Teaching Sermon: Holy Week & Easter
While this is an information heavy sermon, I hope it will enhance your experience of journeying through Holy Week.
Palm Sunday 3 / 4
The earliest recorded observance of Palm Sunday comes from the writing of a 4th century female pilgrim named Egeria (Ege·ria). She describes how Christians gathered near the Mount of Olives and would read the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The pilgrims would then form a procession and make their way across the hillside into Jerusalem, all while waving palm or olive branches. They sang psalms, and shouted, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ This practice spread, and by the early 5th century it had reached Spain.
By the 9th century, it was common to sing “All glory laud and honor”, as we did today. By the 12th century, the custom of blessing palms was incorporated. At least one version of the liturgy, included an “exorcism” of the flowers and leaves, before the priest would bless the branches and sprinkle them with holy water. It is worth noting, many churches have historically used local greenery or flowers. While we use palms, some year we may choose to wave pine branches or forsythia.
With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, values shifted, and the blessing of palms and the procession were altogether eliminated. These elements were reincorporated into the liturgy in the 1928 Prayer Book.
For much of the middle ages, the Palm Sunday procession included several stations where pilgrims stopped and prayed. Upon arrival at the church, the focus shifted entirely to the passion narrative. Over the course of the the week, pilgrims would hear all four versions: Matthew on Sunday, Mark on Tuesday, Luke on Wednesday, John on Friday.
Over time, some churches stopped reading the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday. Yet with the liturgical renewal and ecumenical movements of the 1960s and 70s, a three year lectionary, shared across denominations came into use. 6 This brought back the tradition of reading the Passion Gospel, and the 1979 Prayer Book renamed the day - The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday. Some churches, like ours, chose to only read the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, saving the passion narrative for Good Friday. This is to encourage worshipers to be present to one piece of the story at a time, as we make our journey through holy week.
Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday 3
It is customary to have a simple service of Holy Eucharist on these days. While we no longer read all four passion narratives throughout the week, the assigned readings highlight different events from the last week of Jesus’ life. On Holy Monday is the anointing of Jesus at Bethany; on Holy Tuesday, Jesus predicts his death; on Holy Wednesday, Jesus predicts his betrayal from Judas.
In 2019, here at James and Andrew, we began to experiment with offering different liturgies to help prepare us for the Triduum (trid·yoo·uhm). Triduum is a word taken from the Latin root for three days, referring to the three final days of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. Our hope is these new liturgies will invite us to clear our hearts, souls, and minds in order to be fully present to God. To that end we added a Taize service on Holy Monday; a meditative service with readings, silent reflection, and repetitive sung refrains. This type of service has a way of forcing us to embrace non-doing; and the result is often a quieting of our internal noise. With the noise softened, we are often clearer on what burdens and distractions we have been carrying that we need to entrust to God. To that end, on Holy Tuesday, we offer a healing service with readings, prayers, and the option to share your burdens with a pastoral leader and be prayed for.
Finally, on Holy Wednesday, are simple bedtime prayers, better known as Compline. The hope is by this point in the week, we are feeling clearer, lighter, and ready to be fully present to God as a community in these final days of Holy Week. The tradition of walking through Holy Week, especially the Triduum, connects us to Christians across time, cultures, and denominations. Together, we are one body of Christ.
Maundy Thursday 3 / 4
The word ‘maundy’ comes from the Latin word for commandment. The liturgy helps us to recall Jesus’ commandment to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ at the institution of the Last Supper, and the command to ‘love one another as Christ loved us’ in the ceremony of the footwashing. The first docmented celebration of Maundy Thursday comes from the 4th century pilgrim, Egeria (Ege·ria). Pilgrims would gather at important religious sites from the life of Jesus, many of which had churches built on them. They read scripture, prayed, and sang hymns as they moved from the site of the cross; to the tomb; to the cave where Jesus taught during his final week in Jerusalem; to the top of the Mount of Olives; to Gethsemane; and back to the site of the cross. The services lasted well over fifteen hours, ending shortly after daybreak. So, if you think this sermon or our services are too long, know we could always make them longer!
Since the early 4th century, the service was known as ‘The Supper of the Lord’, and has included Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist, and John’s account of the footwashing. By the early 7th century, the day became known as Maundy Thursday, and the liturgy began to include a ceremonial footwashing. At that time abbots would wash the feet of the monks in their order, and kings would wash the feet of peasants; a practice that went on for centuries. According to Marion Hatchett, “...it is recorded that in 1560 Queen Elizabeth I ‘kept her maundy’ [ie kept her commandment] in the great hall at Westminister by washing the feet of twenty poor women.” 4
While the tradition of the footwashing has been around for centuries, it did not appear in our prayer book until the 1979 edition. There are different practices around the ceremony of the footwashing. In some places a specific number of people will have their feet washed, or the clergy will wash everyone’s feet. In other places, such as here at James and Andrew, we are all invited to wash feet and have our feet washed. This models a mutual servanthood where we are all served and we are all servants. This sometimes makes people uncomfortable, and I believe it is a good kind of uncomfortable; the kind we experience when we dare to be vulnerable with one another, which deepens our relationship with God and our community.
