glory of god

glory of god

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

"Eating the Children's Crumbs": A Sermon on the Syrophoenician Woman, the Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and God's Heavenly Banquet


It is interesting to me—maybe coincidental, maybe providential—that today, on this day of anniversary celebration this gospel passage, the story of the Syrophoenician woman and her encounter with Jesus, should present itself in the lectionary. I did not pick it, but perhaps it picked us. Despite how unsettling it can sound, it is probably my favorite story in the New Testament. It appears in slightly different forms in Mark, as we’ve just heard, and also in Matthew. So it comes up in the lectionary 2 out of every 3 years. I first preached on it on my third Sunday at Emmanuel, back in August of 2008, and probably 6 or 7 times since.

What more is there to say after 10 years? As it happens, I’ve had something of an exciting new insight after studying several commentaries this week. But before we get there, let’s lay the groundwork again—the context, the characters, what do they say and do, and why?

The first place we encounter this story of Jesus and his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is here in the gospel of Mark—written about 66 to 70 AD, at the height of a Jewish/Gentile conflict that led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and really a total leveling of Jerusalem as anyone knew it. Tensions were especially high, and there was a real belief among faithful people—Jewish and Christian alike—that the end of the world was coming. This end was both fearsome, but also hopeful, as it would usher in a new age under God’s Messiah. The Christians thought that Messiah was Jesus. The Jewish believers were not so sure. But they agreed that in the fulness of time the Roman Empire would not have the upper hand, despite its military and political strength in the present.

Second, we need to remember that Mark, the author of the gospel, was himself Gentile. We know because he doesn’t always have a strong grasp of Jewish religion, culture or customs, even as he believed with every fiber of his being that Jesus was the Son of God. For a long time, it was believed that Mark was written in Rome, and that he was a disciple of Peter or Paul. That’s still possible, but in studying how the gospel is written, his concerns, geography as he understands it, increasingly biblical scholars have come to believe that Mark may have been from Syria, writing for Gentile Christians there. This will be important later, so remember that. The church in Syria grew when Jews and others fled Jerusalem with the Roman siege and went there as refugees—a tragic irony given that so many are fleeing from Syria as refugees in today.

When we meet Jesus in this morning’s story, he seems to be looking for an escape. The most recent action event in the gospel, prior to this passage, is the miracle of the loaves and fish, when Jesus fed 5,000 people. That story is key, too. It happened in a Jewish area, and people are clamoring to see him. He has become a celebrity. He’s no longer just performing a miracle here and there, the occasional healing for someone who needs it, but instead, he’s started reaching people on a massive scale. Jesus has become a religious and cultural rock star.

And as with all rock stars, the crowds and groupies get to be too much. So, he tries to escape—to the region of Tyre, which today is Lebanon. This is an important detail, because it’s a Gentile region. In other words, he trying to go where no one would recognize him. Incognito. Hiding out in a safe house. Unfortunately, his fame has preceded him. Such was the force of his impact that even in a foreign land, filled with people of a different religious and cultural backgrounds, he can’t escape notice.

Enter, then, the Syrophoenician woman. We read that she is a Gentile. In other words, she’s not Jewish. She doesn’t share Jesus’ religious or cultural background. But she knows that he can heal. And, well, she’s desperate. Not for herself, but for her daughter—who is possessed by a demon or an unclean spirit. We don’t know what the medical diagnosis for such a thing might be today, but for her and her daughter it was something awful. Probably beyond awful. And when you are desperate for help, you don’t really care who the doctor is—race or religion or background or whatever—if he or she can heal.

Jesus, unfortunately, is none too interested. Maybe because he was tired and grumpy, on vacation. Or maybe because he really believed that his mission, and God’s mission, was first and foremost to the people of Israel. Whatever it was, his response to the woman’s desperate plea to heal her daughter is, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

There is no getting around the reality that his response was not only a rejection, but also an insult. Jesus called the woman and her daughter dogs—not worthy of the children’s food, not worthy of healing, not worthy of much.

Jesus’ response here reflects, in a sharp and vivid way, the tensions that existed between Jews and Gentiles in the first century, and particularly as Gentiles in the Roman Empire destroyed everything that faithful Jews held sacred. I have long believed that this passage makes Jesus look so bad that it must have really happened. Who on earth would make it up? But, maybe, it reflects even more the tensions of the 30 to 40 years after Jesus lived, tensions that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, and maybe less Jesus’ own words. Ultimately, we can’t know for sure.

But whatever the case, the real drama happens next, when the Syrophoenician woman, desperate to grasp whatever healing she can for her daughter, argues back. Now, notice that she doesn’t get in a shouting match—she is respectful, but also smart. “Sir” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She doesn’t question Jesus’ sense of his mission, she doesn’t say anything negative about his people, she just asks for some healing as well.

As we know, we are in the midst of a Supreme Court nomination battle. Perhaps capitalizing on that, CNN recently aired its documentary titled “RBG” about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I thought it was fantastic—powerful and deeply moving. And to me, here, the Syrophoenician woman reminds me a lot of the “Notorious RBG,” as she’s often called—not so much as a justice, but earlier, when she was a lawyer in the 1970s, arguing cases before the Supreme Court, slowly and steadily chipping away at sexist laws—with her carefully chosen words, cutting like a laser through centuries of sexism and bias. She won 5 out of her 6 cases. Her last case as a lawyer before the Court was in 1978. At the end of her oral argument, Justice William Rehnquist asked her, “You won't settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar, then?” Ginsburg later said she considered responding, “We won't settle for tokens”, but instead opted not to answer. Her late friend and much more conservative Supreme Court colleague, Antonin Scalia, said of her: “she became the leading (and very successful) litigator on behalf of women's rights—the Thurgood Marshall of that cause, so to speak.”

