Called by name: a recollection of baptism

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43:5 I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth–everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43:6-7

    A year and a half ago, overcoming breast cancer consumed me.   Though the tumor was discovered early – its aggressiveness meant undergoing chemotherapy in addition to surgery and radiation.    Recalling the ordeal and how sick one can get during treatment, the passage from Isaiah 43’s theme of exiles came to mind, “I will say to the north, ‘Give them up,’ and to the south, ‘Do not withhold…”

How I longed to be released from the exile of illness and returned to the land of the living.

Throughout scripture, the Sovereign’s mandate bodes with nothing less than the full emancipation of God’s people.    Nor are God’s people summoned out of darkness nameless.   To be called by Jahweh’s name jettisons us out of categories long claimed by mortals.     Whatever our life’s circumstances, we were created for the Sovereign’s glory.

When a child is to be baptized, the officiant standing before the parents, asks, “What is the Christian name of this child?”

Note that the officiant doesn’t ask merely for the child’s name – be it Marie, Benjamin, Cynthia, or Andrew.   Whatever name is to be given to the child, it is not just prefaced but profoundly altered by the addition of the word, Christian.    Looking at its Greek equivalent, the name, Christian or Christianos, literally means “a follower of Christ.”

You and I belong to God-in-Christ.  No matter how long or brief our lifespan, the losses we’ve suffered, the deep-seated regrets we’ve shouldered, the assaults incurred, and the failures endured, the marvelous mystery is this: you and I remain faithfully known and irrevocably claimed by God.

And this is Good News…

 

Be a Light (in a dark place)…a sermon during the Season of Epiphany

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When [the Three Kings] saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.  Matthew 2:11-12

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.  John 1:5

Some fifty-two hundred years ago, before Stonehenge, before the great pyramids and before the birth of Christ, stone age farmers just north of what is now Dublin, conceived and constructed a large stone mound called Newgrange.   Two-hundred feet in diameter but just under fifty feet high, Newgrange consists of a solitary opening connected to a long passageway that leads into the interior of the mound.  At its center is a cavern made up of three alcoves.  What makes this structure especially remarkable is that the long passageway and its interior chamber are aligned to the rising of the sun each year during the Winter Solstice.

For at dawn, and on December 21st, a narrow beam of light penetrates the roof-box of Newgrange and reaches the floor of the chamber, gradually extending to the rear.
As the sun rises higher, the beam extends and widens, reaching its interior cruciform chamber so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated.

Each year scores of people gather in the darkness…and wait.

The activist theologian Bill Wylie-Kellerman was quoted by Sojourner’s, noting, [The Epiphany season] ‘beings and ends in light.   From the heavenly star to the radiant robes of transfiguration, Epiphany is about revelation, [a]…sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order.    The light reveals, but not passively; it summons and it sends.” [1]

Epiphany reminds us that we are summoned and sent to Be a Light (…in a dark place). [2]

Just last Tuesday and while offering a Bible study about the Christmas Season at the retirement community where I work, a resident asked, “If December 25 is over, just why are you continuing to talk about Christmas?”

But provided (as one author notes) that your eggnog hasn’t soured or that you haven’t stashed the creche until next December [3], there is a reason why the lectionary lingers on the Christmas Season and Epiphany.  Because the arrival of the Christ child is anything but sentimental…as much as we’re tempted to make it so.

Scripture recalls the visitation of Three Kings from the east, who seeing that the star’s radiance remained over Bethlehem, entered the house where Mary, Jesus’ mother, and Joseph were with the infant Jesus.   Despite that the newborn king was not surrounded by a royal entourage but lay in a feeding trough, the Magi were overcome with joy and adulation.  Kneeling down, these distant travelers paid him homage.  Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream NOT to return to Herod, they left for their country by another road.

But there is a problem – both as identified by scripture, and as experienced in the world, Jesus was born into.   It is not coincidental that the journey of the Magi to see the newborn king begins and ends with Herod.    The subsequent passage that speaks of the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt following the Magi’s visit – because an enraged Herod sought to destroy the Light of the World by ordering the massacre of children and infants in the vicinity where Christ was born is not coincidental either.   Any more than it is coincidental that the gifts to the infant Jesus, foreshadowed his death.

Scripture points to this problem unequivocally, for darkness continues to cast its shadow.

Indeed, Herod and his kind have plundered humankind and all of creation for that matter, for thousands of years.

The birth of the Christ child and thus, the incarnation challenges our assumption – that the physical and the spiritual are irreconcilable.   Christ’s birth challenges the dualism and disconnect between matter and spirit, the secular and the religious, the practical, and the temporal.   It took a vulnerable infant born to impoverished Palestinian refugees who later crossed a border to flee from violence – to confront the lengths we go to – to keep the incarnation only about Jesus – so that we can get on with business as usual.

But what if each of us, as suggested by Augustine, Meister Eckhart, and others, were created to make real the incarnation, this synthesis between matter and spirit?   What if each of us like Mary are summoned and sent to give birth to the Son of God in our own persons and time and culture, to reconcile our spiritual sides with the work and action so desperately needed in the world?

In other words, to Be a Light (in a dark place).

Serene Jones, seminary president, theologian, and author observed how, for years, the conversion of the slave trader, John Newton, writer of the Song Amazing Grace, was often spoken of at the church she attended [4].  She had been told growing up, that after nearly losing his life at sea, John Newton became a Christian and completely turned his life around: returning to Africa to set the slaves on his ship free and becoming a fervent abolitionist from that time forward.

But the real story is quite different.  For though John Newton felt grateful to God that he had survived when others had perished in the storm, he did not immediately turn his ship around and free the slaves incarcerated on board.   If anything, though he became a personally pious Christian, he continued to trade and ship enslaved Africans for years – contributing his growing success to a state of blessedness.  It wasn’t until Newton reckoned the disconnect between his personal piety as being at complete odds with the human trafficking business he was engaged in that Newton realized aligned his professed beliefs with action.   It was then that he finally wrote the song, Amazing Grace, and became the abolitionist he is known for.

He finally chose to Be a Light (in a dark place).

I confess it is difficult to align one’s personal commitment – the matter of the heart – with what we do in the world.    It is and continues to be a lifelong struggle for me.    I suspect that many others struggle with this too.  But this is where God’s grace comes in.   To be an incarnate one of God, to continue to birth Christ in ourselves in this time and place is a high calling.   But I believe it is the only one worth giving our lives for.

Epiphany points to the incarnation, God made flesh in Jesus.   But as the incarnation means the synthesis of physical matter and the spiritual, then the nativity isn’t only about Mary giving birth to Jesus.

The birth of the Christ child didn’t begin and end on Christmas morning.  Christ came so that God would be born within us and reconcile the dualism that has long separated matter from spirit.  Christ came so that we as God bearers can “Be A Light (in a dark place), champions and advocates for ALL of humanity and God’s good creation.

For our desperate world hungers for light.   Remarkably, though Newgrange is 5,200 years old, the acquisition and reliance upon the sun’s energy have continued to illuminate not only the passageway and chamber but people’s lives, who come for miles if not across the world.   It is extraordinary to wait in darkness, as people did so long ago, for the longest night of the year to end. 

Poet Laureate Maren Tirabassi’s recently made a decision to leave Christmas candles in her window in the months ahead, despite taking down the tree and other decorations. [5] Knowing of how challenging it can be to synthesize matters of the heart with our work in the world, the candles are testimony to a grace-filled decision to be an incarnate one of God in a time of great trepidation…

…to be a light in a dark place.

[1] Jim Rice, Epiphany: A Light To The World, (Sojourners, Jan. 2012)

[2] John Pavlovitz, PavlovitzDesign

[3] Mary Luti, Merry Christmas (Stillspeaking Daily Devotional, Jan. 4, 2020)

[4] Serene Jones, Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World (Penguin House, 2019), 126-27.

[5] Maren Tirabassi, The candles in my windows (Gifts in Open Hands, Jan. 4, 2020)

[6] Photo Image from the Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JFCS) website of Greater Mercer County,

 

 

From Jesus to Christ

“Now among those who went up to worship at the [Passover] festival were some [non-Jews].  They came to Philip [one of Jesus’ disciples]…and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  The Gospel of John 12:20-21

Christ the Redeemer Statue, Rio De Janerio, Brazil

At the top of Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a statue weighing 635 metric tons rests atop its peak. Resting atop this 2,300-foot mountain and rising from its base by another 650 feet, the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer is a symbol and cultural icon drawing people from all over the world.

While a local engineer designed the statue and another sculptor created the work, a different artist was explicitly commissioned to create its face. It was this face – the face of Christ – that made the final sculptor, Gheorghe Leonida, famous.

It is not uncommon to think of Christ as being Jesus’ last name.  However, Christ is not a name but a title, meaning anointed.  So there is the name, Jesus, as in Jesus of Nazareth, who was born to impoverished refugees during the reign of Emperor Augustus somewhere between 6 and 4 BC.  Living for thirty-three years, and executed as a common criminal – some scholars speculate that Jesus was not afforded the dignity of a tomb but instead buried in a shallow grave.

In sharp contrast, there is Jesus’ title, Christ, for whom the early architect of the Christian church, the Apostle Paul, describes as, “[the One] who holds it all together.” In other words, “…everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible…everything got started in him and found its purpose in him.” Colossians 1:19 & 15

Am I the only one who has trouble reconciling the two?

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus was welcomed by a crowd of people during the Feast of the Passover in Jerusalem (what we customarily call Palm Sunday). Following this, two men of Greek origin (guys clearly outside the Jewish diaspora) approached a couple of Jesus’ disciples. “Can we see Jesus?” they asked.

Excited that outsiders expressed interest in meeting their leader and rabbi, the two disciples quickly sought Jesus out and breathlessly relayed this message. But Jesus’ reply must have both astonished and confounded them, as it does us millennia later.

Signally that his public and earthly ministry was coming abruptly to an end, Jesus said,
“My time is up. The time has come for the Human One to be glorified (exalted).” John 12:23
Then describing how a single kernel wheat must be buried in the ground if it is to flourish and multiply, Jesus tries to explain once again not only what is about to happen to him, but why.

Franciscan writer and teacher, Richar Rohr, emphasized that while Christian orthodoxy taught that Jesus was both “fully human AND fully divine” at the same time, the best any of us mortals could do was see ourselves as only human…with Jesus as only divine.  Only by doing so, “we missed the whole point, which puts the two together in him AND then dare to discover the same mystery in ourselves and all of creation.” We were never intended to be mere spectators, standing on the sidelines.

At the top of Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, a statue weighing 635 metric tons rests atop its peak. Resting atop this 2,300-foot mountain and rising from its base by another 650 feet, the sculpture of Christ the Redeemer is a symbol and cultural icon drawing people from all over the world. Yet it is the face – the face of Christ – that pulls scores of people to it.

Writes Frederick Buechner, author of, The Hungering Dark, “[t] here is so much about the whole religious enterprise that seems superannuated and irrelevant and as out of place in our age as an antique statue is out of place in the sky. But just for a moment…there can only be silence as something comes to life…”

What comes to life is this startling recognition.

We know this face.

It is Jesus of Nazareth. It is the Christ. The One who came and comes still.

Fiery Serpents on the Way to the Promised Land

“We’ve made some progress but, we still have a distance to travel,” stated [Representative John] Lewis of Atlanta on the 53 anniversary of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma over voting rights
“From Mount Hor [the Israelite wanderers] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom [given the refusal of Edom’s King to give them safe passage]” Numbers 21:4

What if the first generation who followed Moses out of Egypt
were not unlike the brave souls who crossed over Selma’s Bridge fifty-three years ago with sights set for the Promised Land?

Like the recent re-enactment of the crossing of the Bridge in Selma, by the time we get to the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible – we witness the next generation. These are the grown children of those who fled Eygpt; these are the ones who never knew anything else other than living as tent-dwelling Bedouins in a raw, forsaken, wind-swept desert. Though born in liberty, they were the offspring of those condemned to captivity.

In fact, the only one amongst them who had never known the lash of the overseer’s whip was Moses. Moses – born into privilege. Moses – educated by the best that Pharoah’s household had to offer. Moses – who was adopted by a princess and raised as a ruler’s son.

So when the Book of Numbers talks about the second generation of escaped slaves being bitten by fiery serpents because of they rejected the provisions of our Sovereign Lord (Numbers 21:4-9), I find myself wondering what is not said. Is there more to this account than stated? Could there be more to this story particularly when we consider that fifteen hundred years later Jesus uses this incident to prefigure his death?

When extensively hiking the deserts of California, recognizing poisonous snakes AND treating snakebite – is a necessary skill when traversing its wind-swept and rocky terrain.  Take heed, unlike the ancient account from the Book of Numbers, gazing upon a bronze snake set upon an upright pole won’t be found in backpacking first aid manuals or elsewhere. But nevertheless, both ancient scripture and current medical treatment underscore the venom’s systemic threat, potentially causing paralysis, severe swelling, difficulty breathing, cardiac arrest and death.

Fifteen hundred years later, Jesus used this account and image when speaking to a prominent religious leader who came to him under cover of night.  “If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how can I tell you about heavenly things?” Jesus said, “…[for] just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:12, 14)

Millennia later, you and I read this account and ponder what Jesus meant by these words. Save this. What if the only thing that can heal the likes of us is nothing short of a systemic remedy, one that treats toxin ravaged souls as well as bodies? What if the crosses we wear and those posted on church steeples and elsewhere are as holy witnesses – testifying that God-in-Christ sustains not by taking us out of the wilderness but by remaining – even in the most godforsaken places and times.*

*Inspiration is credited to Professor Terence E. Fretheim’s  outstanding commentary on this passage

 

Dismantled Temples

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” John 2:19

The church on the Town Common. The Cathedral in the City Square. The chapel in the country village
The shrine sitting on a distant mountaintop. The house of prayer nestled between the pawn shop and laundromat.

Built by human hands, each structure emerges with a unique story to tell. Some are fairly recent. Others span centuries. These are our houses of worship, sanctuaries, and parish houses; monasteries, retreat centers, and mission outposts; chantries, tabernacles, and basilicas.

Fresh from changing water into wine on the third day in Cana of Galilee, Jesus strides into one of the holiest places in the ancient near-east world and begins turning over tables. Making a whip of cords, he drives out the sheep and the cattle and the people who had been selling them. Doves escape from overturned cages, hard currency flung onto the temple floor, and the exchange of money/goods utterly disrupted.

Angered, temple officials and marketers demand evidence. “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

Nonplused, Jesus replies, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

The Nicene Creed declares, “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…and in one Lord Jesus Christ, [whom] for us and our salvation…was crucified under Pontious Pilate; … suffered and was buried.

The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures…”

Years ago when memorizing the Nicene Creed – I questioned the effort expended over the recitation of this ancient confession. Laboring line after line to commit the language to memory, it wasn’t until years later that I appreciated its fuller historical context – and why its development in the first place. Faced with the heresies of its day – and those that invariably followed – the early church responded, providing a framework and orthodoxy of the Christian faith. Knowing the tendency of mortals to limit the efficacy of God-in-Christ’s Sovereignty, a confessional context was wholly necessary, then as now.

Once, an enigmatic prophet strode into one of the holiest places in the ancient near-east world, turning over tables and practices that undermined the Sovereignty and Holiness of God. And we, we who fear that our institutions, our houses of worship and our hope in the future – are being reduced to the moral equivalent of rubble, would do well to return to the promises of scripture and this ancient confession, that soars in God’s victorious affirmation:

[and on] “The third day our Lord rose again, according to the promises of Scripture.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Prayer(s) for Illumination – Isaiah 40:21-31 & 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Dear Friends:

Inspired by the work of Maren Tirabassi, author, poet, workshop leader and pastor, AND in the context of this week’s State of the Union Address, I offer two Prayers for Illumination in anticipation of this Sunday’s lectionary readings.

Prayer for Illumination – Isaiah: 40:21-31

You, the Source of All That Is and Was and Is to Be, just as you spoke through generations past, offering them words of assurance and inspiration…we too have been sustained by your Word.   But now, many of your children find themselves overcome with trepidation. Long-standing divisions have resurfaced; the assaults upon the land and it’s most vulnerable continue on relentlessly. We concede that we know not from day to day, much less week-to-week what the future holds.

So allow us to hear these words afresh…as if perceiving them for the first time.   For you are God.  The One who is as near to us as our own breath.  The One who strengthens us in our weakness.  The One who calls us by name.   Hear now these words of scripture, we pray…

Isaiah 40:21-3 (NRSV)

Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Prayer for Illumination – First Corinthians 9:16-23

God who speaks to us through the living Word, we are a people caught between competing loyalties…. particularly now.    As Christians, we discover that when we seek to make God’s love known through our actions as well as our speech, then the Gospel becomes real.   But as depicted in this ancient but relevant text, Christians can also do irreparable harm when self-serving actions and/or policies undermine the costliness of the Gospel and thereby the beloved people of God.   O God, as people of faith who are free in Christ – save for the utmost obligation to love – open our hearts and ears to the hearing of this passage.

First Corinthians 9:16-23  (NRSV) 

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.

 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

 

“What Have You to Do With Us?” Mark 1:23-24

“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and [the man] cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  Mark 1:23-24

   Have you ever wondered how long the man with the “unclean spirit” had been coming to the synagogue in Capernaum? Could his presence that day have signaled the first time he had crossed over its threshold and joined other members of the congregation? Or had this tormented man been showing up for as long as anyone could remember?

There is the understandable tendency to keep the onus of being in the thrall of a chaotic or unclean spirit – as being the problem of this lone individual – when reflecting on the significance of this passage.    After all, only one man cried out – even if it was in the presence of a gathered congregation.   For that matter, who would want to be labelled as completely unhinged be it in Jesus’ time or our own?  Such that this man’s anguished cry, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” remains the problem of this one man and thereby has nothing to do with the congregation or the rest of us.

But what if this tormented man had been a ‘fixture’ in that community for years?    A nuisance, perhaps.   Something to be tolerated.   But utterly alone.  What then?

What if we were to read this account differently?   Rather than have a crazed man cry out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth,” suppose we were the ones asking the question?

“Jesus, what have you to do with us?”

We who are in over our heads?

We who try to be faithful but flounder in the wake of it?

We who are commanded to love our enemies but are consumed by anger?

When we’re really honest with ourselves, is this passage only about this one man?

Or is it a story about us?   We who need to hear the definitive word of God spoken.   We who have given up hope.   We who are numbed beyond recognition.

“Jesus,” we whisper, “what have you to do with us?”

And in that moment – Jesus does not turn away – but turns to us, speaking the definitive and healing Word.