Pep talks often have a prominent place in movies. A group of rag-tag individuals has come together and their leader wants to inspire greatness in them. Often these speeches comes mid-way through the film after we’ve learned something about these characters and know what they’re up against. Sports films have cornered the market on these inspirational talks, of course.
One of the things that amazes me about scripture is that there’s always something new to uncover. Even though I’ve read the Bible cover to cover and many of the stories of the gospels have been the basis for numerous sermons over the years, there are still times when I’m surprised. It happened for me in our passage from Matthew for this morning. We heard that Jesus was going around teaching and proclaiming the good news, and healing people, and then he notices the large number of people. Jesus was just out there doing his thing, when all sorts of people started showing up around him. It’s not surprising, of course, he is curing every disease and sickness, and he’s got a pretty compelling message to boot. But still a lot of people are now gathering. Crowds of them, in fact.
There’s an old adage about congregations that seems relevant for today’s gospel lesson: “A church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” The problem is that many of us like museums and their collections, pieces of art lauded for their importance and beauty, for their exquisiteness and highbrow sophistication. With the possible exception of the work of Banksy, we tend not to hold up graffiti in the same way we value a Monet. So it is with churches. We prefer displays of perfection from the assembled people rather than imagining it like the sick ward at a hospital.
So there’s quite a bit of background in our story from Numbers that we didn’t hear this morning. The people of Israel had recently experienced their freedom through the Exodus, and have left Egypt behind for good. However, being enslaved had provided them with some regular foods that they could not find in the desert wilderness. God had been providing them with manna—literally “What is it?” in Hebrew—which appeared every morning except on the Sabbath in order to be collected from the ground. (They got a double portion Friday mornings.) They used it to make cakes and breads to sustain them.
Our lectionary committee, the ones who chose which readings we get on any given Sunday, knew the reality of Christians well. Recognizing that most of us wouldn’t mark the Feast of the Ascension which happened this past Thursday, they made sure our first reading from Acts included Jesus’ Ascension. Here we sit three days past the Ascension and seven days until Pentecost in the in-between time. We’re still in the midst of those Great Fifty Days of Easter with our flourish of Alleluias, but I bet it’s the dregs when it comes to any Easter candy left at your house. In seven days we’ll bring out the red hangings and hear again of the Holy Spirit’s coming like tongues of fire. But in the mean time, we wait.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
If there was ever a week where we needed to hear those words it was this one. On the very day we announced changes to our staff and worship schedule for the fall, our diocesan Bishop Alan Gates announced that he will be retiring late next year and called for the election of his successor. Never mind our breaking news world with more gun violence, the end of federal Covid restrictions, a surge in migrants seeking a better life in our country, and I could go on. Because of course there’s all that personal news too, right? Waiting for the report back from the doctor, or high school seniors who had been planning to go to one place finding out that made it off the wait list on another, or deciding to put the house on the market, or burying a loved one. And that’s just a sampling of the stories I’ve heard this past week.
At our annual spring clergy conference, our practice is to read the gospel for the upcoming Sunday for our closing Eucharist. This week at that service our gospel lesson was read in Spanish. When this happens—the gospel read in a language I don’t know—I usually just take it in and let the words wash over me even if an English translation is printed in the bulletin. This week, however, I kept hearing a word I knew repeated. It’s the Spanish word for way: camino.
Sometimes it’s the seemingly small things in a story that mean a great deal. In the Harry Potter series, we are introduced to the Golden Snitch during Harry’s first Quidditch match, the broomstick flying sport played in J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world. Harry’s position is seeker, and his main job is to catch the snitch, a small golden orb with wings, flittering around the Quidditch pitch like a hummingbird. In the opening book of the series, Harry ultimately catches the snitch in his first match, but accidentally with his mouth. Harry wins the match for Gryffindor House over their rivals Slytherin, and he learns he loves Quidditch and being a seeker trying to find that ever elusive snitch.
Every year as I prepare my Holy Week sermons, I listen to the soundtrack from “Schindler’s List.” With its moving violin parts, exquisite choruses sung in Hebrew, and haunting yet hopeful songs, the Oscar winning music written by John Williams and Itzhak Perlman reminds me of the horror that is possible in our world. That cruelty toward others is sometimes used in order to humiliate and dominate the marginalized. That power and hatred can coalesce, and senseless violence is the result.
“Do you know what I have done to you?”
This question comes after Jesus “strips, kneels, and washes—not himself but his followers,” as Professor William Brosend puts it. “Do you have any idea what this means?,” he asks. John doesn’t tell us if the disciples respond with anything other than silence. Maybe they just don’t want to hazard a guess because of what he just did, in taking on the role of a servant. Notice none of them jumped up and grabbed the basin even though the menial job needed doing, and since it was just the thirteen of them. It’s like waiting for someone else to pick up the trash from a knocked over barrel: “I’m not gonna do it; you do it!” No one is itching to get their hands dirty, or take the low wrung on the totem pole.