Tuesday, January 28, 2014

It Doesn’t Take a Village to Raise a Child…It Takes a Family


The many beautiful Christmas cards we received portraying serene scenes of a tranquil birth and a simple bucolic life are still fresh in my mind. However, while the Gospels speak little of Jesus’ life or The Holy Family, before Jesus’ public ministry, historical accounts point out that Jesus was born into a turbulent, dangerous world of political and social upheaval. Serenity and peace were at a premium. This week our liturgical calendar celebrates The Presentation of Jesus in the temple Luke2:22-40 . Despite the many hardships and challenges, I’m struck by how diligent Mary and Joseph were in discharging their parental duties, as they faithfully adhered to the tenets and practices of their religion.

And so, here we have in Luke’s account of Jesus’ presentation, the ceremonial “brit milah” performed on the eight day following his birth.  Along with Jesus’ parents, there are two other attendants, Simeon and Anna, who upon seeing Jesus, praise and give thanks to God for granting them the opportunity to witness the arrival of the child whom they “recognize” as the fulfillment of the prophecy and the One for whom they waited. 

This story of Jesus’ first religious ritual prompts memories of our own parents’ involvement in the practices of our faith, and although our early memory is clouded over by infancy, many of us still cherish the pictures and artifacts that call these rituals to mind, if only second-hand. These memories pay tribute to the personal commitments our parents and caregivers made with regard to our religious development. Like the child Jesus, our religious lineage began with the faithful hopes and practices of our parents and others who may have been responsible for our care.  

As with most of us, my mother and father were responsible for my attending weekly church services and as with most, I often resisted the call; after all, it was Sunday and I could sleep late or go out and play with those friends, who somehow were “excused” from Sunday services. As for the Church, except for worship, there was little in the way of social activities to keep me coming or hold me. We just went to Church and we returned home. Yes, there were choir practices and altar boy calls and during Lent we attended seasonal services, but it was my parents who established the practices, and saw to it that I followed their lead. I had no choice. So, we went, we listened, we learned and eventually patterns were established as requisite attendance became ingrained.

The decline of the family unit has been linked to a myriad of economic and social problems in our country. It is a fact that our children suffer most from this decline and while we look for help from outside agencies, I often wonder if we are too quick to relegate the care of these precious lives to external resources. There’s a fine line between delegation and abdication. It seems that as the problems grow more severe, additional resources are proposed to expand support for childhood development, and to entrust the educational, social and even religious development of our children to institutions. While help is invaluable and with regard to education, essential, I do not believe that it takes a village to raise a child. Luke’s Gospel reminds me that Jesus didn’t just leap from the manger and begin performing miracles and preaching God’s love. Yes, the focus is on Jesus, but it reminds us of the role Mary and Joseph played in Jesus formative years. Sure times have changed but parental duties in the rearing of children, despite challenges and obstacles, still fall to the loving family unit.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Stop What You’re Doing...Follow Me

When I entered basic training, I was warned never to volunteer for anything or respond to a request for volunteers. It was common for a drill sergeant to “ask” unwitting recruits for “volunteers” for duties that appeared to be easier than what was originally planned. Invariably, these jobs never turned out to easy. In time we learned to avoid eye contact with the inviting sergeant and stand way in the back of the formation to hide and avoid being “volunteered.” Matthew’s (Matthew 4:12-23 )account of how Peter, Andrew, James and John immediately responded to Jesus invitation reminded me of my time in basic training. I’m always amazed as to how quickly the disciples dropped everything and just followed Jesus. I wonder how I would respond to a request from a stranger who asked me to stop what I was doing and follow him. I think I would have tried to avoid eye contact, and if asked to volunteer, make some excuse or at least ask for some time to think about it. After all, how could I possibly stop what I’m doing right now? It's too important. Maybe later.

Could we drop everything, leave our families and communities, and follow someone we didn’t even know? Both Matthew and Mark emphasize the word “immediately to describe the new recruits’ snap decision. Snap decisions are not always good, but sometimes they are. I think we all have made snap decision that turned out really well. Don’t we sometimes wonder what prompted those decisions?

And so what does Matthew’s Gospel mean to us? Does it mean leaving behind the promise of a steady income in a successful family business? Or, maybe its letting go of things that hold us bound - as symbolized by the fisherman’s nets in our story. It can be any manner of things and will vary from one person to another. While Jesus does not ask everyone to leave everything behind, no one can be a disciple and follow His call to repent without leaving something behind, or without letting go of the nets that keep us ensnared.

Jesus is calling us to a new way of life and asking us to “repent,” or turn the focus of our lives to being God centered. At its most basic level, discipleship means saying “yes” to Jesus and following him wherever he leads. There are times we try to run away and go back to where we were before but like the young recruit trying to be invisible, we can’t hide in the back out of sight. Jesus is relentless, and as often as we try to run and hide, he will find us.

