by the Rev. James B. Craven III
In the name of God-Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Amen.
You want to impress your neighbors with some Bible trivia? Name a book of the Bible which makes no mention of God at all, not even by metaphor or allegory. God just is not among the cast of characters in the Book of Esther, from which we just heard. It is a great and timeless story, with present day ramifications even though it was written 2200-2500 years ago by an unknown Jew in Persia or Palestine. And it is likely entirely fiction. The setting is Persia in the reign of Xerxes, who reigned from 486 to 465 BC. Esther, a Jewish woman and the niece of Mordecai, was the Queen Consort of the king. Haman, the arch villain of the piece and totally anti-Semitic, wanted all the Jews of the kingdom done away with. He had a clever plan and might well have succeeded but for the intervention of Queen Esther with the king. Haman had built a gallows for the execution of Mordecai, the Jewish leader, but he was “hoist on his own petard” as Hamlet put it to his mother. So Haman himself was hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordecai. This event is observed every spring in Judaism to this day to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from massacre under the Persian empire. There is some thought that Purim was “the feast of the Jews” referenced in the Gospel of John when Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Julius Streicher, the most virulently anti-Semitic of the major war crime defendants yelled out “Purim feast 1946” as he was hanged at Nuremberg, so he clearly had read Esther.
Anti-Semitism alas is not just a matter of history. It is very much with us to this day. I have always liked the poetry of Ogden Nash, for years a fixture in the New Yorker. I no longer laugh though at his clever line “How odd of God to choose the Jews,” and I have long loved the fact that a Jewish friend had a tree planted in Israel when my father died in 1977. Do you remember when Kikes or Hebes used to Jew people down in financial transactions? The Anti-Defamation League of Bnai B’rith is busier than ever today. On the first Maundy Thursday of his papacy, Francis, the Bishop of Rome, was criticized for what he did at a prison. He washed and kissed the feet of 12 prisoners, including six Italians. So far so good, but two of the prisoners were women, two were Muslims, and two were Jews. Some of the old timers in the Curia thought that was a bit much. I’m sure it just made Francis laugh, something he is very good at.
I have mentioned him before and may again, but when I ponder the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, I often think of Morton Katz of Morganton, in the mountains where I grew up. I never knew Morton, who died when I was only two, but I knew his family well. Morton was Jewish and was my mother’s first serious boyfriend. He was killed at Arnhem in Holland in 1944. If you have read the book or seen the movie A Bridge Too Far, that was Arnhem. And for the rest of her life, my mother paid for flowers for Morton Katz’s grave at an allied military cemetery there. Of course there are many other Stars of David in military centuries. And no one knows the religious faith of the Unknown Soldier. As President Kennedy said in Houston in the 1960 campaign, “No one knows if they were Catholic, for there was no religious test at the Alamo.”
It is mindboggling to me to think that the Holocaust happened in my lifetime. It is also beyond mindboggling to think that on January 6 this year, the feast of the Epiphany, angry mobs stormed the Capitol waving Nazi flags and chanting “Blood and soil, Kill the Jews” among miscellaneous other endearments. And the same occurred earlier at the riots in Charlottesville. In both cases those shouting those things and wearing brown shirts and Nazi armbands were portrayed as good people and patriots by our then President. Go figure, as the Yiddish saying goes.
Two members of the baseball Hall of Fame, Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, got hate letters for declining to play in the World Series on Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement. And Greenberg, no surprise, went out of his way to befriend Jackie Robinson when he came up with the Dodgers in 1949. They were of course the real Dodgers in Brooklyn, not the Los Angeles imposters.
The New Testament, alas, is replete with gratuitous incendiary remarks about Jews, statements that have fed anti-Semitism and fanned its flames for centuries. Matthew’s gospel depicts “the whole nation” of Jews calling down a blood curse on themselves, while shouting for Jesus’ death, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” And the fourth gospel, of John, written maybe ten years later, has Jesus himself denouncing “the Jews” in what Elaine Pagels has termed first century hate speech, as if he weren’t a Jew too.
