I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about relationships. Relationships really are the core to our existence. Humans cannot survive without relationships—relationships define our social scripts and norms, they help to create our individual and group identities, and they help us to make sense of the world around us. But relationships can be dangerous if they lead us on the wrong path or become destructive and abusive. The Psalm for this week, Psalm 62, and the Gospel, Mark 1:14-20, helped me to see the power of trust in relationships.
In what or in whom do we put our trust? If we put our trust in money, the weatherman, and everything we read or see on television (or the internet for that matter), chances are, we will be let down. The psalmist tells us our trust should reside in God:
For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken. On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us.
What beautiful language to describe this relationship with God—a relationship based on faith and trust. Faith that God is our rock, salvation, deliverance and refuge. Trust that we can open ourselves up to the awesome saving power of God.
But how do we hear this message without being a bit cynical about it? How do we hear the psalmist’s words when messages like “In God We Trust” have been exploited in some of the worst ways in our culture? What does it mean to really put our trust and faith in God? What are the risks involved? My favorite theologian, Jurgan Moltmann, said “trust in God does not mean the comfortable protection and safekeeping of our mother’s womb. It means the risky freedom of the wide spaces and ever-new coming of God”. But most of us don’t think of our relationship with God as risky.
So I turned to the gospel of Mark for guidance. Jesus comes on the scene having heard that John the Baptist had been arrested. He proclaims the Good News, saying “the kingdom of God has come near”, and then gathers together some of his first followers—Simon, Andrew, James and John. What’s he up to? Well, he isn’t quietly coming into town to tell people about God, he’s proclaiming it! He’s essentially making a scene and asking people to go along with him. Why would these men agree to follow him? What is it about Jesus that makes them leave their comfortable, predictable lives as fishermen, for the unknown journey of proclaiming the Good News? Why do they trust him? I don’t have the answers to these questions, and most of the scholarship I’ve read argues that Jesus had a charismatic presence, that his call to “Follow me” was transformative, and that it was the work of the Holy Spirit. And while all of that is interesting to consider, it’s based on trying to “fill in the blanks” because Mark doesn’t tell us. The writer of the gospel doesn’t give us dialogue from the men’s perspectives, or tell us that they were looking for a way out of Galilee. All we know is that when Jesus invited them, they went. I can’t help but wonder what that was like.
And it again made me ask, “so what’s the risk in trusting God”. We know that in many countries, being a Christian is illegal. Persecution is a very real thing for some in this world, and therefore very risky. But for most of us, living our day to day lives, what’s the risk? So it might be uncomfortable to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t share our same theology or world view, but that doesn’t mean it’s risky. And most of us aren’t the “door-to-door” evangelist types, so there’s not much risk for us when we do talk about our “God moments”. So what’s the risk? Well, I suppose it would be dependent upon who or what we would think is in opposition to our faith. If greed, materialism, fear, anxiety, or pride became the focus of our relationships, and thus the focus of our trust and faith, then to suddenly give these things up might be risky. Suddenly we wouldn’t be playing into the social structures and identities that our other relationships have helped to create. So the risk would be living into a life in Christ that isn’t “the norm”. What if our faith and trust in God called us to be missionaries and leave behind the comforts of home? What if our faith and trust in God called us to community activism and social justice work that was “unpopular” in our social circles? What if our faith and trust in God called us to extend our hand to our neighbors, even if they were viewed as “less than” or the “have-nots”? Would we be willing to risk our current status quo relationships for a relationship with God that calls us to follow into unknown journeys? Would we be able to say “yes” to God?
Sometimes I think we think that answering that call to follow Jesus and put our trust in God is easy. That once we say “yes” it’ll be a walk in the park. But the Bible gives us story after story of the trials and tribulations of being a disciple, and yet, there is hope. God doesn’t call us because we are perfect, beautiful or have the most stuff, God calls us because we are willing to learn, and because we’ll probably stumble, misunderstand and even come up short. That’s what we bring to this relationship…just ourselves, for better and for worse. And it’s God’s steadfast love that transforms us into people who can say “yes”.
Who are you? Who am I? These are some of the essential questions I've been faced with as I started the first readings for my Womanist-Feminist Worldviews class. And while I know that some people roll their eyes at feminist theory, if there's one thing that I've taken away from these readings so far it's about identity. What makes us who we are? Well, much of the reading I've done this week suggests that our identities are imposed on us by social, political, and environmental constructs. What I mean is, I am who you say I am. You are who we say you are. You see me as a white, middle-class, young, married woman. You know that I'm not from this town, that my place of origin is the south-eastern part of the United States. According to the schools I've attended, it would be assumed that I'm well educated. Some of you know other things about me based on conversations, looking around my office walls, or perusing my bookshelf. And there's no denying that all of these assumptions are based on observation, and I can make similar observations about you, neither of us know each other's inner-most secrets, hopes, fears or desires. That part of ourselves we keep secret. That part of our identity is completely self-constructed, and it has been argued that even that part is influenced by our social, political and environmental location. Maybe some of us deeply desire that we had treated our someone kinder, or spoken up against an injustice we observed, or had moved away from our homes of origin. But who are we really? When we think about our identity, and then take away all these interior and exterior judgments, what are we left with? Who are we really?
