In the name of the one holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.
I was sorely tempted during this pandemic to get myself a pandemic dog.
We had had a wonderful family dog who died about a dozen years ago. And I remember so well how good it was just to be sitting with her, to have her at your feet while you were reading, to have her jump up onto the couch—which wasn’t really allowed, but which we all permitted anyway—to have her sit next to you, and lean into you. To feel the comfort of the warmth of her body against yours.
And she had a knack for knowing when you especially needed to be comforted. And I really missed that and I thought about it, but in the end, I didn’t do it. I was looking ahead to a time when we might not be in isolation, and I wanted the freedom to be able to come and go without worrying about the dog. And I remember hearing someone say once—and this sounds terrible, but there’s some truth to it—that true freedom begins when the kids leave home and the dog dies.
But I at least was fortunate to have my family around me, my husband, my son and his wife, and my two little granddaughters. They were with us for weeks and months at a time. So that time together was really one of the blessings of the pandemic for me, to be close to them, to be in their presence, but not everyone was so lucky.
Today we have the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. What a lovely story it is. One that we preachers just love to preach on. It makes an especially great children’s message, don’t you think? I think that the shock of this story, the absolute horror, is so overwhelming that it almost invites us not to take it seriously, not to pay attention to it. What’s the moral here? None of us are beheaders. None of us are at any risk, I don’t think, of doing something like this. So okay, the lesson is what? Don’t be mean? Okay. Move on. That’s it.
But I think that actually there is some meat here for us to consider, that’s worth dwelling on. Not the brutal details, but something deeper than that. And one way to approach a story like this and reflect on it is to imaginatively put yourself in the scene, in the story, and to think about, which character would you be if you were one of the players in this story? That’s what I’ve been reflecting on this past week—who would I be in this story—but before I talk about that, I want to talk a little about the backstory here.
The king is named Herod, but this is not the same Herod who tried to get the Wise Wen to tell him where they found the baby they had come to see. And when he failed, he decided to solve it by having all the children under two years old killed. This is not that Herod. That’s Herod the Great. This is his son, Herod Antipas. Herod the Great died not long after the birth of Jesus and his son took over. And his wife is named Herodias.
When I was preparing to preach today I took down a book that I really like. It’s called Jesus Freak[i], by a woman named Sara Miles. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She’s a mid-life convert to Christian faith and she writes in a very contemporary style, but I think she has the ability to get right down to the essence of the Gospel message. Take the subtitle of this book: Feeding, healing, raising the dead. That pretty much sums up what Christ’s mission on earth was all about, and we get two out of the three in today’s Gospel: healing, and raising the dead.
This Gospel is the story of Jesus’ healing a young girl and an older woman, and it’s classic Mark. We get two stories in one, told very directly, but all of the details are so important. Jesus steps off the boat, he’s just crossed the sea of Galilee. The crowds are there waiting for him. They want to be in his presence. They want his healing touch.
Today’s crowd includes this synagogue leader, Jairus, who’s quite a prestigious person in this society, and the unknown woman with an illness that the doctors have not been able to help. In fact, she’s spent all her money on doctoring, and the only thing that’s been happening is it’s getting worse. Desperate, she comes to Jesus.
Back when my son was little there was a special story he would ask us to tell him at bedtime. It wasn’t anything from a book. Maybe you told your children your own version of this story, if you have kids, or maybe someone told it to you when you were little, and if so, you were blessed.
The story begins like this:
Once upon a time, there were two people who loved each other very much …
You probably can figure out the rest. It’s a story about love, about how true love always wants to be shared. It begins with two individuals who become a couple, and they go on to make a family that includes the little person in footie pajamas who’s listening and slowly relaxing into sleep.
In order to thrive, our children need to know that they’re loved. And it might be a stretch—but not too big a stretch, I think–to say that this is the same story St. Paul is telling in this morning’s reading from the letter to the Romans, where he talks about the spirit of adoption that makes us children of God, makes us part of God’s family.
We all need to know that we’re loved, and that love is the very nature of our God—a love we can trust as children of God.
This morning I want to tell you a story that’s a little different from the usual because it’s about a place rather than a person. It’s a story from the New Testament, but it doesn’t stand alone. It runs like a thread through several other stories, but today I want to tell it straight through on its own. I want to think about how much this place meant to the people who sheltered there.
I’m talking about the Upper Room, which is also sometimes called the Cenacle, where the disciples were gathered on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came to them in the form of rushing wind and tongues of fire.
This room had been so important to them. It had been a refuge—a place of safety—and also a place of prayer. It’s a place where they were changed, so they were never the same once they left it behind.
The first time we hear about the Upper Room is when Jesus tells his people to talk to a certain man in Jerusalem about using a large upstairs room at his house for the Passover meal. And the man lends them the space they ask for, and that’s where they have their last supper together.
