Tag Archives: The Work of the People

The Importance of Knowing Your Name

A Sermon for 7 January 2018 – Baptism of the Lord Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Mark 1:4-11.  Listen for God’s word to us.

“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

Have you ever been to a naming ceremony?  We’ve heard of one these past few weeks in our Christmas readings.  The event is so matter-of-fact that after all the hype of the angels and shepherds and birth out back among the animals, the gospel of Luke simply records:  “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” (Luke 2:21).  One little verse, recorded only in one gospel; tells us Jesus’ parents observed his naming ceremony.

If you want to know what to expect today in a naming ceremony, just goggle it.  Reformjudaism.org includes Rabbi Karen Companez describing “What to Expect at a Baby Naming.”  Though the number of days after birth differ for little boys and little girls, you can expect a naming ceremony for a Reformed Jewish family to be held either in the baby’s home or at the synagogue.  The child receives a Hebrew name – the name they will be called at every major milestone of their lives.  From their first Consecration ceremony at the beginning of their religious education, at their coming-of-age bar or bat mitzvah, when they wed, when the are called upon in worship to read the Torah, and at last, when they die.  The Hebrew name given at their naming ceremony will be used at their funeral.  Then to be inscribed on their tombstone.  At a Reformed Jewish naming ceremony, parents typically explain why it is that name has been chosen for their child.  Blessings are said that remind all that this child has “entered into a brit, a covenant, with God.  . . .  The traditional wish is offered – that this child may grow into a life of study of Torah, of loving relationships, and the performance of good deeds” (https://reformjudaism.org/what-expect-baby-naming).

Hindu naming ceremonies are considered sacred and elaborately performed on the twelfth day after an infant’s birth.  For the first week-and-a-half of the baby’s life, no one but it’s mother and a helper – typically the mother’s mother – is allowed to touch the baby or mother.  After a ceremonial bath for both infant and mom, relatives are invited to the home.  In some Hindu cultures, the paternal aunt has the honor of naming her brother’s child.  After the mother “wets the head of the baby with drops of water as a symbol of purifying the child,” the auntie “whispers the newborn his or her name in the ear and then announces it to the gathered family and friends.”  After, in some Hindu communities, “the sacred fire is lighted and the priest chants sacred hymns to invoke the Gods in heaven to bless the child” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naming_ceremony).  . . .  What beautiful rituals to welcome a new little one into the world!  To ensure that child and all who will surround his or her life know how special the little one is.  How cherished and honored and excited the whole community is to watch the life of that little newborn unfold – to become all that little one can be as a blessing to the world.  The naming ceremony tells all how important this child is for the life of the world.

If you were here last week, I asked you to bring a photo of yourself from your baptism – or the photo of another one you love on the day of their baptism.  I hope you did and that you take a good long look at it.  . . .  Today is the time in the liturgical calendar to remember what most likely was our equivalent naming ceremony:  our baptism.  . . .  Spiritual blogger and Millennial spokesperson Rachel Held Evans speaks of baptism as a naming ceremony.  In a Work of the People clip, which is a resource we’ve been using as part of our curriculum for Sunday School these past few weeks; she says:  “Baptism is a naming.  Naming someone a child of God.  Baptism acknowledges someone’s belovedness.  Jesus’ baptism was an acknowledgement of his eternal belovedness.  Baptism acknowledges our eternal belovedness too” (www.theworkofthepeople.com, “Baptism Named Beloved,” Rachel Held Evans).  In the baptismal liturgy, we renounce evil and its power in the world.  We’ll do so in our Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant later in this service.  Rachel Held Evans makes sense of this renouncing by explaining that it is a “renunciation of all those competing voices that try to tell you who you are.”  She says:  “The world gives you names like screw-up, faker, fat, slut, addict.  In baptism you are named beloved.”  We are beloved, she explains.  And that’s enough!  “Baptism is a defiant thing to do,” she says, “because the world always will try to name us.  And in baptism we say:  ‘No!  My name is beloved!’  We are named by God and that is enough.  It’s good news!” (Ibid.)

