Sunday 26 August 2018
Commemoration of Oscar Romero
We have just two people left in our Summer of Saints sermon series. This week we have our most contemporary saint: Archbishop Oscar Cardinal Romero y Galdámez. As it happens, he has just been selected this year to be made a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. There will be a ceremony at the Vatican on October 14th to make it official.
Oscar was born on the 15th of August, 1917 in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador. His family was wealthier than many of their neighbors, but their small house still didn’t have electricity or running water. The children slept on the floor.
Oscar studied at school and then with a private tutor until he was was twelve. His family couldn’t afford it any more education, so he went to work as a carpenter’s apprentice. By all accounts, he showed great promise as a carpenter, but he felt a calling to become a priest. At thirteen, he entered the minor seminary in San Miguel. A minor seminary is a kind of boarding school, common in societies with low literacy, to give a basic education to teenage boys aspiring to become priests. When his mother became ill after giving birth to her eighth child, Oscar had to return home to work, this time in a gold mine. A fourteen year old working in a gold mine.
He went on to study at the national seminary in San Salvador before being sent to the Gregorian University in Rome to complete his studies. He graduated cum laude in 1941, but he was still too young to be ordained a priest. He was finally ordained in Rome in April of 1942, in the midst of the Second World War. His family was unable to attend because of the conflict. He continued to study in Italy, working on a doctorate in Theology. In particular, he studied ascetic theology, spiritual practice that focus on simplicity, the denial of earthly desires to allow one to focus more fully on God.
Before he could finish his doctorate, Oscar was recalled home to El Salvador. However, along the way, he and a colleague were detained in Cuba and held in a series of internment camps.
After they were released, Oscar took up his position as priest in the rural parish of San Miguel. He stayed there as a pastor for twenty years. He was highly active as a priest. He started an AA group in his parish, worked on the construction of a cathedral in San Miguel, and was appointed as rector of the seminary in San Salvador. He convinced not one, but five local radio stations to broadcast his Sunday sermons to peasant farmers who believed they were unwelcome in church.
In January 1966, Oscar took a retreat. He was exhausted from twenty years of ministry. The priests who examined him diagnosed him with scrupulosity. The psychiatrist called it obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. By whatever definition, Oscar was consumed with perfectionism, always thinking he could do things better, always thinking he could be in better control, always seeking to do God’s work more perfectly.
Rather than send him back to the parish, the church gave him a more bureaucratic role as Secretary of the Bishops Conference for El Salvador. He become publisher of regional church newspaper. It became noticeably more conservative under his watch.
Four years later, in 1970, he was made a bishop, auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of San Salvador. This means that while he was a bishop, he kind of an assistant to the real bishop of the area, Archbishop Luis Chávez.
After four years, they sent him out to be bishop on his own in the poor and rural Diocese of Santiago de María. During his two years as bishop there ‘he was horrified to find that children were dying because their parents could not pay for simple medicines. He began using the resources of the church and his own personal resources to help the poor, but he knew that simple charity was not enough. He wrote in his diary that people who are poor should not just receive handouts from the Church or the government, but participate in changing their lives for the future.
In 1977, Oscar Romero was made Archbishop of San Salvador. It was a time of upheaval in El Salvador. Much of Latin America was trying to establish an identity apart from the Western colonial powers. And Latin American was often a proxy battlefield between the United States and the USSR. It was the Cold War, and the interests of local people were secondary to the worldwide struggle between Capitalism and Communism.
Out of this conflict, one religious response was Liberation Theology. Focusing on the biblical books like Exodus, the Gospel of Luke, and the Epistle of James, liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff argued that God has a special concern for the plight of the poor, that God stands against the oppression of the marginalized, that God cares for the most lowly. They called it God’s preferential option for the poor. They argued that in the face of extreme poverty and exploitation of ordinary people, God called the church to do something, to strive for a more just society. They said that Christians were called not just to orthodoxy—right belief—but also to orthopraxy—right action. Christians were called to work for a more just society.
However, liberation theology was not well-received by all. In the face of Cold War tensions, liberation theology was widely criticized for being Marxist. It was also disliked by much of the Catholic hierarchy, because it understood them to be a part of the upper class that at best was blind to the concerns of the poor and at worst participated in taking advantage of the poor.
Around the time of Romero’s appointment as archbishop, many Catholics in El Salvador were running afoul of the Salvadoran government. Because of their work with the poor, they were seen as rebels, agitators, who were trying to subvert the government. A priest, Mario Bernal, who was working among the poor, was snatched by government forces and deported, though they blamed it on rebel guerrillas. This was the context into which Archbishop Oscar Romero came.
Oscar Romero was not a liberationist. He was a conservative. Progressives were afraid that he would stand in the way of their work with the poor, that he would side with the repressive government over them.
When he came into office, one of his friends, a Jesuit priest named Rutilio Grande, was working with communities of poor people, organizing them into self-reliance groups. He preached a sermon in response to the deportation of Father Mario. In it, he said this:
“I am fully aware that very soon the Bible and the Gospels will not be allowed to cross the border. All that will reach us will be the covers, since all the pages are subversive – against sin, it is said. So that if Jesus crosses the border at Chalatenango, they will not allow him to enter. They would accuse him, the man-God … of being an agitator, of being a Jewish foreigner, who confuses the people with exotic and foreign ideas, anti-democratic ideas, and, that is, against the minorities. Ideas against God, because this is a clan of Cain’s. Brothers, they would undoubtedly crucify him again. And they have said so.”
Less than a month into Archbishop Romero’s tenure, his friend, Fr. Rutilio, was assassinated by government forces. While traveling to the town where he was born to celebrate a religious festival, he was gunned down in a coordinated attack which also killed the elderly man who was driving him and a sixteen-year-old boy who was traveling along.
Conditions in El Salvador were getting worse. The military was killing many, including teachers, priests, and nuns who spoke out against injustice. Thousands of people began to go missing. Archbishop Romero said later, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.’” Romero demanded that the President investigate. He did not. The press printed not a word about it.
Romero began to speak out. He used the weekly broadcasts of his Sunday sermons to name those who were being tortured, killed, and disappeared. He denounced the regime of dictator Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero, and he also refused to support the right-wing military junta that replaced him. He lobbied in Rome and around the world for the welfare of his people. He begged the US military to stop giving arms to the Salvadoran government death squads. They continued.
His pleas were met with mixed reaction. Some recommended him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Others denounced him as a Marxist radical. He started to receive death threats.
‘On March 23, 1980, after reporting the previous week’s deaths and disappearances, Archbishop Romero began to speak directly to the soldiers and policemen: “I beg you, I implore you, I order you… in the name of God, stop the repression!” The following evening,’ while he was leading worship in the chapel of a church-run hospital, he spoke the words “Those who surrender to the service of the poor through love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies… The harvest comes because of the grain that dies.” He finished his sermon and walked to the altar to begin celebrating holy communion. A red car stopped abruptly outside the chapel. A man got out, stepped up to the door of the chapel, fired a gunshot through Romero’s heart, then got back in the car and sped away.
Oscar Romero died a martyr’s death. He died the death of a radical. Though he was a reelected radical, if he could be called a radical at all. He was deeply wary of religious movements that focussed on worldly change at the expense of inward conversion. He said,
“Let us be today’s Christians. Let us not take fright at the boldness of today’s church. With Christ’s light, let us illuminate even the most hideous caverns of the human person: torture, jail, plunder, want, chronic illness. The oppressed must be saved, not with a revolutionary salvation, in mere human fashion, but with the holy revolution of the Son of Man, who dies on the cross to cleanse God’s image, which is soiled in today’s humanity, a humanity so enslaved, so selfish, so sinful.”
He was not a natural activist. He was much more comfortable in prayer than in protest. And yet, when faced with such obvious injustice, he could not remain silent. He became a voice for the voiceless, an advocate for the powerless, a defender of the oppressed. He lived in solidarity with the poor and with those who suffered violence. He walked the way of the cross.
After his death, he was not immediately named a saint. The Vatican was deeply skeptical. Too cozy with those Marxist liberation theologians, they said.
It’s funny how those political labels work. Marxist, socialist, fascist, liberal, conservative, radical, reactionary, squish, maverick. Sometimes they describe us well. Sometimes they hide more than they reveal.
People are complicated. People can surprise us. Just because we disagree on some things does not mean that we will disagree on all things. Just because we place ourselves on different teams does not mean that we cannot work together. The villain of one story may be the hero of another.