And the Syrophoenician woman, is much the same. She’s not asking Jesus to overturn centuries of religious and cultural difference in one fell swoop. And she’s not allowing herself to be offended by the comment about dogs, but instead stays focused. Like a litigator, she’s arguing carefully, precisely, for what she needs. In her case, she was willing to accept tokens or crumbs, so long as they healed her daughter. And they do.

Jesus is so impressed, that he heals the girl from a distance. He doesn’t need to touch or even see her to include her in God’s act of healing, restoration, and salvation. It is the most remarkable story. And it is the only time, that I know of, that Jesus is bested in an argument. Not by a Pharisee. Not by someone who shares his cultural or religious background. Not even by a man. But by a woman. A woman whose daughter has a demon. A woman who is a Gentile. A woman who is desperate.

So, what do we make of that? Well, remember how I stressed the emerging consensus among scholars that Mark was written in Syria? That’s significant because the Syrophoenician woman was, herself, Syrian. She is from Syrian Phoenicia. Thus, it seems to me that she may really be the gospel’s embodiment of Mark and his own community. They know that they are not Jewish. They don’t share the same wonderful history and culture as Jesus and his disciples, going back to David and Moses and Abraham. But, Mark believes, with the Syrophoenician woman, that they are worthy of being included in the new community of faith and discipleship that is growing now. God, they believe, is breaking in, and making all things new.

You’ll remember, too, how I said that this story happens just after the feeding of the 5,000 with the five loaves and two fish. First that multitude was fed. Now, the woman and her daughter have been fed with their crumbs. And soon, in the next chapter, while Jesus is still in a Gentile area, he will perform another miracle, and feed 4,000 more people, this time with seven loaves and a few fish. Seven, notably, is a symbolic number for completeness. And so, the gospel shifts—exclusion falls away and all people, of multiple diverse backgrounds and languages are included as recipients of Christ’s miracles, and more importantly as guests in the heavenly banquet.

The pivotal figure in helping to bring that change is the woman from Syria, a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin, whose daughter had a demon. The healing of her daughter—the crumbs they receive—are really the foretaste of the wider and even more diverse and inclusive banquet that is to come. She is a hero of the Gospel. She’s the notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg of the Bible, if you will, helping to bring change, little by little, step by step, chipping away at bias, exclusion, and discrimination.

So, there you have it—one of the most interesting, challenging, perplexing, and also hopeful passages in the Bible. As I said earlier, I used to think that the Syrophoenician woman’s story was included in the gospels because it had to be—it was known to be true, even if it was a little embarrassing to Jesus. Now, I more think that it’s there even more as an encouragement to Mark’s community and also to us. It’s a reminder that even if you sometimes feel left out, or alone, or desperate, even if you feel excluded or discriminated against, whatever it may be, God’s love, God’s embrace, and God’s kingdom includes you, too. Sometimes you may feel that you only get or only deserve crumbs under the table. But you should know that eventually, and even soon, you will feast at God’s banquet table. Whoever you are. Whatever your background—age, race, gender, orientation. All are part of the rainbow dream of God. That’s the good news. In fact, that’s the great news. That’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Growing into the Full Stature of Christ: A Sermon on Ten Years of Ministry


In reflecting on the power, authority, and call given us in baptism St Paul writes: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”

There’s a lot packed into that one rather long sentence. St. Paul really liked long, run-on sentences. But I love that passage because it recognizes that we each have our own role to play in the unfolding work and life of God’s kingdom. It recognizes that we each have our own unique gifts—bestowed on us in baptism—for bringing God’s kingdom to life. And that our role is to enliven and strengthen the Body of Christ. So that we all grow, together, into the full stature of Christ.

Isn’t that something? Paul actually believes that together, as a community of baptized people, we have the ability, the power, and the call to grow into full stature of Christ. In other words, we—as a community of faith, transformed in baptism—are Christ for the world. That what Paul means when he says that Christ ascended to fill all things. Everything that Jesus was didn’t stop or disappear 2,000 years ago—but instead was passed on to those who believe in him and follow him. All the love, all the healing, all the teaching, the building of community—it was all passed on to us.

Now, of course, none of us is Jesus individually. Individually, we could never be who he was, who he is. I know I can’t be. I mess up way too often. I think about myself too much. And so far, I haven’t figured out how to turn water into wine or feed 5000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. But together, as a body, as his body, we are Jesus’ on-going life.

It’s an awesome call, responsibility, and gift—one that I don’t think we appreciate or understand often or fully enough. But in fact, that’s what Paul and the whole of the New Testament is trying to convey. They are trying to get us to believe that we are who God has empowered us to be, in baptism, and nourished by the sacrament of Holy Communion— the bread of life that is Christ himself.  

If you are on our email list, or perhaps on Facebook, you will have seen my mention of the fact that August 1 marked my tenth anniversary as Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Ten years. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. I was just 35 when I started—ordained for 4 years. I had more of a Canadian accent then. I was definitely thinner. And if the photos we have of that time are any indication--such as the one in the parish hall--I had a lot less unauthorized gray hair then. But I don’t totally blame it on you all. Not totally.

But you know, I wasn’t the only one who looked a little different. So did the church. Back then, in August of 2008, the exterior of the church and rectory sported a lot of peeling paint. And the inside, well, the walls were all white—or mostly white. They had last painted been in 1980 when Olga Packard was Senior Warden. I think it was done as part of the 100th anniversary celebration. There was a very large hole in the ceiling—with paint and plaster that regularly fluttered down, like the Holy Spirit, so that the altar guild had to vacuum each Sunday before services. Of course, we had the old lights—examples of which you can still see in the Main Street Narthex. And most notably, there were choir stalls where the altar is now, with a wall of wood in the front separating the choir and chancel from the congregation. The change in chancel and altar arrangement was not uncontroversial. As many of you will recall, it’s something the congregation studied at various points going back to the 1990s when the Rev. Steve Ayres was rector.

