Monday, January 21, 2008

Called by a New Name

I notice that our Lord changed a name in his encounter with his first two disciples. We’re not told whether Andrew underwent such a change, but his brother Simon did: “’You are to be called Kephas,’ (which is translated Peter).”

The fact is, of course, that Kephas is the Greek form of the Aramaic word that Jesus had in mind, the word for rock. What a merry little linguistic chase that is to make the point that our Lord saw in a flash, knew in his gut, read it clearly that Simon aka Kephas aka Peter was going to play a key role in his mission plan.

“The Rock”: says it all. Last Sunday, I urged you to hear the divine voice Jesus heard at his baptism addressing you: You are my son, my daughter, beloved; with you I am well pleased. Today, imagine yourself in the shoes of this fisherman. You’re being welcomed to the very core of a team that Jesus is forming simply by his Word, and he’s calling you Rock.

You will spend the rest of your life scratching your head, wondering why. You will spend the rest of your life trying to live into the truth of that name.

That he did live into this truth is shown in that every year the Church keeps January 18th as the Feast of the Confession of Peter, recalling how he was also the first of the disciples to recognize who Jesus truly is, and to call him by the name Messiah.

Names are important, aren’t they? Today, we heard Jesus change one in the calling of a disciple. We might all agree that he has authority to do that.

You may have noticed that in the opening verses and responses of the baptismal rite today, a name was changed in that we called God not just Father, but Mother as well. I did that. In the moment when I used that red pen, I had no doubt whatsoever that it was time to do so. In the moments that followed, doubt grew. And then it was printed, making it time to, well, deal with it.

Perhaps I need to be wary of those moments when I feel no doubt whatsoever—for I did not have authority to make that change.

It’s hardly a novel idea, calling God Mother. Not in the Judaic portion of our religious tradition, where at places in the Wisdom literature of the Bible Wisdom is named Sophia, and she speaks with God’s voice.

In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, we hear, “Wisdom tells of her glory… In the assembly of the Most high she opens her mouth… ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most high, and covered the earth like a mist… I sought a resting place… Then the Creator of all things gave me a command… “Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.”’”

And in the Book of The Wisdom of Solomon, “Wisdom protected the first-formed father of the world, when he alone had been created;… She delivered him from his transgression, and gave him strength to rule all things…” Later, “She brought (Israel) over the Red Sea, and led them through deep waters…”

Nor is it novel, calling God Mother, in the Christian tradition that brings us the likes of Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, and Hildegard of Bingen. Saints of God have been calling her Mother for, literally, centuries.

And it is in prayer that they found her. Doubtless, they were trained to pray to God their Father, and doubtless they did. Or was it doubtful, after they’d lived long enough to consider their own experience and recognize there the gentle patience of God, the tender cradling of God, the sensual intimacy of the Spirit, prayer’s relentless loving silence of the womb—was it doubtful, in time, that only the fatherhood of God “worked” to communicate the fullness of love within the Godhead?

Here’s Julian’s answer. In one of her “showings” or revelations she writes,
“And thus in our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. In the knitting and joining he is our real, true spouse and we are his loved wife and his fair maiden. ….”

So I hear Isaiah say that God names us in the womb, I look at the name Sophia Catherine, and I hear these female witnesses rejoicing that their number is about to grow by one, and I hear them testifying to how much more God is than our liturgical language permits us to celebrate, and I wonder how will we help train Sophia Catherine and all our children if we don’t allow our language of worship to reach to express the fullness of our tradition? How will we show our children the fullness of who God is, and help them embrace the wholeness of who they are, if we are afraid to expand our language in worship, keeping it true to what we know in prayer?

It exceeds my authority, to alter the language of the baptismal rite. By that same principle, I shouldn’t have drawn today’s post-communion prayer from the Presbyterian Church—and without that our communion rite today would say nothing about Martin Luther King, Jr. on a day when we need to have communion with him.

Perhaps my own aging is causing me to question the Anglican premise that we will not change words in our liturgy until the entire Church decides how to make those changes and makes them all together. Somehow, I’m sensing that the Episcopal Church will be preoccupied for the foreseeable future, and won’t be revising the Book of Common Prayer in the active years I have remaining.

Does that mean that our Lord won’t change a few names as he moves his mission team forward in the world? He will, for he has that authority. And when he changes the names we use, it is so that we will wonder and pray our way to growing into what new names mean.

Sophia Catherine’s name will not change today, but what she is called will grow. In just a few moments, we will take action with water in the name of God and from then on she will be called child of God, member of Christ’s Body the Church, and inheritor of the Kingdom of God. These are her new names, according to the teaching of the Book of Common Prayer. Isn’t it interesting that “Episcopalian” is missing from that list?

That is because this branch of Christ’s Church understands Holy Baptism as a sacrament that belongs to the whole Church. Because it is the defining sacrament that brings a person into union with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection, it is an ecumenical action, not a denominational one. To borrow an image from our patron, St. John, baptism welcomes a person into the one household of God, without assigning her to one of those many dwelling-places (“mansions” in the King James Version) where we in time settle.

Seen that way, today’s baptism fits beautifully the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in which we find ourselves. On Wednesday at noon, people from several Williamstown churches will meet in our upper room to celebrate the unity we recognize in Jesus Christ, and to repent of our disunity. Episcopalians need to sharpen that spiritual skill, repenting of disunity. I hope you will come to welcome our Baptist, Methodist, Congregational, and Roman Catholic neighbors. Noon, Wednesday.

Those denominational places we settle in, those religions mansions we inhabit, give us specific places into which we sink roots and find nourishment. What we are specifically called as Christians, our own variety, is a name given to us to live into.

What fills me with wonder and delight is the variety of religious experience and expression we have even in this one congregation. We’re still getting acquainted with ten new households worshiping with us since the fall, and while some come to us as Episcopalians, two people come as Adventist Christians, two are Unitarian Universalists, one is a Congregationalist, another describes himself equally at home with Buddhism as with Christianity. We are blessed to have among us people who did, and people who still do, identify themselves as Lutherans, as Roman Catholics, as Presbyterians. I believe we’re also blessed to have among us a share of agnostics who ask wonderful edgy questions.

This is small-town American Christianity. Many of us have taken new names during our spiritual journeys.

This happens in the story John tells today about Andrew and Peter. They were, at verse 35, disciples of John the Baptizer. By verse 42, they have become disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. All because their former teacher, John, gives Jesus a new name, Son of God.

Many of us like a settled life. Today’s Gospel—in fact, the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ—gives us little reason to expect a settled life in company with Jesus. He changes names. He adds to what we are called.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Baptismal Reflection on Suicide

It all starts in baptism. I joined our younger children in church school this morning to explore that very subject, how baptism is the moment when God sets up headquarters within a human life. You may describe this as happening by invitation (next Sunday, a sweet little girl named Sophia will be baptized here because her parents invite this partnership between Sophia and God), or you might describe this happening by recognition of the claim God has upon every human life. However you understand it, baptism is the moment of joy on earth and in heaven, the celebration and support of relationship between the God of all and the all of one person, child of God.

It all starts in baptism. In our Lord’s baptism, what starts is his public ministry. He will fulfill Isaiah’s vision of God’s anointed servant, and this baptism in the muddy waters of the Jordan is his anointing. He will fulfill justice and righteousness on the earth. The very heart of the ancient covenant between God and Israel beats in Jesus and Christians hear Isaiah’s words fitting him perfectly: “I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations.” Once our Lord’s public ministry is complete in his death and resurrection, every person baptized in his name becomes his partner in covenant relationship with God. Open to every baptized person is Jesus’s passion for justice, Jesus’s commitment to right relationship of love for God, and for neighbor as for self.

It all starts in baptism, our entering a community of covenant promise and fulfillment. The baptismal covenant that we will reaffirm together next Sunday calls us to a life of worship, a life of repentance, a life of expressive faith, a life of recognizing Christ in all other people, and a life of respect for the dignity of every human being.

What starts in baptism is a reverence for life. Christianity has no unique claim on that: reverence for life is taught and reached by many religious pathways. But this is what we see in Jesus, who fulfills not just the dramatic vision of Isaiah (opening blind eyes and freeing people from dungeons of fear and despair) but also the quiet vision of Isaiah: “…a bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench… He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth.”

“A bruised reed he will not break, a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

That verse has always intrigued me, its two metaphors resisting explanation while inviting imagination. Today I wonder if those two images, the bruised reed and the dimly burning wick, might help me speak about the unspeakable, the suicide last Monday of a man whom I liked and admired, Hank Payne, 14th President of Williams College.

His death has shaken and bewildered countless friends, colleagues and students both former and present, and, beyond our imagining, his family. But it isn’t only his death that I’ll have in mind today. I attended a poetry reading at Bennington College on Thursday, and there, months after the fact, they were preparing to gather students and faculty of the Bennington Writers Seminar for a memorial tribute to their founder and former Director, the poet Liam Rector, who took his life last summer.

Are men at higher risk of successfully committing suicide than women? Yes, four times so.

Each year, at least thirty thousand Americans, and as many as fifty thousand, take their own lives. There are more suicides than homicides in this country annually. Each year, between a quarter million and three-quarters of a million Americans attempt suicide. Of them, women outnumber men three to one.

To put these numbers in some context, it’s sobering to realize that worldwide the U.S. suicide rate is 45th among 95 nations: in 44 other countries, the rate is higher.

These statistics suggest that more than a few of us in this room have lost a loved one—or more than one—in this way. More than a few of us have lived through an attempt made by someone we love. Or may be the survivor of an attempt.

“A bruised reed he will not break. A dimly-burning wick he will not quench.” What is the most common cause of suicide? Untreated depression.

No one who knew Hank Payne seems to think that he suffered from that. No one knows. Everyone who knew him knows that human beings don’t come with keener intellects than his, that his educational, administrative, fundraising, and community accomplishments were remarkable. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quotes a friend as saying, “…if you knew him, you would say, ‘Here is this bright, funny, thoughtful guy, great job, broad interests, lovely family. He’s got everything going for him… I don’t know if anybody will ever know.”

His rabbi remembers Payne as a man who preferred to stand at the entrance to the synagogue, welcoming visitors and handing out prayer books, rather than take his own seat. “After the funeral,” said Rabbi Karpuj, “I still had a feeling of ‘This isn’t real. This isn’t happening.’ It’s very hard to grasp this and make any sense of it.”

Hank’s and Deborah’s first grandchild is due in weeks.

In their holiday letter to friends—Hank’s project—he wrote about their “gentle giant dog Abe,” who keeps them busy “serving his love of walks and his love of just being loved.” The one note of sadness in this letter: the death of his mother last year, at 92.

Since 2000, he served as President of Woodward Academy in Atlanta, the largest private preparatory school in the country, and led them in a $47 million campaign. Last year, he joined two new boards, professional and cultural.

Within this gentle, gifted, committed man, was there a bruised reed? Was the wick of his inner lamp dimming? Was he living so much outside himself that there wasn’t much inner man left? That he should choose to jump from the balcony of an eighth-floor hotel room, was this to relieve and escape the vertigo, the imbalance of intolerable claims on his mind and heart and soul?

If so, we are left seeing the irrationality, the last and lethal distortion, that a pathway to escape should destroy the escapee and lock a family in a maze of unknowing.

Destroyed, also, is our orderly expectation that such an alien experience as this should not happen to the likes of us. Denial, of course, has a long half-life and will again insist on its own way, in time. Until then, we must pay attention to ourselves, to one another, and to God.

“This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” There is the voice of God. I believe that if we’re listening to God who sets up headquarters in the human spirit, we will hear this voice, this message of unexpectable delight, this sheer epiphany of relentless love. “You are my son, my daughter; with you I am well pleased.”

If you’re having a hard time imagining that being said to you by God, perhaps you’ll suspend judgment and entertain the possibility of such grace. On days when this voice is hard to hear, it’s still speaking—and on those days we need others to hear it for us, with us. “You are my daughter, my son; with you I am well pleased.”

This was first said by the God of Israel to the Jew Jesus. We can be sure that this voice is there to be heard more widely than in just our own faith.

So much static blocks our hearing this voice. So much severe theology argues against amazing grace. Too much, too often, we try to build our own covenant faithfulness as if it were a tower that could get us to heaven.

It is God’s covenant faithfulness that will do that. We have only the brilliance of this love with which we are loved, to build with in this world. If we will not hear the baptismal voice of God’s approval, the baptismal invitation to partnership, the baptismal recognition of the treasure of community, then reverence for life may go unfed, bruised reeds may be broken, dimly-burning wicks quenched. The very, very busy exhausting life that then is left… may not be life.

Life requires more than requirements. The will to live has to be fed by deeper channels than those we have to listen to, day in and day out, those channels that bring us the voices of our bosses, our parents, our checkbook balance, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, soccer schedule, reactionary politics, reactionary religion, late-night news, and the alarm of the clock radio.

We need feeding through deeper channels where living waters flow. We need light from higher sources to shine into the dark places we constantly reach into, just to get by. Life requires protecting the reeds by which we make our music, weave our meaning, breathe when underwater. Life requires tending the wicks that, before they can burn, must soak in oils of healing, sit in the fearless myrrh of the magi, absorb deep down the sweet oil of chrism that reaches the forehead in baptism, tracing the cross that must speak to the human spirit its truth, meaning, and mystery.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Resolving Our Longing

So what is the significance of these three mysterious figures who arrive at the crèche today? We sing about them as kings, but the commentaries tell us that they were not political rulers. They were not running for office. If we retold their story to bring it into the present, these three would not be stumping for votes in New Hampshire: not three would-be heads of state ringing the doorbell, promising hope, change, and universal health care.

