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!

This difficult and complex reality is at the core of Jesus’ parable in this morning’s Gospel according to Saint Matthew.  And, like every parable, it plunges us into a very murky and ambiguous world of hard choices and, sometimes, bitter consequences.  In another of his efforts to communicate the nuances of the “kingdom of God” to both his opponents and his disciples, Jesus, this time, chooses a great king’s wedding banquet for his son as the metaphor for the new reality that Jesus the Christ has come to inaugurate.

Icon of the Wedding of Cana-Acrylic gouache and gold leaf-lucia398

Icon of the wedding of Cana—Acrylic gouache and gold leaf. (lucia398)

In the Middle East to this very day, wedding banquets are the apex of social life for the peoples of that region.  In the holy city Jerusalem and its environs, every night during the summer months is still punctuated by the sight and sounds of fireworks from all directions as people celebrate the marriages of their relatives and friends.  In Jesus’ time and place, many weddings were an eight-day affair of eating, drinking, and dancing that went on long after the bride and groom had left the scene.  Think of the story of the marriage feast at Cana in St. John’s Gospel and the staggering amount of wine required for that celebration:  small wonder that the guests were amazed that the householder in that instance had saved the best wine for last.  At most Middle Eastern weddings, the mediocre wine was served last, long after people were too besotted to tell the difference.  And in Jesus’ honor and shame society—then and now—the invitation to a wedding feast was an offer that you literally couldn’t refuse because to do so would be to dishonor and publicly shame the host.  In a sense, for people in the Middle East, the world is a wedding; hence, what better way for the New Testament to describe the Holy Eucharist and “the life of the world to come” than as “the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.”  The loving union and fidelity of spouses; the celebration and joy; the eight days of festivity with more than enough food and drink; the mutual affirmation of public honor and value for host and guests:  the marriage feast is the perfect metaphor for the mystical union of Christ with his spouse, the Church, as well as for the final consummation of God’s covenant with God’s covenant people when “God will be all in all,” described through another metaphor of a great feast in this morning’s reading from the holy prophet Isaiah.

With this cultural and theological perspective in mind, we can appreciate the profound depth and meaning of the affront to the king in Jesus’ parable.  To refuse any wedding invitation would have been to publically dishonor the tribe, clan, and family of the host; to refuse to come to the wedding banquet for a king’s beloved son is almost unthinkable.  And, according to Jesus, the parable’s refuseniks “made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.”  No wonder “The king was enraged”!  So he acts with appropriate and unsparing justice by “sending his troops, destroying those murderers, and burning their city.”  This, after all, is the Hebrew Bible’s “master story” of covenant, sin, exile, redemption, a righteous remnant, and return.  A just and gracious king leaves the killers to the prescribed consequences of their murderous acts, and then turns in mercy toward the so-called unworthy without any discrimination.  “Go therefore to the main streets,” the king commands, “and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet,” this time without any preference, conditions, or qualification.  And here, Jesus might have ended his story with an affirming nod to custom and conventional morality:  the ungrateful louts who repudiated the hospitality of the king by tending to their farms and their businesses and, in some cases, by killing the king’s servants, receive their just retribution as the doors to the banquet hall are flung wide open to all sorts and conditions.  Who could disagree or, for that matter, expect anything more?

But that’s not the end of this story.  While everyone—without exception or qualification—is invited to the king’s “wedding banquet,” one of his guests fails to show the proper respect for the dignity of the occasion by coming without “a wedding robe.”  And now, Jesus’ story makes a direct reference to God’s words spoken through the holy prophet Isaiah, who demands that God’s covenant people put on “the garment of salvation” and the “robe of righteousness.  Later, Saint Paul would express it even more pointedly for his Christian communities when he tells them to “put on Christ.”  In God’s great “mercy,” and “steadfast love,” God invites everyone without discrimination to the feast of faith.  And God, as we hear in this morning’s psalm, “leads,” “renews,” and “guides” us in “right paths as befits God’s holy Name.”  God, the “Shepherd of Israel,” “comforts,” his chosen people with his “rod” and “staff” through the gift of the Torah; and in Christ, the Good Shepherd, Good Shepherd carved stoneGod lights the way to redemption and salvation for the nations through his beloved Son, who is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  These—Torah and Gospel—are the “wedding robe” God expects the guests at his “marriage feast” to don for the “Marriage Feast of the Lamb,” the “heavenly banquet” of the Messiah.  For Jews, this means observance of the Torah in fulfillment of their promise to God at Mount Sinai that “We will do and we will hear”—and in that order; for we Christians, it requires faithfulness to all the promises of our Baptismal Covenant when we were “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (BCP)

My sisters and brothers in Christ, God in Christ always accepts us just as we are, but he never leaves us there.  All of our choices and actions have moral meaning and content and, on this side of the grave, they fall somewhere on the spectrum between good and evil.  When we “put on Christ” in holy Baptism, we take on the benefits and the burdens, the rewards and the responsibilities, the disciplines and the duties of the “children of God.”  Christ’s “yoke” may be “easy” and his “burden” may be “light,” but it is not a relativistic free-for-all.  We too are expected to show up for the “heavenly banquet” wearing our God-given “garment of salvation” and “robe of righteousness.”

Trinity-Church-0791

Photo credit: Craig Orsini

And, of course, we will always stumble and fall and fail to meet God’s expectation to live fully into the vision of human possibility intended by a just and merciful God for our true happiness and good.  We know, in the words of emeritus Pope Benedict that “without the Creator, the creature fades to nothingness”; that there is no real happiness or freedom apart from “love in the truth.”  If the true vocation of a human person is to be fully human, none of us are faithful to that call at all times and in all circumstances.  But, when we fall and seek God’s forgiveness and the grace to amend our lives, God is always there to guide and to renew us with “bread for the wilderness” in Christ and through the sacramental life of the Church—including the rite for the “Reconciliation of a Penitent.”  When we find ourselves falling down and getting up; falling down and getting up; falling down and getting up again and again, perhaps it is time to experience the grace of forgiveness and renewal available to us through that neglected sacramental rite.  Remember, that in the Anglican tradition the rule regarding the “Reconciliation of a Penitent” is that all may; some should; but none must.  And we don’t need to be perfect; we only need to be humble and truly human.  We have the grace, the merit, and the example of Jesus Christ, the “author, exemplar, and pioneer of our faith,” to show us his “Way.”  Then, when our all-too-brief and passing lives come to their appointed end, and we find ourselves before the great judgement seat of a just and merciful God, let us dread to hear the king’s just words from this morning’s Gospel: “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Instead, let us pray and prepare ourselves to hear the merciful words of the king in another of Jesus’ parables: “Come, thou blessed of my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  For God’s mercy always moves through and beyond God’s justice, and mercy expresses God’s very essence and sovereignty. In an era defined by the tyranny of relativism, when every aspect of human life, and all our institutions—divine and human—seem malleable and subject to human manipulation; in an age whose idol is the self, whose icon is the “selfie,” and whose only moral code is “whatever works for you,” this morning’s Gospel is a poignant reminder that mercy does not preempt justice, but justice must always bend to the possibilities unleashed by God’s infinite compassion, mercy, and steadfast love.  AMEN.

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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.

So what exactly is “blessing,” and why do we bless things in the Church?  We bless people and objects and churches and homes; we bless our newborn infants, marriages of every sort, and the mortal bodies of our beloved dead.  We bless graves and boats and aircraft; we bless our food, our work, and our livelihoods.  We even bless God!  So what are we doing this morning as we shortly “bless” our animals?

