A Dangerous Week

By: Reverend Anne Emry
Episcopal Parish at St. John the Evangelist
Matthew 27:25

“His blood be on us and on our children!” “Crucify him!” For hundreds of years, Holy Week has been a dangerous time to be a Jew. The language of the Passion narrative is shocking. This text has had the disastrous result of inspiring anti-Jewish prejudice and violence when the words were read at face value, and not as 1st century rhetoric. We continue to stand under the shadow of the Holocaust—better named the Shoah (calamity)—which was the institutionalized murder of six million Jews during World War II. And Jesus wept. We cannot allow this toxic misreading to continue.

Know this: Jesus was a Jew. His followers were mostly Jews. The people he preached to, taught and healed, were mostly Jews. He taught in the Jewish Synagogues from the Jewish Scriptures. He was executed by the Romans. As Christianity formed, and separated from the Jewish community, there were struggles and persecutions which influenced the tone and language of the Gospels, and allowed anachronistic transfer of blame from the Romans to the Jews. The fact is that only the Roman government could execute a person, and those crucified were considered enemies of the state.The Gospels tell the Passion story in grief and anger. We hear disturbing words this week from our Holy Scriptures; we hear the awful cost of Jesus’ sacrifice. It is a hard journey. We must not make it easier on ourselves by feeding the hostility that continues to exist against our Jewish brothers and sisters. Anti-Jewish violence and prejudice is intolerable.

When we reach the Sunday of the Resurrection, Christians rejoice in Jesus Christ’s triumph over the power of evil and death. Remember who we follow and what he taught. It is clear that Christians are never to be agents of evil and death in his name, and we must take care not to be casually or silently complicit in perpetuating prejudice against Jews in our churches and among our children. Remember his answer to the question about which was the greatest commandment:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew 22:37-40

We are called to love our neighbor, and our closest neighbors are members of the Jewish faith. We must not force the Jews to lock their doors for fear of the Christians.

Blessings.

Good Friday Eclipse

Reverend Anne Emry
John 18:1-19:42
A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts

In March of 1970, there was a total eclipse of the sun, visible in New England.
It was a beautiful Saturday, about noon, when my family went to the top of a hill for a good view. My mother told me that the moon was going to cover up the sun, and it would get dark. I found that hard to believe, and thought she might be wrong about this eclipse thing. She told me to be careful not to look directly at the sun during the eclipse, because the light was so strong would hurt my eyes. How could that happen? It was so far away, how could it hurt me? I was a contrary child—at least in my thinking—but I did what she told me to do. I ran and played until it began to get dark, which happened very gradually. We watched the eclipse through a primitive pin-dot camera: holding a piece of paper or cardboard with a pinhole, the image of the eclipse was projected on another sheet below it. We also used a shoebox more or less the same way. The whole eclipse took a couple of hours. It was a strange and lonely experience. The birds stopped singing, and the day became silent, cold and dark.

Darkness is most often seen as a problem in our lives.
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, professor and one of the best current writers about spirituality, has just published a book called Learning to Walk in the Dark. I heard an early reading of the book, and have been yearning to lay hands on a copy for a whole year. Barbara says that Christianity has very little use for the dark—it is a shorthand symbol for sin, spiritual blindness, ignorance and death. There are churches that operate with what she calls a “full solar spirituality.” What she means by that is that some church people have a sunny certainty that if something bad happens, all you have to do is pray and have faith, and God will fix it. Barbara says she would love to live in that world, but she doesn’t. There have been times when whatever sadness fell upon her wasn’t fixed by prayer and faith. As the trouble lasted, these well-meaning people began to back away. They either blamed her for lack of faith, or were unable to deal with this challenge to their certainty about how God works. Barbara says she is blessed with a lunar spirituality, one that experiences God in different ways over time. God’s presence can be full, or a thin sickle rising, or completely dark. In her experience, and in mine, God is not only present in the dark, but sometimes the dark times bring you closer to God.

Learning to walk in the dark means drawing on your spiritual maturity.
Barbara quotes James Fowler, who is well-known in academic circles for his work on the stages of faith. I won’t go into every stage, we all know that we develop as people and experience more nuance in our faith over time. I’d like to focus on one of the later stages right now:

At the fifth stage, which Fowler says is unusual before midlife, people know the “sacrament of defeat.” They live with the consequences of choices they cannot unchoose. They have been permanently shaped by commitments they cannot unmake… [They] let go of many of the certainties about themselves and the world. (p 143)

The Sacrament of Defeat
Neither author refers to Jesus’ death on the cross as a ‘Sacrament of Defeat,’ but I see a connection. In the language of the church, a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The sign of the cross offers us grace. It offers us hope. If it did not, then the Good Friday service would be a funeral worse than any other. But we do have hope that comes to us on this dark night of the soul.

