Monthly Archives: January 2019

Signs of Glory in Inglorious Places

See the source imageSECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, source of every blessing, you showed forth your glory and led many to faith by the works of your Son, who brought gladness and salvation to his people. Transform us by the Spirit of his love, that we may find our life together in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

According to our gospel lesson, Jesus produced at least 120 and perhaps as much as 180 gallons of wine-a ridiculously huge volume for what must have been a modest wedding reception. Moreover, this was not box quality. We are talking Richebourg here, the kind of liquor you dole out sparingly with the hors ’doeuvres. It’s not the cheap stuff you save for after-dinner dancing when everyone is so thoroughly trashed they don’t know or care much what they are drinking. This, the gospel tells us, was Jesus’ first sign.

In a sated culture like ours where there exists a milti-billion dollar industry selling diets, drugs, exercise, twelve step programs and surgery to help us stop eating and drinking ourselves to death, Jesus’ contribution to the wedding feast might appear excessive. But to a community in which all but the wealthiest of individuals lived just one famine away from starvation, the significance of this sign would have been hard to miss. For a people whose life was just one day after another of back breaking work and scarcity, a wedding celebration provided the one single occasion on which they could forget their difficult existence and eat and drink like royalty. Wine, a precious and rationed luxury, was an integral part of these festive celebrations. As New Testament scholar, Lindsey Trozzo, points out:

“Jewish prophetic literature uses the marriage metaphor for God’s covenant with Israel (Hosea 2:14-23), and the abundance of wine figures as an eschatological image of restoration, particularly for Israel (Joel 3:13, 18; Amos 9:11-15). The abundance of wine and saving the good wine for last draws upon this imagery of eschatological hope that is often coupled with messianic expectations.” See Commentary, Workingpreacher.org.

Indeed, our lesson from Isaiah echoes this theme by characterizing the return of Jewish exiles from Babylon to their homeland as a “marriage.” Isaiah 62:4-5. The meaning of Jesus’ sign was crystal clear. God’s gentle reign of abundance for all had begun.

Yet there is something a little strange about this sign. Jesus’ act of miraculous generosity went largely unrecognized-at least by those who seem to matter. The steward of the feast knows only that more wine, very good wine, has come in the nick of time from somewhere and that an embarrassing social faux pas has been averted. He has no idea where the wine came from and the only explanation he can find for its excellence is that somebody screwed up and served the poorer quality wine first. The bride and groom appear to have been oblivious both to the depletion of wine and Jesus’ remedy. For all we can tell, the wedding reception went on as though nothing unusual had happened. How can something be a “sign” when nobody sees it?

Actually, some people did see it. Jesus’ mother, for one. In contrast to Matthew, Mark and Luke, who identify Jesus’ mother as Mary, the mother of Jesus remains nameless in John’s gospel. Yet she is the one who recognizes the debacle with the wine and calls it to Jesus’ attention. More than that, she prods him into doing something about it. This is one of those rare occasions, such as Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman seeking exorcism for her daughter, when Jesus needs a poke to get him to do the right thing. (See Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28)

The servants are also privy to the miracle. These are the folks in the hotel uniform you see at wedding receptions. They bring in the main courses, clear the table and pour the coffee for desert. But they have no stake in the wedding festivities. They don’t sit at any table in the reception hall, share in the food and libations or dance with the wedding guests. There would be hell to pay for them if they did. They are outsiders. Servants have one and only one function: make sure the bridal couple, their attendants and the guests receive the best hospitality the facility has to offer. Yet in our gospel story, the servants, not the bridal party or the guests, are privy to Jesus’ very first sign.

Finally, the disciples witness the miracle-and believe. Or do they? Undoubtedly, the disciples recognized the miracle-but did they see the sign? If they had really seen this sign, would they have been in such consternation over how to feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish? Would they have seen in a blind man, not merely a theological riddle, but an opportunity for the revelation of God’s healing power? If the disciples had really seen this sign, you would think they would have been more receptive to Mary Magdalene on that Easter morning when she burst into the room where they were cowering in fear with the remarkable good news: “The Lord has risen!” Whatever “belief” this sign might have generated in the disciples, it is clear that it has a long way to go before it matures into genuine faith.

Turns out this first of Jesus’ signs involves more than the remarkable transformation of water into wine. This is a sign telling us that God’s glory is manifested to nameless women, minimum wage servers who are not even a part of the main event, and to a church that is too often blind to signs happening in front of its face. Our gospel lesson invites us to “search for signs,” to take a closer look around us. It challenges us to take notice of the people and events occurring in the back ground that we might otherwise lose in the glare of the “main attraction.” There are signs to be seen of God’s compassion, generosity and redemption. What will it take to make us recognize them and believe what they are telling us? That is the question explored in the following poem by Alan Brilliant.

