In my mid-twenties I worked for a non-profit agency in Boston’s Chinatown. The mission of the organization was to offer educational and social services to new Chinese immigrants and their families. Though generously supported by a base of donors, largely Chinese-American Christians, our budget was always tight. As the director of the organization’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, I had just finished the long process of completing and submitting a complicated grant application that would give us access to some state funding. We did not receive the grant, and I was crest-fallen as I went into my regularly scheduled performance review with our executive director and founder – a charismatic, successful pillar of the community who had emigrated forty years ago. She worked her way through a long list of things she felt I could be doing differently. With each item, I began to feel a gathering energy of discouragement, like yeast molecules feeding on sugars of self-doubt and inadequacy. When she finally paused, I took a deep breath and asked – Was there anything she felt I was doing well? She let out an astonished laugh. “Everything! Your work is excellent!” I saw her face shift and her eyebrows furrow as she reasoned aloud that this must be a cultural difference. She took for granted that I knew what I was doing well. She had seen plenty of grant opportunities come and go, and had intended her feedback only to leaven my sense of resolve for the future by pinpointing areas for growth. After losing the grant, for which I felt personally responsible, I had needed a different kind of yeast: a balanced assessment that included reminders of my strengths, and her confidence in me, in order to make my dough rise.
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Luke 2:41-52
When I was in sixth grade, I got to take the second major journey of my young life. By major I mean, pack a bag and get on an airplane which is very exciting for a young boy. The first trip was the summer before my first-grade year to the strange and mysterious land of Ohio where my Mom’s cousin lived. When we had crested the clouds, I asked my mom if we were in heaven, a question that she remembered fondly her whole life. The second trip was even more exotic! California. My father was the assistant band director of a successful high school band program that had been invited to perform in the 1984 Rose Parade in Pasadena. I was halfway through my sixth-grade year and since the parade was on New Year’s Day and the trip fell on winter break, my parents thought it would be a great experience if I could go. Mom stayed behind as Dad took me to California with his students and colleagues. Naturally, one of the most anticipated parts of the trip for me was the day we spent at Disneyland, the original park conceived in the imagination of animation and fantasy pioneer, Walt Disney. It was here that my father had one of the scariest experiences of his life.
All of the high school band kids were to be in groups of five while in the theme park and had a midday check-in with chaperones at a specific location. To give me a little freedom and perhaps my father a break, I was assigned to a group of high school kids. They all wanted to go on Space Mountain. However, having never been on a roller coaster before, I was afraid and did not want to ride. So, I turned around and went to wait at the exit. It was at that point I got separated from my group and began to wander around the park on my own. As I remember it, I did not panic because it was not long before I found another group from our school to hang out with. When my original group checked in at their assigned time and location, I was not with them and they had no idea where I was. My new group had already had their check-in time. So, I was never truly accounted for. My father was beside himself with worry. There was no telling what evil lurking about this park would be looking for a susceptible youngster to harm. Would my father be able to find me or would I be the newest face on a milk carton that was iconic of that era. Eventually, I was found by my father and spent the remaining couple of hours allotted in the park with him. By the grace of God, we got back to our home in Appalachia, all present and accounted for and the trip went down in our memories as one of most amazing experiences of our lives.
This morning’s gospel reminds me a little of my father’s telling of that experience. Mary, Joseph, and their son had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover Festival with a group of people whom they were familiar. When the festival was over, they all began their journey back to Nazareth. Mary and Joseph thought Jesus was with others designated as chaperones in the caravan. When they stopped after a day’s journey and realized their son was not where he was supposed to be, panic set in. They headed back to Jerusalem on their own wondering if they would be able to find Jesus and worried about what evil was lurking about the city looking for a susceptible youngster to harm. Can you imagine the panic, desperation, and fear they must have felt? The gospel writer of Luke says that after three days of searching, they found Jesus. Where did they find him? Not in a Jerusalem back-alley, having fallen prey to people of questionable repute, but none other than in the Temple among teachers. For the Passover season it was the custom for the Sanhedrin to meet in public in the Temple court to discuss, in the presence of all who would listen, religious and theological questions. ‘Hearing and asking questions’ is the regular Jewish phrase for a student learning from his teachers.[i] Jesus was twelve years old and would have been at the cusp of adulthood in Jewish culture. Perhaps this is why Mary and Joseph undertook this momentous pilgrimage with Jesus to Jerusalem for the Passover. It is likely that this was a part of the customary rite of passage for a boy in Judaism. Was Jesus like the typical twelve-year old boy, hearing only half of what was said to him, ignoring or missing instructions, lost in wonder in the big city? Or do we get a glimpse of a newly recognized young adult, taking the reins of responsibility for his life, breaking free of the bonds of familial ties and recognizing the first fruits of his vocational call?