It’s why we Presbyterians baptize publicly – at the time of worship, not in some separate private ceremony.  Whether a newborn baby, a pre-teen, or an adult; we declare as a community that the one to be baptized must know their name:  Child of the covenant, Beloved of God!  As we acknowledge the one being baptized’s name, we are charged likewise to remember our own baptisms and be grateful!  To call to mind our own name – beloved – lest the names of the world are left to resound in our heads.  We all are beloved!  And from the moment of our vows on, we resolve to live as those who know our own and show others’ their names too.

I love this day and I love that it falls so close to the beginning of each calendar year.  What better way to begin a new year than with this very important reminder?  And today, being that it’s a first Sunday of the month too; we’ll re-affirm the baptismal covenant, then move into the joyful feast of the people of God.  In the Lord’s Supper we’ll do what biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls a “regular re-performance of what we claim in baptism.”  We’ll partake of “concrete, tangible signs of the generosity of God” (www.theworkofthepeople.com, “Faithful Practices,” Walter Brueggemann).  We’ll eat of the food and drink of the cup that proclaims, in Brueggemann’s words, that we “belong to the narrative of Jesus and not the narrative” of the world (Ibid.).  We will taste and know our names:  beloved children of God who are “sealed as Christ’s own forever” (Ibid.).  . . .  It’s very good news!  News that changes how we understand ourselves, how we interact with our neighbors, and how we resolve to live our lives this day and forevermore!

Happy Baptism, brothers and sisters of Christ!  Come now, to the font.  Again, let us know our names!

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

“Do You Believe This?”

A Sermon for 2 April 2017 – Fifth Sunday during Lent

A reading from the gospel of John 11:1-45 (NRSV).  Listen for God’s word to us.

“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.  So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”  But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.  Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”  The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”  Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight?  Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.  10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”  11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”  12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”  13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.  14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.  15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.  But let us go to him.”  16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.  18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.  20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.  21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”  24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”  27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”  29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.  30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.  31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out.  They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.  32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  34 He said, “Where have you laid him?”  They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  35 Jesus began to weep.  36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”  37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”  38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.  It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”  Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”  41 So they took away the stone.  And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”  43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.

Thanks be to God!

 

Blogger and highly-sought-after speaker Rachel Held Evans quickly is becoming the Millennial voice to the church.  She freely admits she’s a bit older than those born between 1982 and 2000 – the definition of a true Millennial.  But as she personally identifies with many Millennial characteristics, she’s looked to by the church to speak for this missing generation.  To tell us why they do not feel they belong.  In a Work of the People clip called “Creating Something New,” she passionately discusses the death of the church.  She says:  “A lot of people are talking about the death of the church like it’s this big horrible thing.  That we’re on the precipice of doom.  . . .”  She goes on to say:  “We see the numbers changing, at least in North America, and the demographics shifting; and we all freak out.  And say well the church is dying and unless we do all this change then it’s going to die.  And,” and these are Rachel’s words, not mine.  She says:  “And I can’t help but think to myself:  maybe a little death and resurrection is exactly what the church needs right now.”  She says:  “Maybe this means that for Christians in North America we’re learning that Christianity isn’t about empire.  Maybe our empire-building days are over.  And maybe that’s a good thing.  Maybe the church isn’t about power and money and numbers,” Rachel says.  “Maybe being the church is about something else.  And maybe dying to those old ways of doing things is exactly what needs to happen.”  Rachel explains:  “Death is something that empires worry about.  It’s not something gardeners worry about.”  Hear that again:  “Death is something that empires worry about.  It’s not something gardeners worry about.  Death is not something resurrection people worry about.”  Rachel declares:  “If the church in North America needs to die to some of its old ways, then let it die.”  With a wisdom that far exceeds her years, she goes on to remind us.  “Maybe this is just God creating something new.”  As the clip comes to an end, the message flashes across the screen:  “Do not be afraid to die.  Life comes from death!”  (www.theworkofthepeople.com/creating-something-new).

These are the words of an astute disciple of Christ.  A voice that echoes the wisdom declared to the prophet Ezekiel by God about the dry bones that live again.  This is the sentiment of a faithful follower who obviously trusts the One we encounter in the gospel of John.  The One who probes proclaiming:  “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (John 11:25b-26)  . . .  We’re nearing the culmination of the season of Lent.  Inching closer to the deepest mystery of Christian faith that shows us most clearly what our God is all about.  Life, death, life-again.  It’s a spiral that defies human logic.  A paradox we cannot intellectually figure out.  All we can do is anticipate it.  Pay attention to witness it.  Trust it is true – even when waves of grief over any loss wash over us.  Life.  Death.  Life again – not just someday at what’s perceived to be our end.  But every day all along the path of life.  . . .

This week, the gospel of John takes us to the raising of Lazarus.  Now, I know it’s another extra-long gospel of John reading.  It can be hard to follow it all.  The bottom line is:  Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha – which is the family in whose home Jesus likely stayed on each of his visits to Jerusalem.  After all, Bethany was just outside the city and the gospel never records him actually staying overnight in Jerusalem – except his last night when he was being held as a prisoner.  Well, Lazarus was very, very ill.  So much so that Mary and Martha call for Jesus.  It wasn’t just one of those you best come see your loved one before they are no more calls.  Rather, it was a call for Jesus to come help.  Heal Lazarus from his disease.  Make him well again.  Isn’t that what we all want for our loved ones?  For ourselves?  . . .  We may find it odd that Jesus intentionally stays away once he gets the call.  He had just narrowly escaped the stones of an enraged crowd in Jerusalem.  We can understand a desire to avoid any further conflict.  What we may find difficult to grasp is a plan to stay away – to let his dear friend die.  To know his sisters are filled with distress.  To let the ache of mourning sink all the way into their hearts, before Jesus turns to make the trek back to Bethany.  The writer records the story a bit crassly, as if a high and mighty Jesus had loftier things on his mind than the anchor of sadness that descends when a loved one dies.  He just keeps on telling all with ears to hear that they are about to see the glory of God.  Something better than fixing blind eyes is about to take place.  According to the gospel of John, which is the only gospel that records this miraculous story; the great I AM is in their presence.  The Eternal Word is living in and through Jesus.  One utterance from him – one command like:  let there be – and it is as if the Creator of all speaks again – breathing once more into Lazarus’ lungs.  And out he steps.  Living again – still bound hand and foot in his burial cloth, so that Jesus’ next command is to “unbind him and let him go” (John 11:44).  The Eternal Word brings life out of this death.  He frees Lazarus and all whose hearts had turned heavy at his loss.  He rouses a new beginning in them all.  As if he is a master gardener who trusts that winter must follow the harvest in order for a spring of new life to be.  Jesus might be moved to tears at the tomb of his friend; but he does not fear.  Not even death itself.  He knows that when we go down to the grave, the force of Life, which is God, finds a new way – a new way to push through to create something new.

Here, just a few weeks before all the pageantry of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter morning; the Scriptures bring us to the story of One about to die who is intent on new life.  . . .  Right after he commands Lazarus to be unbound, the gospel records:  “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.  But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.  So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do?  This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’” (John 11:45-48).  . . .  What a shame to let fear creep in like that.  To deny the cycle that life comes from death so that they would do such a thing as to connive for the One of Life to die.  . . .  It’s a mystery before which we stand.  The great mystery of Christian faith that has the audacity, with sister Martha, to stare I Am right back in the eyes to declare:  “Yes, Lord, we believe!”  We trust the Way:  life, death, life-again.  And while we may not always like it.  While we may ache deeply within at our loss.  While we take great comfort that at Golgotha he experienced in full our despair; we vow to live as those who do not fear.  We keep alert to see the ways in which life comes from death.  After all, maybe it’s just God creating something new.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

Life from Death

It was so uplifting Saturday to be at a regional meeting of church folk (a.k.a. a Presbytery meeting).  I know!  If you’ve ever been to one, then it may not seem a credible statement.  But it was for me.

