Remember Your Baptism and Be Thankful

Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

I remember my baptism very well.

It was fifteen years ago, and I felt that as a recent college graduate I was at a crossroads in my life. I remember that I wanted to start new, to wash away some of the painful choices I had made in my life and recommit myself to God. My mother was attending a Baptist church at the time, and so I sat before her pastor and expressed my earnest desire to be baptized. When he lowered me into the water and then raised me up again, the first air I breathed felt like new life to me. I felt like I had died and been raised with Christ. Read more

Amahl and the Night Visitors

O Woman, you may keep the gold; the child we seek doesn’t need our gold.
On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom.
His pierced hand will hold no scepter; his haloed head will wear no crown.
His might will not be built on your toil.
Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us;
he will bring us new life, and receive our death.
And the keys to his city belong to the poor.

“Amahl and the Night Visitors”
Gian-Carlo Menotti, 1950

In 1950 the National Broadcasting Corporation commissioned Italian composer Gian-Carlo Menotti to write an opera for live broadcast on the fledgling, new medium of television. On Christmas Eve of the following year, Amahl and the Night Visitors premiered on NBC. Read more

Hope

When I was in the fourth grade my teacher, Mr. VanNostran, asked us to write our own definition of the word “hope.” I don’t remember the occasion or the context for the assignment; I don’t even remember what I wrote. But I do remember that a few days later, Mr. Van (as we called him) read aloud another student’s definition. The boy, whose name was Paul, was absent that day, and Mr. Van took the opportunity, I think, to teach the rest of us something about ourselves, something about the world, and something about the word “hope.” Read more

Wild Grace Abounding

Epiphany – Jan. 6 Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In Canto I of Dante’s Purgatorio (the second of three volumes of the Divine Comedy), Dante and his guide Virgil climb from the depths of hell to emerge tired and dirty on the shores of the island of the Mountain of Purgation. They are immediately confronted by the appointed guardian of the island, the Roman orator Cato of Utica (d. 46 BCE), who demands they give an account of themselves.

Dante is shocked by their interlocutor, not because of his question, but because he is there at all; Read more

Bit Parts

Luke 2:22-40

Mary and Joseph, following the Law of Moses, bring their son to the temple in Jerusalem offering a sacrifice of two pigeons. The birds themselves were of little consequence, yet necessary, the material fulfillment of the Torah. As Luke’s Jesus later puts it, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings? and not one of them is forgotten in the sight of God.” (Luke 12:6)

As the new parents go about their business, Simeon (usually pictured as quite old, an extrapolation from his exclamation “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace,” the words of the nunc dimittis prayer traditionally chanted at Compline) wanders in, takes the baby in his hands, and says some alarming things, not the standard small talk made over a newborn. Read more

Revolution Now!

photograph of cross on an outside wallFourth Sunday of Advent: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89 (Luke 1:46-55); Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

The excitement, celebration, and anticipatory hope for change attending the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States has in recent weeks been replaced in the public eye by another image – that of bankers, brokers, and corporate executives sitting before members of Congress and the mass media warning us in language reminiscent of Revelation 6 that the world is on the verge of collapse and that unless the American people, via our faithful servants in Congress, give them hundreds of billions of dollars, we face the imminent specter of horsemen bearing war, famine, pestilence, and death. Read more

Camel Hair and the Christ Child

Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 61:1-4, 9-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8; 19-28

Sometimes the contrasts are jarring: sweet-faced children singing about cradles and crèches on the same Sunday that we hear about leather belts, locusts and wild honey. It’s early December and we’re already at the manger (the tidy Christmas card version)—in our heads and in our worship. We come to church decked out in our holiday finest and John the Baptizer greets us, sporting animal-skin outerwear and going on and on about baptism and repentance and sandal thongs.

Many churches give lip service to Advent—lighting the candles on the wreath, reading the appointed texts—but don’t seem prepared to go all the way with it. Why is that? Is there any concern about the mixed messages being sent when the camel hair and the Christ child fight for top billing on the same Sunday? Read more

The End is our Beginning

picture of a country road with the word start written on itIsaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

Everyone knows that Advent is about beginnings. The season marks the start of a new Christian year. It heralds the beginning of the “good news” of Jesus Christ, and it points to the origin of the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus. Every year in Advent we begin the preparations for Jesus’ coming only to do it all again the next year. Advent is the time to begin again. Not everyone understands, however, that Advent is also about endings. The season of Advent begins with the end, with an account of Jesus’ final coming at the end of time. Read more

Come, Lord Jesus

Advent 1   Isaiah 64:1-9, Mark 13:24-37

This week we begin the all-too-short journey toward Advent, that season when the Church’s prayer is the urgent and expectant: “Come, Lord Jesus.” For most folks, the Advent hymns and prayers invoking Emmanuel, God-with-us, conjure up domesticated images of babies, a glowing virgin mother, and churches gathered to sing carols and raise candles high into the air. These are comfortable images for us. We like to be in control of our lives and our futures—and this Christmas story is one that we’ve long had our hands on. Jesus the baby does not threaten us. And so, because we’ve already got this part of the story down pat, we use these 4 weeks of Advent to do more important things – like shop, cook, clean, and party. We’ve got Advent under control; we could do the season on auto-pilot. Yes, Come Lord Jesus, so we can finally open our presents. Read more

Pledging Allegiance

modern painting of Christ on the cross in the midst of the struggles of the world

Ezekiel 34, Psalm 100 (Catholic: Psalm 23), Ephesians 1:15-23 (Catholic: 1 Cor 15: 20-28), Matthew 25:31-46

1925. In the wake of an unimaginably destructive World War, surrounded by rising totalitarian powers, and as the “civilized” military nation-states partied their way toward financial ruin, Pope Pius declared a new feast in honor of Christ the King, a celebration intended to habitually remind Christians of their primary and ultimate allegiance.

2008. In the (we hope) waning months of a disastrous war, surrounded by accelerating world divisions, and as the “developed” military nation-states prop up a teetering world financial system, Christians liturgically re-member their primary and ultimate allegiance. Now observed by many Western Churches (though often renamed “Christ’s Reign,”) the Sunday has become, in the words of one blogger:

…the day when Episcopalians and Methodists celebrate a 20th-century Roman Catholic feast by singing a hymn (All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name) written by a particularly obnoxious Baptist (Edward Perronet–ex-Methodist and all-out dissenter who launched vicious attacks on John Wesley). In other words, a truly ecumenical occasion.

I needn’t rehearse Sunday’s gospel; we’ve all heard it often enough to imagine knowing it by heart. In this post-election secular season, when I’m increasingly uncertain about nearly everything and more unqualified to play exegete than usual, I’ll just make a few observations.

The king isn’t elected. He’s king, literally by divine right, surrounded by angels and sitting on his throne. I’m fairly confident my priest will once again remind us this Sunday that “we need to use other metaphors for God” in an age when monarchies and patriarchies have no purchase on the imagination. I’m not so sure. In fact, the primary theological problem now and at any time in my life is that God is God and I missed the vote. In the same way, I find myself wincing when, in the Lord’s Prayer, we say, with feigned disregard for our own desires and plans, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Creation is no democracy. I have to remind myself that’s a good thing.

Gathered before Him are all the nations. All pretenders to earthly sovereignty will be judged, from the most powerful government to the least person. I suppose that’s a good thing; at least we’re all in this together.

Neither the sheep nor the goats knew what they were doing. Cognitive awareness of serving the Lord appears irrelevant in this account of salvation. Perhaps that’s why, four chapters earlier, Matthew’s Jesus announces, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom before you.” Now substitute “tax collectors and prostitutes” with the object of your own righteous anger – and please, be brutally honest with yourself. Doesn’t feel that good, does it?

In Matthew’s gospel, the “Great Judgment” story is followed immediately by Jesus telling his disciples, “…the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified.” Christ’s Kingdom has no Department of Homeland Security or Defense, no FBI and no CIA. In Bonhoeffer’s words, “When Christ call a man, he bids him come and die.” We’re all going to die, some more faithfully than others. Good news or not, a lifetime may be insufficient to learn so hard a lesson.

The Sunday following this one is the First Sunday in Advent, the start of a new church year. Jesus is coming. One day, perhaps, I’ll be graced to truly desire the coming of God’s kingdom, to recite the Shema Yisroel without crossing my fingers, to pledge my full allegiance to the One on the throne. Until then, I’ll need a lot of help, some good examples, an occasional word of encouragement. We’re all in this together – and that’s a good thing.