Nobody goes looking for a dark night of the soul, it comes upon you. When I think about the darkest night of the soul, I think of the Holocaust: the genocide of six million Jews during World War II. That dark night doesn’t feel as far away as it used to, because recent news reports are full of hostility and violence against Jews. There are stories of attempts to frighten whole Jewish communities. It is tragic that our holy scriptures, including the Gospel reading for Good Friday, may seem to condone this terrible persecution. Let me be clear: there is no justification for anti-Jewish hostility in our faith. The scriptures are not an indictment of all Jewish people of Jesus’ time, and they are not talking about our Jewish brothers and sisters now. This hostility has to stop; it is un-Christian.

When the dark night of the soul descends, you have to ask yourself: what do you believe? I don’t mean: what do you affirm intellectually? Not: what do you retain from Sunday school? Not: what is your religious doctrine? I mean ‘believe’ in the older sense, from the German root word: Beliebe, to belove. What do you ‘belove?’ What do you set your heart on? What do you give your heart to? What is the hope that gives meaning to your life?

In the irreconcilably dark night of the Holocaust, someone gave an answer to that question that speaks to us right now. The source isn’t exactly clear. It might have been scratched on a ceiling where Jews were being hidden in Cologne, Germany. It might have been carved into a wall at Auschwitz:

I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.

I believe in love, even when I don’t feel it.

I believe in God, even when he is silent.

God is present, even in the darkest places in our lives. God can reach you even if the opening in your heart is the size of a pinhole. God’s grace in the light and in the dark will give you a hope which can never be eclipsed.

Blessings.

Boundaries

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist
By Reverend Anne Emry
John 4:5-42

I’d like to speak about boundaries. On one side of the boundary is US and our tribe, those like US. On the other side of the boundary are NOT US, and not our tribe: those who are not like US. We’ve been talking about the boundaries in our Lenten Series: Blessed are the Poor. That is the boundary between those who have enough and those who do not. I’d like to talk about another boundary: the boundary between Christians and Jews. We are very civilized people. We are very polite. We don’t talk about latent prejudice. We don’t talk about anti-Semitic messages we have heard growing up or secretly believe, but the truth has a way of getting out; there has been a long and ugly history between Christians and Jews.

Coming to Hingham has given me the opportunity to become friends with three Rabbis. We study scriptural texts together, and I am constantly amazed at how the context of Christianity depends on the Jewish context of the Ancient Near East in the first century, and how our traditions have grown up together, in conversation with each other. I understand much more about our faith, our Lord (who was Jewish), his disciples (who were Jewish), and his mother (who was Jewish). Anti-Jewish prejudice has absolutely no place in our faith, and yet vestiges remain.

As an active member of the Hingham-Hull Religious Leaders Association I have heard about this kind of trouble—graffiti and general nastiness. Most recently, I have learned of events in Bedford, Massachusetts that are completely appalling. In the High School there has been anti-Jewish graffiti and name-calling, and the problem has shown up in the games and classroom conversations in the Elementary School. I’m not going to repeat the details, because to repeat it is to give it force. The reality is that anti-Jewish hatred continues to exist.

One problem for us as Christians is that in Holy Week, we read sacred scripture that continues to vilify the Jews. We can retranslate them to reflect that some of the Jewish leaders definitely opposed Jesus, but not all of them. And when we say “the Jews” we should more properly say: “the leaders, “the people,” or “all of humanity.” The way we read our sacred texts can actually perpetuate anti-Jewish hatred if we don’t engage the issue directly—the way I am determined to do today. Jesus of Nazareth was charged by the Roman authorities with sedition, and was executed on a Roman cross. But Jews—the collective, all Jews—become known as “Christ­killers.” The legacy of that charge becomes acute during Holy Week, when our texts speak about the death of Jesus, when we hear that his blood is on “the Jews.” A better answer to the question “who killed Jesus” is: Humanity.

In Bedford the entire community is getting involved to address this problem, and I am very grateful for their work. It is important to realize that there is less than one degree of separation between our community and Bedford—which like Hingham is a small, picturesque, affluent town in the suburbs of Boston. I think we can learn from what has come to the surface there, which may be festering under the surface here. Hatred of the Jews has no place in our faith, it is an ugly, ignorant prejudice.