Each of us is more than the labels people use to describe us. Each of us is capable of doing something new. Each of us capable of answering God’s call in our lives.
We are not all called to be martyrs. We are all called to listen for God’s voice, to pray and to sing God’s praise, to stand for God’s justice. When each of us is faced with one of those moments—to do what is easy or to do what is right—may we have the courage, like Oscar Romero, to answer God’s call. May we have the courage to stand with God’s people. May we have the courage to follow where Christ leads us, not the way of glory, but the way of the cross.
We are called by many labels, but there is one before all others: made in the image of God. May God perfect that image in our life together. Amen.
Sunday19 August 2018
Commemoration of Harriet Tubman
This week as part of our Summer of Saints, we are reflecting on the life of Harriet Tubman. Some of you may be asking, Is she even a saint? What that question usually means is, Has she been approved as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church? No, she hasn’t. But, she is in the list of commemorations for both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The United Methodist Church. Saints, as we have been using the term this summer, are people whose faith is worthy of study and emulation. Does studying this person’s life and faith contribute to my journey of faith? If so, we can call them a saint. So is Harriet Tubman a saint? Absolutely!
She was born Araminta Ross in Madison, Maryland. Both of her parents were slaves, owned by different masters, and she was born a slave. As with most slaves, there was no official record of her birth, and her year of birth is listed variously as anywhere between 1815 and 1825, though most likely it was between 1820 and 1822. Despite being slaves, her parents, Rit Green and Ben Ross were married. They had nine children together. Three were sold away south and never heard from again. When her master came to the home with another slaveowner, with the intention of selling her son, Rit threatened to kill the next man who came through the door. It worked. No more of her children were sold out of the area.
Harriet grew up with the same sense of defiance. She refused to appear cheerful in the presence of her masters and taskmasters. She even ran away once as a child. She hid among the pigs for five days, competing with them for food, until she finally returned.
When she was about thirteen years old, Harriet was trying to help a runaway slave. His master threw a metal weight at him, but it hit Harriet in the head instead. She would never be the same. After that, she suffered headaches, seizures, and sleeping fits.
She also started having visions and dreams, which she attributed to God. ‘In one, Harriet was flying over fields. Some beautiful white women were holding their arms out to her, but she couldn’t reach them.’
When she was about 22, she was married to a freedman named John Tubman. It was about this time that she changed her first name from Araminta to Harriet.
Harriet had been promised that she would never be sold south, but when her master died, his widow was left with debts. Harriet discerned that it was time to leave. She wanted her husband, John, to go with her, but he didn’t want to go. One night, she walked out the gate and kept going. A nearby house was one of the stations of the Underground Railroad, and they helped her travel to safety in Pennsylvania. She later described the feeling: “When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.”
The Underground Railroad wasn’t a real railroad, like I thought as a child, and it wasn’t underground. It was a network of people who worked to smuggle runaway slaves to safety in the north. Stations were places where slaves could hide and get directions. Conductors would lead slaves from one place to another. Passengers, or freight, were the people who were being led to freedom.
Once Harriet had made her way to freedom, it wasn’t long before she felt God calling her to lead others. Since she had escaped, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which greatly increased the penalty for those helping slaves to escape. It also meant that the North of the United States was no longer a safe refuge for escaped slaves, and many fled to true freedom in Canada, where slavery had already been abolished.
Nevertheless, Harriet went back into Maryland in late 1850 to help her niece escape. She returned a few months later and freed her brother, Moses, and to other men. With each trip back into slave territory, she gained confidence and became more bold. She went back again in late 1851 to get her husband John. He had already remarried and didn’t want to go with her. Instead of leaving empty-handed, she found other slaves who wanted to escape and guided them to Philadelphia.
For eleven years, Harriet continued her trips into Maryland to liberate enslaved black folk, risking her life every time. She usually worked in the winter when longer nights and cold weather meant better cover for their escapes. She would take a group on Saturday night, because newspapers would not print runaway slave notices until Monday morning. She would sometimes do her work in disguise. Once she bought live chickens and released them as a distraction when a former owner approached her. Another time when she spotted a former owner, she picked up a newspaper and pretended to read. Since Harriet was known to be illiterate, the former master didn’t notice her. Harriet sometimes carried sedatives with her to quiet crying babies who might give her group away. She was also known to carry a revolver. She used it for protection, but also to threaten any of her passengers who got cold feet and wanted to return to slavery, as they would endanger the rest of her passengers. She later said of this time in her life: “I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
Harriet was empowered for this brave work by her faith. She had a vital prayer life. She continued to see visions and have premonitions from God. She used spirituals as part of her work. Songs like “Steal Away to Jesus,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Wade in the Water,” had spiritual meaning, but they also contained coded messages she could use to warn other travelers. She had a deep sense that God was leading her and would keep her safe. Thomas Garret said of her, “I never met with any person of any color who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul.”
One of her visions led her to John Brown, a white abolitionist who advocated violent resistance to slavery. She helped him plan for an attack on a weapons depot in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and helped him recruit free black men to fight. Brown referred to Harriet as “General Tubman.” The attack failed, and John Brown was captured and hanged. He was thought of by many as a martyr of the abolitionist cause.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Harriet was recruited to work on the Union side. She served as a cook and as a nurse. Later, she became a spy. She recruited a network of liberated slaves who went behind enemy lines and reported on conditions to the Union Army.
In June 1863, Harriet and her team scouted out an attack on the Combahee River plantations in South Carolina. She worked with Col. James Montgomery to plan the raid. She even led 300 soldiers from a volunteer black regiment during the battle, becoming the first woman to lead US troops in battle. The assault destroyed Confederate supplies and freed 750 slaves, most of whom joined the Union Army. Newspaper hailed her service. Harriet continued to work and fight for the Union Army until after the war was over. Despite her service and courage, she was never paid for her efforts. It was not until 1899 that she was finally granted a pension for her military service.
On the train ride back home after the war, she was traveling on a veteran’s ticket. The conductor insisted that she give up her seat and move to the smoking car. When she tried to explain her service, he enlisted other white passengers to forcibly remove her. They broke her arm in the process. Other white passengers jeered.
Harriet settled down in Auburn, New York, along with many in her family whom she had freed. She married Nelson Davis, a veteran of the 8th United States Colored Infantry. They adopted a baby girl named Gertie. Nelson died eight years later.
Harriet lived in poverty nearly all of the rest of her life, but she continued to care for the sick and people in need. She opened her home to the elderly and orphans. She founded schools for black children, though she was illiterate. She worked with Susan B. Anthony and others for the cause of women’s suffrage. She became involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion and donated land to the church for the care of “aged and indigent colored people.” The Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged was opened there in 1908. In declining health, she moved in three years later. She died two years two years after that of pneumonia. Her last words were “I go to prepare a place for you.” She was buried with military honors.
Harriet Tubman described her own call experience this way. She said, “Long ago, when the Lord told me to go free my people I said, ‘No, Lord! I can’t go. Don’t ask me.” But He came another time, and I said again, “Lord, go away. Get some better educated person. Get a person with more culture than I have.” But He came back a third time, and spoke to me just as He did to Moses. He said, “Harriet, I want you.” And I knew then I must do what He bid me to do.”
Is Harriet Tubman a saint? If she isn’t then no one is. She is a mystic who receives visions from God. She comes from a humble background but answers God’s call to become a great leader. She works tirelessly for the liberation of enslaved people. She puts her own life on the line repeatedly for her faith and for the welfare of others. She gives what meager resources she has to benefit those who have even less. She inspires people with her commitment to God’s justice. Of course she is a saint.
What surprises me most about her story is that we don’t know it better. By rights, she should be honored as a national hero—she did so much in the cause of freedom and justice, did so much to help America live up to its highest ideals. But in her own time, she was widely thought of as a nuisance, an agitator, and in our time she is largely forgotten.
Which reminds me of our gospel lesson today. Everyone remembers the last part of it. “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.” And that all sounds very magnanimous. It sounds very peaceful. It sounds like it would bring no conflict at all. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Ask God for something and you will get it.
What we too often forget is that there are people who don’t want to open that door. There are people who are already inside who don’t want to be bothered with opening the door. There are people who are already inside who don’t want to give up their privileged position on the inside. There are people who are already inside who don’t want to open the door for someone who is asking for a handout.
We forget the first part of that gospel story. We forget about the person who needs some help in the middle of the night and goes knocking on the door of their neighbor. We forget about that neighbor who does not want to be bothered to open the door. Is it really important that the door be opened for you right now? Can’t you just be patient and wait until morning to have the door opened? Do you really deserve to have the door opened for you anyway?