The version of Matthew’s Gospel we heard this morning says that “a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East.” That way of putting it observes the fact that nowhere does Matthew say that there were three visitors from the East (and Matthew is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells this story at all); rather, he says there are three gifts. By tradition, three gift-bearers have been assumed. Or not: perhaps it was “a band of scholars”.

Great. Just what’s needed. A committee. Another committee of academics. Maybe they’ve come to study the Messiah’s ontological ground of being. But is a team of visiting scholars from abroad cause for Herod and most of Jerusalem to become terrified? Not likely.

Matthew suggests that their particular brand of study is observing the stars, reading the silent signs in the heavens. And, from the fact that they made such a long journey, we see that they tested the theories they discovered by looking up. They sound rather like scientists, don’t they? Whatever else we notice about these magi, let’s give them credit for using scientific method, putting theory to the test, applying what they’ve learned.

It may make an interesting sermon, one day, to imagine what the three gifts would be if held in the hands of scientists offering them to God. Christian tradition sees the three gifts Matthew mentions (gold, frankincense, myrrh) representing royal power, divine presence, and a holy death. What 21st-century gifts might carry those meanings?

But don’t chase that rabbit for long. Far more important is noticing what purpose the gifts fulfill in the larger story.

They are all about recognition. The three gifts describe who Jesus is and what he will do.

He has come to bring order finer and broader than that of a kingdom: in his reign of justice and peace, no one will wear a gold crown, gold will not be a market commodity hoarded by the powerful and the privileged. In the hands of the Messiah, gold represents a living wage and fair trade.

He has come to ensure that God will be felt as one open hand touches another, that divine presence will be known in such simple actions as the breaking of bread, that God will be recognized where two or three gather and where one struggles alone. God will be nearer than breath itself, permeating all of life as burning frankincense fills a room.

He has come to quell our rebellion against death and dying, to show that even death is subject to the new creation that God is bringing about through this Incarnation. All the crazy things we do to deny that we are mortal and to distract ourselves from our own frailties, all the ways we resist change because something might die, all the ways we get stuck, even paralyzed, by fear of letting-go… On all these, on all of us, he who makes peace by the blood of his cross will pour fragrant oil of anointing on the very things we dread, making them holy and useful.

Through the gifts we see who God is in Jesus Christ, and what God is doing in the world. The gifts serve the larger purpose of revealing, showing, truth. That’s what we celebrate today, the Feast of the Epiphany. That’s a very old Greek word, epiphany, and it means showing, revealing.

Nothing can rob this story of its sheer wonder and mystery. We need the gift-bearers to be magi more than we need them to be politicians, scholars, or scientists. We need them to be mysterious enough to catch our breath—not by their lamé and sequins, impressive as they are, but by their being so “other”, so out of the ordinary, so from beyond our borders that they shake us up, as they did for many in Jerusalem.

Magi catch the imagination to recognize that God is always at work outside the doors and windows of our closed shops and homes and churches. Beyond the tight systems we build to ensure security, enshrine order, guard privilege, and keep death at bay, beyond all this status quo of our own making, God the wholly Other moves freely and acts in new ways. There’s nothing like the arrival of magi to set a fresh breeze blowing through the old alleys of our own Jerusalem.

Epiphany: showing, revealing. Recognizing God, paying attention to the truth in our own experience, being open to what’s ahead of us, even right in front of us. Epiphany.

We sometimes use that word when we feel we’ve made a discovery: an “aha” moment, an epiphany. What goes on in such a moment? A longing… that is somehow met… And joy that this should be, our longing become reality… and sheer surprise, that it should come this way as gift and sign… gratitude for the gift, wisdom to read the sign, courage to let this new energy shape our living.

Speaking of longings and fulfillments, have you made new year’s resolutions?

If so, perhaps yours is based on an epiphany, a recognition that it’s time to respond to a yearning, a longing. Whatever becomes of your resolution (every January is littered with unkept resolutions, we know), be grateful for the gift of recognizing that it’s time to act upon your longing.

Be wise to read that sign as one that is meant to open you not just to your own responsibility to do something about it, but also to open you to the support you’ll need to make the journey. Notice that the Wise Men didn’t travel alone.

And might it help if you imagine what you’ve resolved to do as a gift that you may bring to the crèche? Might this help you discover how important and valuable to God is whatever that resolve represents—your health, your relationships, your faith? Whatever that fulfillment might be, that it’s part of what God is yearning to do in the world?

And may it help you take courage, to see all over again that the crèche of Jesus is the place where God is vulnerable and powerful at the same moment? You will see this again on Good Friday, when love holds the holiness of his flesh against wood, not of a manger but of a cross, that our fulfillment cannot be measured in terms of success or failure, but in the full embrace of God whose energy shapes new life.