Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sermon: "In the Name of Love"

King Street UCC, Danbury CT
January 16, 2011

John was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
John 1:35-37

“In the Name of Love”

John 1:29-42

A name can be a powerful thing.
My father was christened Nicholas Augustus F******.
He was named after his father and his grandfather and his great grandfather before him.
As the fourth generation first born male to be given the name Nicholas, my father had big shoes to fill.
To be called Nicholas he had no choice but to walk in the shadow of the patriarchs that came before him.
Three strong willed, hard working Italian men who expected their sons, their namesakes, to follow in their footsteps and to do them proud.
But my father never had the chance to be a Nicholas.

When he was a baby, his mother took to calling him “Bubby” – a nickname that sprung from her southern upbringing – and she and the rest of the family continued to call him “Bubby” for the first five years of his life.
When it came time to register her son for school my grandmother inadvertently reversed my father’s first and middle names on the registration form.
But when his teachers called him by his middle name "Augustus" - and his friends started calling him "Gus" – my father didn't correct them because he didn't know that his given name was actually Nicholas.  
At home he had always been Bubby.
At five years old my father had been given a new identity.
And he was Gus for the rest of his life.

In many ways my father was spared the pressure of having to live up to his name. When he heard the name Nicholas spoken in his house there was no confusion as to whether it was he who was being referred to, or his father.
As Augustus he was allowed to forge his own identity rather than have one thrust upon him.
In the end he did turn out to be a strong-willed, hard-working man just like his father but he did it without having to drag the weight of a name that tied him to those who came before him.

My father did name his first son Nicholas, and he in turn named his first son Nicholas as well, so the tradition has continued.
But my father will never be a Nicholas to me or to anyone who knew him, he’ll always be Augustus, grandpa Gus, Gus the WWII Navy vet who married Ruth, raised ten children and lived 79 happy years in this world.

A name can be a powerful thing.

A friend of mine from seminary told me a similar story of having been named Jennifer at birth but not realizing it until later in life because her parents always called her by her middle name, Anne. She went through most of her life as Anne until one day as a middle-aged, recovering alcoholic she decided to reclaim the name Jennifer in an effort to create a new identity and leave her past behind.
But when she stood up in her AA meetings and introduced herself as Jennifer she said it didn’t feel right.
She explained, “Anne had this rich history, but Jennifer did not.
At the AA meetings I couldn't introduce myself as Jennifer because Jen wasn't the drunk, Anne was.”

A name can be a powerful thing.

As Anne’s story demonstrates, “Names have memory, history, a story behind them” and it’s hard for us to peel off those layers once they’ve been applied.
Our names become a part of who we are.

With this in mind, imagine what it must have been like for Jesus, when he stumbled upon John the Baptist – a crazy eyed preacher who was dunking his followers beneath the waters of the river Jordan - proclaiming them to be baptized in the name of God.

Jesus was a carpenter’s son from a backwater town called Nazareth.
His family and friends knew him as Yeshua.  
A fairly common Hebrew name which means “God saves.”

The Nativity stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us that Mary and Joseph were instructed to call their son Yeshua, for he was destined to save the people of the world from sin.
The gospel of Matthew also tells us that in fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah Jesus would be known as Immanuel – meaning “God with us.” This was not intended to be Jesus’ name but rather it was a description of the role that Jesus would fill during his time in this world.

But how many people who encountered Jesus in his time knew the true meaning of his name?
For those of us who have the benefit of hindsight, and 2000 years of Christianity under our belt, when we hear the name Jesus we think of only one man, a man whom many of us believe to be fully human yet fully divine. A man whom many of us believe was God incarnated.

But for the first 30 years of his life, Jesus was just another devout Jew, who studied at the feet of learned Rabbis and who most likely drove his elders crazy with his constant questioning and his tendency to push against the boundaries that held him in place.
To everyone apart from his parents, those present at his birth, and a few prophetic voices, Jesus was Yeshua.  And he was no different from the many other Yeshuas that they undoubtedly encountered in their daily comings and goings.

