Archives for January 2006

Truth is personal, 4 Epiphany (B) – 2006

January 29, 2006

(RCL) Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

Today’s gospel recounts an outstanding educational experience. The people of the Capernaum synagogue find that they have run right smack into the truth. Their encounter with Jesus leaves them awestruck. In contrast to their usual teachers, he speaks and acts with an authority that is undeniable.

What do these people learn from hearing Jesus? What difference does it make for them that he expels an unclean spirit from one of their number?

Because of who Jesus is and what he does, they realize, perhaps for the only time in their lives, that truth is personal. Their teachers are always passing on to them the venerable opinions of past masters. They are accustomed to hearing what one great rabbi or another said about this issue or that, and they are accustomed to setting great store by these observations.

But that particular sabbath day Jesus appears in their synagogue, and they find that the truth is not a “what,” an inheritance left over from the past, something they must keep stored away, wrapped in tissue paper. They experience the truth as a “who,” a living, breathing man whose face they can recognize and whose actions they cannot control.
This means that something in them has to die. That something is their belief that they can control the truth. For if the truth is a “what,” there’s reason to expect that you or I or all of us together can somehow master the truth, that we can bend it to our purposes. But if truth is alive, if truth is personal, if truth stares back at us, then this expectation seems groundless.

Personal truth will not choose to be our slave. That truth is personal means that our desire for control must die. We must commit ourselves to a far different existence, one characterized by interaction, an existence where the presence of each can be a blessing to all.

Truth is personal, and what is personal bears witness to truth; it has ultimate significance. It is therefore wrong to treat any person as a thing. It is wrong to treat anyone as disposable, to see anyone only in terms of our plans and ambitions. The last hundred years have been filled with just such abuse in many places around the globe.

Sometimes this degradation of the human person is brought about by a totalitarian state. Sometimes it is the work of terrorists who show no pity. Sometimes it occurs through economic and social systems that reject the least successful.

Truth is personal. We see truth in its absolute form in the person of Jesus Christ. Once he taught in the Capernaum synagogue. Now he reigns in glory. But this same Jesus appears in a host of other places also. Whether we are Christian or Communist, Muslim or Jew, when we hunger for truth, we hunger for Christ. Whether we are scientist or statesman, playwright or philosopher, when we discover truth, we discover Christ. Some know to call him Christ, others do not, but in each case his reality remains. We know Christ is present in the Eucharist, but that is not the only place to find him. Discover any truth, and you will find him, and when you do, listen to what he has to tell you.

If then we are to educate the rising generation in a way that is worthy of them, we must help them to see that truth is personal, that truth cannot be controlled, that truth is a “who” rather than a “what.” That is a Christian belief, but one need not be a Christian to accept it. It belongs to an even wider wisdom. This understanding is one way that Christ enlightens everyone born into this world.

The truth is personal. The truth is also communal. The truth never remains a private matter, something we keep to ourselves. We cannot have a private truth like we have a private toothbrush. Yes, each of us has a unique perspective on the truth, one that reflects our character and experience, yet by itself that perspective is not valid. Our different unique views of the truth find their validity when they are taken together.

Jesus encounters those people of Capernaum in their synagogue. This is a public place where study and discussion and worship regularly occur, a place where people sense that they are a community and sense that they are accountable to one another. It is within this network of relationships with all its strains and tangles that they encounter truth in Jesus. They experience him in company with one another. And once they have been shocked out of their wits, they seek one another’s help to make sense of what has happened. They do not keep silent, but start to talk among themselves. They wonder about it together.

If we are to provide the rising generation with the education they deserve, then we must help them to see that truth is communal. Children should know what it means to belong to a community of learners, a community that extends far enough to include their teachers and other adults. The classroom should not be a place where isolated individuals engage in senseless competition, but a place where each person contributes and receives because each has a unique perspective on the truth and none holds a monopoly.

