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?

 

The locale and circumstances of these mass conversions and baptisms are striking as well.  It all happened, according to Saint Mark’s Gospel, in the “wilderness,” the biblical world’s special haunt of Satan and the temptation to apostasy.  In Jesus’ time and place, you stayed clear of the wilderness unless, like Jesus, you were driven there by the Spirit for a direct confrontation with “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”  And we certainly can’t attribute the Baptist’s success with the masses to his “good looks” or an offer of fine cuisine.  He must have cut quite the wild figure out there dressed in scratchy “camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” as “he ate locusts and wild honey” for protein.  Yet, in spite of all of this, John was a smashing success!

Saint John the Baptist Preaching-Mattia Preti

Saint John the Baptist Preachin, by Mattia Preti, 1613–1699

Well, to what, then, may we attribute John’s spectacular success as an evangelist?  Since it could not possibly have been the medium, it must then have been the message.  And Saint Mark says as much in the opening of his Gospel when he writes, “The beginning of the ‘good news’ of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.”  Long before the advent of modern advertising and “focus groups,” both John the Baptist and Saint Mark the evangelist knew that a brief and pithy summary of the main message is worth more than a thousand words: “beginning”; “good news”; “Jesus”; “Messiah”; “son of God”; “forgiveness of sins.”  There really is not much more to say!  And the desired and appropriate response to this “good news,” this “gospel,” is stated very simply as well:  “repent”; “confess your sins”; and “be baptized.”  There is the whole Gospel in a nutshell!

The account in this morning’s Gospel, together with the example of the Baptist and the evangelist Mark himself, is proof positive that we don’t need great eloquence or (God forbid) a theological education to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our daily circumstances.  We don’t even need personal attractiveness, good food, or an auspicious location.  All we need are “mercy” and the “truth,” because the “righteousness of God,” God’s “saving justice,” and the “shalom,” the “peace,” of Jesus Christ will follow.  And the success of our poor efforts as evangelists and missionary disciples is never owing to us alone; rather, it depends on the power of God.  We scatter the seed; God brings in the harvest.  In the words of the holy prophet Zechariah:  “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the LORD Almighty.”

William Blake-Mercy_and_Truth_are_Met_Together,_Righteousness_and_Peace_Have_Kissed_Each_Other,_object_1_(Butlin_463)

Mercy and Truth are Met Together, Righteousness and Peace Have Kissed Each Other, by William Blake, 1757–1827

In this morning’s psalm we prayed:  “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other/Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” Here, in yet another short and pithy verse, the psalmist issues the chief obstacle to successful proclamation of the Gospel.  “Mercy,” “righteousness,” and “peace” are gifts of God that only follow in the wake of the truth, especially the existential truth about the dignity, vocation, and destiny of the human person proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who completely reveals humanity to itself.  Without that truth, there is no justice, no peace, no reconciliation, and no real freedom.  In Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”  And he says as much again during his close questioning by Pilate when he tells the Roman procurator:  “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to bear witness to the truth.”   But, as we know from Pilate’s response to this claim with his now famous question, “What is truth,” truth is not always obvious, and mere apparent goods frequently masquerade as the real thing.

In an era such as ours, with its so-called alternative facts and repeated lies and disinformation, we know all too well that truth is a precious thing indeed. Fortunately, we Christians have a categorical standard for judging the truth in the person of Jesus himself, fully human and entirely at one with God, who also said in Saint John’s Gospel:  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  Anything that fails that standard is neither true nor good, and it will never lead us to a full life and love in the truth.  By proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we can do no greater kindness or render any higher expression of charity than to profess that truth at all times and all places, in season and out of season.  Freedom without the truth is little more than license; mercy without the truth is mere indulgence; and peace without the truth is simply the absence of conflict.  And so the psalmist was also right to sing in this morning’s psalm: “Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.”  The divine “Presence,” the “Shekinah,” and the feet of the “Messiah” only tread the “pathway” made by “righteousness” and “peace.”

I suspect that the real power of John the Baptist’s preaching resulted from his witness, integrity and fidelity to the truth—in season and out of season—especially in a world, very much like our own, full of lies and mendacity and ersatz spirituality.  We know the tragic ending of the Baptist’s story from the Gospels:  the Roman client-king Herod Antipas had John beheaded at the behest of his wife Herodias, who was furious over John’s public denunciation of their illicit marriage in violation of the Torah.  And John was not afraid to confront the hypocrisy of the Jerusalem religious and political hierarchy as well, referring to them publicly as “a brood of vipers.”  He just never shrank from announcing an “inconvenient truth,” nor did he worry over who might take offense over a breach of protocol or an “unhelpful” comment.  And neither did his Lord, the “thong of whose sandals” John was “unworthy to untie.”  Jesus too would hang from a Roman cross outside the gates of Jerusalem as a witness to hope and the truth.

Baptismal fontOn this second Sunday of Advent, the Church gives us the powerful figure of John the Baptist and Forerunner of Jesus the Christ as an exemplar of an effective witness to existential truth in a time and a world of lies and mendacity.  He is a summons to us who have already been baptized “with the Holy Spirit” in the sacrament of Holy Baptism, and who are strengthened week-by-week with Christ’s Body and Blood at the Holy Eucharist, to proclaim the Gospel boldly to the un-churched of our secular society hungering and thirsting for true transcendence and meaning, but looking for it in all the wrong places.  G.K. Chesterton wrote that “the young man knocking on the door of a brothel is searching for God; he is just knocking on the wrong door!”  As the “prayer of humble access” from Rite I of the Holy Eucharist reminds us, “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” (BCP)  So, even as we proclaim the truth about the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of God’s Eternal Word during this season of Advent and Christmastide, we must do it with boldness, but also with humility.  And at the very least, we should not shrink from proclaiming the real purpose for all of the celebration of these days by greeting the world with a courageous and joyous “Merry Christmas” during the Twelve Days of Christmas, and our Jewish sisters and brothers with “Happy Hanukah” during the eight days of that sacred festival beginning Tuesday evening.  To do this is not an act of exclusion or an “offense” against tolerance, pluralism, and the separation of church and state; it’s recognition of the value and the dignity of difference.  Having been “made righteous” in Holy Baptism through the mercy of God, and been “grafted into” the people of the covenant through Jesus Christ, we have been commissioned to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the “nations” by Jesus himself.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Photo Credit: Martha Bancroft

