Our Epistle reading for Sunday is Paul’s letter to the Roman 8:26-39.
It may be the perfect prayer for our times. Who among us does not need help with our weakness during this troubled time? Sighs too deep for words (tears in some versions of the Bible, groaning in others) are all too familiar these days.
But the reading exhorts us to have faith, because all things work together for those who love God. If God is for us, who can be against us? Paul reminds us that God gave up his only Son for all of us. How can we imagine such love – to give up your only Son?
We can imagine it. Because we know it happened. And we know that Christ intercedes for us, from the right hand of God.
And we know, in one of the most beautiful passages in Scripture, that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Paul then describes all the things that cannot separate us from the love of God: death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth – not anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Reading this passage aloud gives it special resonance and meaning.
Christ loves us. He will intercede for us, even in the most troubled times. And the Holy Spirit is with us always.
Thanks be to God.
Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, one of the most prominent disciples
of Jesus. Eastern Christianity recognizes her as equal to the apostles. Unfortunately the Western churches often downplay her significance. While
she is sometimes depicted in art as a penitent prostitute, there is no basis for identifying her with the “sinful woman” of Luke 7:37.
In her fine book, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault asserts “that we see all four gospels witness to Mary Magdalene as the premiere witness to the resurrection—alone or in a group, but in all cases by name. Given the shifting sands of oral history, the unanimity of this testimony is astounding.” She is the first witness to Christ’s resurrection and the first to announce it publicly.
As Bourgeault observes, “when all the other disciples are fleeing, Mary Magdalene stands firm. She does not run; she does not betray or lie about her commitment; she witnesses. Hers is clearly a demonstration of either the deepest human love or the highest spiritual understanding of what Jesus was teaching, perhaps both.”
How can we stand firm as witnesses to the resurrection?
Today’s Kalendar commemorates as “liberators and prophets” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Ross Tubman. Stanton and Bloomer were white women and Truth and Tubman were African American women. All were powerful advocates of justice and of hope for reform in 19th C. America. They were compelling public speakers, first engaging in the movement to abolish slavery and later in helping to found the movement for women’s rights, including rights to property, to the value of one’s labor, and to the right to vote. All of these had been denied by law to women as well as being denied to the African American slaves. Each of these women faced opposition—indeed derision—and each was a deeply committed Christian. They saw their work for human dignity and freedom as action on behalf of God’s desire for right relationships among God’s people. Their example from the past continues to inspire us in our own day.
Here is the collect for today’s commemoration:
O God, whose Spirit guides us into all truth and makes us free: Strengthen and sustain us as you did your servants Elizabeth, Amelia, Sojourner, and Harriet. Give us vision and courage to stand against oppression and injustice and all that works against the glorious liberty to which you call all your children; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today the Church remembers William White, Bishop of Pennsylvania, who died on this day in 1836 at the age of 88. Born in Philadelphia in 1748, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1772 at the age of 24. In addition to ministering to the United Parishes of St. Peter’s and Christ Church in Philadelphia from his ordination until his death, he was the chaplain to the Continental and Constitutional Congresses and the Senate from 1777 to 1801.
On February 4, 1787, in Lambeth Chapel, London, he was ordained bishop by John Moore, Archbishop of Canterbury. After his ordination, he immediately returned home and became the first Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. White served as Presiding Bishop for 67 days in 1789, and again from 1795 until his death in Philadelphia in 1836, the longest term of any Presiding Bishop.
Bishop White was known to be a prayerful and scholarly man and earned the confidence of prominent leaders in both America and England. He worked tirelessly and effectively to establish an autonomous American Episcopal Church, one that was manifestly the Body of Christ, free of ties perceived to be national or political. As a shepherd, White’s prayer led to action. He demonstrated a commitment to serving the poor. He was president of the Philadelphia Dispensary, an organization that supplied medical aid to those in need; of the Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf; and of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. He was an advocate for religious education and was instrumental in the formation of the first Episcopal Sunday school in America.