Our diocese also has the tradition of offering anointing - proclaiming the other half of the great truth we declare on Ash Wednesday. There we proclaim, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to that dust you are returned.’ Now we proclaim, ‘Remember that you are Love, and to that Love you are returned.’
It is worth noting that some churches, like ours, will share communion for the last time until the Great Vigil of Easter, consuming what remains of the reserve sacrament. Other churches will consecrate extra bread and wine so that on Good Friday they can have holy communion from the reserve sacrament. When the reserve is kept for Good Friday, there is often an Altar of Repose, where people will take turns staying awake all night, keeping vigil by the reserve, echoing the disciples at Gethsemane.
Another tradition that dates back to the 7th century, yet still does not appear in our prayer book, is the stripping of the altar followed by the priest washing the altar in preparation for Good Friday. The services ends with the 22 Psalm, and then the ministers and congregation depart in silence, as a reminder of the solemnity of Good Friday.
Good Friday 3 / 4
Scholars disagree on the meaning of the name ‘Good Friday’. Some believe it originates from a word meant for pious or holy living, so the day might be known as ‘Holy Friday’. Others believe ‘Good’ is a corruption of ‘God’, meaning God’s Friday. Still others believe it is ‘good’ as in positive, because of the transformative good that happens through the cross.
The early Church, commemorated both the death and resurrection of Jesus in a single service; yet by the 4th century it had evolved into two separate observances. The pilgrim Egeria (Ege·ria) described Good Friday in great detail. Pilgrims gathered from 8am until noon to venerate the wood of the csross that Jesus was believed to have died on, often referred to as the ‘true cross’. Then at noon, there was a service with psalms, readings, hymns, and prayers which lasted until 3pm; and then John’s passion narrative was read. Following all this was an optional vigil at the tomb that lasted through the night.
As pieces of the ‘true cross’ were acquired by other communities, similar practices of venerating the cross, prayer, and the reading of the passion narrative spread. Eventually the practice spread beyond communities with pieces of the ‘true cross’. While venerating the cross is optional in our current prayer book, here at James and Andrew, we continue to offer the opportunity, primarily because some find the practice very meaningful. We have shifted the language from venerating the cross, to reflecting on the cross, with the option to light a candle as a way of honoring Christ.
By the middle ages, it became customary for the ministers to enter and exit in silence. Silence was also included in the Solemn Collects, where we pray for people everywhere; our sins and redemption; for the church throughout the world; for all nations; creation; and all those who suffer. Around this time, the Reproaches appeared in the liturgy. This hymn like litany was a dialogue between God sorrowing over the sins and destructiveness of humanity, and God’s people asking for mercy. 7. It is worth noting the Reproaches are no longer a part of the Good Friday liturgy.
For much of Christian history, the Reproaches, along with the Solemn Collects, and portions of John’s passion narrative had anti-semitic content, which blamed those practicing Judaism for the death of Christ. 7. The Christian tradition still has a long way to go to reconcile the damage we have caused through our anti-semitic liturgy and preaching over the centuries. Bishop Doug recently approved modifications the wider church is exploring implementing to the Good Friday liturgy, and Molly has written about it in this coming week’s Newsletter. I encourage you to read about these changes there, or in the Good Friday leaflet.
Similarly complicated, is how Christianity has interpreted the meaning of the cross over the centuries. If you are interested in exploring the meaning of the cross, I would encourage you to read the sermons listed in your leaflet, accessible on our website. 8
Holy Saturday 3 / 4
In the early Church, when the commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection were a singular event instead of two, Christians would fast for the two days prior. If you were pregnant or had health complications you could skip Friday, but all were expected to fast on the Saturday before Easter. With time, some communities began to gather for a simple service of the word. Throughout the Church’s history, there has been universal agreement that communion is not to be celebrated on Holy Saturday, as we prepare for Easter. In our current prayer book, there are provisions made for a collect, a few readings, and an anthem from the burial liturgy. The mood is quiet and still, reflecting an old tradition that required silence all day. We do not offer a Holy Saturday service, nor is fasting still required, but folks are encouraged to engage in reflection as a way of preparing for the resurrection.
The Great Vigil of Easter 3 / 4
It is worth noting that in almost every language except English, the word for the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter is one and the same - pascha. For many years this liturgy was referred to as the Christian Passover or Paschal Vigil. That said, we know that Christianity evolved into its own religion, and out of respect for the distinct Jewish tradition of Passover, let’s refer to this liturgy as the Great Vigil of Easter, as our current prayer book does.
This liturgy is one of the most ancient that we have beyond the Holy Eucharist. It is believed that Jesus’ disciples may have practiced a version of this liturgy, and we know it can be documented as early as the 2nd century. This service is considered one of the four most appropriate times in the church year for a baptism to take place. While we do not usually have a baptism scheduled, the baptismal themes remain, as we renew our baptismal covenant.
