Last Epiphany (B): Remember the Mountaintop

Last Epiphany (B): Remember the Mountaintop

Mark 9:2-9

By: The Rev. Anna Tew

I once served as a hospital chaplain for a year. I was often rendered speechless by the pain I saw, and many times, silent accompaniment was what my patients and their families needed. Other times, I was called on to offer a word of hope.

Some of the most difficult cases were there was no clear happy ending. This could be because of a sudden crisis, or because of chronic pain or a bad diagnosis. In Atlanta, where I served, I was often tasked with offering hope to patients who were deeply religious, but were having a hard time seeing God’s presence in their lives at a particular moment. They sometimes called on me to help.

In time, I learned that often, the words of hope that patients wanted so desperately were not my words, but their own. It was my role as chaplain to be something of a midwife for hope; I was called only to ask the right questions.

Once, as I sat at the bedside of a patient, he described his deep faith but wondered if now God had abandoned him, because his health was failing. I assured him that God is not so cruel as to punish people by making them sick, nor do I believe that God abandoned him.

With tears in his eyes he said, “But I feel like God has left me. Has God left me?”

“Of course not,” I say, gripping his hand. “Can you tell me about the times in the past that you’ve felt God’s presence before?”

Nearly very time I had similar conversations, the results were always the same: the person would suddenly, even through tears, launch into praise as they narrated time and time again how God had been with them, about what they viewed as miracles — proof positive to them that their faith in God was well placed. They described mountaintop experiences.

“Do you believe that same God is still around today?” I asked this man gently.
“Of course! God is the same yesterday, and today, and forever!”

“Then I think that God is most certainly with you now as then.”

With that, he smiled and slept.

When we feel like God has abandoned us, it’s the times when our faith felt sure that can call us back.

In today’s Gospel, we venture with Jesus up to literal the mountain top. Peter, James, and John are there. They have come, they think, to pray. We don’t know how long they were there, but Luke does tell us: “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep…” Perhaps they waited and prayed for awhile, and night fell.

But then. Then, suddenly, everything changed.

Luke tells us that “since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” Suddenly, before their eyes, Jesus is transformed, his clothes radiating with a dazzling white, radiating with all the glory of heaven. Moses and Elijah appear at his side, and there he is — the Son of God, shining in glory, flanked by Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets. All is as it should be in that one shining moment. The disciples must have been floored. They must have imagined that this is why Jesus called them — to see this very moment.

I admit that I’ve often both related to and chuckled at Peter in this story. He reacts pretty practically, actually: “Let’s build something.” Let’s fix it. Let’s build shelters for all three of you. Depending on the time of year, this could have been very practical — if it was very hot or cold. Peter assumes, wrongly, that they are going to stay here. I can’t blame him. This miracle — this revelation — surely this was the ultimate revelation, right?

I imagine that they, at the very least, wanted to tell someone about all this, but Luke says that in those days, they kept quiet. Matthew adds a little more depth to the story; Jesus says to them on their way down the mountain: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” That line always gives me chills. This isn’t it. That wasn’t all. There’s more. And what comes next will be painful.

You see, they thought this was the end of the story. They thought this shining moment was the pinnacle of everything. But they hoped far too small. Because our God is not only or not even primarily found in those moments shining on the mountaintop when everything seems clear and where our faith seems certain. If that were the case, we should hope for more mountaintops and direct revelations.

Our God is found, most commonly, when things are at their worst. In the cross, we see that Christ is ever-present in human suffering. Certainly, we all marvel at mountaintop moments, moments when our faith seems sure and our call seems certain. But if you think that God is amazing because Jesus’ clothing is sparkling — you just wait until God takes what is dead and makes it new again.

The Transfiguration, the mountaintop, is not the end of the story. It’s only the beginning. It will be the confirmation that the disciples think back to when things get hard. When things seem impossible. When things seem dead and irreconcilable. I imagine that, when the disciples were locked in the upper room after Jesus was killed on the cross, when all hope seemed lost, that there were whispers among James and John and Peter about the Transfiguration. “Remember?” they whispered to each other. “That was real. I saw it too.” The Transfiguration, I imagine, just maybe offered a glimmer of hope that this wasn’t the end.

“Remember?” I imagine Peter whispering. “Maybe… just maybe… maybe it’s not over.” And that is what mountaintop experiences will do for us — those shining moments aren’t extinguished easily. They give us hope in dark times.