In this way, children will discover that truth is personal and that truth dwells among them. They will not simply acquire knowledge, but they will experience wisdom. Their universe will not be void of great plans and purposes. Instead, a new health and a new sanity will be realized among them – and among us.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2002). 

Opening ourselves, 3 Epiphany (B) – 2006

January 22, 2006

(RCL) Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

We all remember the story about Jonah being swallowed by a whale, but what we might have forgotten is why. This is the story: God asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, a corrupt city, and tell them that if they repent, God will not destroy them. This annoys Jonah, who thinks that the Ninevites deserve whatever they get. So he pouts, and frets, and finally runs away. He takes a ship as far away as he can possibly go, to the ends of the known world. But there is a storm, and in desperation the sailors toss Jonah – who had told them he was fleeing from God – into the sea, and Jonah is swallowed by a great fish. Jonah prays to the Lord for three days, and at the end of that time the Lord tells the fish to deposit Jonah on dry land.

After all this, God again asks Jonah to go to Nineveh, and he finally does so, reluctantly at best. The king and the people hear Jonah’s message, and they fast and repent. God saw this, and the scripture tells us he “changed his mind” and did not destroy them. While God is pleased, Jonah is very displeased that God relented, and God rebukes him for his lack of charity.

In contrast, we have the gospel from Mark, the story of the call of Simon and Andrew and James and John. According to Mark, the men “immediately” left their fishing nets and boats to follow Jesus. And then there is Paul telling the Corinthians that time is growing short, that they should live with the knowledge that “the present form of this world is passing away.” We sometimes interpret Paul as being against “the world,” against marriage and emotions and family ties, but it is really more his sense of urgency that comes through his letters. It’s not that he’s against these things so much as it is this urgency that informs his understanding of discipleship.

This same urgency colors the gospel accounts of Jesus. Mark’s tempo or pace is so much more rapid and less literary, if you will, than the other gospels. He is in a hurry to tell his story, and the oral tradition of Mark’s gospel comes through clearly. There is also that same sense of urgency, of no time to waste – the early church really believed that the end of the world was near. So it would have been unthinkable to Mark that the disciples would have done anything else but respond to Jesus “immediately.”

Being human, it is likely that the apostles really didn’t drop everything that minute to follow Jesus. They probably had to make arrangements for their workers, check in at home, and all the usual things that we have to do before going on a trip. But Mark is telling a story and trying to make a point: this wasn’t just any journey, this was important.

How often do we drop everything and follow when God calls? We tend, rather, to be more like Jonah than James and Andrew in our response to God. We are slow and reluctant, we drag our feet, we are recalcitrant, and we are annoyed when God doesn’t do what we think God should do. We have lots of excuses about why we can’t do it that way, or why we can’t do it now. Often God’s plans for us, God’s interventions in our lives, have very little to do with our own plans, and they are usually inconvenient. It’s not what we had planned, they way we thought things would work out, or what we thought we would do with our lives. Sometimes, like Jonah, we just simply don’t want to do it.

The other interesting thing about Jonah’s story, aside from his reluctance, is how annoyed he was that God was willing to give the people of Nineveh a second chance (or third or fourth). Jonah just wanted God to smite them. He didn’t think they deserved a second chance, didn’t deserve saving. How often do we feel the same way? How often do we think that people with whom we disagree or people who are different from us don’t deserve God’s mercy, don’t deserve saving? Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, female or male, straight or gay, environmentalists or developers, black or white, young or old, Christian or non-Christian – the lists we make are endless in terms of differences, real or perceived, and where we draw the line in the sand. Usually we feel it is only people like us who will be saved, and who are deserving of it.

We may find Jonah amusing, ridiculous, or appalling as he mutters and whines against God’s offer of redemption to the Ninevites, and as he tries to run away from God. But if we let the story touch us, if we plumb the depths of our own hearts, we will find Jonah there within us – that part of us that judges and condemns, that desires revenge rather than justice, vengeance instead of mercy.

