by Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy, Lay Preacher
In today’s Gospel reading from Mark, we witness Jesus’ baptism. As he rises from the water, the heavens are torn apart and the spirit descends like a dove on him, God speaks those exquisite words to Jesus “you are my beloved with you I am well pleased”. Then that gentle dove drives him into the wilderness! Luke and Matthew say he was led there, driven or led by the hand of the Holy Spirit, he begins his wilderness days of prayer and fasting. Mark (as usual) gives very few details about what happens in the wilderness. Matthew, never at a loss for words, tells us that he was tested 3 times by the devil, once tempted to feast to appease his hunger, (the temptation of the flesh), once tested to ask God to prove God’s power and love for us, (temptation of pride of life, and temptation to abuse power) and lastly tempted to worship all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. Jesus does not yield to the temptations and so wins this battle and is then attended by angels. He emerges from this wilderness proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near.
On this side of the resurrection, we know what was coming near, in his baptism and wilderness time Jesus is preparing for the ultimate test, crucifixion on Good Friday and then that 3rd day on which we sing “the strife is 0’er the battle done, the victory of life is won, the song of triumph has begun!”
Today we begin our Lenten journey, our yearly time in the wilderness. Of course, wilderness times come frequently in life; times when we are struggling with sorrow, loss, confusion and fear.
Historically, in the church, Lent was a season when those persons preparing for baptism began a time of prayer and fasting, so that they were prepared to sign on to their covenant with God. (Spoiler alert: we reaffirm our Baptismal vows at the Easter vigil and we will welcome 2 persons into the household of God during the Easter season, here at James and Andrew.) In this season of Lent, we are called to wrestle with this question: have we been keeping our baptismal covenant? This is a chance for us to prepare for renewing our baptismal promises and search for ways to better keep those promises.
The great litany, that dramatic listing of various petitions and responses, was used as early as the 5th century in Rome. It is an all-embracing prayer for everything and everyone: from natural disasters to guidance for leaders of the nations! It’s not an easy prayer, but it leads us into Lent in our tradition, and it can be a prompt to review how well we are doing in keeping our baptismal promises. Yes, we are asking for Gods help, but maybe our Lenten discernment could be to ask ourselves: “how well are we keeping up with our end of the bargain?”
In the Great Litany we ask God to “spare us from evil and mischief: In our Baptismal Covenant we promise (with God’s help) to resist evil and when we don’t to repent and return to God.
In the Great Litany we ask God to deliver us from worldliness, and false gods, : In our Baptismal Covenant we pledge with God’s help to believe in God, in Jesus Christ and in the holy Spirit (period!).
In the Great litany we ask God to visit the lonely, strengthen those who stand, comfort and help the fainthearted and raise up the fallen; In our Baptismal Covenant we pledge to respect the dignity of everyone, seeking and seeing Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
I need to add a personal note to self here (this might help you): Keeping the covenant does not necessarily mean work harder or take on exciting new ministry opportunities. It was moving to hear vestry members talk about their Lenten practices at our meeting this past week. So many of them described small, personal gestures of love, care, comfort and respect; for family, coworkers, neighbors and friends, recognizing Christ in all persons.
As we wander into our own Lenten wilderness, we have an opportunity to review and renew our Baptismal promises and search for ways to better keep those promises, to review how well we are keeping up our side of the covenant. There are a few paper copies in the Narthex, our Baptismal Covenant is on page 305 of the Book of Common Prayer; also found online at bcponline.org
Lent is a chance to ask ourselves this: how can we more fully “believe, continue in the Apostles’ teaching, resist evil, repent, return, proclaim, seek, serve and strive for justice and peace?”
It’s a big ask, I know, but remember that God has already given us hearts full of love and compassion. We all are “the great joy of God’s life”. I believe, with God’s help, we can do it.
By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
One of the great musicals of the last decade is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. Miranda tells the story of Alexander Hamilton’s life, and the incredible sense of urgency with which he worked for his cause. Over the course of 6 months, Hamilton composed 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers.* This is one reason why in the song Non-Stop the question is begged of Hamilton:
Why do you write like you're running out of time?
Write day and night like you're running out of time?...**
This past week these lyrics kept reminding me of Mark’s gospel. While Mark only left us with a single work, featuring a mere 16 chapters, it is written like the world might end tomorrow, and we must understand the good news NOW. Mark’s sense of urgency manages to make Hamilton seem rather relaxed, which we know was hardly the case. All this is to say, in Mark’s gospel we are meant to not miss a beat. There are no extra words, only what is needed to make the point. This can leave us with more questions, but also invites a greater curiosity.
