Archives for 2010

Welcome the divine glory, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2010

December 26, 2010

Isaiah 61:10-62:3Psalm 147 or 147: 13-21Galatians 3:23-25, 4: 4-7John 1: 1-18

The familiar Christmas story that features angels and shepherds, a brilliant star and a silent night, Mary and Joseph in a stable, and the newborn child asleep on the hay – this is a story that captures the imagination. It is the source for countless carols and pageants, greeting cards and paintings, and nativity scenes. It is sung about, seen, and celebrated wherever Christmas is kept.

But this Christmas story from Luke’s gospel is not the only perspective on the birth of Jesus that appears in the New Testament.

There’s also Matthew’s version, which emphasizes the dreams of Joseph, Herod’s fear and violence, the magi and their mysterious gifts, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.

There’s the opening chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, where the Son of God appears as heir of all things, victorious and triumphant.

There’s the passage in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which describes Christ born of a human mother so that we can be adopted as God’s children.

And there is also today’s gospel, the opening verses of John, which offer still another perspective on the birth of Jesus, another view of Christmas and what it means for us.

Luke’s familiar story engages the imagination. John’s approach is different. It is not opposite to that of Luke. It is not more or less important. It reveals the same Christ. But it is different. For where Luke engages the imagination, John’s verses can be said to engage the mind.

The symbol for John’s gospel is the eagle, because the eagle soars to the heights and has keen vision. Nowhere is such symbolism more appropriate than in the opening verses of this gospel, where immediately we are taken up to eternity and daringly witness that before anything was created, the Word already was, and this Word was with God, and this Word was God.

But what is this Word, and how does this passage deal with Christmas? Again, if Luke’s focus is imagination, John’s focus is thought. And so John borrows a term from the most sophisticated thought of his time, both Jewish and Greek. This term we conventionally translate as “Word.”

This term has a rich history among ancient civilizations living on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It does not mean simply “word” in our ordinary English sense. Instead, it means at least three things.

First, it refers to the structure that underlies the universe, what holds everything together, what makes things work. It is this Word that scientists of our time endeavor to hear and understand, whether they be physicists or biologists or astronomers. The glue that somehow unites all aspects of our wonderfully complex cosmos – this is part of what John means in today’s gospel in making reference to the Word.

The second meaning has to do, not with what is, but with what ought to be, the divine law and intention. Atoms and galaxies are obedient; they follow laws appropriate to what they are. Human beings are manifestly not obedient, yet still we understand there is a law. All people recognize this, however imperfectly, and ethicists and legislators work to express this law. So the way we are meant to live, in all its power and profundity – this is part of what John suggests in making reference to the Word.

Yet another sense of this term has to do with meaning and purpose, with a question that haunts every human heart: What’s it all about? We endeavor to connect with purpose and meaning through myriad forms of philosophy and religion, literature and art. We rage against the suggestion that the grandeur and sorrow of earthly existence is without significance. A persistent sense of purpose in the universe – this is part of what John means in making reference to the Word.

John’s focus is the rigors of thought rather than the richness of imagination. He borrows this term, the Word, from the most significant thought of his contemporaries. And he makes impressive assertions about this Word. This Word is not made at some moment in time, but always was, and always is, and always will be. The Word is with God and is God. The Word is the creator of the universe. In this Word are both life and light.

Wherever, then, people have some awareness of knowledge, of ethics, of purpose, they are enlightened by the Word, regardless of whether or not they know this is happening.

It is now that the drama begins. This Word enters the world in a new way, but remains unacknowledged, unrecognized, even by people who should have received the Word. But the Word persists, with that persistence we call love.

It is here John makes his most astounding claim. He puts together what human reason would say are incompatible. He announces that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

On the one hand, flesh: humanity in its finitude and frailty. Not the body simply, but human nature as subject to suffering, decay, ignorance, and destruction. It is this that the Word becomes by choice.

