The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9
July 09, 2017
The Rev. Morgan S. Allen
(Rector, Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, TX)
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Come Holy Spirit, and enkindle in the hearts of your faithful, the fire of your Love. Amen.
By way of quick reminder, my name is Morgan Allen, and I serve as Rector of The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, in fair Austin, Texas. The Rector of Saint Paul’s – my friend, the Reverend Austin Rios – is on Sabbatical for the summer months, and, while he is away, my Episcopal Diocese of Texas colleagues and I will be serving and supporting your Sunday worship and weekday ministry here in Rome, in two-week stretches. This is my second of two Sundays, and I look forward to you meeting the Rev. Christine Mendoza next week. She and her family are good people all the way around.
Entering my second week here, then, I am feeling that I have learned so much…and, yet, I know so little! The sites and stories are everywhere I turn, and every day in Rome is a hundred sermons. Therefore, processing my experience is a daunting task, but if I could distill a takeaway into one sentence, I would go with: “Everything can end”…Everything can end.
Importantly, I have not learned that everything must end, for Rome lives, even now, in continuity with so many hundreds and thousands of years, and that continuity from one era to another is neither insignificant nor inconsequential. For one among many examples: while Pope John Paul II spent more than a quarter of his twenty-seven-year papacy at the pontifical villa in Castel Gandolfo (and, to some controversy, even installed a swimming pool there), Pope Francis has declined to take advantage of the summer home for himself. Rather, in March of 2014, he opened the villa’s gardens to public tours, and in just October of last year, the Vatican opened the hilltop palace itself to visitors, all for the first time since the papacy received the estate in 1596, as repayment of a debt due the Roman Church.
The earliest sections of this palace date to the Thirteenth Century, and its grounds sit atop the remains of an imperial home of Domitian, who served as Emperor within the fifty years after the Resurrection of Jesus. From its high perch, the estate overlooks Lake Albano to the east, and – as far as the eye can see – the countryside and coast to the west. The 135-acre site hosts a working farm with its own aqueduct, providing organic fare for state dinners; an expansive vineyard, providing rare wine for papal celebrations of the Eucharist; and even a rich olive grove, providing oil for anointing.
My family and I toured the pontifical villa this week, and we found noteworthy that the number of pre-Christian and mythological statues and symbols – from nymphs to Neptune – were as many as the number of Christian emblems. Indeed, hedges and flowers crafted into papal coats of arms seamlessly surround the remains of Domitian’s theater. So, rather than rejecting previous cultures, the gardens’ design sets the contemporary papacy in continuity with Castel Gandolfo’s earlier residents and rulers. Like the garden’s evergreens, at its best, this aesthetic expresses God’s eternal character and continuing revelation.
However, that continuity can also gloss over the many endings comprising these latest millennia of Western civilization. That is, the nurture of such seamless continuity can create a shadow side of Rome’s admirable syncretism, a shadow suggesting the inevitable endurance of humankind’s institutions, and, moreover, those institutions’ implicit righteousness…hear that again: a shadow suggesting the inevitable endurance of humankind’s institutions and those institutions’ implicit righteousness. In this shadow, citizenries take for granted the durability of their political, religious, and cultural enterprises, ceding more and more power to the powerful, as though their rank alone witnesses trustworthiness. In this morning’s Gospel appointment, Jesus strongly challenges this shadow and reminds us that everything and anything can come to an end, and that the righteous must labor to nurture and further God’s Kingdom.
Today’s lesson follows last week’s Missionary Discourse, and the opening of Chapter Eleven (between last week’s reading, and that which we just heard) transitions the narrative: “Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.” Along his way, Jesus hears of John the Baptist’s imprisonment, and he begins speaking to the crowds specifically about his cousin, in that familiar prodding we customarily hear in Advent: “[At] what did you go out into the wilderness to look…A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palace. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you’…Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist…”
Emotionally antagonized by his own grief and frustration, Jesus, in turn, antagonizes the crowds with these rhetorical questions, pressing them to remember why they sought to visit John in the first place: You went to the wilderness because your soul stirred within you, he reminds them, and you went because you recognized that all is not well with this world. If you wanted more of the same soft, imperial robes, you knew where to look! And you looked elsewhere. Yet, when you heard John challenge you, your courage left your hearts…
Exasperated, he asks, What, then, do I have to do that you would listen to me? What do I have to say that you will hear the Good News and choose a different way?
In this morning’s concluding verses, Jesus finally softens his tone. He declares his frustration and challenge as God’s purposeful will, and he invites the crowds to share in that righteous struggle: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Having harangued those who follow him, Jesus now leans lovingly into them, acknowledging that to share God’s vision of the Kingdom is a burden….though that burden is the only suffering worth enduring – made lighter by God’s Love! – and the only struggle worth overcoming.
My family and I have now spent both the Fourth of July holiday and the G-20’s Hamburg summit here in Rome, and, whether like the collection of papal portraits in the antechambers of the Barberini Palace, or the imperial busts lining the halls of Rome’s National Museums, group photos of this week’s convention are impossible to distinguish from those roll calls of eras passed. Recognizing that backdrop, as sharp Jesus’ words must have seemed on the day he spoke them, his cry remains vital and stinging in our own moment:
“To what, then, will I compare this generation?” we should hear him ask. All you who live in luxury, while others suffer destitution…all you who threaten war, rather than seek peace? “You are like children sitting in the marketplaces, and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’”
And all you who set your own needs before others, while ignoring your selfishness’ burden on creation…all you who close your door to the stranger and the sojourner, living in fear, instead of hope? You excuse your ways at the expense of the truth. Though “John came neither eating nor drinking, you said, ‘He has a demon;’ and, [now] that the Son of Man comes eating and drinking [with the hungry and the thirsty,] you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” You excuse your ways at the expense of the truth.
While Jesus’ one-liner “Wisdom, indeed, is vindicated by her deeds,” offers encouragement, the aphorism also reminds us that vindication could take a while, and, in the meantime, everything can end: save for the Kingdom of God, there is no empire without vulnerability, and any citizenry that tolerates the age-old, imperial strategy of discrediting its critics according to its own convenience, should consider its way of life in absolute danger. This mode and momentum of the status quo’s maintenance does not, like an evergreen, express God’s eternal character, or, like a papal palace set atop a Roman ruin express God’s continuing revelation! Rather, this is exactly the sort of shadowy, seamless continuity discouraging our attentiveness, encouraging us to take for granted our way of life.
Dear generation, how many lies must be spoken, before we followers of Jesus will stand for the truth?
Dear generation, how many must suffer and die, before we will live God’s good news?
In generations like this one, expecting our institutions to stand without our dedicated, faithful effort endangers civilization itself, and if we lose what basic decency the generations our senior bequeathed to us, it will not be because we were not warned, or that the signs of trouble were not clear. For, everything and anything can come to an end, and the righteous must labor to nurture and further God’s Kingdom.
In the name of the Holy One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.