In the account of Jesus conversing with the woman at the well, Jesus crosses many boundaries. By even traveling through Samaria, Jesus was entering territory that was considered taboo by the people of Israel. If you imagine the geography, Galilee is at the top of the map, Samaria is a large area to the south, and Jerusalem is below it, even further south. To travel from Galilee to Jerusalem, most Jews would take the long way around, taking the road along the shores of the Mediterranean, to avoid walking through Samaria. Jesus walked right into the contested zone between US and NOT US.

When Jesus told the story about the Good Samaritan, was saying something shocking and offensive to his Jewish hearers, who believed that there was no such thing as a Good Samaritan. By telling a story where a priest and a Levite pass a dying man on the road, where the only help for the man came from a Samaritan, Jesus challenged them to live up to their values of caring for people in need in stark and attention-getting terms.

Jesus never met a boundary he wouldn’t cross. He was in Samaria, at a well, in the middle of the day, alone with a woman who we are told has a very bad reputation. This was a dangerous situation, full of taboos. Why was she the only one there? Nobody in their right mind carries a large jar to a well to fill and carry home at the hottest time of the day! But because she was probably not popular with the other women in town, she avoided the normal times, which would have been dawn and dusk, and came in the middle of the day. Some people like to preach on this text as if this woman wasn’t very savvy, as if she didn’t understand the wordplay and imagery Jesus was using. Some day I would like to have the Gospel text read as a theatrical dialogue, to give the woman’s voice a chance to come out. There is edge and nuance and ironic humor—a wonderful text. And after having heard it read, it won’t surprise you to learn that it is the longest dialogue in the Gospel of John. It is multi-level theological banter. At the heart of this conversation is the image of Living Water.

Jesus was telling her who he is in the clearest of terms: that he is from God, and speaks for God, and is the Messiah. In talking about Living Water, Jesus was quoting Jeremiah: “The LORD said ‘My people have forsaken the fountain of living water’” (Jer. 17:13) It is a beautiful image: Living Water welling up as a fountain of eternal life. Living water had a specific meaning—flowing water, fresh water, rain water. Living water—in Hebrew Mayyim Chayyim, is necessary for ritual purification. In modern Jewish tradition, it takes the form of a Mikveh, a ritual bath. So if someone is seeking purification, or most interestingly, conversion, they immerse themselves in living water, in the Mikveh. Is any of this sounding familiar to you? You get the baptismal imagery? This is why the more I learn about Jewish tradition; the more I see a reflection of how our faith has developed. Jewish tradition doesn’t call the water in the Mikveh holy water–there are significant differences—but I learn more about our traditions seeing how they are similar and different from Jewish traditions, and I treasure that.

Jesus said to the woman that he was the source of Living Water. I think she got what he was talking about. She threw down her water jug and ran to town to say to the people there: “He isn’t the Messiah, is he?” But what she meant was: “He is!” And many people came to believe in Jesus, and he stayed with the Samarians for two days, which means he ate with them, which means he crossed another boundary of table fellowship. And he invited a suspect group into the community of believers. Living water overflows all of the boundaries we try to establish. The Living Water of hope and joy that we have through our faith is what allows us to transcend boundaries of historic prejudice.

In Bedford, the Superintendent of Schools, the Bedford Clergy Association and other community organizations are publicly and pro­actively working to address anti­Jewish hostility. The Rev. Chris Wendell (rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church) is part of a public campaign; they call it “Love your neighbor”. I will close with the prayer they have written:

May we be blessed with healing from all hatred, May our homes overflow with loving kindness, May all our children grow up in the safety that encourages them to be their own best selves, May our public spaces welcome strangers and friends with abundant grace,

And may our citizens of all backgrounds and traditions share generously with, and learn eagerly from, one another. May we love God, and our neighbors. Amen.

In Nomine Jesu – Good Friday

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint John
Saint John 18:1 — 19:42
Reverend Amandus J. Derr

A heavy responsibility is laid on us this day: On us, this assembly and, particularly on you, the soloists, musicians and choir of Saint Peter’s Church. We have assembled here today to proclaim and experience the Gospel Jesus Christ lived. That, on its own, would be no burden at all.

But we are assembled to experience the Gospel of Jesus through the words which John the Evangelist wrote to his beloved Asia Minor community, 1900 years ago and, even further removed, through the words which Johann Sebastian Bach so movingly and magnificently set to music to be experienced through his beloved choir in Leipzig 285 years ago. The Gospel Jesus lived, the Gospel John’s beloved community first proclaimed; the Gospel Bach interpreted — each in a different time, a different place, in a different language and each in a different context. We are assembled to experience the timeless Gospel, extraordinarily lived, faithfully proclaimed, beautifully composed and, today, magnificently played and sung. It is precisely those last three — faithfully proclaimed, beautifully composed and, today, magnificently played and sung — that makes this as much a responsibility as it is a privilege and as much of a burden as it is a joy to play and sing and hear. Neither John the Evangelist nor Bach the composer intended their work to convey “what really happened” on that day in Jerusalem so very long ago, nor should we expect that today. No, John the Evangelist and Bach the composer wanted to convey to their respective communities what those events in Jerusalem really meant in their time and in their circumstances; and herein lays our burden, for we hope to do the same.

