Sunday, January 15, 2012

Come and See

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 15, 2012

Year B: The Second Sunday after Epiphany
1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17
(1 Corinthians 6:12-20)
John 1:43-51

Come and See

On most Sundays this year we’re going to be reading and hearing excerpts from the Gospel of Mark – the earliest of the four gospels in the New Testament, written probably around the year 70. Mark is also the primary source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, so those three gospels share many stories and the basic outline of Jesus’ life and ministry.

But today’s gospel lesson is from the Gospel of John, the fourth gospel, the last of the gospels to be written - probably around the end of the First Century. The fourth gospel is very different from the others – so different in fact that in the early centuries of Christianity some people thought it didn’t belong in the Bible.

The Gospel of John offers a different outline of Jesus’ life and ministry and presents many stories that are not found in the other three gospels.

The Gospel of John also shines the spotlight on characters barely mentioned – or nonexistent - in the other gospels.

For example, Philip is only mentioned in the other gospels but gets a speaking part in the Gospel of John, especially in the lesson we just heard.

We’re told that Philip was from the same fishing town as Peter and Andrew. We’re told that Jesus “found” Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” And like other disciples it seems that Philip’s life was transformed by his encounter with Jesus. Like his neighbors Andrew and Simon Peter, Philip left behind his old life to follow Jesus.

Philip became a disciple.

And a disciple invites other people to follow Jesus.

Which is exactly what Philip the brand-new disciple did when he found Nathanael.

Nathanael appears only in the Gospel of John. He’s not even on the lists of apostles in the other gospels. Some people think that he’s the apostle who’s called Bartholomew in the other gospels. Other people think that Nathanael is a composite character, representing Jewish people who were open to Jesus.

It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Philip the brand-new disciple tells Nathanael the news that he’s found the one “about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”

Actually, Philip’s description isn’t quite right.

First of all, Philip didn’t find Jesus – Jesus found Philip.

Second, his description of Jesus isn’t really adequate. Philip describes Jesus as “him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Not the worst description, just not adequate. Then again, what description of Jesus would be adequate?

Philip the brand-new disciple doesn’t get everything right, but he does seem to understand the most important job of a disciple.

Nathanael expresses skepticism, wondering if anything good could come out of an insignificant town like Nazareth.

Then, rather than taking another crack at explaining or describing Jesus, Philip the disciple says to Nathanael, “Come and see.”

Nathanael accepted the invitation and like so many others, Nathanael’s life was transformed by his encounter with Jesus. In fact, Nathanael seems to recognize who Jesus is a little better than Philip, crying out with a mix of Joy and wonder, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel.”

This powerful story of Philip’s invitation to Nathanael really resonates with me.

Many of you know that both my wife Sue and I grew up as Roman Catholics. And many of you know that before I became a priest I was a history teacher in two Catholic high schools.

I loved being a teacher and really felt that it was my vocation. I also loved the sense of community in the schools – the sense of faithful people working with a real sense of mission – of together building the kingdom of God by shaping the lives of young people.

In a very real way, school was my church.

After a while, though, I realized that Sue was not really part of this. So one day I suggested we start going to church together. Being a good sport, she said yes.

And so on the first Sunday of Advent – or actually the Saturday evening before the first Sunday of Advent – we went to our local Catholic church.


Please know that I’m not one to knock the Catholic Church – just the opposite, really. And it could be that we caught them on a bad night. But, on that occasion, the church was gloomy and no one seemed happy to be there. The less said about the music the better. And actually the same goes for the homily.

At one point I looked over at Sue and could see that she was upset.

I thought, well, I can add this to my long list of terrible ideas.

One day the following week I was in the faculty room telling this story pretty much the way I just told it to you. There were laughs and some knowing nods and headshaking.

And then one of my colleagues, a math teacher, said, “Oh, you should come to my church one Sunday.”

She told me it was an Episcopal church just a few blocks from our house and didn’t say much more about it.

Come and see.

Somehow I talked Sue into giving this a shot. I think I told her that since the church is a rare wood-frame Victorian from the 1860s if nothing else it would be interesting to see what the inside looked like.

The church was indeed beautiful but that Sunday – the second Sunday of Advent – we discovered something most unexpected. We found a warm and welcoming and diverse community of people who seemed genuinely happy to be there – and who seemed genuinely happy that we were there.

The music was beautiful, the sermon was smart and passionate, and at the peace everyone was out in the aisle shaking hands and embracing.

This was my epiphany.

My life was transformed that morning – veering off in a totally unexpected direction. And although I didn’t realize it at the time, the transformation actually began a few days earlier in the faculty room when, like Philip long ago, my colleague the disciple said, “Come and see.”

You and I aren’t called to get everything right.

You and I aren’t called to give an accurate description of Jesus or even of our life together.

Maybe you’ve tried to describe what goes on in church. It never quite works does it?

“Yes, well, we get up early and sit on benches. We sing – or pretend to sing – or listen to some songs. We hear Bible stories. One of the priests gets up and talks about the stories, trying to connect them to our lives. We sing some more. We pray. And then we all get a thin wafer of what’s supposedly bread and take a sip of wine. Sometimes we stay after and have coffee.”

I’m sure we could all do better than that, but there’s no way to really describe what happens when we come together. There’s no way to really describe the power of being together and praying together. There’s no way to really describe how the Word of God can touch our lives. There’s no way to really describe what it means to exchange the sign of peace with one another. There’s no way to really describe what it’s like to take the Body and Blood of Christ into our bodies and into our hearts. There’s no way to really describe how what happens here can shape the way we live when we’re out there in the world.

There’s no way to describe that in a special way it’s here that Jesus finds us.

