Advent 2(C): The Word of God in the Wilderness

Advent 2(C): The Word of God in the Wilderness

Luke 3:1-6

By: The Rev. Andrew Hege

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Just to be clear: this is no small, trivial act. From this moment of revelation emerges a prophetic ministry that sets all things in motion, proclaiming the time that is soon at hand, a mission of preparing the way for the One who is to come. Saint Luke’s detailed location of this event as a moment in time is much more than an obsessive attention to detail.

The specificity of the time and place defines the enormous significance of this occasion. It is not a moment to be overlooked, but a time and place worthy of note.

After all, the word of God coming to someone, to anyone, in the wilderness of all places, was no ordinary occurrence. There had been hundreds of years of silence. Generation after generation had been born, lived, and died since the people of God had been in the presence of a prophet, one who had received a word from on high.

John’s message was rooted in the words of his predecessor, the great prophet Isaiah. In the days of old, the prophet cried aloud to make ready and prepare the way of the Lord, to straighten the paths that had grown crooked and smooth that which had been made rough. All of this was to serve that single purpose – that “all flesh shall see the salvation of our God.”

The word of God came to John, and a prophet was in their midst. The message of God’s abiding and redeeming love was being made known anew.

Let’s be honest: in our own time, prophets are many. Their messages are even more numerous and varied. Silence is not common. Some of our prophets claim to speak a word from God, while others boldly claim a message that is all their own. Some shout loudly on street corners and across airwaves, while others seek a more subtle transmission. There is no shortage of prophets in our midst.

For us, followers of Jesus in this day and this time, the careful work of discernment is all the more challenging. Who and where are the prophets who truly speak a word from God?

This passage from Saint Luke’s Gospel issues an important clue into where we might best look: to the wilderness. The word of God came to John in the wilderness. God’s good news emerges on the fringes and at the margins, far from the seats of power and privilege. In the places that appear so bare and desolate, absent of the presence of anything that is holy, the prophetic word of the living God is made real.

Where are such wilderness prophets today? A few ideas…

Perhaps we need to go to a literal wilderness, to the desert Southwest of these United States, where families arrive at our nation’s border, day after day, in search of sanctuary. Fleeing violence and fear, in search of safety and peace, these children of God—men, women, and children—arrive with little more than the clothes they are wearing. From the wilderness of tents and detention centers, what word might they speak to us this Advent season?

Perhaps we need not venture far from home to find ourselves deep in the wilderness. In the neglected and overlooked neighborhood of our own city, the wilderness might look like the parking lot of the market with a ‘check cashing center.’ Inside, the individual who is struggling to make ends meet, agonizing over which bill can be paid this month, is the recipient of a loan that may never be repaid, bearing a rate of interest so high that it renders them enslaved. What word from God might emerge in just such a wilderness?

Perhaps we need only look at the wilderness of our own faith community to discover a fresh word in this season of anticipation and expectation. In the pew sits the mother whose family does not look like every other family, the forgotten widower who wonders if he has been noticed, the child who has been told she is not enough. The wilderness of experience, rather than location, is no less desolate, no less isolation. What word from the Holy One might they proclaim to us as we prepare to welcome the Christ child into our hearts and souls?

These are prophets, each and every one, testifying to the truth from the wildernesses that call to us, people of the Jesus Way, here and now.

To ask the question of where and who the prophets of our place and time might be emerging, we do well to remember that, in ancient days, the word of God appeared in the most unlikely of places, in the wilderness, to the man named John. In the wilderness of our own days, in this year, 2018, may a good word from God be heard anew, and may we have the grace and power to share it, that all shall see and hear and know the salvation of our God.

