Archives for January 2011

It sounds so simple, 4 Epiphany (A) – 2011

January 30, 2011

Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Matthew 5:1-12

It sounds so simple: do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God.

But on closer inspection, are these instructions really so simple after all? How can we be sure we are seeking God’s justice and not our own? How are we to love kindness and not merely like niceness? How do we walk in humility without feeling humiliated?

Fortunately we have an excellent teacher and guide: Jesus Christ. His teachings on the mountain in Galilee are some of his best-known words. The Beatitudes, the “Blesseds” are perhaps the most famous of all.

When we pay attention to the future tense – “they will be comforted … they will inherit … they will be filled” – it’s easy to hear these sayings as a series of promises, of rewards to be allotted in the afterlife, or in the new creation at the end of times. Doubtless those promises will hold true in the new creation, but is that enough consolation to us now, when we mourn, or hunger, or are persecuted? As a disillusioned man in a song by Sting says of inheriting the earth, “What good is a used-up world, and how can it be worth having?”

Perhaps Jesus is also calling us to a deeper and more challenging understanding. Twice he says, “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Just a bit earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, we are told that from the beginning of his teaching Jesus proclaimed that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Jesus tells us that the kingdom is near, is at hand, is so close we can reach out and touch it.

If the kingdom is truly at hand, then all the blessings Jesus mentions are not afterlife consolation prizes, but are present-tense realities. Try out these re-wordings of the Beatitudes:

• Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they have the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are those who mourn, for they are being comforted.
• Blessed are the meek, for they are inheriting the earth.
• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they are being filled.
• Blessed are the merciful, for they are receiving mercy.

In this light, the blessings become both strength and guidance for doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.

Justice in our earthly kingdoms typically uses the tools of punishment and reparations. Applied well, our justice systems protect the innocent, shield the vulnerable, and ensure equity. Applied poorly, they protect the powerful and disproportionately condemn the weak.

Justice in the kingdom of heaven relies on the mercy and righteousness of God. Our Baptismal Covenant calls us to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” Our tools for this heavenly justice system are mercy and righteousness and peacemaking. If we use these tools to do justice, look at the blessings that follow – receiving mercy, being filled, being called children of God!

Better yet, the blessings are not only a reward to us, but also a source of motivation and guidance. Because we have received God’s mercy, we have a model for being merciful and the desire to extend mercy. Because we have been forgiven and restored to peace with God, we are strengthened to forgive others and work for peace and reconciliation. Because we are filled with God’s spirit, we hunger and thirst more and more to see righteousness in the world.

But what about the times when it’s hard to see righteousness in the world, when we ourselves are persecuted, or when we are in mourning, or when we feel empty in our own spirit? Jesus assures us that blessings are present even in the midst of these times. Perhaps he’s even teaching us that at such moments we are most open to perceiving the grace of God.

In the midst of persecution and slander, Jesus calls us to rejoice and be glad – for we are walking in the kingdom of heaven as well as in an unjust world. When we mourn, and are tossed by our natural and right emotions of grief and anger, how vivid are those moments when the presence and compassion of God break through! Walking in the kingdom of heaven means learning more and more how close God is to us when we are in need.

Jesus even assures us that we have the kingdom of heaven just when we feel poorest in spirit. Just when you feel emptiest, he says, keep reaching out to the kingdom that is at hand. In other words, walk humbly with your God.

Humility is all about letting go of our need to know and to control. When we can finally let go of asking why we must grieve, why we must feel alone, why we must witness and experience evil in the world – when we are given the blessing of letting go and keeping silence – then we find anew that God is walking by our side. To be meek is to set aside the sense of our own power; when we stop trying to control our surroundings, we rediscover our own freedom to enjoy the gift of the world.

The Beatitudes call us above all to a sense of openness before God. We don’t see God until we see the face of Christ in others – we learn to do that by pursuing justice and kindness toward all people. We don’t see God until we stop trying to control, and begin learning to walk humbly in God’s presence. But when we practice doing justice and loving kindness and walking in humility, the Spirit continues to work in our hearts, purifying us. And blessed are the pure in heart, for they are seeing God.

