Sunday, January 16, 2011

What's in a Name?

First Presbyterian in Lafayette, Louisiana
January 16, 2011 – A2
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 40:1-8 (read responsively)
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
John 1:29-42

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  And so goes the impassioned plea of Shakespeare's Juliet that is so watered down by time and over use that it seems trite and ridiculous to say.  But lest we forget the import of such a quote, we might want to remember that she is asking Romeo to deny his very name. And he offers to be "new baptiz'd", named only by the bond of love that has called them together.

From this point on there is but one unfortunate end for both Romeo and Juliet, and that is tragedy.  For characters in a play there can be only one end, and that is the one the playwright has chosen.  Some have chosen to interpret the Bible this way.  I would suggest that such a reading offers not only a limited understanding of our potential, but also a limited understanding of scripture, and (ultimately) of God.

Take the text from Isaiah for example.  God declares the intent, purpose, and calling of the prophet.  Isaiah's response is about the same as you get throughout the Bible.  "A baby at my old age? HA!"  "Oh, don't send me! I stu-stu-studder. Send Aaron." "Those people are giants."  "Woe is me!  I am an unclean man of an unclean people." "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" "No, you shall never wash my feet."

More than that, Isaiah's response is about what you get in the average PC(USA) congregation when they are focused on what they do not have – children, money, and time.  Isaiah says, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God."  This one line names and claims the tension between tragedy and hope that forms the tight ropes we walk on in this world, and it often seems like there is no net below us. 

Naming and claiming is one of the ways we survive in this world. Names can inspire us.  Just the mention of historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr., or Thomas Jefferson, or Ghandi conjure up thoughts and feelings that can be positive or negative depending on the person.  Names also create new realities.  How many names have you had?  Perhaps you have been a Parent, Grandparent, Aunt or Uncle.  Maybe you have been a student, a soldier, or named by some profession.  Maybe you had a nickname as a child.  Perhaps you are known as a member of this church, a Christian, or just someone seeking to follow Jesus.  Whatever you have been or will be – a name is more often given to you than created by you.

Sure, we "make a name for ourselves," but that name has little currency outside of the perception of others.  That is why Jesus re-named Simon as Peter, to make the inward transformation undeniable to the outside world.  That's what also makes Jesus' baptism so remarkable.  For most people baptism meant accepting the authority of the teacher and taking on a new identity, but not for Jesus. His name means justice.  Instead of re-naming, John began proclaiming, describing, and acknowledging, "Here he is – the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world!"

Now here we are, the Body of Christ in the world.  Here we are balanced between the angst of feeling like our labor has been in vain and the knowledge that we, like the church in Corinth, have been "enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among us— so that we are not lacking in any spiritual gift as we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ."

How, then, do we tip the scale so that we are no longer walking a tight rope but falling into the safe embrace of the God of love, compassion, and mercy?  That seems to be a better question than, "How do we grow the church?"  I've been reading books about this, talking to colleagues, and going to seminars for quite a while now.  Given the fact that I grew up in the church during a period of decline, church growth is a topic that has been a part of my entire experience as a Christian.

Earlier this week I found some answers, or perhaps some good questions, when an elder and I took communion to the Gary's.  Willy and Rita are delightful people!  Whether you know them or not, I encourage you to call them or send them a card to let them know you care.  We talked about the way things were, who has died, who has not, and they told me about joining the church.  There were two particular insights they offered that I think we need to think about.  The first is that they joined the church because the church named and claimed them.  Rita said it this way, "Everybody was so nice that it just wasn't a question.  We had to join!"  Willy was more stoic, and he offered the second gem of wisdom.  "I guess the church was just the place where people went to be together.  It's not like that anymore."  Books upon books have been written to say just that, and I believe it comes down to this – we can not be the Body of Christ simply by coming to church and waiting for something dramatic to happen.  We, like the Psalmist, must sing a new song.  We must be like Andrew who went to get his brother because he listened when Jesus said, "Come and see."

You see, at this point, most people know who (or at least where) we are.  We are a 135 year old, land mark congregation.  Some people will come to us because of that, but unless we allow the experience of community we have here to spill into the streets and invade our lives the song remains the same.  The song that never changes is the song of tragedy and predetermined fate.

Tragedy is a part of human existence.  Though we celebrate social change, racism still impacts our community.  Though we congratulate those limited successes in places of disaster, there is more work to do in Haiti and here at home in the gulf.  Floods continue in Australia and Brazil, and violence breaks out on street corners for politicians and nobodies all at once in every city in our nation.

