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Good Enough For Him: Holy Name Year C

Exodus 34: 1-8
Phillipians 2: 9-13 or Romans 1: 1-7
Luke 2: 15-21

A preacher in Georgia once had this to say about Jesus: “He did not come to put us to shame with his divinity. He came to call us into the fullness of our humanity, which was good enough for him.” (Barbara Brown Taylor — God In Pain). Human life is important to God. Individual humans are important to God. Human activities are important to God. In fact, all of those things are so important to God that God freely became an individual human and participated in all the common activities associated with that particular human — Jesus of Nazareth. Today we celebrate two of those common human activities: the naming of a child, and the circumcision of a child.

The naming of a child is usually an important decision for the parents. They come up with lists of names and then come up with new lists of names and then come up with other lists of names, until eventually they settle on a name or two or three to give the child. Our gospel story tells us that Mary and Joseph were spared all the work of choosing a name for their child, since an angel had already said that he was to be called Jesus. Where I grew up in Texas, Jesus was a common name, although most of the Hispanic boys in my school with that name usually went by a nickname like Chuy or Beto or Junior. It was only on the first day of school when the class roll was called that you heard their real names (usually mispronounced by the Anglo teacher as Geezus instead of Haysoos). The name Jesus is not all that uncommon up here in the midwest, either, although most of the time it is pronounced Joshua, which is simply the anglicized version of the real semitic form of Jesus. The name Jesus (in its semitic form) was not all that uncommon in Jesus’ time, either. There are several Jesuses in the Bible. Some English translations have them as Jesus, some as Joshua. In fact, the prisoner who was released instead of Jesus by Pilate was named Jesus Barabbas, which means Jesus Son of the Father.

A common human name was good enough for God.

The circumcision of a child — a male child — is also an important decision for the parents. Now days the matter to be decided is “should we or shouldn’t we”. Once again, Mary and Joseph were spared this decision because in their time and place, it was simply the thing to do. It was a common, although quite meaningful human activity, and it was good enough for God. The circumcision of Jesus also shows us that Jesus had all his human parts.

A common human body was good enough for God.

If we keep reading the gospel after the section we heard today, we hear a little about Jesus’ childhood and adolescence. Not many details are given, but twice in this chapter Luke mentions that Jesus kept growing. A common childhood and adolescence seem to have been good enough for God, also, and even though his later years were a little extraordinary, they were lived out in the ordinary society of the time and place. In fact, if we really believe it when we say that Jesus is fully God and fully human, we are saying that we believe that every human bodily function, every human urge and desire, and every human fear, joy, pleasure, and pain were experienced by God in Jesus. All of those things belonged to Jesus, and therefore they belong to God. Since whatever belongs to God is holy, then all of human life is holy — every bodily function, every urge and desire, and every fear, joy, pleasure, and pain. Because of the creation, we bear God’s image — because of the incarnation, God bears our image. We are doubly holy.

We are also doubly responsible for treating ourselves and each other as the holy beings that we are. We must take care of our holy human bodies, as well as our holy human spirits and souls. Our bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits need proper care to function as best as they can. Our intellectual, sexual, social, and family lives must never be forgotten, abused, or neglected. Mistreatment or improper use of any parts of our lives degrades their holiness and lessens us and the entire human race. We don’t always seem all that holy to ourselves or to others, but that’s because although we are holy, we are human, and humans grow. Our holiness must grow, and in order to grow it must be fostered and cultivated with love. As the years and decades of cultivating our holiness roll by, we will seem ever so slightly more holy.

More importantly, as our holiness grows, we see the holiness in others more clearly. We begin to realize that our immature ideas of holiness might have been wrong, and we realize that even though others are different from us they are holy, nonetheless. However, even before we reach total maturity in Christ, we are obliged to treat every other person we meet as the doubly holy image of God that they are created to be, whether or not they are growing in that image, or are stagnant, or even actively trying to erase the image of God from their lives. That is not an easy task, treating everyone as the holy image of God. It is hard work, and we fail at it a lot of the time. We all need to work at it, every day and every hour. We can grow only with God’s help, but we still need to put that help to work, through prayer, meditation, honest self-examination, and other disciplines. Fortunately, we have an example of growth and holiness set before us in the particular, common human life of Jesus of Nazareth. As that preacher in Georgia said: “He did not come to put us to shame with his divinity. He came to call us into the fullness of our humanity, which was good enough for him.”

May we all grow in our holy human lives, while encouraging and helping others to grow. May we see the holiness of God in every person we meet, and treat them accordingly. And may the doubly holy images of God that we are created to be grow ever brighter, spreading the love, peace, and joy of heaven to the entire world. AMEN

 

 

Advent IV Year C: Prenatal Care

Micah 5:2-5a
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-55

Our gospel story this morning is about two pregnant women (relatives) who greet each other. The women are affected by each other’s presence; they both say things that are now some of the most quoted verses from the Bible. The children in their wombs are also affected by each other’s presence (at least the one in Elizabeth’s womb is excited about the one in Mary’s womb), and they would have more influence on each other as they grew up: Jesus and John the Baptist.