From the early Church onward, it was customary to keep vigil over night, listening to readings and instructions. At the first cockcrow, the baptismal water would be blessed, and a prayer of thanksgiving said over the chrism oil and an oil the church once used for exorcisms. The baptismal candidates would then renounce Satan and all evil, and then would be anointed with the exorcism oil. As our understanding of mental and physical health has evolved, the need for the exorcism oil fell out of practice, but to this day, we still renounce evil prior to our baptism. The candidates would then be baptized, they would affirm a profession of the faith that would become the Apostles’ Creed, and when they emerged from the water, they were anointed with the chrism oil used at baptism. By the 5th century, it became common for baptismal candidates to make a threefold renunciation of evil, and a threefold confession of faith.Each of these elements continues to be an important part of the baptismal liturgy.
By the 5th century, this the Great Vigil began with a new fire. The paschal candle would be lit and processed into the church. We believe the paschal candle was celtic in origin, brought to us by St. Patrick. The liturgy would continue with the chanting of the Exsultet, an ancient hymn that proclaims God’s love overcoming all else. This was followed by a series of four to twelve readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, each reading followed by psalms, canticles, and prayers. This practice continues to this day, with many of the readings being the same. They include stories of creation, the flood, the exodus, the valley of the dry bones, and so forth.
As pressure grew to baptize infants, the Great Vigil was no longer a pragmatic time for baptisms, and the liturgy began to lose some of its importance. By the time of the Protestant Reformation and the creation of the 1549 Prayer Book, the liturgy was abandoned altogether, and baptismal themes were shifted to Easter Day. The rite was not fully recovered in our prayer book until the current edition. I imagine this means many longtime Episcopalians who grew up with the 1928 Prayer Book, grew up without the Great Vigil. I grew up with the 1979 Prayer Book in a community taught that it was the singular most important liturgy in the Church year.
Easter Sunday 3 / 4
Because every Sunday is a type of little Easter, this liturgy is the most familiar to us. It is a celebration of the resurrection and God’s dream for this world. We keep the paschal candle in front of the church for all fifty days of Easter, as a reminder that the joy of Easter expands through all fifty days of the season, lasting through the Day of Pentecost.
1 Daily Prayer for All Seasons, pgs 81, 101
2 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pg 272
3 Walk in Love: Episcopal Beliefs & Practices by Scott Gunn and Melody WIlson Shobe, pgs 139-152
4 Commentary on the American Prayer Book by Marion J. Hatchett, pgs 223-250
5 1928 Book of Common Prayer
6 See David Lose’s Palm/Passion Sunday A and The United Methodist Church’s Why Palm/Passion Sunday and Not Just Palm Sunday?
7 See the United Church of Christ’s Good Friday Reproarches - Morley
8. See previous mentioned sermons below:
Palm Sunday Sermons
April 2021 - Rev. Heather Blais - What does God need from us right now?
April 2020 - Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm - Palm Sunday 2020
Maundy Thursday Sermons
April 2022 - Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm - Maundy Thursday
April 2021 - Rev. Heather Blais - Do this in remembrance of me
Good Friday Sermons
April 2022 - Rev. Heather Blais - Good Friday
April 2021 - Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm - Good Friday
Teaching Sermon: Hebrew Scriptures
I need to start with some language commentary. You may have noticed that in our announcements about this sermon it was titled “Hebrew Scriptures”, with “Old Testament” following in parentheses. Our bulletin announcement, further, referred to the “First Testament”. What is this all about? Do these labels matter? Of course they do.
I don’t use the term “Old Testament”. I am not comfortable with its implications and connotations. The term “testament” comes from the Latin testamentum, which, in Latin, comes from the Hebrew word for “covenant”. The Church has traditionally held that God made the first covenant with Israel through Moses, and fulfilled (or some would say ) replaced that covenant in Jesus. This can easily lead to a way of thinking about Hebrew Scriptures as outdated, “Old”, less relevant because they have been superceded by the “New” covenant. I simply choose not to use language that might imply this. For me, “Hebrew Scriptures”, or even “First Covenant” are more helpful in conveying respect not only for this collection of texts, but also for the living religion of Judaism, for which these books are not old, but remain sacred in revealing the truth of humankind’s relationship with God.
So back to the topic at hand!
The word Bible comes from the Greek ta biblia, which means “the books”. It’s a plural noun. The Bible, both Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian scriptures of the New Testament, are more like a library than a book. And they’re an incredibly diverse library. The books of the Hebrew Scriptures also include an incredibly wide range of kinds of writing: they include narrative, poetry, prayer, law codes, mythological tales, prophecy, short stories, and more.
The books of the Hebrew Bible were recorded – a number of them taking written form after existing for generations in oral tradition – over the course of more than a thousand years. (The books of the New Testament, by contrast, were composed within a span of less than a hundred years!)
What is included in the Hebrew Scriptures, and how it is organized, is an awfully complicated matter. Understanding the fine print on the differences that exist between religious traditions isn’t important, but knowing THAT the differences exist IS important . Here’s an example. Along with other Protestant denominations, our Bibles in the Anglican tradition follow the Jewish practice of including only those books written in Hebrew (although a couple of them include brief passages in Aramaic). Roman Catholic Bibles also include, in their Old Testament, six more books that were written in Greek. We call these “the Apocrypha”.
