The Holy Name of Jesus
The federal government tracks a lot of information, including “The Top 10 Baby Names” for any given year.[i]For baby girls, currently the most popular name is Olivia, followed by Emma, then Charlotte, Amelia, Ava, Sophia… and on it goes. For baby boys, currently the most popular name is Liam, followed by Noah, then Oliver, Elijah, James, William… and on it goes.
The naming of a baby is no accident, don’t you know? The child’s given name or names may be the continuation of a family’s heritage, or the opposite: a sign of a family’s wanting to start afresh with the birth of this child. The child’s name may express identity, or dignity, or hope, or gratitude. Sometimes names demarcate a family’s history. One of my nephews has a middle name “Taif,” which is Saudi Arabian, because he was born while his father (my brother) was working in the Persian Gulf. We are known, remembered, identified, and called by name.
As children grow up, they will name their belongings, and they will be in relationship with everything they name. Children will often take on new, imaginary names for themselves, and with the names, new exploratory identities. I remember one summer as a young camper far away from home, I told all my cabin buddies that they should call me “Butch,” because I was tough. (That’s probably hard to imagine….) It worked pretty well for a week at camp, but my new identity disappeared when I returned home to face my little brother. He certainly did not know me as “Butch”; he was still struggling to simply say “Curtis” or “Curt,” which he could not pronounce. What he could say was “Dirt.” “Hi Dirt!”, which hardly suited someone trying to be “Butch.” For names to last, they need to fit.
When I was a child, I learned a song about Zaccheus. I won’t sing it for you, but the words went like this:
Zaccheus was a wee little man; a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see…
The fascination of the story for children, of course, is that this small but important man clamored up a tree to get a better look at the popular preacher who had come to town. He was curious and determined, and he didn’t let his small stature deter him from realizing his goal.
We can picture him running ahead of the crowd, climbing into a tree, and looking down the road as Jesus approached. He hides himself among the leaves, wanting to see the prophet, but not expecting to be seen by him. And yet this is exactly what happens. Jesus stops the procession, looks up into the branches, and summons Zaccheus to come down. He already knows who Zaccheus is – not only that he is a tax collector, but that he is a chief tax collector – but he also perceives that there is far more to this little man than what his title and role might suggest. Perhaps he senses Zaccheus’ present dissatisfaction with his life, or perhaps he recognizes his hunger for God. Whatever it is, he sees something and invites Zaccheus to a life-changing conversation.
The Blessed Virgin Mary, God-Bearer
Jesus’ story about the widow and the judge is one of his parables. This is a made-up story Jesus told, which is to say it did not really happen. Except that it did happen. Every day.
Widows were everywhere, and most of them were dirt poor. The Old Testament prophets and the early church continually named the suffering widows because their needs were as great as their numbers. They were as common as chattel, and often treated the same on the streets and in the courts. The Hebrew word referring to a widow literally means “an empty house.” No one home; nowhere to belong. You will know about this emptiness if you have been widowed… or, for that matter, if you have been orphaned from your parents; or separated from people, or places, or things where you belonged… or never belonged; or if you intercede for other people who live with estrangement, poverty and injustice in our suffering world.
Which is why parables are comparable, because they imply a comparison, an analogy, an elaboration, or an illustration.[i] So how is Jesus’ parable comparable to your own life, or to your life’s concerns? How is this your story? How is Jesus’ parable about the suffering and importunate widow and the jaded judge – the ultimately-converted judge – your story? What does Jesus’ parable invite from you and your own needs, or your concerns for others? The answer is yours.
This parable is surely an invitation to cry out our hearts, and bang on the gates of heaven. Jesus’ parable invites and provokes that. And if God-the-judge seems too intimidating, or too distant, or too much of a male for you to safely cry out your heart, then tell the Blessed Virgin Mary, who seems to have God’s ear.
[i] The New Testament Greek word parabolē, means, literally, “that which is tossed alongside,” implying a comparison, an analogy, an elaboration, or an illustration. From “Biblical Parables” by Fred B. Craddock in Interpretation; Luke (John Knox Press, 1990; pp. 108-110.
Today’s Gospel reading is an uncomfortable one for us to hear.
A trusted servant mishandles his master’s property. After being caught, he worries that he will have to labor or beg to support himself. So he plans to ingratiate himself with his master’s debtors, ensuring he will find a warm welcome after he departs his master’s service. And his master, perhaps acknowledging the clever scheme, commends his dishonest servant.
And Jesus commends this story to his disciples, and us: “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
It is uncomfortable to hear that we should be more like the dishonest manager. But if we strip away all the details of this story—the manager’s dishonesty, opportunism, and abuse of authority—what remains? A man finds himself in trouble, reflects on and names his desire, and works to achieve it. If you’ve ever set a goal for yourself, I’ll bet this script sounds familiar.