In fact, our beloved late sexton Gus Surette once told me a story about the altar set up. He said that one week in the 1990s Steve Ayres asked him to help move the choir stalls out so that the space would be open and an altar could be set up, in much the way it is now. Gus warned him that it wouldn’t go well, but Steve persisted. The next Monday, after church that weekend, he told Gus he’d better put it all back.

15 years later, we were more ready, after study, consultation, and trial. We were helped, especially, by the vocal support of beloved parishioners who had devoted their lives to the ministry and well-being of this parish—Bill Hausrath and Cindy Cook. Cindy, unfortunately, didn’t have the opportunity to see the final product. She died several months before the project started. But she requested that any donations in her memory go toward the chancel renovation fund. I think Cindy’s support and vision, more than anything, led us to make this significant and, I think, beautiful adaptation. So when you see it, you should think of her.

And in a way, that’s really appropriate. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve visited the parish archives in search of some details on our endowment funds. To do so I had to read a lot of old vestry minutes. And in them, from the 1970s, I found the notation for the time that Cindy was first licensed to serve as a Eucharistic Minister and Lay Reader. It happened around the time that women were first being ordained in the Episcopal Church—which I spoke about in my sermon last week. I don’t think Emmanuel was quite ready for women priests, yet. But the Rev. John Thorp and others saw the wisdom in expanding the liturgical and sacramental ministries of the parish beyond men.

And so, they chose Cindy Cook—the first woman authorized to administer the chalice and lead Morning Prayer in this parish. I don’t know that she thought of herself as a trail blazer—Wallie could tell us for sure—but she was, in her own dedicated kind of way. Among the greatest honors of these last years was the opportunity to share in ministry with Cindy—at the altar, in homes and nursing homes, and then, finally, in her own hospital room on her last days. Being there with Wallie and Cindy and their daughter Debbie on Cindy’s last day is a memory and experience that I will hold and cherish always.

Indeed, being invited to share in those holiest of moments at the end of life has been an experience beyond words really—with Lorraine Topple and Dorothy Dale, Midge Roberts and Barbara Smith, Cindy Cook and Bill Hausrath, Bob Elkins and Joyce Elliott, Bob Bent and Olga Packard. So many saints. So many giants of this parish. I sincerely wish each of them were still here with us in the usual, physical way. But I also wouldn’t trade those sacred, holy moments of being with them as God drew near for anything. And even now, they are models to us—each in a different and unique way--for how to live and how to love, how to serve and truly be the Body of Christ as Paul calls us to be. They show us through the example of their lives how we can grow into the full stature of Christ.

In keeping with this morning’s epistle, I should offer a reflection or two about ministry at earlier stages of life, too, in baptism. Parishioners have sometimes said that I come into my own during baptisms. And it’s kind of true. In part because I just love holding all those babies. I don’t have kids of my own, so it’s my chance to get some baby time (without all the responsibility of parenthood, of course). But it’s also the opportunity to celebrate the fullness of God’s love and blessing—in as exuberant a way as we Episcopalians can manage. Every now and then I’ll look out on a Sunday morning and think—I baptized Tess and Nicholas, Nic and Gianna, Henry, Abel and Ivy. And also Wendy and Hugo, and David and Morgan Peterson.

I didn’t baptize Sean and Steve DiGiambattista—Bishop Shaw did those baptisms in 2013, on his last visit to Emmanuel. That was the most remarkable day—as the bishop sat on the floor with the kids by the font, as he invited them to bless the water with him (something I’ve done ever since), and then shared with us his reflections on his life of faith as he lived with brain cancer. I learned so much about the power of prayer and faith that day. Faith and prayer didn’t cure Bishop Shaw’s cancer—he died about 10 months after his visit with us. But they enabled him to face each new day with courage and with hope. We were so blessed by him that November day. I was so blessed to share that day with him. He, too, by his words and witness and example helped us to grow into full stature of Christ.

Totally different, but equally powerful, was the Easter Vigil in 2016, when our new Bishop Alan Gates joined us. It was just his second Easter in our diocese and he chose to spend it with us—I am still astounded by that, when he could have been at Trinity Church in Copley Square, Church of the Advent, or Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street. On Facebook Michael Jewer wrote that that service was one of the most powerful he had ever experienced anywhere. What I loved about it, especially, were the several parishioners who chose that occasion to be confirmed and received—empowering and emboldening them for lives of ministry.

Normally confirmations are focused on youth (which is always fantastic) and usually held in the front of a church, but these were in the back, at the font, by candlelight—connecting the confirmations and receptions to the power and call of baptism. It was beyond sacred and holy as we all as a community, as the Body of Christ, prayed for God’s spirit to stir up and burn in the hearts of parishioners who are already leaders in the church--Eric and Audra, Sue and Wendy, Lisa and Melanie. They demonstrated for us that whatever our stage in life we can deepen and grow in our relationship with God, we can reach the full stature of Christ.

There’s so much more than could and should be said—reflections on fantastic adult education Bible studies and amazing parties. Reformation 500 with the Mad Bavarians and the choir hosted Oktoberfest was just beyond fabulous. So many parishioners came out and supported my mom and Jerry when they were married here in 2011, giving them a proper wedding celebration despite their semi-elopement. Somehow in there I completed my PhD dissertation—that was five years ago already. You’ve endured countless Star Wars, Minnesota and Sweden references in sermons. To say nothing of lutefisk. And even in the last few months you have provided me with a beautiful new home.

These have been extraordinary years. A decade of life and love. More loss than seems fair sometimes. And so much joy. So much discipleship. So much God—here with us and in us, guiding us and helping us to be his Body, his life, in the world. And through it all, God has been helping us to do just as St Paul says: to grow into the measure of the full stature of Christ. That’s our call and our goal: yesterday, today, and all the days to come. And so, as we have said for the last decade: Come and grow with us.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, July 29, 2018

On David and Bathsheba, #MeToo, and the Ordination of Women: A Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost


I had expected this morning to be preaching on the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. It is one of the greatest hits of our Christian tradition. But then I reviewed the lessons and discovered that we would be hearing the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah the Hittite this morning. From one perspective, it is one of the “juiciest” stories in the Bible. From another, it is one of the most appalling. Either way, it is the biblical equivalent of a soap opera, filled with lust, deception, abuse of power. It demands our attention and reflection.

