our name is “Christian”

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Luke 2.15-21 and Galatians 4.4-7, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Feast of the Holy Name, January 1, 2017

“After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus.”

circumcision-of-jesus-1503-mariotto-albertinelli-october-1474-november-1515-uffizi-gallery-florence-italy

In Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.[1] Eight days later, following tradition, he was circumcised, bearing on his body the mark of God’s ancient covenant with Abraham, the outward and visible sign that he was a member of a people. Also, in accord with the custom of many ancient peoples who conferred names upon their children to indicate the roles they would play in the life of their societies, this child was called “Jesus”, the outward and hearable sign of his life’s labor. Jesus, the Greek form of the Hebrew, Joshua, and the Aramaic, Jeshua, means, “God is salvation” or more succinctly, “God saves.”

Thus, the angel Gabriel’s prophetic word to Mary was fulfilled: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”[2]

This Feast of the Holy Name, coming on the first day of the calendar year, reminds us who we are and whose we are. We, children of God, belong to God as revealed in Jesus and in his prophetic life of love and justice. A life of compassion for all without condition and a life of challenge to the comfortably self-satisfied to act on behalf of the marginalized and disenfranchised.

So, we can understand why in our practice of baptism, the rite of initiation into the church, the community of Jesus’ followers, only the first name of the one to be baptized is spoken; never the surname of one’s earthly family. The reason (historically well known that it went without saying, now, long left unsaid, not well known) is that in baptism one is given a new surname of the universal, spiritual, and eternal family into which one is adopted by God through the Spirit: “Christian.” (So, the Apostle Paul testifies, “God sent his Son…so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”)

In baptism, one is christened. Named for Christ, who we are bidden not so much to worship, that is, stand by or sit back and adore him, for he, in saving us, has done it all and there’s nothing more we need do, but rather to follow, to continue his life and labor. As he was and is, as he did and does, we, bearing his name, are to be and do in the world.

My sainted Baptist grandmother, Audia Roberts, often said to me, “Remember your name.” She was referring neither to my familial surname, Abernathy, nor the name she bore and bestowed as my middle name, Roberts, but rather my baptismal name, Christian. She desired that I remain ever mindful of whom I represented in the world, whose life I was to reflect, whose labor I was to do. (Honestly compels the confession that I failed more than I succeeded. Still do! Nevertheless, as then, so now, the call abides!)

The words of our Baptismal Covenant express what this life and labor, our life and labor look like:[3] Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

After eight days, the child was circumcised and named Jesus. In this, may we hear our calling in this New Year. That our minds and hearts, souls and spirits be circumcised. That we allow ourselves to be cut to the quick, cut to the core of ourselves with an awareness of our name, Christian, and its meaning and, thus, the proclamation of our purpose. That we are to have compassion for all people and to challenge the comfortable to care for all even, especially when, most uncomfortably, it is we ourselves whom we must confront.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: Circumcision of Jesus (1503), Mariotto Albertinelli (1474-1515), Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 2.7, paraphrased.

[2] Luke 1.31

[3] The Book of Common Prayer, pages 304-305; my emphases.

is it possible?

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Luke 2.1-14, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, December 24 and 25, 2016

“She gave birth to her firstborn son…and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

the-adoration-of-the-shepherds-1609-michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-1571-1610

A mother lays her newborn baby in a filthy feeding trough for animals in a dark, dank, rank stable because there was no room in the inn. It doesn’t matter why. The heartless negligence of an innkeeper’s refusal to find lodging for a needy family, the blameless coincidence of the inn already filled by others coming to be registered, or something else. Whatever the reason, this story often is viewed as a sad depiction of privation and exclusion.

I see it as a story of hope. Hope that reflects our desire for the way we want life, the world to be. A desire deep and abiding precisely because it is seldom achieved and whenever realized, never long-lasting.

Hope is why this story has mesmerizing power. Why we read it every year. Why we gather annually to hear it. All to remind ourselves of the way things are meant to be.

So, let us listen again.

This baby, according to his-story, grew up and for many in his time was and, according to history, for countless over two millennia is the embodiment of love, the kindness for which our souls cry, and justice, the fairness for which our hearts hunger. This baby found no room in the inn and was laid in a manger.

An inn is a lodging place for guests; a temporary house for visitors, those who are not at home. A manger is a place for food where those who hunger are fed.

This Jesus, the embodiment of love and justice, is not a guest, not a visitor, therefore he need never lodge in the inn. Rather lying in a manger, he is the feast!

Is it possible then that love and justice are the food of which we are to partake so to become what, who we eat? Is it possible that as love and justice are embodied in our lives that we, others, God will see and know that kindness and fairness are not alien or unknown, but alive and at home in this world?

If we embrace and embody that hope, then it is possible that we this Christmas Day and every day will make all the difference in this world.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustration: The Adoration of the Shepherds (1609), Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610)

when Christmas dreams are blue

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas

With every Christmas card I write.

May your days be merry and bright

And may all your Christmases be white.[1]

White Christmas is a lovely reminiscence about a long ago holiday setting. It has an abiding appeal. The Bing Crosby version is one of the top-selling single records globally of any time, indeed, of all time. And its sweet, easily sung tune and endearing words are meant as evocatively tender plucks to the heartstrings of human nostalgia.

Still, for many, Christmas is not “the season to be jolly”, thus making this time of year’s widespread societal appeal to be joyful as nonsensical as those meaningless, though, yes, fun to sing syllables, fa-la-la-la-la.[2]

Indeed, Christmas can come robed not in white, bright colors, but rather blue, somber hues. The reasons both vary and are many.

For some, winter’s daily twilight-tinged skies become a visual portent of an increased incidence of seasonal affective disorder, for others, depression, and for still others, a profound existential crisis of despair about life’s meaninglessness of the sort portrayed in Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 classic cinematic tragic drama, Winter Light.

Moreover, the seasonal summons to be festive can be a painful reminder of incomparable losses. The loss of loved ones in death. The loss of companionship and the coming of loneliness at the demise of significant relationships. The loss of health and personal or financial well-being. The loss of peace of mind in the harrowing shadows of end-of-the-year reflections on past, seemingly irredeemable errors. The loss of life’s purpose and direction. The loss of a sense of achievement or attainment of goals.

Furthermore, Christmas’ mercantile encouragements to spend money can provoke an anxiety to present the perfect gift, verily, to be the perfect gift-giver, whilst incurring undue debt.

O’er the course of 60+ Christmases, I have encountered in my own life’s circumstances or through the lenses of the experiences of others all of these states of body, mind, and heart, self, soul, and spirit. And I have learned and I have repeatedly re-learned the following:

To seek and to trust competent and caring mental health practitioners so to guide me through the thickets of depression…

To seek and to trust in the truth of my own inner peace with who I am and what I have so to accept my ever-present human imperfections in relation to (indeed, in rejection of) the “perfect” sentimentally-designed-and-commercially-driven images of the season…

Above all and alway to seek and to trust God; my soul oft giving voice in gratitude,[3] personalizing the words of the psalmist:

I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let (my) foot be moved; He who keeps (me) will not slumber.

He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is (my) keeper; the Lord is (my) shade at (my) right hand.

The sun shall not strike (me) by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep (me) from all evil;

He will keep (my) life.

The Lord will keep (my) going out and (my) coming in

from this time on and for evermore.[4]

Footnotes:

[1] The second verse of the song, White Christmas; lyrics and music by Irving Berlin (1942)

[2] References to the carol, Deck the Halls, the English lyrics, written by Thomas Oliphant (1862).

[3] Gratitude, that is, my mindful and humble thanksgiving for who I am and what I have (thus, ceasing to fret or to have fear about who I am not and what I don’t have) and, especially, my thanksgiving that I know God to whom I can pray.

[4] Psalm 121

must!

preachinga sermon, based on Luke 2.41-52, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 3, 2016

Christmas Day. Nine days ago, yet already (at least it feels) long past. Annual celebrations don’t last. There’s the anticipatory build up, lengthening year to year. (I recall when we didn’t begin Christmas preparations until after Thanksgiving Day and in my formative years the Abernathys didn’t decorate the tree until Christmas Eve!) The great day arrives. We take time off and away from daily routine, gathering with family and friends, sharing in religious and communal rituals. Then the moment passes. We move on.

The 12-day Christmas season, always competing with the coming new year, gets lost with our figurative and literal turn of the calendar page. Poor Christmas. Unable to run its course before we’re back to life as we know and live it.

Nevertheless, this is day ten of the Christmas season. It’s not over yet! So, let’s continue to reflect on Jesus’ birth.

Oddly, our gospel passage isn’t about Jesus in the manger, but in the temple; the only biblical account of the “lost years” between his birth and adulthood.

Christ among the Doctors, Giotto di Bondone, 1304-06

A precocious child goes missing. His frantic parents, already having gone a day’s journey, return to Jerusalem and search for three days before finding their wayward son. A simple, sentimental, sweet story.

Or is it?

This pubescent episode in the Temple marks a transition between Christmas proclamations about Jesus from angels,[1] shepherds,[2] Simeon and the prophet Anna[3] and Jesus’ declaration about himself. His testimony makes this more than a sweet story.

Listen. An anxious, perhaps angry Mary scolds her son, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you!” Jesus replies, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” A provocative question and a declaration of vocation and obligation pointing to the subsequent chapters of his story.

Listen again…

Jesus inaugurates his public ministry: “I must proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom, for I was sent for this purpose.”[4]

Jesus describes his destiny to his disciples: “The Son of Man must suffer, be killed, and on the third day be raised.”[5]

Jesus, so clear about his calling, repeated this passion prediction: “The Son of Man must endure much suffering”[6] and “must…be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”[7]

Jesus in the temple. A sweet story? No. This is a moment of transition between infancy and ministry. The adolescent Jesus stands on the threshold of that ministry, saying, “I must be in my Father’s house.” Again, a declaration of vocation and obligation. A vocation that obligated Jesus, in faithfulness to his cause, to suffer and die.

Today, we stand at the threshold of a new year. Typically, a time to make resolutions proclaiming our visions for personal growth and betterment. In keeping with this unsaccharine story of Jesus in the temple, I wonder. What’s our “must-statement” declaring our discerned life’s purpose, designated calling, chosen vocation, accepted obligation? It may be something already known or entirely new. Whatever it is, are we clear about what it is?

When we look in the mirror each morning, what is it that we say to ourselves, silently or aloud, that confirms anew our sense of our existence, our raison d’être, our commitments we have made and will attempt to honor, our direction in which we will walk that day, our objectives to which our words and deeds will point?

A word of caution. Mary and Joseph didn’t understand Jesus. His clarity – “I must!” – for them, was mystery. And I believe whenever we are clear about who we are and where we’re going, at times, there will be those, some near and dear, who don’t, won’t understand. Clarity, which makes bold the expression of conviction, often does not bring comfort. Nevertheless, the creation, the Creator, life itself beckons us to claim our calling, whether new or anew.

In 2016, what’s your “must”?

Illustration: Christ among the Doctors (of the Law), Giotto di Bondone, 1304-06

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 1.18-25; Luke 1.26-35, 2.9-14

[2] Luke 2.15-18

[3] Luke 2.25-33, 36-38

[4] Luke 4.43

[5] Luke 9.22

[6] Luke 17.25

[7] Luke 24.7

what’s my name?

Biblea biblical reflection, based on Luke 2.15-21, on the 8th day of Christmas and the 1st day of the new year

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus.

The Circumcision of Jesus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1605

Luke continues his telling of the Christmas story. In Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger. Eight days later, following Jewish custom and ceremony, the identity of that son was conferred. He was circumcised, bearing on his body the mark of God’s ancient covenant with Abraham, the outward and visible sign that he was a member of a people. He also was given his name, the outward and hearable sign of his life’s purpose. Jesus. The Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua and the Aramaic Jeshua, meaning “God is salvation” or, simply, “God saves.”