In Psalm 139, one of my favorite psalms (and I love The Message translation in particular), we can start to answer that question. We are children of God. Our identity rests in God. God knows us, inside and out, intimately, deeply and lovingly. God created us, knit us together, traces our journeys, and truly knows us. Our identity, the value of our lives, isn't determined by what we achieve, possess or what others think about us. No, it’s based in God's love and how wonderful that is! The psalmist says (according to The Message) "I thank you, High God--you're breathtaking!" We are children of God.
In the Gospel of John, we are again faced with the question of identity. When Philip invites Nathanael to join him in following Jesus, Nathanael responds with "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?". It's a fair question. Nazareth isn't a particularly important place...it's just a tiny village. And what proof does Philip have that Jesus is the answer to their Messianic hope? You see, Nathanael is making observations and assumptions about Jesus' identity. Instead of arguing with him, Philip simply says "Come and see". And when Jesus sees Nathanael approaching, Jesus also makes observations about Nathanael's identity--that he is a righteous and honest man. But Jesus' observations aren't based on where Nathanael comes from, or what he looks like, or who his parents are. Jesus looked into Nathanael's heart; he got to the core of his identity--that Nathanael was a child of God. And what is Nathanael's response to this intimate knowledge that Jesus has of him? He also sees Jesus for who he really is and identifies him as the Son of God, the King of Israel.
So who are you? Who am I? We are invited to receive an identity rooted not in what society deems meaningful and valuable, but in the One who knows us deeply and lovingly. What would it feel like if we stopped identifying ourselves, and stopped making assumptions about the identity of others, based on social, political or environmental factors? What would it feel like if we started to really identify ourselves, and those around us, as children of God? I think it would open the door to healing, to making the world around us a little bit better. I think we'd be able to start bringing about the kingdom of God. What if we stopped thinking of the cold and hungry as "those people we make sandwiches for" and started thinking of them as "fellow children of God"? Would they render our pity, or call us to be charitable? We could ask this same question around any person or group we encounter. It could be life changing and revolutionary! Look at Dr. King. He was striving to build bridges in communities so that the oppression that exists in an "us/them", "black/white" world could cease. He was striving to help all of us come together and acknowledge our differences and similarities, and ultimately acknowledge our identities as children of God. His work, like the work of so many who seek to change their world, was inspired by the idea that we are intimately known by God, and that our identity rests in God, and it is that identity which ultimately binds us together.
Friday I was sitting in the church looking at our beautiful stained glass windows, praying for inspiration and a new way of hearing the story of Jesus' baptism. I have played with all the traditional questions of "why did Jesus need to get baptized" and "what does it mean to be baptized in the Spirit". I thought about pulling out my own baptism story, but I'm pretty sure I've told it at least twice during the last year. I thought about telling the story of my Pentecostal friend who was worried about not being able to speak in tongues at her bapstism, because otherwise, it wouldn't "count". And I even thought about abandoning the Gospel for the Old Testament story of creation and just focusing on that. But none of it felt right. So when all else fails, pray. And so I did. And as I was looking at our stained glass windows, I got distracted by their symbols.
The first window is for Advent...the time of preparation and waiting. It is the start of the new liturgical year. We sing "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and read the story of John telling us to "prepare the way".
The second window is for Christmas...the celebration of the inbreaking of God into our world through the birth of a child. We celebrate the naming of Jesus--the Lord saves, and read about angels and shepherds.
The third window is for Lent...another time of preparation. But this time we're wilderness wanderers, reflecting on our call to obedience and the pending death of Christ. We read the Passion narrative and are told that the temple curtain is torn.
The fourth window is for Easter...the celebration of rebirth. We celebrate our risen Lord through baptism and confirmation. We rejoice with Alleluias abounding.
The fifth window is for Pentecost...the gifting of the Holy Spirit. Again, an inbreaking of God. A celebration of new spiritual gifts of healing, teaching, and preaching. We go into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirit, which is symbolized by a descending dove.
And in meditating on these windows, the words of Mark's gospel for Sunday came over me. Suddenly I had new eyes and ears for this gospel. So let's look at it again.
John the Baptizer is proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins and telling people about the coming of one who will baptize in the spirit. This is the Advent moment if you will. Be prepared. Watch for the one who is coming. And people from all around are coming to hear this message--this annunciation if you will--and they are waiting.
And then Jesus comes into the picture. Mark doesn't give us a birth narrative the way Matthew and Luke do, so in some ways, Jesus appearing on the scene is Mark's birth story...Jesus is coming to be "reborn" through baptism. And when he comes out of the water, God says "You are my Son". God's inbreaking into the world through Jesus--the Lord saves.
Then it's almost as if the entire Lenten, Easter and Pentecost stories happen simultaneously for Mark...or maybe it's a foreshadowing of the events to come. Because as Jesus comes out of the water--out of death into new life--the heavens are torn open and the spirit descends on him like a dove. We see these events elsewhere...when Jesus dies on the cross, the temple curtain is torn; when Jesus is raised, it is into a new life, a heavenly life; and when the Spirit comes into the upper room, it is with a breath or wind like that of creation, descending like a dove.
So maybe I'm stretching our liturgical seasons a bit here in trying to make this connection with Mark. But then again, I think there might be something to it. Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and he is known for writing in a way that foreshadows events to come. Maybe in this little opening piece of the gospel, Mark is telling us not only about the life of Jesus, but also the life of discipleship. We too have to prepare, wait, watch for the inbreaking of God, die to this life and be born anew, and then go out rejoicing in the power of the Spirit. It isn't a simple, stayed life, but one that is filled with the creative power of God.
Which brings me back one of my original questions and the fact that I just couldn't ignore it. So what does it mean to be baptized in the Spirit? We know the Spirit is a creative force--it was there in the beginning as God's breath, breathing life into a formless void. We know that the liturgical action of baptism is an outward sign of an inward change--that somehow we are being called into relationship with God who knows us as "beloved". We know that the Spirit is transformative--it can enter into dark rooms and create light; it can energize us and send us out into the world just as it did for those early disciples in the upper room, and for those disciples of the early church. Being baptized with water in the Spirit drives us to participate in and proclaim with boldness the Good News of the Kingdom of God!
This morning, I invite you to meditate on our beautiful stained glass windows. How do they represent the story of your life in Christ?
Jan 1 2012 HOLY NAME
PS 8, Num 6:22-27, Gal 4:4-7, Luke 2:15-21
In Psalm 8, the psalmist sings praises to God about the beauty of creation and the blessing of our role in creation. The psalm opens and closes with the words "how majestic is your name". In Jewish tradition, a name is important. To not know a person's name is to not really know the person. To know the name, but not acknowledge or speak it, means to diminish the person in some way. A name represents what the person will be in the future; it expresses the reality of a person's being at the deepest level.
In our modern world, names still have meaning and importance. Just for fun, I looked up the meaning of a couple of names here in our congregation. The name Ann or Anna means "grace". The name Robert (or Bob) means "bright" or "shining". The name Gabriella means "strength from God". As I thought about these meanings, I realized that if we take our names seriously, then they reveal to us things about our personality and potential. A name is serious business! So it's no wonder that approximately 50,000 people legally change their name each year. As a friend of mine who did change her name explained to me, she felt her birth name didn't really fit her. She changed her name from Helen to Saliha, which is Aramaic, and the derivative of Saliha is Sarah. Her given last name is Abrams...Saliha Abrams...Sarah Abraham...ones who are called to follow God and lead others to God. While she didn't know the etymology or religious significance of her name, in my opinion, it really does "fit" her. It tells me a lot about who she is as a person and friend.
So what about the naming of Jesus? According to Matthew 1:21, an angel tells Joseph to name the baby Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. In Luke, an angel also tells Mary to name him Jesus, which in Hebrew means "the Lord saves". And so according to Jewish custom, Mary and Joseph take Jesus (presumably to the temple) after eight days to have him circumcised and named. This custom can be traced back to the days of Abraham when the covenant between God and the people had been established. And what does this name mean? The name "Jesus" tells us about his future identity and mission:
--he will bring us grace, mercy, healing and forgiveness
--in his name demons will flee, cripples will walk, the deaf will hear, the blind will see, the dead will be raised
--he is God with us, the one who saves
--as his followers we are to serve others as he served us.
Beth and Jeanie will tell you that for the last two years when St. Mark's hosted Free Clothes for Kids, children have signed a poster of thanksgiving. The first year a child named Jesus signed the poster. The second year a child named Emmanuel signed the poster. Through that outreach ministry, we welcomed God into our midst. But welcoming God, calling on the name Jesus, isn't reserved for special projects and holidays...we should be open to receiving God's grace, mercy and forgiveness all the time; singing out the praises of this beautiful creation around us, saying "how majestic is your name".
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.