All Things Are Possible

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
November 11, 2018
Proper 27B: The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 17:8–16
Psalm 146
Hebrews 9:24–28
Mark 12:38–44

My Friends:

Tallulah_Bankhead_1941Every time I hear this morning’s beloved Gospel narrative—commonly referred to in the tradition as “The Widow’s Mite”—I am reminded of a story, perhaps apocryphal, told about the late, great actress Tallulah Bankhead, who really was a devoted Anglican, albeit with a wicked and ironic sense of humor.  Apparently, Ms. Bankhead had just attended a high Anglican liturgy in an English cathedral, at which an Anglican bishop, all bedecked in his episcopal finery, presided.  The liturgy included the use of incense burning in a golden thurible on a long chain.  Anglican lore has it that, at the conclusion of the service, Ms Bankhead approached the bishop and, in that legendary, deep gravelly voice, said to him, “Your Grace, I love your drag, but your purse is on fire.”

Well, you get the vivid picture concerning religious pretensions.  And, apparently, Jesus had a very similar experience at the Jerusalem Temple during that fateful week before his execution by the Roman authorities.  In Jesus’ case, he was taken aback by the hypocrisy of the scribes, experts in Jewish law drawn from the Torah of Moses.  Some of these lawyers did not “walk the talk,” as we say in Church circles nowadays.  And we must be very careful here to resist the temptation to lapse into the tragic and all-too-familiar Christian anti-Judaism resulting from this, and many similar polemical passages in the Gospels, by recalling that, just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus rebuke two of his three closest disciples for their religious pretensions.  Recall James and John who made their request to sit in glory, one at Jesus’ right and one at his left, when he came into his “kingdom.”  The human penchant for the seats of honor and pride of intellect transcends religious identification or affiliation.  Justice and humility are the hallmarks of both the person Jesus and his teaching, and he confronts their opposites wherever he finds them, yesterday and today.  And God knows there are pretensions aplenty in the Church!  It’s what is in our hearts and what we do with our lives that matter to God in Christ, not our finery and frippery.  Unless I have seriously misread the Gospel story, God will not be checking clothing, credentials, houses, titles, incomes, or membership cards in “the life of the world to come.”  God in Christ will, however, be concerned with open “hearts of flesh” and acts of “justice, mercy, and righteousness” when we come into the light and the fullness of His presence.

The_Widow's_Mite_(Le_denier_de_la_veuve)-James_Tissot-Brooklyn_MuseumSo, this brings us to the widow of this morning’s Gospel who, together with orphans and the “ger toshav,” the “resident strangers,” is a constant object of God’s special concern in the Torah and the Prophets.  Because they have lost that indispensible male protection and sponsorship in their patriarchal, tribal society, God takes them under God’s own protection and charges God’s people to take special care of them, along with the stranger and the resident alien in  their midst.  I often wonder if Donald J. Trump has consulted his Hebrew Bible, which commands compassion for the stranger in our midst no less than thirty-six times, before demonizing impoverished migrants and asylum seekers fleeing violence and war.  This will be the measure of a person according to the ethics of the Torah, and it is entirely consonant with Jesus’ explicit and unequivocal mandate in the New Testament to care for the “least”: the marginalized and the dispossessed.  The contrast between those who contribute to the Temple “out of their abundance” and the widow who ”out of her poverty” gives “all she had to live on”—just those two copper coins “worth a penny”—is so marked and dramatic that it really speaks for itself.  It is clear that the widow is the perfect exemplar of the radical generosity of the “kingdom of God” and its ethic of complete and unrestricted self-giving.

Now, it would be tempting here to launch into a reflection—especially at this time of year—on the demands concerning the good stewardship of the “big three”: time, talent, and treasure.  In fact, it’s a pretty safe bet that in very many churches this Sunday morning—and at this very hour—just such exhortations are occurring.  But that is not where this morning’s readings drew me in my prayer around them this week.

Elijah and the widow of ZarephathWhat astonished me about both widows in today’s readings—the one in I Kings and the widow in the Gospel according to Mark—are their radical trust in God’s providence and their willingness to share literally everything they possess, even in extremity.  The widow and her son in the Elijah story are facing starvation during a terrible, extended drought in the land.  She is gathering sticks to prepare their last meal with the few scraps of grain left to her and the boy before their deaths.  When the prophet of God asks her to share the meager scraps with him and she hesitates, Elijah tells her “Do not be afraid….For thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: the jar of meal will not be emptied, and the jug of oil will not fail, until the day that the Lord sends rain upon the earth.”  And so it happens.  “She went and did as Elijah said,” the narrator tells us, “so that she, as well as he and her household, ate for many days.  The jar of meal was not emptied; neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.”  Like the widow in Saint Mark’s Gospel, she gives not “out of…abundance” but “out of her poverty.”  Where did she find the strength and courage for such radical generosity, together with her complete and utter trust in God’s loving providence?  How did each of these widows—staring death in the face—give everything they had?  I just could not get past these haunting questions in my prayer.

Then, it suddenly struck me: the answer, if you will, to my prayer.  These two amazing women—who lived at the bottom of their society’s pecking-order with only God to protect them—shared the little they had because, unlike me, they had no illusions of self-sufficiency.  They knew that absolutely everything, including the Creation, comes to us from God’s radical concern for us, right to our very last breath.  In fact, in the Jewish tradition, the first prayer of the day, spoken immediately upon awakening in the morning is, “I thank you, living and eternal King, for giving me back my soul today in mercy.  Great is your faithfulness, and greatly are you to be praised.”  We exist at the pleasure of God and, without God’s constant love and concern, we would just vaporize into thin air.  In short, these two women recognized and embraced their vulnerability.  And, because of this, God gave them what they needed from day to day—and it was enough, and it was good!

You know, whenever I am in the Middle East among faithful Jews and Muslims—and very often they are women—I always marvel at two phrases in particular that I often hear, and often in moments of adversity.  “Baruch ata Adonai dayan ha-emeth,” “Blessed be God, the true Judge,” I heard a Jewish daughter cry upon hearing about the death of her father; “al hamdu l’illah,” “thanks be to God,” an agonized Muslim mother shouted as the security police searched her son at a Jerusalem checkpoint.  I always marvel at this complete and utterly sincere abandonment to the mercy of God.  And I always feel both challenged and ashamed because those are almost never the first words or the sentiments that come to me in the face of adversity.  How do these “nobodies” in the eyes of the world get such faith and trust?  They get it precisely because they know that they are “nobodies” in the eyes of the world, and that they live by God’s steadfast love and sufferance alone. They have no pretensions, no sense of entitlement, no airs and graces.  They just trust in God’s loving providence and abandon themselves to God’s will: “inshallah,” “God willing” in Arabic, another word heard constantly there along with “habibi,” “my friend.”  Some might call it Middle Eastern fatalism; I see it as genuinely pious faith and hope and love—the three “theological virtues” that bind us again to God from whom we come and to whom we are going.

Well, I can tell you that I am not there yet, and maybe you aren’t there yet either.  In fact, whenever I hear—or ask—those two astonishing questions in the Baptismal liturgy following the renunciation of Satan, evil, and sin:

  • Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
  • Do you put your whole trust in his faith and love?

I still shudder and pause until a hidden, tenuous inner-voice answers, “I hope I do.”  I hope that I am at least on the road to that fearless trust, that radical generosity, and that total surrender to God’s mercy.  And when I despair of ever arriving, I remember Jesus’ consoling words that “for humans, it is impossible, but for God, all things are possible.”  Perhaps that’s what draws us here week by week to celebrate the Holy Eucharist together, gathered around the Lord’s Holy Table to receive bread in the wilderness and bracing strength for the journey: the Body and the Blood of our Lord Jesus the Christ.

Let us pray then this morning for the grace—and it is only by graceto recognize and to embrace our radical vulnerability.  Let us ask God for God’s true gifts of faith and hope and love because, sooner or later, we will—like both widows in today’s readings—come to the end of our own resources and find ourselves at the complete and utter mercy of God.  And when we do, we might take counsel from the challenging words of Saint John Paul II—words that were the theme of both his life and his papacy: “Be not afraid.  Open wide the doors to Christ!”  AMEN.

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For All the Saints

Homily for Sunday, November 4, 2018
All Saints’

OrdoCalendarIt is easy to forget, when we are here on Sundays, that the Church’s calendar is quite busy during the week.  And when I say that the Church’s calendar is busy during the week, I don’t mean our mid-week meetings or Wednesday evening services, or all the activity with the Food Pantry and Birthday Wishes.  When I say that the Church’s calendar is quite busy during the week, I mean that the Church’s liturgical “Kalendar” is filled with the commemorations of saints.  For example, this week Tuesday is the feast day of William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the war.  Wednesday is the feast day of Willibrord, an 8th century missionary and the first Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands.  Saturday is the feast day of Leo the Great, a fifth century Pope best known for his concise statement of Christ being two Natures in one Person.  And—if you really get into it—you can go online and google “Episcopal saints calendar” and explore those saints whose commemorations have been proposed but who yet await official approval.  On that list are all of the above commemorations plus… Lili_uokalaniThursday is the commemoration of St. Elizabeth of the Trinity, a Carmelite nun and mystic from the turn of the last century, and Friday is of Louise DeKoven Brown, an early 20th century American philanthropist, social reformer and suffragist.  Save for tomorrow, every day this week is the feast day of a saint; indeed, of the 30 days in November, 25 are saints’ days.  (November has some great saints: Lili’uokalani, the Last Monarch of Hawaii; St. Herman of Alaska, a Russian Orthodox monk and missionary to Alaska; the writer C.S. Lewis, and also Sojourner Truth.)  These and other saints give witness to the many ways in which the Spirit manifests the life of Christ in the Church’s members. Continue reading

Consecration Sunday

Sermon given by the Rev. Skip Windsor
Pentecost XXIII
Mark 10:46–52
October 28, 2018

Come Holy Spirit, come. Come as the wind and cleanse. Come as the fire and burn. Convert and consecrate our lives to our great good and your great glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Skip WindsorIt is a pleasure to be with you this morning and I would like to thank your rector, Todd, for the invitation to be your preacher today on this your Consecration Sunday.

This Sunday comes in the midst of stewardship season recalling for me the words of a clergy colleague who started his stewardship sermon to the congregation with some good news and some bad news.  The good news is that they had all the money they needed to operate the church.  The bad news was it was in their pockets! Continue reading

The Freedom of Giving

Homily for Sunday, October 21, 2018
Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost
Mark 10:35–45

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Shrine_with_Mark_the_Evangelist,_Strallegg

Mark the Evangelist, Parish of Stralleg, Austria

Of course they did!  Of course the disciples in the Mark’s Gospel would ask Jesus to do for them whatever they asked of him!  Even after ten chapters, the disciples in Mark still don’t get it.  I love that Mark includes this honest, unflattering story about two of Jesus’ ostensibly “best” disciples.  Matthew likewise includes this story, but he cleans it up; in Matthew, James’ and John’s mother ask Jesus the favor (thus not besmirching the future saints’ reputations).  Image-conscious Luke—ever the one to tidy up and make things look “nice” (the White House press secretary of the New Testament)—does away with the story altogether.  But Mark—blunt, honest Mark—includes it: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Continue reading

A Challenging Relationship

Homily for Sunday, October 14, 2018
Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
Mark 10:17–31

key-2312481_960_720Just before Labor Day and the beginning of the school year, in a New York Times article titled, “Here’s Your Assignment,” a group of writers shared which books they would like to see in a high school reading curriculum.  John Green (author of Turtles All the Way Down) said he would like to see Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.  “It’s a brilliant, endlessly rich dystopian novel that pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale,” he writes.  Elaine Welteroth, the former editor of Teen Vogue, nominated Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.  “The history of our country has always been taught from the perspective of the colonizers,” she wrote, “but this book sets out to present the untold stories of the victims of colonization.”  Sabaa Tahir (An Ember in the Ashes) suggested Nicola Yoon’s, The Sun is Also a Star.  Andrew Solomon (The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression) gave his nod to Stanley Milgram’s Obedience to Authority.  Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing) suggested a collection of poetry, Good Woman, by Lucille Clifton.  Reading through the maybe ten suggestions on the list, I was surprised to see that one author, Tara Westover (Educated: A Memoir), had suggested the Bible.  Of her choice Westover wrote: Continue reading

Tending to the House

Homily for Sunday, October 7, 2018
Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
Mark 10:2–16

painted ladies 2.jpgI know that in this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus talks about divorce.  I know that Jesus—quoting from this morning’s lesson from Genesis—says, “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’… What God has joined together, let no one separate.”  And I know, given our experience of marriage and divorce, be it our own experience or that of someone close to us, this passage is challenging.  And I want to get back to this passage, but first…  I want to talk about neighborhoods, homes, and urban renewal. Continue reading

Unless You Become Like Children

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
September 23, 2018
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost — Proper 20B

Jeremiah 11:18–20
Psalm 54
James 3:13–4:3, 7–8a
Mark 9:30–37

My Friends:

Jesus with Children stained glassBy now, all of us have likely seen far too many images of Jesus Christ that I like to refer to as the “Swedish Jesus”: that is, Jesus portrayed with blond hair and blue eyes, surrounded by a crowd of adoring, happy children.  And yet, we know that such a depiction is both a complete and a literal misrepresentation of Jesus of Nazareth, a first-century, Mediterranean Jewish artisan living under Roman occupation in the Roman province of Syria.  He was entirely embedded in his west Asian religion and culture, and his little world consisted of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, with occasional incursions into adjacent Greco-Roman cities, as we have heard over the last two weeks.  He lived, along with everyone else, in what we in the West now call the “Middle East.”  His cultural background included a system and hierarchy of honor at least as old as the patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible, and persisting to this very day in that part of our world. Continue reading