The story is good for us to remember, because we are also influenced by what is inside the people around us, and what is inside us influences the people around us. Of course, we are not our thoughts and we are not our emotions – we can not take the credit or the blame for our psychological makeups. But we can foster some of our internal habits and dilute others. We need to choose wisely the ones we will foster and the ones we will dilute, and some will take a lot of work and effort to dilute and will always be with us as constant nagging sores, but that is no reason to give up working on them. Difficult and impossible are not the same. And we shouldn’t compare ourselves and our internal habits with anyone else – just because a person seems to have no problems on the outside does not mean he is not struggling on the inside.

It takes a lifetime of work to foster our helpful internal habits like compassion and love and dilute the harmful ones like greed and fear, but it is worth the effort, because doing so helps not only us, but also the people around us. Our thoughts influence our actions. Like anything else in life, our internal happenings will be a series of ups and downs. When we find ourselves in a period of being controlled by our harmful internal patterns like selfishness or judgmentalism, we simply need to acknowledge it and do what we can do to change it – no need to condemn ourselves – that is never productive. Then we can get on with the work of fostering our helpful patterns like joy and tolerance.

The women in our gospel story were both carrying children conceived by miraculous means, but once they were pregnant, they did have to take care of what was in their wombs so that the children could be born healthy. We also need to take care of our God-given helpful internal habits so that they can become stronger and so we can eventually bring them out as actions that help others – much as the children inside Elizabeth and Mary were brought forth from them to help the people around them. We can take care of our God-given internal habits such as kindness and cooperation by using the time honored classical disciplines of prayer, scripture reading, obedience, and constancy. Then, slowly but surely, we will actually start acting out those helpful habits and so become a blessing to ourselves and the people around us.

It wasn’t easy for Elizabeth and Mary, and it won’t be easy for us. But it is worth it. We will often fail, but that’s ok. We fall down, we get back up again. God is always there, picking us up and pouring grace into us. We just have to take his gifts and bring them out to the world around us.   AMEN

Proper 25 Year B: Sunshine Of Your Love

Mark 10:46-52

The healing of Bartimaeus the blind man that we heard in our gospel story this morning is not the most dramatic healing Jesus has done. Healing our own blindness is a much bigger job, because we are blind in a much deeper way than merely being unable to see with our eyes. Jesus brings light to our inner darkness, and that darkness is caused by our own sin.

We have lost our way because we have put up barriers between ourselves and God. We might not be notorious criminals or cruel monsters, but our own petty selfish deeds are just as effective at rejecting God as are bigger sins. If our constant thought is “me, me, me”, then we are not thinking “God, God, God”, or “others, others, others”, or “God, others, and me” (which is actually the best of the choices). All of that emphasis on ourselves turns us into little black holes, sucking everything into our own little circle and covering us in darkness. We cut ourselves off from God, and in so doing lose all stability, sense of direction, and ability to discern truth from falsehood.

Of course, we are not always in that state. We wax and wane in our relationship with God, who remains stable in his desire and love for us no matter our condition. In fact, God’s love and desire for us is so strong that God takes action to dispel the blindness that we bring on ourselves, and sometimes that action is much more dramatic than the healing of Bartimaeus. We might experience it as being humbled by another person’s comments or actions that finally make us admit our pettiness, or by witnessing an event that causes us to finally see our own selfishness, or by a time of prayer and scripture reading that brings to light our own darkness and the need for God’s help. Those instances are more common than the kind of healing that Bartimaeus got, but they are no less miraculous. They might seem easier than healing physical blindness, but God’s healing of our inner selves is actually a lot more miraculous than healing of our bodies.

But even after we do wake up to God’s light, we ought not to just keep staring at it, dazed and confused. We have a life to live in the sunshine of God’s love, and we need to grow to the point where we can share that light. We need to work to stop ourselves from once again putting up barriers between us and God – all those selfish little things that blinded us in the first place. Of course, we must not forget that even with the need for work on our part, the healing that we need comes only from God. Like the blind man in our gospel story, we need to stand by the side of the road and cry to Jesus for mercy, no matter how often the people around us discourage us from doing so, like they did to Bartimaeus. But then we need to take that mercy that God gives us and put it to use, being honest about the thoughts, words, and actions that hinder our relationship with God. We do those things, and they are no one’s fault but our own. They might be big or small, hidden or well known to others, but they are there all the same, keeping us blindly isolated in a dark shell of self-centeredness. May we always cry to God for mercy, asking for God’s strength to save us and bring us out of darkness in to light. May we never be discouraged when we fall back again into our pride and thoughtlessness (because we will fall back again and again), and may we never discourage others from crying out for mercy (like those people around Bartimaeus). We fall dawn, we get back up again, but God is always there offering sight and hope. God will have mercy, we just need to be humble enough to ask for it.   AMEN

Proper 21 Year B: Ebony And Ivory

Numbers11: 4-6,10-16,24-29
James 5: 13-20
Mark 9: 38-50

We sometimes forget the great, freeing truth of what we just heard Jesus say in our gospel story this morning: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”. He said it in response to John who told him a story about finding other people working in the name of Jesus who were not from their own group. Jesus makes it clear that he is quite alright with people doing good deeds in his name, no matter what group they are in. He also makes it quite clear that anyone doing bad deeds, even if that person is in his group of disciples (and therefore presumably doing it in his name), will be cursed.