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

 

Advent 1C: Same Old Story

Advent 1C: Same Old Story

Luke 21:25-36

By: Casey Cross

If you have eyes, ears, and/or any kind of awareness of your surroundings, you might be like me right now. Angry. Heartbroken. On the verge of hopelessness. What the heck is wrong with our country – the (not so) United States of America? What the heck is wrong with our world? How have we grown so far from simple acts of stewardship and care for our earth and neighbor? Why are we stuck arguing over lawful rights versus human rights? You know what makes it feel worse? THIS IS NOTHING NEW. Humans seem to be really good at being awful to each other. You know how I know that? Because in today’s text, Jesus is talking about the same stuff thousands of years ago.

In some ways, this text almost makes sense. I mean, I’m writing this with Halloween only a few days away. Grappling with our present racist-misogynist-socio-economic-political situation seems an apt way to experience a serious House of Horrors. Only this isn’t something we can walk away from with a shuddering laugh, this is our real life.

I can also see this text making sense in another way. Jesus is in the last days of his life, stirring stuff up and preaching truth to power. In context, we would be reading this passage with sunglasses to shade us from the gleam of impending resurrection – Easter is coming. Yeah, we know bad stuff is going to happen, but Easter will too.

However, neither of those reasons really fit for now and they aren’t meant to. This passage is not for Holy Week, but for the first Sunday of Advent. Remember? Advent? The time when we get all excited for Christmas and sparkly decorations and family (maybe) and good food and PRESENTS… and… Oh yeah! Cute baby Jesus is born too.

Wait.

By entering Advent with Jesus who is entering his last days in Jerusalem, we get to sit with his words in a new way. We get to read these words with honest eyes that aren’t shaded by anything other than the crappy stuff happening in our lives that we brought with us as we read the text.

Oh. And maybe that’s the point. The crappy stuff doesn’t change. Humans need a lot of help. But this is when the Son of Man appears. (Jeez. Do you know how many times Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man? Yeah, it’s his favorite way to speak in the first person.) There will be signs… distress… fear and foreboding… No, this isn’t about the so-called “end times.” This is about today. This moment. All is not lost. When we are the most distressed, the kingdom of God draws near.

Jesus speaks to his listeners then as he speaks to us today. Be aware, on guard, expectant. Do not let the shock-and-awe horror show of the 24/7 news cycle weigh us down into the pit of despair where all we can count on is immediate gratification and addictive coping mechanisms. Stand. Stand up and raise your heads with faith in the words of Jesus that will never pass away. Stand firm with faith in the ever-lasting, redemptive love of our Savior who chose to be with us in the worst of times, as a vulnerable, naked, poor baby. Jesus doesn’t promise an escape from the pain, fear, and awfulness of the world. Jesus promises to live through it, with us. We aren’t in this alone. God is with us, Emmanuel.

This is the true challenge of faith. Can we stand to face the injustices and pain of the world? Can we respond with faithfulness, loving God, self, and neighbor as Jesus taught us, rather than freeze in fear?

The secondary challenge of faith is remembering that it does not belong to a single one of us, but to all of us – the Body of Christ. This faith is ours. We are not alone because we stand together, bound by our faith, called by our God to be caretakers of our world and each other. We can cry, we can lament, we can fear. These are our human, God-given emotions. God also gave us the capacity to act in response. So as we cry out, let us stand together and act out the ways Jesus taught us to live.

Here are just two responses to distressful, horrific times. While these may or may not be explicitly about faith, I find that they exemplify the gifts of faith in action. Just as humans are good at being awful to each other, we are even better at lifting each other up.

The first example comes from Michael Moore, written in February of 2017.

This morning I have been pondering a nearly forgotten lesson I learned in high school music. Sometimes in band or choir, music requires players or singers to hold a note longer than they actually can hold a note. In those cases, we were taught to mindfully stagger when we took a breath so the sound appeared uninterrupted. Everyone got to breathe, and the music stayed strong and vibrant. Yesterday, I read an article that suggested the administration’s litany of bad executive orders (more expected on LGBTQ next week) is a way of giving us “protest fatigue” – we will literally lose our will to continue the fight in the face of the onslaught of negative action. Let’s remember MUSIC. Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.

