Friday, December 31, 2010

Feast of Your Holy Name

New Year’s Eve Vigil / Holy Name
Numbers 6.22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 2.15-21
Friday, December 31, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

In September of 1974, I began a trip down the slippery slope of multiple identities. No, I wasn’t trying to evade the law. I was beginning intermediate school and was immediately confronted with the issue of my identity. Up to that point, I had always gone by my middle name. But intermediate school would be different. It was a lot bigger than elementary school, and there were multiple classes to attend. Class registration information was computerized and the class rolls for all six of my classes said I was Michael Fincher. So, on day one of intermediate school, I had to decide how to deal with my identity. Do I go through the hassle of correcting six teachers and who knows how many administrators and run the risk of things getting all confusing because Michael wanted to be called Kevin, or do I just make life easier on everyone else and agree to be called Michael? I opted for the latter, and from that moment on, assumed dual identities – Kevin in family situations, and Michael in school and other public situations.

Things got even more complicated as time went by, so that the contexts in which I was known by one name or the other had changed and, in some cases, blurred together. At times, I can’t even keep track of who some people know me as. But what I have discovered is that, even though I am the same person and am used to going by two different names, those names seem to convey separate identities. This is very apparent to me on those rare occasions when those who know Kevin intersected with those who know Michael. It just doesn’t sound or feel right when someone who knows me as Kevin tries to call me Michael, or vice versa. It is in those moments that I am most aware that a name is more than a descriptor to identify an individual, but actually conveys some sense of identity. This was reinforced when a parishioner and I were recently talking about names and he said that I am definitely a Michael and not a Mike. The identity conveyed by “Michael” was more in keeping with who he perceived me to be, whereas “Mike” did not.

The understanding of names and naming practices varies greatly by culture. Some cultures name children after living relatives or ancestors. Others prefer to use names from the Bible. In other cultures, the parents indicate their hopes for the child’s future or the qualities they hope the child will possess in the name they give. But suffice it to say that most parents, regardless of culture, give great thought to, even agonize over, just the right name for their newborns. Such is the importance of name.

And some cultures even use the addition or change of name to mark some significant events. For example, it is not uncommon for Roman Catholics on the occasion of baptism or confirmation to add a new middle name, that of a favored saint. My guess is that the name is intended to convey some quality of the saint the person hopes to emulate in his or her new life. More obvious is the practice in some monastic orders that when a monk or nun professes life vows, he or she takes on a new name, generally that of a saint, as a sign of renunciation of the former way of life and the establishment of a new identity within the monastic community. Yet again, the importance of name as an indication of identity.

This evening, we commemorate the Feast of the Holy Name, which is tomorrow. As stated in the last verse of our Gospel reading, “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Lk 2.21). In the Jewish tradition, while the mother gives birth, it is the father who names the child at the ceremony of circumcision, which happens on the eighth day following the child’s birth. In the act of naming, the father gives a sign that the child belongs to him, is a member of his family and an heir to the family’s legacy. Now in the case of Jesus, we have a slight anomaly. It is not Joseph who chose the baby’s name. Remember that it was an angel who announced to Joseph that the child would be called Jesus. So, it was really God who named his son. Joseph was merely serving as a proxy in the naming ceremony.

But in reality, Jesus was doubly blessed. He received, in a way, a double identity, at his naming. God had chosen the name Jesus. Therefore, in naming his son, God had made the sign that this child was indeed his son, of whom God would later proclaim, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3.13). But in making the public proclamation of the child’s name, Joseph was taking on the earthly role of father, proclaiming that Jesus was his son, and that he would raise him as his own – caring for him, protecting him, guiding him into manhood.

So in this naming ceremony, Jesus effectively received two identities – that conferred by his true father and the one who gave him the name Jesus, the identity as the son of God, Messiah-to-be; and that conferred by Joseph his human father, as Jesus of Nazareth, carpenter-to-be. In this naming ceremony, Jesus received his identity as being both fully divine and fully human. And in this naming ceremony, an indication of his purpose was revealed, for the meaning of the name Jesus is “God has saved.” So in Jesus’ case, the naming ceremony we commemorate conveys a wealth of information about who this child is.

Most of us probably did not go through any type of elaborate naming ceremony. Chances are, when we were born, a nurse asked our parents what our name was to be, and that is what showed up on our birth certificate. No pomp and circumstance involved; although, considerable thought probably went into the name selection prior to our birth. Nonetheless, that name conferred on us at the time of our birth became our identity and will continue to define who we are for the rest of our life.

But as Christians, most of us do eventually participate in ritual that is specifically intended to signify, establish, and proclaim an identity – the sacrament of baptism. In this sacrament, we are named and marked as Christ’s own forever. As we go through the rite of baptism, we recognize that our identity is changed. We renounce our own sinfulness. We turn to Jesus Christ, putting our trust in his grace and love, promising to follow and obey him. As we go into the water of baptism, we die to self, to our old way of life, to our old identity. As we rise out of the water, we put our past behind us and are born to a new and eternal life, to new identity, in Christ. And then the community welcomes us into the household of God – both the Body of Christ of which we are now a part, and the local faith community where our life as a new Christian continues to be formed, where we continue to live out our calling as Christian.

Through the sacrament of baptism, through our incorporation into this faith tradition, we are effectively given a new name. By accepting us into the Body of Christ, into his body, Jesus shares his name with us. Through him, we are given the name Christian. And just as in the Jewish tradition, in the act of being by and for him, Christ who gives us that name is giving a sign that we belong to him, that we are a member of his family and an heir to his legacy. And equally important is the fact that the name conferred upon us, that of Christian, conveys something of our identity – a very important part of our identity. That identity is that we promise to live in accordance with God’s laws and Christ’s teachings. And that identity carries with it the promise that God through Jesus Christ will care for us, and that we are heirs to his kingdom.

While it may only be coincidental that the Feast of the Holy Name happens to be New Year’s Day, maybe there is a lesson to be had in this timing nonetheless. At this time of year, as we prepare to say farewell to the old year and welcome in a new one, many people make resolutions for changes or betterment in the new year. Maybe the only resolution that is needed or is of any real importance is to be true to that identity extending from the Feast of the Holy Name. On this day, Jesus was given his name, establishing his identity. And he has shared his name with us, thereby sharing his and establishing our identity. If we live up to that, no other resolutions are needed and everything else should take care of itself.

Happy New Year and Blessed Feast of your Holy Name.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

"Pleased as Man with Us to Dwell; Jesus our Emmanuel"

Christmas Eve
Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20
Friday, December 24, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Tonight, in these words from the angel to the shepherds, we move from Advent into Christmas. We move from the season of anticipation and preparation into the season of receiving that which we have been anticipating and preparing. And that can be summed up in one word – Emmanuel – “God with us.”

This year, the image of Emmanuel that has been with me throughout Advent is from “Hark the Harold Angels Sing,” which we just sang. The last line of the second verse is “Pleased as man with us to dwell; Jesus our Emmanuel!” That line has been running around in my head for weeks now. Emmanuel. And not just God with us, but God who is “Pleased as man with us to dwell.” That makes a huge difference.

It is precisely this concept of Emmanuel that is the basis for our faith tradition and for the event that we celebrate this night. Ours is a unique religion. From the days of Abraham and Sarah, ours has been a religion based on reciprocal relationship between God and humanity. Our Judeo-Christian heritage is based on a covenant relationship established between God and his Chosen People – that Yahweh would be our God and we would be his people. And the amazing thing is that it was not we who first sought to be in relationship with God, but rather it was God who reached out to us. It was God who initiated this relationship.

Of course, salvation history shows that we have not done a great job of upholding our end of the relationship. We have not held to our part of the covenant with God. The covenant was continually broken, not by God, but by us. And yes, we had to bear the consequences of this disobedience. But just as we continually broke the covenant, God continually reached out to reestablish the covenant, to renew the relationship. Why? Despite our inability to maintain the covenant, God was not willing to abandon us. Despite our inability to remain faithful to God and to love him, God continues to be faithful to us and to love us.

We are made in the image and likeness of God. Even so, it’s just too hard for us to relate to an entity that we cannot see or touch or embrace. We just can’t really relate to a God that is generally unseen, or a God who speaks through angelic messengers and prophets, or a God that takes the form of a burning bush or a pillar of smoke. We humans need face-to-face, flesh-to-flesh relationship. After us repeatedly breaking the covenant and God repeatedly taking us back, it became clear that a more direct way of relating between God and his people was needed. Like any successful relationship, we needed common ground. There’s no way we could become more like God, but God could become more like us. God could become flesh, become human like us.

That is what this night is all about. In God becoming incarnate, through the child born this night, a great mystery has occurred. In the mystery that is God, the Son of God is at the same time God, yet even more. This child is fully divine, as is God, but is also fully human, as is Mary his mother. A mystery that is difficult for us to wrap our minds around, yet a mystery that is so crucial to this night. For in the child born this night, the incomparable glory of God – limitless, powerful, majestic – comes together with the ordinariness of humanity – limited, weak, humble.

In the mystery that is the Incarnation, God was able to become someone we can see and touch and embrace. And in so doing, God was able to experience life as we do, complete with the same limitations that we do – someone who is born, who grows up, who ultimately dies; someone who can share our joys, our excitement, our wonderment; and who can experience our pain, our frustrations, our longings, our disappointments, our vulnerabilities, our hurts, our losses. In coming as a child, God chose to be as those he came to be with – innocent and vulnerable. This is the meaning of Emmanuel. God with us, sharing life as we know it – the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly – sharing our experiences, being one of us. “Pleased as man with us to dwell.” This was something that God was willing to do precisely because he continues to be faithful to us and to love us. That is what this night is about – celebrating that moment 2,000 years ago when God, in his infinite love for us, ceased being somewhere out there and became Emmanuel, right here in our midst, in the form of a child.

Despite being God, being the King of Kings, this was not a child born in the splendor of a spacious, elegant palace surrounded by royal attendants and nursemaids, clothed in the finest silk, laid in a soft, comfortable crib. On the contrary, this son of God was born in a stable surrounded by smelly animals and animal waste, wrapped in rags, and laid in a feeding trough. For only in this way, could God have the opportunity to experience the true essence of humanity – the commonness and ordinariness. Not as the scion of a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett, but as the ward of a poor laborer. Not as someone secure, facing a life of ease; but as someone vulnerable, facing uncertainty, even difficulty. Only in this way could he experience the hardship that so many of God’s people face. Only in this way could he experience the most basic of human needs and wants. Only in this way could he experience the true joys of human existence. Only in this way could he be able to relate to common everyday folk like you and me.

In this child, God obtained the experience of what it means to be human. And humanity gained a far greater gift. In this child, humanity is touched by the divine in a way that has not been possible until now. In this child, the divine is made flesh and the baseness of humanity is made sacred. In this child, the divine becomes, for a time, bound by human experience, while the experience of humanity is poised to burst forth with limitless possibilities as the Spirit of the divine energizes and comes to dwell within each of us.

In this child, Emmanuel, the world, and the entire fate of humanity is forever changed as the child grows into an adult, submitting himself to death on a cross for the salvation of all humanity. No, even on this most beautiful of nights, we cannot ignore the fate of this child, the primary reason for his coming among us. For in this child, Emmanuel, is the hope of the world – the hope for the salvation and new and eternal life that his birth promises for each and every one of us.

All of this is only made possible through the experience of Emmanuel – God with us. All of this is only possible because of a God who is “Pleased as man with us to dwell.” God who is WITH each and every one of us. God who came FOR each and every one of us. You couldn’t ask for a more precious gift.

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Sunday, December 05, 2010

Our Need for Wilderness

Sunday of Advent – Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Sunday, December 5, 2010 – Trinity, Redlands

As we continue our journey through Advent we find ourselves in the wilderness with John the Baptist. In this journey, it is significant that we find ourselves in the presence of this interesting and colorful character. John has a pivotal role in Judeo-Christian theology and prophecy. He is a bridge between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. He is, at the same time, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the New Testament prophets. As an Old Testament prophet, John looks backward, reminding us of what it means to be God’s Chosen People, reminding us of the prophecies about a new king of the line of David who will come and save God’s Chosen People and usher in a new kingdom as described in today’s reading from Isaiah. As a New Testament prophet, John looks forward, pointing the way to the one who will fulfill the prophecy – Jesus, the Word made flesh. As such, John the Baptist is the iconic figure for the season of Advent. In looking backward, he brings the anticipation of the coming of the Messiah to the fore. And in looking forward, he points to the preparation needed to receive this Messiah.

The description we have of John is one of a wild-eyed, crazy man. He wears a garment made of camel’s hair and eats locusts and wild honey. And he is out in the middle of nowhere shouting the words of the Prophet Isaiah, issuing warnings that people need to repent of their sins and be baptized, and accosting people with such unsavory epithets as “you brood of vipers.” If we saw such a character on the street, which you certainly do in some places, many of us would cross the street to the other side out of a sense of personal safety.

For first century Jews, however, the image of this man and the style and content of his preaching would have been reminiscent of the Prophet Elijah, one of the greatest and most revered of the Jewish prophets. As Elijah never died but was taken up to heaven by God, perhaps this was Elijah returned. Such a possibility would have added weight and credibility to what John was preaching, even if it did sound like the ravings of a lunatic at times. Of course, this side of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection, we know the whole story. We are able to see the significance of John the Baptist in ways that his first century hearers would not have been able to. We see that he was indeed the one who would prepare the world and us for the coming of our Messiah.

So too is it significant that we find ourselves in the wilderness on this second Sunday of Advent. Certainly John’s message of repentance is important, but I think the place the message was proclaimed is also of importance, for several reasons.

First, John did not do his preaching in the town square, not in the Temple precinct in Jerusalem, where there would have been a lot of passers-by to hear his message. Rather, he chose to proclaim his message out in the wilderness. Out in the wilderness, it would have been easy to ignore John’s preaching. But Matthew tells us that “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going to him.” The fact that so many people from all over the country made the effort to go into the wilderness – for some, undoubtedly a long and arduous, possibly even hazardous, journey – is an indication that people were looking for something, longing for something – something that John’s message touched within them. Here, away from the city, John would not attract idle on-lookers, but those who were sincere in their desire for repentance and forgiveness, who had a desire for the new life that the coming Messiah would provide.

Second, for the Jewish people hearing John’s message, the setting of wilderness would have been deeply significant from a historical and religious perspective. It would have reminded them of the forty years wandering in the wilderness, where the Israelites were tested and cleansed, where they discerned for themselves who they were and what it meant to be God’s Chosen People. Similarly, the wilderness would have reminded them of the Maccabean Revolt two hundred years earlier, where rebel warriors fought foreign occupiers, conducting guerilla warfare from outposts in the wilderness. The wilderness was seen as a place for those seeking righteousness and justice. And it would be from the wilderness that righteousness and justice prevailed, resulting in freedom for the people, reasserting Jewish religious practices that had been outlawed, and rededication of the Temple. (As a side note, this victory is the basis for the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which happens to be this week.) So the setting of the wilderness would have reminded them of key events in the history of this people, of events that shaped their identity as God’s Chosen. And for those present, John the Baptist, through his preaching and sacramental acts, would further shape their identity as those who would become the earliest Christians.

