St. Paul has fallen on hard times in many Episcopal pulpits. Probably because he often comes across as an old crank who says things we moderns find wrongheaded. Think about it: when was the last time you heard a sermon on Paul?
Yet we run the risk of missing something important if we leave Paul behind. What’s more, built into the scriptures is a principle that helps us think differently about Paul. Within the collection of Pauline letters, which the Church takes to be the Word of God, is a principle of updating and rewriting the Pauline tradition. That is, Colossians was written by a disciple of Paul who remodeled Paul’s key ideas for a new day and in a new place. Built into the Bible is an example of what every community of faith must always do: hold onto the essential things from the past as well as reimagine how to faithfully live out the faith in their own day.
As some of you will know from my often talking about it, even in previous sermons here, I grew up in a fundamentalist church in small-town Texas. To make sure to save our souls, we were in church whenever the doors were open. My father was the song leader. We went to church at least three times a week: for Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening prayer service. Sermons were generally 40 minutes long (don’t worry, I won’t go that long today). There was always an invitation call, what in some churches is known as the “altar call,” at which we would stand and sing countless verses of “Just As I Am” while the preacher encouraged anyone to come forward who needed baptism, confession of sins, or just prayers in general. And we sang lots of songs with phrases and words little kids have a bit of trouble really understanding.
Years later we would laugh at what we thought we were saying or singing. Like the song “When the rolls are called up yonder,” or “Up from the gravy the rolls,” (for a five or six year old boy ready to get home for Sunday dinner, you can understand why so many of my misunderstandings had to do with food), or “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.” Or my father’s favorite quotation from the Apostle Paul, as we heard it from the King James Version: “I would not have you, ignorant brethren.”
My friend Sally tells a story about growing up—growing up in the 1950’s on a farm in the deep south, a farm far outside of town—the sort of place where you only see the folks in your family, and the folks who live on the farm, and the folks who come occasionally to visit. Sally made friends among the folks that were around—and her best friend was another little boy just a couple of years older called Frank who lived on the farm, too. When Sally was about five and Frank was seven, they’d spend hours running through the cotton fields together and pulling one another around in a wooden red wagon along the dusty roads of the farm. They were the best of friends—until Sally started school, and she noticed that Frank didn’t go to the same school as she did. And as she got older she noticed that she never saw Frank at the same places she went in town—the soda fountain, the doctor’s office, even the movie theater. And finally, when she was older, and she invited friends over to the farm for picnics or dinners in the dining room, she learned that her best friend Frank wasn’t welcome to join.
You see, Sally is white, and Frank is black. And somewhere along the way Sally learned that it wasn’t okay for them to be friends. That Frank wasn’t welcome as an equal in her world. And what a perversion of the message of the incarnation that lesson was—a lesson she still grieves today.
I admit it. I was sorely tempted. I am moving this coming week and the lectionary presented me with a real gift. The epistle reading (at least the optional part of it) has the part of St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he commands them to “bear one another’s burdens.” What does it mean to bear one another’s burdens? To bear, of course, literally means to carry something. The apostle urges the church to help one another by picking up their oppressive, heavy burdens, like boxes or sofas, and carry them in such a way that relieves them of their trouble. So, … [gesture with hands]. The application would seem pretty clear.
But I would never do that. You all are far too smart. You would have simply responded, “Yes, but Father, three short verses later, St. Paul he says, “Every person must carry their own weights.”
Think about the last job you applied for—or, if you’ve not applied for a job yet, maybe a school application, or any sort of application, really, that you have to wait to hear from. After the application, the screening interviews, maybe a phone call or Skype, additional questions, writing samples, in-person interviews, and follow up conversations, you probably expect at worst a letter saying thanks, but no thanks—or, in the best situation, a phone call saying, Yes, you’re it! We want to hire you!
Now imagine the situation of the great prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha. Elijah has been told by God to anoint Elisha in his place, but rather than making a phone call, or sending an email, Elijah goes out to look for Elisha—and he finds him tilling the soil, driving a team of twelve yolk of oxen, two dozen oxen—quite a lot of ox power—and to tell him he’s been chosen, Elijah comes alongside the young Elisha and throws his mantle, a big cloak, over him. It might seem strange to our modern ears—imagine if you knew you’d gotten the job when your boss threw his coat over you—but this gesture, the same one from which we get our phrase “assuming the mantle,” means just that—that Elijah is passing his authority, his responsibility, to Elisha—that he has been chosen, he has been named. He is the prophet. He got the job.
Today’s lectionary readings are filled with violence. Violence remembered from the past. Violence threatened in the future. Violence enacted in the present. Violence responding to violence. Social violence. Psychological violence. Violence against humans. Violence against animals. Violence against the environment. Violence fueled by ethnicity. Violence fueled by economics. Violence fueled by religion.
Our newsfeeds this week are also filled with violence. Violence directed specifically against the LGBTQ community. Violence motivated by bigotry. Violence with guns. Violent rhetoric. Threats of violence. Violence promised by politicians. Violence enacted against politicians. Violence ignored by politicians.
Jason Ballard, an emerging leader in the environmental justice movement, once said this about deforestation: “If we could only figure out how to make trees emit WiFi signals, we would solve the problem of deforestation in no time. Too bad all they produce is oxygen.”
Often the tyranny of the urgent blinds us to the importance of taking the long view. What is urgent and what really matters in the end are not synonymous. But time takes a toll. And in the end, the simple onslaught of daily life can prove the hardest challenge.
We come today to the memorable story of the widow of Zarephath from the beginning of Elijah’s ministry. Elijah prophecies a drought will come upon the land of King Ahab. Immediately God sends him into the desert wilderness, by a stream, the Wadi Cherith, to be fed bread and meat morning and night by ravens and to find water in the wadi. His prophecy was fulfilled, the wadi dried up and there was no rain in the land
I wonder if you’ve seen the film Babette’s Feast. Babette comes mysteriously and humbly to live with community in the Jutland in Denmark. She is employed as a servant. She has come from Paris and is a wonderful cook, yet all the people want is coarse bread and fish. The people are gruff and unkind and soon we see that they harbor long held hurts and animosities.
64 plastic water bottles, 214 plastic grocery bags, a barbie, and a Doritos bag-
these were some of the contents of the belly of a beached whale this spring.
The gorgeous, sleek, magnificent creature was stuffed- belly brimming with the tailings of human addiction to comfort, to quick access, to the thousands of little things that take a tremendous amount of earth’s resources to manufacture, only to be used once, maybe twice, then discarded with ease.