As we prepare during this holy and penitential season of Advent to receive the Messiah into our hearts anew at Christmas, let us pray for the courage and integrity to witness to the truth by proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ—in season and out of season—as missionary disciples and evangelists.  You don’t need a theological education or fine words or elegant dress, and the food that we Christians have to offer is true bread in the wilderness of this world.  As recipients of the Divine Mercy and the righteousness of Christ, our savior and redeemer, we, the baptizing community, have everything we need for this sacred task and privilege because, in the words of Saint Julian of Norwich, in Jesus Christ “the greatest deeds are done already”!  AMEN.

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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

Waiting for God

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
November 12, 2017
The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 27A

Amos 5:18–24
Psalm 70
1 Thessalonians 4:13–18
Matthew 25:1–13

dark-981352_960_720My Friends: Two weeks ago, as I sat in my physician’s waiting room for my annual flu shot, I overheard a telling conversation between another patient and the receptionist.  Actually, to say that I “overheard” the conversation is much too generous a characterization: the woman spoke in such a loud voice, and with such dramatic gestures, that her remarks were clearly intended for all of us in that small room.  She announced with great fanfare that she absolutely hated this time of year when we turn back our clocks and the darkness comes early in these parts.  “It’s just terrible for those of us with Seasonal Affective Disorder,” she brayed, “and I just can’t stand it!”  Since I was in a generous mood, I suppressed my default misanthropy and attributed her histrionic behavior to dismay over having just received that unexpected diagnosis. Continue reading

Bending toward Mercy

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
October 15, 2017
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 23A

Isaiah 25:1–9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1–9
Matthew 22:1–14

My Friends:

Throne_of_Mercy_-_Cambrai_Missal

Throne of Mercy: Cambrai Missal

Those of us who have had the privilege of working with young adults as parents, teachers, or both know just how difficult it often can be to set appropriate expectations and boundaries while, at the same time, creating the necessary framework for exploration, genuine growth, and development in freedom.  The so-called “wonder years” are not always so wonderful, especially in those times and circumstances when we must set limits, speak the truth in love, and hold our charges accountable and responsible for all their choices—good and bad—all the while communicating, by word and action, our unconditional acceptance and love.  Like God—whose throne, according to the psalmist, is rooted and grounded in “justice and mercy”—we too are often challenged to give love its direction from justice, and to temper pure justice with the quality of mercy.  No easy task, as many of us know from hard experience!

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Blessings for all Creation

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
October 8, 2017
Proper 22A: The Blessing of the Animals & Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi (Transferred)

Isaiah 5:1–7
Psalm 80:7–14
Philippians 3:4b–14
Matthew 21:33–46

St.Francis 2 (2)My Friends:  We warmly welcome among us today—and with great enthusiasm—our enlarged congregation of all things bright and beautiful; all creatures great and small.”  We do this to celebrate the great, October 4th feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, one of the most popular and beloved saints of the Christian faith.  So our Holy Eucharist this morning will include an additional, now annual rite here:  the “Blessing of the Animals.”  But before we do that, I want to say just a few things about blessing; about Saint Francis of Assisi; and about our concern and our charge to care for all of the “very good” Creation that God in God’s love and goodness has given us, and which Saint Francis so dearly and deeply loved.

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Forgiving from the heart

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
September 17, 2017
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 19A

Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Joseph_Forgives_His_Brothers

Joseph forgives his brothers  (Providence Lithograph Co., 1907)

My Friends: The great American writer and humorist Mark Twain once quipped: “Forgiveness is like the weather.  Everyone is always talking about it, but no one ever seems to do anything about it.”  Indeed, this is the situation to which rabbi Jesus seems to speak directly in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, that most Jewish of the four canonical Gospels. In fact, because of the structure, themes, and the distinct Hebraisms of this Gospel, many biblical scholars believe it was originally written in Hebrew and only later translated into Greek.  Be that as it may, within a framework so typical of early rabbinic Judaism, Saint Matthew has the disciple Peter—the usual spokesman for Jesus’ inner circle of disciples—question his “Master Teacher” on behalf of the group concerning the Book of Leviticus’ requirement “not to hate your brother in your heart” and “to love your neighbor as yourself.”  They very much want to hear his interpretation of the gathering Oral Torah on this very important matter.  Jesus, after all, has made forgiveness the centerpiece of his teaching by joining it to the Shema’“Hear, O Yisra’el, ADONAI is our God, ADONAI alone.  You shall love ADONAI your God with all your heart and soul and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two mitzvot,” these “commandments,” “hang all the Torah and the Neviim,” that is, the “Law” and the “Prophets. Continue reading

Why I am a Christian

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
September 3, 2017
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 17A

Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12: 9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

JesusMy Friends: During the many years of my tenure as a religious studies teacher and chaplain at an independent secondary school, my students would, from time to time, ask some very thoughtful and provocative personal questions.  And because I taught courses not only in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also in such eastern religions as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism, my students knew that I had a wide-range of knowledge and interest in the contemporary expressions of these many world religions.  I even once quipped in the classroom that I have never met a religion that I didn’t like! Continue reading