Another example: You may hear that we have 40 books in Hebrew Scriptures but that there are 24 in a Hebrew Bible: the material is the same, but we divide into separate books a number of writings that Jewish Bibles treat as one as.
This minutia is interesting for academics, but really doesn’t matter in a faith context. What matters is that the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures express the many ways in which the people of Israel sought to capture and articulate what they understood about the God – the God with whom they were (and continue to be) in relationship. They did so through symbols and stories, through myths and memories whose purpose was to instruct and inspire and unify the Community of Israel. Over the course of more than a thousand year of history that included much more struggle and hardship than it did peace and prosperity, Israel sought to maintain faith and sustain hope; they failed at living into their covenants with God as least as often as they succeeded. The writings of Hebrew Scriptures are the written expression of that dramatic and complex story.
And it is terribly important to remember that Jesus was born into that story and lived, fully committed to the wisdom and the faith of the Hebrew Scriptures.
So - are you ready for a whirlwind tour? Probably the best way to survey the contents of the Hebrew Scriptures is look at the books’ contents as they reflect the story of the nation of Israel.
The first written materials in the Hebrew Bible probably didn’t take written form before Israel was united as a monarchy under King David around 1000 BCE. At that time the priests and scribes began recording ancestral stories that had been passed along orally within the community for about two centuries. The final form of the first biblical books didn’t exist until centuries later, but the first building blocks were taking shape under David.
The first five books of Hebrew Scriptures are a set, identified as the Five Books of Moses or, for Jews, the Torah (which means “Teaching” or “Instruction”).
The first book, Genesis, explains beginnings, including the creation of the world (through two very different stories) and the primordial myths of the Flood and the Tower of Babel. The bulk of the book provides the narrative of God’s original outreach and covenant with the ancestors of the Jewish people. In the stories of Genesis, Abraham and Sarah and their offspring had quite a series of adventures, knew some moments of great faith and made at least as many bad decisions, but nonetheless survived their trials and tribulations with God’s help.
Exodus, Genesis’ sequel, picks up with the people of Israel thrust into slavery in Egypt and it narrates the call of Moses and his actions (with siblings Aaron and Miriam and, of course God’s frequent intervention) in leading the community out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to Mount Sinai where Moses received, from God, the Law, the full terms of the Covenant between God and the people.
The rest of the Five Books of Moses – Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – lay out in great detail the regulations that govern the life and practices for God’s people (including instructions for religious and domestic obligations of the community), as well as the further travels and trials of the people before their entry into the Promised Land, and Moses’ farewell addresses before his death.
The second section of Hebrew Scriptures contains historical narrative. The set begins with the books of Joshua and Judges, which together cover the conquest and division of Canaan and the years during which Israel functioned as a Tribal Confederacy before the establishment of the Hebrew Monarchy. These books tell about generations of repeated bloody conflicts with neighboring groups, followed by deliverance through God’s intervention, usually through the raising up of heroic leaders such as Deborah and Samson.
After the tribal period, Israel eventually established a monarchy during which, while the nation was not without continuing challenges and ongoing threats from other nations, there was at least a period of relatively greater peace and prosperity. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel recount the (largely troubled) reign of King Saul (accompanied by the prophet Samuel) and the ascendancy and early triumphs of King David, followed by his downfall as a result of his own wrongdoing.
1 and 2 Kings continue the saga, covering the succession of Solomon, David’s son, to the throne, and the significant accomplishments of his reign., including, the construction of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
These historical books continue and elaborate on a theme that began in the stories of Israel’s wilderness wanderings both before and after establishment of the Law at Mount Sinai. The theme is that of a cycle that the storytellers report that Israel lived out over and over again: it consisted of unfaithfulness – either because of the people’s anxiety and doubt, or by the people falling away from the covenant with God through inattention or selfishness – followed by hardship, followed by deliverance by God, resulting in renewed faith and commitment, after a period of which they would again fall away into unfaithfulness.
The most significant hardships in Israel’s story began as Solomon’s reign ended and the united nation split into two. The truth of “United we stand, divided we fall” was borne out for the people of Israel over the course of the 350 or so years while they lived as two separate states, Israel in the North and Judah in the south, under a series of kings. During this time, recounted in 1 and 2 Kings, the people repeatedly continued to fall away from their faithfulness to the Law, including turning to worship of other gods, and their conflicts with surrounding nations were escalating.
As the leaders and people turned from the covenant, prophets arose, repeatedly calling the people to return, as we remember in our eucharistic prayers. Elijah and Elisha’s stories are told in great detail in 2 Kings. Despite the prophets’ entreaties, Israel was brutally conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. (The descendants of the northern kingdom, you’ll remember, are the Samaritans who feature repeatedly in the New Testament.) Less than 150 years later, in 586, the Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians with the conquest of Jerusalem.
When Jerusalem fell, the leadership and priestly classes of the Hebrew people were taken prisoner and forced into exile in Babylon, a time remembered painfully in Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
The period of monarchy from David through the divided kingdom and Exile is summarized and recounted, again, in the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles. These are the last of the biblical texts specifically devoted to the community’s history, though the brief books of Ezrah and Nehemiah, which follow Chronicles, provide some details of the eventual restoration of the Jewish people to Jerusalem the surrounding lands of Judah. After the restoration, after the Babylonian Exile, the people of Israel were never again self-governed (until modern times). Assyrian and Babylonian rule were followed by the Persians, and later, the Hellenists and the Roman Empire.
