May 17, 2020, Scripture Readings and Sermon
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Incline your ear to me;
make haste to deliver me.
3 Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe,
for you are my crag and my stronghold;
for the sake of your Name, lead me and guide me.
4 Take me out of the net that they have secretly set for me,
for you are my tower of strength.
5 Into your hands I commend my spirit,
for you have redeemed me,
O Lord, O God of truth.
My times are in your hand;
rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
and from those who persecute me.
Make your face to shine upon your servant,
and in your loving-kindness save me."
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”
Sermon: Standing with Joseph
As I have shared with you before, I was born right in Boston and spent my entire youth in a solidly middle class, aspirational suburb just on the edge of the city. My Father was a World War II veteran and an insurance salesman, and my Mother was a transplant from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. They were quietly and diligently hopeful, and they were steadily working on some kind of modest respectability, upward mobility, good education, and social formation for my brother, my sister, and me. And like many such suburbs then (and no doubt now), the all-white town was essentially segregated, not so much along racial lines (since there were no races to segregate in that all-white town) but along religious lines. There was clearly a “Protestant” side of town and there was clearly a “Catholic” side of town, though of course that was never overtly stated or so named. On the one hand, there were gigantic and bursting Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist parishes, and on the other hand there were two even more massive and more fully jammed Catholic churches. Lastly, tucked down by Route 128 there was a so-called “Jewish Neighborhood” to round out the ecclesiastical apartheid then firmly in place.
Though we all crossed paths in the public schools I attended, in many other ways the various twains rarely if ever met. There were the Masons and there were the Knights of Columbus and there was Hillel. There was DeMolay and there was the CYO, especially prominent in youth sports. There was The Junior League and there was the Ladies Sodality and there was Hadassah. All did good work, in their own limited way, with their own audience if you will, but rarely if ever did we intersect or interact. And quite frankly, it being the mid-1960s or thereabouts, no one seemed to think much about it.
One of my enduring memories from that boyhood and from that town was the strange, almost secretive language that we used, as a kind of mockery or as an identifier. I won’t go into all of that here, parts of which are so disgraceful and shameful and evil in retrospect that it is breathtaking even to think about. But there was also one enduring, physical symbol which shaped me forever and which, as I will get to in a moment, very much shapes me to this day: Quite frequently, in and around the so-called ‘Catholic neighborhoods’, there would be a small garden or mini grotto, or perhaps just a stand-alone statue. You’ve seen them. They were extremely common in metropolitan Boston back then and perhaps still are now - white statues or statuettes of the Virgin Mary, protected or covered by a kind of arch or apse, almost always light blue in color, and almost always, in some way, lit up at night or even during the day. In our most sneering and derisive way, we kids (and not a few parents) referred to these as “Mary on the Half Shell.” We snickered a lot, and thought ourselves clever and superior, but in the end, it was, and it is Mary who had and who still has the last laugh.
And then there came the great, exciting, and to my parents’ generation unnerving “ecumenical movement.” Old walls slowly fell, old barriers slowly decayed, ancient and abiding prejudices got chipped away at. Local political offices changed, economic mobility made for neighborhood movement. Town Meeting and the Selectmen faced questions that were more complex, diverse, confusing at the time, and yet clearly reflecting a changing world. Vatican II had opened the Catholic Church to new liturgies, vernacular language, folk masses and acoustic music. The Episcopal Church faced the long overdue reality of fully including women. The Jewish Community were regularly and periodically brought into focus due to wars and conflict in the Middle East, the struggles of Israel, and the kids missing from school on High Holy Days such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. And while our prejudice and language and unspoken biases and foolish superstitions still reared their immature heads, there was no turning back. Whatever demonization of ‘The Other’, whatever false sense of superiority or choseness, whatever unspoken bastions remained such as at the Tennis Club or The DAR, God was stirring a rich, sumptuous, and ultimately delicious melting pot. And all of us were together now in the celestial kitchen.
To jump ahead, all of this came fully and widely and greatly to the fore when I finally left for seminary in the mid 1980s. And it was there that so much of this was not only studied but, much more importantly, it was lived. I went to a non-denominational divinity school and one of my singular joys during that often hard time was to arrive at class, in a new semester, a class on just about any subject, and to find myself sitting among other seekers and students and dreamers – not just Protestants of all stripes, but Catholics too. And Muslims, Jews, Pentecostals, hard core Evangelicals and millenialists. Charismatics, and tongue speakers, and Latin scholars, and Southern Baptists of every shape. Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Universalists, Christian Science. The whole of God’s creation was there, and so was I. And one of the great, though mostly unspoken challenges, was to let go of any sense that my upbringing and my “churchmanship” (to use the old term) and my theology was somehow more right or better or more triumphant than anyone else’s. It was a great, life changing time of both self-discovery and self-affirmation. It was here, of all unlikely places, that I explored my relationship with Jesus more deeply and more truly and more honestly than ever before, not least with the help of those whose experience and views were different from mine. It was precisely because I was in a complex world, a place where Christianity was not taken for granted or assumed to be the only answer, that I too had to let go of what I took for granted and to dig deeper in to what I could own, hold, trust, believe in, defend, and love. By myself and alone, I was always an expert; in and among the beautiful tapestry of others and of a wider world, a place where I was and am but one of 7 billion human beings, the unexamined life could not support, sustain, or save me.
Ultimately, in all of this, there was a winnowing. Yes, sometimes it felt like the fiery furnace of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. At other times I felt like Jonah, running from the call of God. And still other times, I felt a surreal, otherworldly comfort in coming to terms with God’s love and care for me, and with the truth that my path and my walk was just that – mine, alongside others. Always personal and yet never alone. Always with God, even when I tried my hardest not to let God into my life. But who did I come back to, over and over again? Yes, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and to one other person – yup, you’ve guessed it by now: I came back to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Why was that?
And so the question remains: To what was I returning? To whom? Was I running toward something or was I running away from something? And if so, from what? What was going on here?
All questions, yet to be reflected upon, soon enough.
~ End of Part 1 ~