On many Christian calendars, this eighth day of Christmas and this New Year’s Day is called Holy Name. Doubtless, countless are the interpretations of what this day means. So, speaking always only for myself…

Holy Name reminds me who I am, one created by God, and, therefore, whose I am, one belonging to God. The God made known to me in Jesus’ prophetic life of love and justice. A life of compassion for the poor, care for the downtrodden, comfort for the afflicted, and challenge to the comfortable (especially when it is I myself whom I must confront!) to act on behalf of the marginalized and disenfranchised. A life I am bidden not only to worship, to reverence, but also to follow, to continue. A life, as Jesus is, so I, in his name, am to be in the world.

I’ve claimed the name “Christian” for most of my life. Given what it meant originally, to be named as Christ to a life of service, it still serves well. Yet given the bigotry and brutality, the intolerance and malice perpetrated in the name of Jesus by myriad Christians from the first century unto this day the name for many evokes fear and anger, provokes division and derision. Thus, in this coming year, it is up to me, with God’s help, as best I can, as much as I can, where I am, and with those I serve to follow in will and word and deed the Jesus of justice, the Lord of love and liberation. For “Christian” is my name.

 

Illustration: The Circumcision of Jesus, Peter Paul Rubens, 1605

transformation – a personal reflection on the 5th day of Christmas

cloudsin the dreamy semi-consciousness of early this morn these words came to me…

 

Wisdom (Σοφία or Sophia), Celsus Library, Ephesus, Turkey

He was met, surprised by Wisdom

on some dusty, deserted, unidentified corner of the labyrinthine maze of his muddled mind.

And She,

Who, named Sophia, is holy

(for Whom he ne’er had known he sought,

but Who, aware of his truest need, alway had watched, waiting for him),

miraculously, mercifully transformed the wearying vigor of his soul’s disquiet

into the insatiable ardor of heaven’s Love.

 

And, once more, he experienced his nativity

in the now foreign familiarity of coming out of darkness into Light.

 

Photograph: Σοφία (Wisdom), Celsus Library, Ephesus, Turkey

imagine this

preachinga sermon, based on John 1.1-18, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 1st Sunday after Christmas Day, December 27, 2015

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.

Imagine. To a first century Greek-speaking, conceptualizing world of many gods, how do you tell a story of Hebrew origin, arising from a speck of land in the Middle East, about a monotheistic, eternal God who entered human history?

Saint John the Evangelist, Giuseppe Vermiglio, c. 1630I imagine John the evangelist wrestling with this question as he began to write, “In the beginning was the Word.” I can hear his mind turning, his heart trusting that all would understand. For word, in the Greek, logos, the animating power of the universe, without which there is nothing, through which all things come to be was an idea shared by Jewish and Hellenistic cultures.

Now imagine a Greek reader, who ascribes to a dualistic philosophy of the purity of the spirit realm and the wickedness of the world, perusing John’s prologue, intrigued by the use of logos, arriving at the verse, “the Word became flesh,” in disgust throwing the scandalous scroll to the dust. The pure logos, the eternal principle of universal order, encased in sordid flesh? Unimaginable!

But like a shocking idea that, once perceived, clamps unshakably onto the human consciousness, impossible to ignore, that Greek reader retrieves the scroll and, with horrified fascination, recites again, “the Word became flesh.” Then another shock, “and we have seen his glory.” Glory? Doxa? Eternal splendor? Divine and invisible majesty made visible in time and space? Unimaginable, yet also wonderful!

God’s glory made real in the flesh of Jesus. This, for John, is the Christmas story. Countless are the ways to articulate what this means. And for this, God’s glory made real, to have meaning, we must interpret for ourselves.

So, imagine this. As we read the biblical gospel accounts, we encounter in Jesus one who embodies love and justice unconditional, kindness and fairness, actively, equally shared, without qualification, without reliance on any standard of deserving, merit, or judgment, with everyone, especially the poor and oppressed, forgotten and forsaken, lost, least, last, broken in spirit and barren of hope. There is God’s glory.

Now, imagine this. Whenever the glory of the love and justice of Jesus is conceived through the Spirit in the wombs of our souls and given birth in our daily living, enfleshed, visible to all in our intentions and actions, words and deeds, then we are the Christmas story made real.

Imagine that!

 

Illustration: Saint John the Evangelist, Giuseppe Vermiglio, c. 1630