The exchange between Jesus and his parents in the Temple points to the fact that the answer to both questions is ‘yes.’ Mary admonishes her son, probably feeling the intense mixture of relief and anger, the output of love and concern for her first-born. ‘Why have you treated us this way? Your father and I have been scared to death!’ In my imagination, this scolding interrupts the discussions, inviting curiosity among those in the Temple. The gospel writer states that all who heard Jesus were amazed both at his questions as well as his understanding and answers. This young lad was prodigious in a way that none of his elders had experienced in another his age. When his humble parents burst in on the scene exasperated by all that was taking place, I imagine you could hear a pin drop as those gathered observed with curiosity not people of means and high education, but rather a modest carpenter and his wife from a town most notable for being on ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ You may recall that scene from the gospel of John when Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathaniel replies incredulously, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”[ii]
I do not imagine Jesus’ answer to Mary and Joseph disrespectful or as flippant as we may read into it. Certainly, in our youth we have all experienced a scolding with our retort in questionable tone, “….but Mom?!” However, I can see the wheels of revelation and self-discovery in Jesus’ mind as he is coming into full acceptance as to the identity of his ‘real’ father. We all know that children can be brutal in their honesty and at times take on the opinions they have heard their parents discuss. Jesus may have already experienced the taunts of friends who have caught wind that this small family had developed out of the bounds of traditional marriage. Jesus very well was coming into the knowledge that Mary was indeed his mother, but Joseph…? Joseph may have been his ‘dad,’ but he was not his father. Jesus response to his Mother’s question was direct and honest. “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” In a sense Jesus is saying, “Mom, I’m okay. I have come home. Why did you not look for me here first?” Luke says that his parents (and perhaps all that were ease-dropping on this exchange) did not understand what he was saying.
I find this curious since from the very beginning, Mary and Joseph knew perhaps more than anyone who their child was. Countless dreams and angel visitations had occurred telling them what was to happen, who this child was and was to become, giving counsel as to how best to protect this precious boy who was to be the target of the powerful. While they had every right to be concerned for their son, we behold them at a pivot and transition in their lives. Jesus was coming into the knowledge of his identity;[iii] Mary and Joseph were learning twelve years after the birth of this special boy, that his miraculous conception had not been a mere dream. The star of Bethlehem that had guided so many to witness the birth of Jesus, was now guiding Jesus himself into full revelation of his vocation and identity, one step at a time until he would be ready to initiate his public ministry.
So, what does this all mean for us today? Well I imagine that we could pray with this scripture in at least two ways. First, we could pray about our own search for Jesus. In a world that is unpredictable, unsafe, and seems filled with evil looking to exploit and harm the most vulnerable, we could wonder where in the world is Jesus in all this? While we may have many wonderful experiences in our life, I would say we all recognize that goodness is not static. We know there is suffering, malice, hate, greed, fear, and evil lurking about. Sometimes we feel like we experience this more acutely than others leaving us with questions as to why. Many of us are following the proverbial star of Bethlehem, searching for Jesus frantically, with the hopes of familial comfort, love, safety, and nurture that comes with being in community and with the one who knows us so intimately. It is no mistake that Jesus can be found here not only in the faces of those who sit next to us, but in a piece of bread put into our hands and a sip of wine from a shared chalice; Jesus body and blood nourishing and sustaining us back to health and wholeness.
We could also pray with this scene from Luke imagining Jesus searching desperately for us. You are the apple of God’s eye. You are his beloved, created by God, for the love of God, for relationship with God. In our temptation to be in control, we separated ourselves from God, becoming susceptible to evil lurking about, (and in the words of 1 Peter) seeking someone to devour.[iv] In this place, this beautiful church, you can be assured that you have come home and have been found by God in Jesus. As you come forward in a few moments and lift your hands to receive the gift of bread and wine, you can be assured that you have found your true identity and to whom you belong. In this place we can know that we are among family and in the midst of an uncertain world, claim that we have been found and marked safe. This is good news.
[i] Barclay, William. The Gospel of Luke. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Print.
[ii] John 1:43-46
[iii] Wright, Tom. Luke for Everyone. London: SPCK, 2001. Print
[iv] 1 Peter 5:8
God is doing a new thing.
Jesus has just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. The crowd gathered at Bethany beholds something so powerful at work in Jesus that it astonishes them. A man, verifiably dead and decaying, emerges from his tomb at the voice of Jesus; a work so vivid and undeniable that some are convinced by the truth they see in him, and they believe. The power to give life is the sole property of God, and God alone. This man, Jesus from Galilee, must against all our own judgement be whom he claims to be, truly sent by the One he names ‘Father.’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Others, however, cannot cope with what they have just seen. Jesus has done something that only the Lord of Israel has the power to do. And because Jesus meets none of their preexisting messianic criteria, the event they have just witnessed presents them, along with the leadership at Jerusalem, with a crisis.
God is doing a new thing.
Two things we hear from Jesus in this Gospel lesson are eye opening. For one, Jesus relentlessly shares meals with notorious “sinners.” Sitting at table with someone, sharing a meal, is a “socially intimate” experience. There’s a sameness between everyone at the table: the same setting, at the same time, eating the same food, feeding the same needs we all have. Jesus sits at table with “sinners and tax collectors,” which is code language for the dregs of society, with whom Jesus is very glad to share a meal and to share life. (If you are sometimes a member of the dregs, welcome home.) And then Jesus alludes to his like a physician: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus presumes we are unwell. We are not fine and dandy, thank you. We are unwell, Jesus presumes. There’s something about our own life that is significantly damaged, broken, unmanageable, scarred, fearful, or traumatized that needs healing. We’ll need the healing care of Jesus, the physician, for the rest of our life. Our need is that great. Jesus presumes this.
Secondly, Jesus’ taking on the role of physician tells us about the nature of God’s judgment. We are unwell. We cannot heal ourselves. We go to a physician, first to receive a diagnosis. A diagnosis is a judgment. A diagnosis is a physician’s judgment based on what we report and what the physician sees, and hears, and feels in his or her examination of us. The physician draws on their training and experience to determine that this is what is wrong with you, in their judgment. And then you would want your physician to prescribe some treatment that will enable your healing and wholeness. In their judgment, this remedy will save you. This remedy will be a salve to your woundedness. And you would also have every hope – given that you are sick and therefore quite vulnerable, perhaps even fearful or ashamed – that your physician would treat you in a kind and merciful way. Jesus is the Great Physician, a great one indeed.
Saint John of the Cross, the 16th-century Spanish friar, said that, in the end, we will be judged by God. And God’s judgment will be a judgment of love.[i]
[i]Saint John of the Cross, OCarm (1542-1591), was a Spanish mystic, and Carmelite friar and a priest.
The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Phillipians 2:5-11 & Luke 2:15-21
After the long months of a pregnancy and the exceedingly dangerous experience of childbirth in the ancient world, bestowing a name upon a child must have been a deeply cathartic action. Even today, in the midst of the profound uncertainty that faces every new life, the moment a child’s name is first spoken aloud in his or presence signifies a new beginning rich with specific potential. The act of circumcision that accompanied – and still accompanies – the naming of a Jewish male child reminded the parents of a larger reality holding their new child in being: the ancient covenant between God and Israel. It situated the child on an axis of meaning both horizontally, in relation to his ancestors and his eventual offspring, as well as vertically, as a frail human creature in relation to the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Under normal circumstances, this was also the child’s first major wounding: the first shedding of blood.
A Name and a Wound. A sign taken upon the lips and tongue, and a sign written upon the body. In any ordinary human life, these are gifts of inexhaustible significance. At the same time they are utterly common, shared by countless others. The Holy Name of Jesus and the first precious drops of Blood spilled from his human body have become fountainheads of meaning for the Church throughout the ages. But contrary to the impression we receive from so many Renaissance paintings, the inner significance of these events would have been entirely hidden to the casual observer. The cosmic task initiated by God through the angel Gabriel is now brought to faithful, obedient completion by Mary and Joseph. But though it was spoken by the lips of an angel, the name Yeshua was, after all, an incredibly common name. The act of circumcision enfolded him into the common life of the Jewish people. The eighth day after the nativity of this special child was a very special day in the life of his human parents. But it was an utterly ordinary day for everyone else.
Growing up, I shared a bedroom with my older brothers, Charlie and Chris. This wasn’t a problem, except when it was. On one occasion, they and their friends decided to play parachute, jumping from the top bunk, where Chris slept, down onto my bed. By the time my mother got home and discovered what we had been up to, my bed was a wreck, and my mother was furious. Needless to say, a new mattress and bedspring had to be purchased in order to make my bed usable again.
More problematic, at least for me, was the closet. As the youngest of the three boys, I went to bed earlier than Charlie and Chris. By the time they came to bed an hour or so later then I, it was usually much darker, and the darkest place of all was the closet directly opposite the foot of my bed. Now, I wasn’t afraid of the dark … well, not much at least. What I was certainly afraid of was the darkness of the closet. It seemed like a great gaping black hole, and I was terrified of it. I thought that I could get lost in that darkness forever. I would only be able to fall asleep again if the closet door was closed. And that was the problem. Either on purpose or accidentally Charlie and Chris would frequently leave the door open and I would have to timidly ask them to close it. By then they too were in bed with the lights out, and they would sometimes refuse to get up and do my bidding, so in fear and trepidation I would either whimper until they did so, or steel up my courage and do it myself, scurrying back to bed as quickly as I could, once the dreaded task was completed.
That was a long time ago, and by now, most of us are too old, or too sophisticated to be afraid of the dark. We no longer need big brothers to protect us from whatever is lurking in the back of the dark closet. We no longer dread falling asleep with the closet door open, with that great gaping darkness threatening to swallow us whole. We’re no longer afraid of the dark … well, not much at least.
Psalm 78:1-6; 1
I presume there are a few of you in the congregation who like me had the experience of growing up an only child. I certainly can attest to the advantages of being an ‘only’ through my observances of family and friends who did not share my experience. For instance, unlike my cousin, I did not have a younger sister who liked to pull my hair or inform my parents of my every move. Unlike my best friend in elementary school, I did not have to wear the ‘hand-me-downs’ from an older sibling. And, contrary to the experience of a college friend, I did not have to live up to the standard set by more virtuous siblings who seemed to do no wrong. I definitely considered these advantages. Yet, even though I enjoyed being an ‘only,’ I did experience some jealousy of my friends with siblings. My mom liked to tell the story of the time when I was 7 or 8 years old when I came to my parents who were sharing a conversation in the kitchen and asked if I could have an older brother! My dad, probably a little amused but letting me down gently said, “I don’t think things work like that, son.” Being resourceful, I had a follow-up question prepared. “Could we adopt one?” Obviously, knowing now how things turned out, they did not work that way either. As I think back to that story from my youth, I wonder what was behind my desire for an older brother?
This evening’s reflection is the first in a three-part series entitled “Lord Jesus, Come Soon,” in which we explore the great ‘O Antiphons’ of the season of Advent. On the last seven days before Christmas, this group of antiphons book-end the Magnificat (The Song of Mary) which is sung every evening at Evensong. Each of them refer to Jesus using an attribute associated with this long awaited Messiah: Emmanuel, Rex gentium, Oriens, Clavis David, Radix Jesse, Adonai, and Sapentia; translated: Emmanuel (meaning “God with us”), King of the Nations, Morning Star, Key of David, Root of Jesse, Lord, and Wisdom. When arranged in a particular order they form a Latin acrostic: Ero cras, which translated means, “Tomorrow, I will come.” This evening we will explore Jesus as ‘Wisdom.’ The text of the antiphon is:
Revelation 3:1-6, 14-22
It’s remarkable that our first lesson, from the Revelation to John, includes one of the most tender passages in the whole of the scriptures. The Book of Revelation, which is so full of nightmarish-like scenes depicting the cosmic battle between good and evil, includes a momentary truce, where we hear these very inviting words attributed to Jesus:
“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking;
if you hear my voice and open the door,
I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”[i]
Where I first learned this passage from scripture was not with my ears but with my eyes: from the painting of William Holman Hunt entitled “The Light of the World.”[ii] You, too, may have been a child when you first saw a reproduction. The original 1850’s painting hangs in the chapel of Keble College at Oxford University. William Holman Hunt produced a later version in 1900, which toured the world and now has its home at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Since that world tour, a century ago, this painting has been reproduced innumerable times in Sunday School papers, in illustrative Bibles, and in devotional literature the world o’er. The painting has also been a source of inspiration for many poets on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson.[iii]
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”1 James and John respond to this in the affirmative, with no further questioning. I wonder if this is an example of loving faith, or naïve foolishness, or both. Regardless, it is reasonable for us to ask, “What is this cup?”
The most obvious answer is that the cup Jesus mentions is a reference to his own death. In the Garden of Gethsemane, in the hours before his arrest, Jesus refers to his impending death as a cup that he desires to pass from his lips.2 If this is the case, Christ’s assertion to the sons of Zebedee that, “The cup that I drink you will drink,” is a truthful one. James becomes a martyr, the first of the Twelve apostles to die, beheaded on the orders of King Herod in Jerusalem.3 John, the Tradition of the Church holds, lives on, the only one of the Twelve not to be martyred, instead spending his days watching his companions meet their deaths, each one a new nail in John’s own inner crucifixion.
I honestly have a lot of trouble hearing today’s passage from Luke’s gospel with anything like fresh ears or an open heart. To be more precise, it is verse five that makes me want to stop listening, cross my arms, and scowl: “Wherever they do not welcome you, leave that town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
That temptation to scowl has a backstory. Plenty of Christians rely on this verse and its companion texts in Mark and Matthew as a way of dismissing non-believers or anathematizing fellow Christians with differing views or practices. When aggressive efforts to evangelize yield no fruit or when believers fail to see how they have strayed from the straight and narrow path, these Christians are licensed to deploy a common, ancient Near Eastern practice – shaking the dust from their feet – as they see fit, in their own contemporary, interpretive warfare. It is a clean and tidy way of making a conversation partner into an opponent. It says, “I’m right, and God is my witness. You’re wrong, and I hope you reconsider.” End of story.
If you have been on the receiving end of such foot-shaking (whether literal or figurative) you will know how it feels to be the object of a unique and pungent blend of condescension, self-righteousness, and false pity. Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I can say with confidence that this technique is excellent at one thing: producing atheists.
So to hear these words spoken by Jesus, my Savior, my beloved, my Lord and my God, I must get out the steel wool. I must strip and scrub all the interpretive detritus from my memory and listen. I must listen long, listen deeply, and with the utmost humility.
Here are some things I think I hear:
Not every command of Jesus to his followers in every instance recorded in the Gospels applies to you and to me. The Resurrection, the Ascension, and the birth of the Church at Pentecost have radically altered our relationship with the kingdom and its requirements of Love. It is indeed beautiful and awesome to hear about the radical trust of the apostles, as they set out with only the clothing on their backs and the power and authority of their Master gleaming in their eyes. But Luke was well aware even by his own time that slavish duplication of the earliest methods of spreading the gospel would be reductionist and simplistic. Scholar François Bovon identifies some core aspects of Christian missionary practice at the center of Luke’s vision: receiving power and authority from the Lord; preaching and healing; the inevitable experiences of both acceptance and rejection; a hospitable house as the center of mission; and the meeting of resistance with perseverance by shaking off the dust. For Luke, these are practices enjoined upon all Christians, before or after Easter.[i] But it is up to us to discover the precise contours of those practices in our lives and our communities.
So if shaking off the dust can be said to apply to us, what might that look and feel like?
Bovon notes that, in its ancient Near Eastern context, the symbolic, non-verbal gesture of shaking dust from one’s feet did not express anger or a desire for revenge, nor was it a curse on an opponent or a claim of triumph over an enemy. It did soberly express the experience of a rupture or divide in a relationship. In Luke’s gospel, it constitutes a “testimony about the other,” rather than a “testimony against the other.”[ii] It could be seen as a non-verbal story intended primarily for God, a narrative enactment of the reality that Love cannot force itself on others. It could be seen as a way of entrusting another to God when he or she, for whatever reason, is unable to accept God’s offer of Love from us personally.
So, shaking off my interpretive baggage, I hear several humbling reminders in Jesus’s injunction to the apostles to shake the dust from their feet. I hear the crucified and risen Christ, covered with the dust of the world for our sake, saying:
Shake off the illusion that you are responsible for meeting the needs of every living creature. Only God knows what each creature truly needs, and will use your help when and as God sees fit. Shake off the need for universal acceptance. Shake off the pain when the Gospel you have to offer is rejected. Shake off the presumption that you have arrived at the correct interpretation of my vast and life-giving Word. Shake off the dust as you rise from the tomb with me. And whatever you do or don’t do with your dusty feet, keep reaching out your hands in Love.
[i]Francois Bovon. Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50. Hermeneia Series. c. 2002, Fortress Press. Pgs.342-344.
[ii]Ibid, p. 346.