Tenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Ken Powell

Lessons:

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Walk on Water or Stay in the Boat?

Deacon Ken Powell, Grace Memorial, August 13, 2017

            Some years ago, while my wife Karen and I were in Rome we spent a lot of time visiting the magnificent churches that seemed to be just around every corner. On one occasion, we happened to enter as a worship service was beginning so we took a seat and tried to participate as best we could. The liturgy was familiar enough to us to have a general idea about what was happening but the language was a barrier- Latin in some places I think and Italian in others. So, I suppose it was natural to begin looking about at the enormous and exquisite paintings that adorned the walls of the church and it occurred to me that perhaps that was their very purpose- when the language is foreign or incomprehensible try experiencing the biblical story in another way.

            As it happened, the image that I still recall is that of Peter leaping out of the boat one or two steps from Jesus. His feet just beginning to slip beneath the waters, his hands reaching out to grasp Jesus’ hand, his ardent desire to be with Jesus evident as he launched his whole body and being forward…and a look of panic and fear on his face as he realizes the risk he has taken.

            Sometimes today’s gospel lesson has been interpreted as if to say- “If you want to walk on water, you’ve got to get out of the boat.” The thinking is that Peter had the right idea when he stepped out in faith to be with Jesus amid the turbulent waters of life and that if we have enough faith in Jesus and keep our focus on him we will not sink despite the battering we might take from the wind and waves.

            No doubt Jesus wants us to take risks for the sake of the gospel. No doubt he wants us to keep our eyes focused on him and his mission.  No doubt he wants us to have the gift of faith but I am not so sure we have to walk on water to do so especially if it means leaving behind the only friends and support we have.

            So, I wonder when Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt” the meaning isn’t simply “Oh, Peter, if only you had more faith”’ but also asks him, “Oh, Peter, why did you get out of the boat?”

            From the earliest days of the Christian community the boat has been a symbol of the church and the seas a symbol of chaos- and it is upon those waters and in the safety of that vessel that Jesus sent his disciples “to the other side”- yet another deeply meaningful symbol of our hope in the kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. But when a storm blows up, as storms do in our lives Jesus didn’t wait for the disciples to arrive at the other side before he came to their aid. Like the holy ghost he moved over the face of the waters to come to them in their distress saying, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid”.

            Most of this scene I saw beautifully depicted in the painting in Rome but something was missing I realize now, something a painting can’t say, a small word that weighed so heavily on Peter body and soul that it nearly sank him. A whole universe of possibilities seems to cram itself into Peter’s single, simple word – “if”. “Lord, if it is you…”  is an open question for Peter as it is for many of us much of the time.  Like Peter in this instance or later like Mary at the tomb we would love to cling to Jesus when we have doubts. It drove Peter to a reckless act of desperate faith that Jesus permitted but thankfully doesn’t require.

            There are only a few times in the gospel when anyone addresses Jesus with an “if” statement but they are core statements upon which our understanding of Jesus turns. Three times Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness with” if you are the Son of God” make stones into bread, call down special privileges from God, worship me. And during the crucifixion “if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”

            The curious thing is that the statements are meant to elicit proof of an identity that can’t be revealed when we are seeking answers to questions we aren’t ready and willing to receive. It reminds me of Rilke’s advice to a young poet “to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were…written in a foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given you now, because you would not be able to live them…and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer…”.

            It is almost a proverbial term in our culture these days to say of someone who has done the seemingly impossible that they can “walk on water”. Someone who has been brought in to save a floundering business, for instance, or maybe the superstar athlete who appears to defy gravity and the laws of motion but it is a rare moment when people are thinking of Peter or Jesus when the phrase is used. For them it is just a trivial “figure of speech” cut off from its biblical foundation. But for us it is a story that shows us something essential to the way of life that Jesus sees for us.