What does Jesus say? I assure you, even if he won’t get up and open the door on account of friendship, he will give him whatever he needs on account of brashness and persistence.
Knocking on the door isn’t always a polite thing to do. Sometimes knocking on the door is brash. Sometimes it’s pushy; sometimes it’s audacious; sometimes it puts people out; sometimes it offends. Sometimes asking for justice is met with annoyance, or ridicule, or even violent opposition. Why are you creating such a fuss? Can’t you wait your turn, work within the system? Can’t you show a little more respect?
Knocking on the door for justice is often perceived as ungrateful, disrespectful, or unpatriotic by those who are already on the inside. But Jesus suggests, keep on knocking. Maybe the door won’t be opened because of the goodwill of the people inside, but it will eventually be opened because of persistence, brashness. Knock and the door will be opened. Seek and you will find.
Harriet Tubman is a reminder to us of that persistent knock on the door, a knock that was unwelcome in its time and glossed over in retrospect. But her faithful life of defiance of laws and rules in the name of freedom and justice, it should be a lesson for us today. Which doors do we need to be knocking on, persistently, brashly? But maybe more important, who is persistently knocking on our doors. Who is it that is brashly, annoyingly knocking, demanding justice? And how long will we stay in bed before we get up and open the door?
Sunday12 August 2018
Commemoration of Lawrence, deacon and martyr Rome
We have just four weeks left in our Summer of Saints sermon series. Up until now, we have been learning about biblical saints, that is, people who are actually talked about in the bible. But for these last four weeks, we’re going to talk about some figures who lived after the time of the New Testament. And the first of our post-biblical saints is St. Lawrence, deacon and martyr of Rome.
Lawrence was born on December 31st in the year 225 in the Roman province of Hispania Terraconensis, now Spain. In modern Zaragoza, then called Caesaraugusta, he meets a clergyman named Sixtus, whom he follows and serves. The two men travel to Rome. In the year 257, Sixtus is made Bishop of Rome, the same office we now refer to as Pope. At that time, Sixtus ordains Lawrence a deacon, an assistant who, among other things, is responsible for the property of the church.
Now, shortly before Sixtus and Lawrence came into leadership in Rome, the church had come under official persecution. Emperor Valerian issued an edict against Christians. Christians were required to participate in state-sponsored religious acts and they were forbidden from gathering together in cemeteries and catacombs.
The Romans don’t mind so much that Christians worship the Hebrew God or Jesus. What they hate is that Christians refuse to perform sacrifices to the other gods, including the emperor, who was often styled as a Son of God. Making sacrifices to gods and emperors is a normal part of civic life. They do it as part of oaths, part of contracts, and as general acts for the welfare of the city and the people. Citizens can worship whichever gods they choose, so long as they also make the necessary sacrifices to the gods of Rome and to the emperor. The refusal of Christians to do so is thought of as treasonous. Forbidding Christians to gather in cemeteries and catacombs is a means of disrupting their underground religious practice. Christians often met among the dead, both to honor the faithful lives of those who had died and in order to worship without drawing unneeded attention from non-Christians.
After Sixtus becomes pope and Lawrence becomes deacon, Emperor Valerian issues another proclamation against Christians. This one orders that all bishops, priests, and deacons be summarily put to death. On August 6th, 258, Pope Sixtus II is presiding at communion in the Cemetery of St. Callixtus, in Rome. He is apprehended by Roman authorities, along with six of his deacons. They are put to death by beheading, but Lawrence is not among those who is killed.
Ambrose of Milan records a conversation between Lawrence and Sixtus, after Sixtus has been captured but before he has been killed. Lawrence says to his teacher and bishop, “Where, father, are you going without your son? Where, holy priest, are you hastening without your deacon? Never were you wont to offer sacrifice without an attendant. What are you displeased at in me, my father? Have you found me unworthy? Prove, then, whether you have chosen a fitting servant. To him to whom you have entrusted the consecration of the Saviour’s blood, to whom you have granted fellowship in partaking of the Sacraments, to him do you refuse a part in your death?” That may be a little hard to follow. Lawrence is lamenting that his bishop and his fellow deacons are being killed for their faith, but Lawrence himself is being left behind. If you could trust me hold the cup of Jesus’s blood during communion, you should be able to trust me to be martyred with you, Lawrence says.
Sixtus encourages Lawrence, saying that he still has important work to do, and that his time will come soon enough. Lawrence is now the ranking clergyperson left in Rome. Just like Elisha had to take over for Elijah, so Lawrence needs to take over Sixtus’s mission.
Part of Lawrence’s job as deacon is to oversee the property of the church. The Roman official, Decius, demands that Lawrence hand over all of the treasures of the church. Lawrence says that it will take time to assemble them, and Decius gives him three days.
The church isn’t rich, but whatever money and material possessions the church has, Lawrence gives them to the poor. He even has the sacred vessels that are used for communion melted down and the money given to the poor.
After three days, Lawrence returns to Decius to make an accounting of the treasures of the church. The Emperor Valerian is there as well. Lawrence has gathered all of the poor of the church to come with him. When he is asked to hand over the treasures of the church, he gestures to the poor and says, “These are the treasures of the church.”
Lawrence is immediately taken into custody, where he is tortured. Decius tries to force him worship other gods, but even after severe beatings and other torture, Lawrence refuses. He remains faithful. His witness is so inspiring that one of the guards is convinced of the power of Christ, and Lawrence baptizes him right there in prison.
It comes time for Lawrence to be executed, but the authorities are so frustrated with his impudence, that they don’t have him beheaded like the others. The bring out an iron grill, attach him to it with metal braces, and start a fire underneath. Lawrence is quoted as saying, “Your coals feel refreshingly cool to me, but they will bring you unending torment. God knows that when I was accused, I didn’t renounce God. When asked, I remained faithful to Christ. In being roasted, I give thanks to God.” Just before he dies, he calls out to the emperor, “I’m done on this side. Turn me over, and eat.” Words of defiance in the face of death. Not only does he not scream in torment, but he ridicules is executioners, saying that their actions are just as immoral as the diets of cannibals.
There are a few points to make about the life of Lawrence. The first has to do with his martyrdom. It’s a feature of many of the stories of Christians in the first few centuries. While there were rarely periods where there was empire-wide persecution against Christians, there was frequent regional persecution. One might spend a lifetime as a Christian in relative safety, but one never knew when things would change, when one would be forced out of a job, or arrested, or beaten, or even killed simply for following Christ. As I mentioned before, when things went wrong in the Roman Empire, Christians were often blamed. After all, it was thought, the empire got its prosperity and safety from the traditional gods. And Christians refused to honor the traditional gods. So if the empire had lost favor with the gods, it must be because those Christians were refusing to give due respect.
Besides, those Christians behaved suspiciously. They kept to themselves. They worshiped in a strange way. They refused to integrate into Roman society. They seemed foreign, and they answered to a foreign God. They didn’t need to be subject to state-sponsored violence in order to suffer persecution. It was enough that the state didn’t really protect them from violence.
We don’t have much in the way of religious martyrs in the United States these days, but there are still a scattering religious killings—against black churches, mosques, synagogues, churches that support LGBT inclusion—those who represent a threat or a change from the traditional order of things. Religious persecution doesn’t usually have so much to do with actual differences in doctrine as it does with power, privilege, and position.
In the early church, martyrdom was more common. So much so, in fact that it changed the meaning of the word martyr. Μάρτυρος is a Greek word. It used to just mean witness, someone who testifies. But in the early church, many people who witnessed to their Christian faith ended up dying because of their witness. The word came to us with a new meaning, not simply a witness, but someone who dies for their witness.
It’s important to remember that while it may be laudable to be willing to die for ones faith, that does not mean that one should go out looking to be martyred. Sometimes following Jesus means making sacrifices. Only rarely does it lead to putting one’s life at risk.
The other point to make is about the place of wealth and the place of the poor in God’s sight. In certain eras and places, the church has been a major owner of property. Churches are often filled with vivid decoration, expensive art. At times, the church has been a major landowner, even owning slaves and serfs. If someone demanded today that the church of Rome turn over all of its treasures, it would likely be 10-15 billion dollars—some of the greatest works of art in the world.
In Lawrence’s time, the church in Rome was still a marginal institution. Part of Lawrence’s job was to use the money the church did have to help the poor. When the rest of the church’s wealth was demanded, he took the extraordinary step of distributing absolutely everything to the poor.
