Perpetua

You shall not bow down to them or worship them…

A Sermon at Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, NY

Third Sunday of Lent, March 8, 2015

You shall not bow down to them or worship them…

We are moving forward through Lent on our way to our baptism. Most of us have already been baptized, but we can reflect and learn to understand it more, and to live our baptism more truly. We join again with the catechumens, those people who have since the very earliest church prepared by study and prayer before their baptism. It is not just our children who should learn the stories of scripture and the traditions of the church, but all of us.

The catechumenate was at one time so long and arduous that people with great depth of faith and commitment were still preparing for baptism when called upon to make their ultimate witness to Christ. Yesterday was the Feast of Saints Perpetua and Felicity. Perpetua was a woman from northern Africa, who is the earliest Christian woman whose own writings have come down to us. She was a catechumen and she describes her own baptism while she was in prison, just before she was sent into the arena to be killed by wild beasts. (I talked about Perpetua in sermons twice last year)

Our lesson today from the book of Exodus is the Ten Commandments. As catechumens, we do well to have those memorized, or to re-memorize them if we have forgotten. They can be found at Exodus Chapter 20 in your Bible, or at pages 317 & 318 or page 350 in the Book of Common Prayer.

The Ten Commandments are the beginning of the Law that God told to Moses on the Holy Mountain. The people of Israel had gone through a lot already before getting to the base of the mountain: hundreds of years of slavery, the conflict with Pharaoh, the hurried retreat across the Red Sea, wandering in the wilderness, grumbling, manna and quail to eat, more grumbling. And they reach the place where God will give them the law, shape them, and give them direction as a people in the midst of their difficulty – and their grumbling.

As I was looking at the lesson for this morning I noticed something. I actually copied the text of the lesson into my word processor so I could check the word count. There are 10 commandments, but over two-thirds of the text is dedicated to two sections. I’m sorry, to those of you who are also parents, the one that says “Honor thy father and mother” is not one of them, that gets only 7 percent— important as that is. The two sections that take a lot more space start with:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything…”

AND

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy …”

The rest are just commands, but these two get a lot of extra attention. Why?

The first says to focus only on God, the God who liberated Israel from slavery, not to find other things to worship or to bow down to, only to the one, true, living God. The second is to remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy, to not work or make anyone else work. These commandments focus on reverence to God. Not just on acknowledging that God is there, but in living a life in God’s presence, dedicated to God, and letting that reverence for God shape your life. The Holy and Living God deserves more than passing attention, but a life shaped around his love. But this is not to let pious conduct excuse us from responsibility in the world, the focus on reverence for God holds us to those other commandments: honor your parents, do not murder, commit adultery or steal. Don’t bear false witness against others or covet the things that are theirs. In other words, live like a responsible neighbor and be attentive to the way God loves them.

The Gospel today is also about reverence for God. Jesus drove the sheep and cattle out, disrupted the money changers’ business and told the dove vendors to take them out of the Temple. In the Gospel of John, this is set early in Jesus’ ministry. It parallels many of Jesus teachings and actions, like healing on the Sabbath. Mostly, Jesus made the observant religious people uncomfortable.

We religious people believe in reverence to God, but we want it to be convenient and under control. The vendors there in the temple made the worship of God a more or less convenient transaction, and they did okay by it too. They got to be good people, being associated with the temple worship, and they made a nice living, God was easier to approach and under control.

But Jesus was not under control, he was free. He was free to listen to God and to follow God. He makes his disciples free to listen, to be reverent, to be his followers. So often, the religious response is to react—that breaks the rules! It’s safer if we just stay in the same channels we’ve worked out! God is dangerous and our procedures are what you need to be protected from God!

On the other hand, Jesus indicates that God is indeed dangerous, and we need to stop working out ways to avoid being responsible to the living God.

Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy

Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy

This weekend we remember that 50 years ago, some people stepped out of the track of adhering to the safe procedures that had been established, and stood up for the right to vote. In Selma, Alabama, bloody Sunday began by their being beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They witnessed to the truth, and they suffered for it. In fact that suffering was the truth. And the truth continues—some things have changed substantially, yet so much has not changed. Some laws and political structures have changed, but there has been no automatic change in human hearts, good will has not flowed and made people, either in Alabama or New York, comfortable and trusting with one another. Witness for the truth is a long-term proposition and it does not end with things being easy.

