Our reading for Sunday is from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It’s one that we’ll read a lot during this Ordinary time.
It’s also Paul’s last letter (as far as we know). Unlike the rest of his Letters, it was not written to a congregation that he founded. Rather, it was to introduce himself to the large exiled Jewish community in Rome. That community was predominantly Christian, and the center of the civilized world at that time. Written in Greek, the common language for educated people of that time, it uses the diatribe – questions that are meant to elicit comment and opinion from those hearing it. (Letters, in those times, were read aloud to house churches. Worship took place in homes, before formal houses of worship were established.) Paul hoped to preach to the Roman congregation (and to seek support from them for a journey to Spain). Though some scholars dispute the length, it is his longest letter.
In it, Paul seems to have resolved some questions that he wrestled with in earlier letters. He makes no distinction between Jewish and Christian. He also discourses eloquently on the Spirit and the law, placing the Spirit in context of living under the law. He draws distinctions between living under the law and living under the Spirit, as he does in this week’s reading.
Sadly, Paul’s journey to Rome ended in his execution in 64 or 67. But the gift of his Letters is still with us, educating us and informing us on our faith journey.
Thanks be to God.
Raised on a hardscrabble Texas farm, W. F. Hightower, nicknamed High, came of age during the Great Depression. High was not at all philosophical, but would sometimes express his political beliefs by saying, “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”
In recent decades, public conversation in America has shifted. We talk little about society and much about the economy. The economy seems to have taken on a life of its own. Preoccupied by incessant economic challenges, we ignore the common good the economy exists to serve.
Sabbath observance was a powerful institution among the Jews in the time of Jesus. At its best, it celebrated God’s gifts of life, freedom, and rest. The sabbath was a great equalizer, kept by rich and poor in the same ways. But sometimes sabbath observance was distorted and became oppressive. So Jesus had to declare that the sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath.
In twenty-first century America, we must recall that the economy was made for humans, not humans for the economy. We can experience again how everybody does better when everybody does better.
Two weeks ago while chopping an onion I sliced into the index finger of my left hand. It bled quite a lot. I bandaged it tightly and went to a local walk-in medical facility to have it examined and treated. Right away the nurse took the bandage off and ran lots of water on the cut, which started its bleeding again. Then she poured a healthy amount of rubbing alcohol on it, and that stung for a while as the bleeding continued. (This is called “irrigating a wound.”) Later a physician examined and bandaged the finger. The wound has now healed well, with no infection.
Since then I’ve realized that what happened with my finger is akin to what happens with Biblical prophecy. Jesus and the Hebrew prophets before Him made pronouncements that were intended as a means toward healing. Prophets were not so much predictors of the future as they were analysts and commentators on what was going on currently in people’s relationships with God and with one another—what was wounded that needed to be healed, beginning with irrigation of the wounds. If the prophets were true and not false what they said offended people. (Jesus said, “A prophet is without honor in his own land.” Mark 6.4) It was the false prophets who said, “Everything is fine just as it is.” The true prophets said, “Here’s what’s wrong with what’s happening now and here’s how it needs to change.” Ouch.
Our customary lives have been profoundly disturbed by the viral pandemic, economic disruption, and social protest and this has become a time of deep and frightening questioning. How are we to live in society—how are we to live in the Church? Everyday routines are interrupted and taken for granted assumptions are challenged. Voices of prophecy surround us, some true and some false. What’s being said can hurt a lot—like alcohol on an open wound. Yet we need not be afraid to listen to prophetic critique even when it stings in the moment. If it’s true prophecy it’s a message that God loves us and is ultimately concerned for our well being, which is like what the nurse did first off with my cut finger. She cleansed it thoroughly, thus preparing it for healing.
This Saturday, we celebrate the Feast of the founder of Western Monasticism. Benedict of Nursia was born in about AD 480 and died in about AD 543. Sent to Rome to study, he found life there abhorrent, and retreated to the countryside. There, he became a hermit, known for his miracles and good works. The monastic community near his hermitage begged him to become their abbot. That community became the Benedictine Monastery in Monte Cassio, Italy.
There he developed the Holy Rule of St. Benedict. Based on Ora et Labora (Pray and Work), it prescribed eight hours a day for prayer, eight hours a day for work and eight hours a day for sleep.
Today, 1500 years later, his Rules are still used in Benedictine monasteries and convents around the world. Benedictine communities base their collective lives on prayer, work, study, hospitality and renewal.
But the Rules are not just for clergy.
Benedictine groups around the country offer retreats, annual symposia and Benedictine Way Groups. Lay people can immerse themselves in simple rhythms of living that follow the Benedictine rules.
Ora et Labora – good principles to inform our lives today.
The coming July 4 holiday brings with it the question of how best to pray for
our nation. This anonymous prayer, only lightly edited since it appeared in an Episcopal Church publication more than fifty years ago, is one I have found very durable. If it proves useful for you, you may wish to share it with others.
Prayer for Sound Government
Almighty God, heavenly Father,
we ask you to bless our country,
that it may be a blessing to the world.
Help us to adopt aims and policies
that are in accordance with your will.
May we see ourselves as others see us,
and avoid self-deception and hypocrisy.
Lead us to sound government,
equal justice in law,
and incorruptible news media.
Grant us a true sense of fairness
in our dealings with one another,
and a spirit of service
that will banish pride of place
and give equality of opportunity to all.
This we ask in the name of the One
who taught that only the truth
can make us free,
your child Jesus Christ our Savior.