Mark’s gospel begins by diving head first into Jesus’ baptism. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, “...he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:10-11). Or as the Message translates:“You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” This was a private and intimate moment between God and Jesus. There were no witnesses. Instead, Jesus is enveloped and marked by God’s love.
Because we live two millennia after Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection it is easy to forget that we understand the text with two thousand years of theological interpretation layered on top. We know the end game; or at least, how the Church has come to understand the text. This often interferes with receiving the text as Mark’s original audience would have. Whenever we can, as best we’re able, I would encourage us to try and hear the text as though it were for the first time.
Can you imagine what Jesus must have made of this encounter? He arrives at the Jordan River ready to be baptized, as an act of spiritual renewal, and gets far more than expected - a transformational experience of the divine. God says, to him alone, “You are my Son. I love you beyond measure, and couldn’t be prouder.” Is it any wonder that after such a momentous experience, Jesus is immediately driven into the wilderness for forty days? It is only after this wilderness time that Jesus is ready to begin his public ministry.
The entire time he keeps his full identity to himself.
Until we reach today’s text featuring the transfiguration. Here God reveals Jesus’ full identity to a handful of disciples, with some very clear instructions that the disciples are to ‘listen’ to Jesus. Jesus and the disciples have been ministering together for quite a while. He had only recently begun to prepare them for all that was about to unfold with regard to his impending suffering, death, and resurrection. The disciples were having a difficult time understanding and accepting this news.
It is at this point that Jesus brings Peter, James, and John on a short pilgrimage to Mt. Hermon.*** The four of them were alone on the mountaintop when Jesus was transformed; even his clothes took on a shimmering brightness. Then Elijah and Moses appeared, and were talking with Jesus. The disciples were at a complete loss as to understand what was happening. As Peter began to introduce the idea of making three dwellings, a cloud overshadowed them, and God’s voice was heard through the cloud, proclaiming: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!” (Mk 9:7).
Whereas at Jesus’ baptism, God spoke directly and privately to Jesus: You are my Son.
At the transfiguration, God spoke directly to Jesus and the three disciples: This is my Son.
With this encounter, God is telling Jesus: This news is no longer for just the two of us. Ready yourself. Likewise, God is saying to the three disciples: My love is revealed in the life of my Son, Jesus. Listen to him!
Scholar Amy Lindeman Allen notes that,“In Mark’s gospel, Jesus never directly claims this status for himself. While the disciples generally respect his authority, it is in this moment that they begin to understand the depths from which it originates. This is the core of the revelation: Jesus’ status as beloved of God.” ****
Moses and Elijah were also present for this mountaintop transfiguration.***** Their presence reminds the three disciples of how God has acted and been revealed throughout history. God had been at work with Moses, the founder of ancient Israel. Much like at the transfiguration, God and Moses communicated on the high, holy mountain of Sinai, with clouds enveloping them. God had also been at work with Elijah, the prophetic restorer of ancient Israel. Just as Jesus' work had taken on a similar role. Moses and Elijah’s presence at the transfiguration affirms God’s revelation to the three disciples.
This entire episode must have been quite an experience for the three disciples.Referring to Peter, the text says, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (Mk 9:6). Other translations describe them as stunned and frightened. The Message sums the scene up well:
Elijah, along with Moses, came into view, in deep conversation with Jesus. Peter interrupted, “Rabbi, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking, stunned as they all were by what they were seeing.
Peter’s instinct was to preserve this life-changing moment, which is an understandable response. Throughout human history mountains have been considered sacred places that yield transformative experiences. In Sanskrit, one of the oldest languages in the world, there is a word for this, darshan.“It suggests a face-to-face encounter with the sacred on earth; with a physical manifestation of the holy.”*****
These holy encounters transcend mountaintops. We are transformed by the sacred everyday:
…when we are outdoors in God’s creation and feel the peace of the Holy One
wash over us.
…when we see things through the eyes of our children and grandchildren.
…when we are overcome with gratitude for a loved one no longer with us.
…when we hear God’s call, and finally feel courageous enough to say yes.
…and in the thousands of other ways we encounter the holy in this life.