Like many people in power, David is a complex figure. The Bible describes him as especially handsome. And he must have been, because it almost never says that about anyone else. We have no idea what Adam looked like, or Abraham. It never describes the Virgin Mary or even Jesus. We do know that Esau was hairy. And that Joseph (the one with the Technicolor Dream Coat) was handsome. But David gets the full treatment: it says that he was ruddy, had beautiful eyes, and was handsome to behold. It’s interesting that sometimes in the Old Testament women are described as having beautiful eyes, but David is the only male so described. And while we don’t really know what is meant by saying he was ruddy, it likely means that he had a lighter or redder complexion than most of the people around him. Perhaps with red or auburn hair. So, he stood out—the Robert Redford or George Clooney or Brad Pitt of his biblical day.

On top of that, he was a successful warrior—killing the giant Goliath while he was a youth.  (Often, in art, David is depicted as being naked in the battle, no less, emphasizing his physical features). He played the lyre (like a harp), so he was artistic. According to long tradition he is the author of the psalms. And, he was anointed above all others as God’s chosen to be king over Israel and Judah. In other words, he is about as beautiful, strong, and alluring a person as the Bible can imagine—hence the famous Michelangelo sculpture—the epitome of youth, strength, and beauty. 

David is also deceptive, power hungry, lustful. When we meet him this morning, it is spring and he is supposed to be off fighting a war, like all good kings. Don’t you like that description? “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle.” It sounds like the start of a fairy tale. But David’s not in battle. He stays at home, lounging on his couch, while his men are off fighting for him. There’s a clue about his character. And bored one afternoon, he rises from his couch and decides to go for a walk across the roof of his palace, to see what he can see.

And what he sees is beautiful Bathsheba, the wife of one of his leading soldiers, off at battle. She’s bathing herself. Whether she wanted to be seen or not, we do not know. But despite learning that she is married to one of his trusted men, David decides that he just has to have her for himself. It’s not clear in the text whether Bathsheba a willing party or not. In any case, it wouldn’t have been easy or even possible for a woman in her circumstance—with her husband away in battle—to fight off or deny the king. And soon we learn that Bathsheba’s pregnant.

So now what, King David?

Well, David tries to get her husband Uriah home, with the hope that a quick, happy reunion of husband and wife will cover up the fact, and neither Uriah nor anyone else would be any the wiser. Only, Uriah refuses to return to his home, to enjoy the company of his wife, while his men are at battle. The contrast between Uriah’s sense of honor and duty and David’s couldn’t be any starker. The next day David gets Uriah drunk in the hope that his moral sense would be lowered, but with no success. Uriah will not be tempted.     

Feeling defeated, and demonstrating his true ruthlessness, David sends Uriah back to battle with a letter to his General Joab. In the letter, which Uriah carried himself, David ordered that Uriah be placed at the front of the worst fighting, and when the enemy armies advanced, Joab’s men were to retreat, leaving Uriah exposed and left for dead, a sitting duck. All because David saw Bathsheba and she was beautiful. All because David wanted what wasn’t his. All because David used his power and influence, over Bathsheba, over Uriah, over Joab and his armies, to cover up his adultery, lies, and abuse of power.

If were this a contemporary story it would fit in perfectly with the #metoo movement and the real life stories of sexual harassment and abuse. Sometimes, to make the story less appalling and, it must be said, to denigrate women Bathsheba has been portrayed as a vixen who lured David in—the 1950s blockbuster David and Bathsheba starring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward is one example. Another, more recent, is a series of books by an Evangelical Christian author named Liz Curtis Higgs titled Bad Girls of the Bible. Bathsheba is not in the original, but she appears in the sequel Really Bad Girls of the Bible. In the author’s defense, she does note that there is debate about Bathsheba’s willingness or interest in submitting into David’s desires. But then she runs with the idea that Bathsheba never really said no and that somehow she was complicit.

And it’s true. We don’t read that she ever said no. But would it have mattered if she had? The power differential was about as wide as it could be—a woman whose husband was off at war on the one hand, and the king on the other. It is a story of sexual harassment and abuse, possibly rape, definitely abuse of power, and sin in the most explicit way possible—leading to adultery and even murder—all in the person of David, handsome, ruddy, and with beautiful eyes, whom God had anointed. It’s quite the fall from grace.

So what does this ancient story say to us today, beyond it being a juicy biblical soap opera? Well first, I think, it’s a reminder that it’s not only today’s politicians and celebrities who take advantage of women and then try to cover up their actions—leading to lost jobs, trials, special council investigations and even presidential impeachments. It’s been happening for thousands of years. This doesn’t make it okay, but points to the long struggle for human liberation and flourishing. We all have work to do, to ensure that abuse and victimization are eradicated.

Related, is the reminder that even the greatest of heroes are fallible, sometimes spectacularly so. And often access to power leads to ever greater transgressions. I think we can all imagine people we have thought of as heroes, only to learn later that they have feet of clay. The story of David and Bathsheba is a reminder that shouldn’t place our trust in them. We should place our trust in God. In fact, God warned the people that kings were a bad idea. Later in the biblical text we will learn how David was punished by God for his callous, self-centered actions. In fact, this event with Bathsheba and Uriah will mark and follow him all his days.  

Third, I think this biblical story reminds us that we need to listen to the real-life stories and experiences of women and girls, in particular. As the biblical text is written, Bathsheba has no agency. The story is not told from her perspective. This doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t imagine what she was thinking and feeling. In that way, she’s like women throughout history—too often subjected to the whims and desires of powerful men, or just ordinary men. Real people, with real hopes and dreams, real fears, real emotions, bodies, hearts and minds.