And third, the wilderness has always been a place of escape from the distractions of everyday life – to recharge, to seek or reconnect with God, to struggle with whatever might be going on in one’s life. The Gospels tell us that when Jesus needed time for prayer or to re-energize, he would withdraw to remote places, sometimes the wilderness. In the early centuries of Christianity, the Desert Fathers and Mothers went into the wilderness to escape the distractions of the world and to focus on their relationship with God. And even today, how many of us occasionally feel a need to retreat to a wilderness place, be it desert, forest, mountains, ocean – anyplace where we can get away from the distractions of our busy world, to focus on some deeper need – connecting with God, struggling with some sort of personal issue, even reconnecting with loved ones? Wilderness may be more and more difficult to find in the 21st century, but we continue to have a need for it nonetheless.

Last Sunday as I was reading the morning paper, I looked at my usual cartoons. There are only a few that I regularly read, but that day, my eye fell on one I don’t normally read, “Rose is Rose,” and the imagery grabbed my attention. In the comic strip, Rose is walking along and you see a city skyline in the background. She looks at her cell phone and it has five bars. She continues walking and the skyline grows smaller as she gets into a more rural area with trees and a stream. She looks at her cell phone again and it has three bars. She continues walking deeper into the countryside. She looks at her cell phone again and there is that message we hate to see – “No Service.” In the final panel, Rose looks out over the hilly countryside with a stream and birds in the sky, and has a deeply contented, even prayerful, countenance. The text in this final panel reads “Sometimes you have to lose the signal to get the message!” In other words, sometimes you need to get away from all the distractions in order to reconnect with yourself and with God.

I think that is one of the key lessons in today’s Gospel reading. In this season of anticipation and preparation, maybe what we need to do by way of preparation is to take a cue from John the Baptist. A key part of his wilderness message was that we need to turn away from that which separates us from God and to reconnect with God. To do that, maybe we need to take a little trip into the wilderness.

Of course, it is not always easy to find wilderness. There is very little wilderness left. And even the alleged wilderness is not free from societal influences. This past spring I was hiking at Jenks Lake and stopped to rest and take in the beauty of my surroundings. As I sat there, all of a sudden there was a ringing coming from my knapsack. There out in the wilderness, away from civilization, and I was still being interrupted thanks to technology. And what did I do? I gave in and took the call. A lot of our inability to find wilderness space, to separate ourselves from that which distracts us, is of our own doing. We are so connected and so dependent on our cell phones and Blackberries and laptops and iPads, that we are continually being bombarded and distracted by calls, text messages, instant messages, and e-mails – no matter where we are. So, if anything, we need to be even more intentional in our attempts to find or create wilderness space in our lives. True wilderness space means getting away from all distractions, even the electronic devices we think we can’t live without, so that the only voice we hear is that of God speaking to us.

We are social beings requiring human interaction; hence our need to be connected, even electronically. But we are also spiritual beings requiring interaction with our God. And to do that requires our full attention. Such efforts are made easier by withdrawing to a wilderness place. True wilderness, truly away, is probably best. But barring that, there are other options closer to home, if we but look.

Ironically, if you take our looser definition of wilderness as that which removes us from the distractions of day-to-day life and allows us time to reconnect with God and with our own spirit, then we are in a wilderness space right now. Yes, sadly, but thankfully, the church is a wilderness space. While the church used to pretty much be the center of everyday life and activity, its place in society has changed. Now, rather than being a familiar second home, for many people the church is a strange and foreign place, not unlike true wilderness places. Church is seen as a place apart from “the real world.”

But that’s not such a bad thing. It’s actually a blessing. Because it is in the wilderness space of the church that we can, even if only for a brief time, remove ourselves from the distractions of our otherwise crazy lives. It is a place apart where we can be in silence for a change and open ourselves to God’s presence, to hear God’s voice, and to get in touch with the hopes and hurts that we carry in our own beings. And it may even be a place where we occasionally encounter some wild and wooly characters who might jolt us just enough to see in a different way, who might show us how to prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives.

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