So let’s look around and take this mountaintop moment in. Jesus is before us, transfigured, with the law and the prophets at his side. God speaks about him from the sky and tells us to listen to him. For one shining moment, we get proof beyond all doubt that we are following the right guy — that this Jesus isn’t just a great rabbi — he’s God made flesh, and he’s our only hope.

Remember the mountaintop moments in your life, too — times when it feels like God is right there and when your purpose seems so clear. Mark them, remember them, bless them. Because mountaintop moments like the Transfiguration aren’t for God’s benefit, they’re for ours. So that we can be sure that we are on the right path. So that we can know that even if the path leads to death, take heart, because even death leads to resurrection. And next week, as if on cue, the challenge of Lent begins, and we will venture even deeper into God’s unfailing grace.

And when Lent gets into full swing, let’s remember the alleluias today even as we anticipate the much larger alleluias of Easter. When Lent drags on, let’s whisper to each other, “Remember?” Let us look around on the mountaintop, so that we can remember that God, made flesh and true to his Word, is certainly, certainly still with us. Amen.

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The Rev. Anna Tew

The Rev. Anna Tew is a 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

 

 

 

 

Presentation (B): Not So Fast!

Presentation (B): Not So Fast!

Luke 2:22-40

By: The Very Rev. Brandon Duke

There’s a house on my block that sold weeks ago. No one has moved in. It sits empty; and there are still Christmas lights hanging from the roof. Its purgatory-like presence both intrigues and annoys. Annoys because the house and its yard are untidy. Intrigues because today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord.

Let me explain:  Today marks the 40th day after Christmas, and with this feast the Church closes out the “Incarnation cycle.” In other words, it’s time to put away those Christmas decorations. We’re two weeks away from Lent…Shouldn’t we be tidying up the yards of our hearts, climbing a ladder to the roofs of our souls tearing down those Christmas lights? “Not so fast,” says this Feast Day. In fact, some Christian traditions hide away the light bulbs while the candles come out. For this reason, The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord is sometimes referred to as Candlemas. It’s the day when the candles used in worship services will be blessed. It’s also a reminder that the long winter’s nights are still around, yet the light of Christ eternally radiates the darkness.

Luke 2:22-40 gives us three presentations to consider on this feast day. The holy family presented sacrifices of thanksgiving in accordance with the law of Moses (“a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”) They also presented their newborn son, Jesus, who “suddenly comes to his temple;” thus fulfilling an ancient messianic prophesy found in Malachi 3:1. The third presentation is that of Simeon and Anna, two pious and patient Jews, who waited their whole lives to present themselves to the Messiah.

Luke’s story also captures the tensions and realities found in new things. A new child was born as the Messiah, yet old thoughts and formularies about what this meant had to pass away. Mary, like any mother, was proud of her new son, yet she learned “a sword [would] pierce [her] heart” when new revelations about her child would be exposed (Luke 2:35). For each beginning, there is an ending; and the transitions in between are often messy and confusing.

As we transition out of Christmas and Epiphany into the season of Lent, may Candlemas be a day to honor what has come before, and to ready ourselves as to what may lay ahead. If the lights are still on your roof, know that the house of your heart does not stand empty, but is filled with God’s “wisdom and favor” (Luke 2:40). If the Christmas decorations are down at your house, take out a candle, light it, and present yourself to the Lord in prayer as Christ presents himself to you in illumination.

Below, please find the prayer that will be said in Episcopal churches and homes today. I offer it to you in thanksgiving for your ministry to Christ. Use the prayer as you light a candle, then find a word or phrase that sticks out to you, and meditate on its meaning. As for me (and my soon-to-be neighbor) who knows? I may go over to their sold, yet unkempt house, plug in those Christmas lights one last time, praying and contemplating something similar.

Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP, 239)

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The Very Rev. Brandon Duke

The Very Rev. Brandon Duke serves Christ as pastor, priest, and teacher at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. As a parish priest, Brandon wants to raise up saints in the Church while stumbling along with sinners like himself. He tries to make his weekly sermons bloggable at https://fatherbrandon.com/. Follow him there, and judge for yourself.