For the sake of our full, shared humanity, we need to hear the voices and know the experiences of women who have faced harassment, abuse, and discrimination. Hopefully, the #metoo movement of today will have a long-lasting effect on truly transforming hearts and minds. That so many have felt empowered to come forward and share their experiences of abuse is a sign, I hope, that a new day is dawning—one that Bathsheba could probably never have dreamed possible so long ago.

Coincidentally, today, July 29, marks the 44th anniversary of the first ordinations of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Like the women speaking up today about their experiences of harassment, abuse, and discrimination, the first women ordained to the priesthood had to fight to be heard. They had to break the rules in order to break open the church. Those ordinations were controversial because the church had not approved ordaining women. In fact, it had been voted down twice—although, there was no church law explicitly forbidding either.

Deciding they had waited long enough, the women organized and convinced three retired bishops that time was right. And so, in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, 11 women were ordained to the priesthood. 2,000 people were in the congregation. The Senior Warden of the parish was none other than Barbara Harris, who served as crucifer, carrying the cross in procession. She, of course, later was ordained herself and eventually elected bishop here in Massachusetts.

The preacher that day was Dr. Charles Willie of Harvard (and husband of Mary Sue Willie who served as organist and director of music here at Emmanuel for over a decade). In his sermon Dr. Willie said, “it is a Christian duty to disobey unjust laws… It was an unjust law of the state that demeaned the personhood of blacks by requiring them to move to the back of the bus, and it is an unjust law of the church which demeans women by denying them the opportunity to be professional priests.” The ordination, he said, must be celebrated “not as an event of arrogant disobedience but as a moment of tender loving defiance.” Following the ordinations, the House of Bishops held a crisis meeting and declared them so irregular as to be invalid. But a year later, four more women were ordained in Washington, DC.  And by 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church changed the canons to explicitly authorize the ordination of women. Doubtless it would have taken years longer had it not been for the act of defiance in 1974.

I would note that three of those women ordained in Philadelphia were among my seminary professors at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge: Suzanne Hiatt, Carter Heyward, and Alison Cheek. So their story and ministry is part of my story and ministry, too. And I draw strength and courage from them.

Bathsheba and Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha of Bethany, the Syrophoenician Woman, the Hemorrhaging Woman, Mary the Mother of Jesus, the Philadelphia 11 priests, all call us to listen, to act, to tear down structures and behaviors that diminish and inhibit human flourishing. Now is the time, so that no more women or girls are forced to say, with Bathsheba, “me too”.

It seems appropriate on this day, in particular, to conclude with the prayer dedicated to the first ordinations of women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. You’ll notice that it could easily apply to any who speak up and speak out, bring God’s good news to life.

Let us pray:

O God, you poured your Spirit from on high to bless and summon these women, who heard the strength of your call: Equip, guide, and inspire us with wisdom, boldness, and faith to trust you in all circumstances, hear you preach new life to your Church, and stretch out our hands to serve you, as you created us and redeemed us in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God everlasting. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Shaking the Foundations and Meeting Christ: A Sermon for Easter Day


If you are anything like me, you have been anticipating this Easter day for some time. Not only for the candy and flowers and the visit of the Easter bunny, wonderful as they are (the Easter bunny actually sent me my basket or box by UPS this year, arriving a little early—I think because he knew that clergy are busy on Easter morning, and because he’d be so busy visiting your houses last night). But that’s not why I have been looking forward to this day.

And not only so that we can resume eating or drinking whatever we may have given up for Lent. In my case, it was diet pop (that’s soda or tonic to most of you not fortunate enough to be from Minnesota or the Midwest). I did really well, too, but it was an epic spiritual battle sometimes. But that’s not why I’ve been anticipating Easter.

And finally, it’s not just because Easter seems to be a signal of spring—much as we need it. Yesterday, I was out and about in the gorgeous sunshine and I even saw some pretty purple crocuses sprouting up—much better than in Minnesota, where my family and friends are enjoying one of those classic white Easters people sing about, with a fresh coating of snow and an expected high today of 33. Last night it got down to 9 degrees. But the promise of spring is not why I have been anticipating Easter, either.

No, instead of all of that, it is the promise, and the reality of new life that Easter offers us. Our world—so broken, so lost, so marked and marred by the nails of crucifixion—needs Easter light, Easter life and Easter joy. We need the transformative hope that meets us and sometimes even confronts us, shaking the very foundations of our lives, especially when, like the women at the tomb, we are feeling lost, alone, afraid. We need good news. We need to be reminded that what we see and experience and expect are not all that there is. We need resurrection.

Often, when we feel buried under mountains of snow, or far worse, mountains of worry or despair, the promise of resurrection can seem far off and elusive, even when we are told to believe it, or sometimes especially when we are told to believe it—by the Bible, or by our friends and family, or certainly by some preacher in a pulpit. That’s why I find this morning’s unusual gospel story of the women at the tomb so compelling. It is so real and so human. So untidy, just like our lives a lot of the time, mixing faith and fear, doubt and hope.

Did you notice anything unusual about it? Did you notice that there’s no appearance of Jesus? Or that the women ran off, afraid? It even says that they were even afraid to tell anyone what they had seen and heard. You may have been thinking what kind of weird Easter gospel is this? Where’s the joy? Where’s the hope? As it happens, though, this passage in the Gospel of Mark is the very earliest gospel telling of the resurrection we know of, with its suspenseful ending: "So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had siezed them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid." In fact, that’s how the gospel itself ends. In suspense and uncertainty. Eventually, later on, some monks decided that this wasn’t very satisfactory, definitely not very Eastery. They thought that the story needed a cheerier, more “happily ever after ending,” with Jesus actually appearing to his disciples, as in the other gospels. So they added a new ending, more traditional, more of what you would expect.

