By Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy
Today, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is tested again, and Jesus, like a good rabbi, answers the test question with another question, and then he often tells a parable to shine a light on God’s truth. It’s as if he’s saying, “this is how the kingdom of God on earth should be”.
These last few Sunday gospels have been dramatic… the story a couple of weeks ago of a King who gives a wedding banquet, where guests behave badly and the King banishes a poor fellow for wearing the wrong outfit. Jesus explains the difference between a dress code and radical, welcoming hospitality. Two sons, one who says yes to his father’s request for work and then skips out, the other says no, but turns round right and gets to work, Jesus says the sorriest among you who say yes to God will be the first in heaven; (actions speak louder than words), and builders who don’t recognize the strongest sturdiest cornerstone, which just might be Jesus himself?
My imagination seems to be blossoming during this pandemic. Spending everyday with a 3 year old who has the best ever make-believe ideas has been helpful. We had a great “phone” conversation the other day with two bananas! Also contributing is my addiction to Netfliz crime dramas (I like the ones set in Norway or Finland: they are cold and dark and there is a brooding, lead character who says little but speaks wisely.
These gospels, and the parables that Jesus tells, are tales that are meant to confound, confuse and ultimately amaze us. If you read them over a few times, it’s easy to imagine yourself in the action; you could be a main character or an onlooker in the crowd.
Try putting yourself in different roles. The more you read it, the more the drama builds.
I imagine I’m an onlooker; (I’d like to be more comfortable with conflict, I’m working on it!) I imagine I’m off to the side of the crowd, taking it all in, sitting in a market stall, weaving purple cloth.
And so the play begins today in the Temple. Two groups have gathered, Pharisees (pius Jews, very concerned with obedience to Jewish law), and Herodians, (likely followers of Herod, Jews also, but more interested in the governments’ finances). They intend to confront and confound Jesus with a question that puts him between a rock and a hard place. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” they ask. One answer breaks Jewish law, the other angers the government. (Jesus and his band of scruffy followers do not have a penny (or rather a denarius) in their pockets.)
The Pharisees and Herodians flatter Jesus, telling him that he is sincere and a good teacher. I love that Jesus doesn’t let them get away with this; he calls them out…hypocrites, he says, flattery from one side, trickery from the other. They bully him: “You’re so smart, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
Jesus does not allow himself to be tricked, and his answer is short and amazing. He says “Yes, the emperor’s head and title are on the coin, it is his. Give him his due, and also, give to God what is God’s.
We know we must “pay the tax’ also. We need roads and good schools and we must contribute to the cost of managing and preserving this wonderful world, but what would it be like if we remembered that all of it belongs to God, that all these worldly things are God’s, not Caesars, and not ours. What if we chose God’s way of love, liberation and justice as we support our institutions, our government and our personal lives? //
After all, we believe that everything we have is only on loan to us from God. We believe that at God’s command all things came to be, from the primal elements God brought all things forth. As we sing in the Venite: “the sea is his for he made it, and his hand has molded the dry land. We are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. //
The kingdom of God on earth is Gods. Everything. Every soul, every flower, and every dollar.
What would it be like if we applied the principals of God’s kingdom (not Caesars) to every decision we made. We have been given reason and choice. Could we align our choices and decisions with the description of God’s “kingdom on earth” that Jesus teaches us in these parables? Does that decision, that vote or that dollar spent, honor God as the Mother and Father of everyone and everything, and does it lead us further into a world of love, liberation and justice?
It’s amazing to think it could be so! Amen
By Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy
View the worship and sermon here.
During this time of Pandemic, we pray in our weekly litany “for those who are ill and those who are frightened, for medical personnel caring for the sick and workers who provide support to us everyday in their communities, for scientists seeking treatments and prevention, and for those officials who bear the weight of decision-making for the common good.” If we look back in history we see many examples of similar heroic service, those who followed Jesus’ call on the beach that night, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and raise up the dead.
Today I’d like to draw your attention to the Martyrs of Memphis. In August of 1878, yellow fever invaded the city of Memphis Tennessee for the 3rd time in 10 years. This was a time in the practice of medicine when germ theory was still a controversial idea. It would be another 25 years before it was discovered that a mosquito carried the disease. Living conditions and working conditions in large industrial cities were typically dirty, overpopulated and unsanitary, forcing residents to battle life-threatening diseases.
After a month, quarantine was ordered. 30,000 people had fled in terror, and 20,000 remained to face the pestilence.
Jeannette Keith has written a fascinating book about this time in history called “Fever Season, The Story of a Terrifying Epidemic and the People who saved a City.”
As Keith wryly points out, these saviors weren’t exactly who you might expect. …“Neither heroism nor villainy could be predicted by public standing, gender or race. Upstanding citizens abandoned their families, and prostitutes and sporting men stepped up to care for the sick. White elected officials deserted their posts, but black militiamen stood fast as guardians of the city.”
