Ebenezer means "stone of help," and was the name of a monument raised by the prophet Samuel, saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) The hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing includes the line, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come." Through God's grace you and I have made it to today. Our job is to praise God for getting us here and trust him to bring us through tomorrow.






Monday, April 14, 2014

The Way

John 14:6  "Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

I don't know Greek.  Yet I can say I am fascinated by the thought of Jesus' statement as it sounds in Greek:  γώ  εμι    δς (Eg-o'  i-mee'  ho  hod-os'):  "I am the way."   I realize that Jesus probably said these words first in Aramaic, but I am sure they were repeated around the Mediterranean during those first, burgeoning decades of the Church in Greek.  One of the fundamental lessons for early Christians would have been this statement of Jesus, explaining that he was, and is, the Way.

We can estimate the importance of this statement by the term the early church used to speak of itself -- The Way.  In fact, it seems from reading Acts that before there even existed a term for "Christianity," there existed this term, "the Way."  In Acts 9, for instance, Saul wasn't hunting down Christians -- he was seeking out those "who belonged to the Way," the hodos.

In The Didache, an ancient written teaching of the church dating anywhere from 50-90 A.D., we again encounter the concept of the Way.  The document, which would have acted as a sort of early handbook for Christians, begins with this intriguing statement: "There are two ways: one is the Way of Life, the other is the Way of Death; and there is a mighty difference between these two ways."  In The Didache the new Christian is not advised to follow his or her church, or even something called "Christianity," but instead, to follow the Way (or in this case, specifically, the Way of Life).

Imagine...what if we had remained, simply, the Way?  What if instead of adding layer upon layer onto our beliefs and splitting into various sects and following after side issues and ideas, we, the Church, had simply remained The Way, dedicated to one thing only, and that being to follow Jesus the Christ, the Way, the Truth, the Life.  What if we could reclaim that focus?  What a church we could be!

During Holy Week, these words of Jesus, spoken as they were at the Last Supper, should especially resonate for us.  "I am the way the truth and the life."  The great British poet George Herbert, pondering this sentence, wrote:
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life :
Such a Way, as gives us breath :
Such a Truth, as ends all strife :
And such a Life, as killeth death.
(From "The Call," 1633)
Such a Way, indeed.  Let us remember Christ's words, echoing through the ages, and let us follow the hodos, the Way, together.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Epiphany for the Low Church

Matthew 2:1-2  “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”

As I write this, a foot of fresh snow sits outside and the temperature is dropping below zero.  Despite modern portrayals, such was not the weather encountered by the Magi when they came to visit the infant Christ child.  And, just as the birth of Jesus may not have occurred in winter, we also have no idea when the Magi actually arrived to seek him out.  It may have been months later; some say up to two years, in fact.

Yet the day we now commonly set aside for remembering that occasion - Epiphany - occurs just 12 days after Christmas itself.  I've always had an interest in Epiphany, and this was magnified in 2005 when my grandmother passed away on January 6th.  The day has held more meaning to me ever since.  However, I have rarely been involved in a church that celebrated, or even recognized the existence of, Epiphany.  To borrow a phrase from across the pond, I have always been most comfortable in "low church" settings, in which liturgy and lectionary take a back seat to the Spirit and the people in the pews.  In such churches, however, Epiphany is largely unknown, or at least seen as a bit of a mystery.  So what are we to do with it?

First of all, it is important to recognize that Epiphany may be somewhat mysterious for a good reason.  It has a lengthy and varying history and has meant many different things to many different people.  In fact, it seems believers have celebrated Epiphany longer than they have celebrated Christmas, and depending on what era and region is in question, Epiphany has taken on differing forms.

Modern icon of the baptism of Christ
The important thing to remember is that Epiphany started as a celebration of the manifestation of Christ's divinity to the human race.  In other words, it commemorates the awesome miracle of God becoming flesh, and moreover, of God breaking into human history in the person of Jesus.  When we examine the Gospels, however, we see that this reality was made clear to people in more than one instance.  There is the birth of Jesus, in which angels announced his identity.  There is the visit of the Magi, when gentiles were introduced to the Son of God.  There is the baptism of Jesus by John, when those present witnessed the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus.  And there is even the wedding at Cana, when Jesus performed his first miracle.  All of these happenings, and perhaps more, have been celebrated by Epiphany.