Having told the story of the political fortunes and misfortunes of the people of Israel in the historic books, the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures include a variety of writings. In the order in which they appear:
The final collection of books in the Hebrew Scriptures are the teachings of the prophets, interrupted by three other brief texts:
In this last section of Hebrew Scriptures we hear from the prophets, including the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and “the twelve” minor prophets. They preached before and during the Exile, interpreting to the people of Israel, often in God’s name and in God’s voice, the meaning of the events happening to the community, and foretelling what was to come.
They pronounced bitter and searing condemnation of the people’s sins and abandonment of their responsibility to their covenant with God. They passionately declared God’s displeasure and God’s readiness to abandon the people to the suffering their transgressions deserved. The prophets did not leave condemnation and despair as the final word, however. They reiterated God’s love and reaffirmed God’s mercy, promising restoration for those who return to God’s covenant.
The words and stories and images of these scriptures sustained the people of Israel through generations of turbulent history. They rescued the people from despair by providing a vision of a higher calling. They offered insight, direction, and hope, often doing so in absolutely gorgeous language.
The Hebrew Scriptures are the foundation of our own faith. Let us cherish them and let us continue to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” all they have to offer.
Special Teaching Sermon on The Middle East: On a Flight From Cairo to New York With Isaac and Ishmael
I’ve been teaching, working, and traveling, with students and adults, in the Middle East for forty-five years. My experience has included working in churches in Jerusalem and Cairo, travel and study in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, teaching Arabic, and translating materials from Arabic into English, including a full length book by an Iraqi human rights lawyer on the concept of tolerance in Islamic thought.
In a moment I’ll describe an encounter I experienced with the sons of Abraham - Isaac and Ishmael - on a flight from Cairo to New York nearly twenty years ago. Of course, I don’t mean the actual sons of Abraham, but the eponymous ones: Abraham’s spiritual descendants: Isaac for Jews and Christians and Ishmael for Muslims. By the way, Ishmael’s name in the Qur’an is Ismail, a popular name for Muslim males.
We know from Genesis that both Isaac and Ishmael were sons of Abraham: Ishmael by a slave woman named Hagar, and Isaac by Abraham’s wife Sarah. Isaac, of course, outranked Ishmael because his mother was Abraham’s legal wife while Hagar was only a slave. Ishmael and Hagar were eventually banished. Tradition says they wandered in the Arabian peninsula and wound up in Mecca where their descendant Muhammad would many centuries later introduce the world to the religion of Islam.
And so was born the rivalry between the monotheistic religions that comes down to us to this day, a rivalry not only of religion, but also importantly a rivalry over the lands and resources of the Middle East. And, as Nine-Eleven reminded us, it’s a rivalry that has spread to include much of the rest of the world, even a flight from Cairo to New York nearly twenty years ago.
So, what about that flight from Cairo to New York? In the spring of 2004, I took a group of students to Cairo to participate in a Model United Nations conference. Model UN is an international organization that brings students together from all over the world. In 2004, the conference was held in Cairo. I’ve also led my students to Model UN conferences in Amman, Doha, and Lisbon. And, I’ve taken students to Istanbul to meet and discuss international affairs with Turkish students.
The Cairo trip began with sightseeing at the pyramids, the medieval Islamic monuments and markets in the Old City, visits to museums, and a boat ride on the Nile, all of this before the conference itself where my students debated the big international issues of the times with their peers from all over the world.
When it was over and we’d boarded the plane for the twelve-hour flight back to New York, I was looking forward to a very long nap in the air. While my group was seated together several rows up from me, my seat was in the middle of a row in Coach between two strangers.
It quickly became clear there would be no napping on that flight. I discovered I was shoulder to shoulder between two men whom I silently nicknamed “Ishmael” and “Isaac,” not those rival sons of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, but the Ishmael and Isaac of the religious conflict of our own times.
“Ishmael” was an Egyptian Muslim from Alexandria and “Isaac” was an American Jew from New York City. These were men whose hatred for one another quickly became loudly apparent. And so, there I was, shoulder-to-shoulder between two of the world’s oldest and most deeply entrenched hatreds.
When “Ishmael” and “Isaac” discovered who one another was, a shouting match erupted. Muslim Ishmael, leaning across me, yelled at Jewish Isaac, “I hate Jews; I’ve always hated Jews.” I asked him why he hated Jews. He yelled, “Because my father hates Jews and all my brothers hate Jews.”
The New York version of “Isaac” hurled similar epithets across me at his Muslim enemy on my left. I helped calm them down. However, no minds were changed that day. Isaac got up and moved away to an empty seat behind us. Ishmael and I didn’t speak for the rest of the flight. My attempts to foster at least some reconciliation and understanding that day ended in failure. Needless to say, I didn’t get the nap I’d hoped for.
