St. Augustine’s Episcopal Parish, January 31, 2016
As most of you probably know, I returned earlier this week from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On January 13th, four other priests from our diocese and I joined about thirty pilgrims from the dioceses of Northern California and Olympia, Washington for an 11-day journey that took us to a wide variety of places throughout Israel and the West Bank. We visited churches and archaeological sites, which are often one in the same, around Galilee, Bethlehem, Jericho, and Jerusalem. We listened to many different voices, Anglican priests who are both Arab Palestinians and Israeli citizens, Orthodox and secular Jewish settlers, peace activists from both sides of the conflict, several prominent rabbis, and, of course, our Arab Israeli Catholic guide from Jerusalem who was with us at every step.
I’m grateful for the voices that have been present here in my absence, for Fr. Robert Berra, Julie Carson, and Fr. Ernest, all of whom covered the last two Sundays for me, not to mention the many who faithfully continued ministering in an amazing diversity of ways over the last couple weeks. It is a gift to know that our community is in such good hands while the vicar’s away. Thank you.
I honestly didn’t have very clear expectations of what my experience would be like in the Holy Land, but one thing I definitely did not expect to encounter was the presence of so many Roman Catholic churches built up around the sites where significant episodes in Jesus’ life and ministry are traditionally believed to have taken place. All of these churches are associated with a religious order, and several of them have religious communities living on site. Whether it’s the Franciscans, who have functioned as the Roman Catholic custodians of the Holy Land since the time of St. Francis in the 13th Century, the Carmelites, the Little Sisters of Jesus, or, my favorite, of course, the Benedictines, hardly any site of a Gospel event is not enclosed by a church that displays the piety of that particular order. For example, I discovered on our last evening in Galilee that our accommodations were associated with the German Benedictine monastery attached to the Church of the Multiplication, which is built over the rock it is believed Jesus used as a table as he broke the loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand. I was able to walk over and join the monks for Vespers that night, which was completely in German, but entirely familiar nonetheless to me as a fellow Benedictine.
Almost every evening, after a long day, several of us would gather in the hotel bar for refreshments and to process our experience. One topic that arose early on in our trip concerned the sacredness of things and how we recognize and commemorate their holiness. What makes a place or a thing holy? Are they sacred because something important happened there or because they’re somehow imbued with magical powers? What is the value of pilgrimage to the holy sites where Jesus lived and moved and worked? Does the pilgrim receive some blessing or other benefit from physically being in these places or touching these things? And what about those who have moved there or those whose families can trace their lines back into the ancient history of the Holy Land? How do these sacred places and holy things reflect upon them? Are these people particularly special and holy because they come from a particularly special and holy place?
It seems to me that these sorts of questions are not new to the Holy Land. In fact, our Gospel today shows Jesus to be quite familiar with the topics of specialness and holiness as they apply to places and people.
In today’s Gospel we find Jesus in the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth reading from Isaiah and taking up, in no uncertain terms, as Julie pointed out last week, the mantle of the Messianic kingdom. He does it with a one-sentence sermon, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Notice that here in Luke’s Gospel the people of Nazareth do not immediately take offense at what Jesus has to say. The text says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’” The townspeople seem pretty keen on the idea that the Messiah is one of their own. Who can blame them? They’re from a poor village in an occupied land. It’s a big deal to have someone loyal to you and your interests in the seat of power. People actually pay a lot of money to find themselves in that situation. And what’s more, Messianic power isn’t merely political or economic; it’s the power of divine anointing and sacred significance that turns the tables on everything. The people of Nazareth were delighted by the prospect of Jesus’ Messianic identity reflecting the light of holy importance upon them.
But despite their understandable desire for their fortunes to change, Jesus won’t let them possess the sacred. He takes away their hope that his vocation as God’s anointed is for their sake and for their benefit by recounting stories to show that God is free to act anywhere and for anyone. The widow at Sidon and Naaman the Syrian are examples of those who benefitted from God’s actions when the people of Israel, the home team in desperate need of help, did not. Jesus is essentially saying to the people of Nazareth, “I know your struggles, but just because I come from here and you know my family does not increase your sanctity nor entitle you to special divine favor.” This is what fills all in the synagogue with rage.
What makes a place or a thing sacred? How ought we recognize and mark its holiness? I wonder if every community, on one level or another, isn’t led astray by the same temptation we see at play in Nazareth. In our search for meaning and significance it’s tempting to limit the scope of the sacred to a particular place or a certain thing, to something manageable and graspable and, most importantly, ours. We like to have a line on what’s good and true, and it helps if it reflects well back upon us. In this season of Annual Meetings, it’s tempting for churches to point to themselves rather than to point through themselves to the true site of sacred significance. Where there’s life and hope and positive energy in a church community, like there is here at St. Augustine’s, it’s important that we recognize its source in the very life of God flowing through us and not mistake that source for the work of our hands.
Ah, but how do we resist this temptation? When we recognize the holiness of a thing or a place or a person, how do we remember that God alone is holy, that things are sacred because they point beyond themselves to the presence of that which is truly sacred?
I offer that we resist the temptation to possess the sacred by practicing awareness of its presence already within us. When we recognize within ourselves the gracious presence of the God whose presence makes a thing or a place holy, our need to own and control the place or thing seems silly and delusional.
I think this is one way of reading St. Paul’s famous poetic treatise on love in 1 Corinthians 13. God’s presence in our lives is the presence of love, God is love, after all, according to another apostle, and we practice awareness of that presence by practicing love. As 1 Corinthians 13 begins, all the outward signs of holiness amount to nothing without the presence of love. I can hear St. Paul’s words re-voiced for pilgrims to the Holy Land: “If I walk the shores of Galilee and climb the holy mountain, but am not aware of God’s presence already with me, I’m just a tourist taking pictures and buying souvenirs.” And I wonder what Paul might have composed for our congregation on this occasion of our Annual Meeting: “If we fully fund our budget and create dynamic ministries, but have not love, we’re just another non-profit organization providing a worthwhile public service.”
What makes a thing or a place sacred? The presence of God that a place or a thing signifies. How do we resist the temptation to possess and control holy things or places? By practicing the awareness of God’s holy presence already within us, by practicing love, by practicing being who we truly are: holy people.