And remember what the Word is: the structure that underlies everything, the way we are meant to live, the purpose of existence. The Word who creates and who sustains the entire marvelous universe, from unimaginable galaxies down to unimaginable subatomic particles – this Word becomes flesh, a baby who wets and cries and shivers in the cold.

Luke’s familiar story engages the imagination, electrifies the imagination. John’s verses, on the other hand, engage thought and blow the circuits of the mind by audaciously uniting, and uniting forever, what human thought sets apart as opposite: our frail human flesh, with its ills and weaknesses, its ignorance and destruction; and the Word, which come forth forever from the Father and underlies all creation, all ethics, all meaning and purpose.

Luke and John demonstrate different approaches to the truth of Christmas. They are not opposite, and one is not more important than the other, but they are different. Their differences appear in what we have already considered, and also elsewhere in their respective accounts.

Do you remember how Luke’s Christmas story ends? Mary treasures the angelic message delivered to her by the shepherds, and ponders its significance in her heart. The shepherds return to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard. Thus Mary appears as a model of contemplation, the shepherds as a chorus of praise. It is not hard to imagine Mary as reflective, realizing in new ways who her child is and the purpose he was born for. Nor is it hard to imagine the bright-eyed shepherds dashing off, full of joy, different people than they were only hours earlier. Thus we have a picture on earth of the life to which we are invited in heaven: the contemplation and praise of God.

Recall now a point in John’s verses where he shifts attention undeniably to himself and his audience: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”

Luke appeals to the imagination; John appeals to the mind. And here John entices, teases, and excites the mind with the claim that we can see God’s glory. We can see it in Jesus: his birth at Bethlehem, his cross on Calvary, his resurrection appearances at Easter, his love alive among his people.

This is the glory that flames forth in the heart of blessed Mary.

This is the glory that makes shepherds sing for joy.

This is the glory available to every heart and mind that welcomes the truth of Christmas.

So then, allow your imagination to be delighted by Luke’s beautiful story. Let your mind be enlivened by John’s announcement that the Word has become flesh. Ponder the depths of divine mercy along with blessed Mary. Sing with the shepherds of Bethlehem, for the angel’s message is meant for you as well as them.

Welcome the divine glory today and all the year round, for it is ours to see Jesus, both now and throughout eternity.

 

— 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).

The best news, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2010

December 25, 2010

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 9; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

People spend a lot of time waiting: we wait for services to be delivered, we wait in line to be served at the post office and the bank, and we wait for next year, hoping perhaps it will be better, and possibly fearful that it won’t be. “Waiting for the other shoe to drop” is an expression of dread, and one on the lips of many who worry about their jobs, their futures, and their health.

Our culture tries to address all this with panaceas, things to make waiting more tolerable. We have things we can buy to wear in our ears so we can listen to music while we wait, we have online banking so we can avoid the lines, and we can even print our post office postage online. Waiting for the other shoe to drop is countered by shopping, eating, dieting, exercising – the list is inexhaustible. Then why are so many of us anxious and cynical?

By now most of us just want a little peace and quiet to savor Christmas, even if we haven’t finished the to-do list. But then, there’s the stuff to take back and exchange, the year-end financials to file, the decorations to take down and put away, the …

Wait! What was that in the second reading this morning? “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy.”

That may not have been in any of our presents under the tree, but it truly is the greatest of gifts, something totally unearned, undeserved, and if this is the dropping of the other shoe, let it be!

We don’t have to make ourselves happy. We don’t have to classify things as “fun” or “not fun”; we can see them all as part of the gift of life. We don’t have to solve the unsolvable or try the most expensive remedy. God gives to us as we are, for how we are, for what we are. God gives us a babe born in a manger not to mock, but to affirm our humanity. A babe born in a manger is hard to resist and opens our hearts to tenderness and awe – and there is nothing we can buy or bake that will do that in the same way.