5th Sunday after Epiphany (B): Stay in Your Lane

5th Sunday after Epiphany (B): Stay In Your Lane

Mark 1:29-39

Jay Butler

I am a huge sports fan. I like some sports more than others, but I at least try to keep my finger on the pulse of all of them. In fact, one of my strongest memories growing up was to be an anchor on SportsCenter, ESPN’s flagship program. I imagined cracking jokes and delivering awesome sports highlights alongside Dan Patrick, Linda Cohn, and the late Stuart Scott. One of the conundrums with sports news is that while it is meant to inform, it is also meant to entertain. That is why you see big stars like LeBron James or Tom Brady always discussed. Unfortunately, one of the people that is always talked about in sports news is Lavar Ball.

Lavar Ball is the father of Los Angeles Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball. He is loud, opinionated, and flat out rude, if I say so myself. One of my least favorite interviews I heard from him took place on Fox Sports 1’s The Herd with Colin Cowherd. When he was naturally arguing and speaking over the host Cowherd, co-host Kristine Leahy tried to interject with her comments. Ball, without even turning his head to address her, told her to “stay in your lane.” He tried to silence her with one command. That is the quintessential thought process of a bully, or someone who has an unhealthy view of power. That mentality has oppressed numerous people groups for millennia. But can that phrase be redeemed in any way possible? How can Jesus empower us when we feel “stuck in our lane?”

This week’s Gospel text focuses on the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Already in Mark 1, Jesus has been very busy. He’s been baptized, tempted, selected His first apostles, and healed a man with an unclean spirit at the synagogue in Capernaum. That’s where this week’s lectionary picks up. In the first half of our selection, Jesus healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. I also noticed the negative connotation of “staying in your lane.” They enter the house, and Simon and Andrew “told him about [Simon’s mother-in-law] at once,” as it says in verse 30. Why did they tell Jesus about the mother-in-law “at once?” Were they concerned about her health, or ashamed that she did not have the house ready or she was not prepared to entertain them? I interpret this as the brothers apologizing for Simon’s mother-in-law not doing what she’s supposed to do. It was an intensely patriarchal society in first century Palestine, and women “stayed in their lane” by serving the men of the household. However, Jesus does not accost her for not doing what was expected of her. He instead lifts her up, both literally and metaphorically. Her lane is widened and cleared because of the grace of God through Jesus Christ and His work.

In the second half of the text, we see another instance of people trying to have another person “stay in their lane.” Jesus “went out to a deserted place and, there he prayed,” as it says in verse 35. However, sensing that Jesus was not around them, or able to attend to their needs, they “hunted” for Jesus. They did not search or scour for Jesus. They HUNTED for him. You hunt for something when you feel you have a right to it. We hunt animals because we believe we have a right to be full or to enjoy the sport. We hunt for bargains because we feel we have the right to the best price for a good or service. They hunted for Jesus because the Apostles felt they had a right to be with him. According to verse 37, everyone else felt that they had a right to be with Him too. Did Jesus get out of His lane when He went to go pray by Himself? Certainly not. This revelation then begs the question, “What is our lane?” and “Who sets it for us?”

Our “lane” can be defined by many things. Sometimes we can define it, based on choices in our lives, or how hard we work to achieve our dreams. Sometimes it is defined by things are out of our control, like genetics or socioeconomic status. Society sets a lot of the lanes that we live in. For example, I stay in my ministry lane because it is what God has called me to, and I have the requisite training for the career. This also helps us figure out what lane we’re not supposed to be in. I am called to advocate for the oppressed, but I’m also called to lift up those who are oppressed, and follow their lead. I stay in the slow lane, while others more qualified are supposed to take the lead and set the pace. However, the core of what defines our lanes is the power of the Holy Spirit.

John 14:26 says, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (NRSV). The Holy Spirit gives us the ability to thrive in the lane we live in, or move into the one we were called. Many times we are placed in situations where we feel marginalized or misrepresented. The Holy Spirit, however, gives us hope when we feel powerless, and give us a connection to our Creator. We see that in our text through the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and through the connection Jesus has in prayer with God, respectively. We are given hope in the fact that although we may be “stuck in our lanes,” the Holy Spirit fights for us, and for a better tomorrow for us.

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Jay Butler

Jay Butler is Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church, in Durham, North Carolina. He loves his job because he can pick on teenagers…but in a loving, Christ-filled way. He loves his dog, baseball, the theatre, and convincing you why college football is better than college basketball.