Jonah spends three days inside the whale, in the darkness, so he will have time to think, so he will learn a lesson. We, too, spend much time in darkness. The vengeance that we desire, the hurt feelings and grudges and rages that we carry for years weigh us down and eat at us. We are the ones who suffer the most in these situations. It doesn’t hurt the other person–the Ninevites were not hurt by Jonah’s reluctance, only Jonah was – but it damages us spiritually, relationally, emotionally, and physically. We are the ones spending time in darkness, we are the ones imprisoned.

Like Jonah, we sit outside the city, angry and hurting, separating ourselves from God and others. But there is a way out. We can choose to let go of our hurts and move on. As in the story of Jonah, God is ready to offer us love and mercy, too. It is that love and mercy that heals us and allows us to move out of the darkness. It doesn’t change the fact that we were hurt, it doesn’t mean that we weren’t right to be angry, but it moves us beyond that into a different place where we can go on.

Maybe that’s what those men saw in Jesus: a way to move beyond the things that were keeping them stuck and in the dark. Maybe they could sense his acceptance, his love, and his mercy toward them. In a society where they lived under Roman rule, where they were the downtrodden ones, perhaps they sensed the freedom he offered them to live in a different way, more wholly and more alive.

Is it possible that our judgment and condemnation of others is really a commentary on how deserving we feel ourselves? If we do not believe that we are deserving of God’s love and mercy, it is easier to deny others as well. If we feel stuck in the dark, downtrodden, not free, not whole, not really alive, we are in desperate need of what God offers us through Jesus Christ. Opening ourselves to that possibility is the only way we will be healed.

How much healing could we bring to ourselves and our broken world if we could accept God’s love and mercy for ourselves and for everyone else, as we have seen it lived out and enfleshed in Jesus? How loving and generous could we be with others if we could learn to be loving and generous to ourselves? In a world torn by division and strife, these could be the most important questions we ask ourselves at the beginning of this new year.

— The Rev. Kathleen L. Wakefield is associate rector at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Juneau, Alaska, a spiritual director and retreat leader, and a wife and mother.

You ain’t seen nothing yet, 2 Epiphany (B) – 2006

January 15, 2006

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

We’ve all heard little kids holler at each other, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” For a mother, that phrase can be horrifying because it usually means the kids are doing something like hanging upside down on a tree branch they had to climb pretty high to reach in the first place or daring each other to eat something totally disgusting to human beings. However, if the kid who throws down the gauntlet of “you ain’t seen nothing yet” is successful in doing something extraordinary – whether it’s safe or not – well, that kid can gain a lot of respect.

But of course, that’s kid stuff. Then again, that’s almost what Jesus was saying to Nathanael in today’s Gospel passage. “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. . . . Truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Nathanael has just been surprised that Jesus recognized him at all, but then Jesus says, in a manner of speaking, “You think that’s amazing? You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

For us, this image of angel traffic between heaven and earth might at first seem pleasant, perhaps a little sweet. But it probably at once meant something deeper to Nathanael. He’d know well the Old Testament story of Jacob’s dream, where Jacob saw a ladder reaching to heaven with angels going up and down. Nathanael might also have noticed the difference in the image Jesus used. Jesus said the angels were going up and down not on a ladder, but on the Son of Man – a subtle, but very important, difference. In both instances, the image of angelic traffic points to the connection between heaven and earth, the connection between God and God’s creatures. But in the image Jesus used, that connection between God and us resides in the person of Jesus. Jacob’s dream becomes very personal for us all.

This is good news – this connection – because Jesus’ challenge to Nathanael comes in the midst of Jesus’ gathering his disciples, and Nathanael is welcome to join the group. Today we might say it was his call to ministry. Nathanael, “an Israelite without guile,” has evidently been a faithful Jew, one who probably studied the Torah with seriousness. But Jesus is saying, “There’s more.” Nathanael can go even deeper into an understanding of what Torah calls him to; he can learn even more about God. Jesus’ mission is to show God’s people who God is. As we sing in the hymn “Songs of thankfulness and praise,” Jesus is “God in man made manifest.”