The second example is entitled, “Inscription of Hope” by Z. Randall Stroope. It was based on words found scrawled on a cellar wall by Jews hiding from the Nazis in Cologne, Germany during the second World War. https://youtu.be/GAFzjjFdcYE

I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love
even when there’s no one there
And I believe in God
even when he is silent
I believe through any trial there is always a way.
But sometimes in this suffering and hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter
and to know someone’s there
But a voice rises within me saying “hold on my child”
I’ll give you strength
I’ll give you hope
Just stay a little while
May there someday be sunshine
May there someday be happiness
May there someday be love
May there someday be peace.

 

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Casey Cross

Casey Cross serves as Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church in Eagle, Idaho. You can find her singing along to Spotify, reading books, listening to books, writing stuff, laughing a lot, walking her dog, cooking with her husband, and loving life in Idaho. If you liked this, you can check out more of her writing at http://caseykcross.wordpress.com

Ascension Day: Making Space

Ascension Day: Making Space

Luke 24:44-53

By: The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

Although I began serving my parish less than a year ago, it is evident to me that we have a space issue. Not because we’re starting to outgrow our building and Sunday morning worship feels a little cramped. Not because there are calendar conflicts between groups wanting to reserve use of our flexible space. No, the space issue that my congregation finds most challenging is in making room for those people who don’t conform to the norm of “how we’ve always done it.”

How does this issue manifest in the parish? Mostly through conversations about what it means to include noisy, boisterous children who wander around the sanctuary and distract us from contemplative worship. Or in conversations about whether or not to have designated alcohol-free fellowship events because some young families have requested family-friendly activities (“but no one will come!”). Or why it was courteous during the interfaith Lenten series we hosted, not to pray specifically “in Jesus name.” I’ll admit, most of these conversations have been induced by me and I’ve been pushing the point about “radical hospitality,” otherwise known as “making space for the other.” But it didn’t dawn on me until I read David Cunningham’s (Professor of Religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan) commentary on Ascension Day as to why this has been such an urgent and imperative point for me.

David observes that the Ascension is not really about the physical act of Jesus’s return to the Father but that the Ascension is about Jesus “making space so the mission of the church can begin.” One simple sentence opened my mind to understand an elemental belief I hold about God:

Making space is essential to God’s nature.

David goes on to cite Rowan Williams’ writings on the Trinity. He notes that “each of the three divine ‘persons’ seeks not to gain pride of place or to assert hierarchical dominion over the others, but to give place to the others, so that they too can most fully be what they are. As such, the divine Trinity models for us the true nature of community, in which self-assertion and hegemony give way to a polyphonic chorus of mutual participation and difference.”

Scripture attests to this.[1] From Genesis to Revelation, scripture is full of ways that God makes space creatively and purposefully, continually reminding us “See! I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?”

In the nascent act of creation itself, God opens up the void and implants it with an interdependent community – vegetation, animals, oceans and fishes, birds, and humans who are commissioned to “rule and serve all [God’s] creatures.” From nothing comes life. God makes space for others to participate in God’s dance and to be fully what they are.

In the Exodus, when the Hebrew people find their path barred by the Red Sea as they flee from Pharaoh’s armies, God makes space. God divides the waters so that the people might pass through. From chaos and uncertainty, a new community emerges—the Hebrew people enter into covenant relationship, place trust in the God who liberates.

In the time of Exile, as God allows God’s people to be dispersed throughout foreign empires and Jerusalem falls to rubble and ruin, God makes space for transformation. God inspires prophets to exhort the people to return to God’s ways, and to remind them that God has not forgotten them though the community must learn to sing God’s praises even in a foreign land.

As the heavy hand of the Roman Empire slowly crushes the spirit of God’s people, the Virgin Mary consents to God’s request to use her life and her body to make space for God to incarnate. Definitely a new thing, and a promise of new life.