            Jesus doesn’t expect us to walk on water…he expects us to stay in the boat! To stay with our companions in the faith, to keep rowing, to trust that he is with us and will even get into the boat himself to save us from our fear and lack of faith.  When the wind ceases and we approach the far shore, we will also know Jesus as the Son of God if we ride out the storm together. In the meantime, take heart and do not be afraid but leave the walking on water to him!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Second Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Ken Powell

Lessons:
Acts 2:14a,22-32
1 Peter 1:3-9
John 20:19-31
Psalm 16

 

 

In the name of the Risen Christ…

Good morning friends and welcome on this day we properly call the Second Sunday of Easter rather than thinking of it as the first Sunday after Easter as some of us are inclined to do. They are not equivalent terms and the distinction is important as a way of recognizing that Easter Day is only the beginning of a fifty-day season within which we as the community of Christ continue to reflect on the implications and consequences of the resurrection of Jesus. It is also a way of acknowledging that the resurrection was not a singular moment in time past but is an on-going event that transcends time and place as we ordinarily know it. In that light, our presence here today is nothing less than another sign of the power and the truth that was revealed to Mary Magdalene and the Apostles and it represents for us an opportunity to affirm our own belief in Jesus.

Today’s gospel passage neatly illustrates the interwoven nature of the resurrection experience for the disciples, as it is, from one perspective, the continuation of the encounter that Mary had with Jesus at the empty tomb on Easter morning, and from another perspective it depicts the subsequent appearances of Jesus first on that same evening to all of the original disciples except Judas the betrayer and Thomas whose absence there is noted but unexplained and whose famous encounter with Jesus occurred a full week later. 

The overlapping and evolving perceptions of those to whom the risen Christ revealed himself seems to call us to be careful about putting too fine a point on what exactly happened in those days but at the same time, taken as a whole, they present a compelling witness to the sublime truth of Jesus’ identity that confronts our reasonable doubts and fears.

If, for instance, we are tempted to wonder if the resurrection story was contrived to persuade a gullible flock of sheep of an impossibility…we should ask ourselves who would have told such a tale by starting with the testimony of a woman whose testimony by virtue of her gender would not have been allowed in a court of law in a routine, minor case and whose reputation would preclude her from admittance even to the company of so-called decent folk?  No one would do so- except to record a God inspired event through which the outcast, the marginalized and the despised of the world are recognized as a primary means for divine revelation.

It is easy enough to imagine such a group of outcasts huddling together in fear of their neighbors as the news of the empty tomb spread, barring their door as best they can while waiting in terror for what must soon be the terrible approach of Pilot’s shock troops in search of the missing body of the crucified “King of the Jews”. Neither is it difficult to imagine that the imminent threat of reprisal was infinitely more convincing than the singular affirmation that Mary had “seen the Lord”.  But who could imagine the joy of finding that very one in their midst or that he would come without words of recrimination for abandoning him in his time of trial. Rather he came with words of peace and consolation and even found them fit to carry on his Father’s work in the world in the same way and in the same Spirit as he had himself done.

The gravity of this commissioning can hardly be overstated. It is a holy work of making God known in the world and inevitably it touches upon the burden of sin that is either forgiven or retained in accordance with the response to the gospel message of Jesus by which the world renders judgment for good or ill upon itself.

And so, in the gospel text we come at last, to Thomas, “Doubting Thomas” as he has been commonly known but let us take another look to see whether this is the best way to remember him. John’s gospel, for instance, mentions Thomas in several contexts that can tell us more about the man he was before the resurrection.

Earlier in Jesus’ ministry as he walked about in the Temple a number of those who were suspicious of his teaching and authority attempted to arrest and even stone him. Eventually he “escaped from their hands” … and He went away again across the Jordan to the place where the Baptist had been…and remained there.” After a time, word came to him of the death of Lazarus and ultimately, despite the disciple’s warnings and fears that they were all endangered he decided to return to Judea again to be with his friend Lazarus.  Thomas then “said to his fellow disciples, let us also go that we may die with him.”

Soon after, when Jesus and the disciples had entered Jerusalem and were gathered together for the last time Jesus told the disciples that he was preparing a place for them and that they knew the way but Thomas replied, “Lord we do not know where you are going, how then can we know the way?”

So, we can see in these revealing moments that Thomas is a volatile mix of stern commitment and frustrating uncertainty. He is all in with Jesus but he doesn’t yet know for what.

There is, however, no record of Thomas being anywhere near Jesus at the time of his arrest, trial and crucifixion and so it seems fair to wonder how well Thomas, like Peter, bore the guilt of his bold but empty promise to die with Christ. It may even be that Thomas was in hiding for fear and shame on the evening that Jesus appeared to the other disciples but at some point in time, whether later that evening or during the course of the week “the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord’” and he then declared- in perfect agreement with millions of other like-minded souls down through the ages “ Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

By his obstinacy, Thomas becomes something like the Patron Saint of the Skeptical who will never allow what they cannot prove to their own satisfaction. It is no wonder that in our age of rank materialism when faith is supplanted by statistical probability and data collection is the measure of truth that the gospel message slips by unknown and undetected. And yet Thomas’ desire for physical confirmation of the resurrection is quite natural as Jesus recognized and granted and the orthodox tradition has always affirmed.

