Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Gold Standard

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Epiphany includes Jeremiah 1:4-10, I Corinthians 13:1-13, and Luke 4:21-30

St. Paul’s great hymn to love, his exaltation of “agape”, self-yielding love, all-accepting love, entirely-committed love, over-the-top love which we know in Jesus Christ, the gold standard for the Church.

How irritating a standard this is! How unreasonably demanding.

Just when we imagine we’ve found a hot new step to clang and gong our way into the limited attention span of our culture, with plugged-in worship and express-lane religion, we keep getting held to the standard of “as I have loved you, so you must love…”

And while editors sharpen the edges of intriguing faith formation programs, encouraging fresh interpretations and dynamic understandings, St. Paul is still singing in the background about how we’re measured not by our having faith, or by our having understanding, but by our having love.

For heaven’s sake, the apostle even dismisses extreme stewardship—giving away all my possessions—as being no gain, without love.

How very irritating this is. At this rate, even fitness and health could get knocked off their pedestal, if they’re the be-all and end-all, and not love.

How annoyingly counter-cultural, this standard of love. It’s against our ways as a church, not to clang our cymbals and flex our powers. And it’s against our culture to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. We don’t know how to rejoice in the truth—we spin the truth, we distract ourselves from the truth.

You would think St. Paul might have learned from what happened to Jesus, who came telling truth, and look at the results. Instantly, his hometown crowd turned cynical on him. He heard them warming up to give him a ribbing: “Doctor, cure yourself! You aren’t looking very successful. Same scuffed sandals we wear… and from the look of that tunic your wardrobe hasn’t gotten updated in years… Where’s the good news, brother? You sure aren’t wearing it!”

“Always seeking a new improved model, are you?” Jesus asks. “Small wonder that no prophet is accepted in that prophet’s hometown. You want a few healings, the kind we saw in Capernaum?

“What if I told you that a clean bill of health isn’t everything? That freedom from pain and escaping illness are not essential signs of God’s favor? That what matters is your being open to the presence and love of God in whatever circumstance or condition you’re in? That all that matters is that you not reject grace when it meets you?”

Grace, he says. Love unmerited, unearned, undeserved, pure gift. No clanging bells, gongs, or whistles.

And there we go again, that annoying measure requiring us to welcome, treasure, and imitate the unmeasurable.

That irritating standard, the grain of sand that agitates, stimulates the forming of pearls, pearls of great value, like the one Jesus holds in his hands as the crowd rushes at him to hurl him off a cliff.

And what has he done to deserve this? He has told them truth. He tells them of a time when catastrophe racked the middle east, a severe famine, and the great prophet Elijah was sent, not to a widow in Israel, but to help a widow in Syria.

Grace: love unmerited, undeserved, generous, gift.

And on the heels of that story, another: when God showed unmeasurable love to someone simply because he needed it—and, annoying, irritating, this recipient was also a foreigner, not one of the hometown crowd, a fellow not covered by insurance, not one of the favored chosen, yet met by grace.

It didn’t take a third story to get the hometown crowd ripping mad at Jesus. Some of them rushed at him, but somehow he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. I picture just enough of them believing with him, hoping with him, forming to his right and to his left a gauntlet of grace to bear him, to endure all this rage.

And there is a homely image of the Church. As he moves about the world holding out the pearl of truth, the pearl of grace that people need, all who believe with him, who hope with him, who love with him make way for him to reach all who need him.

And that way is known to be formed of faith, and hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Indelible Grace

Scripture for the 1st Sunday after the Epiphany includes Isaiah 43:1-7, Acts 8:14-17 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Can there be a finer way to celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord than to baptize in his name today? On your behalf, I thank Jennifer and Jarrett, Eleanor and Will, for choosing this day for their child’s baptism.

I find names fascinating. Maisie and Wilson are the two we will hear today at the font.

You can bet I googled Maisie, and learned that it’s a Scottish form of the name Margaret. I learned that Sir Walter Scott wrote a poem about Proud Maisie. Henry James wrote a novel, “What Maisie Knew”. More recently, Maisie Dobbs is the London psychologist-investigator featured in Jacqueline Winspear’s mystery series. And there is a London wedding cake baker named Maisie Fantaisie. I don’t know if that’s how she pronounces her last name, but could there be a better way? What’s so to be liked about this name Maisie is how it sounds.

