Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The 4th Sunday after the Epiphany: Fling Out Broad Your Name

I have been reading a little bit of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet from the Victorian era. I have to admit that, while the plan sense of his poems is often clear enough, I don’t always understand the meaning of each particular phrase. Reading his poems aloud is like navigating a verbal obstacle course, which is part of my attraction to his writing. Listen to one of Hopkins best known poems, As Kingfishers Catch Fire:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame,
as tumbled over rim in roundy wells
stone rings: like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
selves - goes to self; myself it speaks and spells,
crying What I do is me; for that I came.

I say more: the just man justices;
keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces:
acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is -
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
to the Father through the features of men’s faces.

It is a beautiful poem where Hopkins, as one person describes it, “leaps from one image to another to show how each thing expresses its own uniqueness, and how divinity reflects itself through all of them.” One of the images I like is how each rung church bell flings out broad its name. A few weeks ago I was reading a book where the author mentioned that every church bell is given a saint’s name. English churches often have four, six, or eight bells (or more). Those who can decipher individual tones might say, “I wonder why someone is ringing St. George?”

Each thing and each person expresses its own uniqueness and Christ is reflected through them all; through you and through me and we each do so in our own particular way – a way which no one else can replicate.

This sounds straight-forward enough, but reflecting on this morning’s readings we can identify one person and two group who struggle to see this in you or in me.
The person who struggles to see how Christ can be manifested in you is yourself. Look at the reading from Jeremiah, a lesson often read at ordination services. The Lord speaks to Jeremiah when he is but a youth; announcing that God has appointed him to be a prophet. “How can this be?”, Jeremiah responds, “I don’t even know how to speak for I am just a boy.” It is an understandable concern which the Lord overcomes by touching the Jeremiah’s mouth, thus enabling him to speak God’s words.

In what ways do you deny or diminish the unique way Christ can be expressed through your life and gifts? What would God’s touch look like for you? What do you need from God in order to act in God’s eyes what in God’s eyes you are?

One group that stuggles to affirm our unique expression of Chirst is comprised of those who hate us. In today’s reading from the 71st Psalm, we hear the prayer of a person who is seeking refuge in God. That refuge may be a geographical location because the psalmist is physical danger, or it may be more of a spiritual refuge because those who hate him initiate attacks on his personality. Either way, it is the prayer of a person who turns to God for comfort and safety. “Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked / from the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.” And while we cannot say exactly what the evildoer and the oppressor has against the psalmist, nor can we identify what form the attacks take, this we can say for sure: they do not recognize in nor affirm nor value the manner in which Christ is uniquely expressed through the psalmist’s lovely limbs and lovely eyes.

Can there be a more common form of blasphemy than to forsake the image of God in another person? And when we walk the path that the psalmist is on, is not the temptation to ground our identity in the way that our enemies treat us rather than in the way that God sees us?

We heard this morning one of the best known passages in the bible, I Corinthians 13. In our day and time its reading is associated almost exclusively with wedding services and viewed as a description of the kind of love that a man and a woman are to exhibit throughout their years of marriage. And while it certainly speaks powerfully to that, it is important to note that this was never Paul’s intention when he wrote it. In the context of his letter, Paul is addressing very serious conflicts within the Corinthian church. Deeply divided factions had arisen and while each group displayed acts of love and charity toward those within their camp, they had nothing but contempt for those of the other camps. So listen anew to what Paul says and remember that it is counsel for those whose guts are hated and who reciprocate in kind:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

It surely is a challenge to value the unique expression of Christ in those who dislike us and in those for whom we take a dislike.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus is a few months into His public ministry. He has been teaching throughout the Galilean region and performing healings and then He returns to His hometown of Nazareth. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath, to the place where His teachers and coaches and scout leaders all remember Him from the time of His childhood. All are anxious to be a part of the home-town-boy-makes-good-and-comes-back event.

Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and then, in perhaps the shortest sermon on record, says, “Today this reading has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is a bold, audacious claim that makes Muhammad Ali’s “I am the greatest” boast seem mild by comparison.

Those who hear Jesus’ words speak well of Him, but wonder how He can make such a statement. In truth, it is always hard for those who ‘knew you when’ to believe that God has lifted you up for a special purpose. The group of ‘those who know us well or knew us when often struggle to affirm our unique expression of Christ. “Is this not Joseph’s son,” the home-towners ask? Lurking in the subtext of their question is a rumor that Jesus was illegitimate, the child of a relationship between Mary and a Roman soldier (a persistent and pervasive notion that seems to follow Jesus throughout His life). For the Nazarenes, not only would God not raise up to such a lofty role someone they know, but God would not raise up someone of such questionable stock.

Jesus knows that what seek is a miracle, a cure, a healing. A sign of some kind would be exactly what the doctor ordered and it is exactly what Jesus will not give to them. For Jesus, healings always emanate from compassion in response to human need and faith and are never, ever given as “proof.” Rather than providing proof, Jesus antagonizes those who raised Him by citing two Old Testament stories where God does the miraculous for those outside to covenant tradition; those who, just as He was perceived to be, are deemed unworthy by all except God.

The response is dramatic. Those who participated in Jesus’ formation are so enraged they take Him out of town to the precipice of a cliff and intend to push Him off (I am proud to say that none of my sermons have yet to elicit such a response… yet!). Jesus manages to pass through the crowd, either by forcing His way out or through some kind of miraculous means (the text is somewhat ambiguous on this point) and the story comes to a close.

Responding to questions I posed on my blog site as to why familiarity breeds pigeon-holing (the notion that we know everything there is to know about a person) and why we can not see and accept that every person is capable of so much more than we can imagine, the esteemed theologian Betty Qualye wrote this:

I believe limits are set on people, because it is human nature. We don’t want our friends to be too successful, it will make us feel smaller and inferior. Even Jesus admits it is difficult to be a success at home. People make assumptions about your abilities and tend to have low expectations... Striving for perfection, we always feel as if we fall short. Why not shoot for the stars and show what you can really do? Well, you just may fail [so shooting for the stars is] not going to happen. So stay in the comfort zone. Do enough to be respected but not enough to be disliked.

“Do enough to be respected, but not to be disliked.” Betty nails the temptation we face when those whose affection we deeply value and crave do not give it to us. And while keeping yourself out of the cross-hairs is not at all a bad strategy we must always ask at what cost. How long can old St. George diminish his deep base tone so that the other bells in the belfries don’t come after him? Each one of us must act out the unique expression of Christ in us.

And when you are the home-towner, there is no more important spiritual discipline than to embrace the new, emerging expression of Christ in a person you think you know so well. When you are the evil-doer and the oppressor there is no more important spiritual disciple than to seek the unique expression of Christ in the person you deeply detest. And when you think yourself incapable of expressing Christ, there is no more important spiritual discipline than to allow what is unique in yourself to shine out.

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