20 January 2008

Sermon from today

Here's the sermon I delivered today, with more people in attendance than I expected given the weather. And this is a link to the lectionary scriptures of the day. Enjoy - feedback welcomed.

There’s one thing today’s scripture passages have in common – there’s a lot of name calling in them. I know, you didn’t hear that in them. That’s because I’m not talking about the kind of name-calling you hear on the playground, or in political campaign commercials. No, that’s the kind of name-calling that tears down. What I’m referring to is the kind of name-calling that builds one another up. Because this kind of name-calling isn’t derogatory or derisive, it’s affirming.

Let me give you some examples of what I mean. In the passage from Isaiah, the author says, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” And later, the Lord speaks and says, “You are my servant Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” There’s the first instance of name-calling I was talking about – God calls this prophet “Israel”, and “my servant”. And God doesn’t stop there – in fact, God says that it is “too light a thing” for this person being called to be only a light to Israel, but rather he should be “a light to the nations”. These are some powerful names – “servant of God”, and “light to the nations”. I think any of us would be proud to have those names ascribed to us by the Almighty!

Then we move on to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul starts out by claiming his own calling – he says that he is “called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God”. That sounds like a man who’s pretty sure of his calling, doesn’t it? But he’s not just sure of his own calling, because in the next verse, Paul refers to “the church of God that is in Corinth,” those who are “called to be saints”. So Paul is acknowledging both his own calling and that of the church to whom he is writing.

And then there’s the Gospel text. The first instance of name-calling there is by John the Baptist, when he proclaims in his inimitably dramatic fashion, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Of course, he’s speaking of Jesus, whom John recognizes as the Lamb of God, the Son of God. John goes on to recall the scene we read in the Gospel lesson last week, the baptism of Jesus when the Spirit descends on him like a dove. John says, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him,” and John acknowledges that it was this affirming sign, this message from the Spirit as it were, that helped John recognize who Jesus really was. John is then confident enough to state, “I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

Then the next day the disciples get in on the act. Now, usually we can count on Jesus’ disciples for a good dose of comic relief, with their frequently mistaken ideas and generally blundering plans. But I guess they hadn’t had enough time together to practice all that just yet, because here in this passage they seem to get things pretty much spot on. They hear John call Jesus the “Lamb of God” again, and they get interested and decide, “Hmmm, this might be a guy worth getting to know, if John’s so all-fired-up about him”. So they leave John and follow Jesus, and when Jesus sees them tagging along and asks what they’re looking for, they respond by calling him “Rabbi”, which the gospel writer helpfully translates for us as “Teacher”. Later, Andrew has another notion about who this Jesus is, so he heads off to find his brother Simon and, excitedly, tells him, “We’ve found the Messiah!” Simon thinks this is worth checking out for himself, so he goes along to see this supposed Messiah. He meets Jesus, and immediately Jesus calls him by his name, Simon, and then tells him that he’s giving him a new name, Cephas, which translated to the form we’re familiar with, is Peter. Both of these translate to something like “Rock”, so if this were happening today Jesus might call Peter “Rocky” or “the Rock”. Kind of gives one pause to think of Sylvester Stallone or Dwayne Johnson playing Peter in the film version…
Anyway, that’s the kind of name-calling I was talking about, the kind where people are named and called not based on some kind of denigration, but a calling to their true selves or to their highest potential. You’ll notice another common thread in these name-callings – most if not all of the calling was done by God, or by the Spirit, or by those (such as prophets) who were speaking on behalf of God.

What does that mean for us? How can we interpret that and apply it to our own day-to-day lives? I mean, most of us don’t have doves descending on our heads every day. And if we did, we’d probably shoo them away. Seriously, do you ever wonder what your calling is? What or who you’re called to be? I know I do. I’ve spent much of my life searching for some kind of clear, definitive calling, some way of knowing for sure what it is I’m supposed to be doing. Doesn’t this begin to sound like Isaiah, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity”?

Oh, but wait a second. Did you fall into that trap with me? The one I’ve been falling in for so much of my own life? In case you missed it, let me go back a step. I’ve been talking about name-calling, about who someone is called and thus who they are – a “servant of God”, an “apostle of Christ”, a “Rock”, or even a “Teacher” or “Anointed One” or “Lamb of God”. But then when I started talking about myself, I made a subtle switch. I started talking about what I’m called to be, which then became what I’m called to do. This happens very easily, especially in our American Protestant Christian society. We identify ourselves and others by what we do, especially if we’re employed in a professional, technical, or managerial capacity. When we ask young children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, what we’re typically asking is “What kind of job do you want to have?” Kids know this, because their typical responses are things like “I want to be a police officer, or a firefighter, or a doctor, or an astronaut, or President of the United States.” They’re responding to our expectations, because they’ve learned what we mean when we ask, “What do you want to be?”

But being is more than just doing. Being is something more at our very core. In our society, when “Be all that you can be” has been reduced to a military recruiting slogan, it’s sometimes hard to talk about this in ways that make sense. I think Rex did a great job of this last week – remember what he said, recalling the voice of God at Jesus’ baptism that proclaimed, “You are my beloved child”, and he talked about how that voice of God, that speaking of the Spirit, names us all as beloved children of God, and calls us all into being those beloved children that we are.

Go back with me for a minute to the first passage, from Isaiah. The prophet wrote, “The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.” There’s this notion that even before we came into the world, we were known and called by name. The psychologist and author James Hillman talks about this a lot; he’s considered the founder of archetypal psychology, which is in the Jungian tradition and makes use of mythology and classical philosophy to understand the soul. One of Hillman’s basic theories, in brief, is what he called the “acorn theory” of the soul, by which he means that we all enter life with a basic calling at our core being. This is connected to what the ancient Greeks called your “daimon”. As Hillman once described it, this word:

…became Christianized as demon because Christian theology doesn’t approve of those figures who speak to us as inner voices and so forth. The Greek word was daimon, the Roman word was genius, and the Christian word is guardian angel. They are all a little bit different, yet each expresses something that you are, that you have, that is not the same as the personality you think you are.

As Christians, we believe that one aspect of this inherent calling, or being, or name-calling, is to call one another “beloved child of God”. That’s a name we receive at our baptism, and it’s a name we spend the rest of our lives learning to live into.

What about us? I mean, not us individually, but us collectively, us as a congregation? If we were to engage in some name-calling of ourselves, what would come of that? Many of you have heard me speak in the past about this, about how our church community is, or should be, a radically prophetic community, and a community that embraces and lives out radical love in the world. I think this is still true, and there is no better time to consider what it means to be a radical, loving, prophetic congregation than today, on the eve of the day on which we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King. I’ve heard now and then that maybe we shouldn’t talk about ourselves as being radical, or extreme; that we shouldn’t do anything that might offend someone or drive them away if they disagreed with a principled stand we might take. We don’t want to turn anyone off by being too out there; we want everyone to be comfortable here. Well, we certainly want everyone to feel welcomed, and loved, and accepted here, but I don’t think that means we need to not be who we are called to be, and I still believe we are called to be a radically loving, radically prophetic community. And, at the risk of taking liberties with the historical record, I think that Dr. King would agree with me. Hear these words from his own apostolic letter, written from his own time in jail, in Birmingham in 1963:

Was not Jesus an extremist for love -- "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice -- "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ -- "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus"…So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice--or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?

There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But they went on with the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment.

May we also be big in commitment, extremists for the good news of Jesus, extremists for love and justice and peace. Let us live into that calling and be the congregation that embodies those ideals, so that we may bring about the reign of God, the beloved community, right here, right now.

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