Lawrence knows what the officials want from him. They want him to bring in the church’s gold and silver. They want him to bring in the chalices and pattens and candlesticks. They want him to bring in the wealth, the money. That’s what they mean by the church’s treasures.
And Lawrence has a choice to make. If he does what they want, brings in those things of value that the church has, he may escape with his life. Alternatively, he could try to hide the church’s wealth. He himself will be executed, but perhaps the church’s treasure can be retained.
But he doesn’t do either of those things. Instead he has the sacred vessels melted down. He empties the church treasury. He distributes the money to the poor.
But he doesn’t stop there. When he reports back to the Roman officials, he doesn’t show up empty handed. He doesn’t just say that the treasures are lost. No. He identifies the poor as the treasures of the church. “These are the church’s treasures,” he says.
It sounds a bit cheeky, of course. But in a real sense, he’s also right. These are the church’s treasures. “The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind,” as Luke tells us this morning. These are the ones favored by God. These are the ones who are backed by God.
We tend to be pretty good at pitying the poor. We can see suffering. We can have compassion. We can offer some form of assistance. Sometimes we can even work to change the conditions that produce poverty. But this means that we often dehumanize the poor. They become an object of our assistance.
What is harder to do is to honor the poor. We are told repeatedly by Jesus that in God’s administration, the last are first and the first are last. Blessed are you who are poor, for the Kingdom of God is yours. Which is greater, the one at the table or the servant? But I am among you as one who serves.
Sometimes we can summon pity for the poor. But how often do we honor the poor as God does? How often do we esteem the poor? How often do we listen to the poor? How often do we reverse the marks of honor and nobility?
That is what is remarkable about Lawrence’s action. These are the treasures of the church. Yes, it is a way of putting a finger in the eyes of the authorities. But it is also God’s truth.
Jesus came as a child, born to a poor family. Most of his ministry was among the poor. His disciples left everything to follow him. He was known to have no place to lay his head. And we are told that if we want to find Jesus in our day, in our world, he will be found among the poor. I wonder how often we miss seeing Jesus because we don’t look for him there? These are the treasures of the church.
Sunday 5 August 2018
Commemoration of Mary and Martha
For the last two months we have been exploring a Summer of Saints. Rather than using the regular readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, we have been going to the less-used calendar of commemorations of saints. We’ve been taking the time to explore the biblical story from the perspective of one or two of its characters, rather than from the perspective of one particular passage of scripture. We have been studying biblical saints, and we will do that again today, though next Sunday we will begin getting to know some heroes of the faith from later in the Christian story.
Today we meet two well-known sisters, Mary and Martha. Just to be clear, this is not Mary Magdalene, though the two have often been confused with each other, often thought of as the same person. This is Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha.
They are known to us from just three passages of scripture. One of them is the gospel lesson we read this morning, and another comes shortly after it. But the best known story of Mary and Martha comes from Luke 10:38-42.
“While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest.” That right there is a little strange. It would be unusual for a woman to invite a man into her house. And there is no mention in Luke of the brother, Lazarus. It also seems like Martha and Mary are strangers to Jesus, whereas in Luke, we are told that they know each other very well.
In any case, as Martha is preparing hospitality for Jesus and his twelve disciples, her sister, Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to his message. That is also strange. Again, it messes with gender norms. Women’s and men’s worlds were usually very separate. For Mary to be sitting at Jesus’s feet, the position of a disciple, is a violation of societal norms. She really should have been helping Martha with the meal preparations.
And Martha knows this. She is being pulled in many different directions trying to get the meal ready. She is overwhelmed. So she appeals to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.”
In Greek, you can tell by the way someone asks a question whether they are expecting a positive answer or not. Martha expects Jesus to agree with her. “Lord, you do care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself, don’t you?”
Is Martha simply put out because Mary isn’t helping? Is she scandalized that Mary has taken the very provocative position at Jesus’s feet? Is it a bit of each? We don’t know. We know that she expects Jesus to agree, but we don’t know why.
Jesus doesn’t agree, though. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”
It’s not entirely clear what Jesus is try to say here. Our oldest Greek manuscripts don’t even agree about what words Jesus uses here, giving us at least four different options.
Is Jesus trying to say that the one thing that is necessary is the one thing that Mary has chosen? Is the one thing necessary to sit and listen to Jesus? Perhaps. Or is Jesus trying to tell Martha that she is overdoing things. The reason she is worried is that she’s trying to make too much of a fuss over Jesus. Don’t try to throw an elaborate feast; keep it simple? Maybe.
And what does he mean that Mary has chosen the better part? Does he mean that listening to Jesus, studying scripture, being contemplative is always better than getting work done, being in service? Possibly. Or is he just trying to affirm Mary’s choice to listen at the feet of Jesus, even though doing so would have seemed inappropriate for a woman at the time? That could be. If so, as Jesus is affirming the right of women to be disciples just like men, is he also degrading the kind of work that is usually associated with women, being a host? Hard to say.
This passage often gets used as a kind of personality test. What is your Myers-Briggs type; what number are you on the Enneagram; which Hogwarts house do you belong to; are you an Achiever, an Obliger, a Questioner, or a Rebel; and are you a Mary or a Martha? For me, it’s INFJ, 6, Ravenclaw, Questioner, and Mary.
Marys are contemplative while Marthas are active. Marthas focus on service while Marys focus on prayer and study. Marys are thinkers while Marthas are doers.
It can be a useful shorthand. Even the ancients used Mary and Martha as a way of talking about two essential aspects of faith; hearers of the word and doers of the word.
It’s most useful when we recognize that neither is complete without the other. If we follow the Mary stereotype to its logical end, then we find a person who may study and pray, but who not only never provides for their own livelihood, but also never puts their faith into practice. We find someone who is lazy and detached. If we follow the Martha stereotype to its logical end, then we find a person has nor spiritual grounding, who is constantly filling their life with business but without a sense of purpose. We find a person who is exhausted and resentful.
Neither of those is an adequate model of faith. It is not enough to say that the world needs both Marys and Marthas. Rather, each of us needs to be both Mary and Martha, finding time both for reflection and prayer and for work and service.
The second story of Mary and Martha, the one from John that we read this morning, characterizes the two sisters in a somewhat different light. John has never introduced these characters before, but we are meant to understand that they know Jesus very well. We are told that Jesus deeply loves them, along with their brother, Lazarus. The sisters send word to Jesus that Lazarus is ill, that he needs healing from Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus does not come to them immediately. He waits around for two days before leaving. By the time he makes it down to Bethany, Lazarus is four days dead.
This time, though, the sisters’ roles aren’t quite the same. We might expect Martha to stay in the house taking care of all of the guests and mourners, being occupied by all of the tasks that need to be done when someone dies. And we might expect Mary to run to Jesus, to spend all of her time with him, shirking her other responsibilities.
But that’s not what happens. This time Martha leaves behind her responsibilities and goes out to meet Jesus on the road. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died,” she says. “Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Martha makes a rather extraordinary statement of faith, both in God and in Jesus. When Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, Martha again gives a statement of faith about God’s resurrection at the end of time.
But Jesus says something shocking: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And then he asks her, “Do you believe this?”
And again she answers in faith, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.” An amazing statement of faith.
Martha then goes back to call Mary to come out and meet Jesus on the road. And Mary says the same thing that Martha did, if a bit less optimistically. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Jesus does not debate with her, but finds himself caught up in her emotion. As he approaches the tomb, he begins to cry along with Mary. He orders the tomb opened, he prays, and calls Lazarus out, alive and well.
The family is featured again not much later, as Jesus is beginning his last week. He comes to have dinner with them again. Again, we hear that Martha is the one serving. And again, Mary find herself at Jesus’s feet, though this time under different circumstances. She opens a container of expensive perfume and anoints Jesus’s feet, wiping them with her hair. She anoints him ahead of time for his impending burial.
So what are we to make of these sisters? They have become for many the archetypes of two different kinds of faith, one contemplative and the other active. So should we just choose our favorite and root for them: Team Mary or Team Martha? Or might we use them as a means of remembering that we are many different people with many different gifts? We do not all need to be the same. God needs us in our difference.
But you know, not everyone conforms to the distinction between Mary and Martha. In fact, Mary and Martha don’t even conform to it. Martha, who is known for being distracted by work, find the time to go and meet Jesus on the road, leaving her responsibility behind her. Mary, who is known for leaving the work to others, puts herself to the task of washing and anointing Jesus’s feet.
