Sunday, January 29, 2012

January 29, 2012 - Epiphany 4B

Let us pray: Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by evil; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
            This sermon comes with a warning. Often sermons focus on things such as grace, love, and salvation, but today our readings present us with the other side of the coin. This is a sermon about evil, demons, and sin. I had a professor in seminary who had a good friend that worked at the Holocaust museum in Washington. This friend was working on a thesis and spent a lot of time in the Holocaust archives, and they warned my professor- “when you are around so much evil, you must take care that it does not begin to absorb you.” And so I offer you this warning before we begin. Evil is like a solar eclipse, if you stare at it for too long, your vision will never be the same. So today, it is good and fitting to pay attention to evil, because any competent theology must account for it- but don’t spend your Sunday dwelling on it.
            Evil is one of the most misunderstood and unexplored aspects of Christian theology, which I think is exactly how evil likes it. To talk about things such as demons and “unclean spirits,” as our text puts it, seems unscientific and old-fashioned. In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has a demon say this- “that devils are predominately comic figures in the modern imagination is helpful to us. If any faint suspicion of our existence begins to arise in their minds, suggest a picture of something in red tights and persuade them that since they cannot believe in that, they therefore cannot believe in us.”
            So what is evil you might ask? For the purpose of this sermon, I’m going to tie up evil, sin, Satan, and demons in the same bag. There are shades of difference between them, but we’re really talking about different sides of the same coin. An example of sin is found in our reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul tells people about their interconnectedness and warns them against eating meat, or doing anything, that strains that relationship. The act is the sin, the intent is the evil. Demons are the anthropomorphization of evil.
It’s worth pointing out that our images of hell, evil, and demons are not Biblical, rather what most people think of comes from either Paradise Lost by Milton or Dante’s Divine Comedy. Some have said that evil is the “privation of the good.” Others say that evil is that which is opposed to the will of God. Theologian Karl Barth postulated that evil is nothing, and this is contrary to God because God desires purpose and redemption for all things, so if evil is nothing, evil can never accomplish that. Some will talk about original sin, others will talk about distinctions between light and dark, and yet others will say that evil has to do with free-will. So the question remains, how do we reconcile an all-powerful and all-loving God with the existence of evil?
            I don’t have an answer. But standing on the shoulders of theological giants- I’d say this about evil. Evil exists because love exists. God could have made a world full of evil without love, or full love without the room for evil. But God wanted the most amount of love, and there has to be the possibility for the lack of love, that is where evil creeps in. Evil is not a force that is opposed to the good. Christianity is not Star Wars, there is not a light side and a dark side, there is only the God side. Evil does not exist in any sense of the word, much in the same way that darkness does not exist, but rather is the absence of light. But we can choose to ignore God and live for ourselves, and that is evil. Evil and sin are the straining of the relationships of love to which we are called. And sadly, throughout time, people have chosen to ignore the love of God, and what we would call evil has happened. So what do we do with evil?
            Each of the gospels paints Jesus in a different light. For Matthew, Jesus is the teacher; for Luke, Jesus is the preacher; for John, Jesus is the incarnate love of God. Remember where we are in Mark, our reading today starts at chapter 1, verse 21, so right at the beginning of the gospel. Mark is still introducing Jesus to the audience. So far in Mark Jesus has been baptized by John the Baptist, tempted in the wilderness, and called his disciples. So this incident today is Jesus’ first public appearance, and in telling the story this way, Mark is defining Jesus as exorcist. That’s not a title we often claim for Jesus is it, exorcist? But it’s valid, and Mark invites us to explore that title today. Exorcise literally means to implore out; but it is often used to mean driving out evil or restoring health.
            So as Jesus is beginning his ministry, a man with an unclean spirit approaches him and says “what do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” That’s quite the profession. Not until after the crucifixion does anyway ever make such a bold claim about Jesus. And really, it’s a statement of faith, isn’t it? Somehow, this man knew more about Jesus than the disciples did, perhaps he had heard Jesus say “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Maybe this man didn’t want to hear the good news or have the Kingdom of God anywhere near him. Maybe he didn’t take kindly to being told that he needed to repent. Maybe he would not accept that fact that he is possessed. And aren’t we all a bit like this man?
            How many of us would say that we are possessed? Can any of us say that something unclean doesn’t live in us? Are we free from jealously, selfishness, addiction, pride, unhealthy lifestyles, racism, homophobia, worry, unforgiving attitudes, sexism, elitism? Do any of us live without sin? Aren’t there issues that we don’t speak out against? Do we live as fully for God as we could? We are all possessed, and we this Jesus to be our exorcist.
            Jesus says to the man “shut up and get out of him!” And the man cried and convulsed and became a new man. Now I know that the text says that the spirit convulsed and came out of him, but there are major problems with reading this text literally, with giving too much reality to demons and evil forces. For one, as I mentioned earlier, we are Christians, not dualists. Secondly, God is the sole source of Creation, not the Devil or Satan. To say that there is a source of evil opposed to God that creates twisted angels is to erroneously take the metaphorical and make it literal. And thirdly, it is to abandon all responsibility. For centuries, demons were the scapegoats for mental illness, addiction, murders, and many other unspeakable crimes. Demons aren’t behind those things, people are. Mental illness is not a curse from God, nor is addiction something over which a person is helpless to control. As Jesus later says, there is nothing outside the body which can defile it, but rather defilement comes from within. Responsibility is a Christian virtue, and to ascribe too much reality and power to demons and unclean spirits is to abdicate that sense of Christian duty. So was there really a demon in that man that day? You can decide for yourself what you think, but I think the greater evil is in ascribing too much power to a force other than God and leaving behind our accountability.
            So Jesus exorcised this man of what was plaguing him. We don’t really know what it was, could have been fear, could have been some old resentment that he held on to, could have been prejudice towards Jews; the point is that Jesus exorcised it out of him, and Jesus can do the same for us. Jesus is the cure for our possessions and the sins which we commit.
            Those gathered there that day were amazed and said “a new teaching, with authority!” Authority means both that Jesus had the ability and right to teach something new, but also that he has the power to do so. Jesus offers the new teaching- that evil is nothing to stop us from pursuing the Kingdom of God. Jesus shows us that we can be saved from the ills that plague us, we can be set free from that which possesses us. But like the man in this story, we have to acknowledge that Jesus has the power to do so. The man calls Jesus the Holy One of God, so you might say that he realizes that Jesus has this authority. So for us to embrace Jesus as exorcist, we must also stand with Jesus, as he alone has the authority.
            We also stand with Jesus to resist evil when we encounter it. Jesus doesn’t ignore the evil that he encounters, which we so often tend to do. It’s easier to not think about the clothes we wear coming from a sweatshop. It’s easier to eat meat when we ignore the fact that unless we buy organic and free-range meat, those animals were very likely abused. It’s easier to invest in companies when we disregard their predatory lending business tactics. You all I’m sure have heard the quote from the pastor in Nazi Germany- “first they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak out because I was Protestant. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.” Evil thrives not because it is a force in this world, but because we allow it to happen. Evil happens when we are silent, evil happens when we look the other way.
            And of course, evil also happens when we ignore Jesus’ words that the Kingdom of God has come near. Sin happens when we live for our own sense of pride and greed instead of thinking about the Kingdom of God. We become the demons of our world when we say things such as “I earned mine, let them earn theirs,” things like “well, it’s not illegal,” phrases such as “I want this and I’m entitled to it.” Another CS Lewis quote- “like a good chess player, Satan is always trying to maneuver you into a position where you save your castle only by losing your bishop.” When we negotiate with our morals, when we ignore our ethics, when we focus on our kingdoms instead of God’s, then we do evil.
            Our invitation today is to follow Jesus, our Exorcist, in standing up against evil, both in our own lives and in our world. There is a great story from Greek mythology that advances this point. Sea travelers had to be aware of many dangers as they sailed. One of these dangers was the Sirens who lived near Sicily. They were beautiful creatures, part-bird and part-woman. Sailors would be lured in by their sweet songs and their ships would crash and they would become the victims of the Sirens. In Greek lore, only two people ever evaded them. One was Odysseus, as his crew tied him to the mast and then put wax in their own ears. The other was Jason and the Argonauts on their search for the Golden Fleece. They took along with them, Orpheus, who was a musical hero in Greek mythology. As they passed the island of the Sirens, Orpheus began to sing with the most alluring and beautiful melody that one could ever imagine. Orpheus’ song was so sweet that it made the song of the Sirens sound like discordant chatter. And Jason and his crew sailed safely past the Sirens because they did not desire to go any closer.
            This is how it is in standing with Jesus against evil. The songs of sin and evil are very tempting, as was the song of the Sirens. It can be rather fun to amass wealth, to ignore conscience, and do whatever we want. The results of sin can seem quite fun. Evil indeed knows how to sing a very sweet song. It can be quite hard to drown out the song of evil, because it can be rather loud and is heard is most places. But in our journeys, we have an Orpheus with us in the person of Jesus, a person who sings a different song- a song not of temptation and selfishness, but a song of grace and love. If we listen closely, if we learn the lyrics of the Kingdom of God, we will know that its song is much sweeter and doesn’t cause us to become shipwrecked.
            One last caution- make sure that in resisting evil, you don’t focus on hating evil. The follower of Jesus should love good and hate evil. If you only love good and are indifferent towards evil, then you’re just a sentimentalist. And if you hate evil more than you love the good, then you’re just a good hater, and we have plenty of those already. Let us remember that the key to all of this is the love, the redemption, the grace of the ever-present Kingdom of God. That is how Jesus is our exorcist, he points us towards and strengthens us to live in the Kingdom of God. He shows us that there is a better way than evil, there are greater rewards to be found than those that possess us.
            Evil is a dangerous thing. One the one hand, we don’t want to dismiss its effects, but on the other we shouldn’t ascribe too much power to it. As Mark introduces us to Jesus in the gospel, he introduces Jesus as the exorcist, the vanquisher of evil, the builder of the Kingdom of God. The encounter between Jesus and this man with an unclean spirit is an invitation to be exorcised, a call to hear a new song, a challenge to healthy living, an opportunity stand up with Jesus against evil. With our faith focused on Jesus, with our actions orientated on the Kingdom of God, and with the courage to proclaim the authority of Jesus that makes him the Holy One of God, we too can join the chorus of the saints and angels. The old saying is that no one ever leaves the church humming a sermon, but everyone leaves with a song on their lips. Let our song this day be that sweet song of Jesus the exorcist, whose song calls us to new life and resisting evil.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Confession of St. Peter

The Confession of St. Peter is one of the holy days in the Church Year. On this day we hear Peter confess that Jesus is "the Messiah and Son of the Living God." And Jesus then says that Peter is the rock upon which he will  build the Church. Peter is an interesting fellow, here are some of the highlights-
  • Walked on the sea, then began to sink
  • At the Transfiguration, he didn't quite get the point and asked to build 3 tabernacles for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus
  • Confessed Jesus as Messiah, as noted above
  • Argued against the inclusion of Gentiles into the new church, then changed his mind as he was guided by the Spirit and others
  • He denied Jesus three times during the Passion
Peter is a great reminder to us all that we don't have to get it all right the first time, or even the second, or the third... If the Church is founded on Jesus, then it is founded on a second chance, and a third chance, and so on. He is the hero of not giving up, of remaining faithful, of being forgiven; and that is an example we all could use, especially our political leaders in Washington. How might they be different if they tried to be like the person of Peter instead of a statue of Peter (trying to be the solid rock that is never wrong).

At Diocesan Convention last weekend, Bishop Michael Curry shared a Scottish poem in his Pastoral Address, which is a paraphrase of the servant girl's words accusing Peter of being Jesus' disciple, this was the final denial by Peter. The poem goes 

O that it might be said of me,
surely thy speech betrayeth thee,
thou wast with Jesus of Galilee.

Bishop Curry then challenged us all to be a church and individuals who looked like we have been with Jesus, so speak as if we intimately know Jesus, to live lives closer to Jesus. Peter struggled to embrace this accent which gave him away. After all, taking up your cross (and Peter literally did) is not easy work. Let us all give thanks for Peter, for second chances, and let us all seek to be transformed by Jesus in such a way that anyone that meets us on the street might say of us "thou wast with Jesus of Galilee."

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

How To Post Comments

A few people have told me that they read the blog, and would like to comment but don't know how.

Under the post, there should be a green hyperlink that says "1 comment" or "2(or whatever the number is) comments."  Click that, then a comment box will appear. Once you've typed your comments, there is a box below that where you can select how your comments are published. You can use your Google (or other types) of accounts to sign in. This will put your name on the line. If you don't want to login, you can select "Anonymous" and then anyone can post a comment. I do ask that if you choose this option, you do actually type your name in the comment box at the end. Anonymous posting is one of the pitfalls of the internet and leads to a less responsible posting and negative tone in the dialogue. Questions still? Send me and email, I'd love to have you continuing the conversation.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?

This blog post's title comes from a book by the same name. I was reading/commenting on another blog where it was mentioned. The title is intriguing, but in looking at the table of contents and in reading reviews, it doesn't appear to be worth the read. As many reviewers pointed out, it's really the wrong question to be asking. But then again, the author is trying to sell a book, and it is a provocative title that makes you want to read more.

Instead, the better question to ask is along the lines of "how does being a Christian play out in your life?" Do you remain hopeful when you might not otherwise? Do you live in the power of the Resurrection? Are you more confident in yourself knowing that you are the beloved child of God? Do you find yourself being more moral when you ask yourself what would Jesus do? Do you act less selfishly when you recall that it's not about you, but instead is about us and the Kingdom of God?

A lot of times, we all try to forget about writing papers in school because of the work and stress, not to mention the fact that we often don't really want to be writing the paper. But from seminary, one really sticks out from me. I had a homiletics professor who asked us to write a sermon based on 1 Peter 3: 15 "always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you." How would you make an account for the hope that is in you? Or in other words, what makes you Christian? For you, what is so seminal to your faith, that without it, you could no longer be a Christian?

I can't answer that for you. For me, it is the abiding sense of the Holy Spirit. The trust that God is active, that God loves me through that presence, that God is doing something new in this world (namely, building the Kingdom of God) is crucial and central to my faith. I would urge you all to consider how you would account for that hope in you. Is it the hope given to us through the Resurrection? Is it that God created and loves all of the cosmos?

And please, help to make this a vibrant and active blog- post a reply so that I know someone reads these things!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

January 8, 2012- Epiphany 1B

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            The baptism of Jesus is a wonderful way for us to begin the season of Epiphany. It is the season of the Church that begins after the 12 days of Christmas. Epiphany comes from a Greek word which means “appearance” or “manifestation.” Epiphany has its roots in the appearance of the Christ-child to the wise men from the east who came to visit the Holy Family, as it celebrates the manifestation of God’s love, redemption, and presence in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
            It’s also wonderful to be preaching on a Sunday on which we normally would have a baptism, but don’t. Typically when you preach on baptism Sunday there is a rule- keep it short and have one point. You’re often preaching to extended family members who are not familiar with the Episcopal tradition, or even the Church. And you have to contend with a crying baby. So it is nice to have this opportunity to more fully explore baptism, which is perhaps one of the least understood aspects of the Christian faith. What is baptism all about? I’ll get there, but first I want to explore perhaps the most important and most theologically challenging passage in the entire Bible.
            “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” In our baptisms, the same is said of us as it was Jesus. God says to each of us- you are my son, you are my daughter, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Notice that in Mark, God says “you are my child,” not “this is my son.” God is speaking not just to Jesus, but to John the Baptist, to the crowd that was gathered that day watching the event, to you and to me.
            So in this baptism event there are two things that happen- the first is this acknowledgment from God, and the second is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Let’s explore this voice from heaven first. You are my son or daughter. This is the language of adoption. In the Hebrew custom, by naming a relationship, you consummated it. The marriage ritual was rather simple, the man would simply say “this is my wife,” and it was done. God is saying “you are my child,” and we are. The language of adoption is important. Under Roman law, a birth child could be disinherited, but an adopted child could not. Once the adoption took place, it was permanent. By using the language of adoption, God makes it clear that this is not a temporary relationship; God will not change God’s mind on this, you are God’s son, you are God’s daughter.
            What I love about this passage is where the voice comes from- the heavens. But notice how the voice comes. In Matthew, it says that the heavens were opened. So maybe the clouds moved apart and the voice came, rather boring. But in Mark, our translation reads “torn apart,” in Greek, it’s the word schizo, which is violent and strong. It’s not just that God parts the clouds to come to us and call us God’s son or daughter, God is ripping the heavens apart to get to us. It’s the image of a mother or father lifting a car to save their child. It’s messy, it’s raw, but nothing, not even the heavens, will hold God back from telling you that you are God’s child.
            Next, God names us as the beloved. In baptism, we are given our core definition: beloved. No matter what, our most basic name is beloved. And when I say that this passage makes the hardest theological statement in the Bible, this is what I’m referring to. People can struggle to understand the Incarnation, they’ll buy into the Virgin Birth because they believe in the power of God, they grapple with the Resurrection, they can’t figure out the Holy Spirit, but they trust in it. But how many of us believe that we are the beloved of God?
Now to be fair, most of us would acknowledge that God loves us. But how many of us put that at the top of the list. I’ll bet you my bottom dollar that if we all took out our business cards, none of them would say “beloved child of God” under our name. Henri Nouwen, in the book The Life of the Beloved writes about the trap of self-rejection which we all fall into. The world will call you a lot of things. You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re worthless. You’re stupid. You’re lazy. Why can’t you get over your depression? Why can’t you just stop drinking? Why can’t you loosen up and be more outgoing? You’ve been outsourced. You’re dead to me. You’re a nerd. You’re unlovable. You’re selfish. And those are just the things that are rated PG. And we start to believe them. They start to take their toll.
The symptoms of this self-rejection are low self-esteem and arrogance. Either we define ourselves by these terms and are depressed, rejected, and always think that we could be better. Or, in a move of self-defense, we become arrogant. We start slinging the mud back at others, or we paint ourselves as pillars of virtue to make ourselves feel better. But the name that God gives us in much simpler- beloved.
Beloved doesn’t mean that you’re perfect, it doesn’t mean that you can’t improve yourself, it doesn’t mean that you stop working to better yourself and your world, it doesn’t condone poor decision making or sinfulness, but it does mean that, at your core, you are who you are supposed to be. You are complete, you are loved, you are sufficient as you are. You are loved, you don’t need to show proof in order to get this love, you don’t have to complete a task to earn the love, you are loved. And this is our end, our call, this is really all we need, to be beloved; that is our fulfillment. Making a big name for ourselves, building wealth- that’s all beside the point. You are the beloved. Scripture tells us that God watches over us, that God knows the number of hairs on our heads, that God knew us while we were in our mother’s wombs. You have always been loved, and you can’t be undeserving of this love; at your very core, you are loved.
But how many of us act as if that is true? Our economic system of capitalism is built on the premise that you aren’t complete and you need something to make you better. Make up, weight loss pills, or a fancy car would make you a better person and more attractive. If you just had more money your life would be better. If it was drilled into you from the time you were born that you were loved as is, how would you be a different person? If you tried to better yourself not to please your parents, not to impress your boss, not to position yourself for  a raise; but instead, what if you did what filled you and allowed you to live as a child of God, how might you make decisions differently?
In saying “with you I am well pleased” God is affirming us. God is saying “you are who you are supposed to be.” Again, this doesn’t make you perfect or give you permission to do anything you want to do, but you are pleasing to God. God is happy with having you as a son, as a daughter. I can’t say it enough because the voice from heaven is easily overshadowed by the voices of this world, but you are loved. Theologian Paul Tillich once said that “faith is the courage to accept acceptance.” And so it is. We live in a culture of self-help books, of always trying to be better, of never being good enough. Our culture is one that is built upon self-rejection and the monetization of catering to people with low self-esteem, and it does take courage to go against the grain and accept your acceptance, to accept the fact that you are the beloved child of God and with you God is well pleased. It’s the hardest theological statement in the Bible, but if we can believe it with every fiber of our being, and realize that it’s true for each person in this world, then our lives and our world can be truly transformed.
So that is the first part of Baptism, becoming the beloved of God. And secondly, in Baptism we are bestowed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, which is a mystery of sorts. I recently read a transcript of an dialogue between Christopher and Peter Hitchens. Christopher died recently and was the world-famous, militant atheist. Peter, his brother, is the former atheist turned Christian author. What struck me in reading the transcript was that 1) Christopher clearly didn’t know what he was talking about. It would be like someone who has never tasted wine before trying to explain away the complexity of a vintage Bordeaux or Borolo. And 2) Peter fell into the trap that so many academic Christians do; he didn’t embrace the mystery of God. Mystery is not simply something Christians claim to win arguments which they’d otherwise lose, rather mystery is the acknowledgment that we are finite and only get glimpses of the epiphany, not the whole thing.
The Holy Spirit is one of these mysteries of the faith. Poet William Blake once penned that “he who sees the infinite in all things, sees God.” Ever since the Enlightenment, Christianity has been reduced to superstition, at least from the view of reason and the academy. If you can’t prove it in a lab, then it’s not true, such as a mystery. This takes us back to the question I asked earlier, what is baptism all about anyway? Well, without mystery, it’s just a cultish ritual that has no impact on our lives. Most Episcopalians would say that baptism doesn’t determine whether you go to heaven or hell when you die. A lot of good people have never been baptized and a lot of evil people have.
I read a story about a man who worked at the Ford plant in Detroit. Back before machines made cars, the factory workers would often take tools home with them and would rarely bring them back. The practice was widespread and no one knew how to address it. This particular man was preparing for baptism and conversion to Christianity. As he was learning more and more about the faith, he began to feel guilty about the tools that he had taken, so he returned them to his supervisor, who was shocked that anyone would do that. So he told his boss and it went up the ladder and eventually Henry Ford received a cable about it while in Europe. He replied and said “dam up the Detroit River and baptize all of them.”
That is what Baptism is about, the mystery of conversion; the mystery of believing that you are loved and taking that as a call to live a life of loving others. It is the mystery of the cross and the mystery of the empty tomb. What if life isn’t about what we know and understand, but instead is about the mystery? I don’t pretend to be an astrophysicist, but I find the theory of dark matter to be fascinating. We all assume that our world is made up of atoms which we can observe and describe. But the theory of dark matter says that as much as 83% of the universe if made of dark matter, which is relatively unobservable and unknowable to us. If that doesn’t scream mystery and “you’ll never know it all,” I don’t know what does.
Take the mystery, the Holy Spirit, out of baptism and you’re left with an empty ritual or a really fast bath. Part of the mystery of baptism goes back to the point of being the beloved child of God. As the beloved, you are sanctified, you are adopted, you are given salvation, you are initiated into the Christian community, you are given the Holy Spirit. How does this happen? I don’t know, but I trust that it does; I know that it does.
I read an interesting Facebook status this past week. A friend of mine from seminary was writing about belief in God. He wrote “there are things in this world that make me believe in God. I'm not talking about the certain modes of thinking. I'm also not talking about seeing a beautiful sunset and thinking ‘how could someone not believe in God?’...No, I mean that there are things that, when they happen, I am overcome, overwhelmed, and saturated with a sense of something so much greater than I could possibly put into words. Belief not as conscious decision, but as acknowledgment of a reality that pierces you to your core. One year ago, my daughter was born. This was one of these moments.” I think we’ve all experienced those sorts of moments, when there are no words, there are no explanations, there is only mystery.
And the love of God is one of those mysteries. Don’t try to explain it, don’t try to encapsulate it, you’ll ruin it. Just be loved. What was so powerful about this passage from Mark to the Jews gathered there that day was that there hadn’t been a prophet in at least 400 years; people assumed that God no longer spoke to people, that prophesy has ended. And we say the same thing, even the Church has said that the period of prophecy is closed. But I disagree.
I say that each and every day, God still calls out to us, “you are my son or daughter, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God is tearing the heavens apart to get us. Can you feel it? Do you hear God calling to you? If not, then I’d suggest taking up the practice of contemplative prayer, or using some other method to be quiet so that the voices and distractions of the world can be put aside so that you can hear the voice of your loving Father in heaven.
Henri Nouwen wrote “God not only says ‘you are my beloved.’ God also asks us ‘do you love me?’ and offers us countless chances to say ‘yes.’” You are the beloved of child of God. If you can accept and say “yes” to this love and share it with others, our world will be forever changed. And wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing to do after Christmas? Instead of putting Christmas into a box and shoving it into the attic for 11 months, may we continue celebrating Christmas by sharing the gift of God’s love with the world.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

January 1, 2012- Holy Name

In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
            What is in a name? Shakespeare famously wrote “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Proverbs 22:1 says “a great name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” And so it is. We all know the power of a name. Last names such as Bush, Vanderbilt, or Kennedy all carry great power with them. Some names even become part of the language- Einsteinian. We’ve lost the sense of definition of names in our culture. But often in the Bible we read about people whose names are titles. Abraham means “father of many,” Isaac means “laughter,” because of the preposterous situation of a son being born to the very old Abraham and Sarah. Names in the Bible are powerful, as they are titles of definition. And titles in our world are important too. Look at a business card, everyone these days is a vice president of something. We like big titles, just as the people of the Bible liked big names.
            The question of a name is really about how do you see yourself? How do you define yourself? If you could choose one word to describe yourself, what would it be? Names don’t really capture that anymore. Robert is a German name, meaning “fame” and “bright.” I won’t complain about those attributes, but I think I agree with Shakespeare, a name is just a name. I’d like to think that if my name were Thomas, Steve or anything else, that I’d be the same person. But the idea of a name in the Bible, when we talk about the name of God, Jesus, or any person in the Bible, name really isn’t the right translation. We’re really talking about their character, their identity, their title. So names, in that Biblical sense, really are important. The Biblical name is perhaps what you’d put on your tombstone, or what you’d want future generations to remember about you.
            I think it is fitting that we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name today. It is a tradition that dates back to at least the 14th century. We commemorate of the circumcision of Jesus eight days after his birth; this was the time in Jewish custom when a child was named, or given a sense of identity. And in being named, they officially became a part of the family and an heir of the promise God made to Abraham. Different churches celebrate this day at different times, and it’s fairly rare in the Episcopal Church. Holy Name always falls on January 1, and January 1 does not often happen on a Sunday. New Year’s Day is a great time for us to be considering the ideas of name and identity.
            Everyone is talking about resolutions, which, in essence, say “how do I want to be different this year?” “How do I want to be known differently.” In the Biblical sense, “how do I change my name, or how do I live into my name in a truer way.” As we begin the year, we think about what we want to accomplish, what we look forward to, what we hope to avoid. Sometimes we even name the year. The year of self-control, the year of exercising more, the year of traveling more, the year of retiring. As we begin another year, what name will you claim for yourself?
            The name that was claimed for the son born to Mary was “Jesus.” Jesus was actually a very common name; it wasn’t a special name. Jesus is the Hebrew form of “Joshua,” which was just as common then as it is today. Jesus is a fitting name though, as it means “God saves.” There are the traditions of casting out demons simply by using the name of Jesus. I’m sure we’ve all known people who in moments of fear or being at the end of their rope repeat the name of Jesus to themselves. In charismatic circles, chanting the name of Jesus will ward off evil spirits. Jesus’ name is something people have been willing to fight for and to die for. Philippians says that at the name of Jesus, ever knee should bend. It is a name taken in vain often, but also a name given great respect. There is great power and healing power in the name of Jesus.
            But, as I said, Jesus was a common name and the actual name of things isn’t nearly as important as the identity of a thing. And the identity of Jesus as God salvation is what truly matters. The person of Jesus of Nazareth is what we venerate and follow as Christians. What the name of Jesus communicates to us is God blessing.
Jesus is the agent of God love, God grace, God redemption, God presence with us. And that is why the name of Jesus is so important- it reminds us of those blessings. Christmas is the season where we celebrate the rebirth of hope, where we celebrate that God has become incarnate in our world. This is unique in Christianity. No other religion claims that God, the creator and redeemer of all, the source and end of everything, has taken on the flesh of Creation and joined it. And that is a true blessing. This earth is blessed through Jesus’ presence on it, and so are we. We breathe the same air that Jesus did, we walk on the same earth, we awake each day to the light of the same sun.
The blessing of the Incarnation is in the name of Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” It was the yearning of the Hebrew people, and it is our deepest desire- to know that we are not alone, to know that we are always being held in God hand, to know that we are redeemed. As I’ve said in other sermons, what God gives us is maximum support, with minimum protection. The blessing of God does not mean there will be no pain, no loss, no depression, no illnesses, no layoffs, no deaths; but what the blessing of God presence does mean is that we will not be alone in those things. It means that God will be there to redeem the situation.
This connection between names and blessing is found in our Old Testament reading today as well. This passage is often called the priestly or Aaronic, as in Moses’ brother Aaron, blessing. God says to the people “so shall they put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” Being united to God in God name is a true blessing. In our baptisms, in our self-identity as Christians, we receive this blessing through God name.
In Judaism, this priestly blessing is extremely important and sacred. It is recited only by priests and there are many customs attached to its usage to ensure it is used reverently and properly. There is also an interesting bit of trivia out there about the hand signal used in the priestly blessing. Leonard Nimoy, better known as Spock from Star Trek, grew up in a very religious Jewish household, and he used a variation of the hand sign and priestly blessing in the show. In Jewish custom, the priest makes this sign when pronouncing the words. So you can see how it got adapted to “live long and prosper,” which is a sort of paraphrase of the whole blessing.
The priestly blessing is a beautiful prayer. God tells Aaron to use these words instead of human words. There are no ifs, no perhaps, no maybes in this blessing. It is definite- God will do these things. And throughout this passage from Numbers, the emphatic “I” is used to stress that God loves and cares for God people and will bless them. There are three movements to the priestly blessing. The first is that God will bless us and keep us. These are words tied to ideas of sustaining us. These are the words used to talk about the blessing of harvests, land, and descendents. Secondly, God will make his face to shine upon us and be gracious to us. It is a blessing of God presence with us, that God light will shine on us, despite the darkness of the life. It asks that God be gracious to us and that God show us mercy. And finally, it asks that God show his countenance upon us, giving us peace. In Hebrew, the word for peace is shalom, which is full of meaning. It is used throughout the Bible to mean such things as prosperity, longevity, happiness, safety, security, good health, friendship, well-being, and tranquility. Like the Lord’s prayer, it is a simple prayer, but all-inclusive and full of beautiful language. And at its conclusion, God says that this prayer of priestly blessing puts God name on them and blesses them.
You all go by many different names, but perhaps our names in the Biblical sense would be “children of God.” And in being named that, we locate ourselves in relationship to God. This is a relationship of being blessed. This name is a blessing of inward grace. The world might call you a lot of things, it will judge you, you will be called names, in the negative sense. But those are not your names, you are not defined by those terms, or even the attributes you put on yourself. Instead, know that you are the child of God. That is your name. And in this name, you are blessed.
And, of course, there is the other side of the coin. Bearing God name means that we have a mission to fulfill. This is not a blessing to enjoy in our own little corner. This is not a secret name that we carry, but it is to be proclaimed to the world. This name that we have is a call to action. In bearing God name we will be blessed, but we will also be challenged. Our example is Jesus. He bore a very special name, the name of God Messiah, of God Incarnate- and he was greatly blessed in that. But Jesus also shed blood, sweat, and tears for his name. He did not hide his name. When it would have been politically or personally expedient to change his name, he stuck with it. Though he only had minimum protection, he was constantly blessed with maximum support; and the same is true for us.
This New Year’s Day, as we consider our resolutions, as we contemplate on the upcoming year and the names we’d like to go by- let us remember our most basic name- “child of God.” And in that name, we will be blessed with God presence, God love, God peace. Remember each and every day this year- you are blessed.