But in the very earliest version Jesus is not there—just the stone rolled away, the good news proclaimed by a mysterious messenger dressed in white (we are left to imagine who he is: an angel, the author of the gospel, or maybe even Jesus himself, unrecognizable in the moment), and the women running off, having been told that Jesus was alive and would meet his friends in Galilee, where they had lived before the last traumatic days in Jerusalem.

If Mark’s Easter narrative were a TV show, you might imagine after this scene, the words: “To be continued” flashing on the screen, perhaps a dramatic end of season cliff-hanger, or maybe, if it were a Star Wars movie, there would be the promise of a sequel coming in a couple years. Only, in the case of the gospel, this is all that Mark wrote. Leaving us, like the women at the tomb, unsure ourselves of what we should be believe. Sometimes, that’s exactly how resurrection, Easter faith is for us today, living as we do in such a state of brokenness, confusion, and uncertainty. Living in what too often seems to be a Good Friday world, in which we, like the woman at the tomb, are too often afraid, confused, and broken.

And, you know what, I think that’s probably how it really was on that first Easter morning so long ago. There were no chocolates or bunnies, and the good news was hard to believe. It was unexpected. It was even fearful. The unfolding story was not yet complete.

I think Mark wrote his gospel that way because if he had written, like the other evangelists, about how Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and then to Peter and John, his readers might have come to conclusion that resurrection is something that is done and finished. It was something amazing, fantastic, that happened a long time ago, but doesn’t have much to do with us here and now. People might have believed that Easter, resurrection was an event of the past, confined to the annals of history.

But that’s not what Mark believed, and its not what the first Christians believed. They believed that the resurrection story, the resurrection experience, was still unfolding, for Jesus’ friends long ago, and even for us and among us now. Mark wanted us to believe that Jesus’ life so long ago—his teaching and healing, his death and resurrection—was just the beginning of the Good News. He wanted us to believe that all of the events that happened in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee, and Jerusalem, some 2000 years ago were really the opening few chapters of all that God would do for us and in us, among us and through us.

Mark wanted us to believe that we, too, might experience—in our own lives, in our own hearts, in our own souls—the earth-shaking power of God, the life-shaking power of resurrection. More than anything, he wanted us to believe that the risen and living Christ would meet us, too, on the road home, in our locked rooms, or in our locked hearts. He wanted us to believe that the Gospel story is our story, that the Good News of Jesus Christ is really and truly Good News for each and everyone of us.

Mark’s Easter gospel reminds us that risen Christ doesn’t belong only to Mary Magdalene, or to Peter or John, to those who knew and loved Jesus in the flesh in ancient days. Rather, the Christ belongs to us all. He belongs to anyone who longs for new life. He belongs to anyone in need of his healing touch. He belongs to anyone suffering oppression, degradation, or exclusion. Anyone longing for liberation. It is for them, for us, that the risen Christ appears—not a ghost, not an image, not even a life. But rather as life itself. New life. Radiant life. Liberating, God-filled life. Life that transforms sorrow to joy. Life that transforms fear into faith.

Easter is the awesome, fearsome, and liberating power of God. Easter is God’s power to bring new life out of disappointment, abundant life out of despair, and resurrection life out of death and the cross. Easter is God’s way of shaking the foundations of our lives, and transforming us, and the world, from the inside out. What we see and have experienced are just the beginning of an unfolding story, the opening chapter of the Good News. And the rest of the book? Well, it will be written by us, in our lives. In our very own resurrection lives.  

Mark writes: ‘As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

This Easter, let’s join them on that road to Galilee, where we, too, will meet the risen and living Lord.

Alleluia Christ is Risen. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD   

Friday, March 30, 2018

Love One Another: A Sermon for Good Friday


Sometimes I have wondered what it must have been like to witness to crucifixion. What it must have been like, for Mary and the other women, to gather at the foot of the cross on that awful day. In John’s gospel, which we just heard, we read that the Beloved Disciple was there, too. In the other gospels, it doesn’t seem that any of the men were there. From the distance of time, it’s hard to know. But certainly, most of Jesus’ friends had fled. They were in hiding when he was crucified. Locked away. Afraid.

Perhaps even afraid that they might be next. “You also were not one of this man’s disciples,” Peter was asked. But the women were there, Mary his Mother. Mary Magdalene. Mary and Martha of Bethany, perhaps. It was a confused and confusing time. And it all happened so quickly. Less than 24 hours before, Jesus was sharing his last supper with his friends, embraced in love. He was even washing their feet. And then, he was gone—ripped away. How could it happen like that? How it could it end like that? How do you make sense of such a thing?

You will undoubtedly remember the moving image following the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland, Florida: the one of a woman on the school grounds, holding another mother who is crying, perhaps even screaming. The latter woman is wearing a heart necklace, and she has a back cross imprinted on her forehead—because, of course—that day was also Ash Wednesday. These two women, holding each other in grief and loss and uncertainty, their beloved children killed, it’s an image one doesn’t soon forget. This, I imagine, is how Mary and the other women huddled at the cross felt on that first Good Friday. They, too, had black ashen, bloody crosses on their foreheads—or at least they felt as if they did—marked as family and friends of Jesus, a beloved son, friend, teacher, mercilessly killed. From now on, when I see that iconic, tragic picture of Valentine’s Day, I will think of Mary and the women at the crucifixion. From now on, when I reflect on the crucifixion, I will see that picture in my mind—our modern day equivalent of Good Friday, our modern day equivalent of the crucifixion.

Two thousand years after the horrific event we commemorate today, two thousand years after Jesus was crucified, nailed to a cross, killed in the most painful way humanity could devise, two thousand years later, we continue to live in a Good Friday world. Why is it that pain, death, and even the power of evil still seem to have the upper hand, holding us in their steely grip? Why? Read the newspaper, visit the internet, or turn on the TV and you know it’s true. Here in the United States we have been focused on gun violence of late, a disease that seems to hold our nation in bondage. Some have called it a public health crisis.