There are things to notice and admire about Thomas as he struggles to reconcile his desire for certainty with his need to grow beyond his own expectations. For one thing, no matter how disappointed or conflicted he may have been in his spiritual life he kept coming back, grumpy and combative though he was. It is no small thing. People often find their deepest faith in the heart of the very things that have troubled them most. For another, Thomas was a person whom we might say “unlocked the locked doors” where his own fears dwelt and soon recognized the presence of Christ to such a degree that he could genuinely say without restraint or qualification “My Lord and My God!” No clearer, more direct, or more powerful proclamation of faith has ever been uttered.  

We can only wonder about the moment that Thomas became a believer in Jesus and what that might have meant to him. For me, it brings to mind Paul’s beautiful expression of “beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” To come before Jesus as Thomas did bearing a lifetime of attitude and old baggage only to have it all vanish in a moment as he received the holy spirit in Christ’s presence is the moment when the gospel message gained traction in the world as time would soon show.

Anyone can still try to dismiss the story as a pious and irrelevant fantasy but at least one hard fact stands against it, namely that there is a church in Malabar, India called the Mar Thoma Church which has proudly known itself for nearly two thousand years to be the place where Thomas brought the Gospel from Palestine, across Jordan and Syria, Iraq, Iran and on into India. 2,000 years ago. And while he was it he has been credited, at least, with authorship of the Gospel of Thomas, which is certainly becoming one of the most famous and influential of all of the ancient manuscripts that archeologists and scholars have recovered. 

One wonders why we persist in telling the story as if it is primarily about doubt when it is so plainly about belief. Perhaps, we are better prepared to perceive and accept the doubt rather than receive and embrace the faith that is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In any case, Thomas would be better named and more truly known as St. Thomas, The Believer. That is after all the point of the whole story and the culmination of John’s gospel message. In a very profound way the whole book points toward Thomas. Not because his story is supreme but because his story is our story and the book is written that we might have life in the name of Jesus just as Thomas did!

Maundy Thursday by The Rev. Ken Powell

Lessons:
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

 

 

 

May the Holy Spirit guide us ever further into the wisdom and love revealed in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Dear friends in Christ, tonight we find ourselves, once again, on the familiar and well-marked path of Jesus’ final days on his journey to the cross and resurrection. As grateful followers in the Way of Christ we hope to glean some new kernel of insight to renew and sustain us on our own journey to the God who has called each of us from beyond time to this time and place.

In the sacred days of this Holy Week we have already marked the passage of Jesus and the disciples on Palm Sunday into the crucible of Jerusalem under Roman rule and Jewish intrigue. Monday echoed with the uproar and clatter of the money-changers tables overturning in the Temple. Wednesday Jesus was anointed in Bethany and Judas agreed to betray him to those “looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him…” And so with these and a multitude of other memories and hopes and fears swirling around in their heads the disciples gathered with their Lord and Teacher for what Jesus knew would be their Last Supper together on this night.

In that respect, John’s Gospel account initially presents a familiar narrative. But have you noticed that in agreement with the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Paul’s epistle refers to the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist, “on the night before Jesus suffered” while John’s gospel makes no mention of the event at all?

This shift in the narratives focus cannot be an accident or unintentional omission. John’s gospel was the last of the gospels to be composed and the Eucharist had already been received as a fundamental tradition of the church. Neither does it imply a departure from or a rejection of that tradition. It does imply, however, that the author of John’s gospel was careful to record, and perhaps recover another event of that last meal together- namely the washing of the disciples feet- that he evidently considered as essential and fundamental to the authentic life of the church as the Bread and Wine came to be. One wonders what the church might be today if the foot washing were received not only as an example of humble service rendered to each other but as a sacrament- “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace”- by which we receive a blessing for what is done in Christ’s name with each other.

Fred Craddock, a wonderful man and influential preacher has commented that John did not accentuate the Passover meal because for him Jesus was the Passover, the paschal lamb of God whose blood was shed once and for all and by whom the Holy Spirit might “Passover” the sins of “his own who were in the world” to lead them out of slavery to sin and death  and into the freedom of eternal life in the spirit.

For John only what we learn from Jesus through the Cross and the Resurrection can exceed what Jesus taught as he “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciple’s feet and wipe them with the towel.”

There is something so simple, so direct, and so intimate about these gestures that we cannot be too surprised when a certain amount of discomfort arises when and if we are ever exposed to such an event. This is especially true if we lack familiarity or understanding of the intended purpose. It is more than a symbol or a sign. It is a relationship-and there are so many physical, emotional and psychological elements intertwined that one only moves into it with great care and sensitivity.

Let us explore then some of these elements that reveal themselves within the broad framework of Jesus’ life and work as they pertain to his example for us.

First, I should think is the basic fact of our need for human touch. As embodied souls we are free to fulfill that need for good or for ill in any manner that we choose but we see in the life of Jesus that the higher calling is for the touch that heals. In a culture that severely limited contact between the pure and impure Jesus touched everyone and everyone whom Jesus touched was healed.  As Henri Nouwen has expressed it “touch…speaks the wordless words of love…in friendship, touch often gives more life than words. A friend’s hand stroking our back, a friends arm resting on our shoulder, a friend’s fingers wiping away tears-these bring true consolation. These moments of touch are truly sacred. They restore, they reconcile, they reassure, they forgive, they heal. ..When we are touched with free, non-possessive love, it is God’s incarnate love that touches us and God’s power that heals us.”

One might think that as witnesses of so many healings the disciples would have welcomed Jesus’ touch for themselves, and perhaps some of them did, but not all.  The problem is that to receive what Jesus is offering we have to make room for it somehow…to set aside or look through or beyond our expectations…the ones that we may have learned from experience or been told to expect…that touch is dangerous, invasive, sexual, aggressive, or inappropriate…all of which can be true but none of which apply to the touch that Jesus offered. No doubt some of the disciples thought it was inappropriate for Jesus to wash their feet. It would have made sense to them to wash his feet as a sign of respect both as the host of the meal and as their Teacher but this wasn’t about social convention or spiritual rank. So what was it about?

The obvious answer is that it is about hospitality that a host would offer to his guests who had traveled some distance on dusty roads, most commonly on foot, as a sign of welcome, comfort and respect. This service would ordinarily be rendered by a servant or a slave…which is the role that Jesus appeared to be assuming to the disciple’s great shock and consternation.

One can only imagine what a slave may have been thinking under compulsion as he or she washed the feet of their master and the privileged guests but we know Jesus had something else in mind …something grander, deeper, freer. Peter may have felt that it was beneath Christ’s dignity to be seen as a slave but what Peter couldn’t understand was that Jesus was free in every circumstance to offer himself in a love which Peter could not yet receive because Peter was still enslaved to his own way of thinking and feeling and acting, still bound by the norms and conditions of his society and experience.

So, at best the obvious answer is only a partial answer. As everyone can attest for themselves any service rendered with even the purist intention can quickly deteriorate into pride or manipulation or resentment if it is not rooted in a deep humility and gratitude for what is also received in the giving. As C.S. Lewis once famously said “humility results not so much from thinking less of ourselves but of thinking of ourselves less.”  It is a fine point and everything turns on it.

In a wonderful reflection on the life and person of Jesus, the Rev. James Martin speaks of the foot-washing as “an invitation to equality” and a recognition of the inherent God-given dignity of every human being. He quotes the New Testament scholar Sandra Schneider’s perception of Peter’s resistance as requiring of him “a radical reinterpretation of his own life-world, a genuine conversion of some kind which he was not prepared to undergo.”

Schneider believes “that in John’s Gospel the Foot Washing is more about the mutual service of friendship” than about “humble service”. “The message is not so much that the master has become the slave, but that all are on the same level. After Jesus has washed the disciple’s feet, he challenges them to do the same for each other and to see that all are equal friends in the kingdom; no one is above or below in any way.” As Jesus foretold-the day came when Peter understood and so, perhaps, shall we.

However you choose to participate tonight I hope you will have an eye and an ear for whatever circumstances that may arise in your life that call you to cross the threshold of discomfort  to love and serve each other as Jesus loved and served us for that is how the disciples of Jesus are known.

First Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Ken Powell

Lessons:

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

 

 

 

Good morning friends,

For some irresistible reason, I can’t stop myself from wishing you all a “Happy Lent” as well as a Holy Lent. I know it is contrary to what we may have heard about this somber season of repentance and fasting and sacrifice… but as I have grown in the faith I have become ever more thankful and even joyful for this time and encouragement to be deeply honest with myself about who I have been, who I am now and who I hope to become. Perhaps, this season of reflection and preparation can serve you in the same way.

I don’t suppose any of us can remember precisely when the word “sin” was first spoken in our presence or had any real grasp of what it might mean at that point. For your sake, I hope it was in a healthy loving way of truth telling although I know very well that is not always the case. I remember as a child a kind of dawning awareness that the people who were using the word seemed to be accusing me of crimes I had never committed; were telling me that I was defective in some profound way and that there was nothing I could do about it because someone in the dim past had eaten an apple they weren’t supposed to eat.

Well, I discovered that I could, in fact, reject and resent the whole concept. It just seemed ridiculous as if it didn’t apply to me in any way. Though I didn’t understand the implications very well at the time, it proved to be the first step on a long walk apart from the life and teachings of the church as I knew it…so you might have some idea about how amazed I am to find myself standing here preaching on the subject.

Looking back, I have the impression that in the church of my childhood it was just “sin, sin, sin” all the time… and then finally Jesus on the Cross looking down at the wretched sinners. It was like a perpetual Lenten mood without either the Epiphany or the Resurrection of Christ to guide us on this fragile journey of discovery and transformation. And that, as I see it now, was the problem.

It’s not hard to understand why repentance has such a bad name in our day. I found a list of 172 synonyms for the word in a thesaurus such as contrition, regret, remorse, guilt, self-reproach, and shame. Who really wants to dwell on such things if that’s all there is?

Somehow, by God’s grace, I was led back to a church tradition that taught that forgiveness follows repentance- repentance understood as a change of mind and heart that is both a turning from sin and a turning toward God. If the season of Lent in our life is about giving anything up that might cause us grief and suffering it is also about preparing to receive the gift of forgiveness, of healing and the clarity and strength to accept a better way of life…and that is ultimately a source of thanksgiving and joy not lamentation.

It can be quite illuminating in this light to read again the familiar stories of scripture that speak to this issue and seem to come with readymade, off the shelf interpretations. Take the account of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, for instance.

Most Bible’s today introduce the passage with a kind of superscript title such as “The First Sin and its Punishment” or “The Fall of Man” so that we are relieved of the burden of having to decide for ourselves what we are reading. As a further aid to our comprehension we have centuries of commentary drawing out the meaning for us under the head of “Original Sin” with a kind of Cliff’s Note version telling us in brief summary- “it’s Eve’s fault”.

Leaving aside any consideration of the devastating impact that such a dogmatic teaching has had on women over the ages let me just say that Adam and his spiritual descendants are never going to wriggle their way off the hook of culpability until they repent of their primary responsibility for the harm and injustice done on their behalf and then work to redress it.

Nevertheless, we still must recognize that any thought or recognition for what has been properly called our “Original Blessing” is- in that old Original Sin framework – cast altogether out of the picture, out of sight, out of mind even though it is the entire basis for our hope in Christ that we may recover our identity as the People of God.

Just imagine what it could mean if we recognized and recovered a living sense of our foundational story as originating in the blessing of all life and not upon the fall from grace or the curse that soon followed. After all isn’t our whole quest from paradise to heaven somehow rooted and nourished by the revelation that we are all, male and female, created in the image of God?

This story of the first family is certainly among the most ancient of the memories of the Hebrew people. I imagine it being told around the campfires on their forty-year journey in the wilderness while trying to come to terms with what it means to be a human being in God’s sight. It’s not so much about assigning blame to either Adam or Eve it seems to me as it is a deep intuition that “Once upon a Time” a Man and a Woman opened their eyes and knew that they were naked before God and each other. When the “other” came into being they were fully exposed -physically, emotionally, and psychologically vulnerable-and so they were afraid and tried to hide. In short, they became self-conscious and everything they knew began to change. There are still unplumbed depths to this story I am sure but to my mind this is a message that speaks poignantly to our time and place.

There is no human being in this room or on this planet past the age of five who hasn’t lived their lives with the consequences and the burden and the power and the responsibility of such a god-like awareness that is unique among all that lives. Knowing good and evil comes at a heavy price. Something died in us on that day. Perhaps our innocence, certainly our ignorance. But from the day of disobedience in Adam the Spirit of God has moved steadily, faithfully to the birth of the New Adam as St. Paul so clearly teaches to the One who was obedient in all things, even unto death- Jesus of Nazareth.

It is ordinarily and authoritatively taught that the Coming of Christ into the world was a sort of corrective plan B to offset the original sins of Adam and Eve or maybe even a plan C considering the fate of Noah’s generation but I wonder. Isn’t it curious that one of God’s own creatures was cunning enough to whisper in Eve’s ear the very thing that she would find most tempting. Does that make God complicit in the first sin? Could it mean that God didn’t know or couldn’t prevent the outcome? Simply allowing it isn’t much better. But what if, as some of us are beginning to wonder, the Coming of Christ into the world as He did was always the one and only Plan A. It is something to think about. More of God’s mysteries are yet to be revealed for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

What we do know for certain is that Jesus accepted the baptism of repentance from John and turned to God in a way that opened his entire being to the love of God in body, mind and soul and was received and revealed as the Son of God when the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove.

Then another remarkable thing happened. Whereas Jesus taught us to pray that we would not be led “into temptation” but rather “delivered from evil” the same Spirit that had just descended on Jesus led him into the wilderness to confront the Tempter who spoke in the same beguiling voice that Eve heard only now telling Him of the things that He in His majesty would find most tempting. And just as everything began to change when Adam and Eve said “Yes” so everything began to change when Jesus said “No”.

When we are tempted, when the beguiling voice of the tempter comes whispering in our ear, or assaults our sense of touch or taste or sight, when even the scent of some reckless desire comes close we can draw strength from Jesus’ example and the Spirit of God to confront the tempter ourselves for the knowledge of what is good abides in us as well. More than this-when fear and anger, terrible sorrow or grave injustice tempt us to do harm to ourselves or others let us turn to God and each other for help and companionship as we pray for the courage and conviction to follow Jesus to the Cross, to the empty tomb and to the resurrected life. What a joy it will be to lay our sins and our sorrows at his feet at last. Happy Lent everyone!

Holy Name by The Rev. Ken Powell

Lessons:

Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

Good morning friends,

And greetings to each of you on this first day of the New Year!

Let me begin by acknowledging what a great blessing it is for me to be here with you today and in the days to come! For Karen and myself this new year has the feel of a new life. We are grateful for the guiding hand of the Spirit in our journey to find a home here in Portland…and so we have…in every sense of the word.

Although there are many among you that I have not yet met, whose name I do not know, I believe I do know something deeply personal about each of you nevertheless that encourages me to call you my friend. Your presence here is an affirmation that the Lord has indeed “put” his name on you and “planted” in your heart the love of him whom we know as our Savior. Whatever else we may or may not have in common this is fertile soil within which deep and lasting relationships can thrive and salvation derive its meaning. This, I think, is what the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is intended to convey to us…although the scripture passage we have today has also been used to support a very different message in the past under a very different name and has had lasting consequences as well which we continue to live with today.

In the dim past-about fifteen hundred “new year’s” ago- the church in Gaul was concerned about festivities of another sort-that is to say- riotous pagan rituals associated with the New Year celebration. In their judgment, the church fathers thought the best way to address this problem was by providing an alternative day of fasting in conjunction with a newly authorized Feast of the Circumcision-since, I suppose, there is nothing quite like contemplating Jesus’ circumcision to quell every sort of appetite. They did this by contriving an assumed relationship between Jesus’ circumcision and the Roman New Year celebration on the flimsy basis that both occurred eight days after his birth. One would think that St. Paul had adequately disposed of the notion of circumcision as being necessary or helpful in the life of the church but evidently not.

While I’m convinced that this was a poor and inappropriate strategy in the first place I am also convinced that more importantly it distorted a crucial point Luke was trying to make which had nothing to do with suppressing folk traditions or excess of any sort. Sadly, it is the case that the church has often used scripture for reasons other than that intended by the author. Luke was interested in the circumcision of Jesus because it was a direct and objective sign to everyone of the lineage of Jesus, body, mind and soul all the way back to Abraham and his God. It has been disastrous to miss this point or minimize it – to forget, ignore or deny the fundamental fact that Jesus was and is Jewish in every important way. We cannot truly know Jesus without fully embracing that most formative expression of his identity and every connecting strand of that tradition which is weakened or misused is a loss to the integrity of that identity.