Our Gospel this morning centers on Herod the ruler. Herod is not doing well. He is perplexed. He is hearing all sorts of things about Jesus. He has no idea who Jesus really is or what Jesus is capable of. Jesus might be a serious threat to his power. This scares Herod.
At the end of our Gospel this morning, Herod makes an important decision. Herod decides he has heard enough about Jesus and now wants to see Jesus directly. While I do not recommend modeling your life on Herod, there is something we can learn from what he does here. I firmly believe we can always learn something from someone we consider evil or toxic, and Herod is no exception.
Like Herod, we are all going to hear all sort of things about Jesus. This is especially true if you go to church or are like me and live in a monastery. I hear about Jesus all the time. As good as that is, at a certain point, like Herod, we all want to cut through the noise and meet Jesus directly.
On September 1, we entered the Season of Creation. This Season is a time to renew our relationship with our Creator and all creation through celebration, conversion, and commitment together. During the Season of Creation, we join our ecumenical family in prayer and action for our common home. Learn more about Creation Season, our practices for keeping the Season at the Monastery, and how you might pray this Season at home >
In our lesson from Genesis, we hear the second half of a story. The first part, which we heard last week, is more familiar which Abraham welcomes three strangers, prepares a feast for them, and hears a promise God to which Sarah laughs.[i] Here we continue as three guests move on, and God and Abraham have a serious after-dinner conversation, one-on-one. Many translations, including the one we use, say Abraham is standing before God as in previous visits. Some scholars point out, remarkably and uncomfortably, that God is standing before Abraham.[ii] It’s a shocking reversal of power, position, relationship and an unusual conversation.
The psalm appointed for our liturgy, Psalm 51, is an intensely personal lament expressed by David, the magnificent King of Israel whose character is so terribly flawed. He is owning up here to abusing his power and for being both an adulterer and a murderer when he prays:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin…
Tradition has it that King David is the author of Psalm 51, which we have just prayed. What’s significant here is not that David prays these words of Psalm 51, but that we do, and throughout the year, even if we are not adulterers and murders. For our own quite personal reasons, we can relate to the lamentful words of this psalm. Of the 150 psalms, about one third are psalms of lament, expressing to God sorrow, or grief, or rage, or regret. Sometimes it is we who lament being in the wrong; sometimes the lament is from our being a victim of someone else’s wrong; and sometimes it’s a kind of tragic bad blend of things, a collusion. A prayer of lament is usually a mess, when life is a mess.
My brother Michael used to live in Manchester in northern England. I went to stay with him one August during a heat wave. His apartment was hot and claustrophobic, and the city felt suffocating. So, one day we just took off. We got on the little pay train which wound its way slowly, out of the city and up, up into the glorious Peak District. The train stopped at a tiny station surrounded by magnificent hills. We got out and we climbed and climbed for several hours till we reached the top of the highest hill, Kinder Scout. We were exhausted, but wonderfully exhilarated. We drank in the cool air in great thirsty gulps, and as we breathed we felt quite intoxicated, and I remember we started leaping around, and shouting and laughing with sheer joy. Way below us a couple of hikers looked up, and I think they probably thought we were drunk!
Today is the Day of Pentecost. On this day the gift of divine power came to the disciples, and there was no mistaking it; for it was accompanied by an experience which pounded their senses. Divine power was invading them. An intense, ‘catastrophic’ experience. A rushing wind, tongues of fire, a power beyond human lives invading human lives. Perhaps the disciples started leaping around, as extraordinary words came out of their mouths. Certainly, others thought they must be drunk!
1 Corinthians 3:10—14
The Church Pension Fund publishes an infamous yearly calendar, notable for its lighthearted, if not “punny,” cartoons centered on scenes one might encounter in the church. If you hang around Episcopal circles long enough, you’ll come across it, I promise you.
One cartoon appears year after year (as far as I can tell) and it always grabs my attention. Its content is a simple scene. The rector of a church of shown addressing, very matter-of-factly, three young acolytes in the following way: “In observance of the Triduum, our sacristans and our verger with gather in the narthex with lucifer in hand, ready to extinguish the tabernacle light near the aumbry, prior the all night [sic] watch in the columbarium following the Maundy Thursday liturgy. Got it?” Two of the acolytes are noticeably perplexed, looking as if they had just received instructions in ancient Greek or advanced calculus. The third acolyte reassures them, whispering, “Don’t worry, stick with me. I speak Episcopalian.”
Whether you’re new to the Episcopal Church or a cradle Episcopalian, you have probably noticed just how much jargon gets thrown around in Episcopal circles. It is part of our charism; something that identifies us as Episcopalians. Indeed, something we Episcopalians tend to treasure. If you look on the front page of your bulletin, near the top you’ll find one such example in the form of the word “rogation.”