The cast of characters who rose to the crisis were an unexpected crew united by a single impulse: like Jesus feeding all those folks on the beach that night, they could not turn a deaf ear to those in need. Among them were the editor of the city paper, the Memphis Daily Appeal; a nurse and teacher who had already lost most of her family in Texas to the disease as a child; a wealthy merchant and veteran of the Union Calvary, who “risked his life to help people he had fought against only a few years previously”; the only white Baptist minister to remain in the city; a madam who transformed her bordello into an infirmary; and, in the aftermath of the epidemic, a former slave who became the richest African America in Memphis and would lay the foundations for Memphis’ reputation as the home of the blues. His name was Robert Church. Also notable among them, was Constance, Superior to the Sisters of St Mary, six of her fellow sisters, three physicians, two of whom were Episcopal priests, two matrons and several volunteer nurses from New York.
In the Episcopal Church we dedicate September 9th to Constance and her Companions. The Cathedral buildings were located in the most infected region of Memphis. Here, these men and women gave relief to the sick, comfort to the dying, and homes to the many orphaned children. Only two of these workers escaped the fever. Among those who died were Constance, Thecla, Ruth and Frances, the Reverend Charles Parsons and the Reverend Louis Schuyler.
Let us pray:
“We give you thanks and praise, O God of Compassion, for the heroic witness of Constance and her companions, who, in a time of plague and pestilence, were steadfast in their care for the sick and dying, and loved not their own lives, even unto death: Inspire in us a like love and commitment to those in need, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, then, now and forever. Amen"
Excerpt from Holy Women, Holy Men
“Fever Season: The Story of a terrifying Epidemic and the People who Saved a City"
By Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy
In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, we hear from Jesus at his most demanding. Jesus says “To follow me in the true way of love, to go all the way with me, you will be uncomfortable, confused, and even sometimes frightened. Jesus says: If you wish to walk the way of love with me, expect to be upset and confused, even cut off in a way from those you love. And through thick and thin you have to forget about yourself. This forgetting is freeing and it opens you up to find God.
There are times of life when I appreciate expert, no-nonsense advice. For me, this is one of those times. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and a crisis of injustice in our country, some straight from the hip advice gives me comfort. As a member of the leadership team here at James and Andrew I have been reassured by the expert advice from the CDC, the World Health Organization, state and local public health experts and our clergy and church leaders. Our data is not perfect, but it’s the best we have.
Jesus gives pretty straight forward advice about justice, he says that everything eventually will be out in the open, everyone will understand how things really are, so don’t hesitate to go public about God’s love…even if you are uncomfortable or confused. Don’t let anyone (even you), bully you into silence. Nothing can hurt you, the real you of body and soul, if you are motivated by God’s way of love. This love belongs to everyone: student/teacher, laborer/boss, those who are strong and healthy and those with weak immune systems, those who have, and those who have not.
We are instructed to stand up for love against world opinion, or anyone’s opinion, in spite of our discomfort. In the midst of a devastating pandemic and an uprising for justice, can we set aside our comforts? Can we remember the “greater good” and set our hearts on the hope that another, better world is possible?
The expert advice we hear from Jesus is that living out this love might cut like a sword.
Jesus did not come to make life cozy. Being comfortable is nice, but I recognize that it doesn’t always help us to get anywhere. If we stay inside a cozy domestic relationship with the world, or with a church institution, there’s no forward movement, no growth, no life.
My boys suffered from what we called growing pains in their preteen years, those years of rapid physical and emotional growth; they complained frequently of achy legs that bothered them mostly at night. Scientists will say that there’s no evidence that growth hurts, but I believe there’s much about the body/mind connection we do not understand. A broken heart surely hurts, and we now know that it can lead to changes in the heart muscle similar to a heart attack. We also know that the damage can heal.
The pain of lost comfort is real, but maybe that pain is a sign that we’re on the threshold of something new. Our EFM book group is reading Esther de Waal’s book “To Pause at the Threshold” She has wonderful things to say about how a threshold can be a sacred place, a place of openness and receptivity. The threshold leads to something new, something of greater fullness. It is good to remember that God is always with us, at our center and our comfort and also (as Heather says), at our raw and growing edges. Rachel Held Evans, in her book about Loving the Bible (for which Dan Carew will lead us in a Zoom discussion today at 11:30), Rachel says that scripture should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
So, even if we are dwelling in a place of discomfort or confusion, I hope we are dwelling in a threshold place, and that we can equip ourselves for change and growth. Jesus says it plainly: don’t be intimidated, don’t be bluffed into silence, stand up for me, forget about yourself and look to me, learn from me. So here is my plan: I will accept my discomfort, I will accept my growing pains, I will read and seek the truth, I will listen and talk it over, I will walk forward and I will try not to be afraid.