Today, Epiphany is widely celebrated by Eastern Christians, and the focus is upon the baptism of Jesus.  Among Western Christians, the focus is upon the visit of the Magi.  If you are part of a Western European tradition, that is probably the meaning of Epiphany with which you are most familiar.
"Adoration of the Magi" by Giotto, c. 1306

So what of us who are of the "low church" traditions?  What if Epiphany has never been a part of your church year?  What are we to do with it, if anything?  I suggest that even the low church should find ways to incorporate Epiphany into our life of worship.  It is not foreign or strange, but in fact celebrates the wonderful fact that God cared about us enough not only to dwell amongst us, but also to make his presence with us known.  For those of faith, that presence was a supreme blessing, as it still is today.  As I see it, Epiphany basically celebrates the Good News of Christ's incarnation itself, and therefore it is, in its broadest sense, a celebration of the Gospel.  Surely, we can set aside a day to recognize that, at least.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mopping the Floors for God

Matthew 23:11-12  "The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

I recall once noting that my job in college had not been "socially empowering."  That's because cleaning other people's toilets (and sinks, and showers) can seem a bit demeaning, especially when those other people include your own classmates on a wealthy and often privileged campus.  And yet I always found the job somehow rewarding, and even to a certain degree, enjoyable.  Not only was I doing something constructive, I was also performing a service for others.  Maybe not something they couldn't have done otherwise, but certainly something that they didn't have to bother doing, because I was employed to help.  After two years of bathroom duty I was assigned to a wider range of work -- sweeping, mopping, moving trash, shoveling snow, and a myriad of other things.  When other students were sleeping in I was getting things done.  I felt like a caretaker,and I took pride in that.  It was a paid job but it was also my role in the life of the school.  I wouldn't have had it any other way.

I also learned over time (and especially in retrospect) that my earlier assessment wasn't entirely accurate.  Sure, my job might not have been "socially empowering," but it wasn't "disempowering" either.  I was not looked down upon for what I did, by anyone. If anything, I was warmly welcomed and well-respected by most of my classmates for whom I cleaned.  They understood my reason for working and they understood that I was more than just a student custodian.  Most importantly, they came to deeply appreciate my reliability and thoroughness.  The entire experience taught me an important life lesson:

In terms of work, others do not judge us by what we do, but by how well we do it.

This lesson came into play during my divinity school years as well.  During that period I worked in the copy room.  The job involved not just making copies for professors, but also sorting mail, moving furniture for events, making deliveries across campus, etc.  I loved it.  It allowed me to learn a great deal about the people and structures of the divinity school, and of Duke as a whole.  It gave me a sense of accomplishment, as I completed tangible jobs that helped make things run smoothly.  During my last year I tacked on another job, working in the University Secretary's office.  I spent my time on what may have seemed like menial tasks, from shredding paperwork to filing correspondence, but again, that maxim I learned in college held true.  I did my best, and was appreciated for it.  When I graduated, the staff took Brooke and me out for a swanky lunch, and presented me with a framed caricature of myself by a well-known area artist.  It was a gift, and a memory, to treasure.  And I had been nothing more than their work-study student.

There was a man in 17th century France who understood what I'm talking about here many times better than I do.  His name was Brother Lawrence, and for decades he worked as the humble cook at his monastery.  His singular pursuit was to find God in all that he did, and to grow closer to God through his work.  His greatness lay not in his title or his deeds, but in his devotion, his humility, and his sincerity.  These qualities led his fellow monks to be so deeply affected by him, that after his death a small collection of biographical remembrances, correspondence, and maxims was compiled to perpetuate his memory.  This slim book, The Practice of the Presence of God, is still an influential spiritual guide.
Brother Lawrence

In this work we find Brother Lawrence sharing:

It is not necessary to have great things to do....  I turn my little omelette in the pan for the love of God; when it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and adore my God, who gave me the grace to make it, after which I arise, more content than a king.  When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have lifted a straw from the earth for the love of God.