Searching for Signs
 
I am searching for signs and wonders
which, when younger, I might have had
for nothing, nothing at all, but which,
when older, I threw, despised, in the street-
things of little value, spurned by the stupid.
What where these things? The works that
embody and in their time transform
all poets destined for great singing
when, in their maturity, they pick up the pearl
lodged and nourished in the treasure of their heart.
But, for me, cursed with sloth
there will be no art
no enameled bird, no cup, no forge.
When, in my youth, I heard the clamour
of the mob and was afraid, I turned and ran
and since that time am unmanned.
Oh, I did not betray a gift, and artifact
but only what was me and mine.
Instead of winding the golden thread
up in a ball and following
until the tall trees and blood-red fruit
screamed Paradise I examined and searched
pretending I needed more: “I need more time,”
I said. And, stooping, bowed the head
to look in mud and in that mud
lies the pearl but it is long gone.

Source: Poetry, September 1969 (c. Alan Brilliant). Alan Brilliant (b. 1936) is founder of Unicorn Press in Santa Barbara, California and served as its Director. He is married to Teo Savory.  Both wrote for and assisted in the editing operations of Unicorn Press. Brilliant was a friend and correspondent of Thomas Merton, the prolific Trappist monk who authored the autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain and several other contemplative and devotional works. You can read more poetry by Brilliant at The Sun website.

 

 

No Compromise with Tyranny

See the source imageI understand frustration over the government shutdown, especially on the part of government employees who are bearing the brunt of all this.  I know that you are among those of us who can least afford to lose your salaries. Both my parents were government workers earning considerably less than their private sector counterparts without the benefit of meaningful union representation. I understand the sentiment expressed by so many people inconvenienced by this shutdown that politicians should “stop bickering and simply do whatever it takes to get the government open again” so that life can go back to normal and we can get back some measure of security.

But here’s the thing folks. This is not “just politics.” This isn’t a tug-of-war between two equally unreasonable and stubborn forces. This is the case of a United States president bypassing the will of congress to use our tax dollars in financing a wasteful, unnecessary and ineffective border wall. He is doing so by effectively shutting down essential government services until he gets his way. Giving in to the president’s demand will set a dangerous precedent for executive overreach, leaving the constitutional framework of our government in tatters. For those of you who think that congress should simply cave in to Donald Trump’s infantile temper tantrum and give him what he wants so that we can all have some peace and security, I would strongly encourage you to remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Americans in every generation have died to defend the constitutional system of checks and balances ensuring protection of our basic freedoms. If we can’t put up with some short-term pain to ensure that our constitutional framework is preserved, we dishonor the graves of all those who died to establish it and preserve it for us. If we  cannot bring ourselves to stand for our constitution, then we deserve to live on our knees.  Here’s hoping that the House of Representatives stands firm.

A Mark too Deep to Erase

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 43:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

Recently, I came upon a website run by an organization called Freedom from Religion Foundation on which you can download a “Debaptism Certificate” renouncing your baptism. The appeal is to persons who were baptized as infants or before such time as they were able to give informed consent to receipt of the sacrament and who now wish to reject their baptismal faith. The certificate is free for download and printing. If you don’t mind paying a small fee, you can get a certificate with an embossed seal and original signature by the organization’s president suitable, I presume, for framing.

I must confess that I find this puzzling. If you believe, as I assume most persons in the market for debaptism do, that baptism is a meaningless rite because the God behind it doesn’t exist, why would you dignify it with a certified denunciation? Why go to the trouble of erasing what isn’t there? In a strange way, this compulsion to “undo” one’s baptism testifies to its ongoing potency. These persons so hostile toward their baptisms are perhaps a good deal closer to genuine faith than the couple bringing their child to the church for baptism though they have not attended church since confirmation and have no intention of doing so again until they are carried through the sanctuary doors in a box. For the debaptism certificate holder, baptism at means something. At a bare minimum, it merits the dignity of a formal renunciation.

However much cathartic relief debaptism might bring to someone coming away from a bad experience with Christianity, it remains a nullity. For better or worse, the things we do and the things done to us shape our character and destiny. It is significant that the gospels place Jesus’ baptism immediately before the start of his ministry. Matthew, Mark and Luke each testify to the divine voice declaring Jesus’ sonship as he emerges from the waters of the Jordan. John’s gospel has the Baptist testifying to how he witnessed the Spirit remain upon Jesus. The rest of the gospel narrative can properly be understood as an unfolding in Jesus’ life and ministry of what that baptismal declaration means.