Christ persistently makes space around his own table, including those deemed beyond the pale of decent society (sinners and tax collectors) as well as Pharisees. He makes space in his busy schedule of preaching and teaching to touch the untouchables, to heal lepers and hemorrhaging women and to bring the dead back to life. He invites despised “outsiders” into relationship with him, Samaritans and Roman centurions and criminals. A community forms of people who otherwise might have nothing to do with each other.

God makes space in the empty tomb. Resurrection is unquestionably a new thing. The empty tomb becomes for us a sign of God’s promises: new life, reconciliation, and the shalom of God’s kingdom being ushered in.

Christ’s Ascension makes space for Pentecost; for the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes possible the expansion of Christ’s mission from local to global. The Spirit continues to remake and renew God’s church, perpetually calling us into the reality of John’s vision of God’s kingdom: the gates of the new Jerusalem eternally flung open, overflowing with the river of life and shaded by the tree of life which produces healing for all the nations. From beginning to end, God gives place in community – mutual participation in all our God-created difference.

So why is making space and giving place so hard for us to do?

So often our culture teaches us a false dichotomy, that in order for someone else to be fully who they are means that I have to miss out. In a conflict, there are only winners or losers; for someone else to win, I have to lose. Or “there’s only so much pie to go around,” so if someone else gets a bigger slice then my slice is necessarily smaller. By all our “normal” cultural standards, this concept of giving place or making space goes against our rugged individualism. But when we recall that God doesn’t play by our rules, that God’s love is not scarce in supply and thus something to be hoarded, when we revel in being most fully what God has created us to be then we are free to invite others to discover fully who God has created them to be.

Making space is not easy work, particularly when we have grounded ourselves in particular religious, spiritual, and emotional spaces. God asks us to let go of our self-centeredness, our worldly illusions of stature, our need for control, our fear of change. Participation in that polyphonic chorus often looks and feels more like a rock tumbler. We tumble against each other until all our rough edges are smoothed out… that’s true community. Perhaps our exasperation with that child’s noisy shoes might give way to joy when we realize that she is a sign of new life in our midst. Perhaps if we make more of an effort to reach out to people who feel like outsiders, they might start showing up to more communal gatherings. Perhaps we can still passionately proclaim Christ through our ministry to others, modeling repentance and forgiveness of sins, even as we respect other faith traditions. Perhaps we can do mission not to the other but with the other.

What new thing may God be calling you and your people to become aware of? In what ways does God call you into deeper participation with God and with each other? What space must be made in order for your people to grow and your mission to be met?

For God is always doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.

 

 

 

[1] I am grateful to The Rev. Chance Perdue for the insightful examples in his eloquent sermon preached at the Church of the Redeemer, Nashville, TN that prompted my thinking about the scripture portion of this essay. Check it out at: http://redeemernashville.libsyn.com/the-god-who-makes-space

Easter 3(B): Experiencing Jesus

Easter 3(B): Experiencing Jesus

Luke 24:36-48

Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

In the days following Jesus’ crucifixion, it seems as though the disciples are a little on edge. I imagine that they were experiencing some PTSD of sorts having just seen one of their closest friends and leaders meet such a brutal death right in front of their eyes. I imagine they were experiencing some grief as well. Sure, Jesus had prepared them for the work that they were to do following his death, but like any group of folks who has experienced the death of a leader, I imagine that they were in a sort of wilderness phase themselves. They were likely attempting to understand for themselves just how they fit into this whole teaching and preaching thing and working to garner up the confidence to do the work for which Jesus had prepared them.

And just then, like magic—BAM!—Jesus appears to them. Well…not exactly like magic. Jesus had already appeared to at least some of them on the road to Emmaus, but he felt it necessary to reappear. It becomes obvious in the verses that follow that Jesus did not need to do this for himself, as Jesus is already pretty confident in who he is. Rather, it was important for Jesus to reappear to the disciples, as it seems that no amount of reassurance on their part would have been too much. So much for faith, right? These were the people who had travelled with Jesus, had heard his teaching and preaching, and still could not seem to wrap their head around the fact that it could actually be him? What kind of disciples were they?