In other parts of the world people live and die in different circumstances, enduring unimaginable horrors—war, violence, starvation, disease. The world we live in is so very far from the kingdom of God that Jesus envisioned when he taught and healed, gathering friends and followers around him, calling them to fish for people. Indeed, we are infected with the same disregard for life that sent Jesus to the cross so long ago.

People often wonder and ask: why was Jesus killed? Was it because he was a revolutionary? Was it because he upset the religious authorities? Or was it just because? Simply because they could? There are plenty of theories of course, but no real answers. Nothing is definitive, except that for some reason, we human beings are so afraid, so broken, so lost, that we find it necessary to turn away from love, to reject God, to kill.  

What is definitive is that Pontius Pilate, nervous religious authorities, and the mighty Roman Empire were somehow so intimidated by Jesus, so afraid, so threatened by him, an upstart Jewish peasant teacher from a nowhere backwater, that they couldn’t bear the thought of him being alive, not even one day longer. Such was the power of his teaching. Such was the example of his life. Such was the empowering, radiant glory of his love. Jesus was dangerous—not because he and his scraggly disciples carried weapons or amassed armies—but because he and they loved, because he broke down barriers, and in that he threatened the world order.  Because Jesus turned society upside down.

He ate with people he shouldn’t. He touched people he shouldn’t. He rejected the idea that just because you were a fisherman or a tax collector, just because you were sick or blind, or you couldn’t walk or you had too many failed relationships, or whatever, that you are a nobody, worthless. Jesus rejected the categories and prejudices that kept people in their place. And that was dangerous.

It’s dangerous to tell people that they have value. It’s dangerous to give people hope. It’s dangerous to give them a voice and a vision, to instill in them the belief that what we see is not all that there is. That’s why American slave owners didn’t want to teach enslaved peoples to read—especially the Bible. That’s why the East German communists built the Berlin Wall. It’s also why some people today, people of power and influence, are so afraid of the youth and young adults who have found their voice and have begun speaking out bravely and powerfully against gun violence. Powers and principalities are always intimidated, they are always afraid, when enslaved, oppressed, demoralized and subjugated people embrace their full humanity, when they realize that they are not destined for enslavement, but instead for life, for abundant life, for God-created, God-infused, God-blessed life.

That Jesus wasn’t actually a political figure, that he had no interest, not really, in overthrowing the Roman Emperor or the High Priest or anyone in power, was irrelevant. He was an example to other would-be upstarts. An example to others who may have dared to dream of freedom. Who dared to believe that they, too, are God’s sons and daughters.

What those mighty powers didn’t understand, though, is that you can’t kill the spirit of God. Not really. You can’t keep people enslaved once they have caught a glimpse of freedom and felt the power of God’s love unleashed in their lives. In fact, that’s why we are here today—because the love of Christ, the love of God, was unleashed into the world in Jesus’ life so long ago.

Though killed on a dark Friday, Jesus continues to live, even 2000 years later. He lives in and through us—who follow him, who are his body and his blood. He lives in the love he continues to pour onto the world and into human hearts, the love that he shares with us, even now, across time and space from the cross.

We here today, living in our own Good Friday world, gathered like the women and the beloved disciple at the foot of the cross, marked with ashen crosses on our foreheads, and doubtless like them, filled with pain, grief, and sometimes disbelief, are nothing less than the living manifestations of Christ’s eternal and limitless love—shared with the world throughout his life as he taught and healed and unleashed especially, and powerfully, on that first horrific Good Friday.

And so, as we gaze on this broken and crying world of ours—a world filled with too many crosses and too much death, Jesus calls out to us. He calls out to us from his cross: Behold your mother. Behold your son. Love one another as I have loved you. Hold one another, like the women in that powerful iconic photo of Florida on February 14. Abide in my love.

If we listen, if we follow, if we love, and embrace, and welcome, if we heal and hold, Christ’s death will not have been in vain. In fact, he will live. He will live in us and through us and with us. And this dark Good Friday world will be transformed, day by day and person by person, into the bright light of the resurrection.

So, let us pray:

Strong Son of God, who didst pour out thy life that we might live, and who by thy cross didst show to the uttermost the forgiving love of God: We praise thee that through death thou hast destroyed death and opened unto us the gate into life that is strong and free. Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Reaching for God, Not Guns: A Wilderness Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent

In our gospel this morning we are invited to accompany Jesus, just after his baptism, as he is driven or forced or compelled—by the Spirit of God—into the wilderness, where he is surrounded by wild beasts, faces temptation, meets Satan, and receives the ministration of angels. Scripture tells us that he was there, struggling with Satan and doubtless with himself—for 40 days which, when you think about it, is a very long time to be left alone in the wilds of nature.  40 is a magic number in the Bible, recalling the 40 days and 40 nights of the flood during the time of Noah, the 40 days that Moses was on Mount Sinai alone in God’s presence, and the 40 years that Israel wandered in the wilderness.

I imagine that during his time in the wilderness Jesus felt and experienced the full range and scope of human emotion—fear, anger, despair, confusion, isolation, abandonment, but also love and comfort and strength. As presented to us in scripture it was, I think, a time of testing. Was he up to the task to which God was calling him? Did he have the strength necessary to take on all that would come his way?  All the loss, all the pain, all the illness, all the death—even his own?

Matthew and Luke go into greater detail about Jesus’ wilderness trials than Mark does here. In those other gospels we read about the various temptations Jesus faced—the lure of power and wealth, food to satisfy his hunger, the adulation of crowds, protection from harm. Jesus rejected these. He rejected easy answers. He rejected the promise of false security. He rejected anything that might have drawn him away from his own life in and with God, even in those moments, like here, when God must have seemed especially distant, remote, and far away.