At the time of Constantine, when Christianity became the imperial religion, it became a capital offense to convert someone to Judaism. Revered bishops, including Augustine of Hippo and Athanasius of Alexandria used gospel accounts of Jesus’ death to demonize Jews as “Christ killers,” guilty not only of communal murder but also of the new crime of deicide, “Killing God.” Perhaps 15-20 years ago Betty Grant, a beloved figure here at St. Luke’s, was the deacon at St. Joseph’s here in Durham. She made reference in a sermon to “our Hebrew brothers and sisters.” The priest who was the rector there then took Betty aside afterwards and said “They weren’t our brothers and sisters. They killed Christ.” Many of us rejoiced when Bishop Estill ran the fellow out of the Episcopal Church. Pogroms, lynching, genocide followed over the centuries. It is no wonder that all Jews were expelled from England under Edward I in 1290. And Ivanhoe, written by Sir Walter Scott in 1819, may be fiction, but it tells a powerful story of anti-Semitism. Not to mention the Merchant of Venice in 1600. The oldest account we have of anti-Semitism may be the story of Haman in Esther over 2000 years ago, but sadly it thrives today, in this country and elsewhere. We are slow learners. But we can pray with Jews and Christians alike, from the psalm, that:
Our life is in the Name of the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth.
With all of this anti-Semitism, even in our day, the need for healing could not be more evident. Every Sunday here I ask for prayer for healing, healing of body, of mind, healing of the Spirit, healing of broken relationships, healing among nations and healing in this holy place. Lately many of us have been focused on the healing of broken relationships and on healing in this holy place. It has certainly been a roller coaster ride for all of us, and we weren’t even sure if it was going to stop and allow us to get off or if the whole thing was going to collapse upon us and around us. At this point there is a lot about it all that I do not and likely will never understand, but you know what? All will be well, and all will be well. And Christ, not you, me, or any other clergyperson, is the center of all that we are and do here, thanks be to God.
James, the Lord’s brother, has an answer for us, as we heard earlier, and James is always a good place to start. James promoted healing and forgiveness, repentance, and the need to take care of each other. And we must take care of each other, all of us. I must take care of you, and you must take care of me. I might add that you always have, and I have no complaints. We must take care of all the servants of God. We can always do better. When Phillip Bass was our senior warden, he and I talked together about how hard our rector Helen was working. We both thought she was pushing herself too hard, but we were unable to get her to slow down at all. Let’s remember that and take better care of our new rector.
A vestry member here was surprised recently to learn that I am not a member of St. Luke’s. Our bishop, Sam Rodman, would be quick to tell you I belong to him. I cannot vote in parish elections or, happily, serve on the vestry. Every priest, at ordination, swears to “respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of your bishop.” And “you are called to work as a pastor, priest, and teacher, together with your bishops and fellow presbyters, and to take your share in the councils of the Church.” I mention that last, taking our share in the councils of the Church, because of something that happened here maybe four or five years ago. All clergy have some responsibilities apart from the parish church. Helen, as a member of the General Board of Examining Chaplains of the Episcopal Church, spent several days up at Kanuga grading general ordination exams. Someone here at St. Luke’s, and I honestly don’t remember who, said “You mean we’re paying her to grade exams at Kanuga? “ With our next rector, let’s have no more of that, please.
So, as James taught us, we shall pray for the sick, that they be healed, that we should pray for each other and for forgiveness, and remember that prayer can be powerful and effective. But above all, love and care for each other. I want to close with two prayers, for us and for others:
Almighty, and everlasting God, from whom cometh every
good and perfect gift; Send down upon our bishops, and
other clergy, and upon the congregations committed to their
charge, the healthful Spirit of thy grace; and, that they may
truly please thee, pour upon them the conditional dew of thy
blessing. Grant this, O Lord, for the honor and our Advocate
and Mediator, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Lord, make us instrument of your peace. Where there is
hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
are born to eternal life. Amen.
Thanks be to God.