4th Sunday after Epiphany(B): The Path to True Joy

4th Sunday after Epiphany(B): The Path to True Joy

Mark 1:21-28

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

“Yes!” said a great voice behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.

“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad.

“Aren’t you dead then, dear Aslan?” said Lucy.

“Not now,” said Aslan.

Unclean Spirits. New Teachings. Authority. Astonishment. Exorcisms. Amazement. Questions. The Gospel of Mark does not want for sermon topics. As I began to look at this passage, I did something I don’t do very often, but should do more frequently: I read the text in multiple translations. As it turns out, my preaching professors were right, this is actually a great place to begin sermon preparation, because this time the NRSV is hiding something.

Maybe ‘hiding’ is the wrong word, and maybe this will be obvious to everyone else. At the end of the passage, after Jesus has taught with authority and then shown that authority by casting out an unclean spirit, the people are standing around. In the NRSV, “They were all amazed…”  The Common English Bible reads “Everyone was shaken…

What does it mean to be amazed around God? The Greek word is thambeo, and as it turns out, Mark uses it more than any other Gospel—a total of 34 times. Translators give a lot of different translations for this sentiment: astounded, amazed, overcome with awe, overcome with excitement, agitated, stunned, and baffled to name a few. At the end of Mark when the women leave the tomb and tell no one what they have seen, they do so because “terror and thambeo had seized them” (Mk 16:8.) In the garden of Gethsemane before his death Jesus is “distressed and thambeo “ (Mk 14:33.) Thambeo shows up at exorcisms, healings, when Jesus walks on water. The word is paired with distress, fear, terror, and as a response to “strange things.”

Given what Jesus did in his time on Earth, amazement and absolute terror both seem like reasonable responses. Given what God is doing today, it seems that amazement and fear are completely appropriate responses. God is dangerous, and to follow Christ is to enter willingly into that danger with fear and excitement. I think that the Sufi master Hafiz says it best when he writes:

Love is grabbing hold of the great lion’s mane

And wrestling and rolling deep into existence

While the beloved gets rough and begins to maul you alive.

True love, my dear, is putting an ironclad grip

Upon the soft, swollen balls of a divine rogue elephant

And not having the good fortune to die.

Watching the lives of the disciples we see that following Christ causes them to have much to fear as they enter into the unknown. Jesus wasn’t welcome in his own home (MK 6:1-6.) Jesus tells the disciples to feed 5,000 people when they only had five loaves and two fish, which from the disciples perspective means giving up the food they had to fill their own stomachs (Mk 6.) Jesus says that whoever wants to be greatest must become like a little child, and not a famous wealthy religious elitist (MK 9.) On top of all this, Jesus keeps telling the disciples that he is going to die. Following Jesus is a proposition that runs counter to everything the disciples had ever dreamed of (which, as a side note, might be why women and the poor resonated with Christ’s message; it allowed them to dream and gave them a place in the kingdom.)

Following God is exciting, but it does not mean clear and easy sailing. If we suggest that following Christ means anything less than letting the power and authority of Christ rip us apart, we do a disservice to our congregations. The gospel is that God puts us back together again. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is constantly healing, casting out spirits, and leading people into a fuller understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God.

Christianity is not a recipe for success or wealth. Christianity is a path to true joy; joy found in relationship with the Creator. Lucy and Susan were both glad and frightened when they turned around only to find the recently deceased Aslan standing before them in greater glory than they had ever known. The people of Capernaum were amazed and shaken when Jesus taught then with authority by casting out an unclean spirit. We should be amazed and horrified when God calls us.

Be honest with your congregation. The call of Christ is earth shattering and life upending, but it is full of life and love. The call of Christ is the only thing that brings us into the fullness of the kingdom. To follow Christ is to surrender what we want to keep, and gain a wholeness we never knew was possible. To follow Jesus is to grab hold of the lion’s mane, and not have “the good fortune to die,” because this way leads to meaningful living, fulfillment, and to life eternal.

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a graduate of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. He enjoys running, hiking, and backyard gardening. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Together, Jon and Keri have a dog named Hala, two beehives, and chickens. Jonathan was commissioned as a provisional Elder in the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church in 2015. He serves two churches in McDowell County, North Carolina. He will be going before the Board of Ordained Ministry the first week of February for his Full Connection and Ordination interviews and would certainly appreciate your prayers.