It is a false distinction, even if it can be a useful distinction. We are all both contemplative and active, both hearers and doers, both Mary and Martha. And we must each find our balance there. Faith without works is dead. Works without faith is empty and unsustainable.
We find in Mary and Martha role models who are not as one dimensional as they may seem. We find in them both women of faith who also answer the call to serve. They are not the same, but neither are they opposites. They are their distinctive selves, choosing in each circumstance how they will respond to presence of Jesus in their lives. They are not archetypes, they are complex individuals, just like each of us. May we, like them, each in our own way respond in faith to the presence of Jesus in our lives, without being conformed to the scripts that others put on our lives. May we be free, free to hear and to do as the Lord calls us.
Sunday 29 July 2018
Commemoration of James the Great
In our Summer of Saints series, this week we are talking about St. James. And before we get very far into the story, we need to clarify which James we are talking about, because there are at least four New Testament Jameses. Two of the twelve disciples of Jesus are named James. The one we are talking about today is James, the brother of John and son of Zebedee. You might remember that after Jesus recruited the brothers Simon and Andrew do be his disciples, he also recruited James and John. But James, son of Zebedee should not be confused with Jesus’s other disciple, James, son of Alphaeus. To keep them straight, sometimes our James is called James the Great, and the other James is called James the Less. But neither James the Great nor James the Less should be confused with James, the brother of Jesus. We hear almost nothing about him in the gospels, but he becomes a major leader in the church after Jesus’s death and resurrection. He is known as James the Just or James the Righteous. He is also called James of Jerusalem. So, three Jameses: James the Great, James the less, and James the Just. Today we’re talking about James the Great, Jesus’s disciple, the brother of John and Son of Zebedee.
There is also a Book of James in the New Testament. It is particularly concerned with the place of the poor in the Christian church. So which James wrote the Epistle of James? Well, we don’t know. The author identifies himself as James but doesn’t give us enough other information to know which James he is. He is most often identified with James the Just, the brother of Jesus, but is sometimes identified with our James, James the Great.
We also have to take a minute to talk about the name, James. In Hebrew, the name is יעקב, Jacob. The Greek version that is written in the New Testament is Ιακωβος. Again, the English equivalent is Jacob. But the name Jacob has a very strange history as it made its way from 1st-century Greek to 20th-century modern languages. The English name James comes through the Italian Giacomo, which is a variant of Giacobo. In French, James is Jaques. In eastern Spain, it becomes Jacome or Jaime. But in other forms of Spanish, it becomes Diego. So San Diego means St. James. In some forms of Spanish, that gets mashed together into one word, Santiago. The major pilgrimage in Spain, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, leads to the church that purportedly holds the remains of our James, James the Great. And the pilgrimage is marked by St. James’s symbol, the scallop shell.
Alright, after far too much prelude, let’s get into the actual life of James. He appears first in the gospel mending fishing nets with his brother John and their father Zebedee. Jesus comes along and says, “Come, follow me.” And they get up, leave their father in the boat, cast everything aside, and follow him. Jesus must have been amazingly compelling to get those four fishermen—Peter, Andrew, James, and John—to leave everything behind and follow him. I’m not sure what it says about the four of them. Did they follow this stranger because they were faithful? Because they were reckless, wild, adventurous? For whatever reason, they did follow Jesus. And the four of them—Peter, James, John, and sometimes Andrew—become the core, inner circle, of Jesus’s followers.
Early in the story, James is there with John and Peter and Andrew when Jesus heals Peter and Andrew’s mother, who had been suffering with fever. He is witness to many miraculous healings and exorcisms. He sees Jesus’s ministry right from the beginning.
When Jesus sends out his disciples two-by-two in Mark 3, there’s an interesting detail about James and John. He sends the two brothers out as a missionary team. But he also gives them a nickname. He calls them Boanerges, which means Sons of Thunder. It kind of sounds like he might be calling them Sons of Zeus, Sons of Jupiter, or Sons of Thor. But he’s not actually saying anything about their parentage. Jesus is called Son of Man, which is just another way of saying that he is human, it didn’t start out as a special title. Jesus is also called Son of God. But contrary to what you might suspect, Jesus isn’t the only person in the Bible called Son of God. King David is also. Son of God could mean someone who is claimed by God, or someone who has the attributes of God. Son of Thunder means someone who has the attributes of thunder. What does that mean exactly. We’re not entirely sure, but probably someone with a hot temper, someone who is boisterous or boastful.
James always appears alongside his brother John. They remind me a bit of Fred and George Weasley, from the Harry Potter book series. Brothers who are always together, always getting into trouble, always with flash and panache.
James is there with Peter and John when Jesus raises a twelve-year-old girl from the dead. James is there with Peter and John when Jesus leads them up on the mountain, and the cloud covers them, and Jesus is transformed before their eyes, when his face shines like the sun, and Moses and Elijah appear and speak with him. And James is there with Peter and John when Jesus descends from the mountain and heals the epileptic boy in the valley.
It’s not long after that, when James and John have had several special opportunities to be with Jesus at his most amazing miracles, that they approach Jesus with a question. It’s in the gospel passage we read this morning. They approach him kind of like a pair of kids. The version we read this morning reads, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” It’s roughly equivalent to, “Will you do something for us if we ask you?”
And like any teacher or parent, Jesus asks for some clarification. “Um, what do you want me to do for you, exactly?”
“Nothing big. Just let one of us sit on your right and one of sit on your left when you come into your glory?” Can I sit next to you? Jesus, I want to sit next to you. Peter always gets to sit next to you!
Mark implies that James and John don’t really know what they’re asking for. They don’t know what is in store for Jesus. They don’t understand that he is headed toward crucifixion and death. What they see is that he is having fame, gathering followers, gathering power, and that he is on a collision course with the Jerusalem establishment and with Rome. They want to sit on either side of King Jesus when he recaptures Jerusalem and expels the Roman Occupation once and for all.
And so Jesus confronts them, “You don’t know what you’re asking! Can you drink the cup I drink or receive the baptism I receive?”
“We can,” they answer, even though they don’t know what he means.
“You will,” Jesus responds. “You will drink the cup I drink and receive the baptism I receive.” He is talking about death. Jesus is saying that, like him, they will face persecution and death on account of God’s mission. They will drink from the same cup of suffering, be baptized with a baptism of blood.
But their request stirs up the other disciples. Who do they think they are asking to sit at Jesus’s right and his left? And Jesus has to correct them all. “If you want to be a leader in God’s Empire, you have to be a servant. If you want to be first, become a slave of everyone.”
In another episode, the Sons of Thunder show their fiery side again and have to be corrected by Jesus. As Jesus is traveling, he comes to a Samaritan village that refuses to welcome him. They knew his mission lay somewhere else and among a different people. But James and John are indignant. “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?”
That’s rather confident of them to think that they could call down fire from heaven like the prophet Elijah had done in centuries past. And it’s rather bold of them to think that Jesus would need them to do such a thing. Jesus sternly rebukes them. That is not what God’s Empire is about. That is not the message of Jesus’s gospel. It does not rule by force or fear. It does not preach revenge and retribution.
Toward the end of the mission, James is there with Peter and John as Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane and asks God three times, “Take this cup from me. But not my will. Let your will be done.” He falls asleep each time Jesus pleads with them to stay awake. James is there when Jesus is arrested. He flees like all of the other male disciples. He hides behind locked doors with them. He refuses to believe the testimony of Mary Magdalene and the other women who found the empty tomb and saw the risen lord.
But he is changed when he encounters the risen Christ. He is there when Jesus appears to them. He is there when Jesus is taken up to heaven in the clouds. He is there on the first Pentecost when the Spirit of God comes rushing in. He speaks other languages with tongues of fire like the other disciples. He is there as the word spreads among the people, as the gospel is preached, as the church is grown. He is there as Paul is changed from enemy to friend.
But James’s story ends too early. As the church is just beginning to spread, James is caught in the violent crackdown of this new movement. King Herod wants to make a statement. Now, this isn’t King Herod the Great, who tried to kill Jesus when he was a baby. And this isn’t Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas, who put Jesus on trial. This is Herod the Great’s grandson, Herod Agrippa, whom the Romans made King of Judea between 41 and 44 CE. He wants to suppress these pesky Christians, and James, son of Zebedee is captured and beheaded by sword in Jerusalem.
His death is notable because he is the first of the twelve to be martyred. Judas had already died after he betrayed Jesus, and he was replaced by Matthias. But James is first to die while still faithfully serving Jesus. He dies a martyr, and his story becomes an inspiration for others who would follow. He is not afraid to follow Jesus even to death. He does drink of the same cup. He does share in the same baptism.
