Homily for December 13, 2020
The Third Sunday of Advent
1 Thessalonians 5:16–24
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
Were we in church this morning, and had we the Advent wreath in front of us, today, the Third Sunday of Advent, we would light not one of the purple candles but the sole pink candle. We light the pink candle today because today, the Third Sunday of Advent, is commonly called “Gaudete Sunday,” “gaudete” being Latin for “rejoice,” which for centuries was the first word in today’s liturgy: “Rejoice in the Lord always,” sang the opening hymn. Paul wrote those words to the Philippians, and he echoes them today in his letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always,” Paul writes, “pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
Now we know that Paul is nothing if not enthusiastic. And so when in today’s epistle Paul urges the Thessalonians to “rejoice always,” we might dismiss Paul’s words as a case of his over-enthusiasm: “Surely, Paul doesn’t mean for the Thessalonians to ‘rejoice always,’” we might say. “Nobody can rejoice always!” But, though Paul may be enthusiastic, he is not one to exaggerate. Further, there are people who do carry out Paul’s second imperative, to “pray without ceasing”—I would say that our former Bishop, Tom Shaw, prayed without ceasing. And I myself have known those who follow Paul’s third imperative today, to “give thanks in all circumstances.” I would say that Eleanor King, for example (whom some of us will remember), has learned to give thanks in all circumstances.
Given that Paul is not one to exaggerate, and given that there are people who carry out Paul’s other two imperatives in today’s reading, I suspect that Paul really does mean for the Thessalonians to “rejoice always…” Which, of course, means that Paul invites us to “rejoice always.”
Now I know that Paul never lived through a pandemic as we are; I know that Paul never faced an environmental apocalypse as we do; and I know that Paul never experienced a New England winter as we are about to. But it’s not as though Paul lived without suffering. Consider the following from the opening of his second letter to the Corinthians:
“In Asia… we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself,” Paul writes (2 Cor 1:8).
And again in the same letter:
Five times I have received… the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning… (2 Cor 11:24).
Paul knew suffering and hardship as much as anyone; he had ample occasion not to rejoice. Yet Paul managed to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4). I would love to know Paul’s secret.
One of the more remarkable Christmas poems of the 20th century is W.H. Auden’s “For the Time Being,” subtitled, “A Christmas Oratorio.” Auden wrote his “Christmas Oratorio” in the winter of 1941 and ’42, during the darkest days of the war when the Allies’ victory was by no means assured. In the third paragraph of the penultimate section is a little-known line in which Auden speaks of “practicing the scales of rejoicing.” “The happy morning is over,” Auden writes, and…
The night of agony still to come…
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Auden here names what I believe to be Paul’s secret, which is…that “rejoicing” takes practice. Rejoicing can be spontaneous—our response to, say, learning that we are to become a grandparent or that our team won the championship. Yet rejoicing as a habit, rejoicing as a way of life, rejoicing as something we can do even in the face of suffering and adversity—this kind of rejoicing takes practice. This kind of rejoicing is the practice, to quote from several of Paul’s letters:
- of learning “to be content with whatever [we] have…” (Phil 4:11)
- it is the practice of doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regarding others as better than ourselves (Phil 2:3)
- This kind of rejoicing is the practice of looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others (Phil 2:4)
- It is the practice of being patient in suffering and persevering in prayer (Rom 12:12)
- This kind of rejoicing is the practice of rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep (Rom 12:13)
- It is the practice of not repaying evil for evil… but by overcoming evil with good (Rom 12:17)
As we practice these, we practice with Paul the “scales of rejoicing,” and we may discover with Paul that with God’s help it is possible to “rejoice always.” The one whom Paul says will help him do this (Phil 4:13) is the same one who will help us to practice rejoicing, even in the midst of a pandemic, even in the midst of a New England winter, even in the midst of whatever hardship we may be experiencing in our lives right now.
We are in a dire and still-worsening pandemic; Auden’s “night of agony” is indeed upon us. I wonder if we with God’s help might “practice [the Spirit’s] scales of rejoicing” and thereby begin, in some small way, to “rejoice always.” By learning to be content with whatever we have; by doing nothing from selfish ambition or conceit; by looking not to our own interests; by being patient in suffering; by persevering in prayer; by overcoming evil with good. By these and in many other ways we practice our scales of rejoicing and learn to find, even in a night of agony, God’s presence, God’s love and God’s will. And there with God’s help we may learn to rejoice always.
As we consider our “night of agony” and rejoicing always, I will leave us with a portion of Auden’s poem:
[Temptation and evil] will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.
Homily for December 6, 2020
The Second Sunday of Advent
Three times in the opening of his Gospel, Mark tells us that the news is good.
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,”
Mark says today. 13 verses later,
“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God” (1:14).
And the verse after that…
“The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news” (1:15).
Three times in the opening of his Gospel, Mark asserts that the news he is about to tell—news about God and Jesus and the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”—is good.