I’ve been doing a lot of research and reflection lately on the church, contemporary culture, and change.  In many ways, it’s been my passion for the past decade.  Inevitably, it leaves me wondering often about what of the church needs to die.  I dream too about what might be able to grow if in fact those within the church (like me) let go of what we’ve always known.  It’s scary.  It calls me to dig deeper into that vow to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

I used to care about needed changes in the church for reasons like job security, and to ease my frustration over things that drive me bonkers about the church, and to create ways that might be easier on all.  The deeper I go in it, the more I see that I care because my own life is full of all sorts of people who I love immensely and who want nothing to do with communities of faith in which I have lived my whole life.  Many of the folks in my life used to want to be a part; but for whatever reason, they no longer can be.  Some have been burned badly, or been raised with terrible theology that still haunts them, or find themselves totally bored in worship by things that seem absolutely irrelevant to daily life.  I even find active church folks who desperately want something different, something more; but don’t have the foggiest idea what that looks like or how to get there.  Of course, I know there always will be people who aren’t at all interested.  They never have been and they likely never will be.

My heart breaks for us all.

Just to be clear:  I think it’s wise to turn away from a people who label themselves with Jesus’ name but act like the antithesis.  I think it’s tragic to feel isolated or lonely or unloved or unlovable and have no community to turn t0 — especially because some expressions of church today are at their best and do offer the needed healing balm.  I think it’s deplorable to be seeking — or worse yet:  to already have connected deeply to the Life Force — only to be told that such things are NOT of God (which, in fact, they are!  The Divine is about the journey of awe and wonder; not certainty and fact).   I think it’s sense-less that the hearts of a people who claim the name Jesus aren’t breaking for the eclectic array of people Jesus went out of his way to welcome home.  It’s not ok to me for people to be unaware that they are beautiful, cherished treasures.  And it’s even worse to me for any to be deemed unacceptable by others who believe they know.

Recently I saw an amazing clip on The Work of the People in which Rachel Held Evans made a matter of fact statement that rocked me to the core:  “Empires worry about death.  Gardeners do not worry about death”  (To watch the clip go to http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/creating-something-new).  A few day later I watched a clip by John Philip Newell on “Dreaming Forward” (http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/dream-forward).  Newell quoted the Dalai Lama regarding hope for the future.  He said:  “‘Of course I believe there is hope for the future.  The future hasn’t happened yet.'”  My mind once again blown, I went off to the Presbytery meeting Saturday where we heard from three different young adult women (interestingly all were women) who spoke passionately about the meaning they have been finding for life through their involvement in Presbyterian Campus Ministries.  They have connected with others and that which is beyond, they have built relationships and learned from those much different from themselves, they have helped the hurting and shown love to those battered by life.  I left that meeting so excited that these young women are the church today:  the future hope in our midst.  The people who passionately and honestly seek to follow the Way of Love.  Ones who want to make a difference in others lives, not just seek to have their own needs met.

Maybe it’s just a handful and maybe as they get older the flame will fade.

Or maybe . . . just maybe, their lives (and the fruit of who they are) are the new growth.  And maybe, just maybe, all can learn a thing or two from them as we seek to breakdown in ourselves the walls of cynicism, self-focus, and indifference.

Then . . . maybe, just maybe, our own fresh growth will unfurl under the blazing sunshine in the grand garden of this world.

Here’s hoping . . . here’s to hoping!

 

Peace & Love prevail,

RevJule