And James is arguably more famous in his death than in his life. According to tradition, James’s remains were transferred from Jerusalem to Spain. They were eventually move to Compostela. People began to travel there to visit his shrine. Eventually it became a major site for pilgrimage. While Rome was still the favored pilgrimage site of the rich, the poor went to Compostela and to St. James. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is now the most traveled pilgrimage in the Christian world. Even non-Christians often pack their backpacks, take of the scallop shell of St. James, and walk along the ancient way.
James is a model to us in his boldness. He was among the first to accept Jesus call, leaving everything behind to follow. Brash and exuberant, he sometimes got ahead of himself. Faithful to his brother and to Jesus, he continued on the way. And though he did not seek it out, when his Christian journey eventually led to the sword, he did run away, just as Jesus had not run away from the cross.
James calls us to make our own journey along that pilgrimage way. He invites us to step out in faith, to leave behind the things that weigh us down, and to follow Jesus, not knowing where he will lead us or how our journey may end. May we be bold to follow Jesus when he calls, and to stay on the path, even through hardship or suffering, knowing that the one we follow is the Lord of Life.
Sunday 15 July 2018
Commemoration of Mary Magdalene, Apostle
Mary Magdalene is one the best known and most misunderstood characters in the gospels. It’s not that we don’t know stories about Mary Magdalene. It’s that some of the stories we know about Mary Magdalene aren’t true. So what can we say about her, and how can we separate the fact from the fiction? And what sources can we consult to try to sort it all out?
Well, we have the four canonical gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—and all four of them tell stories about Mary. We also have several other early Christian writings that did not make it into the bible, like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Pistis Sophia. We also have the later tradition of the church. And of course we have Dan Brown.
It’s been 15 years now since the release of his wildly successful novel, The Da Vinci Code. It was very popular while I was in seminary. In it, Mary is portrayed as the wife of Jesus, the mother of his secret child, the holy grail because she was the vessel for his holy bloodline, a secret that has been guarded through the centuries by a series of secret societies. The novel captivated the world and spurred all kinds of conversations about Mary, her role among the early disciples, and the sacred feminine. Of course, it didn’t take long for everyone to figure out that Dan Brown was rather loose with the things he portrayed as fact, preferring to tell a good story. That is, after all, what we would expect from any good novelist.
Dan Brown was wrong about a lot of things, but one thing he had right is that as the early church became more and more male-dominated, it became more and more afraid of Mary Magdalene. They didn’t like the idea of any woman being that close to Jesus, and so they portrayed her as a prostitute, a crazy person, an unstable woman who was just lucky to be hanger-on of Jesus. None of that is supported by the witness we have in the bible.
One of the most commonly held beliefs people have about Mary is that she was a reformed prostitute. That is total fiction, but it is a fiction that was actively promoted by the church for more than a millennium. In art, she is often depicted naked and as a repentant prostitute. She is the patron saint of “wayward women,” and so-called Magdalene asylums were established to help save women from prostitution. The same characterization holds true in popular culture ranging from The Last Temptation of Christ to Jesus Christ Superstar to Lady Gaga’s 2011 song “Judas.” None of it’s true.
We can blame it on Pope Gregory the Great and a sermon he gave around 591. He conflated Mary Magdalene with two other biblical characters. One of them was Mary of Bethany, the Mary who was the sister of Martha. The other was an unnamed woman in Luke 7:36-50. She is the woman who washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and wipes them down with her hair. In the same story, this unnamed woman is described as being sinful. Luke never says what the sin is. But Gregory the Great takes the story of the sinful woman who washes Jesus’s feet, incorrectly identifies it with Mary, and supplies the completely made up detail that her sin was prostitution. So was Mary a prostitute. No! That’s a story about an entirely different woman and it never even says that that woman was a prostitute. But the church assigned that reading on Mary’s feast day and convinced billions of people from then until today that she was. (She wasn’t a prostitute!)
Okay, so who was she? Let’s go to our earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark. Mary is introduced along with another Mary and Salome in Mark 15:40. We are told that they were patrons of Jesus. They traveled with him everywhere, and they bankrolled his ministry. It’s a little strange that Mark waits until almost the end of the story to tell us this, but there you are. These women see Jesus being crucified. The two Marys also see where Jesus was laid after he was taken down from the cross. They come back on Sunday morning, once the Sabbath is over, and find the tomb open, the body missing, and a young man dressed in white who tells them that Jesus has been raised from the dead. The strange figure tells them to go tell disciples the good news, but the gospel abruptly ends with the disturbing words “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they didn’t say nothing to nobody, because they were afraid.”
The Gospel of Matthew gives a very similar story about Mary Magdalene. She’s a follower and patron of Jesus. She’s there at the cross. She goes to the tomb. She gets the message from an angel to go tell the disciples that Jesus is risen. But then the story changes. On their way back to tell the disciples, the women encounter the risen Jesus himself. He tells them himself: “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” In Matthew, the first people to see the risen Jesus are Mary and her companions, and he gives them a mission to go and share the word.
The Gospel of Luke is not so generous. Luke is a really big fan of Peter and really doesn’t seem to like Mary at all. He can’t write her out of the story altogether, so he seems to do just about everything he can to discredit her. First of all, when Luke introduces Mary, the first thing he says about her is that Jesus cast seven demons out of her. No explanation. No supporting details. No other gospel says anything about Mary being possessed by demons, but Luke puts it in there. Worse than that, though, Luke removes the story about Jesus appearing to Mary. In Luke, Jesus doesn’t appear to the women. Instead he appears to Peter. Like I said, Luke seems to be trying very hard to give more authority to Peter and to take away authority from Mary.
The Gospel of John is perhaps the most favorable to Mary. In John, all of the other women are cut out of the story. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb all by herself. She finds the tomb empty, so she runs back and tells Peter and another disciple. They run to the tomb and also find it empty, except for Jesus’s grave clothes that had been left behind. The men leave, but Mary sticks around. It’s the story we read a few minutes ago. She’s as the tomb weeping when she sees two angels. They ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” and she explains that the body is missing and she doesn’t know where it is. Just then, Jesus appears himself and asks the same question. For some reason, Mary doesn’t recognize him, but when he speaks her name, she does. Jesus sends her to go tell the other disciples, and she does: “I have seen the Lord!”
So those are the four canonical gospels. About the only thing they agree on is that Mary is the first to see the empty tomb. Three gospels tell us that she was with Jesus throughout his ministry and provided for him monetarily. Two say that she was the first to see the risen Jesus. They all say that she was sent to tell the other disciples the good news that Jesus is alive.
There’s good reason to believe that all four canonical gospels understate Mary’s role among Jesus’s disciples. I know it’s a shocker, but they were all written by men, men who had a vested interest in suppressing the voices and authority of women. That’s just a given.
But we can see some hints of the controversy in some other early Christian writings. One of the earliest of these is the Gospel of Thomas, which may well be as old as our four canonical gospels. It’s not a narrative, it’s sayings of Jesus with occasional interruptions from other speakers. Many of the sayings are the same or similar to the sayings we have recorded in other gospels. Whether or not Jesus actually said these things, the Gospel of Thomas does give us a clue into what some early Christians thought about Jesus.
Mary gets a speaking line in verse 21. It reads “Mary said to Jesus, ‘What are your disciples like?’” Which sets up Jesus’s response.
But more interesting for us is verse 114. It says, “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’” There it is, right there. That is the attitude we know must have been very common in early Christianity.
For the most part, the ancients didn’t believe that women were fully human. I should say, the ancients who did most of the writing—well-to-do ancient men—they didn’t believe that women were fully human. The prevailing theory was that women were underdeveloped men. They were imperfect men. Because if they were perfect, they would obviously be men, right? Which helps to explain Jesus’s response to Peter in this verse of the Gospel of Thomas.
Listen to this: “Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the domain of heaven.’” Okay, that’s pretty messed up. But for the first century, it’s downright feminist. Don’t worry, ladies, Jesus can make you male so that you’ll be fit for heaven. Isn’t that good news?
So why am I bothering you with the Gospel of Thomas? Well there are lots of early Christian texts that have stories about Mary; Thomas is just one of them. I’m not going to go through them all here—if you want to know more, there is an excellent book by Ann Graham Brock—but here are some of the highlights. They often portray Mary as one of Jesus’s closest disciples, often his very closest disciple. She’s often the only one who really understands what he’s talking about. Sometimes she has to explain Jesus’s sayings to the men because they don’t get it. And in almost every one of them, guess who is upset that Mary has authority. It’s Peter. Mary and Peter have rival claims to authority.
