Archives for January 2012

It might be worth a try, 4 Epiphany (B) – 2012

January 29, 2012

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

This past Wednesday, January 25, marked in our church calendar the Festival Day of the Conversion of Saint Paul, and with it, the conclusion of this year’s annual observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Not familiar with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity?

Well, the Week – sometimes referred to as an “octave” in church parlance – is a yearly ecumenical event dating back to the early part of the twentieth century, a time when many Christians zealously hoped and prayed for healing and oneness among the churches. Paul Wattson, an Episcopal priest and later convert to Roman Catholicism, hit upon the masterful idea of promoting an entire week of the church year as a time of prayer for Christian unity. And he appropriately chose the week in mid-January that falls between the festival days of the two great Apostles, Peter and Paul, for this new observance. The concept caught on, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is nowadays commemorated in many and diverse denominations across Christendom.

However, actual unity among Christians remains as elusive a goal today as it was a century ago in Father Wattson’s time. The rifts among Christians run deep. Indeed, some might contend that the churches of the early twenty-first century are, like spiritual tectonic plates, drifting farther apart than ever before. The reasons for this are probably as varied as the divisions among the churches themselves. Like the apostles Peter and Paul, who often did not see eye to eye, the followers of Christ today continue to squabble – sometimes perhaps over essentials of faith – but just as often over details of practice and custom.

The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of which it is a part are, of course, not alone among the great churches of our age split by disagreements over doctrine and other issues. All churches are at some level a reflection of the broken world of which we are a part.

It is tempting to wish for a conciliator among us, such as Paul attempts to be with the Christians of Corinth – as disgruntled a group of believers as you would ever want to meet. In our second reading today, he addresses them on the then-current hot topic of “food sacrificed to idols” and whether it is proper for followers of Christ to eat it. Since we know, as Christians, that “no idol in the world really exists,” Paul explains to the Corinthians matter-of-factly, “We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” Yet some believers, he hastens to add, are scandalized at the thought of eating such sacrificed fare, and so, “If food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat.” And that is that, as far as Paul is concerned.

Perfectly sensible.

Needless to say, few in our world today are as self-effacing or ready to compromise as was Paul on such a controversial topic. And we, of course, will never know with certainty if the people of Corinth in fact heeded his example of tolerance or respected his authority as an Apostle.

But we do know that those who heard Jesus early on in his ministry soon came to recognize in him “one having authority” like no one ever before. They were literally taken aback and “astounded at his teaching,” as our reading today from the very first chapter of Mark’s gospel testifies. The point of our Lord’s authority is emphasized again a verse or two later as Jesus drives out the unclean spirit. “A new teaching,” the people conclude in amazement, “A new teaching – with authority.” In Jesus’ Word and work, they come to know beyond a doubt – with authority – what their own senses and logic could never have taught them.

As we reflect on the divisions among the churches – and in our own hearts and communities – we might well want to know: What, in heaven’s name, did Jesus actually teach or say in that synagogue in Capernaum so long ago? What amazed the people so? The gospel text frustratingly does not tell us. Did he, like Paul, talk about food sacrificed to idols? It is probably safe to say that he did not. Did he bring up in Capernaum any of the controversies and heresies that would plague his church over the coming centuries? Again, unlikely.

Perhaps he did, however, tell the people of God’s fatherly love and care for them. Perhaps he illuminated, as no one before, the teachings of the great prophets going back to Moses. Or he might have spoken of the kingdom of God, as he so often did, and of the promise of redemption and forgiveness of sin.

We simply do not know.

But we do know for sure that he addressed the unclean – and troubled – spirit afflicting the man in the Capernaum synagogue and commanded, simply and clearly, “Be silent, and come out of him!” Perhaps that is what we need to remember: That it is only in silence – and prayer – that the troubled spirits of today will come out of us all and free us from dissension and sin, and make us once again one people in Christ.

Be silent.

And listen.

Hmmm.

It might be worth a try.

 

—The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary, a chaplaincy of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” St. Margaret’s Facebook page at www.anglicanbudapest.com.

What Jesus calls us to do is proclaim, 3 Epiphany (B) – 2012

January 22, 2012

Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62: 6-14; 1 Corinthians 7: 29-31; Mark 1:14-20

[NOTE TO READER: “Lectio divina” is pronounced “LEK-tsea-oh di-VEEN-ah.”]

The collect for this Sunday begins “Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation.”

Do we seriously make that request of God? The reading from Mark in today’s gospel lesson depicts the disciples readily answering the call of Jesus, reminding us of the opening lines of Hymn 661:

“They cast their nets in Galilee, just off the hills of brown
such happy, simple fisher folk before the Lord came down.”

Here we are in early winter, less than a month after Christmas, and we are almost propelled into addressing the call of Christ in our lives. This call comes to many of us more than once; the call is continuous. It was with the disciples as well. Every incident, healing miracle, public teaching, or encounter called them further into proclamation of the Good News. We are never fully there because the character of the call is a journey.

A woman who grew up in her hometown church remembers going forward to the altar as a young teenager to make her public decision for Christ. She said she believed at the time that was it: her life would be different and better. But she said she did not realize how often she would have to re-make that decision to follow Jesus in light of things that happened to her. An accident killed both her parents when she was a young mother; later her eldest son was diagnosed with cancer, from which he recovered; and then she endured the eventual breakup of her marriage. She said each of these events were moments when she knew to answer the call of Christ would lead to a new place. Now she knows there were many more times, joyous as well as sad, when grace was given to her to respond.

There is a form of scripture reading based on the Benedictine style of lectio divina, which is Latin for “divine reading.” The reader is asked to read a passage three times: first to note what word or phrase stands out in the reading; then to interpret what the scripture, or God is saying; and finally to answer the question, What is God or Jesus calling you to do? People who use this method for reading scripture find it becomes an active part of their spiritual lives. The living word of God calls to them, beckons them, has them consider something new and challenging. This call is more than a nudge; often it leads to profound change.

A man who regularly participated in lectio divina was studying to be an accountant. His study group met on Sunday evenings at an ecumenical campus ministry. There were a lot of things happening in his life, all of them unfolding with new career possibilities when he began to realize he was, in fact, being called to work with young children. Now he is a volunteer working with a group of court-appointed special advocates for children who have been placed under court supervision. He is also considering going to seminary.

Answering the call of Jesus Christ is based on listening and being ready to respond. Listening is an art in itself. It requires us to do more than just hear things that sound good to us. Listening requires us to filter out all the noise, listening for the still, small voice of God that usually comes to us quietly, often through odd connections with people, sometimes strangers, who see something unique in us and call it forth.

Being ready to respond is quite another thing. At this time of year there is a musical play frequently performed, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” which was composed by Gian Carlo Menotti. In this story, Amahl is a young boy who must use a crutch to walk, and he has a bad habit of telling fibs. One night as he is sitting outside, his mother calls for him to come inside, and when he tells her that he sees an enormous star “as big as a window” over their house, she does not believe him. Later that night there is a knock at their door, and three kings, the Magi, stand before them, asking if they could rest overnight in the house, explaining that they are on a long journey to give gifts to a wondrous child. After the kings fall asleep, Amahl’s mother, who is worried that her son will become a beggar, tries to steal gold from one of the kings. When she is caught, Amahl tries to attack the king’s guard who is holding her. The king is filled with mercy when he sees Amahl’s pitiful defense of his mother, and the king tells her to keep the gold, explaining that the Holy Child, for whom the gold was intended, will not need it, because his kingdom will not be built on earthly wealth. Amahl’s mother, filled with shame and remorse, begs the kings to take back the gold, and wishes she had a gift to send the Holy Child. Amahl gives the kings his crutch, his only possession, to give to the child. And miraculously, Amahl’s leg is healed, and he sets off with the kings to see the child and give thanks.

In this marvelous tale, both music and story work together as we witness an intervention by God into the life of a poor family, an intervention that results in profound change. The call of Christ can be seen as an intervention because that is what it is. “Follow me and you will fish for people,” says Jesus to the disciples.

The call is not always a loud command; it is often a quiet suggestion, but it is always an intervention that challenges us to change direction, move to a new way of thought and life.

If we follow the words of today’s collect, we see that the purpose in responding to the call is not just to better ourselves, but to receive grace to proclaim the Good News. No one has to wear a priestly collar to do that. The places we live, the families and friends we love, the workstations where we spend eight hours a day are all places for proclamation.

What Jesus calls us to do is proclaim, and he calls us to use the gifts we have to be proclaimers of God’s enduring love for each of us.

 

— Ben Helmer is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives with his family in nearby Holiday Island.

We all do what we can, 2 Epiphany (B) – 2012

January 15, 2012

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Hannah was barren. She could not have children. In the ancient times, this was a disgrace, but her husband loved her and did not care. Hannah cared. She stood deeply ashamed in the presence of other women. She was an underdog.

Like so many of us who turn to the Lord when we need help, Hannah turned to the Lord God, the friend of the underdog. The Lord heard Hannah’s prayer.

Eli was the priest on duty when Hannah petitioned God, and he announced, “God has granted your petition. You will have a baby.”

Within the next year, Hannah gave birth to a son, Samuel. When Hannah returned the next year to pray, she did the unthinkable: she donated Samuel to God, leaving him behind to be raised by Eli. In dedicating Samuel to God, Hannah proclaimed: “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.”

Years later, this same Samuel anointed Saul and David as kings over Israel. It was to the boy Samuel, only 12 years old, to whom God spoke today’s strange prophecy of judgment. This prophecy was his first, and he didn’t quite know what to do with it. After all, the prophecy was directed at his adopted father, Eli, his mentor and caretaker.

“Here I am,” Samuel answered God, who spoke out loud. How terrifying it must have been for a boy to hear God’s harsh judgment from dark corners of the night.

That is the “Old” Testament, isn’t it? Dark corners, rash judgment, and cruel penalties? Perhaps, but consider, well, the “rest of the story.”

Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord, just like their father. Unlike their father, they were bad priests. “Scoundrels,” Scripture dubs them.

These scoundrels stole the meat people sacrificed to God so they could eat a steak dinner. Far worse, they raped the women of – essentially – the altar guild, the women who served at the tent of meeting.

Eli tried to stop them. He attempted that wonderful and oh-so-effective parenting method: he talked to them. They ignored Eli, and I feel certain that they did not respect him, either. Eli should have stripped Hophni and Phinehas of their priesthood and kicked them out; but he did not.

Because Eli would not do anything meaningful, God had to. God may be longsuffering, but God will not tolerate abuse of power forever. God is a friend to the oppressed, the abused, the hungry, and the destitute. To this day, God assumes the cause of the oppressed, the abused, the hungry, and the destitute. Note Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, sent by God to set people free. Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa. Prophets who spoke God’s word they discovered in the dark corners of the night.

Here is a story about a fellow named John. John was homeless, although he did claim as his the city block in front of a downtown office tower. John kept an eye on the tower, watching people come and go on his block, familiarizing himself with their faces. One professional man made a deep impression on John. He was always impeccably dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit, Johnston Murphy shoes, and silver cufflinks.

John assumed correctly that the fellow worked on the top floor of the office tower. One day, John decided to ask the man his burning question. As the fellow arrived at his usual time, John jumped up from his spot over the grate, and stood in front of the man so he would have to stop.

“Excuse me. Uh, excuse me.”

The professional was astonished that John had stopped him and was speaking to him. Homeless people seldom spoke to him, except to ask for a dollar.

“Excuse me. I just, well, I have to know.” The man debated anger, feigned indifference, and wondered curiously at John.

“Uh, can you, can you people up there, way up top – can you people see us way down here from up there? On the street? Can you see us?”

That is the same question you may have asked God. “Can you see me, God, from way up there?”

Or – the underdog in me wants to know – will you assume my cause? God, do you care? Like the disciples speaking to Jesus in the boat on the angry sea, Don’t you care that we are going to die?

Do you care that I am lonely, that I feel oppressed? Do you care that my marriage is on the rocks, that I need a job. God, can you see me from way up there?

Only God is not way up in some lofty tower of heaven, but here, this close, mobilizing heaven and earth on your behalf. Mobilizing star and cherubim, mountain and seraphim, to rescue you, to free you from oppression. Just like God freed those abused by Hophni and Phinehas. The friend to the underdog.

But – what of those on the top floor?

What happens when the Christian becomes the oppressor, what then?

Christian commentator, Martin Marty, tells the story of attending an historian’s convention. The presenter spoke about Southern clergy in 1861. Most clergy, it seems, were surprisingly moral and devout men, educated and caring pastors, and thoughtful preachers. To a person, these devout men defended human slavery, claiming it to be a response to divine mandates and will, authorized Biblically.

“Well,” Martin and his colleagues later agreed. “That was one blind group of clergy.” How could these men have been so blind?

One among Martin’s colleagues, however, stopped the conversation and asked each of them to write on a piece of paper the issue that would make people a century from now ask the same of us, “How could they have been so blind?”

Each of Martin’s colleagues wrote that we are quite blind when it comes to our own underclass, those who do the heavy lifting for us – the laborers, and I don’t mean the laborers at the Ford factory, but the Mexican immigrants, the men and women working in your garden, changing your hotel sheets. What about those people?

Martin and his colleagues acknowledged quickly that they, good Christians, have blind spots. It is what the 99 percent is saying of the one percent.

In many ways throughout our lives, we are the oppressed, either literally or figuratively. Those times of seeming oppression are easy for us to see clearly. What we don’t see are the many instances in which we, albeit accidentally, assume the role of oppressor.

Think about it. There is an AIDS epidemic in the developing world that will make as many as one-third of Africans orphaned. We – the rich nations – have the drugs to help, to do something monumental about this. But mostly, we do not. Not really. Spare change, but that’s about it.

Likewise, we are aware of our excessive consumption and its effect on the world – not just environmentally, but the pace at which we are using up resources. But we do not do much about it. It’s like seeing a big black Cadillac Escalade sporting a bumper sticker with the words “Save the Earth.”

The irony that we are the oppressors is lost on us. We live at the top of the office tower, but as those at the top, do we see those people way down there?

Tomorrow we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe you will attend an event, maybe you won’t. I hope you will honor the prophet in him, the man who rejected society’s blindness and assumed the vision of God, the man who called an entire nation to repentance, to change, to see itself more clearly. On such a day as tomorrow, we can do more than remember this prophet of God; we can re-enact him, his honesty, his desire for equality, the realization that there is no artificial tower, and that we are all in need of God’s grace. We can regain the promise that when one of us hurts, we all hurt together. We all do what we can.

— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.

We are now in the realm of mystery, 1 Epiphany (B) – 2012

January 8, 2012

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

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

It is the narrative simplicity of this verse from the first chapter of Mark that stuns at first reading. John the Baptizer had been working hard on the banks of the river, calling people to repentance and proclaiming that someone else was coming to complete his own ministry. According to the evangelist Mark, John had made it clear that The One who was coming after him was more powerful that he; John had shown his own humility by using an example of a servant’s act: bending down and untying an honored person’s sandals. “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal,” he said of the one who was to come.

Now, please keep in mind that John was a famous man at this time; he was a celebrity as a fiery preacher of repentance. Had he lived in our own idolatrous age, he would have been given his own television show. All evidence points to the fact that John was powerful and had a huge following in the “whole Judean countryside,” and in Jerusalem. His call to repentance, though harsh, had attracted crowds of people who recognized their sins and, by submitting to John’s baptism, asked for both God’s judgment and God’s forgiveness. Imagine the temptation for such a man as John – power and fame were his for the taking. He could have built upon his movement for his own personal gain.

John rejects it all. There is no hint that any of this ever tempted him. One wonders how much his parents had told him of the wondrous lead-up to his birth. Most certainly they must have told him stories as he grew up. This is what people did at that time when there were no books to read to their children, no television and computer games with which to entertain them. They told stories. John knew from early on that he was closely connected to one who would surpass him in serving God. And all evidence also points us to the startling conclusion that this powerful man, in his own right, accepted this as fact and as God’s will and plan.

So he prepares his followers for the one who is to come. Why? What else will the Coming One have to offer that John was not offering? John says clearly, “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” What exactly this must have meant to his followers we can only guess. If they had read, or heard the prophets read to them, they would remember the marvelous words of Joel:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams
and your young men shall see visions.

They were probably people who longed to feel God’s breath upon them, but it was John they had come to see, and John who was baptizing them, lifting from them the burden of their sins. The rest was in the future; it was not of the moment.

It is at this point that Mark announces in his utter simplicity that Jesus traveled from Nazareth to be baptized by John. No trumpets are blowing, no portents have appeared, no procession arrives at the river’s bank, and Mark relates no discussion between the two cousins before the baptism. Jesus comes like all the other people who come to John, and is baptized. God arrives to us without fanfare, in the ordinariness of our lives, and we don’t recognize him. He comes enfleshed, from distant, unimportant Nazareth – not from the significant city of Jerusalem, but from Nazareth! Jesus enters the waters as a human being and emerges from the waters with the unshakable assurance that he is God’s Son, the Beloved.

Now the attention shifts from John to Jesus. In Mark’s laconic telling of this story, it is only Jesus who sees the Spirit in physical form – that of a dove – and it is Jesus alone who hears the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And this is when everything changes. The Spirit of God is no longer a future promise, a prophetic dream of what is to come, but a present, living reality. A man from Nazareth is filled with the Holy Spirit and is here in order to baptize all who come to him with God’s Spirit. As John baptized with water, so Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. This is what John promised to his followers, and this is what is so often ignored in the retelling of this story.

Jesus is baptized by John, and henceforth the great gift of God – God’s Spirit upon us – becomes ours for the asking. Both John and Jesus have very short ministries in terms of human time. John prepares the people for God’s coming among them, and Jesus strides out of the waters of the Jordan ready to do God’s will and to reveal it to the rest of us in a few short years. Jesus knows the mind of God and acts upon this knowledge with a boldness that attracts some people and makes others so frightened that they put him to death. The Christ of God, who is revealed to all the new believers in the Acts of the Apostles and is proclaimed in the epistles, comes to us now through the power of the Holy Spirit. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” becomes now the gift that Christ’s disciples offer to those who confess the name of Jesus. And thus the world is transformed.

Jesus of Nazareth is no longer walking the Judean hills, but his Spirit remains and is present everywhere. Even to those who may not have heard, or who may not know how to use the right words, the Spirit is given as a gift of God; this we learn in the story that Luke tells in today’s portion of Acts. Paul arrives in Ephesus to find believers who have been baptized. He asks them: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” and they really don’t recognize the words, though they are believers. Then Paul asks a significant question: “Into what then were you baptized?”

And here is where our old friend’s name reappears; John is not forgotten. “Into John’s baptism,” they answer. Paul does not discount John. He explains how John’s baptism was completed by the coming of Jesus. Repentance, the change of mind, the transformation of one’s thinking about God, is completed by the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Paul lays his hands on them and the power is given to them also. And on and on the story continues.

We are now in the realm of mystery. Jesus saw the Spirit of God in the form of a visible dove, Mark tells us. His followers have testified to the gift of the Spirit in multiple ways: they have prophesied, they have spoken in tongues, they have praised God, they have performed miracles; they have become missionaries under horrendously difficult conditions and have opened hospitals where none existed; and in the process they have given the great gift of education to those who had none. Some accept these as gifts of the Spirit; others doubt them. The reality of the Spirit’s presence remains.

The Incarnate God was baptized by John in the river Jordan as an ordinary man from Nazareth. His life, death, and resurrection make it possible for all human beings to learn of God’s love and to receive the gift of God’s Spirit. How the Spirit manifests itself differs in each one of us. On this day when we commemorate the baptism of our Lord, we bow our heads and pray that we too may be called children of God, God’s beloved.

 

— Katerina Whitley is the author of Light to the Darkness (Morehouse Publishing, 2008) among other books. She lives and writes in Boone, North Carolina.

A story of two kings, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2012

January 6, 2012

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

This is a story of two kings.

The first lived in a lavish palace, and was surrounded advisors, groupies, and underlings. His domain was always growing, covering large expanses of geography from Palestine to parts of modern-day Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. He built great infrastructures – giant fortresses, waterways, and theaters. The people in his kingdom called him “Herod the Great,” but the Roman authorities elsewhere in the empire simply called him the “King of the Jews.”

The second king lived in a small hill-town – a backwater – not far away. His birth in a manger drew shepherds from their flocks and angels from heaven. He was an infant, small, vulnerable, but holding within himself the potential of God’s coming reign. His family called him Jesus, but the Angel Gabriel, upon appearing to Mary, his mother, had called him the “King of the Jews.”

This is the story of two kings: one who ruled by fear, and the other by love. One who embodied tyranny, and the other, compassion. One whose leadership was based in the authority of empire, the other in the authority of God Almighty. This is the story of two kings.

The Feast of the Epiphany, which we celebrate today, is a holiday with a number of interpretations. Ultimately, it a day when we stop and stare in wonder, gazing at the child Jesus and recognizing him as God. Historically, Epiphany – the word itself means “reveal” – is tied to the appearance of the Magi, that group of strange pilgrims – maybe three, maybe more – who visited one king and then the other, deciding to worship the poor baby in the manger instead of the emperor in his palace.

Matthew’s gospel tells us about both kings. When the Magi from the East come to king Herod, telling him about a star rising on the horizon and the birth of an infant king, Matthew tells us that Herod was frightened. He quickly devises a plot to kill the child, asking the Magi to go find the baby and tell him where he lives. He lies to them, saying that he wishes to worship the King of the Jews. The truth is that he likes the title himself, and will go to great lengths to keep it.

The story of the Magi themselves is one that has been altered and adapted throughout history. While we know them as the figures in our nativity scenes – three men, often seen as representations of gentile communities in the East – Matthew provides no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever in the gospel. He says only that they are from the East. He does not even give us a number, only that there is more than one. They have been watching the sky and when a star appears and begins to move, they leave their communities to follow it. They enter a foreign land, looking for the Messiah whose birth is announced by this strange celestial symbol. They, like the shepherds in the field, are watchers, and with their eyes glued to the horizon they begin a long journey.

But remember: this is a story of two kings.

The ancient world celebrated power much in the same way that we do today. Herod’s kingship – his political authority – was confirmed and accepted not only by the Roman state but also by his own subjects. His influence was a worldly one, and both of the names that he was given – “Herod the Great” and “King of the Jews” – illustrate how truly powerful he was. He was rich. He was surrounded by smart people. He was a celebrity, a person to know. It was not only socially expected to worship Herod, but it was also an issue of life or death. Remember, this is the same king who beheaded John the Baptist.

Herod was a tyrant, and he was the very type of king that Jesus would warn about in his adult ministry. He is a symbol of the principalities and powers that the coming Reign of God is meant to subvert and destroy. He is the type of King that Mary sings about in the Magnifcat, praising God for the work he has done in creating Jesus: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,” she says, “and lifted up the lowly.”

The powerful in their thrones and the lowly: Herod and Jesus.

Herod is a villain of the Bible and also a villain of history. We know of his brutality, his bloodthirsty vengeance, his pride. But he is the type of villain that history repeats – the dictator, the warmonger, the perpetrator of genocide. He is also a representation of the villains that our spirits battle – the sin that rivals Christ for kingship in our lives.

Ultimately, the Magi had a choice to make – a choice between two kings. The pressure to worship Herod, or at least to submit to his authority, must have been incredible, especially when the other King of the Jews turned out to be a baby born to poor parents in an occupied region of Judea.

But here is where Matthew gives us what I think is one of the most beautiful and simple verses in this entire passage. After the Magi worship the child Jesus and present him with their gifts, we are told that, “they left for their own country by another road.”

They left for their own country by another road.

So powerful was that first vision of Christ – the Incarnate God that we celebrate in the Epiphany – that the Magi altered their entire course. Rather than go back to Herod – to the king whose power was affirmed by empire – they quietly chose another route, another direction for their lives.

They rejected sin and embraced Christ. They did so under enormous pressure.

Our lives, too, are often populated by competing kings, principalities, and powers. The king of wealth, of pride, of popularity, of having it all together. Like Herod, they sit in their palaces and, through the influence of our culture and what it holds dear, they exert pressure on us to come and worship.

But not far away, in the hill country, another king waits in a manger. His kingship is like a breath of fresh air, an antidote to the tyranny of Herod. His kingship is one that is offered freely, lovingly, and compassionately. His reign does not control us, it liberates.

And everyday we are like the Magi, standing at a crossroad, deciding which route to take, which king to worship, how to get home.

 

— The Rev. Elizabeth Easton is the associate rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Omaha, Nebraska. A native of Washington State, she graduated from Church Divinity School of the Pacific in 2009.

 

Bow at the name of Jesus, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2012

January 1, 2012

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

We know very little about Jesus’ childhood. There is nothing in Mark or John. From Matthew, we learn that an angel told Joseph to name Mary’s child “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This, he reports, they did, and then he relates the account of the Wisemen’s visitation, followed by the flight of the family to Egypt and their moving to Nazareth.

Luke provides the most detail, beginning with the birth in Bethlehem that we hear during the Christmas liturgy. Then he gives us the brief story from today’s gospel, followed by an account of Jesus being presented in the temple a few weeks later. Finally, Luke tells us about the 12-year-old Jesus, again at the temple, confounding religious teachers with wisdom beyond his years. He ends with a summary: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.”

That’s it, until he emerges fully grown, prepared for the Baptism of John and the beginning of his ministry. So, our little snippet of information today is quite important within such a limited body of knowledge of Jesus’ first three decades of life. One sentence: “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.” Our prayer book deems it so valuable that whenever the eighth day of Christmas, January 1, occurs on a Sunday, Holy Name takes precedent over the regular liturgical day. We commemorate the occasion when Jesus was circumcised and when he was named.

His circumcision reminds us that he was reared as a Jew, a peculiarly religious people in a remote area of the great Roman Empire. We recall that the very formation of Christianity grew out of Jewish roots, and our “old” Testament is the Hebrew Bible. This was the Scripture that Jesus learned in his formative years and which he used so effectively by reference and fresh interpretation in his ministry. One thought about the divinity of Jesus is that his was a fully, completely faithful Jew in every way, carrying out the will of God in perfection, becoming the human presence of God. So, the gospel focus and the liturgical importance of this day emphasize our intentional connection with our ancestors of ancient Judaism.

Still, we are Christians transformed by the Holy Spirit from such roots and empowered within our own unique understanding of God’s relationship with his people. Like the Jews of old who found in circumcision less a form of surgery and more a way to distinguish themselves as a special people, we characterize ourselves by other actions. Early on in our development, we decided that a gentile convert did not have to be circumcised. For Christians, we have our own mark of identity; our equivalent of circumcision is baptism. We, too, are named within this formative sacrament, and we declare ourselves united with others of the Body of Christ through sacred vows and the recitation of the Baptismal Covenant.

The name given to our Savior at his formational service was divinely ordained, as witnessed by the angel who told Joseph to take Mary as a wife and name the child she would bear “Jesus,” as a promise that he would save his people – save them from their own sinfulness. And so, the name became a holy one for all time and for all humanity. Jesus – as the one who connects our humanness to all that is God – saves us from the selfish, sinful nature that is so easy for us, alone, to give in to. The name of Jesus is so important that Saint Paul instructs us in today’s epistle that it is “above every name.” It is so sacred that “at the name of Jesus, ever knee should bend … and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

The name of Jesus has been used for centuries, especially by members of the Eastern Church, as a form of meditation of the highest order. The “Jesus Prayer,” coming “from the heart,” allows meditating Christians to delve into the depth of faith in a mystical way. Repeating over and over again the words “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner,” enables the one who prays to focus on the essentials of faith and live life in the keeping of our Lord. The nearly subconscious repetitive focus on Jesus, the one with the Holy name, enlightens and enlivens the believer to connect with the Savior in deepening one’s spirituality and finding motivation to provide for the needs of God’s children.

Obviously, “Jesus” is a name unlike yours or mine – or anyone else’s. It is reserved for the Savior. This would logically lead all who are aware of the epistle to the Philippians to refrain from naming a child “Jesus.” But if it is so unique, why are there so many boys and men in Christian-oriented Hispanic communities with this as a given name? Anglos are often surprised to encounter them, though such individuals are called by the Spanish pronunciation – “Hay-SOOS.” This confusion is explained by understanding that such cultures use “Jesus” differently from other Christians, because it is for them just another common name for males. When they refer to the Savior in the gospels, the one circumcised and named on the eighth day, they do not use “Jesús” but “JesúCristo.” Therefore, with such a practice in place, this leaves everyone in virtual agreement that “Jesus” of the Christian faith remains a name not only above all others but also prohibited from use as a given name among contemporary people.

When pregnant parents contemplate the future of their child, they often spend a great deal of time deciding on the newborn’s name, a permanent imprint. Some name them after a favorite ancestor; others select something because they like the sound. A few choose the name of a famous person whose memory and value they want to perpetuate in the new life, hoping the child will live up to the values of the namesake.

Maybe, just maybe, we have it wrong in making “Jesus” out of bounds for such a task. Maybe we should give everyone the middle name “Jesus.” In this way, each of us would carry the Holy Name on our birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports. Jesus would become more solidly a part of our identity. This might help us remember the invisible cross placed by a priest on our foreheads at baptism, marking us forever as a possession of JesúCristo. With a name like Jesus to live up to, wouldn’t our Christian lives become much more enriched?

Today’s gospel reveals to us an infant Jesus, an 8-day-old with nothing to show for himself other than a circumcision and a name. But we know that the truth is much more than that: the child had within him all the promise and possibility that God holds for all creation. Most of the time we, like the 8-day-old Jesus, live by hope and promise, because leading a Christian life is not an easy task. Like the infant, though, we have within us all the possibility that God gives to all his children, the possibility of being one with Jesus and literally living as Jesus did.

When Paul charged us to bow at the name of Jesus, he did not simply intend a proper gesture in church. To honor his Holy Name, we must act, we must emulate, we must follow our Savior in the walk he made on this earth, among people not unlike our neighbors. Today, the liturgical calendar gives us something significant to think about on the secular calendar’s New Year’s Day – something besides football games and overcoming the effect on last night’s partying. Maybe we can use the beginning of 2012 to vow to spend every day of it remembering not only that the Name of Jesus is like no other name and that it is Holy, but also to remember that it summarizes all that our Savior is and all that we can become – if we follow him.

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas.