Monday, January 20, 2014

on naming the unnameable--Theva

 John 1:29-42.
 Dear Friends!
Our text begins today with these words “on the next day” (John 1:29) and so I contextualized the events of the previous day or perhaps even days. It was about John the Baptizer baptizing crowds of people at river Jordan. At the end of reading that scripture, I opened the pages of the Wall street journal which I usually do. I found in the newspaper a picture of Pope Francis baptizing one of 32 infants in the Sistine chapel of the Vatican. You can see it on the power point today. Let me remind you that the rite of baptism does not belong only to the bygone days. Let me assure you that it will not disappear at any time in the future because baptism is the right of every child.
        On seeing John baptizing a large crowd, the priests and the Scribes wanted to make sure whether the Messiah had arrived in the person of John the Baptist. To their direct question John simply said “I AM JUST A VOICE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, THE ONE WHO IS COMING AFTER ME IS FAR GREATER THAN I AM”. On that occasion of baptism, the Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove. A voice was heard from heaven “you are my beloved child and with you I am well pleased.” Jesus was named on that occasion “as God’s beloved child”. This is a sermon about naming. In the Hebrew tradition they gave several names to the unnamable, YHWEH, means Lord, and ELOHIM and ELSHADAI. Some time we give names to persons so casually and callously.
       A Pastor friend told me he baptized a child with the first name Justin and the last name Case. When my parents named me Thevanesan they put on me the best biblical name Theophilus, means the lover of God. However I know that I have not always lived up to what my name stands for. Whenever I wavered and slipped and got involved in all kinds of pranks in school and later in college, I got reminded as to why my parents named me Theophilus. And then quickly I came to my senses. The early settlers in America showered all their passion in the very naming some of our cities and towns. And I am asking you today: Are they living up to the significance of their names? How about Hope in New Providence? How about Bethlehem in Pennsylvania? Bethlehem means the home of bread. How about Bliss in Philadelphia which means a city of love. The baptism moment at river Jordan was a sacramental experience. Jesus was affirmed as God’s beloved child, a child of promise and blessing, fully human and truly human.
          A Pastor whose first name is Fred made a practice of carrying newly baptized babies down the church aisle and back. On one occasion as he passed a pew in which a six year old Jimmy regularly sat with his parents, the boy looked up at his pastor and said “Hi God”. Holding the baby the Pastor stopped and said with a wink,” Why don’t you call me Fred?” A look of astonishment came over the little boy’s face, as he turned to his mother and said with amazement, “Mama, God said that I could call him Fred”. Jesus became one of us in baptism and I become a child of God through baptism.
      In today’s scripture the two disciples of John were curious to know who Jesus was. And when Jesus was passing by John said “Here goes the Lamb of God”. So as the two began to follow Jesus, they asked him, “Where are you staying Rabbi? Here is another professional name for Jesus, Rabbi. The meaning of the word Rabbi is more than a teacher; it means a guru, which is completely an eastern phenomenon. I cannot do justice in explaining the meaning of it in today’s 15 minutes discourse for it can be developed into a sermon in itself. Jesus’s response to the question about his whereabouts was Come and see. In the words of Theologian Matthew Fox “Jesus’ disciples were persons who met him, saw him interacting with others, heard him speak and hence they were attracted to him”. The enlistment of the disciples by Jesus did not happen the way the gospels describe it. I believe the making of the disciples happened over several days of conversation and sharing meals and learning lessons. Friends we are happy to emulate Jesus, crown him with many crowns and grant him a glorified status. I am reminded of a hymn written by John Newton more than 200 years ago: How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear. Singing of the sweetness of Jesus alone will not make us followers of Jesus. Following Jesus on a daily basis is a real challenge.
         Tomorrow we will be observing and celebrating the birth day of a great prophet this country has ever produced by the name Martin Luther King Jr. He followed the footsteps and practiced the values of Jesus passionately. He worked tirelessly for the attainment of freedom of every individual. He gave his life for a cause of the preservation of human dignity and racial justice. He saw the Promised Land even before his actual death. His gift of seeing the invisible is a rare gift. No wonder when Jesus extended his invitation for prospective disciples, he simply said: Come and see.
      Now Andrew, on seeing Jesus and having been attracted by his words and the living situation, felt the need to rush home and meet his brother Simon Peter. Andrew in his encounter with Jesus must have experienced something miraculous that created an exuberance and excitement, so he shouted at the top of his voice: “Pete! WE HAVE FOUND THE MESSIAH, THE ANNOINTED ONE”. Now we have added another name for Jesus, The Messiah. My sermon today is a call to examine our ability to listen to a voice. A call to name whatever that is unnamable. It is a call to discern our own giftedness and to see something extra ordinary amidst the ordinary and the mundane.
      Do we know Jesus? One of the leading Jesus scholars in our country by the name Marcus Borg who has written many books and the one I want to lift up today is: Meeting Jesus again for the first time. In this book he writes about growing up in a small town in North Dakota attending the church regularly as a small boy and later became disinterested in church. He writes about being a closet agnostic some time, but his desire to know Jesus never ceased. He writes about his college days and his days of study and research in the University of Oxford in England. Today he is in great demand as a speaker worldwide. In this book he brings about a distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. His new images of Jesus are fascinating. He presents Jesus to us as a Spirit person and as the wisdom of God.
      I am asking us today to continue with our search for who Jesus is? Let us make every effort to meet Jesus whether in the sanctuary or in the celebration of the sacraments, whether listening to the preached word or walking outside in the market square, whether during the reading of scripture or in our involvement in the struggles of human liberation and justice. Keep asking the question: Who is Jesus today?  Amen!

Monday, January 13, 2014

baptismal ID

Baptismal ID 011214
If someone asks for my ID, I either feel flattered, if it’s a grocery clerk and I’m buying cough medicine or beer….or I feel worried, if it’s a police officer!
My ID apart from drivers license used to say I was a resident alien…which I rather like… it says permanent resident, which is silly, nothing is permanent!
But who are we, really?  under the faces and facades and masks we wear what’s our real identity,?  Who am I?   If you have blank ID tags like these on the screen, what would you engrave?   Look at Linked In, online, or Facebook and you’ll see what people THINK their identity is:  name, job title, things they do well (or in the case of FB what they had for breakfast! Our culture tends to believe you are what you do.  But our faith says, no.  You do what you are; our identity comes first.
We live in a culture that promises success and acceptance if only we are…..skinny enough, rich enough, strong enough, popular enough, beautiful enough, and so on.  Never before have so many people been willing to offer us an identity, usually linked to a product being sold.   And all of us fall for it, because we crave a sense of identity, belonging and purpose.
Which brings us to this ancient story of Jesus’ baptism. 
By the time Matthew is writing his gospel, it is clear that the young movement of Christianity is struggling a bit with baptism, especially why Jesus had to be baptized.  Only Matthew has this odd little conversation between Jesus and John.
The first time Jesus speaks in Matthew, he says he needs to be  baptized. How odd.  Yet it’s a forecast of things to come.  He’s turning stuff upside down: first by identifying with the ordinary people (which some great Messiah kind of person should hardly have to do) = and also by equalizing the re3latiosnhip between him and John, who’s an old school hierarchical thinking man.

In fact it will become a characteristic of the whole Jesus movement then and now, that all human  expectations are redefined.  He’s hardly a messianic figure, this Jesus.  He’s born in poverty, maybe illegitimate, defenseless and vulnerable, persecuted, with no political or financial means…pretty much like everybody else in his class.  Nobody special….until this moment…until he humbles himself into baptism.
(BTW I may change this after I’ve finished reading “Zealot”!)
These people, and Jesus, stand in the wilderness, like their ancestors with Moses, and symbolically cross the Jordan river like they did, into a new life…out of the wilderness, thru the water, into a new ID as a named claimed love source of pleasure to God.
You know, we’ve badly softened baptism into a welcoming ritual for babies. A little touch of water on the forehead, a little sweet moment.   But it’s so much more.   My own baptism was a dramatic act of immersion in water….. It’s an act that signifies our separating ourselves from sin, the old life, the wilderness, and moving through the water to a new life, a new id
We should splash audaciously!
Jesus doesn’t set himself apart; he aligns himself with the rest of us.  He knows, as we do, that we can’t do it alone.  I’m betting he is none too certain of his own call, the meaning of his life, or his purpose.  I think he may not have much of an identity yet, but he is actively involved in the community and with God.  Like all of us, I am sure he grew into his identity, and it was first clearly named and claimed in his baptism.   In Matthew’s version, like Luke’s, he is blessed, named, claimed and appreciated.  He is given a core identity.
That’s still what happens in baptism today, and again at confirmation:  we say:  the HS work within you, so that you may live as a  faithful disciple. Identity.
That is our baptismal ID—named claimed loved source of pleasure for God… are we?
Every baptism gives us the chance again and again to come out of the wilderness of our old ways, wade through the waters immersed with the Spirit, and come up renewed and refreshed and ready for our mission and purpose….a new id: (from a website this week) the children of God tell the truth in a world that lies,                                                                                                                             Give in a world that takes,                                                                                                  love in a world that lusts                                                                                        make peace in a world that fights,                                                                      serve in a world that wants to be served,                                                              pray in a world that  waits to be entertained,                                                                           and take chances in a world that  worships safety.                                        The baptized are citizens of an eccentric community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest  good, and self giving is a daily event.  (ministry matters, the first step)
When we go out of here into that new ID, the wilderness may look the same, but we are different.  We are named and claimed and loved sources of pleasure for God.
The message of baptism is that God has said we are good enough, that we are beloved just as we are, and that God takes pleasure in us and has great hopes for us.  (opportunity to come forward during postlude to touch the waters….etc)
Let’s not disappoint God, or falsify our Identity.


Monday, January 06, 2014

Christmas Eve's Angel voices

Angel Voices      Christmas Eve                                                                           
It’s a familiar story, and we know it well…..but do we see ourselves in this story, in God’s story?
Teenagers like Mary, innocent and just beginning to explore more grown up relationships, but puzzled about who she might become. Mary, barely a woman, struggling to find herself, finds herself in deep trouble and having to trust God absolutely and completely…and it will change her life too…..
Faithful men like Joseph, very upright and proper, newly engaged, with all the hopes and questions that brings…. Joseph, uncertain but faithful, faces a difficult decision to drop, or continue a relationship….
Hard workers like the shepherds, desperately trying to make ends meet, outsiders often, in the social scheme of things, and unlikely characters to have much to do with God – except maybe one holy night a year….shepherds  busy trying to get by without a thought of deep spiritual matters, are struck suddenly out of the blue with a holy experience…….
To each of the story’s characters, and to each of us, an angel appears, with news—strange, illogical news
it seems so strange and illogical in the 21st century, so  we get a little afraid that this odd life-transforming news might be too hard to take: so we’ll give them a hearing, but just tonight, when we can suspend our logical factual beliefs, but only momentarily…tomorrow the angels will be gone, the manger empty, the hillsides once again full of sheep that need attending, the problems rushing back in on us.
But what if….what if we didn’t just hear the same old same old Christmas Eve stuff……
What if we really LISTENED to the angels: what might they have to say?  To each one of these the angel appeared and the first thing the angel said was the exact same thing:  Do not be afraid……
To the faithful and tired, the angel says
Do not be afraid, God has work yet for you to do
To the upright and proper, the angel says
Do not be afraid, step out of your comfort zone
To those who are in deep trouble
Do not be afraid, I am with you; together we can bring great things out of this
To the outsider, the marginalized, those struggling to get by,
Do not be afraid, I can give you purpose and meaning
To the hardworking cynic, the angel says
Do not be afraid to believe God cares about even you-and that YOU might have a role to play in transforming the world!
Sshh   Listen    There’s an angel calling your name……
Shhh    Do not be afraid
This child can transform your life
This child can bring you meaning
This child can give you purpose
Listen    The angel is bringing you the news YOU need this night:
A word of assurance that your prayers are heard
A word of courage to do the right thing
A word of purpose calling you into something new
A word of peace for your troubled soul – and for our troubled world
Shhhh   Listen
Do not be afraid.