The times and the circumstances of John’s Asia Minor community; the times and the circumstances of Bach’s Leipzig community; and our times and circumstances as a global New York community can — if we ignore or dismiss their affect on the story — deceive us. Tragically this has happened all too often in the past; so that and the Gospel Jesus lived to free us — the Gospel Jesus lived to proclaim how greatly God loves the world — has been turned into a message that binds us, constricts us and grant us pernicious permission to add to the sum of hate in the world which God so loved and sent Christ to redeem and save.

John’s First Century beloved community, Bach’s Eighteenth Century Leipzig community and our Twenty-First Century global community are in many ways quite different, but they have one characteristic and one existential question in common: Each are times of extreme greed-driven uncertainty, instability, perceived deprivation and anger and in each, dominant voices in the community have sought to frame their troubles by asking and answering one simple question:

Who is the guilty? Who brought this upon us?

Are we not asking that every day?

Beloved People of God: In order for the Gospel we experience today to be the Gospel that Jesus lived, the Gospel that is for us; the Gospel of God’s love for the whole world, the answer to that question must always be We, I. Us. Me, But the Gospel John so lovingly wrote and the Gospel Bach so magnificently interpreted has often been perceived as responding with a different answer — “they” or “them” — and, worst, as giving permission to “us” or “me” — in the name of Jesus, no less — to engage in unspeakable actions of revenge, retribution and rage.

We assemble today, not as the pure and innocent, but with hands perpetually stained by the innocent blood of the “thems” and the “theys” (I can mince no words, here) — of the Jews — because “we” have heard this particular gospel and this particular rendering as another Gospel (not that there is another Gospel) which gives permission, even encouragement, to unburden ourselves of our responsibility and to pass that responsibility on, with genocidal consequences, to others. This is a particularly pernicious flaw in humanity — within every human community — and it must not be so among us, neither today nor ever. This is the heavy responsibility laid on us today; a responsibility consistent with every community — from Jesus’ to John’s to Bach’s — even to ours today.

For, despite all-too-frequent misuse, John’s Gospel is not an “us” and “them” Gospel; it was written for a community consciously trying be precisely the opposite — a single one-faith community with two beleaguered branches trying to stay together as one. Not a Christian community versus a Jewish, but an authentic Jewish community made up of some who followed the way of Jesus and some who did not, all struggling to remain together while making equal claim to the heritage of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Miriam, David and Esther. The Jesus whose passion John in the First Century and Bach in the Eighteenth so glorious proclaimed is a Jewish Jesus who, just pages before prayed that all “might be one,” for the sake of the world. He lived and was raised and died a Jew. It is therefore inconceivable for Jesus or the members of John’s First Century community to see that “oneness” as anything but oneness within the Jewish community, neither apart from and certainly not destructive to, the Jewish community. So, when you sing or hear of “the Jews” today, do not think “they” or “them;” think “we” and “us.” Let those words be our confession today.

But let us not stop there, with a confession and a burden. Let us use this Gospel; let it motivate us and energize us, not only to survive these troubled times to change them. Let us take our liturgical experience of shouldering responsibility for Jesus’ dying one step farther by confessing our responsibility and our own contribution to the self-centered foolishness that even now captivates and enslaves us:

Who is the guilty?

Who brought these times and these troubles upon us?

Not just the headline-grabbing “them,” but the not-always-so-complacent us.

Then hear the Gospel, lived, proclaimed and meant for all. Hear the Hebrew biblical text behind John’s Passion narrative: Hear his Passion account as a commentary — a Haggadah — on the Exodus story of God’s Passover promise to God’s people of old. Hear it as a shared text, accounting for the uniqueness of John’s story and the differences between it and the stories told by Matthew, Mark and Luke. Hear it as the Gospel of Christ the Passover Lamb who offers himself on the tree of the Cross to unite as one people, Gentile, Jew and all.

Hear, O Israel: I am the LORD your God who, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, brought you out of the slavery, out of the house of bondage, into freedom of the Promised Land.

This is the Passion of our God. This is the Gospel of the Lord.