I struggle continually to follow Brother Lawrence's example.  The world defines success and happiness in so many ways which are counter to his lifestyle, and it is hard to embrace the servant attitude over that of our society.  And yet Brother Lawrence teaches us no more than what Jesus teaches us -- the importance of the servant-leader.  That term, "servant-leader," is far from rare in Christian circles, but it is talked about far, far more than it is lived.  Yet servant-leadership is exactly what we are called toward.  "The greatest among you will be your servant."  Now that is counter-cultural.  That is radical. And that is hard to live. But when we do live it out, when we live to serve and when we live to see God's glory in turning an omelette, mopping a floor, or clearing a paper jam, that is when we go from last to first, in the only eyes that matter.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Knocking on Heaven's Door

Matthew 7:7   "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you."

I'm not a big fan of knocking on doors.  No matter whose door it may be, a friend or a stranger, I always worry I am interrupting them if I have to knock. What if they don't want visitors right then?  What if they're asleep?  Or using the bathroom?  I always assume, anyhow, that I would be the last person someone would want to see, let alone to disturb their peace out of the blue.

So maybe my funny issue with door-knocking led me to think twice about Jesus' statement, "Knock and the door will be opened to you."

This is one of those verses so familiar to us that it is hard to look at it afresh.  In studying this verse recently, I found myself asking, how does it fit with Jesus's statement in Revelation 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me."  If Jesus is knocking on our door, and we are also invited to knock on a door, well, is the Bible describing the same door?  It may sound silly, but I had to reconcile the image in my mind.

First, let's think about Jesus standing at the door and knocking.  There are many artist representations of this scene, such as Holman Hunt's Light of the World or Warner Sallman's Christ at Heart's Door.  But in my mind Jesus is not tapping on some cute cottage door.  He is instead knocking on a door of our own making, a door composed of sin and ignorance, of fear and disobedience.  It is a door we have reinforced with several locks and bolts, all designed to keep Jesus out, and keep our sinfulness safe within.  We may not even know about the door (such as Jacob Marley's unseen chain, forged during a selfish life), but it is there, separating us from God's love.

Yet sometimes we hear the message and we hear the knocking and we find the strength to open that door to Jesus.  When that momentous moment occurs something special happens.  That ugly door is torn down and discarded.  It never has to separate us again.  And yet, the reality remains that we live in a broken world, and so there is still a threshold between where we dwell and where Jesus dwells (though he has dominion over all things).  In his mercy, Jesus gives us a new door, one without locks and bolts.  It is a door we are encouraged to knock upon.  In describing this door, John Wesley spoke of our knocking on "the Gate of Righteousness" (see paragraph 19 of this sermon), and we as believers can be assured that whenever we knock on it, Christ will be there to answer.  Every time.  And every time he answers, he will listen, and act upon our needs. 

Which door is next to you right now?  Have you let Jesus in yet?  If not, unlock the locks and unbar the bars.  Let him in to care for you.  If you already have, then remember the righteous door, made especially for you.  Jesus is right there on the other side.  Whenever you need him, just knock, and the door will be opened to you.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Everlasting Words

Luke 21:33   "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."

This spring I had the chance to wander the halls of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for the first time in many years.  The floor plan eventually leads the visitor to a smallish room of religious art from the Middle Ages, a room I recall first entering almost two decades ago.  Among the breathtaking works inside is one truly astounding piece -- a painted wooden sculpture of the crucified Christ dating to the 11th century.  This carving, originally from some long-lost church in present-day Austria, hangs off the wall toward the viewer, making an instant connection.  Painfully three-dimensional, any photo is but a sad copy of the original.  One has to stand there, looking up at this figure of pathos, in order to truly appreciate what the artist has offered. 

Indeed, looking into the frozen face of this ancient carving, it is easy to imagine the sincerity and
loving care of the artisan who created it nearly a millennium ago.  The sculpture is life-sized, with some faded color left, but realism was not the goal of this anonymous craftsman.  Instead, he wished to convey the spirit behind the story, the cruelty as well as the compassion behind the crucifixion.  Without a doubt, he succeeded well.