Like Peter, we may want to hit pause to memorialize these sacred moments. But it doesn’t work that way. We take in the glimmer, and then return to our messy, broken, and complicated lives. Yet that glimmer changes us; it helps point us forward, just as the view from the mountaintop shows us the many paths we might take as we wander through the wilderness of our lives.
The glimmer of the holy invites us to listen and be present in the moment. God was pretty clear with the disciples about this, “Listen to him.” Listen to what Jesus is saying about what will soon unfold. Listen to his teachings about my love. Listen and be present.
Like the rest of us, in light of the startling revelation of the transfiguration, Peter is ready to get to work and start building memorials. Peter exemplifies the human experience in this manner. God knows that we like to do, do, do, as it is far more comfortable for us than being present to the uncertainty within ourselves and our world. Which is why God is telling us to Listen. Be present.
It really is quite fitting that we hear a version of this story each year before we enter
the wilderness time of Lent. Lent is a season for self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and for reading and meditating on God's holy Word. It is a season of working our way through the wilderness. Sometimes we do that work with a whole lot of doing, by taking things on or trying to break unhealthy habits. Maybe this year we work our way through the wilderness by being. Being present and listening to what is unfolding within the wilderness. To discern what needs tending and care at this juncture in our relationship with God and ourselves, as God’s beloved children. To hear what God may have to reveal to us this Lent.
What if this Lent, we simply listen. What might we hear if we:
Listen to the voices of creation and the earth herself.
Listen to the suffering endured by neighbors near and far.
Listen for the Holy One in scripture, literature, and media.
Listen for God at work and at home.
Listen for God in our relationships.
Listen for what needs tending within ourselves.
Listen for what God has to say to us.
This Lent, what do we need to lay down on God’s altar so we might be able to listen?
What might God be saying that we need to hear this Lent?
What might happen if we learn to listen with this kind of intention every day of our lives? Amen.
**** The Jewish Annotated New Testament, p.88
**** Preaching, p.77
***** See Oxford Annotated New Revised Standard Version Commentary discussion of Moses and Elijah in Mk 9
Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, p. 269.
By Rev. Heather J. Blais, Rector
Today, let us turn our attention to the book of Isaiah. The Revised Common Lectionary, which determines the set of readings churches use for Sunday worship, frequently draws upon the prophet Isaiah.* In fact, over the course of the three year cycle, Isaiah is assigned 51 times. To give this some context, we hear 31 readings from Genesis; 24 readings from Jeremiah; and 22 readings from Exodus. The only text that we hear more from in the Hebrew Scriptures are the Psalms; which are featured nearly every Sunday.
First and foremost, Isaiah is a book of poetry. Poetry that has helped support core beliefs within Judaism, including the belief that a messiah would act to save God’s people; the significance of Jerusalem; and the importance of economic and social justice.*
Poetry which early Christians began to interpret as an anticipation of Jesus. While a Christian lens can be a meaningful way to interpret the text, I often find it more helpful to try and understand the text in its original context.
Something that is helpful to remember when we are listening to the Hebrew Scriptures is that these texts were originally written for Israel. This is not referencing Israel as a present day nation state. Israel is more than a place, it is a resilient and faithful body that has been in covenant with God for over a millenia.*****Just as God formed another covenant with Gentile Christians, what we think of as the Church, which actually began with Noah following the flood and was expanded through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. As we sit with these holy scriptures, let us remember there is enough space at God’s table for both interpretations, for both traditions, for God’s covenant with both Israel and the Church. But we’ll hear more about all that on Good Friday - so stay tuned.
Isaiah was composed over the course of two centuries.** The first section, referred to as First Isaiah, was written in the 8th century BCE, while the latter additions, referred to as Second and Third Isaiah, were written in the 6th century BCE. Scholars believe Isaiah, son of Amoz, composed most of the first section, while students of Isaiah's school of thought composed the latter sections.
Isaiah wrote at a time when ancient Israel had been divided into two kingdoms: the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. While Isaiah predominately wrote to the people of Judah, where he lived; his text, in many ways, is a message to all the people of ancient Israel. The overall focus of the text is the descent of ancient Israel into exile and death, and then their promised ascent to new life and well-being.**
Isaiah chapter 40 is a critical juncture in the book. During the initial 39 chapters, we see that the Assyrian empire is a superpower on the rise.Their increasing presence forced smaller kingdoms like Judah and Israel to either cozy up to Assyria for protection, selling their souls in the process, or risk revolt. The Northern Kingdom of Israel risked such a revolt in 722 BCE and it resulted with their people being deported and dispersed throughout the Assyrian empire.** Isaiah was of the opinion that there was a third and better option - that Judeans should stay free of any political or military alliances, in order to rely on God alone to protect them.
This opinion must have been challenging for the people of ancient Israel to hear and accept. After all, they could feel the danger on their heels, and they needed to determine how to act now. Trusting the God of Israel would have been the faithful choice, but it also might have felt too risky with such a real and imminent threat on their horizon. After all - what if the God of Israel didn’t protect them as promised? Or didn’t protect them in the way they wanted to be protected. Maybe it would be better to take matters into their own hands.
This dynamic is at the heart of humanity’s relationship with God. God is here, though often not in the ways we anticipate, and we are left with reservations. Having faith that God will be our safety, our protection, and our guide can feel more impossible than trying to simply take matters into our own hands. And so, often we do just that. Even when we have the knowledge and experience that God always shows up for us. It may not be in the way we want or how we expect, but God is always here with us. Loving and protecting us like a mother tends her newborn child.
When we arrive at Isaiah chapter 40, the text shifts into Second Isaiah. And at this point, quite a lot of time has gone by. The Judeans are now living in exile, having been forcibly removed from their home. They have lost Jerusalem, and all that it symbolized in their relationship with the God of Israel. They feel defeated, ashamed, and are having a crisis of faith.
We sometimes forget that for much of antiquity, deities were generally national or regional entities.
They were accessed locally in particular physical locations. If people lost access to that physical place, they lost access to their God. Losing Jerusalem would have compounded the sense of loss and shame they were grappling with.
So can you imagine how good Isaiah’s news must have been?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
The God of Israel created the foundations of the earth, and reigns over heaven and earth. We are but grasshoppers, always in God’s view.
Have you not known? Have you not heard? It is the God of Israel,
who brings princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows upon them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
Isaiah is smashing the glass ceiling of humanity’s limited thinking. The God of Israel is more powerful than any prince, ruler, or empire. Isaiah is reminding the people of ancient Israel - You think the Assyrian empire is strong? They’ve got nothing on our God. No ruler - yesterday, today, or tomorrow - will ever be as mighty as our Creator God. Isaiah is practically shouting with a profound sense of urgency.
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
To whom then will you compare me,
or who is my equal? says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these?
He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name;
because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing.
Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
"My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God"?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Isaiah is breaking everything down with this proclamation. While many ancient deities could only be accessed or felt in specific locations, the God of Israel crafted the whole of creation and is accessible everywhere. It was irrelevant that the people were no longer in Jerusalem, the God of Israel is everywhere, always. For us this is a given, but Isaiah is doing something radical and unheard of at the time. He is introducing monotheism, with the God of Israel reigning over the whole of creation. The people need to know!
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
The God of Israel is more powerful than any earthly ruler, and stronger than any local god. More than that, the God of Israel is especially available to those who are weak, weary, and waiting. As ancient Israel lingers in their despair, shame, and hopelessness, the prophet Isaiah is waking them up - God is especially with us. All that is required is for the people to wait upon God by putting their trust in God. To choose hope over despair, day after day after day. And when they do,
the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah was pleading with the people of ancient Israel - hold onto hope! Trust in God! Soon, God would use the Persian King Cyrus the Great to defeat the Assyrian empire, and they would be permitted to return home to Jerusalem. A new day, a new hope, with God as their guide.
Isaiah’s poetry is beautiful and inspiring, and speaks to us as much now as it did to ancient Israel. As I sat with these readings, I felt a sense that we, too, need to hold onto what Isaiah is offering. We are invited to wait upon God, offering our trust, and hope. We are living in strange times. Even if we work really hard to not take in much news, we cannot escape the weary and constant onslaught altogether.
We are reminded each day of:
Yet when we are reminded of the God of Israel, and the same force of love Jesus embodied in his life, death, and resurrection we are reminded to hold onto hope, to choose to wait upon our God. The Creator of the heavens and the earth is bigger than any war, any violence, any politician, any scandal, and is even bigger than the climate crisis. We need not hide under a rock, but wait on our God and be a source of love and goodness. We are to remember we are God’s and we are here to serve God’s dream by working for peace, justice, and mercy with love and kindness. Because when we do
the Lord shall renew our strength,
we shall mount up with wings like eagles,
we shall run and not be weary,
we shall walk and not faint.