An older man recently got a Christmas card from someone he barely remembered. Years ago the man had been a teacher in a tough school in a hardscrabble industrial community. One of his students told him he was going to quit school and go to work in the car factory; he’d make good money. The man told him not to do it, that he would live to regret it. The boy’s father came to school the next day and scolded the man for interfering in family matters. The father told the man all the children in his family had gone to work and quit school, and they had all earned good livings.

But this boy heeded the teacher’s advice and stayed in school and graduated. Later he got into some trouble – bad trouble that put him behind bars for a long sentence. While incarcerated, he wrote to his former teacher and told him, “You were the only person who ever acted like you cared what happened to me, and I have remembered that even when life has been pretty ugly.”

That is the story of Jesus being born into the world. God is concerned about us, cares about us more than anyone else can.

Biblical scholars tell us that all of the titles ascribed to Jesus – Messiah, Prince of Peace, Anointed One – were all titles ascribed to the Roman emperor. The Emperor had to use raw and terrible military power to protect those titles. They were inscribed on Roman coins and statues as constant reminders, and legions were summoned to defend them when necessary.

Jesus’ entry into the world, proclaimed by the angels and witnessed by shepherds, is a soft entry that mocks the political order. The shepherds witness the babe, then tell a few friends, then disappear into history. But countless millions take up their witness and even today, this very day, some for the first time will realize it is true, that God born in the flesh is good news, the best news, and the most precious of gifts at Christmas.

There is so little we truly need once we embrace the babe in the manger, and even less that we want. Jesus becomes the answer to all our longings and hopes, the resolution of our dreams, and the failing of our fears. Time and again we are reminded of God’s goodness toward us, and the birth in the manger is the beginning of a journey that will end with the cross, the true sign of God’s outpouring to us.

Well might we join with the angels and proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

 

— Ben Helmer lives with his wife in Holiday Island, Ark. He will be delivering this sermon on Christmas Day at St. James’ Episcopal Church in nearby Eureka Springs.

The work of Christmas, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2010

December 24, 2010

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

On this holy night, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, who, according to Luke, was born in Bethlehem, in a stable, because the town was full of out-of-town visitors who had come to pay their taxes. But if you look around, you will see that we’ve made much more of this celebration than the observance of a simple birth story.

This time of year is profoundly fraught with multi-layered meanings; family traditions; economic success for merchants; in the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice; the pause between the end of the lunar year and the longer solar year; and our year-end tendency to want to evaluate this year before embarking on another. All these things, along with a group of fictional stories like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, find their way into our consciousness, our decorations, our gift-buying habits, our parties, and into our expectations. Our culture treats Christmas with massively sentimental attention. We watch Hallmark specials on TV, we resurrect “A Christmas Carol” with its ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future; and we long for our families to match these sentimental visions. We can even get sentimental over a puny little Christmas tree, like the one in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

None of this is bad. Traditions instruct us, delight us, and remind us of our values. But Christmas trees and Rudolph don’t have anything to do with the birth of a Savior. What is this story meant to tell us? If we really want to look at Christmas past, imagine the morning after Jesus is born:

The stable is full of animals. The cow is loudly asking to be milked. The straw smells like animal dung and the funk of childbirth. Stunned and exhausted new parents wake up to an entirely different reality from yesterday: there’s a baby in their lives now. They rub their eyes: were those really angels making all that noise last night? And what about those shepherds – they found us in this dim little stable because, they said, a host of angels showed them the way. The new life lying in the straw between them is somehow the cause of all the commotion. True, every baby is a miracle, but this baby – Mary and Joseph can’t stop staring at him, touching him, holding him, like any new parents – they know that God has plans for this baby, and they’re a little afraid.

We often regard this sweet scene through a Hallmark-special fuzzy lens, as though it were only about another sweet baby. But this nativity scene, the morning after the dazzling holy night, isn’t just the end of Mary’s pregnancy and the start of a new family. The baby in the manger is none other than Emmanuel, God with us. The people who walked in darkness have, indeed, seen a great light – and we’re not just talking about the shepherds and the star. The light emanating from this sleepy domestic scene is the light of God, come to be with us, come to dwell in us, come to transform us. The response of faithful people to this new reality is to learn from Jesus, to emulate Jesus, to become bringers of God’s light ourselves. We celebrate the gift that God has given to us in Jesus when we subvert oppression, especially in the life-affirming ways that Jesus employed – by teaching, healing, giving voice and vision to those who have been in darkness. The work of Christmas begins, but does not end, tonight.

