Today, our Old Testament and Gospel readings speak of a messenger coming to the people, a perfect theme for Advent. It’s perfect because both the texts and the season contain elements of tension and dis/ease.
Advent is a complicated section of the church year. Is it penitential, or joyful? More like Epiphany, or Lent? Is the purple for royalty, or for sorrow? At this time we look toward a coming Light, yet we dwell in Darkness. And what is light for those in the dark—is it welcome, or feared? What might be revealed, what might be set alight, when the season comes to an end?
Apparently, the Diocese of Virginia has been concerned about its seminarians lately. You see, they haven’t been saying the word “Jesus” enough in interviews. This has become a bit of a running joke for my 2019 cohort. Now, I must admit I was as uncomfortable as most #evangelicals when a member of my own Standing Committee eagerly spoke up to say they’d been asking every interviewee, “But do you love Jesus?” I mean, what are you really supposed to do with that as an Episcopal seminarian? Do they really think we’ll say “Nah, not so much, I’m more of a Paul guy?”
Yet at the same time that we're not interested in repeating Christian clichés and using religious terminology merely to seem “correct,” many of us have also been wondering where Jesus is supposed to show up in our campus curriculum. In the two and a half years I have been at this seminary, I have taken classes in Bible, systematic theology, Christian ethics, ancient languages, and church history. Yet not once have I heard a single lecture or had an assignment on the lived life or teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
The readings from our lectionary seem to preach themselves today. I would like to give them a little context, and then ask you to listen one more time to these stories, thoughtfully hearing their words anew, to see what the Spirit might have to say to us today.
Our readings focus on the Widow.
In the ancient world, the widow and orphan were the most vulnerable in society. They had no means of income, beyond that most ancient of occupations, and were left to trust in the kindness of neighbors and the laws of their nation.
The first of many encounters between the vilified Israelite king Ahab and the great prophet Elijah centers around a divine judgement-by-drought and the care of a foreign widow. Ahab is said to have done what is wrong in the eyes of God more than any of his predecessors, and worst of all he had taken Jezebel the daughter of the king of Sidon as his wife. Sidon was one of the powerful and wealthy city-states of the Phoenicians. This marriage brought both lucrative trade contracts and foreign idol worship to Israel. In response, Elijah proclaimed three years of drought on the land, and then fled to the wilderness. Here he came across the household of a widow where our reading begins.
For many of us individually, and certainly for our larger community, the events and debates of these last few weeks have been very difficult. They have brought into question our values, our identities, and what worth we give to those around us. Setting aside party allegiances or abstract policy commitments, I think it is fair to say we are all worse off after the weeks that ended with a confirmation yesterday, but women in particular have lost the most.
It was with these events in mind, and with a heavy heart, that I turned to our lectionary passages today. Both our Genesis and Mark readings have something to say about the relationship between man and woman, and both have been used for harm and for good throughout the centuries of first Jewish and then Christian tradition.
“What is a miracle?”
This is the question I’ve had on my mind this week as I’ve reflected on the lectionary for today. Our gospel reading contains two stories which are typically called miracles, even if the label is not used in the text. In one, a demon is exorcised; in the other, hearing and speech are restored.
But here’s the question I want to explore with you now: what is the point?
Of what should we be impressed? What is the shape of the pressure of these stories on our hearts?
Ok, so I know Bible verse memorization is not as big in the Episcopal Church as it is in the evangelical world, but my guess is that there are some of you here who are familiar with this reference: John 3:16. Right? Can anyone join me in reciting it from memory, with the caveat that I know it best in the King James? “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Whether you can recite it perfectly or not, I imagine most of us are familiar with the general idea or at minimum have seen the reference frequently on billboards, signs at sports events, or in other contexts. According to “TopVerses.com,” which claims to sort Bible verses by frequency of use on the internet, it is the #1 most popular verse. The site goes on to claim that it is the third of only eight individual verses in the entire Bible which provide “the story of God's plan to restore his relationship with us.” I do hope the editors of our Lectionary don’t take that too seriously, as I enjoy having more than eight verses to preach on each year!
Last week, your preacher talked to you about mountaintop experiences. Today, as we transition from the revelation and excitement of Epiphany to the introspection of Lent, I would like to ponder what often happens after we descend from the mountain.
Our Gospel reading begins with Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan river. Mark’s account is characteristically brief and rough with few of the details contained in other accounts, filled with a sense of urgency and immediacy and a focus on disciples of Jesus who are called to heavy responsibility but often bewildered as to what it all means. As we work through the immense series of events contained in these brief, staccato verses, let us see if the Spirit may speak through our imaginations as we are first introduced to the Christ as yet another poor first- century Jewish man being submerged in the waters of a border river in Roman Palestine by yet another crazy-sounding, disheveled, insect-eating, charismatic prophet preaching reformation and the coming of a messiah figure at some unspecified but soon-to-arrive time.
As Jesus reemerged from the turbulent, muddy flow, roughly wiping water and hair out of his eyes, suddenly the sky was rent across, a deep tear ripping across the azure blue. The darkness of the cosmos poured through and he felt the fingering movements of the Ru’ach, the Breath, the Spirit, settle upon him just as it had brooded over the face of the deep on the first day of creation. The plea of the prophet Isaiah, “Oh that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down!” (Is 64:1) was being answered. What had long been sealed was being flung open!
I have a confession: I’ve been trying to cheat on this sermon from the beginning.
It started with scheduling a preaching slot over lunch with my supervising priest. I began scanning through the lectionary for upcoming passages that would particularly inspire me. “Oh,” he said, “you get to pick your own texts now?”
A seminarian should get used to working with assigned texts rather than picking and choosing. So we picked the today’s date and then checked the lectionary. To my surprise and delight I felt like I had won the lottery. I get to preach Mark 1:15!
Welcome to St. Aidan’s on this Feastday of Christ the King! Let’s start out with a rousing chorus of “Christ is King!” Can you say it with me? “Christ is King!”
Wait, what did we just say? Christ is the King? Are you all sure about that? What does it even mean for us to say Christ is King, and is it a true statement in our world? What is this supposed to tell us about our reality? These are the questions I want to explore with you today from our Gospel reading.
“Thou shalt not!”
Negative commands aren’t our favorite things these days. This list of ten is more stereotypically Fundamentalist than Episcopalian, isn’t it?
I should know, since I was raised Fundamentalist in Arkansas. In a little town where a building owner put up an enormous “10 Commandments” banner right across from my office window a few years ago. In the same state where a monument to them was mounted at the courthouse this year. (It was also run over immediately afterward and I can’t deny I cheered.) After all, Jesus didn’t seem to be about this negative talk, and the strident call to remember these Commandments is often associated with oppression of the marginalized in our country.
When we read this passage in our Sunday lectionary it may not be immediately obvious how central it is in Scripture. If you were to ask a Jewish person what the center of their faith is, they’d tell you it’s the Exodus from Egypt, deliverance from oppression.