After returning home, I tried to make sense out of that experience. I was drawn back to the Book of Genesis and to my first trip to the Middle East in 1979. On that trip, I’d visited the Palestinian West Bank town of Hebron, which Palestinian Arabs call al-Khalil. Traditions in all three faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) say that Abraham, Sarah, and other patriarchs and matriarchs from Genesis are buried there in a cave called Machpelah. In the first century, King Herod the Great built a shrine over the cave.
When Abraham died, Genesis 25 says that both Ishmael and Isaac returned to the Machpelah Cave to bury their father – together!
Sadly, that spirit of mutuality was short-lived. Today, Israeli soldiers guard the tomb because there have been serious disturbances there, the worst, in February, 1994 when, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, an Israeli-American physician opened fire on early morning Muslim worshippers inside the shrine killing twenty-nine and wounding 125. This incident typifies tribalistic animosities that seem bent on blotting out the memory of what happened there three thousand years ago when two brothers, who had become patriarchs in their own right, buried their differences long enough so that they could come together and bury their father. The Machpelah of Genesis was sadly as far away as I’ve ever felt it on that trip home from Cairo.
So, is religion part of the problem in the Middle East? History is, after all, full of holy wars, crusades, and jihads. Is religion responsible for these divisions? To the extent that religious extremists feel free to exploit and amplify the differences between peoples in the region as they compete for land and resources, then, yes, religion is part of the problem.
The late Israeli-American Rabbi David Hartman thinks monotheistic religions deserve a big share of the blame for the animosity and violence between people who really do have more in common than they acknowledge. He used to say, "The one god of monotheism is an indicator not of unity but of division between and among people. The message throughout monotheism is sometimes one of intolerance. When occupation and ownership of land become linked to monotheistic religion, the message seems to be, ‘There's only enough for one.'”
This is especially the case, Rabbi Hartman says, in the Bible. In the Old Testament in particular there is a deep sense of scarcity. Adam has two sons: Cain and Abel. Abel gets his father’s blessing; Cain doesn’t. Abraham has two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac gets the blessing, Ishmael doesn't. Isaac has two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob gets the blessing, Esau doesn't." There never seems to be enough for everyone (in the Old Testament at least).
Rabbi Hartman argues that if pluralism and inclusivism don’t replace exclusivism in the Middle East, then everything is going to be lost for everybody. Sadly, a portion of the exclusivism in the Middle East is being practiced by Americans, like my seat partner Isaac on that flight from Cairo: he belongs to that faction of evangelical Jews and Christians who believe that the Messiah will not come until Israel is a secure Jewish state and all challenges to Israeli sovereignty over all of Palestine are removed.
But, while religion may be part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. To the extent that religion encourages people to bury their differences, as Isaac and Ishmael did when they buried father Abraham, it can be a powerful force for hope and change in the world. For every vengeful soul in the Middle East who chooses violence (and in spite of what we see in the media, the number is actually quite small) there are many more who have chosen the way of peace and are working hard to make peace happen. Ishmael and Isaac saw their pasts come together and intertwine at that cave south of Jerusalem. As their pasts intertwined, my hope is that eventually so, too, will their futures.
There are good reasons for holding onto that hope. Historically, Middle Eastern adherents of all three monotheistic sects have for the most part been good neighbors with one another: for millennia, they’ve attended one another’s worship services in the synagogues, churches, and mosques, and celebrated one another’s weddings, funerals, and other religious festivals together with mutual joy and good will.
I’ve worshiped in a synagogue in Jerusalem made up of an interfaith Jewish and Christian congregation.
I’ve known Muslims who routinely attend services or prayers of all three faiths: they go to mosques on Fridays, synagogues on Saturdays, and churches on Sundays.
During a sabbatical year in Cairo, I served on the clergy staff of the Anglican All Saints Cathedral under Egyptian Bishop Ghais Abdel Malik and his Provost, The Very Reverend Philip Cousins, now retired and living in his hometown of York, England.. Services were held in both English and Arabic. On Pentecost, to honor the many tongues spoken on the first Pentecost day, scripture readings were both in Arabic and English. Meetings of the clergy staff with both Egyptian and non-Egyptian clergy together, opened with all of us reciting the Lord’s Prayer in both English and Arabic.
The cathedral sexton was an Egyptian Muslim named Mustapha. His is one of the most revered nicknames of the Prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an: it means “the chosen one.” Mustapha put all of us to shame because he’d memorized the entire Eucharistic service and other large portions of the Anglican prayer book. What some might call doctrinally incorrect behavior included Muslim Mustapha coming to the rail and crossing himself before receiving the bread and wine. I’m reminded of those services in Cairo each time Heather or Molly says just before communion is distributed, “No exceptions!”
There are many examples of people of all faiths who as I speak are working tirelessly for peace in the Middle East. But, let me close by mentioning a personal and somewhat unusual experience. I spent two summers working on the archaeological dig at Tel Miqne, the site of the ancient city of Ekron, a Philistine city mentioned in First Samuel 17 in the story of David and Goliath. I made friends on that dig with a Palestinian Muslim college student named Talal Nasrallah. Talal lived in Gaza, just a few miles away.
