Good morning! I wanted to drop the transcript of my sermon from a few weeks ago here for you, if you’re curious. This is the transcript of the sermon, not an academic paper, so I’m not footnoting sources. If you are intrigued or think I got something messed up, please dig in and enjoy the exercise!
Third Sunday After Epiphany, January 22, 2017
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish
Good evening. I come before you in the name of the God of Promises, the God of Plans and the God Who Works in events and times in ways we may or may see.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
You know that prologue, don’t you? Yes, Shakespeare’s introduction to the death-marked love of Romeo and Juliet. Oh, there are and have been and will be love stories innumerable, but Shakespeare knew how to weave a good story, didn’t he? Their love is all the more tragic and memorable these hundreds of years later in part because of their families enduring, destructive hatred. Two households.
But why do I begin my sermon with a passage from Shakespeare? Yes, we as Episcopalians are part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, but there’s got to be better justification than just some English-centrism on my part… it’s because of that Gospel passage we read in Matthew 4. You might think I’m going to preach about fishing for people, but we’ll save that for another day. That’s the easy sermon; I want to talk about John’s imprisonment.
Let’s hear that passage again from Matthew 4…
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region
and shadow of death light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.
22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
When I saw this passage as the Gospel for today I immediately asked myself, “Who imprisoned John? It seems I recall it was Herod, but which Herod?” There are several Herods active in the New Testament times and stories, and I decided to dig in and be reminded who was this Herod who imprisoned John.
The first Herod we meet in the Gospels is Herod the Great. You remember him, he ordered the death of the innocent children of Bethlehem, recorded in Matthew 2, in response to his fear that a King had been born to rival his throne. Matthew is our only surviving account of this mass murder. The Jewish historian Josephus does not mention it, but he gives us enough of Herod the Great’s story to know that this is completely in line with his character and cruelty. His murders include, by Josephus’ account, three of his own sons, a mother-in-law and his second wife. Wow.
But it was in fact Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, who ruled a quarter of his late father’s kingdom, who imprisoned John the Baptizer in Matthew 4. We get more of that story in Matthew 14, the story of both John’s imprisonment and his death. You see John had publicly chastised Herod Antipas for taking Herodias, his brother’s wife, as his wife; that got John put in prison. But later when the daughter of Herodias, Herod’s new wife, so enchanted him with a seductive dance, he promised her any wish would be fulfilled. At her mother’s prompting she requested John’s head on a platter. Wow. By the way, it is also this Herod Antipas who participates in the trial of Jesus as recorded in Luke’s Gospel.
Shakespeare is not the only one who can tell a wild story. This is all in the background of our Gospel passage. I got more curious… the story of Jesus and the story of the Herods seem so intertwined and mingled. Where then did this Herod the Great and his son Antipas come from? So I dug some more. Herod the Great was of Idumean and Edomite descent. That makes him a local boy. His dynasty replaced a Hasmonean Dynasty, one with far more Greek in influence and flavor, with his own having a bit of local flavor. The Edomite people had mostly converted to Judaism during the Hasmonean reign.
Digging this deep got me thinking of a famous Edomite, Doeg. Do you recall his story in the chronicle of 1 Samuel? He was a sworn enemy of David, who would be King, into whose royal line Jesus would later be born. Doeg was such a thorn in David’s side that Psalm 52 is specifically written in response to Doeg’s deceit against him. This is Herod the Great’s family line through the Edomites. And now here is Jesus, and his cousin John, hunted by Herod the Great and later facing Herod Antipas in trials and imprisonment and death. The royal line of David and, the royal line of Herod. Maybe not exactly the same, but “Two households, both alike in dignity / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Cool, huh?
We seem to be caught in a larger story than just another day in Judea and Galilee. Herod Antipas had a son, Herod Agrippa, whose death is recorded in Acts 12. Herod Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II would be the last of the Herodian Dynasty.
The history and story of these two families has intrigued me, for sure. But what stands out for me as well is the other story… the story in the background on what God is doing. Back in our passage when these two family lines collide again and John is imprisoned, Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his ministry, teaching and calling those people to God. Matthew tells us that this move is in direct response to what had been said generations before by Isaiah, “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
Let’s read that reference from Isaiah 9…
“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.”
This is one of Matthew’s specialties… naming the many things written to foreshadow Christ. His Gospel is full of such references and connections.
I suppose that even while studying and tracing the family of Herod the Great for this sermon, I’m still no where near grasping all the intrigue. There are many rulers in that Herodian dynasty, male and female by the way, that we haven’t named and whose stories we don’t know or speak much of today. But this line of David, this other King, the Christ who is called Jesus, his story we know. His story we tell and tell and tell again. Because unlike so many of Shakespeare’s masterfully written works and plays, there’s Light at the end of this King’s story.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Shakespeare, and most often his tragedies are my favorites: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus. But when we return to real life, to the stage on which we make our play, I’m so glad that God is working. I’m so glad that God is making light to shine. I’m so glad that God makes promises and is faithful to see them happen.