But that changed when this particular Yeshua crossed paths with John the Baptist.
John the Baptist claimed that he had received a revelation from God and in sharing that revelation he applied names to Jesus that must have shocked those standing before him.
When he saw Jesus coming toward him, John declared,
"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God

The Lamb of God, the Son of God.
What thoughts must have run through Jesus’ mind when he heard these names being applied to him?
After John’s proclamation, John’s disciples approached Jesus and endowed him with more names – Rabbi, Teacher, the Messiah, the anointed one. 
For centuries theologians have debated whether Jesus knew who he was when he walked this earth. Did he actually believe that he was the Messiah, God incarnated, THE Son of God, or were these titles thrust upon him by others, in particular by his later followers, and by the authors of the Gospels, who wrote their Jesus stories 40-70 years after his death?

Thankfully, regardless of what WE believe about Jesus’ identity or what we THINK he believed about himself, the story that we heard today from the Gospel of John is not just about that.
This is also a story about naming.

It’s a story that reveals the names that were given to Jesus, and sets the stage for further stories of how he came to live into those names.
It’s a story that lifts up those who became followers of Jesus right there in the flowing waters of the river Jordan simply because they heard those names and believed them to be true.
It’s a story that invites those who still doubt the validity of those names to dig deeper and discover what truths may be revealed about the man we know as Jesus, and what truths may be revealed about ourselves.

A name can be a powerful thing.

As we heard in the text from the Gospel of Matthew that Pastor Cindy preached on last week, like Jesus, God calls us each by name and says,
“This is my child, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

But too often we fail to hear God calling our name because our ears are resounding with the names called out by others, and the names we call ourselves.

St. Teresa of Avila wrote,
"A thousand souls hear God's call every second, but most every one then looks into their life's mirror and says, I am not worthy to leave this sadness."

For most of us, the name we are given at birth is the one that we carry with us throughout our lives.
We had no say in its choosing.
But there are other names that we willingly take on throughout our lives - nicknames, pet names, derogatory names, hurtful names.
Some we have chosen for ourselves, others have been given to us.
Some we joyfully embrace, others cause us to cringe every time we hear them. 
Some lift us up - others tear us down.

Many of us carry the scars of names bestowed upon us through childhood taunts, but just as many of us continue to taunt ourselves whenever we fail, make a mistake, or fall short of the mark that we were expecting to hit.
Like the proverbial playground bully we call ourselves names like “Stupid” “Loser” “Fatso” “Know-it-all” “Ugly” “Weakling” or “Crybaby”
And when we become accustomed to applying those names to ourselves, it becomes much easier to apply those same names to others.

We look in the mirror, and we look at each other, and see not a beloved child of God, but a hated child of God.
We may accept that we are children of God and that God loves us just as we are, but we have such a hard time extending that love to ourselves, and to each other. We find it so much easier to hate.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his book, Strength to Love:
Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity.
Hate destroys a man's sense of values and his objectivity.
It causes him to describe the beautiful as ugly and the ugly as beautiful, and to confuse the true with the false and the false with the true.

When we become obsessed with naming all the deficiencies that we see in ourselves and in others we leave little space for naming the good that we see.

And regardless of what we believe about the Divinity of Jesus, this is the one thing that we can glean from our Gospel text today.
We are called to name what is good.
We are called to notice what is good.
We are called to celebrate what is good.
In ourselves and in each other.
Because the more good that we see and name in this world, the less time we have to name what it is that we hate.

I invite you to take a moment to remember some of the more difficult names you have been called in your life, the names that no matter how long ago they were uttered endure in your memories, weighing you down during the day and haunting you at night.
I ask you to call to mind these names for one painful moment so that you may truly embrace the voice of God when God says, "No! That is not your name. For you are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased."

John the Baptist encountered Jesus and named him the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sin of the world.
Jesus then turned to John’s follower Simon and named him Peter – Cephas in Aramaic, Petra in Greek. Both of which mean Rock.
Jesus said to Simon, a mere human being who lived with constant doubt in his heart, you are a rock, and upon you I will build my church.