In my early days of church life, when I began thinking maybe this church could be part of my life and I could be part of its life, I remember that for many years, I had no idea what this word, “rogation,” meant. At first glance, this English child of the Latin word rogare, or, “to ask,” might pass us by as just another example of that idiosyncrasy many of us have come to treasure about the Episcopal Church. Another anachronism, a word homeless and out of time, part of a whole collection of eccentricities around music, prayer books, church furniture, bells, and smells.
But “rogation” is not simply some quaint linguistic oddity. Rogation can bring the church perineal invitations to rise to her vocation and examine the foundations of her ongoing building project. In many ways, this is perhaps her fundamental vocation: asking.
Historically, the church has set aside the three days leading up to the Ascension as special times of prayer for the protection of crops and harvests, marked by processions on the land from which the human being was formed and continually fed. This little season within a season marked the significance of human agricultural labors, and the knife’s edge communities often walked, knowing well the deadly consequences of failed harvests.
But we, gathered here in Cambridge, and many of us joining online, don’t likely live in such close proximity to the labors that bring food from the earth. Unless we routinely grow out own food, we are likely quite separated from the kind of historical relationship much of humanity has had with farming.
The provision of three collects for Rogationtide anticipate this, however. Consider the wording of the collect prayed today: Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Note the words like “industries” and “commerce.”
Here is another collect for Rogationtide, and to highlight just how different these collects can be from one another, let’s hear it as it appeared in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer,
Almighty God, Lord of heaven and earth, in whom we live, move and have our being, who does good unto all men, making thy sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sending rain on the just and the unjust; favourably behold us thy people, who do call upon thy name, and send us thy blessing from heaven, in giving us fruitful seasons, and filling our hearts with food and gladness; that both our hearts and mouths may be continually filled with thy praises, giving thanks to thee in thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This collect definitely smells of the countryside.
So what are we to make of this little season, living as we do in the 21st century west with the impending crisis of climate emergency? Should the absence of explicitly agricultural imagery force our hand—should we admit that rogation is, in the end, an anachronism?
To this question, the lectionary seems to answer, “no.”
You may have noticed, each of the readings for today contain not a single agricultural image. Paul exhorts each member of the church to an honest self-examination of the foundations upon which their lived spirituality is built. The imagery is architectural.
The portions we hear from Matthew’s summary of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are equally lacking any explicit references to farming or seeds or sowers. The imagery is even harder to pin down. Instead, we are told yet again to ask of ourselves:
Where is my treasure?
Where, then, is my heart?
How is my vision?—is the eye of my heart healthy?
Which master do I really serve? God? Or wealth?
We are reading a new book in the refectory during our corporate meals— Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. What I love about this book (aside from the artistry of its composition and Debbie Blue’s penetrating prose) is the way her exploration of the biblical portrayal of birds has reminded me of the importance of looking, really looking, again and again at what St. Augustine called “the Book of Nature.”
By inviting us to think again about the many and varied ways our human interpretation of birds can teach us, Blue brings into clear focus the bible’s ceaseless insistence that God has given us the gift of otherness as a means to teach us, and as a place for encounter with God. The otherness of birds and beasts to humans; the otherness of people to people, particularly the stranger and the guest. Here, the reality constantly confronting us in the color and song of birds or the difference of a person who does not view the world we do, invites the church to discern her true foundations, her true treasure. And if she cannot—if her eye is unhealthy and her body full of darkness—Rogationtide provides a reminder that she must ask God for the gift of her heart’s true treasure. And she asks for this gift not simply for the sake of successful harvests, but for the healing of the whole of creation.
For the people baptized into Christ’s dying and rising, this means a participation in the paschal mystery, of life laid down to be taken up again. For Jesus is the church’s true treasure. Jesus is the foundation she must constantly seek, asking God to build her faith on nothing less. Not her idiosyncrasies or anachronisms, her liturgies or prayer books, her buildings or furniture.
And so in this little season within a season, those members of Christ’s body who do not live in such intimate proximity to land and harvests are invited to ask Jesus to show them where they have built their foundations. Indeed, the asking nature of Rogationtide is a two way enterprise: God asks us, and we then ask God.
Take these days before the Ascension to ask God to renew the imagination of the church and to build up the Body so that it might rise to the present crisis. To learn from people and bodies and stories and creatures we often disregard.
There, Jesus—risen, glorified, wounded, will meet us in the midst of life, in the midst of our asking. If our foundations will be revealed, as Jesus said, with fire, may it be then be fire of God’s mercy and love, not the fire of our own refusal to ask. For maybe, just maybe, that is the church’s fundamental vocation: to ask.
Tuesday in Easter 6