It wasn’t until the new Prayer Book of 1979 that the Episcopal Church corrected the misapplied emphasis on the circumcision of Jesus on New Year’s Day by adopting instead Luke’s actual emphasis  the naming of Jesus. Had we been contemplating the Holy Name for fifteen centuries instead of circumcision we might have come to know Jesus better and done less harm in His name.

But, as the saying goes, “What’s in a name?”  In this day and age it is common to choose the name of a child because we simply like the sound of it. Or we think it is clever or trendy. We seem to be losing the practice of naming someone after a family member or to honor someone we admire. Our names go on ID cards and name tags but don’t have much of an inherent meaning in and of themselves. They don’t tell us much about our past or point us toward a future. We are “free agents”- no longer bound to a tradition,  place or even family. Perhaps that is part of the reason we so desperately try to “make a name for ourselves”, why celebrity status is so sought after and valued, why personal “branding” is an accepted norm.

In former times this was not the case. Names were given because of qualities or attributes that were either observed in you or expected of you. Names had the power to identify something essential about who people were and how they were to be known. From the beginning in biblical culture names had sacred significance.  Once revealed God’s name was considered  too sacred to be spoken. The name Adam meant something akin to “the human formed from the red earth” and his capacity to name the animals of God’s creation established humankind’s dominion. Eve was “the living one”. The names Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Moses all addressed their character and their role in the biblical story.

If we are to recover the significance of these names and understand what they are telling us we need to be attentive in ways that have become unfamiliar-most particularly attentive to “the name that is above every name”- The Holy Name of Jesus which in the Hebrew “Yehoshuah” means “Yahweh is salvation.” In that name the beginning and the end of our faith journey are bound together.

 Luke reminds us that this name was “given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” and shows us that his naming fulfills and confirms the word of God delivered by the angel Gabriel to Mary.  This name “planted” in the heart of Mary was “to be the sign of our salvation” and to name the source of that salvation. By this name we are called to attend to every word and every act of the One who bore the name. By His name we are shown our need for salvation and how we might hope to attain it. That at least is what I can glean from pondering these things in my heart as Mary did.

But somewhere in my own dim past the idea was laid down that salvation was the gift of eternal life as a reward for believing the right things in the right way with the right people. Salvation was about being personally saved from eternal damnation etc. etc.  and everyone “left behind” on the terrible “Judgment Day” was only getting what they deserved. You know the awful litany. As someone has put it salvation in that tradition is about having “fire insurance” or an “evacuation plan” but offers nothing for this suffering world but abandonment by a supposedly just and merciful God. I’ve been trying to root those ideas and all their companions out of my damaged head and heart for years and years. I’ve realized that much of that work involved discarding what salvation isn’t but hadn’t given enough thought to what it might be.

I have no neat, airtight, theological argument to make but I do believe that Jesus had “the words of eternal life” and if I abide in them something of God’s Kingdom will be revealed to me and that is salvation. I believe that healing of every kind has a place in that kingdom. That prayer, sacrament and service done in Jesus’ name have the power to bring God’s saving love into every atom of the creation and all its creatures. I believe that deliverance from sin and evil, reconciliation, forgiveness, and every simple kindness are true expressions of an eternal love present here and now whatever else may follow and that is salvation. I am content to say with Rumi “The one who brought me here will have to take me home.”  For myself I do not aspire to explain the salvation revealed in the Holy Name of Jesus but only to listen carefully and draw close to his life, death and resurrection. As one of my teachers has said, “We cannot trust Jesus with our death, if we cannot trust him with our life.”

But whatever salvation may mean for me in my personal life it is most importantly a question of what it means for the society in which we live. A pious life lived amid injustice and violence is a help but it is not enough if the life of Jesus is the measure. Salvation is of the nature of wholeness and transformation and relationship. It is about community, about liberation, about gratitude, about doing our part to bring the reign of God here on earth as it is in heaven. May this New Year bring each of us closer together in the new life that Jesus has revealed. Blessed be his Name!