There is a song called "40" by the rock group U2 based on the Psalm of the same name.  The group was forged in the social conflicts of Belfast Ireland, and there are incredible live recordings of thousands chanting into the night, "I will sing, sing a new song...How long, must we sing this song?" 

I say we sing forever!  I say that we can not sing this song by ourselves.  I say that we must be compelled by our faith in Jesus Christ to invite and show others the reality of God in our midst, or we will not be compelling.  The buzz word in popular Christianity is relevant.  Is the church relevant?  I would suggest that if you have to ask that question then the answer is no.

Is this church relevant to the average college student, to a parent with young children, to someone struggling to be clean and sober, to a single mom, to a person who works third shift, to a platform worker, a corporate staffer, or the busboy at your restaurant?  No, but Jesus Christ is.  We don't need to worry about being relevant.  We need to worry about being compelled.  Even the most beautiful song will die in the night after the band leaves the stage.  What matters is not the melody, but the transformation we experience through it.

Ours is no scripted story of tragedy.  Ours is an unfolding reality in which the author of life has given us a pen.  Still, left to our own devices, we will probably end up with only one end.  It is when we place our hand in the hand of the Master Playwright that we find our story truly written.  That is the place of transformation, and it may take you places you do not want to go. I know members who have done this and ended up visiting others in hospital rooms, sorting through other people's junk in search of things to share, paying a neighbor's utility bill, and visiting with families that need supervision.  There is just no way to know where God will take you until you are there.

Ours is not to determine the course of the unnameable God.  Ours is to experience the indwelling of God's presence through worship, study, and acts of mercy and kindness that demonstrate the love we have received!  The people we have been called to reach out to will not come and beat down those doors, and our invitation to join will not be compelling unless we are compelled to experience God's presence in the midst of pain and suffering.  For then, and only then, can we truly be the Body of Christ, the sacrificial Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

Only then can we sing a song that is new.  Only then will we sing a new song to the Lamb, who is slain again and again and again for you and for me, and to the glory of God.  Amen.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I'm Not Dead Yet

First Presbyterian Church – Lafayette, Louisiana
Baptism of Our Lord, Year A – January 9, 2010

Isaiah 42:1-9
Romans 6:1-11
Matthew 3:13-17
This past Sunday was a busy one!  We celebrated Communion, remembered the Baptism of the Lord, and installed and ordained a new class of Officers for Session.  Prior to the service, the Baptismal Font was placed in the back of the sanctuary.  After reading the Gospel Lesson I shuffled through my stack of papers, appearing to have misplaced my sermon. 

I'm sorry… something is missing.  (I moved back down toward my seat.)  This is kind of embarrassing.  (I looked behind the communion table.) No, it's not here.  I mean the bread and juice are not here yet, but they will come in during the Doxology. (I went up and over to the lectern.) No, it's not the Bible… let's see.  We have the pulpit and the table, word and sacrament.  What am I missing here?  Can anyone tell me what is missing?

(A few uncomfortable guesses were mumbled until someone acknowledged the place of the Baptismal Font.)

The Font!  Of course!  On the Sunday we remember the baptism of our Lord we need the Font!  Truly we need it every Sunday, for it stands as a reminder of the covenant of grace offered to us through Jesus Christ. 

(I walked down to the place where the font normally resides.) 

The Baptismal Font is not missing.  It has been moved to the back of the Sanctuary.  As you leave today you are invited to stop by the Font, place your hand in the water, and take a glass pebble to remind you of the waters of baptism.  This is not the same as the Roman Catholic tradition of Holy Water.  There is no priestly blessing or salvific property of the basin or the water therein. 

For we believe in the Reformed tradition that recognizes baptism, and the salvation it acknowledges, first and foremost as God's action.  All that we do in our lives from that point forward is simply a response to God's unconditional love and acceptance.  That's why I am so fond of telling people that I do not remember my baptism.

In the past I have felt a little jealous of my more congregationalist brothers and sisters who can tell great tales of their acceptance of Christ and the moment(s) of their baptism.  That's a good thing to be able to tell people about, but at some point it clicked that my story is no less incredible… because 2,000 years ago a man began the tradition that was to become Christian baptism… because that same man became the ultimate demonstration of God's love… because that same man promised me that I would be loved and forgiven before I needed to be… because my parents and my faith community surrounded me and made promises to me from infancy that would be fulfilled in my lifetime by the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the very universe!

(I returned to the pulpit.)

The promises of God fulfilled – that's what Isaiah talked about. "See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them."  But what is he really talking about?  Some have said that he is talking about Jesus.  Maybe he is, but to what end?  I believe it is so that we can know who we are.  I believe these words exist as a mirror for the church as the Body of Christ to see itself in.

