Like a delicious, Hungarian torte, this week’s lectionary is served to us amidst many layers of historical context. We “inwardly digest it” sandwiched between The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Candlemas, Groundhog Day, Scouting Sunday, and the start of Black History month! Each of these celebrations brings with it its own unique flavor: sets of traditions and customs, as well as different lenses and priorities, through which we are invited to view both our Scriptures and our worship today.
We’re mindful of the Feast of the Presentation this week as we nominate some of our elders to the Society of St. Anna and Simeon; the Boy Scouts today remind us that youth in our community still value Reverance. Traditionalists among us might remember Candlemas by blessings candles in our church and homes; the rest of the world remembers on Groundhog Day that, even though winter may seem very long, the light is still returning. And during Black History month, we especially honor people of color who are, though sometimes “hidden figures”, an integral part of our rich, American history all year long. I find that digging through these layers of history, like an archeologist, helps to shed light on what “the Spirit is saying to God’s people”. Including God’s promise to the people through Isaiah: “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations.” Just what shall we raise to God?
One of my favorite places that we visited on our pilgrimage to the Holy Lands was the archeological “tell” — a layered mound — in Megiddo. First excavated in 1903 by American archeologist, Gottlieb Schumacher, over twenty layers have been discovered there, revealing civilizations dating back tens of thousands of years. Remains have been found of the Canaanites who lived there as early as the 15th century BCE; they have also unearthed remains dating from the Iron Age in 1150 BCE of a city in the ancient kingdom of Israel.
Tel Megiddo is also known as the site of many historic battles, starting between Egyptians and Canaanites, leading right up to the last one in World War I, when Allied Troops defeated the Ottoman Empire, dividing Middle Eastern lands into “mandate territories”. These territories continue to divide people there today into national identities that sometimes overlook their common humanity.
These series of “cities on a hill” were built up, destroyed, and rebuilt atop that same site many times over. A strategic area, the Tel looks over the “fertile crescent” of the Jezreel Valley, an important trade route in ancient times. As I beheld the verdant, new-grown grains all around us I wondered: how did each of these civilizations, these people, think they would be remembered? What lights did they shine, hoping that others may see them and give glory to God? And what mistakes did they make?
God is asking the prophet Isaiah to make clear to the Hebrew people, in no uncertain terms, that the kinds of “sacrifices” they were offering to God did not please God: their way of life did not align with their worship practices. Archeological remains from that period reveal that certain religious practices were kept at home, while other worship was held at the Temple. God is asking the people to live with integrity, beyond empty piety: asking them for works of compassion, for actions of repairing and restoring. I imagine that these were not easy words for Isaiah to preach! And yet, Isaiah’s words continued to give courage to early preachers like Paul during complex times.
Paul points out to those in Corinth — a city of many cultures, who were perhaps struggling with Paul’s call to unity and love, rather than fear and division — Paul reminds them that even our Lord, Jesus faced persecution for his preaching. If everyone had been right on board with Jesus’ message, says Paul, they would not have crucified him! Good point. Some teachings are difficult, they require study, and humility, and the wisdom of the Spirit; it has been that way for thousands of years, Paul asserts, as he quotes from none other than Isaiah! And today, another several thousand years down the road, another few layers added onto the torte, what do we need to learn? What can we uncover in history? Upon which foundation shall we build?
Jesus himself honors the history of the prophets as his Sermon on the Mount continues in Matthew’s Gospel. Think of our Lord, not too far from the Tel of Megiddo, trying to get through to at least some of the multitudes. Jesus uses familiar, earthly metaphors: Salt. And Light. Today’s bulletin cover shows a picture of the kind of oil lamp that would have been used during Biblical times. A simple clay vessel, with a wick, that could keep burning only as long as its oil remained full. Not unlike our own, oil filled candles here on the altar, these lamps illuminated homes and Temples in ancient hilltop cities.
I remember clearly when, as we lumbered along in our tour bus, my colleague and I first saw Tel Meggido come into view. Even before we knew its significance, we were curious. What was that big edifice up there? What was it about? It made us want to know more about it. It’s like that with our faith, I think: when you shine with optimism, with curiosity, with happiness, with light, people become drawn to you. They want to know more about what keeps your lamp burning! And then, even as a hesitant Episcopalian, you can tell them . . . what will you tell them? “Shout out! Do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!”. What works will people see in our lives that will make them glorify God? Whose works have shone before us to help enlighten the way?
Katharine C. Goble Johnson worked for decades as a physicist and mathematician for NASA. This “girl who loved to count”, graduated from high school at 14, from college at 18, and became the first African American to desegregate the graduate school in Morgantown, West Virginia. Once at NASA, Katharine became known for her inquisitive mind; she let herself be heard! And her assertiveness got her included at the tables where she belonged.
Katharine’s work in “celestial navigation” quite literally lifted our civilization to the heavens! In 1961 (which may or may not have been the year I was born), she calculated the trajectory for the May 5 space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded Katharine G. Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Because of her light, her saltiness, countless girls and women, and people of color, now dream of new possibilities. And in part because of Katharine’s tenacity and faith, we now give thanks to God for the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home.
Standing on the shoulders of those before us, may we continue to reach for the stars from our little Church on the Hill. And may our optimism, our tenacity, our courage, our generosity and our love continue to shine and give Glory to God. In His name, AMEN!