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.
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.”
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.”
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin , an 18th century French politician once said, “Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what you what kind of man are.” The 19th century philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach said, “Man is what he eats.”
These observations have been distilled into our modern idiom. “You are what you eat” is a saying one hears or reads pretty regularly. And it’s true. Eating shapes our identities, defines who we are. A particular food and drink may highlight ethnicity, nationality, or age: tacos, lasagna, Coca Cola (over fifty), Pepsi (under thirty,) hamburgers, sushi. Food and drink defines the great holidays and important celebrations of our lives: champagne on New Year’s Eve, turkey at Thanksgiving, plum pudding at Christmas, hot dogs on the Fourth of July, eggs at Easter.
An ordained colleague of mine once commented that the Sacramental presence of the Eucharist has shifted location in the modern church. Once the table-fellowship of the church was centered on the altar; now, he said, it is found elsewhere depending upon denominational tradition. For Baptists, it is now found in the fried chicken dinner; for Methodists, in the potluck supper; and for Episcopalians, at coffee hour. He was kidding, of course, but there is an element of truth in his humor.
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.