They were human. Jesus’ reappearance defied all conventions of humanity and mortality as they knew it, and as we still know it today.  They had watched him be crucified. They had witnessed his death. And in this moment, Jesus was not just reappearing to them as a ghost, but as a person in the flesh. He showed them his body, complete with the holes from the crucifixion that they had all seen with their own eyes. The fear, confusion, and doubt that overcame them was comprehensible by all human understanding.

And Jesus sat with them in that space. He let them experience their doubt, their confusion, and their fear. They were never chastised for being afraid; he never rebuked them. Neither, though, does he let them remain controlled by that fear. His role in reappearing to them seems far greater though, than just an appearance.

After he entertains their questions and their doubts, Jesus does what Jesus seems to do best—he breaks bread with them. Not just breaks it—blesses, breaks, and shares it with them. There seems to be some metaphorical significance to his doing this, as is often the case. It seems that this is also the structure of their visit together. Jesus reappears, blesses the disciples, and then breaks them open to this transformative experience of witnessing the resurrected Christ, before sending the disciples on their way to proclaim the good news and to offer this experience to others.

He seems to be readying them for the journey ahead. Sure, he had done all the teaching he needed to do in order to prepare them for their ministry, but there was one important thing missing from that toolkit—and that was the experience of the risen Christ. The experience that transcends any understanding that one may encounter from simple teaching and preaching and invites one into a new relationship. They knew who Jesus was, but it wasn’t until they were able to experience him that they were truly transformed.

I wonder how this translates to our present context in our local churches. We spend all this time preparing our folks to spread the good news, but I wonder how often we are missing the opportunity to experience the risen Christ. We have faith formation and Christian education classes, certainly. They have the opportunities to learn, understand, and interact with the stories of our faith; but how often are we inviting them into that next level relationship? Certainly that experience is not just through baptismal classes, Sunday schools, and Bible studies. What are the opportunities that we have as a church/as ministers to transform others?

When I was in college, I was serving a church as their youth intern. It was a small church with a youth group that consisted of about 10 kids, mostly siblings or cousins. One Sunday, I came in and one of the youth said, “You all—something crazy happened to me this week at school.” We all looked at her just waiting for the “crazy” moment, as she had described it when she finally said, “I was in the cafeteria one day, and this boy came up to me. He said, ‘Stephanie, what is it like to know the love of Jesus?’” she continued, “I was kind of confused. I just stared at him, and then finally asked, ‘What do you mean?’” She explained that she never really talked about her faith much at school, that it was kind of something between her and God, but in that moment, he said to her, “You just…I mean—it’s just obvious by the way that you conduct yourself that you know what it’s like to experience God’s love. And I want to know that feeling too.”

It was obvious that, through her relationship and her experience with Jesus, that she had been transformed. We all have that opportunity to be transformed. Pay attention to the ways in which that experience presents itself to you.

Kevin CK
The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch

The Rev. Kevin W. Cravens-Koch is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and lives in Springfield, Missouri with his husband, Ryan, and their three dogs, Bailey, Rey and Lexi. He was born and raised in Northern Kentucky where he lived until he moved to Lexington to attend Transylvania University, earning his BA in Religion. He received his MDiv from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a lover of Chipotle, bowties, and dogs.

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.

Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Holy Name: What’s in a Name?

Luke 2:15-21

By: Dr. Emily Kahm

My spouse and I actively debated for weeks what we were going to name our new dog. The name he had been given in foster care, “Harley,” didn’t seem to suit him at all. Nor could we figure out why someone would call this brown hound “Winston,” which was the name given to him by the owner who surrendered him to a shelter. We had only met him once before adopting him, but we knew that those names absolutely didn’t fit. This dog was gentle, bouncy, silly, and anxious (and proved to be even more of all those things once we actually started living with him.) He needed a silly, bouncy name. My spouse and I both being theologians, we were hoping for something a little Christian-geeky too.