May we not forget, in the face of any danger, threat or fear, whatever nations or families or powers rage, that we like Christ continue in the work to which God has called us, and we stand in the story of God. Amen.
I had a message pop up in Facebook the other day, my friend Kurt from St John’s had been poking around my blog and reading some of the things I have written on LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance. He correctly pointed out that I was a little out of date… he didn’t say “dude, you’re slacking off,” but he should have. He would have been right.
He also graciously offered me permission to share a short article he wrote this past year for St John’s on what it meant to be asked to help our parish organize a group to march in the annual Pride Parade in DC. He did a great job organizing, by the way… it was my first Pride Parade and I’m hooked.
Here’s the text of his article, and a few Parade photos… please receive it as a gift from Kurt, a brother in Christ, a humble man and a deeply good soul.
Pride Parade Story by Kurt Ellison
It wasn’t long ago that someone stopped me and said, “So what’s the deal with the Pride Parade? Why is St. John’s marching?”
That is no small answer!
As a teenager that grew up at St. John’s, I could tell that we were definitely a church that was not of one mind about the whole gay issue. We had gay clergy, but when it came to choosing a new rector in 1997, St. John’s said overwhelmingly (in its profile survey) that it did not want a gay rector. (Yes, it’s true!)
As St. John’s wrestled with where it was and searched for a new rector, so I was wrestling with who I was – a gay kid who loved my church (and I still do). Living in Chicago as an adult, I found myself at the annual pride parade, and fascinated by the churches that were marching in the parade, and thinking, “Wow, my home church (St. John’s) would never do this!”
Years later, I moved back to the area to look after my ailing parents, I eventually came back to St. John’s and was curious to see how things had changed. Imagine my surprise when Susan Pizza and Sari Ateek eventually asked if I would write a grant for the Norwood Parish Fund to get us to participate in Pride.
I had to think for a while, and pray seriously about it. I was the type of person to watch a parade, not necessarily march in one, much less write a grant proposal, or organize a contingent. In my prayers, I could picture God having a good laugh saying, “HA HA, Kurt! You thought St. John’s would never do this! Now you have to man up!” How could I say no?
I wrote the proposal to the NPF. It got approved (kudos to the NPF folks!). We bought frisbees with the church logo, a banner, and advertised in Crossroads. 25 people showed up to march. We had a blast!
The gay community does not always receive a welcoming message from churches (understatement!). Other churches, while supportive and inclusive are not necessarily putting their message of welcome out there. Marching in the parade tells a whole community that they are welcome at St. John’s. It is a positive risk for the Gospel.
What amazes me still after three years of marching is how grateful people are to see the churches marching in the Pride Parade. All along the parade route we hear time and again, “Thank you for coming!”, and “Thank you, St. John’s!” In 2015 it is no small thing to say, “ALL ARE WELCOME HERE!”
Our pastor, Rev. Sari!
…and the man of the hour, Kurt!
Below is one I took at the Parade in 2016!
I got a welcome email from our pastor, Rev. Sari, with some dates for me to do some guest preaching at St. John’s in Bethesda/Chevy Chase! Here are the dates and service times of my up-coming opportunities…
It’s exciting that two of the dates are in the Lenten Season, a deep and reflective time of every year. My thinking right now is to engage the Gospel passages on each of these Sundays as listed in the lectionary. (Links to the passages for each Sunday are inserted above with their dates.)
St. John’s is always a safe place for everyone. The inclusive and welcoming spirit there is one of the reasons we were able to make the congregation our home. You’re always welcome to visit for services, and of course, it would be pure joy to see you drop in when I’m given the privilege to share a message. Questions? Drop me a note with the form supplied below.
I will begin with a confession: It is so hard for me to pray for Donald Trump. As we approach his inauguration it only gets more difficult. But I want to pray for him. I know I should pray for him.
So many of Donald Trump’s words and actions over the last year and a half of public campaigning to be President have offended my sense of civility, stood in stark contrast to my Christian values and often defied every attempt to reconcile them with facts and truth. It’s still difficult to find myself in this situation, where this man is going to hold an office I respect so much. And when I try to pray for him, I can’t escape a feeling that in praying for him I am validating him. I guess I’m still somewhat stuck in the competition and win/lose pain of the election. I mean, if he does well, does that validate the horrible things he said about people? If he prospers, does that validate his fear-mongering and divisive language?
To pray for someone is to love them, and praying for Donald Trump is difficult for me because I have difficulty genuinely loving him. His words and actions have alienated so many people I do love, and so many people with whom I find myself identifying. Yet, at the same time he is a human being, created in the image of God and in possession of the same dignity and worth as those people he routinely criminalized and demonized for political gain. And here’s the kicker… as a human being, God loves Donald Trump as much as anyone is loved. God’s heart breaks over Trump’s words and actions of fear-mongering and division far more than my calloused heart may be bruised.