 

3rd Sunday after Epiphany (B): Decentering Ourselves

3rd Sunday after Epiphany (B): Decentering Ourselves

Mark 1:14-20

The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells

When I was first considering going to seminary and pursuing a life in the ministry, I had several pastors tell me, “If you can do anything else other than ministry and be happy, then do that. But If you can’t, follow that call and go to seminary.” I get their point—they were trying to help me sort out if I was called to this vocation. But at the same time, its not actually about my happiness. Its not about me. Perhaps what would have been better is if they said if you feel your way of living into discipleship is suited anywhere else, do that.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone should go into the ministry as a full time vocation. But I am saying that all of us are called into ministry; into discipleship—not because it makes us feel good all the time, but because the world needs us.

As we enter this text, we see that the call that Jesus places on these first disciples is nothing short of a life change. “Follow me and I will make you fishers of People.” These disciples are asked to leave their homes, their families, and their jobs to become a disciple of Jesus. I don’t think he said “if you can do anything else and be happy, do that.”

This passage shows us that following Jesus is a life shift and might mean some sacrificing, because it’s not really about us. It’s about God’s work in the world.

I don’t think that God is necessarily calling all of us to leave our jobs and become monks, pastors, or leave our families. But I do believe that following Jesus will mean a decentering of our own self and a re-centering of Christ and Christ’s work in the world in our lives.

I wonder what this looks like for modern day disciples? I wonder what it looks like for me and for you? As I look around I see that we are living in a time when the kingdom of man is reigning supreme rather than the Kind-om of God. Wealth, power, and the abuse of power seem to dominate our headlines. This is fundamentally at odds for God’s vision for humankind. I wonder what it means for us to toss aside our “nets” and follow Jesus right now. Perhaps it might mean tossing aside our “niceties” and politeness, or our comfort to engage and speak out against injustice. Perhaps it might mean taking the time to recognize when you have places of privilege and to let go of those places of privilege and power to allow others’ voices to be heard. Perhaps it might mean letting go of some of your wealth for the greater good. Perhaps it might mean bucking the system and rocking the boat. One thing is clear: this life we are called to isn’t one of comfort and leisure.

Why then would we choose to follow this Jesus if its so hard? Perhaps like the disciples, we recognize that to be truly and deeply alive spiritually, there is something worth more than wealth or power. That depth of spirit calls to us. It draws us.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer contrasts this costly grace with cheap grace saying, “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again…. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”[1]

The reality is that to live fully means seeking after a source for our spirit that will truly fulfill us. As Bonhoeffer says, this life of discipleship is true life, rather than an empty one.  It’s not that having security or comfort or family is bad. It’s a gift and is certainly part of having a full spiritual life. But to pursue the divine, to truly find a full life means decentering our own egos and lower minds and re-centering God in our lives. Then we find fullness.

At times the cost of discipleship might seem high or challenging, and yet, it is a cost we can’t afford NOT to pay if we want to be fully alive. And just as the disciples followed, then stumbled, then followed again, it’s a choice we’ll make not just once but many times in the course of our spiritual journey. Sometimes it’s a mundane choice, perhaps we don’t even think twice. Sometimes it’s a challenging choice. Yet with all relationships, we return again and again, to follow our beloved.

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The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells

The Rev. Kimble Parker Sorrells is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and currently serves as the Georgia Field Organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network—an organization affiliated with the United Methodist Church that works for the inclusion and rights of LGBTQ people. Prior to their work with RMN they served as Minister for Spiritual Formation and Youth at Saint Mark UMC in Atlanta, Georgia. They have also served as a hospital chaplain and worked in homeless services through their time in AmeriCorps. Kim is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University and Berry College and is a Yoga Alliance Registered Yoga Teacher. They draw on their theological and yoga training to inform their ministry’s focus on using spirituality and contemplative practices to equip us with the inner peace to be justice makers in the world. Outside of their formal employment Kim serves as chair of the Spiritual Leaders Committee for the Transgender Health and Education Alliance (THEA), and is a member of the Atlanta Coalition of LGBTQ youth.

 

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. 1st Touchstone Ed ed., New York, NY, Simon and Schuster, 1995, P 45.

2nd Sunday after Epiphany (B): Come and See!

2nd Sunday after Epiphany (B): Come and See!