One of the best-loved of all Christmas hymns is “Joy to the world.” Listen to the first verse, where we sing “the Lord is come” – very much like the memorial acclamation in the Eucharist, when we say “Christ is risen.” “The Lord is come” says that Jesus comes to us here and now, not only on that first Christmas 2,000 years ago. The universe shifted the moment that Jesus was born, shifted toward the reality of God’s presence in and with and for God’s creation. We are faced with the task as Christians of making real that revolutionary love, here and now, in the time and place we belong to. Christmas present should look different and better than Christmas past.

The other part of the first verse of “Joy to the world” that challenges us is this: “let every heart prepare him room.” How have you made room for the living Christ amid the busy shopping days and decorating and parties? The only way for us to “prepare him room” that matters to the world is when we make room for Jesus to challenge us and change us, to develop us and transform us into Christ’s own hands and feet and strength and love for this time and place. To “prepare him room” means giving up some of our attachment to having a “perfect Christmas,” one that touches all our personal buttons and fulfills every tradition and wish. To prepare him room means, perhaps, less retail and more giving; less concern about having a perfect dinner table and more feeding the hungry; less decorating and more real celebration of who Jesus is, the one who is always being born in our hearts and who desires always to be with us.

Christmas doesn’t end tomorrow. Christmas doesn’t end with Epiphany, or Lent, or Easter; Christmas is God’s continuing gift of God’s presence with us, and Christmas is our challenge to prepare room in our hearts, and in our lives.

So what about Christmas future?

As we pack up our ornaments for another year, fill the garage with boxes labeled “Christmas,” think about how your life in January and February can continue the work of Christmas. As you pull the tinsel off the tree and put away the Frosty the Snowman videos, imagine who is lost, who is hungry, who needs peace in March and April. When the shepherds are back with their flock in the box, remember their surprise and joy, and find someplace to offer the song of the angels to someone who needs it in June.

Howard Thurman puts it this way in his poem “The Work of Christmas”:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.

 Merry Christmas.

 

— The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tustin, Calif. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

Waiting with the women at the tomb, Good Friday (A,B,C) – 2010

April 2, 2010

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42; Psalm 22

“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 

Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Good Friday comes every year with its unique burden of grief. We know the story, we have heard it, felt it, wept over it. But every year it comes to us with renewed regret and sorrow, even though, for the Christian, the outcome of the story does not remain in tragedy but emerges in triumph. Yet the pain of it never diminishes. When we hear the words of John, so simple and so utterly heartbreaking, we allow our hearts to be wounded anew.

What strikes the listener and participant in this drama is the injustice of it all – the actions that bring the prophecy of Isaiah to its startling reality: the one who lived in total obedience to God is being made an object of scorn. The one who loved so thoroughly and so completely is being left alone, spat upon, and rejected – a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Despite all the affliction and suffering Jesus, willingly, without resistance, “poured out himself to death”; he who was without sin “was numbered with transgressors,” as it says in Isaiah, “bore the sins of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

We know that all this came to pass. Sometimes we watch, and like many passersby on the Via Dolorosa, feel only curiosity: in a violent world like ours, meeting death without responding in revenge is so odd that we cannot comprehend it. At other times we feel the terrible injustice of that Friday and are angry. But anger is not allowed: Jesus tells the angry Peter, “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” Something else is happening here, as alien to our world as it was to the Roman and Hebrew authorities in the first century. We still don’t comprehend this kind of total obedience to the divine will. We don’t understand what he is telling Pilate any more than that unfortunate procurator understood him.

Pilate is trying to buy time. Filled with fear of what the emperor would say if he made another serious mistake with the Jews (for Pilate had a history of bad mistakes with the religiosity of the Jews), he is trying to find a way out of this dilemma so he will not be demoted by Tiberius once again. Fascinated by this silent prisoner who has the bearing of a king because of his innate peace and authority, Pilate asks him, “Are you a king?” Jesus had spent his short years of ministry proclaiming a new kingdom, something so removed from Pilate’s understanding of power that Jesus does not really answer that question; he knows that Pilate will not understand. But he gives to Pilate, and to all of us, something much more important to think about:

“I came to testify to the truth,” he declares, and adds something so utterly surprising that if Pilate and all the people around that drama had listened, they might have died in hope, when their time came. Jesus adds, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Can you imagine what it means to belong to the truth? It implies a state of being. Truth is no longer an abstract concept but a concrete reality. The only way for us to understand truth, as used by Jesus here, is to grasp that Truth is God. It is in the nature of God, it emanates from God, we can belong to it. When we belong to Truth, we belong to God, and we are able to hear Jesus’ voice.

What a wonderfully comforting statement this is. Not just for us who have heard the good news, who have believed in God as revealed in Jesus, but also for the whole world – for all who seek the truth, as our Book of Common Prayer says. Once again on this Good Friday we feel the universal embrace of God’s love, we hear the universal call to all whom God has created. He who poured out himself to death for us assures us on this night that all who belong to the Truth hear his voice. Instead of separating us Jesus, in his death, brings us together.

May we wait for resurrection in the same spirit of love. After weeping bitterly with Peter for all that is past, let us wait with the women at the tomb, ready to serve the one who poured out himself for us.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2003).

A new order, not just a humble act , Maundy Thursday (A,B,C) – 2010

April 1, 2010

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14; Psalm 116:1, 10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35

“And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.”

Have you ever heard a verse of scripture as if for the first time? Have you ever noticed a connection that, in many hearings in the past, you had ignored? Did you now hear the stunning juxtaposition contained in this one sentence?

If someone were telling you a story about a person who had been given all power by God – for this is what “all things into his hands” means – if you were introduced to such a person who came directly from God and was about to return to God, would you expect him to put on a towel, an apron?

Think about it. Imagine this scene. You would naturally expect such a person to put on a crown or assume the stance of power; this is what the world has taught us to expect. Why then did the evangelist make the first part dependant on and connected to the second? The second part of the sentence derives from the first: it means that the one person with control of “all things” willingly performs the humblest act of a servant. The connection between the two ought to stun us into silence and awe.

With this one scene vivid before us we tonight leave an insane world behind in order to enter into sanity – utter sanity and peace in the midst of the saddest story in the cosmos. The Lord and Teacher, as he admits that he is, takes on the role of the servant inside an ordinary upper room while the forces of evil are going mad outside; men who are drunk with their own power and cleverness are plotting to kill him, as he quietly takes off his robe, puts on a towel, and kneels before his students and friends. This is a situation that only God would have dreamed up. But Jesus says that by this act he is teaching us to dream in the same manner. Even though the servant cannot rise higher than the master, as the people believed in a world that kept everyone in his and her place, the master here becomes the servant.

Peter is scandalized. “You will never wash my feet,” he tells Jesus. And if the writer of that day possessed this particular technology, he would have italicized the word “my.” “Not my feet, Lord.”

But Jesus reprimands him. He is really saying to Peter:

“Forget the old ways of thinking and doing, Peter. Forget the structures that keep the poor, poor, and the slaves in a permanent underclass from which they cannot escape. Forget what you have been taught, and do as I do. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Many of us go through the motions of washing each other’s feet on this sacred Maundy Thursday but forget to remember and to emphasize that this is a new order, not just a humble act. All the passages we read tonight speak of a drastic change to the status quo. Think for a moment about that world of the first century. Rome controlled her subjects with an iron hand. Compassion, love, and non-violence had no place in such a world. Slaves were not considered human beings; the emperor had unquestioned power; the father in the household, the pater familias, could dictate the life or death of his own children; women were not citizens; and humility was not a virtue but a weakness to be despised. In Israel, an occupied land, the higher clergy, Annas and Caiaphas in this instance, controlled the people by collaborating with the Roman powers. Caiaphas admits it when he says during these secret machinations against Jesus, “It is better that one man should die for the people.” That meant that he knew how to appease Rome.

Into this world comes the Son of God, and by donning a towel and kneeling before his friends to wash their feet, he declares that in God’s eyes everything is different from what Rome and the clergy declare as the order of things. Power is relinquished willingly because love is stronger than power. What a revolutionary concept! It was unthinkable in that first century; it is scandalous even in our time, except for those who truly understand the good news of God in Christ.

Robert Browning wrote a poem about a fictitious Arabic doctor, who visited Israel some years after the resurrection. This physician comes across Lazarus and hears his own story of being brought back from the dead. He realizes that Lazarus’ way of seeing the world is totally different from that of other people. The physician relates this encounter to his friend Abib when he returns home. He tries hard to remain skeptical, but he keeps returning to what Lazarus revealed to him. He tells his friend, “If this indeed happened, think of the implications.” Listen to the last verse of this poem by Robert Browning, “An Epistle”:

The very God! think, Abib; dost thou think?
So, the All-Great, were the All-Loving too –
So, through the thunder comes a human voice
Saying, “O heart I made, a heart beats here!
Face, my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
Thou hast no power nor mayst conceive of mine,
But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
And thou must love me who have died for thee!

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse, 2003) and other Biblically based books.

Our hearts and our treasures, Ash Wednesday (A,B,C) – 2010

February 17, 2010

Isaiah 58: 1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Reading Isaiah 58 knocks the breath out of our self-righteousness. The prophet’s words are addressed to all people and nations who claim belief in a God of justice and love. As citizens of this country and as people who carry the name of Christ, we are commanded to listen carefully. Ash Wednesday is a time for repentance, not just for us as individuals, but also for us as a people, a nation.

The words of Isaiah fall on our collective soul like a whip:

“Day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that
practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the
ordinance of their God.”

The prophet continues by zeroing in on all aspect of our failure to do justice:

• Serving our own interests
• Oppressing workers
• Quarreling and fighting among ourselves

How well we recognize all these failings, especially at this time of national unemployment and home foreclosures while the rich thrive.

We no longer practice fasting as the ancient Hebrews did – a fasting that God rejected because it was done only as a ritual by those who ignored the poor. We may not fast, but we do attend church, and we do claim to be a righteous nation – “the greatest nation in the world” is a phrase used across the land.

Yet we allow voices of hate, voices that despise the poor and the oppressed, to populate the airwaves. What would the prophet say about those voices? What would he say about the millions who listen to those voices? How many of us make it a Lenten discipline not to listen to voices on the radio or on television that spew hate and racism, that show admiration for the rich while despising the poor?

The prophet’s words were echoed centuries later by Jesus of Nazareth who responded to the call to loosen the bonds of injustice by the way he lived his life and by his death. Jesus, who called citizens of God’s kingdom only those who fed the hungry, who gave water to the thirsty, who clothed the naked, and who visited prisoners – not those who made a show of praying and giving alms.

On this day, when we allow ourselves to recognize our own faults, our manifold sins, our mortality, we are asked by the prophet and by Jesus to look at what really matters. We should not feel satisfied that just because we may have followed certain rituals, we have done what is just before the eyes of God.

On this day, the words of Jesus as recorded by Matthew, remind us not to be gloomy when we pray or when we work for the kingdom. He wants us to be joyful. Jesus wants us to remember “the least of these” not as a show but because we cannot do otherwise when we are faced with God’s demands and with God’s love.

Above all, in this cultural climate when the very rich are rewarded with bonuses while the poor lose their jobs, we are asked to remember where our treasure lies. Do we treasure things that perish, or is our treasure doing the will of the Father, a will that is never corrupted or co-opted or rewarded with gold?

Oh, let us on this Ash Wednesday wear the ashes with humility and repentance and with a determination not to be silent when the oppressed are ignored, overlooked, or despised. Let us put our hearts where our treasure is – in the love of the One who called us to be God’s righteous people indeed.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross (Morehouse Publishing, 2003), also available in audio form.

The terror by the name of Herod, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2010

January 3, 2010

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

The gospel reading today reminds us that Jesus was born at a time that held little to no regard for human life. Emperors and kings reigned supreme, considering themselves equal to gods. They held the power to kill, and there was no one to hold them accountable. We like to think that eventually Christianity changed all that for many parts of the Western world, but eventually human nature succumbed to its pre-Christian idolatry – the divine right of kings comes to mind. Thanks be to God that this idolatry has been extinguished in almost all parts of the world.

Today, however, we are thinking again of that old terror by the name of Herod. There were several Herods in history, but two are mentioned in these passages – the one who is known as Great and his son Archelaus, who succeeded him. Herod was indeed “great” in military successes and in knowing how to placate and bribe the Romans who held power over the world they had conquered. He built cities and magnificent edifices; he married 10 wives, had many children and suffered immeasurably as a result of so many conflicting desires and machinations for his throne. He was named “King of the Jews” by Octavius, who later came to be known as Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. There were so many internecine killings in Herod’s family, almost all of them related to his fear of losing his throne, that it is not doubtful that he was also a man capable of ordering the slaughter of innocent children. He may have been called King of the Jews, but Herod was not burdened by any of the religious commandments of the Jewish God. He was much more like a Roman emperor than a Jewish king in the tradition of David. And the Jews never quite accepted him as one of their own, since he was an Idumean.

It is true that there is no historical corroboration of the flight to Egypt, but that does not keep the Christians of Egypt, the Copts, from being utterly convinced of its truth, specifying numerous places as giving shelter to the holy family and being convinced of their length of stay in the country. We must remember that the evangelists did not have the same concept of history that we have today. Do these stories matter? Of course they do.

Look at the history of the Herods and compare them to the stories of Jesus – the child born to a poor young mother who said yes to God; the child protected by a good man named Joseph who obeyed the words of the messengers of God. Who made a difference in subsequent history and in the hearts of human beings? Who is remembered with love and devotion? Who is worshiped and obeyed? And whose life and death changed the world? Think about Herod and then think about Jesus of Nazareth. Whose kingdom do you prefer?

One bribes the Romans with money taken from the taxes of the poor people of Judea in order to curry favor with the conquerors and hold on to his throne. The other urges his followers to give what they have to the poor while he himself lives as one who has nowhere to lay his head.

Herod uses violence that brings forth more violence; Jesus resists violence by offering peace and forgiveness.

Herod builds palaces and temples to his own glory while Jesus builds the kingdom of God by turning the values of power and wealth upside down.

One lives by injustice, the other by justice.

Herod orders death while Jesus offers life.

Who is the one we long to emulate?

The story of the flight to Egypt, of a poor couple and an infant escaping to another land, has given hope to millions of refugees the world over. It is possible that thousands of refugees have been given asylum and been resettled by churches because of the memory of the One who started his life as a refugee.

Historians, both Christian and secular, try to denigrate these stories of the infancy and childhood of Jesus as written by Matthew and Luke by calling them “legends.” The first answer to this is that the evangelists were not writing history but were telling a story of faith. The second answer is a kind a comparison that may help us put things in perspective. In 31 B.C., a great battle took place at Actium, a Greek port city. Antony and Cleopatra, great and famous personages of their time, were defeated soundly by Octavius, who became the all-powerful Roman emperor, Augustus. This is documented in history. Nearly three decades later a son was born to Mary in Nazareth, an obscure village in Galilee. In the eyes of the contemporary world, Octavius/Augustus was all-important, a self-proclaimed son of god. Yet none of his acts proved to be godly.