So it’s where Jesus blesses bread and wine and tells his friends to keep doing this exact thing, in his memory.
Friends, we find ourselves today in an in-between time, a time between what was in the past, and what will be in the future. We’re between the world as we knew it, and the world as it’s going to be, and it’s like being poised on a threshold between two different places, but in this case we can’t turn back. We can’t go back to the way things were, and there’s nothing we can do to make the future come any faster.
All we can do is wait.
And I know you might think I’m talking about the pandemic, or the way things are in the world in general, and of course those things do come to mind.
But I’m also talking about our life in church. Today we find ourselves in an in-between time, the time on the calendar of the church year between Ascension Thursday, which was last week, and the Feast of Pentecost, which is next Sunday. On the Feast of the Ascension we remember the day when Jesus Christ departed this earth in his human body, and on Feast of Pentecost we celebrate the dramatic arrival of the Holy Spirit in the form of tongues of fire and rushing wind as the dispirited disciples waited in Jerusalem.
And in that time between, the disciples were waiting, not knowing what was coming next.
And I wonder how that must have felt for them. After the devastation of the crucifixion, and the unexpected joy of the resurrection, they must have hoped that Jesus would stay with them for a while. And that in-between time, the time before they became aware of the strength and comfort of the Holy Spirit—the power of the Holy Spirit—that must have been a very sad and lonely time for them.
“This is my commandment,” Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
As I have loved you. That really is the kicker in this commandment to love, which at first glance sounds rather pleasant, because who doesn’t want to love and be loved? But to love as Jesus loved—to lay down one’s life for one’s friends—that’s something else again.
You don’t often hear of someone giving up their life for their friends, although of course it does sometimes happen. This past week when I was reflecting on that line from the Gospel I found myself thinking about story of Jonathan Daniels and Ruby Sales.
I think I mentioned in one of my Holy Week sermons that Ruby Sales had led a Bible study for the diocese this Lent on Zoom back. She’s a middle-aged woman now, and I couldn’t help wondering what you would do with your life if you knew that someone else had given up his own so that you might live.
Which is an interesting question—right?—because that is exactly what we say we believe about ourselves.
Anyway, Jonathan Daniels[i] and Ruby Sales. You might have heard their story, since the Episcopal Church does remember Daniels each year on August 14 in our calendar of commemorations.
He was a native of Keene, New Hampshire, valedictorian for the Class of 1961 at Virginia Military Academy, and a seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he felt called in 1965 to go South and get involved in the civil rights movement.
First of all, I want to warn you up front: I’m going to invite you to share some sermon-related thoughts of your own this morning via the comments box on Facebook. This will be voluntary, of course, but if you think you might want to play along at home, have your keyboard ready.
I’ll even give you a rough idea now of what I’m going to ask. In general, it’s about what we’ve learned over the past 13 months about continuing as a community when we can’t be together in person.
What have we learned about that? What lessons has this pandemic taught us?
I’ve been seeing a lot of articles along those lines lately, as the vaccines roll out and as things begin to ease up a little. Articles about what we’ve learned. What have we learned about what really matters in life? What do we appreciate more now than we did before?
I saw a blurb last week for an article about things that people started doing during the pandemic that they want to keep doing when it’s over. It mentioned three things in particular: cooking at home, telecommuting, and wearing soft pants.
I’m going to say something that would no doubt shock some of my church friends if they heard it, but I feel like Easter is over.
At my house, it was just the two of us this year. We didn’t dye eggs, we didn’t have much candy, we had no ham or lamb leftovers. So at home, we’re done, we’re finished, Easter is over.
But here in church, the season of Easter continues until Pentecost, until the end of May. And just in case I forgot about that, I got an email last week from Episcopal Church headquarters with the subject line “Easter joy continues.” Well, I opened it in great anticipation, but it did not turn out to be a spiritual greeting, it was just a reminder that I still have time to contribute to the church’s annual appeal. So we have all kinds of ways of celebrating the things that matter in church—in church, where it is still Easter.
And in fact we’re really just getting started in telling the Easter story. This morning’s Gospel was still about that very first day, the day of the Resurrection. It comes from the last chapter of Luke, Chapter 24, which really focuses on just that one day, as the disciples struggle to understand what is going on here.
If the Gospel were drama, you could think of the story that we heard this morning as a play in two short acts, both taking place on the same very simple set, the room where Jesus and his disciples gathered the night before Jesus died.
The first act takes place on the evening of the same day that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and found it empty. And the second takes place exactly one week later, when Jesus returns and shows Thomas his wounds. It might seem like a very bare-bones story, but there’s a lot going on here.
And one question in particular stood out for me as I thought about it over the past week in this year of Our Lord 2021:
Why did the resurrected body of Jesus still bear the wounds of his crucifixion?