Initially, I advocated for “Swarley,” a ridiculous fake name taken from a bit joke in a sitcom we liked to watch. I figured it’d be easier to teach him to respond to a name that sounded like “Harley.” My spouse got the joke, but didn’t like that it wasn’t a real name and that we’d have to repeat it two or three times anytime somebody asked what our dog was called. He liked what I call “people” names, old-fashioned grumpy-man names like Charlie and Carlton. I’ve always preferred naming animals more expressively. Just ask our rabbits, Exodus and Calliope.

In the end, in a graced moment, Chris pointed to a stuffed prairie dog in our house (a souvenir from a zoo trip) and asked, “What did we decide to call this one?” I knew even before I answered him that the name was a winner. And so, when his fosterer dropped him off at our house, we welcomed him as Bosco[1] and Bosco he has remained.

Names take on an enormous symbolic significance in our lives, even when we don’t quite mean for them to. In today’s reading, the naming ceremony almost seems tacked on—an  afterthought. But it is actually the focus of the feast day—the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, if one wants to be liturgically proper. And once you think about it, it makes sense that we’d celebrate the naming of our savior. Naming can make things feel more real. Perhaps it’s seeing your new job title in print for the first time that brings home the realization that things have changed at work; maybe we give titles to the novels and music that we plan to one day write. Having a way to refer to someone or something gives it an identity of its own.

For me, the significance of the naming ties back into Mary’s journey, as told by Luke. She knew this child’s name before she birthed him; she knew it before she even conceived him. How many couples choose their children’s names prior to meeting them face to face? Quite a few among my friends, at least. For those of us approaching or in the early stages of family-making, the topic of names is exciting and sometimes contentious—you hear rules about whether you should reveal a baby’s name before they’re born, or how to “claim” a family name for one’s own baby, or whether to ask someone before passing on their name to a new generation. I myself have always disliked the idea of giving a name to a child before you meet them, but my spouse and I still already have names picked out for our own hypothetical children. It’s a natural impulse, to want to give our new creations something we can call them by. It helps us imagine them, imagine our lives being different with an “other” there.

Though the naming ceremony is the reason for the feast, I’m most intrigued by the verse that says Mary “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Even as the verse grabbed me, it took me several reads to remember why—this verse is quoted in one of my favorite sci-fi novels, Ender’s Shadow, as a nun takes in an undernourished, undersized, but profoundly intelligent orphan and begins to raise him as her own, knowing that he won’t stay hers for very long. Her knowledge of their limited time together means that she treasures all his strange quirks and unexpected habits all the more. I doubt that Mary knew the whole of what was in store for her son. Indeed, I think it would have been cruel for God to give her foreknowledge of either the best or worst of what he would experience. But I think she probably knew well enough that her baby wouldn’t be only hers for very long. In learning his name, she came to know him before he was a living, human reality inside herself; in the naming ceremony, she took the being who had been her own secret and presented him to the world, perhaps with pride, perhaps with profound fear.

Of course, the naming is just the start; the introduction. We name, and then we learn what it is to love that name. And in a new year, we have another chance to meet Jesus again, to use the name anew, and to connect again with the person the name describes.

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Dr. Emily Kahm

Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is a Teaching Fellow in Religion at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Her research revolves around sexuality education in Christian contexts and the formative influence of video games and gaming. She lives in Davenport, Iowa, with her spouse Chris, their dog Bosco, and their two rabbits, Calliope and Exodus.

 

 

 

[1] The name also fulfills Christian nerd requirements as we can claim St. Don or Dom Bosco, a priest who dedicated his life to working with street children, as the patron saint of our dog.

Sunday after Christmas (B): On the Downplaying of Religious Experience

Sunday after Christmas (B): On the Downplaying of Religious Experience

Luke 2:22-40

By: The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

Somewhere in the great hazing that was the ordination process, I was trained to stop taking religious experience seriously.