In the eyes of the same world, Jesus was unknown and ignored; yet his followers came to be convinced that he, indeed, was God’s Son. His life and death testified to the love, justice, and mercy of God.

On this day we remember only Jesus of Nazareth with gratitude and praise. Thanks be to God.
— Katerina Whitley is a lecturer at Appalachian State University and the writer of “Walking the Way of Sorrows: Stations of the Cross” and other books of biblical storytelling.

Sharing the name ‘Christian’, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2010

January 1, 2010

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

Abraham means “Ancestor of many.”

Moses means “to draw out.”

Israel means either “he struggles with God” or “God struggles.”

So, if our etymological skills are keen enough, at least from an Old Testament point of view, we can figure out the purpose of a particular patriarch or matriarch simply by reading his or her name. Of course, Abraham did indeed become the father of many. Moses, after some trials and tribulations, did draw the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and led them to the land of promise. And Israel, Jacob’s other name, given to him as he wrestled with God at Peniel, was the moniker that would be indicative of all of his descendants’ relationship with God for generations upon generations.

So with all of this said, it is safe to say names mean much more than simply that by which one is called. Names mean not only who you are, but often what you do. Our identities have as much to do with what we do as they have to do with what we are called. Smith, Cartwright, Brewer, or Cooper – all fine last names – have their roots in professions. Long ago, individuals who worked at these professions came to be so closely associated with them that what they did defined who they were – literally.

Identity means character, uniqueness, and individuality. And in our society, much of who we are and how we are perceived hasn’t changed all that much from antiquity. Upon meeting someone for the first time we inevitably ask and answer the all-important “So, what do you do?” It is a means by which we convey to others our identity. In short, where we spend the majority of our time and energy defines who we are as human beings. Who knows? Someday before too long someone may have the last name of Processor or Byte.

If biblical names are so important in describing what purposes these august individuals served, then the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus certainly has a place in the Church’s calendar. We heard in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that Jesus was given “the name above all names.” And Jesus’ name means, “He saves.” It is, of course, a rendition of the Hebrew name Joshua. And if names impart identity, then Jesus’ identity is living into the fullness of his name – animating it and turning a concept like salvation into a living, breathing human being.

Mary and Joseph knew none of this as they stood with him all wrapped in swaddling clothes at the Temple, obediently presenting their first-born child for the rite of circumcision. They didn’t know what would happen thirty-some-odd years later. They had no way of knowing how their son, born in such obscurity, would live into his name. How he would be the one upon whose shoulders all hopes had been placed for millennia. All they knew was what the angel Gabriel told them, that the child would be called Jesus.

Christology is the study of Jesus Christ. And although there are vastly different approaches to Christology, most scholars agree that to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” we must first answer a foundational question: “What does Jesus do?”

Identity and purpose take on even more complex meanings when we delve into the second person of the Trinity. And as scripture tells us, it is precisely because of Jesus that God is revealed in God’s fullest. The uniqueness of the en-fleshment of God is to reveal God’s identity in a way never before seen prior to the incarnation.

The epistle to the Hebrews says Jesus is “the exact reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” So answering the question, “Who is Jesus?” is to engage the divine on a human, and therefore unique, level. To know Jesus’ name is to know something about God. And the thing we discover is that, as the Gospel of John tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Through Jesus, God brought to fulfillment God’s promises of atonement or “at-one-ment” of humanity with God’s self. Through Jesus, God pioneered a pathway to the very gates of heaven that heretofore had been unassailable by humankind.

So celebrating the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is about so much more than a ritual observed in a temple 2,000 years ago by a devout Jewish family. For we realize that in Jesus, we live vicariously through his victory over sin and death. It is not just a belief system. It is not just a way of life. It is a very change in our identities.

It all begins with a simple but powerful statement. You remember: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked and Christ’s own forever.”

With that, we are given the grace to share in Jesus Christ’s victory. We are given the grace of a whole new life. We are given the grace to be called children of God, who all share the same name: Christian.
— The Rev. Scott Baker is rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Newport News, Va.