To pass the time, Talal and I discovered we liked to sing rock ‘n’ roll oldies (in my late teens, I played in a rock band on the Eastern Shore of Delaware and Maryland. I still occasionally do public gigs with another veteran of ‘60s era rock bands). One of Talal’s favorite American groups was the Beach Boys. Never in my life did I expect a bond would be forged between an American Episcopal Priest and a Palestinian through singing Beach Boys songs together, but that’s what happened: “Isaac” and “Ishmael” singing rock ‘n’roll songs together while digging up biblical history on steamy hot summer days in Israel/Palestine! Go figure! God works in mysterious ways.
In today’s New York Times, British author Karen Armstrong says her understanding of religion has been influenced by the renowned medieval Muslim scholar and mystic Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240). He says in his Fusus al-Hikam (“The Seals of Wisdom”) that he felt at home in all places of worship because no faith has a monopoly on truth:
He wrote, “Do not praise your own faith so exclusively that you disbelieve all the rest. If you do this, you will fail to recognize the real truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, cannot be confined to any one creed, for he says, ‘Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.’ (Qur’an 2:115).”
And with that, I want to close with a traditional Arabic blessing. It goes,
السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته
As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatu Allahi wa Barakatuhu!
May the Peace, Mercy, and Blessings of God be upon you!
Today’s teaching sermon is focused on the daily office and daily prayer. I thought we might begin by exploring the role of prayer in our lives, share a bit of history about the daily office, and reflect together on how we might continue to grow in our prayer practice.
In her book, Beginner’s Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life, Chaplain Kate Braestrup suggests we need prayer in our lives. She writes:
"What it can do—what prayer, at its best and at our best, has always done—is help us to live consciously, honorably, and compassionately. Because I am not stronger, more self-sufficient, smarter, braver, or any less mortal than my forebears or my neighbors, I need this help. As long as prayer helps me to be more loving, then I need prayer. As long as prayer serves as a potent means of sharing my love with others, I need prayer." 2
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman, in his book, Prayers for a Privileged People, also emphasizes our need to be vulnerable and to connect to a Power greater than ourselves. He writes:
“Prayer is an act of openness to the One who sits on the throne of mercy. When we pray, we participate in the ultimate practice of humanness as we yield to a Power greater than ourselves. Our best prayers engage in candor about our lives, practice vulnerability, run risks, and rest in confident trust.” 3
Prayer is a sacred conversation with God. Whether it be individual prayer or community prayer, it has the power to offer up the most tender parts of ourselves to God, and in return we find ourselves better equipped:
…to praise the wonderful mystery of God;
…to discern a way forward;
…to discover the wisdom we seek;
…to persevere and renew our souls;
…to experience the healing power of God’s love in this world;
…to forgive ourselves and one another;
…to trust that we are all held in God’s loving embrace;
…to watch the beauty of God in our lives and creation.
Prayer is at the heart of what sustained and guided Jesus. Prayer would have shaped his early life; and he likely practiced the Jewish tradition of saying private prayers in the morning, at noonday, and in the evening. 1. On the sabbath, he likely would have partaken in the local synagogue’s liturgy of the word, and possibly would have attended a daily morning or evening prayer service.
After Jesus embarked on his public ministry, we routinely see him go off to deserted places to pray alone, in order to reconnect with God and revive his Spirit. (1:35; 6:46) He would often teach about prayer, affirming it really can make a difference, and reminding us that when we pray, we are to forgive others. (11:23-25). Because when we hold onto old wounds, they actually get in the way of our faith, our relationship with God, and even our connection with ourselves. The early Church took Jesus’ teaching on the power of prayer to heart, and in one of Paul’s earliest letters, he tells the Thessalonians to ‘pray without ceasing’. (5:17)
As early as the second century, the early Church had adapted the Jewish liturgies of community morning and evening prayer which included psalms, canticles, scripture readings, and some form of homily or instruction. 1 They also adapted the Jewish tradition of private prayers to mark morning, noon, and evening. By the time Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire, these prayers became more formal and consistent across congregations.
Just as these congregational forms of ‘the daily office’ were being established, monastic communities were also developing their own forms.1 These two different forms of daily prayer coexisted for several centuries before melding together. Monastic communities have played a critical role in the development of these liturgies, including the Benedictine practice to stop and pray at eight intervals throughout the day.
Late in the middle ages, the daily office became the duty of monastics and clergy alone, making formal daily prayer inaccessible to the laity. When Thomas Cranmer created the prayerbook, he simplified the number of set times for prayer and published it in English, making daily prayer accessible again.1 Our current prayerbook, The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, features Morning, Noonday, and Evening Prayer, and Compline, as well as four briefer versions of each liturgy that are meant for individual and family use. You may remember that in May of 2020, we took a deep dive into Morning Prayer. Instead of taking a similar deep dive today, I’d encourage you to review that sermon on our website if you are interested in learning more about Morning Prayer. 5
I do want to lift up the handout of resources that the Ushers gave you, and for those at home, I promise it will be posted online with this sermon. The very first resource listed is a favorite - Daily Prayer for All Seasons. This resource is our Church’s effort to extensively modify and expand those four brief daily devotions for individuals and families in the prayerbook. It offers eight different liturgies for each liturgical season, in keeping with the monastic tradition to pray eight set times a day. We use it to begin Clergy/Warden meetings, and we are more grounded as a result.