To “bless” is first and foremost to give thanks to God—the author of every good—for God’s gift of that person or creature or thing in our life.  Saint Teresa of Avila wrote that “we possess absolutely nothing that we have not been given,” including our very lives.  We didn’t create ourselves, and we did not create the universe in which we are privileged to live.  So blessing someone or something is to give thanks for them or for it.   And, when we bless God, we bless God for nothing more and nothing less than for simply being God, the author of everything that was and is and is yet to be; the Alpha and the Omega; the Beginning and the End!  “Ha Kadesh Baruch Hu”:  “The Holy One, Blessed be He,” and “Baruch atah Adonai,”  “Blessed are You, Lord our God,” are the oldest blessings in existence and the first among all other blessings.

Blessing is also the ultimate expression of love and concern.  When we ask for and receive a blessing from God, from God’s holy Church, or from anyone else, for that matter, we are wishing for and asking for every possible good for that cherished creature or thing, without which our little lives would be the poorer.  So, when God sends Abraham into the world, God commands Abraham and all of his descendents to “Vehyeh B’racha,” to “Be Blessing” to the rest of that world.  There is no higher calling than this vocation to love all Creation and all created beings with God’s own infinite love and concern; to wish for and to be for all Creation every possible good and a blessing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow, this brings us to Saint Francis, the beloved thirteenth-century “holy one” or “saint” whose life expressed and reflected the holiness of God in Christ.  In the case of Saint Francis, he so loved Creation and the God of all Creation—and identified so deeply with the suffering of that Creation—that, according to tradition, he eventually was marked with the very wounds (stigmata) of Christ, who is the ultimate expression of God’s suffering love for and redemptive solidarity with “the whole Creation…groaning in labor pains” as it awaits its final redemption from the power of sin and death, as Saint Paul expresses it in his letter to the Romans.  On Mount Tabor in our Holy Landthe very mountain on which Jesus Christ was transfigured before the eyes of his disciples—there is a very moving statue of the crucified Christ gathering Saint Francis to himself on the cross with an extended arm.  It expresses the whole meaning and destiny of Saint Francis’ life and of our life in Christ:  solidarity in suffering and redemptive love for all Creation.

Saint Francis also made himself completely and entirely poor, renouncing all wealth and property for the sake of the “kingdom of God” and in service to the Gospel and Christ’s church.  In the Medieval era of chivalry marked by a longing for worldly loves, Francis dedicated himself instead to “Lady Poverty” in his effort to identify himself completely with the poverty and suffering of Christ, who made himself poor and suffered for the sake of the “anawim,” the “little ones.”  Eventually, Saint Francis became known far and wide as Il Poverello, “The Little Poor One.”  And yet, even amidst this chosen poverty and complete self-surrender to God and neighbor, Francis never lost his joy in and reverence for God’s great gift to us of the entire created order, represented in Christian iconography by Francis preaching to the animals.  So we bless our animal friends today as an expression of our joy and thanksgiving for the gift of the whole created order as well.

Francis of AssisiAs we in the post-modern world face into all of the challenges and changes wrought by humankind’s degradation of our precious environment, together with the dire consequences of the climate disruption caused by greenhouse gasses and our use of fossil fuels, St Francis of Assisi has become a true saint for our time.  Few before Francis or after him have so reverenced the created order and so fostered its care.  Long before there was a “Green Movement,” Saint Francis knew that God never intended God’s command to Adam in Genesis to “master” and to “rule” nature as a license to degrade and to exploit it.  Humankind’s mastery and rule are intended by God to imitate God’s own mastery and rule of infinite love, care, and concern for the Creation.  So, Saint Francis saw all creation as his family and his kin, deserving the same love and respect that we accord our nearest and dearest.  For Francis, the created order was “Mother Earth”; “Brother Sun”; Sister Moon.”  Only a mastery and rule of stewardship, respect, and graciousness toward the gift of God’s “very good” creation, bestowed on us—all undeserving—from the loving heart of God, are worthy of the creature made in the divine “bets’lem”, “the image and likeness” of God.  Saint Francis’ whole life and ministry were a testament to this eternal truth about our vocation to be thankful stewards of creation.