John 1:43–51

By: Charles Lane Cowen

News travels quickly. In our world where my iPhone gives me a push notification from The New York Times every time something newsworthy happens, this seems even more true. but even outside the world of the 24-hour news cycle, news travels quickly. If you’ve ever worked in an office on a day when someone brings cupcakes and leaves them in the break room, you know what I’m talking about. News travels quickly, and good news travels faster.

The Gospel of John from start to finish calls us to hear, believe, and share the Good News of Christ. John affirms this in writing that his Gospel was “written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31.) John’s poetic and memorable prologue, which we heard on the first Sunday of Christmas, uses beauty and imagery to call us into the Good News of Jesus, and today’s lesson uses the witness of the Apostles to pull us in.

If we read back a bit before today’s appointed lesson, we see a pattern emerging which begins with John the Baptist. Upon seeing Jesus, John cries out, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36.) Andrew and an unnamed disciple follow—literally follow, as in walk after—Jesus, who invites them to “Come and see” (1:39.) Upon seeing, Andrew runs to his brother Simon and proclaims, “We have found the Messiah” (1:45.) Peter, whose interest has been piqued by his brother, then goes to meet Jesus and receives a new name.

Then we come to today’s lesson, where we see a similar pattern. This time Jesus initiates by saying to Philip, “Follow me” (1:43.) Philip shares the Good News with Nathanael saying, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote”—in other words, the Messiah. When Nathanael balks, Philip offers the same invitation Jesus gave to Andrew and the unnamed disciple: “Come and see.” Finally, Jesus furthers this invitation into the future by giving Nathanael a vision of what “you will see.”

To put this retelling into a visual form, notice the patterns, parallels, and movements when we lay these verses out:

Look, here is the Lamb of God

Come and see

We have found the Messiah

Follow me

We have found [the Messiah]

Come and see

You will see

From John the Baptist’s initial invitation to “look,” multiple people are invited to look, see, proclaim, and invite. This pattern of Good News spreading—of gospelling—leads not only to naming the truth of Jesus’ messiahship, but leads to a revelation from Jesus of angels bridging the gap between heaven and earth (1:51). Look! You will see!

This is amazing to me! Just by stating the plain truth revealed to him, John the Baptist set in motion events that transcend not only his own lifetime but the physical realms of heaven and earth! Just as my running from the breakroom shouting “Yahoo!!!” from my pink-icing- covered lips and leaving a trail of cakey crumbs offers a foretaste of the free desserts left for all, John’s proclamation leads people, even skeptics like Nathanael, to the Messiah who gives life to all.

“Where did you get those cupcakes?” a co-worker might ask.

“Walmart,” I reply.

“Can anything good come from Walmart?”

Clearly, my co-worker has not tried one of the cupcakes. I don’t mean to diminish Jesus’ messianic salvation of the world to a mere big-box store cupcake, but the sugar fiend in me sees the parallels in the metaphor.

Turning back to the story in John, I find it fascinating that of the two disciples who respond to John the Baptist’s proclamation, only Andrew is named. Likewise, although Nathanael has a rather fleshed-out character in this gospel, in the Synoptics, Nathanael is never mentioned. While some scholars suggest that the Nathanael in John’s Gospel is the same as Bartholomew in the Synoptics, there is nothing in the text itself to suggest that. In my thinking, the anonymity of Nathanael and, even more so, the anonymity of the disciple who went with Andrew tells us something about the role of discipleship.

As a former actor, I, to quote Lady Gaga, “live for the applause, applause, applause.” The disciples, however, once they have brought others to Jesus, tend to fade away as Jesus becomes the focus. Sandra Schneiders notes in her commentary on John that “there are no ‘second generation disciples’ in John, because all are bound to Jesus by his own word.”[1] While one might read this to mean that those who brought others to Jesus no longer matter nor need accolades because Jesus’ love outshines them, I think there’s actually something bigger going on.

Perhaps more than any body of literature in the Bible, the Johannine corpus speaks to the notion of community. While we refer to the author of the Gospel as John, we also know that the Gospel comes from the witness of the entire community. Schneiders even argues in her book that the Beloved Disciple may not have a distinct identity because the reader should see herself in that role.[2] In other words, each of us is beloved of Jesus because Jesus knows us and we know him. The apostolic witness of those like the unnamed disciple and Nathanael, of whom we know very little, are not lost in the shadow of Jesus, but, rather, they are consumed in the light of Christ. Our very identity in Jesus changes our own identity as one of the bearer of the light of Christ. Simon is no longer Simon, but Peter. We are no longer our individual selves, but the beloved community of Christ.