Today’s Kalendar commemorates Saints Peter and Paul together as apostles (ones who are sent). In the first generation of missionaries after the life of Jesus, Peter and Paul stood out as the most influential, inspiring and supporting converts from Palestine and beyond, ultimately traveling to martyrdom all the way to Rome.
They were by no means perfect. Peter at first bumbled as a disciple, misunderstanding Jesus and denying Him at the time of His arrest. Paul at first persecuted the earliest followers of Jesus and in later life most likely was not a winsome dinner companion. Yet in spite of their flaws God was able to use Peter and Paul in proclaiming God’s Good News to the whole world, as they knew it then. They were well aware of their limitations. As Paul said in writing to the newly established Church in Corinth (2 Cor. 4.7) “But we have this treasure in clay jars so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” A sense of unworthiness to be “sent” goes back in our Judeo-Christian heritage all the way to Moses, who said in response to God’s call to confront the ruler of Egypt: “Since I am unskilled in speech, why would Pharaoh listen to me?” (Ex. 6.30)
You and I are not perfect either. Yet God calls us today to join our forebears in apostolic witness. Why would anyone listen to us? What could we say, or do? Our tradition very consistently shows God as a great risk-taker, entrusting to fallible humans the office of proclaiming God’s Good News by word and deed in each successive generation of new witnesses. It doesn’t matter that we are the most ordinary of recruits for mission. Even clay jars can bear God’s treasure. In fact, that’s the point. Apostles are sent forth as clay jars so that it’s clear that the treasure they carry is God’s, not their own.
This past Wednesday, June 24, was the feast of the “Nativity of Saint John the Baptist”. That we celebrate his birth may seem surprising or obscure or irrelevant. Upon closure pondering, however, we realize that we witness the gratuitous loving action of God. John was called—completely unaware, of course!—and filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb. Wait a minute: Jesus had not yet come, and does not Jesus, along with the Father, give the Holy Spirit?!? Well, God gives freely and unconditionally and with generosity beyond measure.
I share with you with a meditation full of awe for this feast day from the early Church, by Saint Maximus of Turin († 5th century), the first Bishop of Turin, Italy, and an outstanding biblical scholar and preacher.
The Wonders of Saint John the Baptist
In praise of the holy and most blessed John the Baptist, whose birthday we celebrate today, I do not know what is the most important thing that we should preach—that he was wonderfully born or more wonderfully slain. For he was born as a prophecy and murdered for truth; by his birth he announced the coming of the Savior and by his death he condemned the incest of Herod. For this holy and righteous man, who was born in an uncommon way as the result of a promise, merited from God that he should depart this world by an uncommon death, that he should lay aside his body, which he had received as a gift from the Lord, by confessing the Lord. Therefore John did everything by the will of God, since he was born and died for the sake of God’s work….
This too seems unworthy to pass over in silence in praise of John—that, not yet born, already he prophesies and, while still in the enclosure of his mother’s womb, confesses the coming of Christ with movements of joy since he could not do so with his voice. For Elizabeth says to holy Mary: As soon as you greeted me, the child in my womb exulted for joy. John exults, then, before he is born, and before his eyes can see what the world looks like he can recognize the Lord of the world with his spirit. In this regard I think that the prophetic phrase is apropos which says: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you came forth from the womb I sanctified you. Thus we ought not to marvel that, after he was put in prison by Herod, from his confinement he continued to announce Christ to his disciples, when even confined in the womb he preached the same Lord by his movements.
St. Paul, author of the letter to Romans in this Sunday’s liturgy, may have felt that he was a failure. Once a Pharisee, a group charged with repression of Jewish Christians, who threatened certain legal traditions of Judaism, Paul was a “zealous” persecutor of Jewish Christians – until his conversion. Then, his journey began.
He traveled many, many miles (as mentioned in last Thursday’s Reflection) to preach the Gospel. At that time, there were about 74 sects of Judaism and countless cults and pagan gods. Scripture tells us that Paul was chased from Ephesus by silversmiths who made their living by selling silver statues of the pagan god Diana.
Paul believed in parousia – that Christ Jesus would return in his lifetime. (Some scholars believe that the Gospels were written to preserve the teachings of Jesus as those who knew him personally began to die out.) Hopes of parousia faded away. After fourteen years of traveling and preaching, he was finally imprisoned in Rome, where he wrote his last two letters, to the Philippians and to Philemon. Paul died in Rome.
Paul may have felt that his life’s work was in vain.
Yet, centuries later, Paul was hailed. John Donne, English poet, scholar, soldier and priest, called him “thunder.” Martin Luther wrote that he had “betrothed himself to Galatians; it is my wife.” Sigmund Freud, a noted atheist, said that “Paul stands alone in history.”
Persistence. Faith. Love of Christ Jesus. Paul’s love of Jesus Christ survived and eventually thrived. Thanks be to God.
Today’s collect for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist mentions his wondrous birth as recounted in Luke’s Gospel. It then summons us to follow his teaching and example. The Church thinks very highly of John the Baptist. Jesus does also. He says of his cousin that nobody is naturally greater than him.
But Jesus goes on to say that John’s greatness is exceeded by the least in the kingdom of heaven. What can we make of this?
In Richard Rohr’s phrase, John was a first half of life person. He condemned social evils at great cost to himself. He was harsh and accurate in doing so. Part of John’s greatness was that he pointed beyond himself. He was a bold and wild
witness to the light.
Jesus takes us further. God’s kingdom is not a matter of getting everything right. It is the realm where forgiveness and mercy prevail, where sinners do not get what they deserve, but experience a transformation they cannot deserve.
John paves the highway; Jesus is the destination.
We honor John best when we allow him to point us to Jesus.
The Rev. Frederick Erickson, a retired university professor,