The reverence for God, in the desert with the children of Israel, or on the way of the cross with Jesus, or worshipping here in the Bronx is likewise a long-term proposition. We have no easy answers or one-time fixes. What we have is the fierce love of the living God, who is here with us, supporting us each day.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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Perpetua, Baptism, and the Lenten Journey

A sermon at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, March 9, 2014

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. The most popular understanding of Lent is that it’s a season for self-improvement. A time to do all the drudgery of spiritual spring cleaning—maybe lose a little weight—so that we can really notice how happy we can be when Easter comes. But the origin of Lent isn’t that at all. Lent was the season of the final preparation of the catechumens (that is, the people who were preparing for baptism, much as we have an inquirers class going on at St. Mark’s now)—this was the final stage, of a very intense inquirers class.
The Gospel lessons from this year’s lectionary actually reflect this: we start with Jesus own baptism—where the tempter tries to distract his focus, and he responds “One does not live by bread, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”—in other words, he remained focused on the wisdom of God and the scriptures. Next Sunday is Nicodemus who learns about being born from above. The following Sunday is the Samaritan woman at the well who learns about living water from this stranger who deeply and mysteriously knows everything she has been hiding from herself, then the man who was born blind who receives his sight and can see the truth, and finally Lazarus who is restored to life. Lent is the new life of baptism, and together we walk the way to participation in Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism and re-affirmation of baptism at Easter, the feast of Christ’s resurrection.
We walk this way with the catechumens, those learning the essentials of the way of Christ—as, I guess, we all still are.

PERPETUA
I would like to tell you about a catechumen who means a lot to me. She died one thousand eight hundred and eleven years ago last Friday. We know this, because there was a public entertainment in Carthage to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday in 303 and that entertainment included having Perpetua and her companions face wild beasts and gladiators in the arena. The birthday of such an important person as the emperor is a matter of public record: March 7. The Romans weren’t always persecuting the Christians in those days, but sometimes regional governors would decide that it was important to make an example of those who wouldn’t make the prescribed sacrifice of a bit of incense to the Emperor’s genius. So, early in 303, a number of young Christians were arrested. Perpetua was twenty-two years old, she was married—though we hear nothing about her husband—and she had a little baby, and like the rest of her companions, she was a catechumen, preparing for baptism.
The reason that Perpetua is so important to me is that I’ve done some work on the writings of early Christian women, and the central part of the little work that is entitled The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas was actually written by Perpetua. Her account of her experience during her imprisonment is the earliest Christian writing that is unambiguously in a woman’s own voice.
After an introduction by an editor, these are the first words she writes:

While we were still under arrest (she says) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. “Father,” said I, “do you see this vase here, for example, or water-pot or whatever?” “Yes, I do,” said he. And I told him: “Could it be called by any other name that what it is?” And he said, “No.” “Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.” At this my father was so angered by the word “Christian” that he moved toward me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.

For something written over 1800 years ago, Perpetua’s writing about her relationship with her father seems pretty familiar. Her writing is unaffected, but passionate, and, at least to my ear, authentically expresses the experience of a young person from a world far away in time, place, and culture. The striking thing about Perpetua’s text is the calm confidence, and even joy, that she shares with her fellow Christians in prison. She writes: “Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honour, realizing that we possessed some great power within us.” When she was anxious or concerned, it was for her baby’s well-being, or for the suffering of her deceased brother, who she saw in a dream. When she expressed sorrow, it was entirely for her father and other non-Christians who were distressed at her suffering and that of the others. These catechumens rejoiced not for suffering, but in being with Christ. Perpetua writes about several dreams or visions which she had in prison. This is the end of her account of one of her first visions:

“Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb: tall he was and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child. He called me over to him and gave me, as it were a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’

In North Africa, in the second and third Christian centuries, those who were baptized received, in addition to the bread and wine of communion, a cup of milk and honey. In this vision, Perpetua is describing heaven, the culmination of the spiritual journey, and she describes it in the terms of the baptismal liturgy. Interestingly, she interprets the vision as a message that she won’t be released or spared suffering in the arena. But for her, it is a message of life and hope, not death.

Lent is a season of life and hope. We travel along with these catechumens, those in Carthage and those here at St. Mark’s, we travel with Winnie, as she speaks a word of truth and hope on yet another side of the world. In that journey we receive life as a gift, not as something we earn by lifting ourselves by our bootstraps or resisting a piece of candy. With Jesus and with Perpetua we focus on the life that God gives us and we move on toward that new life of the resurrection.

Their delight

A sermon preached at the Chapel of the Good Shepherd

The General Theological Seminary  Thursday, March 6, 2014

Blessed are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked*
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord*
and they meditate on his law day and night.