This is very good news – this connection between heaven and earth, this connection between God and God’s people. It’s not a new connection. It didn’t begin with the coming of Jesus. Our Old Testament passage for today is also a call-to-ministry story. It’s so easy to love this story of the boy Samuel. We love to picture little Samuel waking his teacher Eli because he heard someone calling him. “Go back to bed,” Eli keeps saying, until he finally figures out that the Lord is calling Samuel. After Eli tells Samuel what to say the next time he heard the voice, we might imagine that Eli was thinking, in a manner of speaking, “Well, kid, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” And indeed, Samuel was given a difficult job for a young boy – the job of speaking God’s truth to Eli.

From the beginning, God has offered this connection between heaven and earth to God’s people. The ladder has always been there. The means to connect with God by living as godly people has always been there. It’s we who have failed to see it or even ignored it. In her wonderful book The Dream of God, Verna Dozier writes, “Both the people of the Torah and the people of the resurrection were escaping from God’s awesome invitation to be something new in the world.” This connection to God means we must constantly be open to “new-ness” – to being re-newed, to seeing anew every day the needs of God’s people around us, to being open to the new directions our spiritual lives may go if we dare to become that ladder.

Can we even go there? Could we ever presume to be so connected to God that we could take that very creative image of ladders and angels and say our example of godly living might become a ladder for others? I hope so, because that is, I think, what God offered Jacob in his dream and what Jesus offered Nathanael face to face. This makes sense if we remember that Jesus constantly reminded his followers, and so us, that what he was doing, they and us would have to continue.

So, if we do dare, it will be an adventure. On the facade of the great abbey church in Bath, England, are two immense ladders, carved in stone, stretching from the top of the front doors to the roof. A number of angels are carved on the ladders, but it’s quite an interesting crowd of angels. Most are intent on climbing upward, but several are looking over their shoulders as if to encourage those behind. There are a couple, however, on each ladder that seem to have gotten turned completely around and look as if they’re hanging on by their toes upside down.

They’re wonderfully funny angels, but they’re also strangely comforting. Daring to be that ladder ourselves doesn’t mean we’ll always be perfect. Nathanael probably wasn’t always perfect in his ministry as one of Jesus’ disciples. Samuel probably wasn’t always perfect in his ministry as one of God’s prophets. We won’t always be perfect in our own vocations. Some days we may feel like we’re not much of a ladder, but those are the days we must remember that Jesus’ mission was to show us who God is and how much God loves us. In another great hymn, “When Jesus went to Jordan’s stream,” we sing, “the Triune God is thus made known in Christ as love unending.” In love, God offers us reconciliation. In love, God offers us a chance to right ourselves and continue in our work of building up the kingdom. In other words, our lives are to become increasingly an epiphany of God.

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

The voice of the Lord is upon the waters, 1 Epiphany (B) – 2006

January 8, 2006

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters … the Lord is upon the mighty waters” (Psalm 29).

There is a temptation to say too much about this Feast of our Lord’s Baptism and the lessons before us. The texts speak mightily for themselves: The spirit-wind of God and God’s voice is upon the mighty waters. The spirit-wind of God and God’s voice is upon the mighty waters of our baptism, just as this spirit-wind and voice was upon the waters of the River Jordan at our Lord’s baptism.

How many of us find ourselves like the disciples depicted in Acts, Chapter 19? When asked if we have received the Holy Spirit, might we too respond, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit”?

Yet, it was there, sweeping across the face of the waters in the very beginning. There is a problem of translation here. Translating the Hebrew “ruah” (rue-ah) as “a wind” just does not do justice to the Biblical text, let alone the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The word can mean breath, wind, and spirit. We can almost feel it in the fourth gospel’s depiction of Jesus breathing upon the disciples, a particularly intimate experience of God.

