy Hook and to several other tragic and challenging events in the parish and larger community. How is it humanly possible to deal with such things without simply becoming cynical or jaded, by becoming more and more heartless, less and less willing to feel? Or, alternatively, how to we deal with such horrendous events when they occur in our own lives when the options aren’t so much to be wracked by pain or close ourselves off from feeling, but rather, to be wracked by pain and never move out of it, but linger within it allowing pain to stagnate into bitterness and harsh anger?
Lent is an ideal time to reflect on this struggle. Consider the Collect for Ash Wednesday, and its unflinching take on the human condition and God’s mercy:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen (BCP, 166).
Unsurprisingly, given the way we tend to think about Lent, this collect reminds us of the universality of sin, our need for repentance and God’s readiness to forgive. What stands out to me more this year than in the past, however, is one word: wretchedness. Most of us have an idea of what sin is, and even more than a few guesses of particular sins we’re probably guilty of. But wretchedness? That’s a term we don’t hear a lot, particularly outside of the insult of hearing someone–perhaps in an old movie–referred to as a “poor wretch.” But this collect calls on us to acknowledge our wretchedness, meaning that it must be something that characterizes all of us in some way.
The primary meaning of the term is “deeply afflicted, dejected, or distressed in body or mind.” That seems to describe the human condition particularly well, especially after such tragedies. But recognizing the fact that we can be afflicted, dejected or distressed is only part of the story. The other aspect is that there is hope. We lament our sins and profess the truth that God “doth forgive the sins of all who are penitent,” while we acknowledge our wretchedness in the context of the hope of forgiveness and the reign of Jesus Christ, that is, because of the foundation of all Christian hope.
There is a transition that has to occur, from feeling sorry for ourselves or even bitter toward God because of our afflictions, toward a spirit of thankfulness for the good that we have experienced. There’s no doubting that this is much more difficult to do than to write about, but it is nonetheless a necessary change if we are to truly live in hope.
In his book Mending the Heart, which we read for our Advent series, John Claypool recounts the alternative responses he wrestled with following his little girls death, the road of gratitude or the road of resentment:
It came to me that Laura Lue had been part of my life in exactly the same way. She was a gift, not a possession. My mother’s words reverberated in my mind: ‘When something is a gift and it is taken away, you use that occasion to give thanks that it was ever given at all.’
That was the moment I decided to take the road of gratitude out of the valley of the shadow of grief, rather than the road of resentment. To this day I believe that gratitude is the best of all the ways through the trauma of loss rather than a spirit of entitlement. It does not in any way eliminate the intense pain and frustration that always accompany the work of rebuilding one’s life in an entirely different context, but it does take away the feelings of anger and the conviction that a terrible injustice as been done, and it opens the way for thanksgiving. Gratitude also deepens our sense of trust, for we begin to believe that the One who gave us the good old days can be trusted to give us good new days as well (Mending the Heart, 66).
It reminds me as well of Plutarch who in a letter of consolation to his wife upon hearing of the death of their daughter, writes movingly of not avoiding her memory or reminders of her:
I cannot see, my dear wife, why these and similar qualities which delighted us when she was alive should now distress and confound us when we bring them to mind. Rather do I fear lest we lose those memories along with our grief, like that Clymene who said, ‘I hate that well-turned cornel bow; away with all exercises!’ She avoided and shuddered at every reminder of her son. In general, nature avoids everything that causes distress. But in the case of our child, in the degree did she proved to us a thing most lovable to fondle and look at and hear, so the memory of her must abide with us and become part of us, and they will bring us a greater quantity and variety of joy and sorrow (Plutarch, “Consolation to His Wife,” The Art of the Personal Essay, 18).
What Claypool and Plutarch have in common is an effort to remember rightly. That is, to appreciate and recall the joys and blessings they enjoyed during the lives of their daughters, and to avoid the corruption that bitterness brings. The pain of bitterness, brought on by a refusal to accept stewardship as opposed to possession, corrupts and permeates even fond memories with the sting of malice for injustice. Now, the loss of our loved ones, or other challenges and limitations we may face can certainly be unjust, but we have to learn to let go of a proprietary feeling toward others and toward ourselves, for we do not even belong to ourselves, but our very lives are a blessing from the Almighty.
This is very much a Lenten reflection for the Lenten season. Lent is a time of letting go. We often think of it as a time to make resolutions, to sacrifice this or that favorite thing, sometimes in an effort to reform our lifestyles and sometimes as a sort of sacrifice and reminder for the season. But Lent is about letting go of more than these things. In the end, Lent is about reflecting upon the passion of Christ, seeing his obedience and willingness to pour himself out, and coming to a place of Christ-likeness. Lent is the season when we strive to have all the dross consumed.
Lent is about learning to let go of what was never ours to begin with–including our selves–so that we can welcome and receive hope and so that we can be truly thankful for every good gift, and most especially for that gift that is eternally ours, proclaimed so loudly on Easter morn.