And I will pray for your plan too. Amen
Tonight we hear the moving story of Jesus’ and the disciples’ last meeting and meal. It is the story of ordinary actions; washing the dust off and sharing food, ordinary actions done with extraordinary love. That night the disciples gathered with Jesus, rumors about Jesus’ arrest were in the air. Jesus, of course knew what was about to happen, and, I think, perhaps the disciples did too. I expect they ate quickly and quietly, and on this most holy night, Jesus chose this everyday action of washing to teach us a most important lesson, a lesson about love. Jesus knew that Peter was about to deny him and that Judas had already conspired to betray him. In spite of this, Jesus stood up, wrapped a towel around his waist and bent down to wash the feet of his friends and enemies alike; a gesture of Love, the ordinary kind, given freely to everyone.
Such an ordinary action, foot washing, on this extraordinary night. Jesus teaches us about love in ordinary ways; a drink of water and a conversation by the well with a Samaritan woman, or a meal at Martha and Mary’s home. We know he breaks all the rules of the society of his day, but I think that on Holy Thursday Jesus also wanted to teach us that love, given through ordinary actions, with awareness and mindfulness, can be the most powerful love of all, the kind that passes all understanding. Ordinary expressions of love: the casserole you bring to a grieving neighbor, the therapy dog who visits nursing home patients, and the prayer shawl or comforting quilt.
It’s risky, isn’t it, this love freely given? Risky, because the more we open to love, the more we risk betrayal or loss or pain. We risk security and stability when we open to love. But it’s a beautiful and worthy risk, because without it we are stuck, stuck not moving forward, stuck without growth, without opening to the possibilities of the future.
Ordinary actions make up most of life. Excellence is wonderful, isn’t it, and who doesn’t want to pursue it, who doesn’t want to change the world? But life is really made up of one ordinary action after another, get out of bed, make your bed, show up on time and prepared for school or work, say thank you, help a neighbor, cook, clean, do it again. Washing the dishes might not just be a mindless task. If we are fully awake and aware, we can find God in the kitchen as well as in the chapel.
The ancient Celts understood something about this. Esther de Waal, in her book, “Every Earthly Blessing” describes it as an approach to life in which God breaks in on the ordinary, daily, mundane and earthy. It is the sense that God informs daily life and transforms it, so that any action can become the time and place for an encounter with God. She says, “nothing is too common to be exalted, and nothing is so exalted that it cannot be made common”. The Celts everyday actions were infused with images of the way God interacts with his people. For a blessing on a journey they would pray: “May the road rise to meet you” or St Patrick’s beautiful litany: “Christ be with you, before you, behind you, when you sit down, when you arise.” A blessing was spoken as the fire was laid and as the children went out the door. A Mother would commend her new- born infant to the Trinity. The baby would be handed across the hearth fire three times and then carried sun-wise three times around the fire with the help of the neighbors who had assisted at the birth. Three drops of water would be placed on her forehead and then the prayer spoken: “And I beseech the Holy Three to bathe this child and to preserve it to themselves. All the people in this house are raising their voices with the watching-women, giving witness that the child has been committed to the Holy Trinity.” This was called the “Mother’s Baptism”. It preceded the formal “clerical” baptism when the child was received into the church.
Washing is a very ordinary activity, and my hands are in the dishwater many times each day. I have washed countless baby parts and wiped many baby noses. A cool cloth on a feverish brow is very ordinary, but when I have looked down on the beautiful faces of my kids and grandkids, and when I’ve been awake and fully present in the moment, I have felt indescribable love and the presence of Holy Spirit.
So many of our ordinary acts of love are on hold right now. There are rituals and routines we miss. We long for the kind of community we have each Sunday, which gives us strength and courage to go out into the world with love. I hope we are trying to remember that it’s not the location or the details that matter, it’s the love that matters. A friend is reading “The Chronicles of Narnia” to her Granddaughter at lunch every day. There is music in the air, the birds are singing more beautifully than ever. There are lots of ways to cultivate new “habits of grace”. Join in for Compline on line before bedtime or listen to sung Compline by the Compline Choir of St Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle. It is broadcast on a number of airways every Sunday night. There’s even a “Compline Underground” blog for those of us geeks who want to learn more about the text and the music! Presiding Bishop Curry gives a weekly video message. His expressions of love are moving and timely.
Whose feet can you wash tonight? How can you show extraordinary love to someone in these strange times? Maybe that someone is you? Here is a simple recipe for a calming foot soak: a basin of warm water, ½ cup Epsom salts, and a few drops of an essential oil like lavender. I promise you will sleep better after a 15-30 minute soak.
The ordinary/extraordinary things we need to do in these strange times are pretty clear: Be good to yourself, and be good to your neighbors in creative ways. Find ways to make the ordinary extraordinary, and remember that our great teacher, Jesus will show us the way. Amen.
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