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The First Sunday after Epiphany (RCL, Year A)

January 09, 2011

The Reverend Paul Roberts Abernathy, Rector

Not so very long ago, in the small town of Hillsboro, the trial had ended. The traditionalists in the culture wars, having enshrined in the law a literal Bible-based creationism, had won. Bertram Cates, a school teacher, but, more sinisterly labeled, verily, libeled as a sinner – an iconoclast who dared posit the possibility that Darwinian evolutionary theory might help explain how we came to be, thus, a disturber of the peace, even worse, a contributor to the delinquency of minors – had been tried and convicted.

 Yes, Matthew Harrison Brady, the fierce apostle of righteousness, had been silenced, choked by his convictions, which, in their very rigidity, so troubled his own house making him an inheritor of the wind that long ago had blown him off course from the path of the lifelong quest for truth. Yet Henry Drummond, the maverick counsel for the defense, with inquisitive irreligiosity taking up the banner for freedom of thought, along with his client, had tasted defeat, foolishly having challenged the crumbling, but still sturdy bastion of convention. And E. K. Hornbeck, the observer of history in the making, standing apart, above the fray, had reported the events with the precision of impartiality.

 Or so it appears, for there is much in the imaginary Hillsboro of Inherit The Wind[1] and in the real world that is not as it seems.

 The trial is over. Is it? In every age, the forces of tradition and modernity clash along the fault line of old stability and new discovery…

 And in that contest, the inquiring mind of Bert Cates always loses to the prevailing wisdom of the day. Does it? Perhaps for a time; for, in time, truth, ever elusive, ever expansive, thus, greater than anyone’s grasp at any one time, has a way of revealing itself to those who dare to see – if not today, then tomorrow and if not to one, then to another who follows…

 And as that is the way of truth, the sound and fury of Brady’s voice of resistance to change is silenced. Is it? The bigotry of certainty never dies; ever conceived anew in the womb of the human hunger for security. As in every age arise dreamers, so, too, there are those who continue to fan the embers of bright flames past in the attempt to assure that what was will always be…

 And in the face of such firm conviction, doubt, restless, ever questioning – unable with integrity to respond to the query, What do you believe?, with anything more than intelligent arguments against irrational certitudes – always floats aimlessly adrift without rudder or mooring. Does it? Drummond’s skeptical, yet compassionate humanity could peer through the veil of Brady’s shadow to see an inextinguishable spark of light, and then, in reverence, could mourn his death…

 And distance, unmired in the folly of earthly travail, unmarred by the scars of battle, is always the best, most trustworthy stance from which to record human events. Is it? Hornbeck’s ruthless detachment failed the test of mercy, which only comes through sympathetic engagement with others; his aloofness, absent of the grace that can behold and honor the indefinable complexity of every soul, even and especially of the most unlikely and unlikeable.

             Always there is much that is never as it seems.

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            John performed a baptism of repentance, the washing in the waters of the River Jordan being a sign of the cleansing of one’s soul of the stain of sin, all in preparation for the coming of Messiah. Thus, he could not see why Jesus, God’s anointed one, would submit to a rite of purification that he didn’t need.[2] Yet, Jesus, aware of John’s narrow view of righteousness – a repeatable, generations-old mistake of seeing it only as a moral quality of goodness and not as a way of life lived in accord, in right relationship of harmony and peace, with all creation – chose to be baptized as a sign that he acknowledged and, even more, was at one with the whole of the human condition, its joy and sorrow, glory and suffering.

             For those, then and now, searching for a Messiah unstained by the world, unscathed by its troubles, Jesus, appearing exactly as he is, that is, as we are, is not that one. Unlike Brady, Jesus did not bellow moral instructions from the rooftops to the benighted masses below. He joined us in life down here on the ground. Jesus, unlike Hornbeck, did not stand at some safe distance, commenting smugly on the human condition. He took active part in life’s drama. Like Cates, Jesus was tried and convicted, but unlike that teacher, he was crucified for his conviction that the righteousness of love and justice must be shared with all.

             There is much that is not as it seems, whether in fiction, this life or, perhaps, in our lives. Yet in the Jesus-story, we behold one who, in his oneness with all creation, lived an authentic, righteous life. Do we, dare we follow?



[1]
A scene from Inherit The Wind, the winter production of The Players, St. Mark’s residential community theater group, was performed during the morning’s liturgies.

[2] The gospel passage appointed for the day is Matthew 3.13-17.

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