In a few moments, we will bring forward our beloved animals of the animate and inanimate sort—all terrific friends and companions—without which our lives would not be as rich or as blessed.  As we give God thanks for these magnificent friends, and ask God to give them every possible good thing, let us also see in them a token of all creation and our responsibility and good fortune to lavish on it the same care and concern—even love—that we have for these, our animal friends and companions.  And when we leave this “Holy Eucharist,” this “Holy Thanksgiving this morning, let us keep in our hearts and minds Saint Francis’ own wise words from his Rule:

I counsel, warn, and exhort my sisters and brothers in our Lord Jesus Christ that, when you go out into the world, you shall not be quarrelsome or contentious, nor judge others.  But you shall be gentle, peaceable, and kind; mild and humble and virtuous in speech, as is becoming to all.

And this counsel of peace and good will—so apropos for our vulgar, contentious and divisive times—is for all creatures and for all Creation.

bird-1294330_960_720Let us pray, then, this morning that, through the renewal of our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus with “the breaking of the bread and the prayers,” (BCP) we may become those “instruments of God’s peace” in our violent and degraded world after the example of Saint Francis of Assisi, whose memory we celebrate today.  AMEN.

 

Entertaining sorrow

Homily for Sunday, October 1, 2017
17th Sunday after Pentecost
Philippians 2:1–13

This morning’s homily is for those of us who are in the second half of life.  You know who you are.  You are in the second half of life perhaps because of age, but more because you have glimpsed something of your final horizon.  This glimpse can happen to anyone at any time, but most often happens at a time of loss or when things fall apart.  This morning I’m going to do something unusual and tell you right from the get-go the point of this homily.  The point it this: if we are able to accept, and even embrace, death in everyday life, then we have the possibility of living our lives without fear, in freedom and with joy.

Girl and Grief- Nord Friedhof, München-x1klima

Girl and Grief; photo credit: x1klima

When I say “death in everyday life” I mean those moments of loss that happen to us every day.  Even the youngest know something about loss—losing a game, a cherished toy, an argument.  And as we grow older, the stakes of loss become higher: we didn’t get the grade we wanted, we didn’t make the sports team, we were turned down for a date, we didn’t get into the college we wanted, we didn’t get the job we wanted, we don’t earn the salary we expected, our marriage isn’t quite what we envisioned, our relationship with our kids is what we had hoped for; the death of a parent, a divorce, the loss or diminishment of a physical ability, the death of a spouse, and finally our own last illness and death.  Every day we “die” in some form or another; there is no escape.  Death is part of being human; death is part of everyday life. Continue reading

Getting enough

Homily for Sunday, September 24, 2017 preached by the Rev. Todd Miller
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 20:1–16

blueberriesLast month in a beautifully-written article in the Times, Norwegian-American biologist Hope Jahren tells of visiting Norway and picking wild blueberries.  “When I was 23,” she says, “my Norwegian relatives taught me how to sit still.”

During the long sunlit evening in the summer of 1992, my cousins would lead me across the farm to the edge of the forest, each of us lugging a folding chair.  There, in a scraggly bramble of wild blueberries, we would set them down a few yards apart, each in our own little patch.

For hours, we faced south, bathing our faces in the golden Arctic light, a dreamy brightness that persisted past midnight.  Every few minutes, we’d reach down, pluck a berry and pop it into our mouths.  You could find us there most every night during July, starting at 10 o’clock. Continue reading

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

Jesus and the Canaanite Woman

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Saint John’s Church/Newtonville
August 20, 2017
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 15A

Genesis 45:1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15:21-28

Jesus, Ethiopian

Ethiopian Image of the Risen Christ With His Disciples

My Friends: For almost three centuries now, scholars—and even popular writers—have been preoccupied with the search for the so-called historical Jesus.  This quest is based upon the premise of a sharp and real distinction between the historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth, a rabbi who lived and died in first-century Palestine during the Common Era, and the “Christ” of faith who—depending upon your degree of post-modern skepticism—is either long dead and gone; a complete fabrication of the early Church; or is the resurrected and glorified Messiah of God, the incarnation of God’s eternal Word.
Continue reading