Similarly, the sacrament of Holy Baptism sets one on a trajectory of faithful witness to God’s reign. It identifies one as a child of God, thereby bestowing a unique and holy significance to one’s name. As we all know, and as Jacqueline Woodson’s poem illustrates, the power to name has a real creative potency. A name can shape one’s destiny, for good or ill. To ensure that baptism’s potency continues to be redemptive in one’s life, baptism works in tandem with the sacrament of Holy Communion, the preaching of God’s word, the communion of saints and the mission of the church. It is within that communal context that the mystery of each individual baptismal seed takes root, blossoms and brings forth its own particular fruit.

As anyone who follows this blog knows, I believe that baptismal practice among mainline protestant churches, such as my own, leaves much to be desired. We routinely perform baptisms of children whose parents have virtually no relationship to any church and no interest in affiliating with one. We often do little to educate these families about what we are doing or following up when, quite predictably, they disappear from our midst. For more on this ecclesiastically irresponsible baptismal promiscuity, see my post for January 11, 2015.

Notwithstanding all of the above, a baptismal certificate warrants that God’s solemn promise of salvation was spoken to the person it names and that a congregation vowed to assist that person in growing into faith and discipleship with Jesus. The stubborn fact is that you can stop believing in God, but you can’t stop God from believing in you. We break our promises to God with depressing regularity, but God keeps the ones God makes to us. Is one’s resort to debaptism a desperate attempt to break the grip of that “love that will not let us go?” I don’t know because I cannot get inside the head of another person. All I do know is that such efforts are futile because God is not an absentee parent. God never gives up on God’s kids-not even the problem children.

Here is the above named poem illustrating the power of bestowing a name, a power that is in many respects analogous to what we are doing in Holy Baptism.

a girl named jack

Good enough name for me, my father said
the day I was born.
Don’t see why
she can’t have it, too.

But the women said no.
My mother first
Then each aunt, pulling my pink blanket back
patting the crop of thick curls
tugging at my new toes
touching my cheeks.

We won’t have a girl named Jack, my mother said.

And my father’s sisters whispered,
A boy named Jack was bad enough.
But only so my mother could hear.
Name a girl Jack, my father said,
and she can’t help but
grow up strong.
Raise her right, my father said,
and she’ll make that name her own.
Name a girl Jack
and people will look at her twice, my father said.

For no good reason but to ask if her parents
were crazy, my mother said.

And back and forth it went until I was Jackie
and my father left the hospital mad.

My mother said to my aunts,
Hand me that pen, wrote
Jacqueline where it asked for a name.
Jacqueline, just in case
someone thought to drop the ie.

Jacqueline, just in case
I grew up and wanted something a little bit longer
and further away from
Jack.

Source: Brown Girl Dreaming (c. 2014 by Jacqueline Woodson, pub. by Nancy Paulsen Books) Jacqueline Woodson (b. 1963) is an American writer. She has produced several books for children and adolescents. Though born in in Columbus, Ohio, she spent her early childhood in Greenville, South Carolina and moved to Brooklyn New York at the age of seven. She is best known for Miracle’s Boys, and her Newbery Honor-winning titles, After Tupac and D FosterFeathers, Show Way and Brown Girl Dreaming, the work from which the above poem is taken. Woodson served as the Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015–17 and was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress for 2018–19. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation website.

A Fragile God

See the source imageEPIPHANY OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

Prayer of the Day: O God, on this day you revealed your Son to the nations by the leading of a star. Lead us now by faith to know your presence in our lives, and bring us at last to the full vision of your glory, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Matthew 2:2.

A new born baby is a slim reed on which to hang the fate of the universe. All the more so in the first century when infant mortality approached 50% among the common people and children surviving birth and infancy often failed to reach adulthood. In addition to these bleak odds, this particular infant has acquired a powerful enemy, namely, King Herod. The promise of God’s just and peaceful reign appear to rest on the shakiest of foundations.

The miracle of the Incarnation forces us to rethink everything we think we know about God. If we embrace Jesus as the new born king, we must let go of our understanding of god as the powerful controller who pushes the buttons that make things happen here below. We need to let go of our belief in the god who interferes with the the natural flow of things to save us from the consequences of our own mistakes. We need to let go of the god who favors nations, peoples and religions with conquest, success and prosperity. According to the Nativity narrative, the only God there is stares at us through the eyes of a helpless infant. There is no other.