Remembering the light of Christ which came into the world at Christmas and was revealed to the nations at Epiphany, I wonder how we will continue in the footsteps of the apostles.

Look!

Here is the Lamb of God!

Come and see!

We have found the Messiah!

Follow me!

We have found the Messiah!

Come and see!

You will see!

 

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Charles Lane Cowen

Charles Lane Cowen is a Candidate for Holy Orders in the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island and a senior M.Div. student at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. Prior to going to seminary, Charles spent a decade as a professional actor, director, storyteller, and puppeteer. He has performed with the Texas and Colorado Shakespeare Festivals and was formerly Associate Director of the Marley Bridges Theatre Company in Newport, Rhode Island.

 

 

 

 

[1]Sandra M. Schneiders, Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, Revised Edition (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), 143.

[2]Ibid., 239.

Baptism of Our Lord: Who am I?

Baptism of Our Lord: Who am I?

Mark 1:4-11

By: The Rev. David Henson

A few years back, as I was blearily returning from dropping my kids off at school one morning, a story came on the radio about new DNA tests that help people trace their roots and genealogy with surprising accuracy.

The story was mildly interesting, but then as the reporter Eric Weiner was preparing to send his test off, he said something so profound he nearly caused me to run a red light in my minivan.

“Hopefully in the next few weeks,” he said, off-handedly, “I’ll find out who I am and where I came from.”

And in that one sentence, Weiner distilled the internal quest of humanity: The question of identity; of discovering who we really are and who we really aren’t; the search to “know thyself” as Plato famously put it. But whether we are adolescents discovering autonomy for the first time, hovering in middle-age and asking if this is all there is, or nearing our end and wondering if we’ve done all we could and all we should, the question is always basically the same:

“Who am I?”

“How in the world did I get here, in this particular moment in time, in this particular place, with these particular wrinkles anxiously gathering at the corners of my eyes, with this particular set of passions and this particular hidden cache of flaws?”

“Is this really who I am?”

The capacity for self-conscious introspection, some argue, is exactly what makes us human. One of the ways humans have answered this question throughout history is by mapping our family trees, tracing our grandparents and ancestors, hoping to find an answer to the question of ourselves, creating meaning from fragments of our heritage. In her book, Grounded, Diana Butler Bass talks about looking into her own genealogy and how religions around the world understand the fundamental spirituality of exploring our roots.

Even if we aren’t mapping our family trees, and even if we’re not members of Ancestry.com, we all do this in small ways without thinking. We take our children to our own childhood homes, our parents tell stories about what it was like when they were young, and then, over the holidays as families gather, we find ourselves retelling these old stories of who we are, and at times and often at the most inopportune moments, we find ourselves either reverting to our childhood roles in our families or even turning into our mothers and fathers.

And isn’t this what we do as Christians, too, when we gather on holy days like today, around this table, and retell the stories of Jesus, when we look back at our traditions and the communion of saints for guidance and inspiration, when we reaffirm and remind ourselves of our baptismal vows and identity?

Of course, this isn’t always an easy nostalgic look at the past, either. For some of us, this can be perilous and painful, as our pasts can be haunted by ghosts and marked by landmines. Like when one of the people featured in the NPR story discovered an ancestor had murdered another person — and a descendent of that victim of the crime, through the same genealogy program, actually contacted her to demand an explanation for her ancestor’s actions. Or as when actor Ben Affleck was recently featured on the PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” discovered that his family had a history not only of social justice but also of grave injustice. His mother was a Freedom Rider in the Civil Rights Movement and his great-great-great grandfather owned 7 slaves.

And perhaps we shouldn’t even begin to look at the checkered history of Christianity itself with its holy generosity and compassion and its rather unholy participation in wars and exploitation.

If our individual, family, and religious histories tell us anything, it is that we are a mixed bag of proud accomplishments and actions we’d rather no one know about. And if we see ourselves only in the context of our families and our histories, it can feel confining and limiting. But of course we know that’s not all there is to us. The past, while feeding our present, doesn’t completely determine our future.

Regardless of our stage in life, we still have our own growing and our own flourishing to do, our own flowers to put forth in the world, our own seeds and legacy to send out to continue the story.