I don’t imagine I’m alone in that, and I don’t imagine I’m alone in having a split attention when people are describing their experiences to me.

If a parishioner is relaying a time where they feel, however fervently, that God spoke directly to them I’ve been taught to take the same tack—nod politely and agree. Make sure what they’re experiencing isn’t threatening to themselves or others. Make sure this isn’t indicative of an abusive situation at home/school/work. Are they exhibiting symptoms of something that might be dangerous to their health? Are those visions seizures? Do I need to refer them to a counselor/psychiatrist/general practitioner, or do I just need to call 911?

The answer to each of those questions has been yes at some point or another in my ministry. There were ambulances that needed to be called, referrals that needed to be made, situations that needed to be reported. All of the questions were good.

But. I was trained to take their circumstances seriously. Not their experiences. Not their God moments.

Which might be why saying the Song of Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis, every evening at evening prayer never sits quite right with me. The Magnificat is eminently easy—cast down the mighty, lift up the lowly. That’s something I can get into. That’s a canticle I can sing out and sing strong. God’s justice is real and mighty and the words of the Blessed Virgin come screaming off the page.

The Nunc Dimittis, though. The Nunc Dimittis always seems like a sigh compared to Mary’s shout. It is something deeply and intensely personal that I’m slightly ashamed to be let into. This is between God and Simeon. And here I am at the close of my day, reciting a promise that was made for someone else.

This is what St. Luke does though. The whole of Luke’s first two chapters are an action/response sequence that shows God working palpably and intimately in the lives of Zachariah, Elizabeth, Mary, the Shepherds, and finally St. Simeon and St. Anna. It becomes a sort of formula. An Angel appears. Good news is announced. Stories are shared. God is praised.

Elizabeth praises God in Mary. Mary praises God in in the work God is doing in her. Zechariah praises God with a newly opened mouth as he presents his son in the temple. Shepherds come streaming into Bethlehem to tell Mary of the Good News that God showed to them, and the reality of that Good News in the baby that she just bore. As Jesus is presented in the temple, Simeon sings out God’s deliverance.

The Spirit shows up palpably, tangibly, in each of their lives, only to cut to moments of profound and public reflection on the spirits work.

The great songs of our faith—The Magnificat. The Ave Maria. The Benedictus. The Gloria in Excelsis. The Nunc Dimittis. All come from intensely personal moments of encountering God in Luke’s first two chapters. And yet, at least in the mainline, the kind of experiences that Luke is so intent on preserving and crafting as hallmarks of the arrival of the Christ, are the kinds of experiences that make us blush.

More and more I’m convinced that this blushing, this shying away from speaking about the way in which God shows up in tangible and meaningful ways is exactly where the work is. It is exactly what the Church needs to claim.

The twentieth century saw the mainline move its clergy into the model of a professional. We were there amongst the ranks of lawyers and doctors, giving clear and unassuming advice and counsel. Keeping our institutions running well and performing admirably. Such professionalism, as well intentioned as it may seem, can make little room for the Spirit, and even less for the messy ways in which the Spirit shows up in our own lives and in our own experience.

There is so precious little in scripture that backs this up. St. Luke seems to believe, rather clearly, that the Gospel shows up in us before we show up to proclaim the Gospel. As it becomes clearer and clearer that we can fill our desks with the utmost precision and professionalism and still see our numbers fall and our witness fade, we might need to take our stories, our personal encounters with God, as the place to start.

 

Curtis Headshot
The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis

The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, Episcopal Priest and native Floridian, received his Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in 2013 and serves as Urban Missioner at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he works to build community for the city’s booming downtown, and curates the Cathedral’s neighborhood satellite Circle South. He and his wife are the exhausted parents of two young boys. Feel free to follow the madness on IG @thebrokechurchman. Lee also (rarely) blogs at thebrokechurchman.wordpress.com.