Let us pray with him this day, as he did in closing a sermon he gave in Christ-Church, Philadelphia, on June 21, 1787:
Come Divine Spirit, the author of all grace! pour into our hearts that most excellent grace of all, which "believeth, hopeth, and endureth all things![i]" May this thy blessed unction flow down upon us from the High Priest of our profession, and may it spread its delicious scent over every part of his mystical garment! Thus shall it be "like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down unto the beard, even unto Aaron's beard, and went down to the skirts of his clothing[ii].
[i] I Corinthians 13:7
[ii] Psalm 133:3
This part of our liturgical year is Ordinary Time. “Ordinary,” from the Latin word ordinals, refers to the fact that Sundays are numbered after Pentecost. It begins with the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, the first Sunday after Pentecost, which closes the Christmas season. Ordinary Time continues for 33 or 34 Sundays (depending on the date of Easter, which varies). It’s the longest season in our liturgical year.
Though it’s called Ordinary, it’s really an extraordinary opportunity. As Trinity Church Wall Street puts it, it’s the time when “Christ walks among us and transforms our lives.”
Jonathan Edwards, New England preacher, president of the College of New Jersey, later Princeton University (and grandfather of Aaron Burr), exclaimed in a sermon “how much good opportunity [the season] presents to do good.”
During Ordinary Time, we’re invited and encouraged to learn about Jesus’ discipleship, and the lessons he teaches us through the Gospels. In last week’s Gospel, in this week’s,
and next, there are parables of seeds and sowers.
Seeds – things that grow. Growth that sustains us with food, surrounds us with beauty and hope. We, too, can be things that grow during this season. Let us mediate on the Gospels. Let us ruminate on the meanings of Jesus’ teaching. Let us draw closer to him through prayer.
In these extraordinarily difficult times, it may seem as if our prayers are not answered. That was a question asked during Mother Sarah Coakley’s “Deepening Prayer during a time of Pandemic and Social Unrest” last Sunday. Fr. Martin Smith responded with tapestry. Threads go from the front of a tapestry to behind it. Then they emerge in a very different, beautiful place. He said that our prayers are like those threads. We offer them to God, who uses them to create his beautiful works – sometimes in very different places. God can do extraordinary things with our prayers.
Thanks be to God.
Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, who teaches at Vanderbilt Divinity School, identifies three orders of suffering that afflict people today.
First order suffering, which accompanies the human condition, includes illness, death, and grief.
Second order suffering is distress caused by human behavior that may be collective or individual, indirect or direct.
Third order suffering is a new variety that comes when people find themselves spiritually homeless, left to their own devices to deal with distress. Third order suffering often goes unrecognized as suffering, even by its victims.
Rogers-Vaughn identifies the combination of third order suffering and its distortions of the first and second orders as something terribly widespread,
“the new chronic” characteristic of our world. This new chronic is rooted in
extreme, pervasive individualism and produces isolating, calculating, and deadening forms of existence.
What ways of care are available to counteract this new chronic? Rogers-Vaughn believes that the primary resource is healthy collectives and movements (including faith communities) that aid people to find their footing, that embody the care of soul. These collectives do not give precise measurements for the future, but provide spaces where we can safely listen together in hope.
In times of prosperity the Biblical prophets pronounced harsh criticism of the status quo. In times of turmoil and difficulty the prophets’ statements turned to reassurance of God’s love and support for God’s people. A wonderful example of the latter comes from the prophet Isaiah:
“Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” (Isaiah 30-20-21)
Presently we are certainly experiencing times of adversity and affliction. Even though Isaiah’s words were addressed to ancient Israel long ago they speak directly to our condition today. They assure us that even as we are faced with difficult choices to make in situations of uncertainty, God has not abandoned us but is still supporting and guiding us. As we take each new step forward we can listen carefully for God’s voice, telling us individually and in community, “This is the way; walk in it.”
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.
The Rev. Frederick Erickson, a retired university professor,