John the Baptist looked at a lowly carpenter’s son from Nazareth and saw in him the Son of God.
Jesus looked at a doubtful disciple who would one day deny him three times, and saw in him the foundation of his church.

What do we see when we look at each other?
What do we see when we look in the mirror?
Do we see the deficiencies? Or do we see the promise?

The names that we apply to ourselves and that others apply to us become a part of who we are.
A name can be a powerful thing.
The names we are given or take upon ourselves,
the names that arouse pride or shame,
the names that build us up or tear us down.
But the promise of the Gospel, the good news, is that no matter how powerful our earthly names, they do not define us. What defines us is the name given to us by God alone: the name of beloved child of God.

"A thousand souls hear God's call every second, but most every one then looks into their life's mirror and says, I am not worthy to leave this sadness."

The message of the Gospel is that we ARE worthy to leave that sadness.
The message of Psalm 40 is that God CALLS us to leave that sadness.
For upon hearing our cry God will draw us up from that desolate pit, and set our feet upon a rock, making our steps secure.
 God will put a new song in our mouth and a new name upon our lips.

And as we stand in cold flowing current of the river Jordan, watching the Spirit descend from Heaven as Yeshua receives the name Son of God, we too are called forward to receive our new name.
Child of God.
Disciple of Christ.
Purveyor of the Holy Spirit

Given to us all, by God, in the name of love.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sermon: "Merry Little Christmas"

King Street UCC. Danbury CT
January 2, 2011

Matthew 2:1-12

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
Matthew 2:11

“Merry Little Christmas”

Christmas 2010 is over.
Many of us have already taken down the decorations,
packed away the ornaments, and either dragged the tree out to the curb or stuffed it back in its box for another year.
We’ve stopped wishing each other “Merry Christmas” and instead have switched to wishing each other a “Happy New Year.”

The colored lights, the swatches of red and green, and silver and gold that have decorated our landscapes since Thanksgiving, will soon disappear, leaving behind the whites and grays of just another winter’s day.

That giddy feeling of anticipation that prevailed in the weeks leading up to Christmas has dissipated.
The magical spell which leads strangers to smile at each other, hold doors for one another, and to actually be civil to each other in their daily interactions, has worn off and soon we’ll be back to the standard exchange of impatient glares, judgmental comments, and general crankiness that we reserve for those who invade our space, cut us off in traffic, or keep us from getting where we need to go as fast as we’d like to get there.

Yes, Christmas 2010 is over  - according to our cultural calendar.
But according to the Christian calendar the season of Christmas still lives on.

The celebration of the birth of Christ does not end on Christmas day.
It continues right through to January 6th, the day we traditionally set aside to commemorate the arrival of the Magi – those wise visitors from the East who came bearing gifts for the child King whose birth was announced via the appearance of a guiding star in the heavens.

But in reality since our cultural Christmas begins earlier and earlier each year, with sale ads appearing well before Halloween even arrives, by the time December 26th rolls around we’re ready to have it all over and done with.
We’re ready to pack the whole thing away and get back to our normal routines.
But not everyone is in such a rush to put Christmas behind them.
While we in the Western Church celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th, many Eastern Orthodox churches still follow the older Julian calendar and celebrate Christmas on January 7th. 
So while we’re packing away our decorations and returning to work and school, their celebration is just beginning.

In Ireland, January 6th is known as “Little Christmas” – in recognition of the fact that this is the day the wise men arrived marking the end of the Christmas season.
Also known as “Women’s Little Christmas,” the Irish celebrate this day by honoring the work that women do to prepare for the Christmas holiday.
On January 6th it is the tradition for Irish men to take over all the household chores while the women spend the day in the pubs with their friends.

Alas, we have no such traditions in our country; in fact January 6th often passes by unnoticed even among those of us who attend church on a regular basis. When I was growing up, January 6th was the day that we took down the Christmas decorations, but few of us honor that tradition any more.

Some of us may know that January 6th marks the first day of the season of Epiphany, the season that celebrates the revelation that the human Jesus was God made manifest in this world.
Yet because January 6th often lands in the middle of the week, many churches choose not to recognize it at all. The story of the Magi is wrapped up into the Nativity story on Christmas Eve, and the season of Epiphany begins instead with the story of Jesus’ baptism.
Before we know it Christmas is over and the next time we encounter Jesus he is a full-grown adult.

But we’re not there yet.
On this day, January 2nd, we’re still waiting for the Magi to arrive.
We’re still living in anticipation of the gifts they have to present to the Christ child.
In a way it’s fitting that we’ve already moved on from Christmas Day.
It makes sense that we’ve already packed the decorations away, including the Nativity Sets that adorned our tabletops.
Because those Nativity Sets complete with adoring shepherds and the baby Jesus lying in a manger often contain one glaring inaccuracy.
They often contain the figures of the Three Wise Kings arriving to present their gifts to the newborn Jesus.
But according to the gospel text that we heard today, that’s not how it happened.

The Nativity story that we all know with the pregnant Mary, the overcrowded inn, and the baby Jesus lying in a manger is from the Gospel of Luke.
The story of the Magi is from the Gospel of Matthew.
And Matthew makes it clear that the Magi arrived to visit not the infant Jesus, but the child Jesus.
They found him not in a manger, but in a house.
And it is soon after their arrival to visit this new child King, that King Herod ordered the killing of all male children under the age of two.
Because these Wise Men arrived not at the time of Jesus’ birth, but nearly two years afterward.

I had to laugh when I heard one pastor admit that at Christmastime when he enters the homes of his family, friends, and parishioners he takes note of whether they have a nativity set.
And if the nativity set contains the figures of the Magi, he immediately removes them and places them across the room, or in another room entirely, to symbolize the time and distance that separated them from their actual arrival.
In fact, the children in his congregation have now made a game of “finding the missing Wise Men” who inevitably disappear whenever their pastor visits their homes.

But the timing of the Magi visit is one of those details that we tend to take liberties with, just as we do with other aspects of the story, as the children discovered earlier.
In reality, we don’t know how many wise men there were, where they came from, or whether they were kings, astrologers, or philosophers.
But we like to place crowns on their heads, gold chains around their necks, sit them on camels, and give them names because it helps us to visualize their role in the story. 

But there is one detail of the story that we do find in Matthew’s gospel:
We know that the wise men brought gifts - and that detail fascinates us.
Much has been made about the meaning of the gifts and what they symbolize, and how the rareness and assumed high value of the gifts made them all the more special when presented to the Christ child.

Just like those television commercials that try to convince us that no one has ever asked for a smaller less expensive gift at Christmas  – and thus we should be buying each other cars  – we tend to equate monetary value with meaning.

If the Wise Men had brought Jesus a simple clay pot, a pair of homemade sandals, and a handful of mustard seeds, the gifts probably wouldn’t have even garnered a mention in the story.
This would be the first century equivalent of getting socks and underwear for Christmas. I can just see two-year-old Jesus ripping open the packages and glaring at the Wise Men with a look on his face that says, “C’mon guys, where are the real presents?”

So we’re happy to read in Matthew’s gospel that the Magi brought Jesus some good stuff: Gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Even if we’re not exactly sure what frankincense and myrrh are, they sound exotic so they must be expensive.    And actually they were.
But the reason why these gifts are mentioned in the story has more to do with their symbolic meaning then their monetary value.

Gold was a gift that was often given to Kings, thus the implication was that even as child, Jesus was to be worshiped as a King. 
Frankincense was incense that was burned by the priests in the Temple, thus the implication here is that the boy Jesus was being recognized as a revered religious leader. And Myrrh when combined with oil was used to anoint the bodies of the dead before burial.  
This gift was meant to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

Ironically, with our focus landing so solidly on the gifts that the Magi brought we tend not to notice that the presentation of these gifts is the last thing that the Magi do in the story.
The gifts are mentioned in a single verse, almost as an afterthought.
Because the reason why the Magi came from so far away to visit this boy King was not to present him with gifts, but to pay him homage.

The word “homage” is mentioned not once, but three times in this passage.
In the original Greek the word used is proskuneo, which literally means to kiss the hand, and in common usage meant to prostrate oneself at the feet of a king, to lay oneself down, to give oneself over out of respect for another. 

When the Magi first entered Jerusalem, they asked, “Where is the child who has been born the King of the Jews, for we have come to pay him homage.” 
When King Herod summoned the Wise Men, in his deception he asked them to return to him and reveal the location of the boy king, so that he too might pay him homage.
And the first thing the Magi did upon entering the house and seeing the child Jesus with his mother Mary, was to kneel down and pay him homage.

Only after this act of worship – the kneeling down, this payment of homage - only after giving themselves completely to Christ, do the Magi present their material gifts.

And oh how I wish it were our tradition to do the same.
I wish we could separate December 25th from January 6th.
I wish we could keep December 25th as the day we honor the birth of Christ, the day we pay him homage by giving ourselves completely over to him and pledge to live our lives just as he did.
And I wish we’d come to celebrate January 6th as the day that we emulate the actions of the Magi by exchanging gifts and paying homage to the image of Christ that we see in each other. 

Because the way it is now, we get so caught up in the gifts that we miss the part about paying homage.
We are so enamored with the gold, and the frankincense and the myrrh we forget that the first thing we’re supposed to do is kneel.

At no time is this more evident then when something happens to disrupt our idea of what Christmas is meant to be.
A working father of six spends his entire paycheck on gifts for his children only to have them stolen out of his car, “I guess my kids won’t have Christmas this year,” he says dejectedly.
A woman in a refugee camp in Haiti cries out in anguish, “We're not having Christmas this year ... The children have no toys. If we don't have money to buy them clothes, how could we have money to buy them toys?”

The message that we are sending to our children, and that we have internalized ourselves regardless of our social standing, is that there is no Christmas without the gifts.
But the message of the Gospel is that the hope and they joy of Christmas is not found in the material gifts that we give each other, it’s found in the gift that God has given us by becoming human in Jesus.

God became human in Jesus to show us that we have the potential to do so much more than we think we can do, that we can be so much more then we think we can be.

The Magi prostrate themselves before the child Jesus and give him gifts that honor who he is and who he has the potential to become – a king, a spiritual leader, a servant to all.

The Magi represent the wisdom that recognizes that every human life is a journey taken in search of the One who calls us beyond ourselves into faithful service – the One before whom we are prepared to kneel, and to whom we offer the best of our gifts, flawed and unworthy though they be.

We encounter these wise men, as they kneel with supreme grace and dignity before a child who represents to them simplicity, vulnerability and poverty. They are prepared to kneel, for in their wisdom they discern the glory that is hidden in this child.

And so we too, as we’re engaged in our own human journey, search for the One who would have us be so much more than we are.
And bearing our unworthy gifts, we kneel on the dirt floor beside these Magi, and worship the child who calls us to live our lives in love rather than fear.

When we encounter the story of the Magi, once we strip away the things that come from our memory but are not in the story itself  - the crowns, the kings, the baby Jesus lying in a manger - we’re left with the image of human beings giving themselves completely over to Christ.
Laying their bodies down on the cold, hard ground while saying, “We offer our lives to you.”

And we do this by asking God to help us to discern what it is we are called to do, who it is we are called to be. 

As we begin this New Year, ask yourself, “Who is it that I am called to be?”
What is it that you are being pulled towards?
What is tugging at your soul and won't let go?
What keeps you awake at night, as you wonder could I, should I, how will I?
What is God asking of you, and are you willing to take a leap of faith to get there?

This Thursday I hope you’ll remember to celebrate January 6th by paying homage to the Christ child.
I hope you’ll take the time to commemorate the arrival of the Wise Men and the beginning of the season of Epiphany.
I hope you’ll keep that Christmas tree up just one more day and hang a shining star upon the highest bough,
And have yourself a Merry Little Christmas, now.