I am reading a book on the history of silence in Christianity, and it reminds me of this carving.  The carving itself, taken merely as an object, is dumb and unable to speak to us.  It would seem to entrance only the sense of sight, and yet, as I think of it more, I realize it is not so silent after all. 

The endurance of this work of art is what strikes me most.  A thousand year old piece of wood -- such an object does tend to speak to our imaginations and to our souls.  Even if the carving itself does not make sounds, it certainly speaks, and through it we hear many voices.  We hear the voice of the craftsman, pouring his own faith into his work.  We hear the voice of worshippers, long-since vanished, who found comfort in the sight of this piece.  We hear the voice of the Gospel writers, preserving the tale of the Messiah's brutal death for generations to remember. And we hear the voice of Jesus reminding us that words are more than sounds, they are ideas, and in fact, they can represent life itself.  "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."

Our own words are far more than the sounds which come out of our mouths.  Our words are an accumulation of our actions, our inactions, our love, and our hate.  Our words extend beyond us, and
indeed, outlive us, for better or for worse.  The words of God are eternal, and we need to seek them out, cherish them, and repeat them.  We will find them, as Elijah did, in still, small voices.  We will find them in sacred books, in saintly people, and in our lifelong bonds with others. And we will find them, on occasion, in wooden faces, carved in faith, by those who have reached heaven before us.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Coronation

John 19: 22   "Pilate answered, 'What I have written, I have written.'"

All four gospel writers mention that Pilate placed a sign on the cross declaring Jesus "King of the Jews."  However, none give us as much detail as John does about the incident.  On Good Friday, it is especially worthwhile that we take a closer look at what he has to say about that sign, and consider the implications of his message.

Unlike the other Gospel writers, John tells us that the sign read, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."  It appeared in three languages: Aramaic, Greek, and Latin (famously remembered in art as INRI -- Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum).  By using the languages of the people, of commerce, and of the state, Pilate ensured all who could read would read it.  Finally, John explains that Pilate brushed aside the Jewish leaders who insisted he change the sign to say that Jesus claimed to be king, by simply answering, "What I have written, I have written."

Making a criminal hold or carry a sign that declared his crime was not unusual in Roman times.  However, we see in this passage that Pilate used the sign more to poke fun at the local leaders who he controlled than to communicate the reasons for Jesus' execution.  By pointing out that this beaten, condemned, and dying man was the king of the Jews, Pilate was humiliating the Jews and their leaders.  However, despite Pilate's personal reasons for the sign, he was in fact making a proclamation far beyond his own comprehension.  He was indeed declaring a truth, that this man was -- and is -- a king.

After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding not on a warhorse but on a donkey, John relates this statement of Jesus:  "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." John then explains, "He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die." (12:32-33)  He is speaking here of his crucifixion, a moment in time with eternal implications.  He is speaking, in fact, of his coronation.  Indeed, when we ponder it, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is in its own unique way a coronation, and one which turns our thinking about kings and kingdoms upside down.

There is the king, before his subjects, raised up high upon not a throne, but a cross.  In fact, some Roman crosses included a tiny seat called a sedile, which allowed the condemned the slightest bit of support, not for comfort, but to prolong the agony of death.  Such was the throne of our Lord.

Jesus was given a crown, not of gold and jewels, but of thorns, to emphasize his role as king.  And as if this weren't enough, the Holy Spirit moved even the brutal Pontius Pilate to publicly proclaim, through his written words, the kingship of the Christ.  Every element is there for a coronation, but it is not a worldly one. It is an other-worldly one. It is a coronation of a servant king whose kingdom is indeed not of this world at all, but of another.