With regard to “snap decisions” or responding to what we are inspired to do, John Powell writes There have been quite a few times when I have felt the winds of God’s grace in the sails of my small boat. Sometimes these graces have moved me in pleasant and sunlit directions. At other times the requested acts of love were born in the darkness of struggle and suffering. There have been spring times and there have been long cold winters of struggle for survival. God has come to me at times with the purest kindness, at times with the most affirming encouragement, and at other times with bold frightening challenges. I think that all of us have to watch and pray, to be ready to say “yes” when God’s language is concrete and his request is specific-“yes” in the sunlit spring times and “yes’ in the darkness of winter nights. (John Powell, S.J., The Christian Vision, The Truth That Sets Us Free, p147)

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Are You Pointing at Me?


John loudly proclaims Jesus' arrival in our assigned readings(John: 1-29-42): “Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, after me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” He then proceeds to validate his preaching as he distinguishes Jesus’ preeminent role: "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…this is the Son of God." John is going out of his way to shift the focus from himself to Jesus as if to say this isn’t about me. It’s about this guy. Yeah. There he goes. He’s the one. Him. Lamb of God. John’s work for the time being is was done; now, it’s up to Jesus… and us.

And so Jesus' ministry begins not with a command to silence a demon, as in Mark; nor with a sermon to the crowds who have gathered on a mountain, as in Matthew, and not with a quotation from Isaiah to proclaim his anointing for the year of God's favor, as in Luke. No, it begins with a question: "What are you looking for?" Needless to say this is a question with which we have and continue to wrestle--as individuals, as congregations, as communities. Our answers will have a great deal to do with what we find as well as with the journey we take to get there. What are we seeking? What motivates us? What is it that we really need, not just on the surface, but down deep into the core of our being? As we continue on in the season of the Epiphany, this question is an important one for us to ponder. In a way, we have an advantage over the disciples; we know what’s coming and we know how it all will end. Yet, we continue to ask, what am I looking for?

As if this mind-bending, soul-searching question was not enough, immediately following their “introductions,” the disciples ask another question: "where are you staying?" We know that John is not one to mince words. From our brief encounter with his readings so far, we’ve learned that he, selects his words for what they say and not necessarily what they mean on the surface. So, asking Jesus where he was “staying” has little to do with making inquiry about his local lodging or accommodations. Instead it requires that we probe for what the phrase might say to us. What word might you select as a synonym for “stay?” Continue, dwell, lodge, sojourn, rest, settle, last, endure, persevere, be steadfast, abide, be in close and settled union and indwell? The list is endless and any of the preceding words might work at any given time.

Marcus Borg writes in the Heart of Christianity, “that the Christian life is not about believing or a set of beliefs, but it’s about a deepening relationship with the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Paying attention to this relationship transforms us.” So, if we choose to interpret John’s question to mean our asking about an intimate, enduring relationship with God, the word “abide” has particular meaning that fits. We surrender our ego to God as the Word becomes flesh and abides in us, and sows the seed of transformation, and we are born into a new life.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

You…are my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased


I wonder how many of us celebrate our baptism as we might our birthday or anniversary.  I’m not sure I can even locate my baptismal certificate much less know the month or day it took place. This Sunday we will celebrate the baptism of Jesus according to Matthew 3:13-17 and despite the fact that this event in our church calendar was once considered an even more important feast than Christmas, the baptism of Jesus is acknowledged with just a Gospel reading  and a sermon. Yet, along with the Epiphany, it is a celebration of the true nature of the incarnation of God. Perhaps we should wait before we put away our manger scenes.

I suspect that for many Christians there is a puzzle about baptism. If you ask people why they want their children baptized many would be hard pressed to explain. Do we do it for the grandparents?  Is it a cultural act?  Is it a “ticket to admission” for a particular church or pre-qualification for communion? How many of us were raised believing that it was intended to “wash away” our sins? No, the sacrament instills a sense of God with us and in us that is essential to our very nature and being. While baptism reminds us of our being united as part of the Christian community, we were invested in God’s Kingdom long before any sprinkling of water or liturgical incantation took place.

When in this Gospel John protests at the notion of having to baptize Jesus, Jesus responds with “for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." In so doing Jesus makes it clear that he aligns himself with all people and not just the followers of Moses, “the chosen.” It is our birth rite.

So, while we are marked as a member of God’s Kingdom, Baptism enrolls us in this most “inclusive” of all clubs. “In a very profound way we are in fact brothers and sisters to one another. Each of us has already received the first great gift of our spiritual inheritance: the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God resides in each of us as the source of the divine life and the source of all life…The life of God in us means that we are closely bonded to one another. We are more closely united by the living presence of the Spirit in us than we would be by family blood lines. The shared life of God of which we are all temples, make us family in a profoundly personal way. This is the faith vision of the reality which we call Church.” (John Powell, S.J. The Christian Vision, p131)

Baptism is not about the forgiveness of sins although it is about repentance which in the true sense of the word, inspires us to redirect our lives by “putting on the mind of Christ” in all that we do. As such, our identity by the power of the Holy Spirit, is created through worship and practice, so that we might know and feel the sense of God in one another. This deep experience forms our identity as those who will be known by our love for one another and not defined by any denomination. This is being in “the mind of Christ.”