So it seems that actions are the important things, and group membership is of secondary importance. We probably all know people who are either indifferent or even hostile to official Christianity and yet are some of the most Christ-like people on earth – theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And we also probably know church members who are some of the cruelest people on earth – theirs is the kingdom of hell.

None of that is to say that beliefs are unimportant or that orthodoxy has no value. They do have value, but only if we allow the Holy Spirit to use those tools to form us into loving people. If, on the other hand, we use them to form ourselves into hateful people, we are working against Jesus and against ourselves.

And even within the church around the world and throughout history, we ought not to be so quick to judge other groups because of their styles of worship or government, or the education levels or social classes of their members. The body of Christ is big and diverse, and many different denominations are needed to help everyone fit in the Body. The church would be impoverished without the gift of the multiplicity of denominations. However, we can and often do take that gift and twist it into opportunities for rivalry and bitterness between denominations – and the smaller the differences between denominations, the more bitter the fighting. No wonder the Holy Spirit gets tired of it all and so often chooses to work through non-Christians.

But we can change that. We can see other groups working in the name of Jesus and be happy and grateful for them. We can see other groups doing good things whether or not they do them in the name of Jesus and be happy and grateful for them. It is so much easier than getting upset (and so much less ridiculous). Then, maybe the Holy Spirit will think we are ready to do good works and will use us. How much better to be filled with the Holy Spirit than with jealousy and pettiness. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” It’s all about Jesus; it’s not about us.   AMEN

Before And After: Transfiguration 2015

Exodus 34: 29-35
II Peter 1: 13-21
Luke 9: 28-36

This morning’s Old Testament story of Moses’s face shining with glory after coming down from the mountain of God happens shortly after the incident of Aaron making the golden calf that was worshipped by the former slaves, causing Moses to smash the tablets of law that God gave him the first time they met on the mountain. This morning’s gospel story of Jesus shining with glory happens the day before his disciples fail to heal a boy of demon possession, a failure that Jesus attributes to their perverseness and lack of faith. So in these two stories, we have the glory of God shown both before and after major instances of human faithlessness.

Though not specifically stated in these scriptures, it could be inferred that the glory of God shining from Moses’s face was meant to reassure the people that even after their infidelity, God was still in their presence and was still guiding them. Similarly, it has often been assumed that the incident of Jesus’s transfiguration was meant to strengthen the disciples and prepare them for the crucifixion, even though they would be unfaithful many times before and after it.

So it is still with us. Like Aaron, we make our own gods out of the things we can accomplish, rather than trusting in the true God to guide us. And like the disciples, we often lack the faith to cast out the demons that hurt us and those around us. But even with all that faithlessness on our part, God still loves and cares for us, and gives us signs to strengthen us and reassure us of his presence in our lives. We may not see Moses or Jesus shining with glory, but we can, if we choose, see God’s glory in the wonderful universe around us. We can see God’s love and care for us in our family and friends, and even in strangers who treat us with kindness. Sometimes those signs are hard to see and understand, especially when it seems that the universe is being cruel to us, or when those around us abuse us or are lost to us.

That is why Jesus gives us another sign of God’s glorious presence in our lives. Every time we gather at the table up here, God shows his presence in our lives by feeding us with himself. We not only gather together with Jesus to share a meal with him, we partake of his being as he freely gives his body and blood to us. The very life of God is given to us, and since we gather together with others at the table, we are assured not only of God’s presence in our own lives, but also of God’s presence in the lives of all those who share in the meal. The meal we are about to consume at this table is not merely some kind of symbol of our life with Jesus (although it is that); it is a tangible conduit of his presence in us and in our world. We are what we eat, and as we partake of the life of Jesus, we grow ever more into his likeness as we take that likeness into our own small corner of the universe, bringing God’s shining glory to those who need it.

We will still be unfaithful many times before and after this meal, just like the people in our scripture readings. We might not be very good at seeing God’s glory shining on the faces of those who gather here with us, and they might not be able to see it in ours. But the more we know the glory is there, the more apt we are to see it and show it to others. We will fail many times at seeing and showing God’s glory, but that must not stop us from our slow growth in trying to do so. The glory is not our own, it is God’s, but it is freely given to us. May we take it with joy and assurance that, instead of the short glimpses that we catch now every once in a while, one day we will see it fully and forever. AMEN