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.
He came home from the war so it’s not technically his holiday, but I think of my dad on Memorial Day because he loved the parade. The Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts, the high school band, the volunteer firemen (they were all men) and pretty much anybody else who could muster up some kind of uniform turned out to march down the main street of the town where I grew up. The bad boys lined the street with their pea shooters, aiming mostly at the bottoms of the Girl Scouts, and their aim was dead accurate, or at least that was my experience. The cop who manned the crossing at the school down the street from our house was there on the sidelines, his back pocket full of confiscated pea shooters. I’ve often wished I had a picture of that, but the mental image—and the feeling of vindication—is still clear.
I think in my father’s mind it stood for everything he had fought for, everything he’d wanted to come home to. What I realize now is that it represented an America that didn’t fully live up to the ideals of the flags we carried and saluted. There was a lot missing but I didn’t know that then, and sheltered as it was, it was a good place for someone who looked like me to grow up.
Interestingly enough, we never attended the memorial service that followed the parade, and my dad’s comments about the vets who put on their tired old uniforms and marched that day—or rode in convertibles, as the years passed and they, too, grew older—were not all that kind. He could, of course, have qualified for either the American Legion on the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I think I asked him once why he didn’t join. I believe he answered that they were sad men for whom the war was the most meaningful thing that had ever happened to them. After that we didn’t talk about it.
With time on my hands yesterday, I set about a task I’ve been meaning to get to for a while: reading through a collection of the letters he sent home to his mother and three older sisters, one married and living in another state, the other two still living at home (as they would for the rest of their lives). He was 19 years old, and full of enthusiasm. He thanks them for things they sent: new glasses (surely the Army should have taken care of that?), cookies and candy (he always had a sweet tooth), and a little money. His mother sent a dollar, the married sister and her husband sent five, and six bucks made him the richest man in his outfit. His monthly pay was $35.
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 call these two trees the old friends. They were growing in my back yard, side by side at the edge of a pond, when I moved here more than 40 years ago. I don’t know enough about trees to guess how old they were by then. They stand side by side, together enduring whatever weather comes, shedding their leaves each fall and growing new ones in the spring.
Although they’re different species, from some perspectives the two appear to be one tree. Sometimes I think of them as a family, the pair of smaller trees on either side their offspring.
We’ve asked our tree guy if we should be concerned about the health of the darker one standing slightly to the front, but he says no, it’s fine. I hope he’s right because it grows at an angle, leaning toward our house, but the tree guy says the roots are strong.
We moved several times when I was a kid, and I never felt rooted the way other people seemed to be in any of the places I’ve lived. Even now. There’s some sadness for me in that. Other times, though, I’ve just felt glad that I’m not stuck in one place. At least in theory.