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.
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?”
We ask you to hold the people of Ukraine deep in your heart.
Protect them, we pray; from violence,
from political gamesmanship,
from being used and abused.
Give, we pray, the nations of the world the courage
and the wisdom to stand up for justice
and the courage, too, to dare to care generously.
Lord, in your mercy, take from us all the tendencies in us
that seek to lord it over others:
take from us those traits
that see us pursuing our own needs and wants
before those of others.
Teach us how to live in love and dignity and respect
following your example,
that life may triumph over death,
and light may triumph over darkness. Amen. 
The Pope’s message for Lent is a poignant one, beginning with an acknowledgement that “going to some small extent without food [may not seem to] mean much, at a time when so many of our brothers and sisters are victims of war … and are undergoing such suffering, both physically and morally.” Nonetheless, insisted His Holiness, “Lent must mean something,” and he urged all Christians to focus on “the common heritage of humanity.”
So, did you make any New Year’s Resolutions? I usually make three: lose weight, get more exercise, eat more healthily. I make them every year and every year by about Valentine’s Day I’ve let them slip. But this year I’m making a different resolution….
I did some research into the custom of making New Year’s Resolutions and here’s what I learned: the people of what’s called “the Old Babylonian Empire” are believed to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions; this was around the time of Hammurabi, the king known for his code of law. They celebrated the new year in mid-March, at the spring equinox when crops are planted. During a twelve-day religious festival known as Akitu, the Babylonians made both national and personal resolutions reaffirming their loyalty to the king, recommitting to pay any debts, and promising to return any farm equipment they had borrowed.
When my nephew, who’s now in his mid-40s, was about six years old, he was given a homework assignment that he found frustrating and he just didn’t want to finish it, but his mother made him sit down and do it rather than something else more to his liking. In his frustration, he blurted out, “I hate you!” My late sister-in-law responded calmly, “That’s too bad because I love you.” After a moment of reflection, my nephew amended his angry outburst: “I love you, too,” he said, “but I don’t like you right now.”
In the field of linguistic anthropology there is a theory called “cultural emphasis,” which postulates that if a particular topic is of importance to a society, that will be reflected in that culture’s vocabulary. If there are many words to describe that topic, then there is a good chance that that topic is considered important; the greater the number of terms, the greater the subject’s importance. Often this is particularly true of terms pertaining to livelihood, such as methods of food production, or to the weather.
I really don’t like television commercials, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in that regard. It’s a common complaint; we all talk about how much we dislike TV advertising. We all subscribe to Amazon Prime, Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services so we can avoid them. And yet, sometimes a particularly memorable advertisement tag-line will worm it’s way into one’s regular conversation. My step-father had one of those: whenever my mother made anything even slightly piquant he would say, “Mama mia, that’s a spicy meatball,” which some of you may recognize from an old Alka-Seltzer commercial.
Another one that ended up in America’s political lexicon was Clara Peller’s famous question in a Wendy’s ad: “Where’s the beef?”
My wife and I picked one up a few years ago from a commercial for the on-line auto insurer Esurance. Sometimes when we see someone doing something particularly bone-headed, one of us will turn to the other and say, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”