And I think that’s the beauty of Jesus’ baptismal story. It is fundamentally a story of identity. When Jesus is baptized, God tears open the heavens and declares Jesus’ true nature — as the Beloved Son. But that true identity doesn’t negate everything else about him. The author of Mark roots Jesus not just in his eternal identity but in his earthly one as well. Scholar Ched Meyers explains that Mark roots Jesus in a genealogy not of mamas and daddies like Matthew and Luke, but in a prophetic genealogy of John and the prophets of old, firmly rooting Jesus in the Jewish tradition.

Mark, of course, is trying to establish Jesus’ credibility and his historical and religious lineage, but to me, it speaks deeply to our identity as Christians and as humans; as citizens of God’s kingdom and of our everyday earthly realm of fathers and sons; mothers and daughters, where we are born not just of our parents, but of our traditions, cultures, and relationships as well, with all the everyday conflict and joy that being from somewhere and someone brings.

Jesus belongs to humanity. And Jesus belongs to God. Both are integral to his identity and his work that he begins. They are inextricably linked, undivided and whole. His identity is built from the ground up and from the heavens down.

 

And so it is with us. In our baptism, God declares who we truly are — our true identity as beloved offspring of God like Jesus our Brother. But in our baptism, we, like Jesus, don’t stop being who we are or get to ignore the history that inevitably and fundamentally shapes us to this moment. Jesus is still the son of Mary and Joseph, still the inheritor of John’s prophetic lineage, still born in Palestine, in poverty in the first century. He’s still from somewhere and from someone.

We bring all that with us — all of our humanity, all of the ways in which our families of origin and experiences have made us who we are. In other words, as Christians, our identities can’t be centered purely in introspection and individualism. They must also be rooted in our communities and contexts as well. To know ourselves, we have to know each other as well. My Belovedness has everything to do with your Belovedness as well.

Being named as God’s beloved isn’t just one thing about us given in isolation as individuals. It’s includes all those things about us and all of us together.

And that’s why I love that baptism is fundamentally about water.

Because water is not one thing either and it’s not something easily separated into individual molecules. But like our identity as God’s own, it is eternal and interconnected with all life on earth. It is eternal not because it is static and constant, but because it is dynamic and ever-changing and transforming. We aren’t making new water. Every drop of water here has always existed as water in some form of another; it is intertwined and imprinted with the entire history of humanity and the Earth itself.

The water we baptize with is both ancient and new. The water that runs clean from our tap descends from the murky water in which the first life was incubated. The water that Jesus was baptized in, that was transformed into wine, that flowed from his side in crucifixion is the ancestor of the same water we have today. Over the centuries, it has been transformed, scattered, polluted, cleaned, restored and destroyed. It is the snow and the ice, the rain and the mist, vapor and steam, the devastating flood and the relief from drought.

As baptismal fonts are filled around the world today to baptize, each basin carries with it the entire history of the world and is incubating its whole future. It carries with it the history of the faith and the hope of its future.

Like those who are baptized today, that water, blessed and released into the world, will change and transform over time. As it has for all of history, that water and those baptized in it will shape the Earth, its climate, and its inhabitants. Like our faith, some days that water might be cold and hard as ice, as delicate and fleeting as snow. Others it might be so hot it all but evaporates into thin air. Most times, if we’re honest, it might well be just this side of lukewarm.

It is the perfect symbol of our life of faith. Because it is honest.

And I believe that at least a part of it will one day return to another baptismal font where another generation will be dipped as God’s beloved and marked as Christ’s own forever. And the story will go on and on.

This baptism and water are our genealogies, recalling our expansive history and directing us into the future. That’s what it is to reaffirm our baptismal vows. It reminds us where we came from, of our fundamental identity, but it refuses to be static. It demands that we move. It demands that we act. It demands a faith that is in motion, ever-changing, ever-transforming, ever being born anew, in a cycle of life, death, and resurrection.

So today, as God’s beloved, let us renew our baptismal vows, recalling who we were, who we are, and who we are called to be.

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The Rev. David Henson

The Rev. David Henson is a priest in the Episcopal Church. The father of two boys and the husband of a medical resident, he lives in Western North Carolina and is perpetually behind on the laundry and lawn mowing. While he has a couple of degrees to his name, it is more important to know that he once chased his stolen Jeep Grand Cherokee at dangerous speeds down an Interstate in California. He didn’t catch it. Which is pretty accurate metaphor for his entire life.