We have evidence that different groups of early Christians disagreed about who had more authority in the wake of Jesus’s death and resurrection. And part of the way that disagreement played out was in who was credited with seeing the risen Jesus first. We can see evidence of the disagreement right in the bible. Most of the gospels say that Mary was the first to see. One of them, takes that distinction away from Mary and gives it to Peter. And that was just the first of many actions that the church took to minimize Mary. Make her a prostitute. Make her crazy. Anything that makes it so that she doesn’t have authority or honor. That’s the part Dan Brown got right. There has been a 2000-year campaign to discredit Mary and her role in the Jesus Movement.
Okay, let’s put away all that other stuff and go back to the bible. What can we say about Mary Magdalene based on the bible? 1) She was a close disciple of Jesus who was with him throughout his earthly ministry. 2) She provided for his ministry financially. 3) She was with him at the cross, when all of the male disciples had run away in fear. 4) She was first there at the tomb on Easter morning. 5) She was the first to see the risen Jesus. And finally, 6) she was the first apostle. And let me close by explaining that last one.
Apostle isn’t just a fancy name for Jesus’s twelve closest disciples; it has a specific meaning. It’s from the Greek verb αποστελλω, I send. An apostle is someone who is sent out. And that’s precisely what Mary is. She sees the risen Jesus, and he sends her out. “Go, tell the others what you’ve seen.” And that’s what she does. She goes and tells Peter and the others. She is the apostola apostolorum, the Apostle to the Apostles. Generations of insecure men can try to discredit her and write her out of the story, but they can’t take that away. Mary Magdalene is the first apostle. She is the first one ever to preach the good news that Jesus Christ is risen. Let me say that again. The first person ever to preach the good news that Jesus Christ is risen is Mary Magdalene. And that is why we remember her today: the Apostle Mary Magdalene. And perhaps her story can be a warning to us. When we fail to listen to the voices of women, we fail to hear the voice of God.
Sunday 8 July 2018
Commemoration of St. Thomas, Apostle
Thomas is one of my favorite saints. Most people know only one thing about Thomas: that he doubted. In fact, Thomas is considered so synonymous with doubt that it has essentially become part of his name. Who is he? Doubting Thomas. But that is such a narrow and distorted view of this interesting apostle.
So what do we know about Thomas. Well, let’s start in the bible. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all say that Thomas was one of the twelve, an inner circle of disciples Jesus set apart and sent out two-by-two into the world as apostles. But in all three gospels, Thomas is just a name on a list. There are no stories about him, no speaking lines. It’s the same in the Book of Acts. Thomas is listed as one of the apostles, but we get no information about him. Peter, James, and John are the most significant of the twelve in the three synoptic gospels, and we don’t hear much detail about anyone else.
However, the Gospel of John is a different story altogether. John’s gospel tends to marginalize Peter and lift up other, less remembered characters, like Thomas.
Thomas first takes the stage in John 11:16. Jesus has been informed that his friend, Lazarus, is sick. Jesus wants to go visit him, but the other disciples are arguing against it. Jesus has already stirred up trouble for himself in Judea; if he goes back there now, he might be killed. But when Jesus insists, it is Thomas who speaks up. He says, “Let us go also so that we may die with Jesus.” That doesn’t sound much like doubt to me. That is extreme faith. He seems to know that Jesus is going to die, and he follow him anyway, even if he himself dies. It’s Thomas who convinces the other disciples to go back into dangerous Judea with Jesus.
Thomas’s next appearance is in the gospel lesson we read this morning. Jesus is toward the beginning of his farewell discourse. They are at their final meal, and Jesus spends about five chapters just monologuing. This is the second chapter. In any case, Jesus is speaking those familiar words that we often read at funeral services: In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” At this point, Thomas interrupts. He says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” He asks a question. And his question leads to faith. Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”
As we often find in the Gospel of John, Jesus uses a series of mixed metaphors to describe himself and what he is about. It often doesn’t make a whole lot of sense grammatically. In this case, we are told that Jesus will lead the disciples to Jesus so that they can be with Jesus and the way that they will get there is by Jesus. Jesus is the guide, Jesus is the destination, and Jesus is the route. How exactly Jesus can travel along Jesus in order to get to Jesus is not something that John seems very concerned with untangling.
In any case, the important point here is that Thomas’s question leads to a profound statement of faith: I am the way and the truth and the life.” We could, if we wanted to, say that Thomas is doubting here. “We don’t even know where you’re going, how can we know the way?” Why is he second-guessing Jesus? Why can’t he just trust Jesus that Jesus know’s what he’s talking about?
But the truth is, Thomas doesn’t know what Jesus is talking about. And in the face of not knowing, Thomas does the brave thing: he admits that he doesn’t know. He asks for clarification. The other disciples don’t know what Jesus is talking about either, but it is Thomas who is brave enough to ask.
The third appearance of Thomas in the Gospel of John is the one we know the best. It is Easter evening. The disciples are hiding behind locked doors. They are terrified as Jesus mysteriously appears in the room. He sends them out into the world. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And they are all amazed. But of course, Thomas wasn’t there in the room when the risen Lord appeared. They tell him, but he replies, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” There we have it, right? Doubting Thomas. Why wouldn’t he believe?
One week later, there are all the disciples, still hiding away in a locked room. But Thomas is with them this time. And Jesus mysteriously appears again, despite the locked doors. And Jesus speaks to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” Why is it that Thomas needs more proof than all of the other disciples? Why does he need to touch the wounds before he will believe?
Well, he doesn’t. It’s not actually true that Thomas needs extra proof in order to believe. The other disciples see Jesus appear in front of them, and they believe. That’s exactly the same thing that Thomas requires. He sees Jesus appear, and he believes. Thomas says after the first appearance that he won’t believe unless he touches the wounds. And when he appears the second time, Jesus invites him to touch the wounds. But he never actually does. Jesus invites Thomas to touch, but he doesn’t. When it comes down to it, Thomas sees and hears Jesus, and without touching the wounds, he declares, “My Lord and my God!”
That, by the way, is the fullest confession of faith in the entire gospel. No one else in the gospel says something as powerful about Jesus’s identity than Thomas’s words here: my Lord and my God.
Thomas does ask questions. But his questions don’t lead to doubt. They lead to faith. In fact, they lead to some of the strongest faith in the Gospel. It is Thomas who declares, “My Lord and my God!” It is Thomas who elicits Jesus’s words, “I am the ways and the truth and the life. It is Thomas who is willing to go with Jesus to Judea, even if it means he would have to die with Jesus.
And I think that’s something we can learn from. Some of us were taught that faith is about unquestioning belief. Don’t ask questions, don’t stir up trouble—that can only lead to evil. That can only draw you away from God.
But I don’t think that’s true. If we never ask questions, never express doubt, then we are left with an infantile faith. We are left regurgitating whatever our first Sunday school teacher taught us just because that is what we heard first. And our faith never engages with the real world, never engages with what is happening here and now.
But God gave us brains. God gave us intellect and curiosity and imagination. And God intends for us to use them.
That’s what Martin Luther was on about when he talked about sola scriptura, scripture alone. He said, don’t trust whatever your pastor or teacher tells you. Check it for yourself in the scriptures. See what they have to say. Make your own interpretation. Ask questions of the world. Ask questions of your faith. Ask questions of the bible. Think about it.
And our Methodist tradition gives us something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It suggests that when you have a question of faith, you should consult four sources. First, scripture: what does the Bible have to say? Next, tradition: what has the church said over time? Third, reason: what does your mind tell you? What makes sense? And finally, experience: what does your spirit tell you? Faith isn’t always simple. It requires thought, work, struggle to discern God’s will.
It is part of our religious DNA to ask questions, to think things through, to be skeptical, even. And it is not unfaithful to do those things. It is essential to our faith. If we are going to have a faith that makes any difference in our lives, it must be a faith that is tested, a faith that has gotten dirty in the experience of real life. Otherwise it is just hypothetical assertions. Our questions don’t make us lose our faith. Questions are essential to our faith.
And Thomas is our example of that. His questions lead to faith. According to Christian tradition, Thomas went east after Jesus’s resurrection, through Parthia to India, where he evangelized, built a church, and was martyred. His symbol is the spear and square—the square for his building and the spear for his manner of death. When Portuguese sailors landed in southwest India, they were surprised to find that there were already Christians there, Christians who worshipped in Syriac and traced their foundation to Thomas. Even now, there are St. Thomas Christians in India who believe themselves to be in an unbroken tradition that leads back to Thomas. That is quite a legacy for someone who is most known for doubt.
