We “boast in our sufferings,” writes Paul to the Romans, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us….” It sounds, doesn’t it, like Paul is encouraging the Romans to brag about their problems and how well they handle them, as if endurance, character, and hope were the prizes handed out in some sort of “affliction Olympics.”
Well, he’s not. The Greek word here is kauchaomai which the lexicon interprets as “to glory in a thing.” The New American Bible rendered this injunction as “we exult in our tribulations.” The old Revised Standard Version translated this word as “rejoice.” I rather like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this text in The Message: “We … shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles.” So, no … Paul is not encouraging competitive bragging.
It’s the last Sunday of the Christian year, sort of a New Year’s Eve for the church. We call it “the Feast of Christ the King” and we celebrate it by remembering his enthronement. Each year on Christ the King Sunday we read some part of the crucifixion story. As Pope Francis reminded the faithful in his Palm Sunday homily a few years ago, “It is precisely here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross!”
My friend Malcolm Guite, a priest of the Church of England and a remarkable poet, has written a lovely sonnet for this feast:
Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.
In 1978 the German Caribbean disco group Boney M covered a Jamaican Rastafarian anthem called “Rivers of Babylon.” Their cover claimed the Number 1 spot on the European pop charts that year and Number 30 on US pop charts. You may remember it. I’m going to ask our sound man to play the first minute or so of the song now.
That danceable little tune is based on Psalm 137, the same psalm the choir chanted this evening. That bouncy rhythm seems just a little bit at odds with the psalm’s words of lament, don’t you think? — and that violent imprecation at the end?
The last sentence of our reading from Genesis says, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” so this text is often treated as a story of faith. But, in all honesty, this is a story of doubt. It is the story of Abram questioning God’s promise of a posterity; it is a story of tribalism and concern for bloodline, ethnicity, and inheritance.
We humans have a predisposition to tribalism, to congregating in social groupings of similar people. Think about the neighborhood and community where you live; I’m willing to bet that your neighborhoods are made up of people for the most part pretty similar to yourselves. Aside from clearly racist practices like red lining and sundown laws, we modern Americans may not consciously organize ourselves into tribal groupings, but if we look at ourselves honestly we will find that we do. Like attracts like. As individuals, we are initially situated within nuclear families, then as we grow we broaden our social interactions to extended families, then clan, tribe, ethnic group, political party, nation.
It’s genetic: our nearest relatives, the great apes and chimpanzees, demonstrate this same family and clan predilection. And it’s religious: we find it in sacred literatures across cultures. Today’s lesson from Genesis is a case in point.
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” advises the author of the letter to the Colossians (whom I shall call “Paul” even though there is some scholarly dispute about that). Is Paul echoing the Teacher who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes? Is he also asserting that “all the deeds that are done under the sun [are] vanity and a chasing after wind”?
And what about Luke’s Jesus? When he says that God calls the rich man a fool is he condemning his wealth or his saving for the future as a waste of time?
No, not at all! None of our biblical authors this morning – not the Teacher, not Paul, not Luke (and certainly not Jesus whom Luke is quoting) – none of them is saying that life is futile or that our earthly existence is unimportant.
“Name this child.” That’s what I say to parents of infant baptismal candidates as I take their children from them. The words are not actually written in the baptismal service of The Book of Common Prayer as they are in some other traditions’ liturgies, but there is a rubric that says, “Each candidate is presented by name to the Celebrant . . . .” so asking for the child’s name is a practical way of seeing that done. It’s practical, but it’s also a theological statement.
There is a common religious belief found in nearly all cultures that knowing the name of a thing or a person gives one power over that thing or person. One finds this belief among African and North American indigenous tribes, as well as in ancient Egyptian, Vedic, and Hindu traditions; it is also present in all three of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
The naming we do at baptism echoes the naming that takes place in Judaism when a male infant is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. In that service, called the brit milah or bris, the officiating mohel prays, “Our God and God of our fathers, preserve this child for his father and mother, and his name in Israel shall be called ________” and the prayer continues that, by his naming, the infant will be enrolled in the covenant of God with Israel. A similar thing is done when a girl is named in the ceremony called zeved habat or simchat bat, the “gift (or celebration) of the daughter” on the first sabbath following her birth. With the name given at baptism, the church says to its newest member, “This is who you are: washed in the waters of baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” a brother or sister in the church, a fellow member of the Body of Christ, an adopted child of God the Father.
When I was in the 8th Grade, I attended Robert Fulton Junior High School in Van Nuys, California, which is in the San Fernando Valley area of the Los Angeles metroplex. At some point during the year, Mrs. R. Smith, who taught English, gave my class an assignment to memorize and interpret a poem; we had to get up in front of the class, recite the poem, and then give our interpretation. When it came to be my turn, I recited my chosen poem, said what I believed it meant, and explained my interpretation. Mrs. Smith responded, “Your interpretation is wrong,” to which I replied, “I can interpret a poem any damned way I please!”
Well, as you might expect, she immediately ordered me to the Vice-Principal’s office, where I sat for about an hour and a half waiting for my mother whom the Vice-Principal called, to come from her office in another part of Los Angeles. I missed two other classes because of my rejection of Mrs. Smith’s one-right-interpretation approach to poetry and, while I remember the punishment, I no longer remember the poem nor the lesson she was trying to teach.
I tell you this story because that one-right-interpretation approach is the way the church has looked at the Parable of the Good Samaritan for most of its existence; for the first 1500 years that one right way was a lot different than the way most of us hear the story today.
Sunlight dapples the wavelets
They sparkle as living jewels
while children cavort on the beach
Happy holiday strollers laugh
their toes caressed by foam
and the bubbling escape of
sand crabs and beach hoppers
You tread water and look on
not taking part
though you might wish to
In fact, you try but you can’t
the undertow is pulling you away
pulling you down
pulling you under
You signal for help but
they don’t understand and
wave back happy greetings
which only makes it worse
“Swim sideways” you’ve heard
“that will get you out of the current”
It seems to work for the tide of water
but what is sideways
to the tide
of grief and depression?
There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Rachel has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theological doctrine is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise.
We try in all sorts of ways to explain the Trinity, through diagrams, through analogies, through some really bad and usually silly similes and metaphors. Most such explanations are less than convincing, and virtually all are theologically problematic. As Brian McLaren has observed:
Seemingly orthodox Christians expose themselves—often to their own surprise—as closet adoptionists or Arians, unconscious Nestorians or Apollinarians, or implicit monophysitists or monothelitists.
So I’m going to leave Christian theology behind for a moment and ask you a question from another religious tradition: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Come Holy Spirit, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
everywhere present and filling all things.
Treasury of Blessing, Giver of Life,
Come, dwell within us and between us… Amen.
On the day of Pentecost, the disciples, “filled with the Holy Spirit” rushed out into the streets of Jerusalem “and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability,” proclaiming the Good News to the crowds of people in town for Shavuot and answering their inevitable questions. Jesus had told them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” The Spirit, as Jesus promised, had reminded them and empowered them, and now here they were.
Scholars and preachers go through all sorts of hermeneutical contortions to interpret this event as some sort of reversal or overcoming of the linguistic scattering of the nations at the Tower of Babel. I suppose that’s why our lectionary pairs that Genesis story with the reading from the Book of Acts, but I don’t think that’s what Luke, the author of Acts, was trying to convey. I’m always left wondering, “If that’s what he was trying to put across, why didn’t he just say that?”