Oh my soul… the trouble is not that Trump is so difficult to pray for, the trouble is that I sometimes find it so difficult to love. And love is at the core of Christ’s teachings: 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus teaches that we best reflect God’s nature when we love those who are least like us and those who like us least. Our love is most divine when we love those we least like. Of course we all believe that we’re the “good” and they’re the “evil,” don’t we? I want to pray for our new president, and I will. But before I can do that I have to spend some time remaking my heart. I need to meditate and focus on loving someone whose words and actions I cannot love. I’ll need to spend some time with Jesus and seek the kind of transformation that allowed him to love those who opposed him, who slandered him and who eventually killed him. Surely, no love has been asked of me that would be so costly as when Jesus prayed for those in the act of killing him, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
I will continue to speak against the things that Donald Trump says and does which offend civility, faith and fact, but I have to start loving him. I have to start loving him because I have to pray for him. Back to that passage one more time, it’s just not that simple or true to believe that I’m the righteous and he’s the unrighteous. Those labels wash away in the downpour of God’s love.
If you’ve been around me much you may know of my affection for the Book of Sirach, sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, an apocryphal book not always included in English translations of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. It’s a very practical book of wisdom, one ancient mind’s interpretation of Hebrew Law and faith for those outside of Israel or those within who wish to study deeper into God’s instruction.
As an ancient book and being set entirely in an ancient worldview and mindset, there are many things which do not immediately resonate with us. But even across the thousands of years, there is so much to learn from these words. In the passage we’re reading today the writer of Sirach prepares us to gossip less, be more forgiving and less judgmental, and to seek truth in our relationships, to give the benefit of the doubt and to extend grace to others. Check it out…
4 One who trusts others too quickly has a shallow mind,
and one who sins does wrong to himself.
5 One who rejoices in wickedness will be condemned,
6 but one who hates gossip has less evil.
7 Never repeat a conversation,
and you will lose nothing at all.
8 With friend or foe do not report it,
and unless it would be a sin for you, do not reveal it;
9 for someone may have heard you and watched you,
and in time will hate you.
10 Have you heard something? Let it die with you.
Be brave, it will not make you burst!
11 Having heard something, the fool suffers birth pangs
like a woman in labor with a child.
12 Like an arrow stuck in a person’s thigh,
so is gossip inside a fool.
13 Question a friend; perhaps he did not do it;
or if he did, so that he may not do it again.
14 Question a neighbor; perhaps he did not say it;
or if he said it, so that he may not repeat it.
15 Question a friend, for often it is slander;
so do not believe everything you hear.
16 A person may make a slip without intending it.
Who has not sinned with his tongue?
17 Question your neighbor before you threaten him;
and let the law of the Most High take its course.
As we move into 2017 this can become a worthy intention for us all, especially in this day of social media and internet driven false-news. When inflammatory things are said of anyone, give the benefit of the doubt. This is a faithful and graceful practice for our immediate neighbors as well as those in public office and service. Can you relate to the metaphor of a fool hearing some juicy gossip and suffering birth pangs until it’s repeated? I can.
I believe 2017 needs just a bit more chilling out and listening and a lot less freaking out and screaming from me and from you, from all of us. Because, as this ancient writer reminds us, we can all make mistakes, often without even realizing it.
“I would know you, I would know myself!” This is the second week of my gift to myself to read a book a week. I’m going again with a shorter book while I reawaken my reading skills, but shorter does not mean lesser or lighter! This week I read a classic from the late Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer.
So many quotes I want to share, so many insights and amazing turns of phrase. It’s a book written primarily for those in the monastic vocation, but still accessible by all people. It is a book on prayer, really a collection of short essays on the practice and necessity of prayer: “…all Christians ought, theoretically at least, to have enough interest in prayer to be able to read and make use of what is here said for monks, adapting it to the circumstances of their own vocation. Certainly, in the pressures of modern urban life, many will face the need for a certain interior silence and discipline simply to keep themselves together, to maintain their human and Christian identity and their spiritual freedom.”
Merton reminds us that contemplative prayer will always be at its base simple. I don’t know about you, but that gives me a large measure of hope. I won’t bore you with a synopsis of all points throughout the book, I’m not the best reader or writer to do that. I would like to share however one particular desire kindled in me by the book: to learn some Latin! I so resonate with a simple prayer of the earliest monks: “Deus in adjutorium meum intende!” The opening line of Psalm 70, “Make haste, O God, to deliver me!” And the simplicity of this prayer snippet from St. Augustine of Hippo: “Noverim te noverim me” I would know you, I would know myself. Along with my weekly book reading stack I now have a fresh copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Learning Latin. I’m already into the second chapter. *^_^*
It’s a blessing to have a book in this second week of my book-a-week gift to myself to remind me so pointedly that we are all pilgrims on a journey, no competition to arrive, just a need to keep moving. “We do not want to be beginners. But let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything else but beginners, all of our life!”