Thus begins the first psalm of the Psalter that has served as the primary prayer book and hymnal for Jews and Christians for millennia. There is nothing random or accidental in this choice. Psalm 1 sets out the theme of worship which is also the theme of life: the way of righteousness and the way of wisdom.
In our direct discourse, active voice, Strunk & White, always positive, American culture, it might strike some as a little odd that the first stanza is fundamentally negative. You are blessed for what you DON’T DO. This sets the psalm in the context of the real world—the way of blessing or happiness is not simply a trivial default setting but an alternative to ordinary things that we see regularly. Walking the way with the unambiguously wicked and criminal is not usually the most common problem for churchgoing and seminary type people, and our personal accounts of loitering with sinners and partaking of sinfulness usually put them safely in the past, even if we enhance them for dramatic effect. But after working in various seminaries for twenty-four years and hanging out with clergy for much longer—sitting in the seats of the scoffers—that’s prime real estate. We could probably solve our financial problems by charging sky-box rates for the seats of the scornful. I’ll get back to what I mean in a minute.

What is important in this psalm, as in many ancient texts, is not what is at the beginning or the end, but what is at the center. The person that is blessed is who? The one who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on God’s law day and night. That word, “law,” does not refer to collections of statues and prohibitions. The word is “Torah.” The new Jewish translation renders it as “teaching” and even in its narrowest understanding, Torah refers to the first five books of the Bible, which tell the story of God’s creation of the world and of the people Israel, and of their redemption in the Exodus. This introduction to the Psalms tells us that the one who is truly blessed takes delight in all that God has done, and particularly in study and meditation on those texts that convey our heritage.

Of course, I’m thinking of the scripture, the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament and the Old Testament, but there are also all those other voices of our heritage, whether they are contemporary, or from a few hundred years ago, or ancient. About three weeks ago, our faculty adopted a declaration entitled “The Way of Wisdom,” which will be released to the public later this month. In one passage of it, we say this:

The Fathers and Mothers of the Church, whom we call “theologians,” were at once biblical scholars, pastors, and critical thinkers of great spiritual wisdom who drew deeply from sophisticated philosophical reasoning as they guided the course of the Church in their time. Preaching the Gospel was integral to the transformation of the lives of all Christians. Responsible preaching required study and study was also worship.

“…study was also worship”—the teaching of the Lord was their delight and they studied that teaching day and night. Their study, their teaching, their preaching and their pastoral work were all one blessing. In one way or another, almost all of us here today are called to an office of teaching, and in that we share in that great delight and awesome responsibility of continually learning and digesting the teaching of the Lord.

When Professor Malloy returned from grading the GOEs, he told some of us that one of his colleagues there remarked that, on the liturgics question, not one student made the connection between Lent and Baptism. That got me to thinking: it is not just a historic connection, Lent is really our preparation for baptism—we travel the road along with the catechumens, and particularly this year, the preparation for baptism is emphasized in the lectionary: from the Temptation in the Wilderness to Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman at the Well, to the Man born blind, to the Raising of Lazarus—each Sunday we progress along the Way of Wisdom further into the mystery of life in the risen Christ and though we may already be baptized we accompany the catechumens.

PERPETUAPerpetua was one of those catechumens when she was arrested. Tomorrow will be the one thousand-eight hundred and eleventh anniversary of her martyrdom. She is particularly important to me, because the central part of The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas is written by her. It is the earliest Christian writing that we have that unambiguously presents a woman’s voice. The striking thing about Perpetua’s text is the calm confidence, and even joy that she shares with her fellow Christians in prison. She writes: “Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honor, realizing that we possessed some great power within us.” Her sorrow was entirely for her father and other non-Christians who were distressed at her suffering and that of the others. They rejoiced not for suffering, but in being with Christ. This is the end of her account of one of her visions:

“Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a grey-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb: tall he was and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child. He called me over to him and gave me, as it were a mouthful of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’

Thus her vision of heaven depicts aspects of the baptismal service of the late second and early third century. As we meditate and study we hear voices new to us and we are transformed as part of that great cloud of witnesses. Those people in the seats of the scornful that I mentioned earlier, they are always looking for the short-cut—how do we get recognition, or success, or a program out of this?  How can we skip reading, and still get credit. One can regularly hear them scoffing at anything that spends effort that doesn’t yield results. But those who delight in the teaching of the Lord, they are like the tree planted by the stream of water, bearing fruit with leaves that do not wither. When the time comes, they have wisdom to share with the saints who need their encouragement.