As it hovers or sweeps across the untamed and chaotic waters of creation, it is a mighty wind releasing into the world a specific force that is linked to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, but which is invisible, inexplicable, and irresistible.

This word of Spirit is an attempt to speak about Israel’s conviction that the world is God’s arena of governance beyond human explanation or control.

And this word Spirit is often seen to be a gift of imaginative freedom through which all members of the community of faith are capable of futuring beyond the present circumstances life presents. Spirit is God’s active involvement to move us through hope to a new future.

As Walter Brueggemann has slyly observed in his book Reverberations of Faith, “The Spirit resists being put into a flow chart or any schematic design on our part.”

It is this Spirit, this ruah, that Jesus later says comes from we know not where and means to carry us we know not where.

Perhaps this is the beginning of our ignorance of God’s Spirit: having to give up human control as Jesus asserts is not one of our primary attributes or desires. Anything that demands our giving up control is something we generally feel we can do without.

Yet, there it is on page 298 in our Book of Common Prayer in the definition of our Baptism. “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluable.”

Reflect upon Jesus’ baptism for just a moment. In Mark’s gospel we see John hard at work managing a growing revival meeting down on the banks of the River Jordan. People everywhere as far as one can see confessing their sins and accepting God’s forgiveness.

Over the horizon, beyond anyone’s sight or vision, strides in the adult Jesus having walked all the way from Nazareth. Into the water he goes. As he comes up out of the water, the heavens do not just open, they are torn apart – a word we will not hear again until Jesus is on the cross, breathes his last ruah, and the curtain of the temple is torn in two, from top to bottom. Out of these torn apart heavens the Spirit-Wind, the Ruah of God, descends like a dove upon him. And a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Try to see this all in your mind. Hear what it sounds like for the heavens to be torn apart. Hear what it sounds like, see what it looks like to see God’s Spirit-Wind descending on someone. Listen carefully to the voice: You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Now try to let the imaginative gift of the Spirit, which is yours in Holy Baptism, hear those words spoken to you, to us.

For you see, we are Christ’s Body. As we come up from the waters of our baptism, these words are meant for us: You are my Beloved; I am well pleased with you.

What would it be like to accept our belovedness? How does that feel? How does it feel to know, to really know deep inside in the most secret places of your being that God is well pleased with you? Can anyone among us remember having heard these words at his or her baptism?

It is altogether likely that in growing up and as we say “maturing” that we forget. We forget ever hearing these words. We forget who we are and whose we are. Sadder still, we come to believe that this could not possibly be God’s word to me, here, now, today.

Yet, to believe this is to separate our selves, our very self, from the love of God. And to separate our self from the love of God is what our Baptismal service calls sin. This is perhaps our most fundamental sin: to forget that we are God’s Beloved; that God is well pleased with us. Such forgetting is the beginning of so much that troubles us. Such forgetting makes it nearly impossible to follow and obey Christ as our Lord and Savior.

It takes a conscious effort to remember who we are and whose we are. It takes daily reminders to accept our Belovedness. It takes daily remembering, re-membering, to internalize this Good News of our Baptism into a living force of God’s Spirit alive within us and beyond us.

Two places to begin this remembering are the following. First, read Psalm 139 once a day for at least 30 days. Your acceptance of this News will deepen with each reading.

The second place is found in this short passage from Henri Nouwen’s little book, Life of the Beloved. Listen to these words with great inner attentiveness. At your center is a voice that says:

“I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved, on you my favor rests. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will satisfy all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, your spouse. Yes, even your child. Wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.”

God’s Spirit-Wind hovers above us night and day, calling us, forming us, making us God’s own. Listen for the voice of the Lord. Our Lord’s baptism is our Baptism.

“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters … the Lord is upon the mighty waters.”