Questions don’t have to destroy our faith. Questions can lead to faith. Let us, like Thomas, bring our whole selves to Jesus, questions and all, so that we too might be sent out into the world in faith.
Sunday 1 July 2018
Commemoration of Peter and Paul
Today we are commemorating the lives and ministry of two of the great apostles of the church: Peter and Paul. In fact, these two may be the most known, most respected, most noteworthy saints in the history of the church. Consequently, the very fact that they share a day for commemoration seams somehow strange. Why would we celebrate two such noteworthy figures with one commemoration?
Peter and Paul both lived in the time of Jesus, and they were both apostles, but they were very different from one another, and they do not seem to have spent a tremendous amount of time together. Let’s take a moment to sketch out their lives.
Peter is known for being the most prominent of the inner circle of Jesus’s disciples known as the Twelve. According the Matthew, Mark, and Luke, he was the first one to be called by Jesus, along with his brother Andrew. With James and John, He is also a part of an inner inner circle of three disciples whom Jesus frequently brings with him when he leaves all of the other disciples behind. He is often portrayed as the spokesman of the disciples. He’s very enthusiastic, perhaps a bit reckless. After Jesus death and resurrection, Peter is one of the first disciples to see the risen Christ. The Acts of the Apostles portrays him as the de facto leader of the early Jesus movement in Jerusalem, until Jesus’s brother James ascends to that role. According to later tradition, Peter traveled to Rome and was martyred there by being crucified upside-down. He is considered to be the first bishop of Rome, and therefore the first pope. The Roman Catholic Church rests the authority of the pope on the former authority of Peter. There are two epistles in the New Testament bearing his name, but scholars tend to believe that both letters were written after his death. Peter has a few different names, so it can get a little confusing. His given name is Simon, but Jesus gave him a nickname: Rock. The Greek version of Rock is Peter, like petroglyph, and that’s the name we usually know him by. But Jesus probably used the Aramaic word for Rock, Cephas, and that’s what Paul calls Peter in his letters. So three names for the same person: Simon, Peter, and Cephas.
Paul also has multiple names. The Greek version of his name is Paul, but the Aramaic version is Saul, and he gets referred to by both at various times. He was not a follower of the earthly Jesus, and he did not come from Galilee, like Jesus and most of his disciples. Paul was a well-educated Pharisee from Tarsus, in modern Turkey. According to Acts, he studied in Jerusalem with the renowned Rabbi Gamaliel the Elder. Paul enters the biblical story as a pious Jew who persecutes the church. He is at the scene when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is stoned to death. He receives orders from the temple to go root out Jesus-followers in the Syrian capital of Damascus. But on the way, he has a vision of the risen Christ that will change his life forever. He stops persecuting the church and becomes one of it’s most persuasive missionaries. More than any other single person, it is Paul who is responsible for spread of Christianity among Gentiles. He styles himself as Apostle to the Gentiles. It is Paul who changes Christianity from being a sect of Judaism to being an international movement. About half of the Book of Acts is concerned with the life and ministry of Paul. Thirteen letters in the New Testament claim to be written by Paul. Scholars agree that seven of them actually are written by Paul: Romans, 1st & 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians, and Philemon. Most scholars think that at least four of the others were written after Paul’s death. The biblical narrative of Paul’s life ends with him under house arrest in Rome, waiting to have his legal appeal heard by the emperor. According to later sources, he was beheaded in Rome in the time of Nero.
We know that the Jesus Movement started out as a movement of Jews. Jesus and all of his early disciples were Jews. Not long after his death, though, the movement grew to include Gentiles as well. Before long, the Gentile followers of Jesus would greatly outnumber the Jews. We know that this transition also involved the loosening of biblical rules and expectations. Gentiles were not required to be circumcised, to follow the Jewish dietary laws, or even to observe the Sabbath.
What we don’t know is exactly how this happened, or who was mostly responsible for this change. The bible tells us at least two different stories about how the church was opened up to Gentiles. The Acts of the Apostles tells us one story, and the letters of Paul tell us another story.
According to the Book of Acts, it is Peter who is responsible for this change. Peter has a vision from God that convinces him to eat with Gentiles. When he does, the Holy Spirit comes on them, which convinces Peter to baptize them. He is called before James and the rest of the Jerusalem apostles to explain himself. He convinces them that God is doing a new thing among the Gentiles. It’s only later that Paul gets started. And Paul enters the ministry by being mentored by Peter and Barnabas. According to this version, Paul is important for covering so much ground and making so many converts, but he always works under the authority of the already existing apostles, like Peter and James.
But Paul tells a very different story in his letters. Most of it is found in Galatians 1-2. Paul is at pains to argue that he is not subject to Peter or James. He got his call to be an apostle directly from Jesus. And Paul feels no ambiguity about whom he is sent to, either. He is the apostle to the Gentiles. His mission is to Gentiles, not to Jews. Peter is apostle to the Jews, but Paul is sent to Gentiles. He writes, “James, Cephas, and John, who are considered to be pillars, shook hands with me and Barnabas as equals when they recognized the grace that was given to me. So it was agreed that we would go to the Gentiles, while they continue to go to the people who were circumcised” (Gal 2:8-9). But that agreement didn’t last. Paul says that when Peter came to Antioch, “I opposed him to his face, because he was wrong. He had been eating with the Gentiles before certain people came from James. But when they came, he began to back out and separate himself, because he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision…. But when I saw they weren’t acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of everyone, ‘If you, though you’re a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you require the Gentiles to live like Jews?” According to Paul, Peter was no hero of the Gentile movement. It was Paul himself who did the heavy lifting of opening the church up to Gentiles.
Celebrating Peter and Paul together on the same day is about trying to tidy up the story of the early church. It’s about brushing aside the conflict between Peter and Paul. And it’s about making sure that Paul’s movement is not seen as a separate movement, but is rather under the authority and direction of pillar apostles, like Peter, James, and John.
And it’s not so hard to figure out why someone would want to clean up the story. For one thing, it’s not a good look to have the major figures of your religion in open conflict with each other. Better to present a unified front.
But even more dangerous than disunity is the story of Paul himself, and his claim to authority. Remember that Paul never met the earthly Jesus. And yet, he claims authority directly from Jesus, through a mystical experience. He refuses to submit to Peter and James. He refuses to admit that he is any way dependent on them. And that is scary for the established authorities.
Think about it. There at least a hundred people in the Jesus movement who actually met the earthly Jesus. And they have been him through the whole ordeal. They have heard him preach. They have seen him heal. They have listen to him in his conflicts with the scribes and Pharisees. They have seen him arrest and crucified and risen. And then, out of nowhere, comes this Paul, who had been harassing them. And he says that he has had a revelation from Jesus. And he says that all of Jesus’s earthly disciples have got it wrong. And he says that he doesn’t need permission from them, that he has authority directly from God. And why should they believe him? Just because he says so. Why should they open the church to Gentiles? Just because he says so. Why should they put aside all of the laws and traditions of the Hebrew Bible? Just because he says so.
It’s no wonder that someone wanted to clean that story up. There is nothing more dangerous to the religious establishment than someone who claims they get their authority directly from God. They cannot have it out there that some outsider came in, and on his own authority, radically changed the early Christian movement. That is a dangerous story. What would keep some new outsider with their new and crazy ideas from coming in and doing the same thing, making some radical change that didn’t quite square with the established powers and the accepted way of doing things?
And you know, we need those people who work within the establishment. We need people like Peter who know the history, who have been there from the beginning, who have gotten their authority by the book, through the recognized means. We need that kind of stability. We need people who can guide us in a new direction because they have built up trust and respect over time.
But we also need disruptors. We need people who come in from outside with crazy new ideas. We need people who have not taken the time to check all of the boxes. We need people who get their authority from the power of their ideas, not from the established structures. We need people who have that direct word from God.
Celebrating Peter and Paul together might have been a way of tidying up Paul’s story. But it is also an important reminder. We need them both. If we don’t have Peter, we lose our grounding, our history, our sense of continuity. But if we don’t have Paul, we lose the ability to change and grow, to adapt to new times and circumstances. We have an easier time accepting a Peter in our midst. But in this time of change, we need to have our eyes and ears open for prophets like Paul. On this day, let us ask for God’s guidance, that we might hear and respond to God’s prompting in our lives, no matter who it comes from.