For me, Sunday’s Epiphany gospel is always clouded by the shadow of Holy Innocents. We cannot escape the paradox. The wonderous star that brought the magi to the Christ child also triggered the genocidal fury of Herod against Bethlehem’s children. Why did not God intervene to stop this horrible atrocity-or all the others that have occurred throughout the bloody course of human history? If we have been paying careful attention to this Sunday’s gospel, we know the answer. God’s power is not the sort we so desperately want God to have. God’s power consists precisely in God’s making God’s self completely vulnerable to us. God’s “strength,” says St. Paul, is precisely God’s weakness. I Corinthians 1:25.

For many people who take comfort in the belief that “God is in control,” this view of divine power is unsettling. We would like God to be that all wise and all powerful parent who can “fix” anything. But as every real parent knows, “power” and “control” don’t really fix any of the jams our children get themselves into. What our children need most is our understanding, our compassion and our modeling of the virtues we would like to see instilled in them. Moreover, it seems we must re-learn in every generation the limits of political and military power as well as the dangers of putting our “faith in princes” or presidents either, for that matter. Psalm 146:3. The power of coercive force that has proven so destructive and dehumanizing when used by us against each other is unlikely to save us when wielded in greater measure by God. Peace maintained by the threat or use of violence is no true peace.

It turns out that the God revealed in the manger is the only one who can save us and the only one worthy of our devotion. Belief in a god who stands above and outside of creation manipulating it without regard to the consequences of its creatures; belief in a god who creates sexual beings of various orientations and ruthlessly punishes them for living out their sexual identities; belief in a god who would have us place the welfare of our own nation, race, tribe or culture above the welfare of all others is not biblical faith. Better to be an atheist than worship such a god. The God we are invited to worship on Epiphany is the One we can kill, the infant that extends his tiny hand to grasp the finger of the visiting magi.

This Epiphany gospel invites us to view the fragility of God, the fragility of our environment, the fragility of so many vulnerable people on our globe and the fragility of life itself. It is a frightening thought that we might indeed severely and irreparably damage our earth’s life sustaining capacity by our selfishness, greed and indifference. It is horrifying having to face the reality that our world might indeed slip into a dark age of chaos, violence and war. It is terrifying to confront, as we must, the fact that there is no god at the control panel to turn the tide of history from the destructive course on which we have set it.

So what, then, is the good word in all of that? Just this: that the God who sent his only Son,  who gave us the best God had to give, is stubbornly determined to love the hell out of us. If the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection tell us anything, they tell us that nothing we can do will ever stop God from loving us. Even as we seem bound and determined to extinguish life, God is with us in our suffering and intent on giving us life. That life is revealed in fragile congregations on the verge of extinction that nevertheless find the courage and compassion to witness to and serve their communities. It is revealed in refugee camps throughout the world where fragile groups of people of all faiths and no faith at all toil to bring a measure of relief to people living in despair of ever finding a home. It is revealed in the shadow of tyranny where courageous though fragile people dare to speak truth to power-even when their voices are shaking. Fragile as these epiphanies of God’s life among us may seem, they nonetheless testify to life that is eternal and to power that is truly transformative.  They  bear witness to the only life worth living and the only power worth having.

Here is a fitting poem by Joseph Brodsky helping us to contemplate the Epiphany of our Lord and his fragility.

Star of the Nativity

In the cold season, in a locality accustomed to heat more than
to cold, to horizontality more than to a mountain,
a child was born in a cave in order to save the world;
it blew as only in deserts in winter it blows, athwart.

To Him, all things seemed enormous: His mother’s breast, the steam
out of the ox’s nostrils, Caspar, Balthazar, Melchior—the team
of Magi, their presents heaped by the door, ajar.
He was but a dot, and a dot was the star.

Keenly, without blinking, through pallid, stray
clouds, upon the child in the manger, from far away—
from the depth of the universe, from its opposite end—the star
was looking into the cave. And that was the Father’s stare.

Source: Joseph Brodsky, Joseph, Collected Poems in English, 1972-1999 (c. 2000 by Joseph Brodsky, pub. by Farrar Straus and Giroux,) Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1940. He held a number of jobs in his youth, including mortician, ship boiler room operator and geologist. He began writing his own poetry in 1955 and became well known in Russian literary circles. Though his poems were largely apolitical at this time, he nevertheless came under the scrutiny and suspicion of the Soviet authorities. In 1963, Brodsky’s poetry was denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as anti-Soviet. His papers were confiscated, he was interrogated and twice put in a mental institution. Finally, he was arrested and charged with “social parasitism.” He was strongly advised to emigrate from the Soviet Union and did so in 1972. Brodsky settled in the United States with the help of poet W. H. Auden. He spent the rest of his life in America teaching at Mount Holyoke College, Yale, Columbia and University of Michigan. You can find out more about Joseph Brodsky and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.