God gives us the strength to be God’s hands and feet in this world, to make a difference, to see a new day, a new hope.
As we begin to prepare for the season of Lent, I would invite us to do some reflecting this week:
We walk together, as the body of Christ. We wait together, as the body of Christ. Amen.
**The Jewish Study Bible, p.763
*** This paragraph makes several references to information reflected by Walter Brueggemann and Tod Linafelt in their Introduction to the Old Testament, pgs 191-208.
*****Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, Talking About Jews: Principles, Problems, and Proposals for Prayer Book Revision
by Rev. Jimmy Pickett
Oftentimes when I think of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, I tend to think about John’s account. John tells us of a Jesus who is trying to not make a big scene, but Mamma Mary knows what her kid is capable of and sort of gently pushes Jesus into performing the first miracle of turning water into wine at the Wedding of Cana. But that’s not what we hear today. Mark, always seemingly running out of time, immediately shows us Jesus the exorcist, the joy of preachers everywhere during this lectionary year…
Upon first reading, this story from today’s Gospel seems like a scene out of a horror movie with a yelling priest and a kid with a spinning head. Thanks Hollywood. But upon second reading, as I sat at my friend’s kitchen table earlier this week, sharing my frustration about interpreting this text, we both came to a bit of a deeper understanding of what might have been going on here. Centuries of translation, tradition, pop culture, and less than helpful misunderstandings of mental and emotional health have been piled onto Mark’s telling of this healing miracle in Capernaum. Oftentimes the term “unclean spirit” is understood to mean a demon which makes it easy to jump to the idea of demonic possession, but when we strip away the layers of added baggage and let the original text speak for itself, we can come to a deeper understanding of what Jesus is doing for this man.
As we were sitting around the table, there was one word that my friend noticed in the original Greek text that stood out, and the only reason I became aware of it is because I spoke the demon of my frustration out loud. In the light of day, that frustration dwindled away and gratitude and curiosity took its place. That one word in verse 26 translated as “unclean” is written ακάθαρτος (akathartos). This discovery got me curious about the opposite. What is the word for to clean, or purify, or to purge away? Καθαρίζω (katharizo), or in modern English, catharsis. Moments of catharsis are so important for our emotional, mental, and spiritual well being, they allow us to clear out whatever is blocking us from moving forward.
In Mark’s account of this healing in Capernaum, we aren’t told anything else about the person Jesus meets, only that they cried out in a moment of catharsis. When Scripture leaves this vague emptiness of detail, Ignatious of Loyola invites us to read our lives into the text. Here we are invited to remember a good cathartic cry with a friend, or to drop our pain at the center of a labyrinth, or throw our anger into the frozen river by breaking the ice with a rock. We are also invited to think about where it is in our lives that we need Jesus to remove whatever is hindering us from living healthy and holy lives with ourselves, our neighbors, and God. What do you need to cry out? Shame? Anger? Fear?
We live in a day and age of division and we will only be able to heal that division with God’s help and some catharsis. Our relationships with each other and with ourselves depend on us naming our suffering, then God can help in the transformational work of healing in our own hearts, in our community and our society. There are so many ways this healing can come about. St. Francis went out in the streets and swapped clothes with a homeless man and ate the same food he and his friends had begged for, so fear of people living on the streets lost its power over him. Some people go to the gym and punch a punching bag until their anger dissipates. One time I was watching Grey’s Anatomy and just sobbed on the kitchen floor for a good 15 minutes because I couldn't hold my grief anymore. And I felt a new kind of freedom after those tears ran out of me.
Jesus said “I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly”, and here in today’s Gospel we see this gift of abundant life given. Abundant life does not mean simple, easy, anxiety free, walks through the rose garden every day (though those are nice). Abundant life means the real, authentic, angry hot tears that Jesus knows all too well. Thanks be to God for the Incarnation because our God knows intimately what it means to need a moment of catharsis in order to keep moving forward, and is telling each one of us that we will be picked up when we fall apart. It’s part of what it means to be human, to be fully alive, not just fine or ok, but real.
You’re not alone in whatever you’re holding, God has given us the gift of community and the invitation to catharsis, God has given us each other that we might have abundant life.
We are blessed to have a diversity of preaching voices in our parish. Our guild of preachers is a mixture of lay and clergy. We hope you enjoy the varied voices.
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