This has seemed a lot like a week spent with Jesus in the wilderness. Yet another school shooting, indiscriminately and mercilessly killing 17 wonderful people—youth and adults alike—reminds us that as a nation, we are wandering in a deep and dark wilderness, confronted by hungry, howling wild beasts, and temptations of every kind. Where is God in this horror? Where are the angels, who bring comfort and hope? Where is the rainbow in the sky we heard about in our first reading this morning, offering the promise of new life after the dark and tempestuous storm?

I shared in my parish email on Friday that I didn’t hear about the shooting until I got home from a long day at here at church on Ash Wednesday. If I had known earlier, I likely would have preached a different Ash Wednesday sermon. Doubtless still focused on God’s love, but reflecting in a different and deeper way on the profound brokenness of human life, on such painful, horrific display this week. The whole thing is just beyond comprehension or understanding, or at least it should be.

Of the various tributes I have seen since Wednesday, I think the best was on the PBS Newshour on Friday evening. To close the show, Judy Woodruff shared photos and stories of each of the students gunned down on Wednesday: Jaime loved to dance, she said, and Nicholas was a swimmer and was looking forward to college. Aliana loved to serve, Judy said, finding ways to help people in need and volunteering after Hurricane Irma. Alex played the trombone, winning a state championship last year. His mom died when he was just 5. His brother, a fellow student, survived the shooting. Peter, aged 15, was in the Junior ROTC. His cousin said he would be friends with anyone. He didn’t care about popularity. Alyssa played soccer and was on the debate team, placing first in a debate tournament. Carmen, aged 16, was an active member of the youth group at St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church. Aaron Fies, an assistant coach and security monitor, had been a student at the same school years before. He looked out for students who got in trouble, struggled, or didn’t have fathers at home, offering them a positive role model. He died helping others find safety. These are just 7 stories out of 17.

17 lives ended for no reason. 17 sons, daughters, dads, students and teachers who will never come home again, never pick up another pencil, never read another book or swim another lap, never hug a friend, never again laugh or cry. Another mass shooting in a country that prides itself on being a nation of laws, a refuge of safety, a beacon of hope, freedom, and justice. 

How did we get here, into this wilderness? How do we get out?

Following the shooting, the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida offered the following statement: “There are no words that can adequately give voice to the madness and the violence done to those gunned down, and to their families and friends so cruelly robbed of those they loved. There are no words to describe the pain of loss and grief, of shock and horror, of outrage and anger… Only the anguished cries that well up from the very depths of our being. There are no words to make sense of what makes no sense, and in the face of such senseless killing we are numbed and rendered speechless.”

The bishop of the diocese offered a brief further reflection, saying: “We bring our longings and convictions for a different future. What happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is not the world as it ought to be, or as it needs to be, and we who follow Jesus accept the responsibility for being partners with God to bridge that gap between what is and what could and ought to be.”

“We who follow Jesus accept the responsibility for being partners with God to bridge that gap between what is and what could and ought to be.” I believe he’s right. I believe that it is precisely our call, as Jesus’ followers and disciples—to be partners with him, and partners with God, in bridging that gap—so that what could be and ought to be becomes what is. In real life. Not just in dreams. Not just in hopes. Not just in thoughts and prayers, however sincerely offered.

So for me, the question is what do we do? How do we act? How does God want us to act, to partner with Christ, with God, to transform the world?

I don’t have all the answers. Though I certainly have convictions about guns and safety, especially when it comes to semiautomatic, military style weapons—which have mass killing as their primary purpose. I don’t see how they have any place in civilized society. In 1963 the prototype for these weapons was presented to President John F. Kennedy, for military use, and he rejected them, not seeing the need. They were introduced in 1964—the year after Kennedy was assassinated, by a man with a rifle—for use in the Vietnam War.

The same kind of weapon was used in the Sandy Hook school shooting, and in the Pulse Night Club in Florida, and in the concert shooting in Las Vegas, and the church shooting in Texas last year. When a disturbed person wants to kill masses of people, whether in a nightclub, a concert, a school, or a church, it seems that this is the weapon of choice. That the military feels the need to use such weapons is bad enough. But there’s no reason for them to be in our homes and on our streets, purchased legally by 19-year-olds. If you can’t buy a beer but you can buy a weapon capable of killing so many in a matter of minutes, there is something wrong in our priorities, something wrong in our values, something wrong in our humanity.

And so, at some point, like Jesus, we will have to emerge from the wilderness in which we find ourselves. We will have to take on the tempting, seductive powers of death. We will have to partner with God and fight for life. We will have to fight for our very souls, and for the life of all of God’s people. We have to reject the temptation of thinking that someone else will do it, or that it couldn’t happen here, to us, to the people we love and care for. And instead understand that a part of us all dies when lives are so senselessly taken.

The present sad state of our life together as a nation does not have to be our story or our reality. We can reach for God, instead of guns. We can help each other be well. We can be people of hope and life, instead of death and despair. We can be. We should be. We need to be, if we want to be fully human, fully alive, fully free. And so, at some point, we will have to leave behind and finally reject the temptation of believing that we will find our strength and security through arms and war, instead of through the far more powerful gifts of healing and new life offered us in faith, in community, in Christ, in the life of God.

You know, Jesus used his time in the wilderness to overcome fear, to confront demons, even Satan himself, and to fight back temptations of many kinds. He used that time to emerge stronger, more faith-filled, more deeply grounded, centered, and rooted in God. He used that time to become even more the Son that God wanted and needed him to be. And I wonder if maybe, hopefully, we can use and utilize our time in the wilderness in which we find ourselves in much the same way—so that we, too, can emerge strong, faithful, committed, and full of hope, full of the life, full of the love and Spirit of God.

And so, like Jesus, we pray. We pray so that we can act. We pray so that we have strength. We pray to find hope. And we pray so that, like Jesus, we are filled with the life and power and Spirit of God. The life and power and Spirit that, through you, through us, will change the world.

May we find it so. May we make it so.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


 © The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD