Sunday, January 30, 2011

Today's Sermon: Micah 6:1-8, Matt 5:1-12 “Fools for Christ”

In the Russian Orthodox tradition, there is a term applied to some of the saints, one that causes us to shake our heads.

“Fool for Christ.”

The sort of person who does things that sometimes seem a little crazy or risky, or unusual, for the love of God, to carry out Christ’s gospel.

Fool for Christ. Just the word “foolish” makes us uncomfortable. No one wants to be seen as a fool. Think of all the references to fools in popular culture: songs like “what a fool believes, the wise man never follows.” “What kind of fool am I that never fell in love?” “Everybody plays the fool.” And then there’s that dangerous mineral that led so many miners astray, Fool’s Gold. People who were brought to court to keep kings and queens amused with silliness and jokes were called “Fool.” Their words were never taken seriously. Phrase like “a fool and his money are soon parted,’ and the famous line from Mark Twain: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and have people think you are foolish than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Why, then, would anyone want to be called a fool for Christ?

Saint Basil was one of the most famous of these holy fools. He came from very lowly family, and was an apprentice shoemaker for a while. But then he decided to do more for those whom Jesus loved. He began to shoplift, giving what he stole to the poor as a way of shaming the rich. He gave away what little clothing he had, walking around naked, bound in chains. He was always rebuking Ivan the Terrible, the Czar at the time. That’s a pretty high-risk thing to do, since Ivan was, in fact, pretty terrible. The Czar was not living the Christian life, and he was killing peasants and doing other awful things. It is said that St. Basil gave the Czar some meat during Lent, telling him it did not matter whether or not he refrained from eating meat, which is what the church said one should do, because of the murders he had committed. I am quite sure those around him were horrified at what Basil said, thinking, “Is this guy crazy? Does he want to get himself killed?” I don’t know about the killing part, and I don’t know if he was clinically insane, but you could certainly describe his behavior as foolish. It was foolish in service of Christ. He was insisting that the Czar and everyone else listen to the message of the Gospel. Basil was truly a Fool for Christ.

But in his foolishness, he was simply following what we heard first from the prophet Micah this morning.

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah laid it out so clearly and succinctly. Should be easy, right? Let’s expand on Micah’s phrase a little bit.

Do justice, at any cost to ourselves.

Love kindness, even when others aren’t kind to us.

Walk humbly with God, even when some people tell you you’re not doing it right, or others are pompously boasting of their relationship with God.

Sounds a little like crazy old Basil…

When we think about Micah’s words, we realize it’s not so easy. God expects us to work at it, even when it is uncomfortable and sometimes even painful, when it feels counterintuitive, when it’s risky and a bother. God expects that loving God means putting one’s own needs in the back seat.

Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount, those beautiful words of our Gospel today, reiterates what Micah was talking about. Jesus goes deeper than Micah did.

Let me read you a paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount in everyday language:

Who are blessed by God?

The people who don’t focus on the stuff they have, but the good qualities they wish they had…they keep striving to be more like Jesus, and they’ll get into heaven.

The people who are suffering and grieving here today - because they love deeply and care so much, they’ll have such happiness and comfort from God!

The people who are the ones without power, who don’t really strive for power or fame - they’ll get the whole of the earth.

The people who look around and see how things are unjust, how some people are treated badly, how some people are squashed under the thumbs of the powerful and the rich like bugs, the people who see that and recognize how it is wrong – they will see a time when justice will happen.

The people who are always trying to say nice things about others, not being mean or jealous or sharp-tongued or any bad thing, trying to do the right thing - they will get to see God, just as they already see a little of him in everyone they meet.

The people who try and make this a peaceful world – God will call them God’s children.

The people who suffer because they speak out or act against those who would do what is wrong – they get heaven, too.

Sounds a little bit like crazy Basil…that Fool for Christ.

Jesus asks us to do the same thing that Micah asks us to do.

Do the right thing.

Do the right thing in terms of your relationship with God. Recognize that everything you have comes from God. Everything. Thank God. Praise God. Worship God. And share it with others.

Do the right thing in terms of your neighbor. Your neighbor is as much a child of God as you are. His skin may be a different color. She may have an accent. He may be in a relationship that you find uncomfortable. She may have bumper stickers on her car that you don’t agree with. Love him or her anyway. Help out if that neighbor needs a hand. If someone else says something unkind about that neighbor, stick up for him. If there is a movement in the community to get rid of the neighbor for no good reason, fight it.

Do the right thing in terms of your relationships in the larger community and in the world. Work for peace, don’t simply say that we should force others to think and believe as we do. Work for justice, just as the founders of our nation worked for justice as they understood it.

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. Be blessed by being a peacemaker, by grieving that which should be mourned, by fighting for what’s just, by forgiving and showing mercy, by being truly humble, not just playing at it, by recognizing that we always could do better and striving toward that.

So what do we get if we do these things? God’s blessing, of course. Heaven and earth on a silver platter.

But the fine print at the end of the Sermon on the Mount agreement says it all: people are going to revile you and persecute you and ways bad things about you, because you follow Christ. Not because you are a Christian per se, but because you do these things that Jesus tells you that you should do, and society doesn’t always appreciate these things.

What does society say? Everything you get, you get because you work hard or are lucky. No mention of God in that, is there?

What does society say? My way or the highway. Our way is the right way, and if you don’t follow it, then you should leave or shut up or we’ll make you leave. Not much kindness and humility in that…

What does society say? You are only of value because of your money or your power or your fame, or any combination thereof. Ummm, what about the innate value of each and every one of us as a child of God? What about the value of the quiet things you do to help others, or to improve your neighborhood, or the world? What about the value of your prayers? Not much power going on there, except a recognition of God’s power.

What does society say? God is for Sunday morning, and Sunday morning only. You don’t have to do any of that religious stuff the other six days of the week. As if our need for God, and God’s desire for our love, is so very small.

But our God is so great, so large, so all-encompassing. His love is beyond our comprehension. With a love so great, why would we not do whatever God tells us to win that divine blessing? Why would we not say that society has it all wrong, that we will turn away from those small, selfish ways that society prizes but that wither away more quickly than a daylily? For those who value what the world values think what Jesus says is ridiculous, and those of us who follow Jesus are fools.

St. Paul tells the Corinthians:

“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."

Bail, Fool for Christ, boasted of nothing but God. Everyone around him thought he was foolish, crazy, even, but he knew what was important. Not the himself, not the world, but God.

We who do our best to live the Christian life are fools, in the eyes of some. And if we do it deeply and well, they are right. We are fools for Christ, and others will not understand. But the reward for this foolishness, this way that the world does not grasp, is God’s blessing. It is worth it, isn’t it?


Pictured is an icon of St. Basil, Fool for Christ, from St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Feeling my way along the path...

Yes, it's supposed to be my day off, but I have spent much of the day doing work stuff from home (completing the sermon and the Adult Ed program, dealing with a person who wanted to do something that was inappropriate, and the aftermath of my naming that, thinking about dinner conversation tonight with my new and wonderful Sr and Jr Warden, thinking about eleventy-thousand other things including the women's retreat in a few weeks).

It's true that much of what I feel most in the dark about (thus the title of this post) are things that cannot be taught in Seminary, or even in past work experiences, but days like today, when the in-the-dark feeling is at a higher level than normal, are really tiring.

SO I guess I'd really better pay attention to things like days off. And really do them. And not feel guilty about them. Or not as much.

StrongOpinions is on her way down for a weekend visit. Yeah, that'll take me to a different place. Not necessarily a more peaceful place, mind you, but different, and that's a useful thing.

The dining room Chez Mibi is now a different place...I painted it (see picture). It has moved from the realm of beige and white to the empire of claret and white. Now I get to fantasize about the drapes I will make to go with the new coat of paint. Sweet!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Gray Monday

It's cold, which means that my broken bone in my leg is aching.

I'm swamped, and my secretary will be having surgery next week. I'm worried about how we (read I) will function without her for the next several weeks. Yes, I'm worried that it will all go well for her, too, but selfishly I am seeing this through the lens of my own needs.

StrongOpinions is hitting the end-of-January seasonal affective disorder blues. Many phone calls, much wailing. I love her, but I don't have a whole lot of psychic energy right now myself. She'll come home for the weekend and get some Mommy-love, and I hope that will help. PH will be out of town at a conference, which means I get to handle the drama by myself. Perhaps there will be pleasant surprises in the midst of it.

Litigator will be coming for a visit next week. Since he lives on the Left Coast, I only see he once a year. I can't wait to see him - he seems to have matured so much in recent months. I expect he will do his usual thing and watch a ton of television, read a lot, and emerge for Mommy-food, with some conversation in the midst of it all. Should be fun, in the usual Litigator way.

The schedule for the week is very hectic, what with getting things lined up for Secretary's departure, the usual end-of-the-month stuff like the newsletter, and a bunch of pastoral visits I procrastinated about in the past few weeks.

I'm tired, achy, swamped, and out of ideas for my blurb for the front of the newsletter.

And yet...and yet...

Nine new people came on Sunday. Nine. Wow. I hope some of them - heck, I hope ALL of them - come back next week, and the next.

I had to laugh. One parishioner, the former Senior Warden who called me to this place, told me at coffee hour that he was afraid they were a search committee checking me out. Nope. They might be searching, but not search-committee searching. I hope they found a little of what they were looking for. The sermon was on the right track, but not polished, but it seemed to touch folks.

It's hard in the dregs of January chill to find the light and the joy, but there are still little glimmers (nine!) that carry me. And there's chocolate. A good thing indeed.

Four and a half weeks until the RevGals Big Event
. I am more than ready for both meteorological and psychic warmth.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Today's Sermon Matt 4:12-23 "Phosphorescent"c

It wasn’t a very smooth handoff, was it?

John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, a few of John’s adherents started following Jesus, and then – BAM – John was hauled off to prison. In the Greek, it is said that John was paradidomi, handed up, to the authorities. An important word, because it is the same one used later in the gospel for Jesus’ arrest. They were handed up to the authorities, and eventually handed up to a higher plane, to be with the Heavenly Father. Being handed up, paradidomi, can be a good thing or a bad thing, it seems. But there went John, off to be locked up by Herod, who didn’t much care for the things John was saying about his new wife. The lesson? Never disrespect the trophy wife.

If Jesus thought he was going to have a gentle transition into active ministry, he found out that was not to be the case. John was gone, and it was predictable what would happen to the Forerunner. He would be a forerunner in death as he was a forerunner in baptism and in proclamation. John was handed up, and now Jesus was handed up into the active phase of his ministry.

What happens next? Jesus withdraws to Galilee. It is the natural place for Jesus to go, to the home turf, the place where he feels relatively safe, where he knows people. It is, for him, a place of light, a place where he might reconnect and recharge. But it is also a place where he might shine his light, in words and in deeds, for a people who had been suffering and confused and struggling for a long time. And that was just what Isaiah had prophesied, wasn’t it?

“ In the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness-- on them light has shined. “

A light shining. A light giving warmth and hope and strength to a troubled people. But a light dies if it is not given the fuel, the oxygen, that sustains it.

What might that fuel be? In Jesus’ case, the light that he brings requires that people hear his message. He speaks, in strong words that are both comfort and rebuke, and the people of Capernaum must listen…and they must act. Action is the oxygen that fuels the Light.

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

Do something! Recognize that you have been on the wrong path. And do it quickly, because something wonderful and terrible is coming quickly - the kingdom of heaven! Like the t-shirt that was popular a few years ago: “Look busy! Jesus is coming!”

Only it isn’t just looking busy that Jesus is asking for, it is actually doing something, acting. Oxygen for the light.

If we have not yet gotten the message, Jesus then demonstrates what he means. He walks by the seaside and grabs two men. Peter. Andrew, his brother. (We heard the story from a different angle last week, in the Gospel of John.) They are casting a net into the sea, doing the thing that fishermen do. And he says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” And as he continues his walk on the sand, he also grabs the Zebedee boys – the sons of thunder, as their name means – and he calls them, and they too drop everything including their father and their boat and follow along.

Can you imagine the strangeness of that moment, this man approaching workers and saying, “Drop everything. Come along. I have work for you to do.” Can you imagine the astounded looks on the faces of the others on the shore, watching this happen, wondering if their friends would come back at dinnertime, wondering what the meaning of all this was?

It was about the light, and about action in response to the light.

In Greek, the word for light is “phos (fw/j)” the word from which we derive words like photograph, photosynthesis, phosphorus..I mention this last word because one of the things that the chemical element phosphorus does is to glow in the presence of oxygen. A chemical response, an action, if you will, by means of interaction with another element. The light, the phosphorescence, is a response to the fuel. No oxygen, no response, no light. And what about photosynthesis, that life force in plants, where the presence of light helps a plant convert carbon dioxide into sugars to fuel growth? A light that energizes, a necessary thing. Not ornamental or aesthetic, but absolutely essential to light, and to life itself.

So the light we talk about in this gospel is this active kind of light. As I said earlier, without oxygen, without action, it dies. The light moves and affects and responds…

Such an interesting concept! We think of light as something that switches on and off…but what if light is an active and responsive and moving thing? Such things demand their fuel and they also demand some sort of recognition and response.

And this reminds me of a story a friend told me, about going fishing on a lake in Africa. On this deep and narrow lake, the fishermen go out in small boats at night. They cast their nets, the kind that are called purse seine nets, large, with a drawstring at the top when the nets underlie a school of fish.

Why at night? Well, when these fishermen go out – and they never go out during the full moon, only on nights when the sky is velvet black – they shine high powered lights into the depths of the lake. And the fish in the lake coming swimming up, swarming around the light, and the fishermen gather them in…they are drawn to the light as if they hunger for it. It is a remarkable thing to see. And the even more remarkable thing is that the fish react to the light not only by coming up from the depths, but they are faintly phosphorescent. They glow. They are not only attracted to the light, they are transformed by it.

Jesus walks by the seashore and he says to the fishermen, “I will set you at a new task of fishing; you will fish now for people.” And these fishermen, untutored, not orators, not well-traveled, are given the single tool they need for their new kind of fishing. Their net is not a purse seine. Their net is the Light, the Divine Light that draws in those who hear it and are transformed by it. Do they glow in the dark, like the fish? No, but they are warmed and changed and their souls now have an inner glow.

We think of those disciples and the task that Jesus set before them, and we marvel at the millions and billions of followers of Christ in the centuries that ensued. But these men, these first disciples, they began their work with what seems like less than we have. No written Bible. No trained preachers. No commentaries, or songs or movies. They had only the word, the light incarnate. All they did was trust in Jesus and share the light by sharing the word. They saw it in action, in Jesus’ lifetime, in his healing and in his proclamation. But they had the exact same tools that we have to bring people to the knowledge and love of Christ. A net.

A net made of light and of words.

Jesus says the same thing to us today, to drop the things that get in the way, to fish for people. He challenges us to take that net made of light and of words and to cast it and see whom we catch.

It’s not about approaching people and whacking people over the head with a Bible as if it is a club – many of us fear that this is what sharing the good news is like. No, it’s more like an invitation to glide into a warm and lovely pool of water. It’s about shining the light that draws people into Jesus’ love by living our lives in ways that make others want to imitate what we do…which is no more or less than trying to follow what Jesus teaches us to do.

If you’re still nervous about this kind of fishing, let me give you a different way of thinking about it.

If you’ve gone to a great restaurant, you’ll mention it to your friends and say “you need to check out this place. Let’s go there together.”

Why is it so hard to say that about Jesus, and about this church?

Cast your nets, your nets of light and words and love. Invite people into this place of love and this beautiful tradition of honoring the one who has taught us all we need to know. Fish for people. Let Jesus help you. It isn’t so hard after all.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Back from the northern reaches...

I am back from our Diocesan Council, 100 miles to the north, in what RM calls "suburban Sheol". It was good to reconnect with many friends, both clergy and otherwise, from that part of the state. I was also able to have some meetings that were overdue.

It was good to have a few days' break from the usual, although it will make for a long week.

My seminary had a listening session on the replacement of our beloved chapel, which burned in October. I met with my clergy mentor, who is a wise man and a funny one. I saw my dear friend and her brand-new baby Charlie. I brought stuff to be delivered to some folks, and picked up stuff to bring back. I enjoyed helping welcome our new Assistant Bishop, who has already gotten to know us at Church by the Lakeside by virtue of his episcopal visit on Jan.2nd. We had long conversations about a number of topics dear to my heart, and important for the church. We had a certain percentage of very boring stuff - can't avoid it - and a certain percentage of uncomfortable stuff - can't avoid that either.

But it was a break.

Speaking of breaks, it turns out my leg injury from December is not a torn meniscus in the knee, it's a non-displaced fracture of the top of the fibula. So I've got a busted leg, but not a really bad break. I can function just fine with the Franken-Knee brace, but I cannot exercise the way I'd like.

I've got one parishioner just home from the hospital recovering from hip replacement surgery and the parish secretary is scheduled to have a hip replacement on Feb 1. we are all the walking wounded, I guess.

But churches are usually places for the walking wounded. It's just that the visibility of the breaks and aches varies from soul to soul.

Our Wednesday noon Eucharist this past week was again the Hospital for the Cure of Souls. Lots of folks with burdens on their hearts come to pray and be prayed with, to hear the Word, and to be fed. It is a tender service, and it is so dear to my heart. It has become an entry-point for new folks in need of a church home. This was not how I thought it would be, but that's alright.

In the meantime, I'm slowly working on painting the dining room a lovely claret red.It's a break from the unrelieved tan that the rest of the main floor wears. Breaks are good, mostly.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Today's Sermon: John 1:29-42 “What’s in a Name?”

Cary Grant was born Archie Leach. Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz. Kirk Douglas was born Issur Danilovich. Queen Latifah was born Dana Owens. 50 Cent was born Curtis Jackson. They changed their names, or someone changed their names for them, because they wanted a name that said something about how they wanted to be perceived. For some of them, a more all-American name, a more White Anglo-Saxon Protestant name, would make them more saleable to the American movie market. For others, it was about carving out a persona, an attitude, a shield, almost…protecting who they were by constructing a fa├žade…and the first brick of that facade was a name.

Names are powerful things, aren’t they? In the Jewish tradition, infants are named after a deceased relative, but they do not receive the same name, just a name with the first letter. They are tied to their family history by the thread of that single letter, even as they are given the freedom to forge their own identity by a different name.

Here in the South, names are tied to family as well. We hear of men and women alike whose first names are a family name…if your mother’s family name was Lane, you might well have Lane as your first name, or as a middle name that you use as if it were a first name. You might be Lane Smith.

Family is a powerful determinant of names…when my stepson Matt (Matthias Edwin Lukens III), the 12th generation of Matthias Lukenses in his family line since they came to America with William Penn, decided to name his only son Benjamin, his father was deeply unhappy that the baby wasn’t going to be Matthias Edwin Lukens IV.

Names are powerful in ways that are both good and bad, as promises and as yokes, as helpers in our ambitions and as stumbling blocks. John Quincy Adams felt burdened by the name his father John Adams had given him. His father’s history hung over his son, who felt for so many years unequal to his father’s great accomplishments. It was only in his later life that he came into himself, found his own identity and purpose in spite of that name rather than because of it.

Identity is at the heart of these many naming rituals, and connection with the traditions and the history and the culture. What we are called shapes who we are. What we name ourselves shapes who we choose to be. Names are important to us.

What does it mean, then, in our gospel story today when Jesus looked at Simon, the brother of Andrew, a man to whom he had just been introduced, and renamed him? And when Jesus gave Simon a new name, how did that affect Simon, and those around him?

At the very least, it was a change. Andrew and the rest of Simon’s family had known this man as Simon since he was born. He had been named Simon by his father at his birth. His wife knew him as Simon bar Jonah, Simon the son of Jonah. His identity was carved into him by his relationships to family members, by that name, with a name that means “hear, listen.” When people saw this man, a fisherman in his little community of Bethsaida, with a wife, and presumably children, and a brother, and a mother-in-law, they thought “Simon. Simon bar Jonah.”

But now Jesus gave him a new name. “You shall be called Cephas.” Cephas, an Aramaic word that meant “rock.” A name that we know as Peter, from the Greek “petra”, or the Latin “pietra” also meaning “rock.” Suddenly Jesus unhooked Simon from the family ties inherent in his name, from his identity as that fisherman with the wife and mother-in-law and the boat with the nets in the back on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, and transformed him, with a single word, with the change of his name.

Simon might have thought it odd, such a name. Why not “water” or “net” or big fish?” Why something so very different from the shape of his life as he had lived it thus far? Why “rock?”

But in John’s gospel, Jesus didn’t explain this renaming any further. Unlike the dialogue in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus didn’t go into the “and upon this rock I will build my church.” He just let the name hang there, ripe with meaning and with questions.

Jesus and his new disciples moved on to Galilee, picking up some other new disciples as they went. Jesus attended the wedding feast, his coming out party, if you will, as a miracle worker.

And in the midst of it all, there was Simon Peter, with this new name, with questions about what it meant, just sitting and watching and waiting to see how this name thing would play out.

I wonder: when they got to the wedding feast, did Jesus introduce him as Simon or as Cephas? Or was the transformation into the rock still a work in progress for this fisherman?

The name may have identified who Simon was to become – this Cephas or Peter or Rock. It may have been a predictor of his future role as the foundation of the church that was to follow. But in that first conversation, and in the years that Peter walked with Jesus, he had many more Simon moments that Peter moments, didn’t he?

When he told Jesus that he was the Son of God, that was a Peter moment. It was a rare one. More often, the man was Simon, with Simon moments. Simon was the one who spoke too loudly or too soon, who pledged undying loyalty and then ran and hid, and who denied Jesus to protect himself. Simon, who struck off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Simon who tried to push away those in need whom he judged annoyances to Jesus. The man had been renamed, but the transformation of his soul was slow coming.

The gift was that Jesus knew it would take a while, and was patient enough to let it happen as it was going to evolve. Jesus didn’t just zap Simon into Peter-ness with his renaming, he planted a seed that would take some time to bear fruit.

Several years ago, a colleague of mine had a young intern in her office for the summer. His name was unusual – it was MarcoPolo. He was a remarkable kid – twenty years old, from a poor household in Southeast Washington, raised by his mother and his grandmother. Blind from birth. Going to college on scholarship with his seeing eye dog Baron, taking three buses each day to get from home to school and then another two to get to work, and then three more to get home at night. And he was a proud young man. He wrote technical papers on financial services with great alacrity, but he had another dream – to be a DJ. It’s a common dream among young African-American men, but this guy was working it to make it happen. He had set up a website promoting himself, telling his story, and as part of this bit of self-promotion he had renamed himself, giving himself a new first name: Prince. He wanted that anointing as something very special, as if he wasn’t already quite special, so he changed his name on the website and on his resume and such. I don’t know if it was to bolster his confidence or to make himself sound more impressive to his readers, but that name was important to him.

I’d like to be able to tell you that his dream came true and he got a job as a DJ, but he did not. His gifts were not all that extraordinary in that arena. He continued his internship for a while in my friend’s firm, graduated from college, and prepared to go to graduate school in finance. Along the way, he did some stupid things that caused him to lose his internship, but eventually got another one. He squandered some of the money he had earned in various jobs trying to promote himself as a DJ, which meant grad school was more of a struggle for him financially. His dog Baron got sick and he had to find a way to get the treatment the dog needed – the dog was his most important resource and he could not function without him. He took a year off from his graduate studies to work and raise some more money to cover his bills, because his mother was ill and unable to help him. In short, he muddled through, making mistakes, working on correcting or recovering from his mistakes, shifted his priorities as he became more realistic about his aspirations, and eventually graduated and is living on his own with his dog in his own apartment. He evolved into something more than a Prince, an independent man with a good job and a good life despite his difficult upbringing and his blindness. He learned something in that experience: names matter. You aren’t a Prince because you call yourself one. When someone names you, it may take a while for you to realize what the name really means, and to grow into it. He grew into MarcoPolo, an adventure-seeker on the bus to a place where few from his neighborhood had ever visited, a traveler with a Baron as his companion guide, muddling through sometimes when he didn’t understand the world he was visiting, striving to understand in spite of it all.

MarcoPolo learned the lesson of names, the weight they carry, the possibilities they promise. He learned that you rarely get to name yourself. He also learned that it takes time to grow into one’s name.

Those lessons were the same ones that Simon Peter learned, and that we learn from both these stories. God names us, with all the mystery of our future in that name, but we may not even guess God’s name for us right away. In the same way, we may not understand the implications and expectations of our name until we have lived and made mistakes and learned about life and God and the world and ourselves.

But divine patience is an endless thing. Jesus was patient. He renamed Simon and let Simon find his way into his Peter-hood. He renames us, each of us, as his beloved, and then he lets us find our way into our own beloved-ness. Listen for that name; wait and learn what it really means.


Sunday, January 09, 2011

Sermon for Sunday, January 9, 2011. Matthew 3:13-17 “Illogical Love”

You can imagine John’s shock.

John was at his usual spot, baptizing people in the Jordan River.

There was a line of people, all waiting their turn to be baptized by this wild and wooly man, who preached a cleansing of the soul in that brown water, a purification and removal of sin, but who also preached the coming of one who would baptize with something more than water. John was a fiery preacher – no meek man who talked of a warm and gentle conversion. No, he talked – and he talked a lot – about whether folks were prepared for the judgment to come, and how important it was to change their lives. If you’ve ever seen pictures of old-time revival preachers with their altar calls, yelling at people to turn over their lives to God, baptizing people by full immersion in a pool or a river or by the sea, then you’ve got an idea of what being with John was like. He smelled funky, he yelled loudly, and he was not about comforting you into religious conversion: he was about shaking you into it.

And now he was standing knee-deep in the Jordan with that line of those who wished to be baptized waiting their turn, and someone walked up to him who stopped him cold.

Can you imagine his voice, barely above a whisper, no shouting now, saying to this man standing before him, “This is crazy. I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you. You want to be baptized by me?”

The people in line were restless, wondering what was going on. No longer was there a rhythm to what was happening. Before, one would wade into the water, John would pray with them, they would submerse themselves and surface again, coughing and smiling and transformed, then they would wade onto the sand and sit there for a moment, shocked by the feeling this ritual bath aroused. Over and over it had been like that, and now the in and out, the submersion and emergence, it had stopped short.

A man was standing with John, and now John, who had looked utterly fearless and confident just a moment before, looked shaken, confused. They were talking quietly. The new man said, “It is important. We need to do this. Do it now.”

Why was John reluctant? Why was the man insistent, even though it was clear that John did not want to do it?

Why would Jesus, the son of God, insist on being baptized?

That was John’s question, and it is our question as well. Why would Jesus want or need to be baptized? Baptism is about the washing away of one’s sins, about being in a state of purity, of righteousness. Wasn’t Jesus the only one without sin? In fact, wasn’t Jesus the one who came to redeem us from our sins, to cleanse us by his death?

John knew this, and he knew the reason why he was baptizing all those other people, and he knew that it made no sense, given his understanding of who and what Jesus was, that Jesus be baptized. His words to Jesus, “You should baptize me, not the other way around,” is a perfectly logical response to the situation.

And yet Jesus insisted. It was important to do it, he said. For righteousness’ sake, he said. It was the right thing to do, even though John thought it made no sense at all.

So John did this thing that made no sense, this baptism of the perfect and incorruptible Son of God, because sometimes God asks people to do things that make no sense, like carrying a child conceived of the Holy Spirit, or marrying the woman carrying that child, or taking everyone in the family to Egypt because of a dream.

But perhaps in a strange way it did make sense. You see, there are times the son of God needs to stand in solidarity with humankind. The son of God needs to remind humankind that he may also be known as the son of Man. That being a part of our broken and human world, being God made incarnate and living as a human means Jesus needs to participate fully in human life…and if humankind needs to be washed in a ritual cleansing, so too must Jesus. Does he need to cleansed of sin? Of course not. But he knows he needs to be recognized by all who do need that cleansing by participating in the rite.

Jesus' participation in a human ritual is a way of identifying with those he loved so much.

This has a particular poignancy today, on this day when our brothers and sisters in southern Sudan are voting on the referendum for independence from the north. I’ve written of this referendum, this vote for freedom after generations of oppression and terrorist acts, of the theft of natural resources, of genocide in Darfur, of Janjuweed militia attacking innocents, in our newsletter. You’ve read about it in news reports. It is a moment of hope in a place where hope has been in short supply for a long time.

Now there is an opportunity for this to change. It requires that the people of southern Sudan go and vote. They are stepping into the water of their own Jordan River for transformation of their nation and their lives.

What does this have to do with us? John said to Jesus, “This makes no sense. You don’t need to do this.” Some might say to us “This is about the Sudanese people, it’s not about us as Americans. It makes no sense to care about this – it will not affect us.”

It is true that it is not about us. It is true that it is about the people of southern Sudan. But it is also true that we are connected to that place and those people, by virtue of our love and friendship with Timon and Mary and Joseph and Alice and Clement and Scovia and Evans and their families and friends. And it is true that we are connected by virtue of our shared belief in the risen Christ. And it is true that we are connected by virtue of our shared humanity, created and beloved by God.

So we are doing an illogical thing today. We are all invited to identify so much with our Sudanese brothers and sisters that we participate in this election with them by our prayers. Even though we do not "need" to vote, as Jesus did not "need" to be baptized, we stand in solidarity with them by prayer and love, as Jesus stood in solidarity with humankind by participating in baptism. It is, after all, the righteous, if an illogical, thing to do. And God calls us to do righteous and illogical things all the time, doesn't God?

So on this day when we remember the very illogical but exquisitely beautiful request of Jesus for baptism by John, let us pray:

Spirit of the living God, you hovered over the waters of our baptism and you filled us

with the vision of a just world, the promise of its unfolding, and the grace to help bring it to fullness. Today we stand in a world that is broken by violence even as it longs for peace. We stand with the people of Sudan as they seek to bring lasting stability to their region. We extend our prayer for them in their referendum for independence. Most beloved Son of God, you asked John to baptize you as a sign of the salvation that God would accomplish through you. And you gave us your Holy Spirit in baptism to carry on the work of making a way for your reign. Help us to trust the power of this first sacrament. Remove the barriers to discipleship. Make us into peacebuilders in your broken world. We ask this through Christ our Lord.