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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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

Able to Hear It

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
June 17, 2018
The Third Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 6B

Ezekiel 17:22–24
Psalm 92:1–4, 11–14
2 Corinthians 5:6 –17
Mark 4:26–34

mustard seedsMy Friends: A story is told about a young man who reported to his Freudian psychoanalyst that he had a recurring dream in which he always smoked a cigar.  Because he was not a smoker of any sort, the man was convinced that the cigar must have some hidden meaning for his neurosis.  Freudian psychology, after all, held that every object in a dream—especially in a recurring dream—has a symbolic meaning very often linked to some childhood trauma or inhibition.  So, the patient and his analyst spent a good deal of time and effort exploring the possible significance of that “dream-cigar” with no success at all.  Finally, after several fruitless—and expensive—sessions, the exasperated psychoanalyst threw up his hands and exclaimed, “You know, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar!” Continue reading

Encountering God’s Essence (and Energies)

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
May 27, 2018
Feast of the Holy Trinity—Year B

Isaiah 6:1–8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12–17
John 3:1–17

Trinity circle croppedMy Friends:  We have come to that Sunday of the Great Church Year that nearly every clergy person dreads: Holy Trinity Sunday.  Having just celebrated the Feast of Pentecost at the end of the Great Fifty Days of Easter last week, with its celebration of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the nascent Church of Jesus Christ, we are now bidden by our liturgical calendar to contemplate and glorify that greatest of all mysteries—God’s self-revelation as a Trinity of Persons—before we cross the threshold into the season known as Ordinary Time.  This movement, of course, implies that we have already been immersed in the extraordinary since the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Great Church Year.  And indeed we have, as we have celebrated every one of the great mysteries of our redemption and salvation with each passing feast day and each special season for the Spirit.  Some will say that with Trinity Sunday, our liturgical calendar has saved the best for last; others might claim that the Church has given us today the “mother of all the mysteries” of our Christian Faith.  I subscribe to both of these points-of-view. Continue reading

Season of Forgiveness

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
April 15, 2018
The Third Sunday of Easter—Year B

Acts 3:12–19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1–7
Luke 24:36b–48

Duccio di Buoninsegna-Appearance while the Apostles are at Table

Appearance while the Disciples Are at Table —Ducchio di Buoninsegna

My Friends: If we post-moderns often find it difficult and challenging to appreciate and to understand fully the events described in the New Testament’s narratives about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, imagine the astonishment and consternation of those first witnesses to these things.  Our reading this morning from the Gospel according to Saint Luke is made even more pointed and dramatic when we recall the incidents that immediately precede and follow it.  When Jesus suddenly appears in the midst of his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, he finds them already in excited conversation around his earlier appearances to a handful of them on Easter morning and subsequently to two of them on the road to Emmaus that evening.  Then, following the incident described in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus brings his motley band of followers to Bethany—just beyond the Mount of Olives—blesses them, and, to their great astonishment, is taken up into the full presence of God before their very eyes, no longer restricted by time and space and matter.  Imagine the massive assault upon the ordinary hearts, minds, and imaginations of these disciples as a result of these unprecedented events and all of this extraordinary talk about what came to be described as Jesus’ “Resurrection” and his “Ascension”! Continue reading

Witness to Hope and Truth

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
December 10, 2017
The Second Sunday of Advent—Year B

Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Preaching_of_St_John_the_Baptist - Domenico_Ghirlandaio

Preaching of John the Baptist, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1449–1494

My Friends: While we will never know the details of John the Baptist’s preaching, one thing is quite certain from this morning’s Gospel: John must have been an arresting and remarkable figure because Saint Mark tells us that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”  Even if we admit some hyperbole in this account of the Baptist’s preaching, it appears that John made quite an impression on all manner of folks from both the countryside and from the capital city.  Then, as now, this was a remarkable feat:  artisans and sharecroppers, together with urban dwellers and religious elites, were prompted to “repent,” to “confess their sins” and to “be baptized” by him.  And they were doing it in droves!  What preacher would not be willing to do almost anything for that result? Continue reading

The Just Judge

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
November 26, 2017
The Feast of Christ the King — Year A

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

Wall CommunionMy Friends: Two  years ago—and  well before the current contagion of faux populism unleashed its virulent strains of xenophobia, nativism, ethno-nationalism, and incivility into our national life—CBS’s weekly news-magazine 60 Minutes broadcast a highly anticipated interview with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston.  Cardinal O’Malley is one of the nine cardinal-advisors that Pope Francis’ has appointed to his new “kitchen cabinet,” and the Cardinal is the only American prelate on that body.  Because of this position and his personal friendship with Pope Francis, Cardinal O’Malley is regarded by many as a spokesman for the Pope.  He is also a fierce and passionate advocate for the poor, for immigrants, and for refugees. Continue reading