“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.
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?”
A book entitled Stories for the Heart was published a few years ago by inspirational speaker Alice Gray. It is a compilation of what Gray calls “stories to encourage your soul;” one of them is the following story, whose original author she says is unknown. It may not be true, but I (for one) hope it is:
It was a few weeks before Christmas 1917. The beautiful snowy landscapes of Europe were blackened by war. The trenches on one side held the Germans and on the other side the trenches were filled with Americans. It was World War I. The exchange of gunshots was intense. Separating them was a very narrow strip of no-man’s land. A young German soldier attempting to cross that no-man’s land had been shot and had become entangled in the barbed wire. He cried out in anguish, then in pain he continued to whimper.
Monday being “Memorial Day,” this weekend, in the traditions of our country, we are remembering and celebrating those who have fought on behalf of, and given their lives for, the United States. In the traditions of the church today, we are celebrating something called “Rogation Sunday,” on which we give thanks for the abundance of the earth and ask God’s blessings upon agricultural pursuits, upon the fields and the herds. I’d like to read you a story about giving thanks for abundance. It is from the Paul Harvey radio program.
This sermon was first preached on Easter Sunday, 2001, at St. Francis of Assisi in the Pines Episcopal Church, Stilwell, Kansas, where I was rector from July 1993 to June 2003. I had thought it lost when that parish abandoned its internet domain after I left that position. However, at the urging of a friend, I searched for it on the Internet Archive’s “wayback machine,” and was surprised to find it. I have updated some of the references and corrected some mistakes to publish it here. I have always thought it a pretty good sermon, and I guess others have thought so, too: in the course of researching sources to update the footnotes, I found that a rather large chunk of it had been reproduced in full, without attribution, as the pastor’s 2019 Easter letter in the newsletter of a Roman Catholic parish in Scotland.[A] (As my fellow Anglican cleric Charles Caleb Cotton wrote in 1824 – and Oscar Wilde later quoted and expanded – “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.”[B])
Easter is a joke. Amen.
(The Preacher steps out of the pulpit, perhaps even returns to his chair, then returns to the pulpit.)
OK … I guess I should explain that. What is a “joke”? Princeton University’s WordNet Dictionary says, in one of its definitions, that a joke is an “activity characterized by good humor.” Can you think of a better way to characterize the resurrection of Jesus than as an “activity characterized by good humor”? The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was God’s activity of the highest and best humor!
I wrote in our newsletter, The Canticle, that the Sunday we call “Easter” is really not a separate feast day; it is the third part of a three-day celebration that begins at sundown on the previous Thursday, the day we call “Maundy.” This three-day celebration is called by an ancient Latin name, “the Triduum.” The Triduum is a single celebration in three acts. We have arrived at Act Three in the drama of redemption.
Today, as I write this, is Trinity Sunday 2020, but my imagination this morning is not caught up by the Lectionary gospel lesson of the day, the last mountain-top experience of the Eleven when, just before his Ascension, Jesus gives them the Great Commission. Rather, my mind is taken to another mountain-top story, the one New Testament story Episcopalians can count on hearing twice each year at celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, that of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is heard on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, when Luke’s version is read at the mass:
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
It is also always heard on the Last Sunday after Epiphany when, depending on the Lectionary year, it may be Luke’s story or the essentially similar versions from Matthew or Mark.
With churches suspending public worship out of concern for the contagion of Covid-19, the noval coronavirus, we Episcopalians (and many others) are prevented from receiving Holy Communion. An ancient practice of the Church in such circumstances, for there have always been those who, for whatever reason, are unable to take the Sacrament, is to make an act of “spiritual communion.”
Spiritual communion was defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as “an ardent desire to receive Jesus in the Holy Sacrament and a loving embrace as though we had already received Him.” This is a lovely way to unite oneself to God through prayer, expressing to God one’s desire to be united with Christ when we are unable to do so through reception of Holy Communion.
The Roman Catholic saint, Alphonsus Liguori, taught a four-step method of of making a spiritual communion.
Today marks the beginning of the season we call “Lent,” an old English word which refers to the springtime lengthening of the days. What is this season all about, these forty days (not counting Sundays) during which we are to be, in some way, doing what a hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says: “Keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast?”
A few years ago, Dr. Jonn Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, described Lent as a time for seeking and getting to know God better. Similarly, an essay about Lent in an issue of the National Catholic Register was titled “A Season for Seeking.” I’m not sure I buy that, however. As the Roman Franciscan author Richard Rohr says, “We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.” Lent is not so much a time for seeking God, who is always there, as it is for becoming aware of God.
And the interesting thing is that we are encouraged to become aware of God by becoming more aware of ourselves. Yes, Jesus does say to give with one hand not letting the other know what’s happening, but this seems more an instruction to follow the Deuteronomic command to “open your hand [to one in need] … to give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so” rather than a direction to act without self-awareness.
In the beginning, God said . . . and there is creation. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh . . . and there is salvation. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is not us but the Spirit who speaks through us . . . and there is sanctification. At the core of our faith is communication and personal relationship, and how we express that is vitally important. It is more than an intellectual enterprise. Choosing, using, hearing, reading, interpreting, and translating our words and those of scripture is a spiritual and existential exercise, as well. To demonstrate this, I have brought a prop to use this morning: this. [Bottle of Mountain Dew]
What is this? I mean, generically what is this beverage called? You might call it “pop” or “soda” or (despite the fact that it is not a cola and not a product of the Coca-Cola Company) if you were from some parts of the American South you might call it a “coke.” If you were from Great Britain or Ireland, you might call it a “fizzy drink.” If a man we have just met describes Mountain Dew as his favorite kind of Coke or calls it his favorite fizzy drink, we will automatically know something about him and we will assume much, much more, and what we know, what we think we know, and what we assume will all color our relationship with our new acquaintance.
Two things happened last Saturday.
Early in the day I got into an internet discussion (in a Facebook comment thread) with a friend about the “distinctives” of the Episcopal Church and (as the context broadened) Anglicanism in general. It started as a joke when I made a snarky comment that what sets us apart from other parts of the Christian world is that we are a “place” where people can argue about such important things as candles on the altar or processional crosses or the theology of bread with vile, soul-crushing vehemence and still claim to be loving brothers and sisters. My friend responded, I answered, and as things progressed I realized he was being serious while I was trying to be sarcastic. I shifted gears and we ended up agreeing that the Anglican distinctive is difficult to put into words, it almost defies definition.
And, yet, there is something! We had both commented during the give-and-take that there is a je-ne-sais-quoi about our tradition that we miss when attending worship in another church , that if the Episcopal Church did not exist we would have to invent it.