So, since there’s no way to really describe all of this, you and I – like Philip long ago and my colleague in the faculty room – are simply called to extend the invitation and leave the rest to God.

Come and see.


Sunday, January 01, 2012

The Ultimate Name Tag

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
January 1, 2012

The Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Luke 2:15-21

The Ultimate Name tag

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name – a principal feast of the Church - but I’m sure most of us are more focused on turning the page from 2011 to 2012. It’s a time when we look back on the year that’s drawing to a close. And for many of us 2011 was a year we’re happy to see come an end. It was a rough year for the world with much bloodshed, political upheaval, continued economic weakness and horrific natural and man-made disasters.

For many of us here it was a rough year, too. Although for Sue and me the year finished joyfully with our return to Grace Church, for us it was mostly a year that had more than its share of loneliness, anxiety, disappointment, and uncertainty.

For some of us, it was a year when some of our relationships got broken.

It was a year when some of us lost jobs or worried about losing work.

It was a year when some of us faced a serious illness or injury.

It was a year when people close to us died – some of us lost spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings, neighbors, and friends.

And it was a year when Grace Church suffered some especially painful losses. I really feel the absence Joe Adamczyk, John Cassidy, Bill Foster, Larry Taber and Phyllis Hendry. All of them - each in their own way - contributed so much to our life together and are so dearly missed.

But, even in the rough year just behind us lots of wonderful things happened, too. Some of us got married or attended the weddings of family or friends. Some of us began new relationships filled with hope and promise. Some of us took on new jobs or reached for new opportunities. Some of us recovered from illnesses and personal setbacks. Some of us watched in wonder as our children and grandchildren continued to grow into fine young people.

Here in church there have been beautiful services filled with exceptional music and so many people doing remarkable ministry in ways large and small, known and unknown. There were weddings and lots of baptisms – 21 of them in all!

And in the last year many new people have discovered Grace Church and found a home in this wonderful place – something that I’ve realized because there are so many people who weren’t here in August 2010 whose names I don’t know and am trying to learn.

Which is why I was so grateful that last month was our first-ever name tag month. It was a huge help to match names to faces – mostly names of new parishioners, but also I have to admit also the occasional name that I had forgotten.

It was interesting watching how people responded to name tag month. Some people happily filled out their name tag, sometimes with just a first name or sometimes with first and last names.

Some people were reluctant to fill out the name tag but did it grudgingly.

Some people didn’t see the table and missed the whole name tag thing.

And some people just flat out refused to join in our celebration of name tag month.

And I can understand that, actually. I can understand not wanting everyone to know your name just by looking at you. It’s kind of a personal thing to tell someone your name, isn’t it?

Especially in the age of google and facebook we can learn a whole lot about someone once we have their name.

A couple of years ago I visited an Episcopal church in California for several services. As I was leaving I greeted the priest and introduced myself, “Hi I’m Tom Murphy. I’m a priest from the Diocese of Newark. I’m here visiting for a few days…”

The priest shook my hand, welcomed me, but didn’t tell me his name.

The next time I was there it was a different priest but the exact same thing happened.

I remember feeling irritated that I had shared something personal – I told them my name! I had shared something of my identity – and that sharing had not been reciprocated.

So, sharing our name can be a big deal. But, that’s nothing compared to the importance of names in the ancient world. Back then there was a very close connection between people and their names.

In the ancient world knowing someone’s name would provide an enormous amount of information. Today it might be like knowing someone’s Social Security number or having access to credit and medical records.

In the ancient world the name revealed a person’s identity – who they were and how they lived their lives. The name revealed a person’s place in the world – what they were all about. It’s sounds strange, but in a very real sense to know a person’s name meant really knowing that person.

And if a person’s name was so important and revealing you can imagine the great significance of God’s name.

In the Jewish and Christian tradition there is a tension in our understanding of God. On the one hand God is transcendent – God is wholly Other – God can’t be put in any category and is infinitely beyond our understanding.

But, on the other hand God is also immanent – the transcendent God is right here. God wants to be known by us here in the physical and material world.

So, since God wants to be known by us, in a sense God wears a name tag.

In the famous moment in the Book of Exodus when Moses encounters the presence of God in the burning bush, God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

But, Moses wants more information and bravely asks for God’s name.

God says, “I am who I am.”

Now, to us “I am who I am” sounds like a pretty weird name but for Israel God’s name revealed a whole lot about God. God’s name revealed that the God of their ancestors is also the transcendent God who is beyond time and space, perfectly free, the creator and ruler of the universe.

God wears a name tag.

But, God didn’t stop there. Wanting to be known by us, God continued to speak through the prophets and then finally in the boldest move imaginable God chose to share our human life in and through Jesus of Nazareth.

In and through Jesus, God says this is who I am.

In and through Jesus, God wears the ultimate name tag - revealing more about God than we could have ever imagined.

In and through Jesus, we discover a God who loves us enough to take the worst we have to offer and then transform death into life.

In and through Jesus, we discover a God who offers unlimited forgiveness and insists that we do the same.

In and through Jesus, we discover a God who calls us to live lives of love – love for God, love for one another, and especially love for the weakest and poorest among us.

In and through Jesus, we know God. In and through Jesus God wears the ultimate name tag. So the name Jesus itself becomes holy.

As St. Paul writes to the Philippians: “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven, and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

So, today we turn the page from 2011 to 2012. We begin a new year – a year that like every year will no doubt be filled with some mix of sadness and joy. We don’t know what 2012 will bring but we do know that the transcendent God will be really here with us through it all.

We know that God is with us because God has revealed God’s self to us, most especially in the holy name and the holy life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

We know that God is with us, no matter what, because, in and through Jesus, God wears the ultimate name tag.