We might say the same about Wilson. I don’t suppose it’s an accident that the son of Will should be Wilson. Another fellow named Wilson once stood at the baptismal font here, though that wasn’t his first name—his well-meaning parents had saddled him with the first name Woodrow. That must have set him up for challenging times on the playground when he was a child, but perhaps those were more polite times than these—and it evidently didn’t get in the way of a career in politics.

Having started that story, I’d better finish it. President Wilson came here in April of 1915 to serve as Godfather to Francis Woodrow Sayre, his grandson, the son of his daughter Jessie and her husband, Francis. Why here? Francis was a Williams alum, and during his student years (when he and Jessie were courting), Jessie would stay at what was then the rectory, the private home of The Rev. and Mrs. J. Franklin Carter. There’s a story about student ministry and hospitality… And by the time of the baptism, Francis was Secretary to the President of Williams College, and he and Jessie and Baby Francis were living in a house on West Main Street.

Explaining things further, the Carters and the first family were old friends. In a recent article in the Eagle, Bernard Drew says that from time to time, on their way to or from the summer White House in New Hampshire, the Wilsons would come to visit the Carters in their home, what is now Vogt House here on Park Street, a house not quite as big as the White House.

If you read Bernard Drew’s story, you know he ended without resolving a mystery. When that once-upon-a-time baby Francis Sayre died in 2008 (after an illustrious career as Dean of the National Cathedral), his name was given not as Francis Woodrow Sayre, but Francis Bowes Sayre, Jr.

Now, the Episcopal Church considers Holy Baptism to be indelible. What is given in Baptism cannot be taken away. One is made a member of Christ’s Body, the Church, a child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of God.

But evidently one’s name is not indelible. When Francis gained a little brother, the name Woodrow, Francis’s middle name, was given to his kid brother as a first name. Is that why Francis’s name was changed, his middle name replaced by his father’s middle name, to free the name Woodrow in that generation? Or did Francis’s parents decide that they wanted a junior?

Who knows? Who cares? I presume that the change was made while Francis was still young enough that he was none the wiser. But isn’t it a story of how ephemeral some things are that get set down on paper, how whimsical we humans can be.

By contrast, hear again the firm opening words of the 43rd chapter of the Book of the prophet Isaiah: “Now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Indelible is the name God gives to us each, the very same name God gives to his Son Jesus in his baptism: beloved. “You are my Son, the Beloved.” Becoming a Christian—and I don’t mean just at the moment of baptism, but becoming a Christian over a lifetime—is much about daring to hear those words addressed to each of us: “You are my son, my daughter, beloved.” And daring to let that voice commission us to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus so that all will come to know this relentless love.

Isaiah’s words express the promise Christians find in baptism: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…” By these terms, see Christian baptism not promising the magic of being protected-from life, but promising the companioning presence of God who supports and carries us through life, into life. Through deep waters in life, through whitewatered rivers, through crashing breakers… you get the idea.

No mistaking it that using water as the outward and visible sign for this sacrament skirts the razor-thin border between security and vulnerability, between life and death. A mother’s water breaks for a child to be born, a baby’s bathwater replicates the wet warmth of the womb. Water sustains and comforts us.

But Jesus standing in the muddy waters of the Jordan River does so with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other pilgrims seeking to be washed in newness of life, and it’s not the picture of hygiene. He’s there on our behalf, achieving solidarity with the human race—and see this scene declaring his immersing himself in the total care and ecology of God’s creation. He’s opening himself to his full mission, the birthing of God’s new creation. And it’s risky, mucky business, this taking-upon oneself full humanity. Water sustains and comforts us, washes us, but also calls us to our responsibilities.

And in the early generations of believers, to be baptized was to be physically lowered, covered, immersed, in the live water of a stream, river, or natural pool, as if brushing against the very threat of drowning, death. On Easter Day, when baptisms were conducted by dawn’s light, believers went with Jesus right to the gates of death to find him already there, his the lift of strong arms belonging to deacons lowering and lifting each candidate in baptism, once in the name of God the Father, again in the name of Jesus the Son, once more in the name of the Holy Spirit.

Water sustains and comforts us, washes us, calls us to responsibility. We’re made of it, and it can unmake us, threaten us, endanger us. And it is along this razor’s edge that the water of baptism is poured, the promise of the sacrament being not a magical protection from life, deep sweeping tidal life, but the promise of bearing us, carrying us through, indelibly pledging to us God’s presence, God’s passionate naming of us beloved, God’s Spirit engaging and embracing and dwelling within us in Jesus Christ our Lord. All the powers of God that will make us ready and able to open ourselves to life, to the birthing of new life.

The Gift We Need

I had a wicked thought, the other day.

What if, the Sunday after Christmas Day, we each brought to church the one gift we’d received this Christmas, the one gift that we had the least idea what to do with. The kind of gift that you just hold in your hands and stare at a while, shaking your head, wondering how has this come to be?

You know, it might work. For one thing, we could turn it all into a silent auction, for who knows? Someone else might want that thing. Or, failing that, we could have a team of judges and give them a small supply of colored ribbons for various categories, like Most Astonishing, Most Puzzling, and Most Useless.

So what am I doing, but poking fun at how, at this time when the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ most honors matter, like flesh and blood, we do fill our days trying valiantly to repackage matter in such a way that the things we give one another succeed in, well, mattering.

The British poet John Betjeman wrote about this plight in his poem “Advent 1955”, a portion of which I’d like to read to you:

“…For now we feel the world spin round
On some momentous journey bound—
Journey to what? To whom? To where?
The Advent bells call out, ‘Prepare,
Your world is journeying to the birth
Of God made Man for us on earth.’
And how in fact do we prepare
The twenty-fifth day of December,
The birth of Christ? For some it means
An interchange of hunting scenes
On coloured cards. And I remember
Last year I sent out twenty yards,
Laid end to end of Christmas cards
To people that I scarcely know—
They’d sent a card to me, and so
I had to send one back. Oh dear!
Is this a form of Christmas cheer?
Or is it, which is less surprising,
My pride gone in for advertising.
The only cards that really count
Are that extremely small amount
From real friends who keep in touch
And are not rich but love us much.
Some ways indeed are very odd
By which we hail the birth of God.
We raise the price of things in shops,
We give plain boxes fancy tops
And lines which traders cannot sell
Thus parcell’d go extremely well.
We dole out bribes we call a present
To those to whom we must be pleasant
For business reasons. Our defense is
These bribes are charged against expenses
And bring relief in Income Tax.
Enough of these unworthy cracks!
‘The time draws near the birth of Christ’,
A present that cannot be priced
Given two thousand years ago
Yet if God had not given so
He still would be a distant stranger
And not the Baby in the manger.”

Between my wicked thought, and the poet’s clever lines, I conclude that we’ll not get inspired much by the caliber of our own gift-giving. So let’s fix our attention on the nature of God’s giving.

And about that, the Christian claim is astonishing. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son…” No, let me read it in paraphrase from The Message, further paraphrased by me: “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need offer himself up on an altar of sacrifice; but by believing in him, by letting his love shape our own, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is put right with God.”

That (more or less) is how our patron, Saint John the Evangelist, expresses the Christian claim. If that wasn’t astonishing enough, the Book of Common Prayer puts it another way. In the collect for the Second Sunday after Christmas, we pray: “O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ…”

God, who invested the human race with dignity, does not hold it against us that we lost that dignity. Rather, God restores it to us as we share the divine life of Jesus, who humbled himself to share our humanity.

Listen to how this matters. God does not go 50% of the way to reach us, across the vast gulf of all that lost dignity. The story of God’s giving at Bethlehem shows God going 100% of the way to reach us. We must learn to reach out like that, go that far out of our way in love, in generosity, in forgiveness, to make the difference the world, someone in our world, needs of us.

We can give whole-heartedly like that, when our hearts are set free by receiving the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

Let us pray:

Holy One, this Christmas, tonight, right now, help us open ourselves to the free and freeing gift of your love in the person and saving grace of Jesus Christ. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.