Read, Mark, Learn and Inwardly Digest – Hope That Endures
“Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
What a beautiful prayer. Do you know who wrote it? And when? This collect was written by Thomas Cranmer, published in the first English prayer book in 1549. Cranmer became, reluctantly, Archbishop to Henry VIII during a time of tumultuous secular and church politics throughout Europe. And what Cranmer created during this time – the document for which he was persecuted and even executed – is sitting right in front of you in your pew today. Pick one up – either black or red, they are the same – and hold a piece of history in your hands.
Reformation in the church took many, many decades and went through various waves: The Pope excommunicated Martin Luther, who protested with his “95 Thesis” about church abuses, as well as the first Bible written in the language of the people (German for Luther). In England, a scholarly priest named William Tyndale followed suit and created a Bible in the English language. The Church of England gained its independence via Henry VIII, with a little help from Thomas Cromwell; reforms continued enthusiastically, although briefly, under Henry’s young son, Edward VI, producing a new Book of Common Prayer in 1552, as well as the 42 Articles of Religion (you can find those on page 867, riveting stuff!).
Then along came Mary Tudor, Henry’s other daughter. Some people were glad to have her back, because they didn’t like all the changes happening. Mary brought back the Catholic religion to England, repealing all the legislation of Henry and Edward. “Married clergy, the Prayer Book, ‘heretical’ teachings, even vernacular Bibles, disappeared from public view.”1 During Mary Tudor’s five-year reign, 300 people (including Thomas Cranmer) were burned at the stake for heresy; hundreds of others fled the country, and still others kept their faith secretly.
Enter Elizabeth I, the saint we saw dancing last week with Malcom X in the pictures of the mural from St. Gregory’s Church, the “shero” of many Anglicans, myself included. Elizabeth, although not perfect in her struggles, brought with her reign a balance of faith and scholarship, and ushered in the “via media”, the middle way, the true character of the Anglican Church. A new prayer book, based upon Edward’s but with a bit more nuance and inclusion for all people, was issued in 1559. During Elizabeth’s nearly 50-year reign, she sought to bring people together, so that they could worship in Common Prayer. She removed anti-Catholic sentiments from the Prayer Book, and did not persecute those of different religions. During the Elizabethan era, literature and the arts flourished in England – Shakespeare, for example – and peace was the goal, rather than conflict.
Why am I telling you all of this? Especially on such an emotionally charged Sunday? My liturgics professor, The Rev. Dr. Louis Weill, used to say that “history is the great liberator”. This reminds me that, during times of discord and stress, it often helps to take a long view and to witness the many times in history that God has made a way forward.
This is the theme of our Scriptures for today. Remember: we have this lectionary largely because of Thomas Cranmer, who included a cycle of Scripture readings (in English) in the Prayer Book so that the people would be empowered to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” all of the Holy Scriptures during the course of a year. Today’s two readings from Isaiah – including the Canticle – span the whole of the three books of Isaiah, and speak both from the “high times” before the exile, when Israel was living large and in charge, as well as from the moment in Chapter 65 when the Hebrew people are returning to Jerusalem after their time in desert, hoping that “the lion and the lamb” will truly be able to work together.
Today’s Gospel reading, too, takes the “long view”, looking beyond Jesus’ failed attempts to reform the Temple, to the eventual destruction of the Temple, the persecution of Jesus followers, and toward the imperative to focus on moral values in the times to come. Values like generosity and inclusion, hospitality and equanimity, courage and above all, Love.
The Apostle Paul, along with Jesus, encourages Christians toward perseverance, toward endurance; not to “tire of doing what is right”. These days, I’m not sure that many of us have so much “grown weary” of doing what it right, as grown complacent. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we may have thought, “if I don’t welcome a stranger, if I don’t give my best to help others, what difference will it make in my life?” Today, I’m more sure than ever: it matters.
One of Cranmer’s objectives in the Book of Prayer was to make clear the theology of the Eucharistic Table. Catholic piety of the Middle Ages had begun to suggest that Christ was being sacrificed, over and over again, at the Eucharist. Our Eucharistic Prayers, when you listen to them, clarify that Jesus made one perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. One; once. What do we then “offer” at the table? “Ourselves, our souls and our bodies” as well as our “praise and thanksgiving”. Every day, every Sunday, we offer ourselves to do God’s work, remembering that Jesus has no hands in the world but ours.
Our reading from Luke 21 curiously leaves out the first four verses which tell an important story: the “widow’s mite”. I imagine Jesus feeling discouraged: he’d been arguing with the authorities of the Temple, and had even lost his temper, and knocked over a few tables, he was so mad! Then, Jesus looked up, and saw a poor widow, putting her last two coins in the collections box. He witnessed this woman’s faith, her generosity, and it renewed Jesus’ courage, I believe.
Next week, on Christ the King Sunday, the Lectionary will lead us right up to Jesus’ passion and execution, right up to the brink of despair. And then we will wait, during Advent, for the birth of Hope as a tiny infant. Along with Mary, and Joseph, and all the people of Israel, we will wait, trusting and praying for God to do what God does best: create. Create a new heaven and a new earth, a new path forward out of the wilderness. Create joy and delight; create a kingdom that includes those who are marginalized, a place where everyone is welcome. Create in us a new faith, a new trust, and new energy and will to labor, day and night, doing what is right. For God creates through us, and in us, my friends.
Good people of St. James, today I pray that you may be nourished by God’s Holy Word, by his sacrament of Eucharist, and by the stories of his faithful people throughout history. Those who never gave up, who kept fighting, sacrificing even their own lives for the reign of God. Those like Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, Queen Elizabeth I, and even Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Let us “hold fast to the blessed hope of everlasting life”, and “by our endurance, gain our souls”.
1 The Study of Anglicanism, Sykes, Booty, and Knight, Editors, (Fortress Press, UK), Revised Ed, 2004, pg. 8