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is rector of St. Peter’s Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He also travels throughout the church leading stewardship events for parishes, dioceses, clergy conferences, and diocesan conventions. He has long been involved in the work of The Episcopal Network for Stewardship (TENS), and the Ministry of Money. He frequently uses music and storytelling in his proclamation of the Word.

The Bible’s tall tale is our story, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2006

January 6, 2006

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

I want to give a personal two thumbs up to the movie “Big Fish.” “Big Fish” is the story of a father and a son that begins and ends at a river. The father, Edward Bloom, is larger than life. On the day of his son William’s birth, he catches the biggest catfish in Alabama’s Blue River. The catfish is so big that … Well, it’s so big that it furnishes the material for stories that Edward tells for the rest of his life, including the night of William’s engagement party, when he makes himself the center of attention rather than his son and his son’s fiancee.

William comes to believe that his father’s life has just been one big fish story, and when Edward lies dying, William becomes determined to know what his father was “really like.” But whenever William asks his father a question – about his childhood in tiny Ashland, Alabama; his college days; how he met his wife, William’s mother; how he got his start in business – his father responds with another tall tale.

In a sense, the gospels are also the story of a father and a son that begins at a river. The gospels tell us that Jesus went down to the river along with the crowds drawn by the preaching of John the Baptist. And at the river, something happened. Something happened that sounds a bit like one of Edward Bloom’s tall tales. Some say that the Holy Spirit took the form of a dove and descended upon Jesus and that a heavenly voice spoke, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The Bible might be regarded as a tall tale, and indeed some scholars look at it that way. Water into wine? A handful of loaves and fish multiplied to feed five thousand? Sight restored to the blind? The lame leaping and walking? The dead raised? Impossible, they say. The products of naive, unsophisticated, and primitive people, or else willful distortions of the truth.

Perhaps they are right. What would we have seen and heard if we had been present at the baptism of Jesus? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record that there was a dove that descended upon Jesus and a heavenly voice that announced that he was God’s Son, the beloved one.

What if we had been there and had seen and heard nothing? What if years later someone told us this story of the Spirit taking the form of a dove and God’s voice resounding like thunder? Would we be like the son in Big Fish? Would we dismiss the impossible story and say, “No, tell me what REALLY happened”? Or would we understand that sometimes a tall tale conveys the truth more effectively than the who, what, when, and where of a so-called factual account?

A scene in the novel Big Fish (but not in the movie) tells of the day when people heard that Edward Bloom was dying and began to gather in front of his house. First just a few came, and then more and more, until dozens of people were in the front yard – treading on the shrubbery, trampling on the monkey grass. Finally, William’s mother tells him to ask them all to leave. As they leave, one man says to William, “We all have stories, just as you do. Ways in which he touched us, helped us, gave us jobs, lent us money, sold it to us wholesale. Lots of stories, big and small. They all add up. Over a lifetime it all adds up. That’s why we’re here, William. We’re a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us.”

Like the friends of Edward who gathered on the lawn when he was dying, we, too, have stories to tell about One who helped us. “Ways in which he touched us. … Over a lifetime it all adds up. … We’re a part of him, of who he is, just as he is a part of us.”

We have been incorporated into a story that sounds an awful lot like a tall tale. A father blessed his son and sent him out on a great quest. He had adventure after adventure along the way: the angels sang at his birth; mighty kings brought rich gifts to him; a wicked ruler tried to slay him; at his word plain water became rich wine; his touch brought sight to the blind and raised the dead to life; although he was a simple man the wise and learned marveled at his words. He undertook great trials and surpassed all expectations. Finally, a close friend betrayed him, he was given a mock trial, and executed. But then the greatest marvel of all happened. He outwitted even death itself. He returned to the father, having completed the quest, and his father and all his household rejoiced once again over the beloved Son with whom he was well pleased.

In a sense, our stories, too, are about a Father and a Son, and they begin at a river, or at least they begin with water. As children or as adults we were brought to the water, and just as the Spirit descended upon Jesus, so the Spirit descended upon us. And just as the Father announced that Jesus was his beloved Son with whom he was well pleased, so the Father announced that we were his beloved daughter or son and that he was well pleased with us, too. Does that sound like a tall tale to you?

Is it easier to believe that your parents dressed you in a christening gown that had been handed down from great-great-great-great Aunt So-and-So and brought you to church where a doddery old man held you over a stone basin, mumbled a few words, and splashed water on your head? So be it. But personally, I prefer the Bible’s tall tale and believe that there’s more truth in it than in a “just-the-facts-ma’am” account of what happened.

The Bible’s tall tale is our story. You are the Father’s beloved daughter or son; he loves you and is well pleased with you. And he has sent you out to have marvelous adventures and accomplish great tasks: to love your enemies, to return good for evil, to bring wholeness to the sick, to stand up and speak out for those ignored and despised by others, the poor, hungry, and homeless. And at the end of the quest you will have such stories to tell. “You’re not going to believe this, but let me tell you about the time …”

— The Rev. Dr. J. Barry Vaughn, has preached at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution. More than 50 of his sermons have been published. He holds degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. Presently, he teaches history at the University of Alabama.

Belonging to Jesus, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2006

January 1, 2006

(RCL) Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

The celebration of New Year’s Day tends to be a feast of exhaustion, particularly if one stayed up to see the new year in. After the Reformation in Scotland, the old church feasts were abolished. As is often the case, if people are deprived of things to which they are deeply attached, they find other ways to celebrate, and so the old celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision was transformed into a secular day of feasting and sport.

While Anglicans retained the old feast day, we tended not to keep it. The mention of circumcision sounded a bit embarrassing; perhaps made us blush. Now we call New Year’s Day the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. St. Luke records in the verses immediately before the ones chosen for today that when the child of Mary and Joseph was taken to be circumcised, he was given the name Jesus. Certainly to the first-century Jew in Palestine there was nothing earth-shaking about the name. Many male children were given the name Joshua/Jesus, which means “God with us.” Today in Latino culture, Jesus is a fairly common name to give to a baby.

Yet the collect for today states that the name of Jesus is the “sign of our salvation.” The old canons required that we bow our heads at the name of Jesus. In our Gospel reading today, two old people, Ana and Simeon, rejoiced to see the young child. Simeon exclaims that “these eyes of mine have seen the Savior.”

What’s in a name? In our quest for authenticity we often discount the symbolic. We fear that the symbol may be emptied of reality, become something we just say or do without meaning what we say or do. We set a dreadfully high standard. Yet the truth is that saying and doing things, even by rote, may be reminders to us of the meaning they explore and symbolize. Telling our spouse that we love him or her may be an automatic response, but at times we live into its deepest meaning. Even though we may use “Jesus” as an expletive, the meaning of who Jesus is may and often does communicate itself anew by our mindless utterance. There is power in a name and in a symbol.

Jesus is “God with us.” He is “The Savior.” And that means that we belong to Jesus. It does not mean that he belongs to us. That’s an important point to understand. It is so easy for us to decide who Jesus should love or save and who he should not. However, he told us that such matters are none of our business. And that is that.

We were named and signed in our baptisms.  In baptism we were claimed, adopted, forgiven, and made members of the priestly body, the Body of Christ. We too are here to be God for others. In other words, people have a right to demand that God is seen in us, as individuals, as members of a church and of the Church. And as God is seen in the face of Jesus Christ, we are called to be Christ-like, or Christians. In the midst of church struggles, divisions, and fights, “God help us,” we exclaim. And that is the point. God helps us, seeks us, finds us, and particularly at the family table we face today, the Name of Jesus, the Word, conjoins with Bread and Wine and transforms us into newness of life.

 

— The Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier, who has most recently served in France in the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, has returned to the United States and is interim rector of St. Thomas a Becket Episcopal Church in Morgantown, West Virginia.