So it may never be easy, but perhaps it is simple after all. Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God. Walk in the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, inherit the earth, be filled with righteousness, receive mercy, see God, be God’s children, rejoice and be glad. Be blessed.
— The Rev. G. Cole Gruberth is priest-in-charge of the Southern Tier Episcopal Ministry, a community of seven houses of worship and welcome, within the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y.

Discover your call, 3 Epiphany (A) – 2011

January 23, 2011

Isaiah 9:1-4Psalm 27:1, 5-131 Corinthians 1:10-18Matthew 4:12-23

Proclaiming the Good News is not something left only to individual evangelists; it is in fact the task of the entire church. Yet, we are often led to believe and act as though only individuals can tell the story of Jesus. Epiphany is a season about proclamation and the power of God at work in God’s people, to be sure; but it is also a season when the church examines its life and witness and how it understands itself to be the incarnated Christ planted in a local community.

In today’s Hebrew scripture from Isaiah, and in the gospel, there are echoes of Advent:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
on them light has shined.

In a small tourist town in the mid-South it is now winter; unemployment is high and there’s not much money in anyone’s pocket. A church decides to offer Sunday night suppers for the community, and local restaurateurs offer to prepare the food – all donated. As one chef said, “This is why I go to church,” and he and his fellow chefs generously donate good food each week to feed anyone who shows up between 4 and 6 p.m.

This is the light that shines in a land of deep darkness, and it is part of the gospel of Jesus, part of the Good News for folks who are living in the gloom of unemployment and the dark and cold of winter.

In another community, a church offers income-tax assistance to the elderly at no charge; still another decides to help people with special needs to pay their monthly bills and combines bill-paying times with a meal at the church.

These are tasks that can’t be done by individuals, but a congregation can easily develop a significant ministry of light that makes a difference.

Epiphany is a time of recognition; the recognition that Jesus Christ is present, “incarnate” as we church folks sometimes say, born into the world, made flesh, affirming our humanity. That’s the main theme of Epiphany.

There is also another theme: that of repentance, which again is an echo of John the Baptist’s preaching and an anticipation of Lent.

Repentance is often thought of as private, personal, nobody else’s business, between us and God alone. Well, repentance also has a corporate nature to it. In the reading from First Corinthians today, we hear Paul chiding those who have divided loyalties. He points out to the Corinthians, and to us, how this mocks the Good News. A church that is divided is not a witness to the gospel, and is subject to public ridicule. One parishioner in a conflicted church tried to keep the lid on the trouble, saying, “We don’t air our dirty linen in public,” only to find the “dirty linen” was already in the public awareness. Saint Paul knew the devil to be at work here, and that division was the antithesis of proclamation.

So, we find Epiphany a time of witness and repentance, personal and corporate. The readings today underscore both, and challenge us to set aside our petty differences so that the church can be a place not of sloppy agreement, but of vitality. Conflict drains the energy out of any organization, churches included. Our job is to look outward, to see the opportunities for mission and engage in them. That is how we proclaim the Good News to a community, and that is how we avoid pettiness and conflict.

In addition to witness and repentance, we find a third theme of Epiphany: the call. Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, finds Simon Peter and Andrew and simply says, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

Is our church a place where people can discover their call? Are there ministries in which everyone can participate? Is our church multi-dimensional: inward and spiritual, outward and mission-focused, focused on the ones yet to come rather than only on those who are already in the fellowship? Creating a place for new people is often creating a place for people to be called, just like the chef who discovered he could use his talents on Sunday nights to cook food for others.

Epiphany is often a time for annual parish meetings. These meetings are frequently dreaded by clergy, endured by laity, and concluded with a feast of relief. The lessons for today are a forceful reminder that these meetings ought to be times when the church takes council for mission. They should never be times of complaint or hand-wringing over budget deficits. The community can benefit from being recalled to its mission, just as though it were Jesus coming by and saying, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”

That call should be at the center of everything we do, every time we meet. When the call to follow Jesus is the agenda, then we will discover that any church, regardless of its size, average attendance, or age, can be a place of Good News.

 

— Ben Helmer is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Eureka Springs, Ark., a small tourist town in the mid-South. He and his wife live in nearby Holiday Island.

Come and see, 2 Epiphany (A) – 2011

January 16, 2011

Isaiah 49:1-7Psalm 40:1-121 Corinthians 1:1-9John 1:29-42

So very often, the gospel passage appointed for a given Sunday contains one major theme, or one simple story. Not today. Today’s gospel is chock full of proclamation, imagery, and narrative. Let’s review the major themes in these dozen verses of scripture:

• John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him and proclaims, “Here is the Lamb of God.”
• John the Baptist reminds us that he baptized his cousin Jesus, and the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.
• John the Baptist testifies that Jesus is the very Son of God.
• Two disciples call Jesus rabbi, or “teacher,” and Jesus invites them deeper into the mystery, with a simple phrase, “Come and see.”
• Finally, we have an abbreviated recounting of the story of Andrew and Peter deciding to follow Jesus and saying, “We have found the Messiah.”
There’s so much material for theological musing that it almost seems as if this should be the subject of many sermons, not just one. And the theological assertions in today’s gospel reading are profound: “Here is the Lamb of God,” “This is the Son of God,” and “We have found the Messiah.”

It makes us want to ask Jesus not just “Where are you staying?” as the disciples did, but also “What exactly are you up to?” “What is your purpose?” or even “What do you want of us?” To these, and to all such questions, Jesus issues the same gentle invitation: “Come and see.”

What exactly is this Lamb of God? Come and see.

Who is the true Messiah? Come and see.

Why should we follow you, Jesus? Come and see.

It is as if Jesus is saying, “Why not give discipleship a try?”

This is a difficult thing for us in the twenty-first century, is it not? First of all, we know that to choose to follow Jesus is a major life decision. Discipleship requires dedication, work, and sacrifice. And as a consequence, we want that choice to be an informed decision.

For most of us, making a major life decision is an arduous and prolonged process. We need time to do research, to consult experts, to ask the opinion of friends. We may consult Consumer Reports before buying a car, or even a toaster. In medicine nowadays, they are very careful to secure your “informed consent” before the most minor procedure, and modern pharmaceuticals come with warnings about their many side effects.

So we carefully sort out the options, search for information online or in books, and begin to compile a list of pros and cons. What are the benefits, and what is the cost? We have all done this at one time or another. In a manner like this, we may have made a decision to enter into a primary relationship – or to leave one. To buy a house, or take a new job, or move across town – or even across the globe.

Making informed decisions is a worthy endeavor, as it helps us avoid repeating some of life’s biggest mistakes, making a bad situation worse, or facing the mountain of unintended consequences of a poor choice. In a way, our society’s tendency to encourage us to “do the homework” so thoroughly may be one of the reasons why Christianity appears to be in decline.

Let’s see. It may go something like this: if we choose to become a disciple of Jesus, then we will be expected to work harder than we ever imagined, to give more than we thought possible, and to surrender our stubborn need for control to serve the divine will.

And what do we get in return? This, of course, is where the invitation to “come and see” becomes so pivotal.

Because, on the face of it, we get nothing – at least nothing the world would consider a “gift.” Just more work, more need requiring us to give, and more and more opportunities to surrender. That’s because the gift of God’s grace is free, and offered to everyone without condition. There’s nothing anyone can do to earn it, deserve it, or be excluded from it.

And in our transactional world, this just does not seem like the kind of situation to which we aspire. No. In our world things go more like: first I give this, and I then get that in exchange. This is how it is supposed to work, right?

But the gifts of God’s mercy, love, and grace – they just are not like that. They are ours, freely given, without condition. So, if we choose to become disciples of Jesus, and to give our time, talent, and treasure, what do we get for all our trouble?

Come and see.

The values that Jesus puts forth in his gospel do not really make any sense in the system in which the world assesses worth. You really have to immerse yourself in the mystery before you can even begin to understand.

The world cherishes wealth. The world esteems power. The world treasures control. But the gospel calls us to love the poor and serve the needy, without condition. And the gospel compels us to surrender our lust for power and give up our need for control. And what are the potential consequences of that?

Come and see.

The Savior of the world, you see, is also the one our scriptures call “a man of sorrows,” “acquainted with grief,” and “despised and rejected by men.” That surely doesn’t sound like someone destined for success or greatness, does it?

The spiritual life is full of paradoxes, those seeming contradictions that actually express a deeper spiritual reality. Paradoxes such as: gaining our life by losing our life, enjoying true abundance by giving away our possessions, and becoming followers of the all-powerful one who emptied himself of power.

You really need to “come and see” in order to understand – or even begin to understand. Without regular experience of the liturgy, our Sunday worship is just an empty ritual. So come and see, again and again. Without an ongoing discipline of prayer, our utterances are nothing more than endless demands of God.

Come and see, and try again. Without personal sacrifice, our lives can become meaningless, focused more on the accumulation of material goods than on sharing the love that comes from God.

So come and see the Lamb of God, on whom the Spirit descended like a dove, the Son of God.

Come and see Jesus the rabbi, who teaches us the way of salvation.

Come and see Andrew and Simon Peter, who drop their nets and leave behind everything to follow Jesus.

The invitation was offered to those anonymous disciples so many years ago, and it is offered to us again today. Come and see – and be enriched in Christ, in speech and knowledge of every kind. Come and see – and learn again that God is faithful, and that you are called into the fellowship of God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Come and see – so that you too can declare with confidence, “We have found the Messiah.”

 

— The Rev. J. Barrington Bates holds a Ph.D. in liturgical studies from Drew University and currently serves as rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, N.J.

Baptism of Our Lord, 1 Epiphany (A) – 2011

January 9, 2011

Isaiah 42:1-9Psalm 29Acts 10:34-43Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus joins the crowd at the river Jordan. His cousin John has been baptizing people with water – the water of repentance. Only a few weeks ago in Advent, we heard John tell those gathered at the river that one would come – whose sandals John was not worthy even to hold – who would baptize them with fire and with the Spirit. That day John hurled at the Pharisees and Saducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now the axe is at the root of the tree!”

Back then in Advent, we could imagine the excited murmurs that might have rippled through the crowd. “Baptize with fire?”

“Someone so great John won’t hold his sandals?”

“Someone who will wield an ax to cut down – what? Maybe the curse of the Roman occupation?”

We wonder whom they thought they’d see. “Oh, let’s hope someone powerful and mighty – maybe on a horse.”

Then Jesus joins the crowd at the river Jordan. His cousin John is there and only he can pick Jesus out. Only John recognizes the greatness of the Messiah. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” No flourish, no parade of horses, no axe, no fire, nothing different. Yet.

In Sunday school, many of us may have asked at one time, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized if he didn’t have any sin?” We learned that baptism is initiation. Forgiveness of sins is only one part of the grace of baptism; but more, baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, our catechism says.

So Jesus, by being baptized, was showing his solidarity with his community, his willingness to be counted among these people of God. The Word Incarnate was again showing that God was content to pitch a tent among the people and live with and like them. As the gospel tells us, by doing this, being baptized by John, Jesus was fulfilling all righteousness. So, the folks then might have wondered, where was the fire and Spirit? It’s not what they may have expected. This was just the beginning. There was, of course, a little excitement – the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and a voice declaring, “This is my Son which whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is baptized and anointed with power and the Spirit, more will come. For Matthew, this is the point at which Jesus’ mission and ministry begins.

After this, various scripture passages bring us back to baptism. In the reading from Acts today, Peter explains to new followers that the spreading of the message of peace preached by Jesus Christ began in Galilee after Christ’s baptism. We know other stories, such as the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Phillip and the baptism of the prison guard’s whole household by Paul, and of course, the baptism of more than 3,000 after Pentecost. Baptism is critically important to our understanding of who we are as a people of God.

For too long we understood baptism only as the sign that original sin was washed from our souls. For centuries people put off baptism until moments before their death, believing that with baptism their sins were washed away and they were guaranteed heaven regardless of what kind of life they led. Fortunately, the liturgical renewal of the 1950s onward restored our understanding of baptism as an initiation – a recognition of our status as children of God.

When we consider our baptism we might think more consciously about that beautiful verse in Genesis 1: “So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” Yes, we believe baptism cleanses us from sin, but even more, it gives us power and grace to accept our own ministry and mission as offered to us by God.

It’s tempting to compare our baptism with Jesus’ baptism and for us to come up wanting. He was anointed with power and the Holy Spirit. He went on to preach, teach, heal, and collect a vast number of followers. He suffered, died, and rose again. He was, after all, both human and divine. And us? Our baptism surely must be less. We aren’t divine. We can accept baptism and then go on to live ordinary lives, forgetting perhaps even the day of our baptism. Or can we?

Absolutely not. The church reminds us every year at this time about Jesus’ baptism. That should be a clue that our own baptism is vitally important. We should remember the day. We should celebrate the fact that we too were baptized with power and the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that descended on Jesus like a dove. We might not get the visual of the dove and the sky broken open, but we are equally graced, filled with the Spirit, adopted as God’s own, and given a ministry and mission for our lives. It is just that important.

Baptism should be life changing. Imagine what the church might look like if each baptized member grasped hold of and used the power that is freely given us by God in our baptism. In Isaiah today we heard these words of the Lord: “I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” We know these words were used in Isaiah’s time for his community, and we now use them to talk about the Messiah, but we must understand that they are meant for us too. Doesn’t Jesus constantly tell his followers, and us, that we must take up Jesus’ ministry and continue spreading the good news? Aren’t we supposed to care for the poor, build up the weak, and spread peace? Each baptized person makes five promises. Each of us promises to God five things that, if we take them seriously, could change the world. Can we recite those promises by memory? We should be able to. It’s just that important.

Could we change the world or have we given up in despair? The church gives us this celebration of Jesus’ baptism every year, maybe in the hope that it will make us think again about our own baptism. Maybe that memory will ignite the fire that smolders in our souls. That fire is there. Baptism gives it to us, and it never goes out. We often call the people who let that fire burn brightly “saints.” But again, imagine what our church would look like if we all let our fire burn. Remember the words to the hymn: “I sing a song of the saints of God … and I mean to be one, too.”

We are created in the image of God. We are loved beyond measure – all God’s people are loved beyond measure. Imagine the church. Imagine it on fire with the power of the Spirit. Imagine the explosion of peace and joy that could be ours. God says, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”

This is our anointing.

 

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

Your light has come, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2011

January 6, 2011

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

A man was walking through the mall. He came to an escalator and decided to go up a floor. As he approached, he noticed a warning sign: “Dogs must be carried on escalator.” The man grew anxious, desperate even, as he looked around, asking himself, “Where am I going to find a dog?”

The star in the sky, the Epiphany of Christ, is the appearance to all the world, to all of creation, of the Light of extraordinary kindness. God had been here, all along, ubiquitous, yet invisible.

The darkness hid God, occluded, and enshrouded the Divine. You couldn’t see God or heaven. Now you can see both. God as light pierced the darkness, as the North Star pierces the night, directing magi, and anyone else interested or paying attention.

Light is the epiphany, but so is the dove at Jesus’ baptism, and the water turning into wine. And God still seeps, blood-red, into the veins of people who welcome Spirit.

God in Epiphany is here, working wildly in this world, for you and for me. As Isaiah claims: “Your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.”

Why, then, do you still live in darkness?

To celebrate God’s epiphany, priests throughout the church will lead congregations this Sunday in a renewal of baptismal vows. These vows are based upon the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son. I believe in the Holy Spirit.” The expression of faith in God, simultaneously as three and one.

The problem with this expression of faith is that people find it arcane. People find it to be ancient, holding little relevance to contemporary faith. Are we stuck in the past?

In his novel, “Crime and Punishment,” Fyodor Dostoevsky tells a story of two criminals.

The first criminal is a depressed but intelligent young man, Raskolnikov. Raskolnikov believes all morality is man-made, that right and wrong are bourgeois and do not apply to superior people like himself. To prove his theory, Raskolnikov murders a destitute old woman. Such murder is not a moral issue, he reasons, because the woman is worthless. Guilt nevertheless overwhelms him – enormous guilt, guilt his rational mind cannot resolve.

Sonya is the second “criminal.” She needed money to support her starving little family, especially her younger stepbrother and sister. To feed them, she sold her body; she became a prostitute. Sonya seems almost naïve. She believes innocently in God, and her most prized possession is a Bible. “God will save us all,” she claims.

Sonya and Raskolnikov meet. He is both enthralled with, and angered at her. He is enthralled because of her naïveté, and he is angered because of her faith. In one scene, he insists that she read Scripture to him. But reading Scripture is, to her, an act of intimacy. His insistence becomes a violation, an unwarranted intrusion. She does it anyway, and picks the story of Lazarus.

You recall Lazarus – Jesus’ friend. Lazarus died, and Jesus raised him from the dead. At the tomb, Jesus called out, “Lazarus come forth!” As Sonya reads the story to Raskolnikov, her voice rises in crescendo, until finally she proclaims her own resurrection faith: “… and they believed on Him.”

They believed, and with that, Dostoevsky writes, “The candle-end had long been flickering out in its crooked holder, dimly illuminating in this beggarly little room the murderer and the harlot, who had so strangely come together to read the Eternal Book.”

And don’t we strangely come together, every week to read the Eternal Book? Complicit in some perverse way, through our own crimes and darkness, we are desperate souls in contradictory need of faith.

Raskolnikov finds the Eternal Book unbelievable, and dry. And too often, so do we. We listen to the Eternal Book as though its essence, its life-giving spirit, has escaped like air from a balloon. All that remains is limp rubber, and perhaps a string.

But as Sonya said, “They BELIEVED!” And we so desperately want to believe. We need to believe that there is some truth that extends beyond ourselves, hidden behind darkness – but we are also so deeply afraid.

We long to be noticed by God, deeply noticed, yet so afraid that God will actually notice us. We desire God, yet we hide from God. We are at once Sonya and Raskolnikov; we own a faith we cannot give ourselves over to.

The Epiphany is not about preparing yourself to receive light. It is not about arcane words in the Creeds. Rather, the Epiphany is about the light of Christ dispelling the night in which we find ourselves.

The darkness is dispelled not because we are worthy, but because God chooses for some unknown reason to reach through time and space and into this dark world to save us. To love us. To give himself completely to us. Despite your resignation to darkness, your light has come. The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

The Creeds – Apostles’ and Nicene – were never about the factuality of the words. You and I are not perfect, and we cannot claim perfect faith. We just don’t believe perfectly. We believe, and yet we can’t quite believe. Like the man who told Jesus, “I believe, Lord; help thou my unbelief.”

Rather, the creeds give you a place to stand, they express your posture of faith, your intent.

The Latin word credo does not mean only “I believe,” but also “I give myself over to.” We give ourselves over to God as Father or progenitor, not because we can conceive mentally of God as source, but because we so desperately need God to be our source. We give ourselves over to Jesus Christ because we so desperately need God to be Savior. We give ourselves over to Holy Spirit because we so desperately need the breath of life.

The story about the man and the escalator – it did not matter that he rode the escalator without a dog, but it did matter that he carry any dog he might have.

It does not matter whether you believe literally in God as Father, or Mother, or Creator – but it does matter that you give yourself over to that God. Your posture is your faith; your faith is the act of donating yourself. It is not, and never was, your mental ascent.

Raskolnikov thought of faith as bourgeois; but he was wrong. Faith is life-giving. People in our progressive world think of faith as bourgeois; but they are wrong. Faith is life-affirming.

The God you fear most is waiting in love and open arms for you. That is the Epiphany. And his appearing has become your appearing.

And so, believe, Believer, in God, the Creator Almighty. For as it says in Isaiah, “your light has come.”

 

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Originally from the Diocese of East Tennessee (serving at St. Luke’s, Cleveland), he also served in the Diocese of Easton (St. Paul’s Church, Chestertown). Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years. Rob is the author of “The Episcopal Call to Love” (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

Where is the child?, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2011

January 2, 2011

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23 or Luke 2:41-52 or Matthew 2:1-12

The only goal for the Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem was to find and worship the Christ with all their souls, bodies, and worldly goods. The trek of the wise men as a spiritual journey is captured well by T.S. Elliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi”:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Weaving images from the gospel reading with Eliot’s poem serves as a guide for own journeys. T.S. Eliot wrote “The Journey of the Magi” in 1927. That same year, Eliot the intellectual who had vigorously studied Buddhist and Hindu philosophy at Harvard University, came to saving faith in Jesus Christ and was baptized. This poem chronicles Eliot’s own journey to conversion.

In 1927, T.S. Eliot was also working on a book on the Anglican preacher Lancelot Andrewes and had recently completed an English translation of St. John Perse’s poem “Anabase.” Eliot freely borrows from both a sermon by Andrewes and the French poem “Anabase” in crafting “The Journey of the Magi.”

The first five lines of the poem are lifted, with slight poetic alterations, from Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity sermon, preached for King James on Christmas Day 1622. Andrewes used as his text for the sermon Matthew 2:1-2, the first two verses of today’s gospel. In that sermon, Andrewes said the Magi readily undertook “a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey” to follow the star to the Christ child. Then looking out on the royal court that formed his congregation, Andrewes said that people of his own day were so complacent in their faith that they would not likely travel to the manger if they were as close by as the shepherds, much less as far away as the Magi.

Andrewes went on to speak of his mid-seventeenth-century fellows, saying that they make great haste to other things, but not to worship God. If Christmas were to involve a long journey begun in December, Andrewes said, “Best get us a new Christmas in September; we are not like to come to Christ at this feast.” For Andrewes the travel, the journey, the seeking, amounted to nothing in themselves. The only motivation of the Magi was to find and worship the Christ with all their souls, their bodies, and their worldly goods. Andrewes said our goal should be the same.

This sermon of 1622 apparently had quite an impact on the scholar and poet Eliot, who read it more than 300 years later as he was nearing a critical point of decision. Eliot was letting loose of his preconceived notions of who God is and how God acts and coming to see that the goal of his own life could be to seek and worship God.

The word “satisfactory,” which ends the second stanza of “The Journey of the Magi,” brings to mind today the idea of something barely up to snuff or “just good enough.” However, for Eliot, the word more likely rang of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion, which describe Jesus’ death on the cross as the “satisfaction” of our sins. Jesus’ death was “satisfactory” in that it satisfied any payment we were to make to God for our sins. So far from being just good enough, “finding the place,” meant satisfaction for sins.

In the first of the poem’s three stanzas, the imagery tells of the perils of the voyage. Undertaking their journey in “just the worst time of the year,” the Magi push the sore-footed camels along only to find themselves lying down in melting snow and thinking of their summer palaces as sleep escapes them. Excuses were ample for turning back, yet the Magi redouble their efforts, traveling through the night, napping briefly, and moving on.

This part of the poem shows how a spiritual seeker encounters many obstacles to a true journey of faith. The way is not easy, and all along there are inducements to give up the trip altogether. Faith will not come easily, and reaching conversion happens when we are willing to let those voices that proclaim it all to be folly to recede to the background as we press onward.

Enlightenment and conversion come in the second section of the poem. The section opens at dawn. Leaving behind the cold, we are brought into a place flowing with living water, which beats back the darkness. At evening, the close of this conversion experience, the Magi find the place, and in it, satisfaction.

In the third section we discover that all that preceded it happened long before. The birth the wise men went to see turned into something like death, their own death. The conversion experience was a death to their old life and they are no longer at ease among the old ways of being. The once familiar ways of home are now, for the Magi, an alien people clutching their gods. The wise man now gladly looks to another death, or rebirth.

Like the Magi, Eliot recognizes that his own conversion experience was not a one-time event. Other conversions would need to take place. More than one conversion is needed if we are ready to worship God with our souls, our bodies, and our worldly goods, as Lancelot Andrewes said we should. We can find ourselves converted in soul, but still following the old ways with our bodies or with our possessions. A new change will take another sort of conversion. Not a repeating of the initial conversion experience, but a journey to a deeper knowledge of God.

The end of the poem is a new beginning. The traveler back home once again wants to seek more. He should be glad of another death, which is itself new birth. The faith journey continues. One key to where all of this leads us is Eliot’s enigmatic line from the third stanza, “but set down, This set down.” Eliot is quoted here again from Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity sermon, which provided the first five lines of the poem. Andrewes said, “Set down this; that to find where He is, we must learn to ask where He is, which we full little set ourselves to do.”

Andrewes went on to say that there is a place to find Christ and it is not just anywhere. For Andrewes points out that Jesus said some will come and deceive you, saying of the Messiah, “Here he is,” and “There he is.” We must do what the wise men did that Herod did not do, we must seek. If like Herod we sit still, we will never find the Christ.

Our gospel reading today said that the wise men asked Herod, “Where is the child … for we observed his star … and have come to pay him homage.” They were seekers with a clear purpose. To take your own spiritual journey to another level, seek God in the places where he is found, through scripture, prayer, and worship. The journey is a long, the ways deep, and the weather hard, but in the end you will find it was, you may say, satisfactory.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon for Congregational Ministries for the Diocese of Georgia.

Claim your identity, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2011

January 1, 2011

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story.
One of the pleasures of reading literature is discovering the meaning of characters’ names. Authors will often give their characters names that tell us something important about who they are and about what they will do in the story. The great master of giving characters names is Charles Dickens. He gives us the policemen, Sharpeye and Quickear; the family physician, Dr. Pilkens; and the surgeon, Dr. Slasher. The Bigwig Family are the stateliest people in town, Mr Bounderby is a self-made man and social climber, and the Reverend Mechisedech Howler is a preacher of the Ranting Persuasion.

One of the things that children seem to like about the Harry Potter stories is the names of the characters. They have fun sounds, and their meanings are none too subtle. Severus is a Latin word for “severe” or “strict,” and Professor Severus Snape is a strict teacher if every there was one. “Malfoy” sounds like the French for “bad faith,” mal foi; and draco means “snake” or “dragon” in Latin. Put them together and you get Draco Malfoy, a real bad apple. And the headmaster Dumbledore’s first name is Albus, which means “white,” so we may suppose he is the leader of those on the side of light.

Today in our church calendar we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. In the New Testament we are told that God is the one who gives Jesus his name. And in giving Jesus his name, God is telling us something important about Jesus’ character and the role he will play in the story of God’s love for the world.

In our gospel lesson for today, we hear that “after eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” It was apparently the custom in Jesus’ day to name a male child at the time of circumcision, which was the act by which he was made a member of the people of God. That Jesus’ parents had him circumcised and named on the eighth day after his birth demonstrates their piety and fidelity to the Law of Moses. The beginning of the story of Jesus is part of the larger, ongoing story of God’s love for God’s people. Jesus’ name tells us about his place in this story.

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke, through the angel Gabriel, God tells Mary that she will conceive and bear a son and that she is to “call him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” In naming Jesus, God is telling us something about who he is. The name “Jesus” is a Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which means “the Lord helps” or “the Lord saves.” When we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus, we are celebrating the one through whom and in whom the Lord helps or saves his people.

This is a rather audacious name to give to a baby. Since many of us know the end of the story, it may seem less so, but we should not overlook what an extraordinary thing the naming of Jesus is. Before his teaching and preaching, before his healings and miracles, before his death and resurrection, Jesus is already identified by God as the one through whom He will save his people. An 8-day-old baby named Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High.” In the naming of a tiny child, we already catch a glimpse God’s audacious plan to save the world through the gift of a vulnerable human being.

It may surprise many of us to learn that we have also been given an audacious name. The Catechism in older versions of the Book of Common Prayer used to begin with this question: “What is your Name?” After saying your name, you were then asked, “Who gave you this Name?” The answer to this question was to be the following: “My Sponsors in Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.” When we were given our names in baptism, we were made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.

Our names, given in baptism, tell us something important about our characters and the roles we are to play in the story of God’s love for the world. Who are we? Most fundamentally, most deeply, we are beloved children of God, members of Christ, and through him heirs of the promised kingdom. How are we to live? We have our roles to play in God’s story of salvation by turning away from evil and wrongdoing, but putting our faith and trust in Christ, by believing in the articles of faith, and by keeping God’s commandments.

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story. Yes, we are vulnerable human beings with ordinary names like Harry and Sally and Sue. But we have also been given names in baptism that identify us as extraordinary participants in the story of God’s love for the world.

Today we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus. It was given to him when he was eight days old, when he was circumcised and made a member of the people of God. The angel Gabriel told his human parents to name him “Jesus,” which means “the Lord helps” or “the Lord saves.” It tells us that Jesus is the one through whom God’s love will embrace the whole world. This is an extraordinary and audacious name to give to a tiny baby. It is also an extraordinary and audacious plan to save the world through a vulnerable, flesh-and-blood human being. The audacity of God’s plan continues in our own names given in baptism. Those names identify us with Jesus and his story. In his Holy Name we claim our true identities as children of God and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.

Names can tell us a lot about people’s characters and the roles they play in a story.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.