So we, like so many others after the holidays, look into the mirror of scripture to see what kind of shape we are in.  The scriptures we have today offer a look inside and a look outside.  Paul's words to the Romans may even be like a new dietary choice – a bit hard to swallow.  Oh sure, we know we are supposed to be good people, but this is taking it a step further.  This is a command to burry anything selfish and only be oriented by those things that matter to God.  Can a person filled with base desires and physical limitations (as we all are) do this?

It kind of reminds me of that old prayer, "Oh Lord, I've done pretty well so far today. I haven't gossiped. I haven't lost my temper. I haven't been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent. I'm very thankful for that. But in a few minutes, Lord, I'm going to get out of bed, and from then on I'm probably going to need a lot more help."  Perhaps a better one is the one that hangs in my office that was cross-stitched by my Great-Aunt Helen.  It reads, "Oh Lord, I shall be pretty busy today.  I may forget Thee, but do not Thou forget me." 

Now, admittedly, my first thought in reaction to Paul's plea to be dead to sin, or rather his claim that through our baptism we are, was not about a prayerful response.  It was about a Monty python Skit.  Many will recall the classic scene in the movie "The Holy Grail" that mimics the mass casualties of the plagues of Medieval Europe.  There is a man with a cart collecting the dead.  Another man approaches him with an older man over his shoulder who protests with, "I'm not dead yet!  I don't want to go onto the cart."

Somehow, when it comes to letting go of my deepest and darkest failings, I often respond to Christ in that same way.  The man continues to protest, "I feel happy!"  When he obviously is not.  Unfortunately he gets clubbed in the head and added to the pile.

Sometimes it seems that God has to handle me the same way, but truly I know that it is not because God requires my suffering.  It is because I do.  It is because every day offers opportunities to die and rise in Jesus Christ, and because of Christ's baptism we are able to die to sin and rise in faithfulness.

I mentioned earlier that this is all a part of an internal process and an external response.  It is about putting ourselves in a position to respond, or becoming a part of the righteousness of God.  It is also about responding, or becoming a part of God's work for justice in the world.

Today we will install and elect a new class of elders, and I can't think of a better example of justice and righteousness than that.  I don't mean to say that these folks are better, or more faithful, than anyone else.  Truly they are simply fulfilling one of the expectations of membership that every confirmed, transferred, and reaffirmed member agrees to when they join the church. 

What is significant is not their commitment to the church, but God's!  So, as we install and ordain officers and as we celebrate Holy Communion, let us reaffirm with great joy our own commitment to the church.  This is the time and this is the place to set our hearts and minds on the work of God in this world through Jesus Christ.  But unless we take the sanctifying acts of Baptism and Communion and turn them into demonstrations of love and acts of mercy, we are not dead to our sins and we are simply waiting on the cart to take us away.  Amen.

The sermon was followed directly by the installation of Officers.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Are you pretending to be God?

A day or so ago my 4 year old son asked me a strange question just before dinner.  He said, "Daddy, are you pretending to be God?"  I was caught off guard a little.  God language is prevalent in our home, but we have always been clear that we don't pretend to be God.  We haven't had a need for that discussion in a while, so I had no idea where he was coming from.  "No. Why do you ask?", was my reply.  "Because God always gives us good things to eat."

How cool is that?  I get so caught up in the doing of things and often think that it is all up to me.  Yet I teach my children to give thanks to God for every little thing.  Psalm 147:7-9 from this morning's daily lectionary reading reminds me of the source of all that is.

 [7]  Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
        make melody to our God on the lyre.
 [8]  He covers the heavens with clouds,
        prepares rain for the earth,
        makes grass grow on the hills.
 [9]  He gives to the animals their food,
        and to the young ravens when they cry.
 [10] His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
        nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
 [11] but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
        in those who hope in his steadfast love.
At the same time, I am aware that Paul tells us in his letters to be imitators of Christ.  Christian forbearers like Teresa of Avila remind us that Christ has no hands now on earth but ours.  So, in a way, yes - we do pretend to be God.  Or perhaps, through Christ we realize that we are a part of God, and our actions may be those of God.  But only when we recognize God as the source of every good and wonderful blessing. And only when we move from reverence into presence.

I think that changes everything.  Even the task of cooking a meal and providing care for someone we love.  Even the desire to move beyond those we love and care for those we don't want to.

So, have fun.  Be encouraged.  Let your life be a song of thanksgiving! Go on... just pretend you are God, or better yet - believe that you are God's, holy and beloved.