Only twice in the New Testament is Jesus proclaimed a king during his lifetime.  First is when the Magi arrive seeking the infant Jesus. "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" they asked Herod.  Second is Pilate, who through the sign on the cross declares Jesus king.  The wise men of the East and the governor from the West, at the beginning and at the close of Jesus' earthly life, as different as they were, spoke despite the silence of hardened hearts unable and unwilling to recognize their royalty when he arrived.  Do we recognize Jesus the King today?  How do we view him...as friend, as teacher, as comforter, as healer...as revolutionary, as sage, as mystic?  Do we truly recognize him as king?  Do we treat him as king in our lives?  As we ponder the mystery and the majesty of a man crowned in the midst of his torture, let us sincerely ask if he sits upon the throne in our hearts today.
From the Hagia Sophia

Thursday, January 31, 2013

My Baptism: 25 Years Later

Acts 2:38-39   Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

Twenty-five years ago today -- January 31, 1988 -- I was baptized.  It was an unusual event in that I was baptized side-by-side with my grandmother.  She was 69; I was 15. 

Just a few years earlier my grandmother, Betty J. Taylor, had started to attend church, at South Salem [Ohio] United Methodist Church, soon after her husband's death.  In 1986 I began riding to church with her.  In the fall of 1987 the minister offered a series of confirmation classes, which she and I both attended.  Our baptisms would be the culminating moment of this experience.

The question arose of whether my grandmother had ever been baptized before.  Her grandfather, after all, had been a Methodist minister.  However, she had no knowledge of it, and no one knew of her having been baptized as an infant, so we had to assume she had not been.  Baptisms at our rural church were rare events, and in fact I had never seen one conducted before.  "We can do pouring or sprinkling, or I can even take you down to Buckskin Creek and dunk you if that's what you'd like," the young pastor, Rev. Swann, mentioned.  Grandma chose sprinkling, so of course I chose the same.


My Certificate of Baptism signed by Rev. Gregory Swann
I distinctly recall not really feeling any water...the pastor dipped his thumb into a bowl and made the sign of the cross on my forehead as he recited the words, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."  Another thing I remember was not kneeling for the sacrament as I had planned.  My grandmother could not kneel due to hip problems, and when the minister turned from her to me, I had an instant of self-consciousness as a teenager in front of a much older congregation, where kneeling was simply never done for anything, and so I just stood there.

These two memories used to bother me somewhat. I used to wish I had undergone a more tactile form of baptism, and I also regretted not having knelt.  But over time I have become reconciled with these two minor details.  I realize that God was there anyway.

Baptism means a great deal to me.  I am glad my own baptism could be a special event, shared with a person who in many ways introduced me to church.  It is a meaningful experience for individuals, for families, and for congregations.  And so I am continually distressed and, quite frankly, confused, by the manner in which baptism has become a dividing point among so many Christians.  There are people reading this who will have decided already, I'm sure, that my baptism was not valid because of the method used.  That argument, which has torn apart churches and kept groups of Christians bickering for years, is getting old. 

I once read a book by a woman who had lost her faith, but in thinking back to her early years in the church she remembered the panic she felt when she was immersed and a bubble caught under her gown.  A tiny bit of fabric was buoyed by this bubble, and she was terrified this meant she was not truly immersed and thus not really saved.  Her experience is not far removed from the arguing so many Christians undertake over the exact form of baptism, as if God can't help us unless we do it just right.

While in divinity school I once heard someone mention "magic wand" theology -- something Christians would vehemently deny even if they practice it.  This is the belief that performing a sacrament in just the right way will lead to God's favor, action, or even salvation, whereby if done incorrectly, we will miss out on all grace.  Wave the magic wand just right and God loves you.  Wave it wrong, and God condemns you.  What a small God that would be.

Surely, God is able to accept our baptisms as we best understand them meant to be conducted.  And God is surely able to embrace us in eternity even if only our hearts, and not our heads, have been baptized.  Baptism is the one thing that almost draws all of Christianity together, but even here, too many prefer to argue over details rather than bond together for the sake of Christ's name.


As the Apostle Peter pointed out in Acts, it is through baptism that we enter officially, publicly, into the family of Christ, and we receive the promise that only corporate life in Him can fulfill: an eternal bond together, living in forgiveness, led by the Holy Spirit, across generations.  Baptism defines us as a family.  It defines us as a body. 

Sometimes those definitions are quite pronounced.  I mentioned above that my grandmother's own grandfather had been a minister.  From 1909 to 1914 he acted as the very first pastor of a brand new church in southern Ohio -- the Methodist church in South Salem -- the very same church where we would happen to be baptized nearly eight decades later.