Curiously, after this opening flurry of declaration that the news is good, Mark is silent in regards to the news; never again in his remaining 15 chapters does Mark declare that the news is good. Perhaps, given how “dark” Mark’s Gospel can be—Mark’s disciples are the ones who have “no faith,” for example, and it is Mark’s resurrection account that ends with the disciples being seized with “terror and amazement” and saying “nothing to anyone”—continuing to call the news “good” seemed disingenuous. Or perhaps, conversely, Mark at the beginning of his Gospel calls the news “good” in order to contrast the good proclaimed with the darkness to come—a kind of “ironic hook” to draw the reader in.
I wonder, though, if in Mark’s departure from initially driving home the message that the news is good to strict silence in regards to the news, Mark is inviting us to discover the news and its goodness for ourselves. In the verses that follow, for example, Mark rifles through a series of stories demonstrating how good this news is: the disciples drop everything in order to follow; Jesus casts out a demon; Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law; Jesus goes on a preaching tour; Jesus cleanses a leper. It is as though Mark, in this breathless pace of his opening chapter, says to us: “Come and see for yourselves how good this news is.” And then, in the remainder of his Gospel, as the disciples still have no faith (e.g., 4:40), and as the disciples are seized with terror and amazement, maybe then Mark is saying to us, inviting us: “Can you now still remember that the news is good?” “Even amid all that is happening to the disciples—even amid all that may be happening to you in your life—can you still remember that the news is good?”
Recall Mark’s story of the blind man whom Jesus healed in stages: “‘I can see people, but they look like trees walking…’ he said…. [So] Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again… and [then] his sight was restored” (8:24–25)). In his Gospel it is as though Mark is trying to train us, like the blind man, to “look intently” and to “see everything clearly” (8:25). It is as though Mark wants us to see, that no matter how dark things may seem, yet Jesus is with us. He is here to help us; he does indeed bring “good news.”
Mark’s Gospel that begins today is our Gospel throughout the coming year. As we begin this journey of Mark, I invite us to pay attention. I invite us to pay attention not only to the “news” that Mark is trying to tell, but also to what is going on inside us as we hear his news. My sense is that, as we pay attention, we will come to discover for ourselves what Mark today declares: that the news is good. And we will discover that this news about Jesus offers the peace, the joy and the deep satisfaction that our hearts seek; and that, if we look intently, we will find these even when all seems dark.
Homily for November 29, 2020
The First Sunday of Advent
The Gospel we just heard this morning is not the Gospel I wanted to hear. Given the pandemic, and looming poverty and hunger, and the many issues facing us as a country and as a planet, I wanted to hear a Gospel that comforted and reassured us, that offered us hope and consolation. I wanted a Gospel that told us like of Julian of Norwich, that “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” I didn’t want to hear that “In those days… the sun will be darkened, and the moon… not give its light”; or that “Heaven and earth will pass away,” and that we must “beware.” Nor did I want to hear in the other readings, which amplify the Gospel’s message about end times, how God would “tear open the heavens and come down” (as we heard in Isaiah), or about “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (as we heard in Paul), or about Jesus coming “to judge both the living and the dead” (as today’s Collect tells us). Given all that we’re experiencing and the issues we’re facing, these are not the readings I wanted to hear today.
I’ve been “doing church” now for over fifty years, so I know there’s a rhythm to the Church year and to these readings. I know, for example, that today, on the First Sunday of Advent, Continue reading
Homily for Sunday, November 22, 2020
The Last Sunday After Pentecost, “Christ the King” Sunday
Today’s Gospel from Matthew chapter 25 is significant for us here at Trinity Parish because “Matthew 25” is the name we chose for our parish group that helps to oversee our mission and outreach ministries. As does the shepherd in the parable, our “Matthew 25” feeds the hungry, clothes the naked and welcomes the stranger (which we do through our support of the Food Pantry and Welcome Home and Catholic Charities, among others.) This morning I want to give some “color” to this parable, not only so that we might better appreciate its context within Matthew’s Gospel, but also so that we might more fully appreciate our parish’s mission and outreach as it is connected to our Christian faith.
First, about Matthew…. Continue reading
Homily for Sunday, November 15, 2020
Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Thessalonians 5:1–11
As it has done for the past several weeks, our New Testament lesson this morning comes from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Thomas Aquinas, writing in the 13th century, begins his commentary on Paul’s letter with a quote from the story of Noah and the flood. From Genesis chapter 7:
And the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. (Gen 7:17)
“These words are appropriate to this letter,” says Aquinas, because “‘waters’ signify tribulations,” and the “ark” the Church. In the “ark” that was their Church, the Thessalonians “stood firm,” Aquinas writes, “after suffering many tribulations.”
The Acts of the Apostles, and also Paul’s letter itself, tell us what were the Thessalonians’ tribulations. From Acts: in Thessalonica, after Paul and Silas had preached the Gospel… Continue reading