First Sunday after Epiphany
January 10, 2010
So here we are. We’ve celebrated our 12 days of Christmas; Epiphany is in the past; the Three Kings have come and have left their gifts behind; the special Oreo Rice Krispie Treats that my son’s girlfriend made for me are all consumed; and so I suppose it is time for us now to face facts and admit that the holidays are over.
You will notice, however, that the Christmas tree in Farlander Hall is still standing. Well, it just so happens that Eric, our Sexton, has been on vacation since the first of the year; and he’s the only one who knows how to take the tree down so I guess, logically speaking, as long as the Christmas tree is standing Christmastide cannot be over. We’re just going to have to continue celebrating Christmas until he returns.
That would make today the 17th day of Christmas – which is fine by me. There’s no need to be in any rush about this.
I hate to see the holidays go; I’ve always been attached to them – maybe it’s because I was conceived sometime around the beginning of Advent.
I’d like to think this accounts for my cheerful demeanor and my affection for champagne.
Five months after I was born, my sister Rebecca was conceived. Legend attributes this event to a very persuasive box of chocolates delivered to my mother’s bedside on Valentine’s Day. I think this explains why my sister, as an adult, spent a year in Paris learning how to make chocolate cakes.
Rebecca was the fifth and final child for my parents. God bless my mom, they had five children in 6 years. In other words, they were Roman Catholics…. Catholics, that is, until Rebecca came along.
So while I like to say I’m a cradle Episcopalian, technically speaking I started out as a Roman Catholic, having been baptized by a Catholic priest. I’m sure if I had had a say in the matter, I would have wriggled out of his grip and crawled on my hands and knees to the Episcopal Church down the street, but the priest had hands like iron.
It wasn’t until a few months later that my parents saw things my way. It was the middle of summer in a sweltering church; my mother, five months pregnant with Rebecca, fighting morning sickness, sleep deprived, bone weary, juggling me in her lap and trying to keep the three other children quiet and entertained, listened while a celibate Catholic priest preached a sermon on the evils of birth control.
Legend has it that in the middle of the sermon the baby in my mother’s womb kicked her so hard she took it as a sign from God. We very politely marched out of the church and became faithful Episcopalians the very next Sunday.
So I stand here today, a priest in the Episcopal Church, thanks to a box of chocolates and a poorly timed sermon on birth control. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
Most of us were baptized as infants or young children. When the priest poured the water over our heads and uttered the ancient formula of baptism, we didn’t have much say in the matter. I have baptized many babies who were wiggling and screaming in protest – but they never stopped me from doing my job. I have hands of iron...
Jesus, on the other hand, chose to be baptized as an adult. He knew exactly what he was doing – and he knew exactly what he would be facing after his baptism.
I wonder if he had any secret regrets, as he rose up from out of that river soaking wet and thought about the future he was facing. I wonder if he wanted to go back to the time before baptism – kind of like how I want to go back to Christmastide; or like a man who has just gotten a tattoo he wasn’t sure about. Did he hear the words of commitment coming out of his mouth and think, “Is it too late? Can I take it back?”
Or did the very act of baptism give him the courage to face his destiny?
The ritual of baptism involves the giving of a name; and more than that, it involves being called by name by God, into covenant with God.
The prophet Isaiah speaks in the name of God: “O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
The writer Lawrence Wood talks about how God finds very special ways to call us by name. He tells the story of a doctor he knew, who fought all his life against the idea of a personal God:
He sought refuge instead in music; Bach particularly appealed to him because of the mathematical precision of the fugues. Meanwhile, his life was falling apart. His first wife left him; he started drinking too much. One day as he was driving, he pounded the steering wheel with his open palms and cried out, “God, if you’re really there, you’re going t have to say something! And you know what kind of man I am! … You’re going to have to talk my language!” Just then on the radio came, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” My friend sobbed, and laughed at what an idiotic but wonderful word this was to him.
[The Christian Century, “The Living Word,” Dec. 26, 2006]
And it wasn’t even a classical music station. The next song was “The Girl from Ipanema”! He doesn’t say why – maybe his wife was from Brazil, I don’t know, but somehow that sealed the deal for the doctor. God had spoken his particular language. The Word of God had become so custom-made at that moment that it was if God had called him by name.
It’s a powerful thing to be called by name. We’re in the 2rd grade, in the middle of a busy classroom surrounded by 30 other chattering children. The teacher calls our name. Something happens to us; our attention goes up; the room becomes clarified; our hand goes up; we say, “Here I am.”
For Jesus, his baptism had a similar effect; called by name, his world is clarified; everything else falls away; he stands, and says, “Yes. Here I am.”
Being called by name can have another kind of effect. We’re in a lecture hall in graduate school with 75 other students. The famously cranky professor is known to randomly choose students from the class list to answer notoriously difficult questions. You have deliberately placed yourself in the back of the lecture hall hoping this protect you; you have spent the entire semester hunched over your desk trying to look as small as possible.
And then you are called by name. “Matthew Lawrence! Please explain to us the origins of the Categorical Imperative!”
This is why we also associate baptism with repentance. Sometimes, in the name of a presence so awesome and vast as God, or even just somebody like a college professor who thinks he's God, the calling of our name is enough to make us feel unworthy of the attention.
The Methodist bishop Peter Storey points out that most of us have at least two names: our given name, and our family name. Our given name is what makes us unique: “Hey, Matt, how you doin’?” “Well, George, I’m doin’ just fine.”
Our given name is our own – we can do whatever we want with it. We can shorten it, take a nickname, whatever we want. Our family name, on the other hand, is not flexible; because it associates us with our people. Our family name does not belong to us – it belongs to the family. Through it, we represent our ancestors; our tribe. If our family name appears in the newspaper, we hope it doesn’t bring shame on the family name.
The family name, in other words, carries with it a set of responsibilities; obligations; sometimes even a life-long vocation.
This week I was privileged to serve at the Memorial Service of Betty Grove’s husband, Al, or C.A., as he was known. He was a third generation Santa Rosan, as were many of the people who came to remember him. The service was a Who’s Who of Santa Rosa’s most established families, including even the third generation of the Daniels family, who buried him.
I noticed that Al’s given name was not fixed – some people referred to him as Al, some as C.A. – it didn’t seem to matter (although nobody referred to him as Clarence Albert). But to everyone in that room, his family name - Grove - meant something special. Everyone in that room knew what the name Grove meant to Santa Rosa’s agricultural community; the name is important. It stands for something; it gives those who are lucky enough to bear the name something to live up to and be worthy of.
In our baptism, we are given the name Christian; for us perhaps the most worthy family name of all. To take on this name, Christian, carries certain responsibilities, certain obligations - to the God who calls us by name; and to the Christians ancestors who have gone before us. Those obligations and responsibilities are summarized for us in the Baptismal Covenant.
In a few moments, you will be invited to stand and affirm your commitment to this Covenant. In that re-affirmation, we’re invited to go back to those first moments of baptism. But of course there’s a big difference. We’re grown-ups now. You are not a baby wriggling against a priest with iron hands. You don’t need to affirm these words; nobody is making you. So think about it carefully. If you don't mean it, I suggest you not say it.
And this morning, as you come up for Communion, you will have an opportunity to dip your hand into the baptismal water, and make the sign of the cross over yourself, and remember these commitments as you receive the Eucharist. Again, this is an invitation, not a commandment.
If you choose to make this re-affirmation, I suggest you pray with me on this: May God, who has given us the will to do these things, give us the strength and the love and the courage to achieve them, also.
The Baptismal Covenant (pp.304-5, Book of Common Prayer)
Do you believe in God the Father?
I believe in God, the Father almighty,creator of heaven and earth.
Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God's help.
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
I will, with God's help.
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God's help.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God's help.
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God's help.