Sunday, January 22, 2012

Christian Unity

I have been praying this week with images of two great Christian leaders, St. Peter and St. Paul. I have been imagining St. Peter as a Gloucester, Massachusetts fisherman. And St. Paul as a Harvard professor. Both images, admittedly, take a bit of a hermeneutical leap, but not a huge one. The images below don't totally capture what I have been seeing with my mind's eye, but they come close enough. (And the images were not copyrighted!)

What we know from the New Testament is that Peter was not a formally educated man. Sometimes formally educated people mistakenly believe that people without access to formal education aren't smart but in my experience that is a giant mistake.
Some of the wisest people I have ever known didn't go to college - and well, quite frankly, I've known some people who hold PhD's who aren't so smart. But that's another post, for another day...

St. Peter is "street smart," as I imagine him. Or, more accurately, "water smart." Wise about the ways of the world. St. Paul, in contrast, is sitting at a desk, comfortable in the world of ideas and formally trained in both Jewish and Roman traditions.

This past Wednesday, January 18, the Church remembered the Confession of St. Peter at Caesarea Phillipi, where he says to Jesus, "you are the Messiah, the Christ." This coming Wednesday, January 25, we will remember the Conversion of St. Paul and his Damascus Road encounter with the Risen Christ. These two feast days mark either end of The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

We tend to focus in this week on denominations, because that is the Church we know. And there is nothing wrong with that, although I do think there is a danger of a certain kind of hubris to which no Christian I know is immune: often when we pray for "unity" what we are really praying for is that others will see the light that we have seen. That if they grow into the full stature of Christ they will see what we see and become more like us. This takes on various forms depending on whether one is Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, or Protestant but the premise is the same: unity implies agreement, as if somehow when Jesus' prayer that we may all be one is fulfilled that we will all be the same.

I think this is silly. For me this is a week to celebrate our diversity, and in the midst of that diversity a unity that holds us together in spite of ourselves.

But increasingly we live in a world where denominations mean less and less. Increasingly it's no big deal for a Roman priest and an evangelical pastor to co-officiate at a wedding or funeral. Yesterday I was at an ordination for an Episcopal priest. A local Roman priest sat with us and while he did not feel comfortable receiving Holy Communion, he did come up and ask the new priest for a blessing. I think that's pretty good, and surely progress over the past fifty years or so since the opening days of Vatican II.

But pre-denominationally and post-denominationally we will still face a challenge, and it's captured by the two images above. Peter and Paul were very different people. Their journeys were very different too. But one was not "better" than the other. Peter seems to embody in some respect what we might call the "catholic" tradition--small c. Among other things, the conversion that leads to his confession that Jesus is the Christ seems gradual. In contrast, Paul seems to embody in some respect what we might call the "protestant" tradition--small p. Among othe things, the conversion that leads to his confession that Jesus is the Christ seems rather dramatic.

In the first-century Church as in the twenty-first century Church, the differences tend to be more along the lines of personality than denomination. Within the congregation I serve we have people whose faith-journeys tend to be either more like Peter's or more like Paul's. Often they speak very different languages about what this means for them. Often their relationships can be as difficult as the Scriptures tell us Paul and Peter's relationship was.

But they both loved Jesus. They both served Jesus. They were one, not because they were the same; but because of the risen Christ. In this week of Prayer for Christian Unity that is worth remembering, and emulating.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Remembering Dr. King

Sometimes people forget that before, during, and after the time he was a Civil Rights leader, Dr. King was a Baptist preacher. The following is an excerpt from a sermon he preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on June 5, 1966. The full sermon is entitled "Guidelines for a Constructive Church." I share the excerpt below because it gives us a glimpse of King as pastor.

You see, the church is not a social club, although some people think it is. They get caught up in their exclusivism, and they feel that it’s a kind of social club with a thin veneer of religiosity, but the church is not a social club. The church is not an entertainment center, although some people think it is. You can tell in many churches how they act in church, which demonstrates that they think it’s an entertainment center. The church is not an entertainment center. Monkeys are to entertain, not preachers. But in the final analysis the church has a purpose...and therefore it has certain guidelines that it must follow.

Let us first think of the fact that if the church is following its guidelines, it seeks to heal the broken-hearted. Now there is probably no human condition more tantalizing than a broken heart. You see, broken-heartedness is not a physical condition; it’s a condition of spiritual exhaustion. And who here this morning has not experienced a broken heart? I would say broken-heartedness comes basically from the trying experience of disappointment. And I don't believe there are many people here this morning under the sound of my voice who have not been disappointed about something.

Here is a young man or a young woman dreaming of some great career and setting out in school to try to make that career possible, only to discover that they don't quite have the mental faculties, the technical know-how, to achieve excellence in that particular field. And so they end up having to choose life’s second best, and because of this they end up with a broken heart.

Here is a couple standing before the altar in a marriage that seems to be born in heaven, only to discover that six months or a year later the conflicts and the dissensions begin to develop; arguments and misunderstandings begin to unfold. And that same marriage which a year earlier seemed to have been born in heaven ends up in the divorce court and the individuals are left with a broken heart.

Here is a family, a mother and father striving desperately to train their children up in the way that they should go. Working hard to make their education possible; working hard to give them a sense of direction, praying fervently for their guidance. And yet, in spite of all of this, one or two of the children end up taking the wrong road, moving toward some strange and tragic far country. And the parents end up having to acknowledge that the children that they raised are prodigals lost in a far country, and they end up with a broken heart.

And then there comes life’s ultimate tragedy, that something that always makes for a broken heart. Who this morning hasn't experienced it: when you must stand before the bier of a loved one…that day when the casket rolls down the aisle? That experience called death, which is the irreducible common denominator of all people. And no one can lose a loved one, no one can lose a mother or father, sister, brother, a child, without ending up with a broken heart. Broken-heartedness is a reality in life.

And Sunday after Sunday, week after week, people come to God’s church with broken hearts. They need a word of hope. And the church has an answer—if it doesn't, it isn't a church. The church must say in substance that broken-heartedness is a fact of life. Don’t try to escape when you come to that experience. Don't try to repress it. Don't end up in cynicism. Don't get mean when you come to that experience. The church must say to people that Good Friday is a fact of life. The church must say to people that failure is a fact of' life. Some people are only conditioned to success. They are only conditioned to fulfillment. Then when the trials and the burdens of life unfold, they can't stand up with it. But the church must tell people that Good Friday is as much a fact of life as Easter; failure is as much a fact of life as success; disappointment is as much a fact of life as fulfillment. And the church must tell people to take your burden, take your grief and look at it, don't run from it. Say that this is my grief and I must bear it. Look at it hard enough and say, "How can I transform this liability into an asset?"

This is the power that God gives you. He doesn't say that you're going to escape tension; he doesn't say that you're going to escape disappointment; he doesn't say that you’re going to escape trials and tribulations. But what religion does say is this: that if you have faith in God, that God has the power to give you a kind of inner equilibrium through your pain. So let not your heart be troubled. "If ye believe in God, ye believe also in me." Another voice rings out, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden”…Come unto me, all ye that are heartbroken; I will give you rest”… if the church is true to its guidelines, it heals the broken-hearted.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Feast of the Holy Name

I was born on St. Patrick’s Day. For that reason, my father wanted to name me Patrick. My mother insisted, however, that I be called Richard, after my father. (Technically, I got his middle name; he was “E. Richard” and I’m “Richard M.”) 

Even so, as anyone who has lived in a house where two generations share a name knows, you have to navigate which one you are speaking to. In my case, I spent the first twelve years or so of my life as “little Richie” while my dad was “big Rich.”  Eventually, I got to drop the “little” but long after that many family and friends who know me from childhood continue to call me Richie. When I am back in my hometown, as I was this past week, and walk into the Hawley Diner, I invariably run into people who have not seen me for years; they still call me “Richie.” Mostly I have given up trying to change that. 

Shakespeare had Romeo say that “a rose is still a rose by any other name”—and I suppose it is. But names nevertheless do convey something, because they tell us who we are or at least who others think we are. I sometimes wonder how I would be different if I had been named Patrick rather than Richard. I know that it makes a difference how I respond if I am called “Richie” or “Rich” or “Father Rich” or “Richard.” Hathy and I had a landlord when we lived in New Britain, Connecticut who called us, for four years, “Dick and Hattie.” I realize that it makes a difference to some extent not only how I am, but even who I am—when I am called by these various names. 

So today is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. It is a day we don’t usually get to make a big deal of—the eighth day after Christmas—January 1—which only rarely falls on a Sunday. The name "Jesus" is a transliteration of the Greek Ἰησοῦς, which is itself a Hellenization of the Hebrew יְהוֹשֻׁעַ Yĕhōšuă‘ or Joshua. The name means: "YHWH delivers" or "YHWH rescues.”

The name Jesus appears to have been a fairly common name in Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. And it is, of course, an old Biblical name that goes all the way back to the end of the Exodus story—to the days when Yeshua fought the Battle of Jericho and the walls came tumblin’ down!  In Luke 1:26-33, the angel, Gabriel, told Mary to name her child Jesus. And in Matthew 1:21, the angel told Joseph to name the child Jesus: “you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." That sort of takes the fun out of the back-and-forth most parents go through in considering names, but that is what the Bible says: Mary and Joseph didn’t have to fight over that one because they both got it on good authority that this would be the name! 

In the same way that Christians are officially “named” at Baptism, so little Jewish boys are named at their bris. Luke tells us that “after eight days had passed it was time to circumcise the child…” So it is not only the name of Jesus that comes on this eighth day of Christmas; circumcision is a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. Luke wants us to know that Jesus is a child of that covenant, a faithful Jew. Jesus is born into a tradition that goes back to Moses and the Exodus, to David and the psalms, to Jeremiah and the exile, to Isaiah and homecoming.

Jesus bears the name of God. His very name includes the name revealed to Moses at the burning bush: YHWH delivers. Obviously Jesus bears that holy name in a special way, but the point of circumcision, as with Holy Baptism, is that God's people also bear the name of God. 

We have—each of us—been given names—formal names and nicknames and perhaps some names that only a few people are allowed to call us. We try to live up to our names as best we can and we try not to bring shame to our family names. But in addition to those given names and family names, there is a name that binds us all together into one great big extended-complicated-sometimes dysfunctional family—the Body of Christ. Through Holy Baptism we have been claimed and marked. We bear the Holy Name of Jesus, our Lord and our God and our Savior, the Name of the One who calls us his “friends.”