let us begin afresh-Theva

Let Us Begin Afresh!
John 1:10-18.
Dear friends,
Today is an auspicious occasion for it is the first Sunday of a brand New Year. Even otherwise by rendering the most meaningful worship to our God and by raising some critical questions as to what does it mean to begin a year again and afresh, we can make this day auspicious. We have now put our Christmas celebrations on hold for another year, the pageants and the cantatas, the carol singing and the candle lighting. I heard someone say here in church last Sunday “now since Christmas is behind us my stress level is a bit low”.
          When a little boy reached school age, the mother worked hard to make him enthusiastic about school. She bought him new clothes. She told him about other children he would meet in school. So on the first day of school he went eagerly, attended classes and came home with excellent reports of what school was like. Well! the next day the mother went into the bed room and said” Son, wake up”. And he said what for? You have got to go to school the mother said. The boy said what? Again? Christmas emphasizes on a yearlong work plan. Beside our celebrations have we spread the Christmas spirit around Fairport? Have we challenged already the powers and the systems of oppression and corruption? Have we worked hard enough to promote the efforts for just peace in our communities? Have we done our best in feeding the hungry healing the sick and freeing the imprisoned? Have we worked tirelessly for the reconciliation of those who have alienated themselves from friends and families?

       Now here is a word about the New Year. The American born, British poet, T.S Eliot, after having had a spiritual experience and an inward shift from agnosticism to faith in God, he penned these lines: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.” You don’t need a preacher to remind you that in this New Year we will have births, deaths, marriages, anniversaries, job changes and relocations as it was in 2013. You don’t need a Pastor to predict to you that just as we lost some world leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela by death we will lose a few more this year as well. I am not a meteorologist however I can predict we will have some heavy snowfall in some parts of the country. There will be earthquakes and floods and hurricane in some other parts of the world. And in Fairport there will be some cold nights in February, a gloomy overcast in June and some gorgeous and warm summer days in July and August. The comedian, Hentry Youngman, tells about the time he was thrown out of an antique shop. “All I did”, he said, “was walk in and asked: What is new”? Think about it. There may be nothing new in an antique shop however each time we enter into it can we go in with new eyes? Can we anticipate 2014 to be filled with a measure of optimism and wonder? Can we cultivate love, friendship and a Spirit of understanding to thrive among our communities and nations in such a way we have never done before? What are we seeking after? Are we seeking after success and popularity? What are we striving for? Are we trying to make a fortune? Are we trying to find our names in the headlines of New York Times? Think for a moment, even the best scholars in the world whether Einstein or Thomas Edison, Steven Hawking, who occupies the chair of sir Isaac Newton in Cambridge in England or the Microsoft big name Bill Gates any one of them knows less than one tenth of one percent of all that might be known on this planet earth. Let me recommend my prayer to you as well. “Deliver me O God from the Spirit of regrets and resentments, revenge and bitterness for they are not good for my soul”. “Give me fresh energy, fervent faith and new dreams for a new year”.

          In a “peanuts” comic strip Lucy is speaking with Linus at the base of a hill. She says “Someday I am going over that hill and find the answers to my dreams”. “Someday I am going to find hope and fulfillment”. “I think, for me all the answers to life lie beyond these clouds and over that grassy slope of that hill”. Linus removes his thumb from his mouth, points towards that hill and responds ”Perhaps there is another little kid on the other side of that hill looking this way and thinking that all the answers to life lie on this side of the hill. Lucy looks at Linus and turns towards that hill and yells” forget it kid”. Human life is made of good times and bad, sunshine and shadows.

          Our worship is also called a condensed form of a covenant service. John Wesley 250 years ago, urged the entire Methodists around the world to renew their covenant with God on the first Sunday of the year. We will sing a covenant hymn today and pray a covenant prayer. Our text for today is from John chapter 1. And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son full of grace and truth. That ancient word, that energy of the cosmic fabric, that rational principle of the universe, came and lived among us. With grace and truth our lives can be transformed to be an incarnational life. This cannot be attained by going to an academic institution, attending classes and sit for an exam and pay our semester fees? I do not think that I can win it like a lottery. I do not think that I can achieve it like Michel Jordan, Julia Roberts, Tiger Wood and Serena Williams in basketball, acting, golf and Tennis with systematic practices and persistent discipline. Grace and truth are gifts freely available to all of us. We have to reach out and receive them. The problem with the world today is that we do not know how to receive free gift. Who said there is no free lunch? But I can guarantee you, there is free grace available, so that we don’t have to be aimless and wander. Why do we behave like dead and graceless people? Why do some of our churches look helpless and suffer from lack of spontaneity, hospitality and gracefulness. Walker Percy a secular novelist is asking a pertinent question in his novel” The Second coming: “If Christ has brought life into the church then why do the churches smell of death?” How can we make our lives incarnational? How can we begin a new year afresh? How can we begin to live again as though this is the first time of our living on this planet earth? Amen.