This handout also includes:
All that being said, there are endless ways to engage in prayer. The prayerbook defines prayer as: “...responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” 4
It can be as simple as saying a prayer before each meal. While it can be tempting to rush through a familiar prayer without much thought, I would encourage you to pause when you sit down to eat. Notice the beauty of the meal and the many hands that made it possible; appreciate the company you are eating with, or the space you are enjoying your meal. Give thanks with a formal grace or speak from your heart.
All this is to say, prayer is as much about intention as anything else. Being intentional in our prayer life, expressing gratitude for the small things, has a way of connecting us with the divine, creation, and our own sense of self. What matters is not how you pray, but that you find a way to pray each day. Just as you nurture relationships with a spouse, children, parent, friends, or siblings, take the time to nurture your relationship with God.
Maybe you feel called to keep a list of people or concerns that need prayer. I once had a seminary professor, of the American Baptist persuasion, who said in great seriousness ‘If you tell someone you’ll pray for them, then you better remember to actually pray for them.’ It seems silly, but it is so easy for us to assure a friend or loved one we’ll pray for them, maybe offer up a quick word to God, and then lose track of it. If you are interested in keeping this kind of prayer list - it’s easy - find an old notebook or start a list on your phone. If you are interested in praying for others as a part of your ministry with the church, speak to Molly or myself about getting involved with our prayer circle.
Lastly, I want to leave you with a prayer by Chaplain Kate Braestrup. She writes:
What is Prayer?
… Be awake to the Life that is loving you
and sing your prayer, laugh your prayer,
dance your prayer, run
and weep and sweat your prayer,
sleep your prayer, eat your prayer,
paint, sculpt, hammer and read your prayer,
sweep, dig, rake, drive and hoe your prayer,
garden and farm and build and clean your prayer,
wash, iron, vacuum, sew, embroider and pickle your prayer,
compute, touch, bend and fold but never delete
or mutilate your prayer.
Learn and play your prayer,
work and rest your prayer,
fast and feast your prayer,
argue, talk, whisper, listen and shout your prayer,
groan and moan and spit and sneeze your prayer,
swim and hunt and cook your prayer,
digest and become your prayer.
Release and recover your prayer.
Breathe your prayer.
Be your prayer.2
I hope as we depart this week, that we’ll each find a few minutes to reflect on our prayer practice, and one small way we might continue to deepen that practice. Amen.
1 The information in this paragraph is drawn from Marion J. Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, pages: 89-91
2 Braestrup, Kate. Beginner's Grace: Bringing Prayer to Life, Kindle Edition, page 9, 175-176.
3 Brueggemann, Walter. Prayers for a Privileged People
4 The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pg 857
The Daily Office - Resources
Daily Prayer for All Seasons
This is a favorite prayer resource for Heather & Molly. The book offers brief sets of contemporary prayer for eight times during the day for each liturgical season. The themes are: praise, discernment, wisdom, perseverance and renewal, love, forgiveness, trust, and watch. You can purchase this book online, with a local bookseller, or download a free pdf: www.episcopalchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2021/01/daily_prayer_all_seasons_eng_final_pages_0.pdf
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer
We own a great many copies of the prayer book, and are happy to lend them to folks who would like to use them. They are kept in the right hand upper cupboard of the sound cabinet (unlocked). If you need help finding them, speak to the clergy.
A simple, easy to navigate web version of the prayerbook; ideal for desktops: https://www.bcponline.org/
Electronic Common Prayer
A version of the prayer book for smartphones or tablets. Find in most app stores.
Daily Devotions for Individuals and FamiliesThis may be found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pages 136 - 140. It is a simplified version of the daily office. The Daily Prayer for All Seasons resource was seen as an expansion of these five pages.
The Daily Office:
Instructed Morning Prayer Sermon
You can read a sermon given outlining the Morning Prayer liturgy in detail that Rev. Heather gave in the early days of the pandemic. It is available on our website: https://www.saintsjamesandandrew.org/sermons/instructed-morning-prayer
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer
Consider trying out one of these sets of prayers from the daily office. If you want to start with something simple, try saying Compline in the evening. It has some of the most beautiful prayers in the entire prayerbook.
Digital Daily Office with Forward Movement
Forward Movement has put together a simple and fantastic digital format to engage in prayer Morning, Noon, Evening, or Compline. In addition to the liturgies themselves, they include the daily office readings, their forward day by day reflection on the day’s readings, and they even have an option to maintain a daily prayer list that is local to your device. You can also listen to Morning Prayer being led by another person on their site. https://prayer.forwardmovement.org/home/menu
If you are interested in reading the assigned readings for Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer, you will want to explore the Daily Lectionary:
Praying With Others
The pandemic has meant that thousands of faith communities have taken their worship online, and you can join other parishes for prayer Morning, Noon, Evening, or Compline. You might check out:
Prayers & Thanksgivings
Be sure to check out Prayers and Thanksgivings, which offers prayers for any occasion under the sun in The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, pages 810-841
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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