We Need to Talk About Bruno?

a sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C]

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a and Luke 4:14-21

I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all talked about the human body over the past two years  more than we’ve ever talked about it in our lives. With daily reminders of a pandemic, we’ve talked about the health of our bodies and how to keep our bodies safe from infection. We’ve talked about how our bodies feel and how symptoms of the coronavirus affect us. We’ve obsessed a time or two about stuffy noses or headaches or scratchy throats. Those who’ve come down with COVID have openly shared and compared their symptoms: “Did you lose your taste and smell? And for how long? “Did you have a fever?” As for me—if you’re curious—it was the repeated sneezing.

We’ve listened to various infectious experts talk about our individual bodies but also about our collective body. We’ve been forced to think about this concept of public health—how each of us is part of this wider corporate organism called humanity. And it’s led to some of our most significant conflicts. As it happens, whether or individual bodies are strong or whether they are vulnerable they are still part of a larger body out there—we breathe on each other, we share air and space, we touch things that others touch. No one has been able to cut themselves off or make decisions about masks or vaccines that don’t somehow affect other people.

Then we hear part of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth this morning and realize the ancient world must have talked quite about the body too. They didn’t know about viruses and antibodies, but they did understand the basics of anatomy and the desire to stay healthy. In fact, the people of the ancient city of Corinth were especially in tune to this. They thought about the human body a lot. In their city was a famous temple  built to the Greek god Asclepius. In Greek mythology Asclepius was the god of healing. He’s the one that was pictured with a rod entwined with a serpent, the symbol for medicine still today. Asclepius was kind of like the Dr. Fauci of Corinth. Almost everyone would have known about this temple to Asclepius, and since Corinth sat on an isthmus and therefore had two harbors, it got a lot of traffic. People came from all over to this temple to seek all different kinds of physical healing.

Asclepius

Archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of clay body parts in the area where that temple stood. Noses, arms, hands, feet…just about any body part you can think of fashioned out of clay. Worshippers of Asclepius, these people seeking healing, would either buy or make for themselves clay replicas of whatever part of their body needed healing and offered it to Asclepius there at the temple. In the shops that surrounded the temple, these earthen body parts could be purchased for worship, and historians suspect that at any given time the inside of the temple of Asclepius was typically littered with hundreds of disconnected clay body parts haphazardly strewn everywhere. I’d hate to be the sexton at that temple!

The point is, the Corinthians were familiar with traditions and rituals surrounding the human body, even if they didn’t participate in the cult of Asclepius themselves. And when the apostle Paul reaches for imagery to explain how they are to live together as a church, as followers of Christ, and he uses images of hands and eyes and feet, they would have most likely thought about all of those clay body parts strewn around everywhere.

And Paul wants them to see that they are not a bunch of random parts here and there. They are fit together into a cohesive whole. Their baptism has joined them as important body parts to one another, and they function best when all are recognized and when all are valued and when all are doing what they’re supposed to do. It’s as if Paul is saying, the god Asclepius is fine to look upon all those assorted body parts as a disconnected, jumbled mess. But the God and Father of Jesus looks on you as members of one body, as each having gifts that benefits the whole mission as God’s people. Your God looks on you and sees members that are designed to function together, each using their God-given gifts to build up the whole.

And don’t be fooled, Paul says, that just because some of you have gifts that don’t seem immediately important or flashy that they don’t deserve to be there. Each gift serves a purpose, and usually the ones we regard as inferior are the ones that are absolutely indispensable. Paul says the members are to have the same care for one another, whether one is an eye or one is a foot. And if one is suffering, then all need to realize that impacts them in a negative way as well. If the throat gets COVID, the you’d better believe the lungs and the nose are going to feel it too. If one member comes down with COVID, or one has to quarantine, or one is nervous about being physically present for worship, or one is frustrated about having to mask up, then the whole congregation takes note of that in some way and realizes we are bound to one another in compassion and love. We can’t just go it alone or, more importantly, demand that others go it alone.

The image of the church as a human body with many parts is a very strong and relevant one. It speaks and probably always will speak, but I have to admit the image for the church and the sharing of each members’ gifts that has really stuck with me this week, is from the recent Disney blockbuster “Encanto.” I realize not everyone has seen this movie, but chances are if you have a young child in your house you’ve at least heard of it. I probably watched it enough times in quarantine this week with my five year old to make up for all of us.

“Encanto” tells the story of a special family, the family Madrigal, who lives at the center of a pleasant village in the rain forest of the South American country of Colombia. You learn at the beginning that each member of the Madrigal family receives a special magical gift when they turn a certain age with the understanding that they will use that gift for the benefit of everyone else around them. One member of the family has the gift of being able to heal people by cooking them a meal. Another member is blessed with superhuman strength, and she can help fix things and haul heavy items around with ease. Still another one has the ability to talk to animals and rally them to his aid. As the family flourishes, the whole surrounding village flourishes with the generous sharing of these gifts, and everything seems to go very well on the surface.

But as the story unfolds you learn that one member of the family has a gift that the others don’t understand or appreciate. As a result, he has been banished. They don’t even want to mention his name. The movie’s hit song, in fact, is a catchy tune called, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.” As they sing it, you realize Bruno has been rejected, living alone with the rats in the walls of the house for years. You can hear echoes of the apostle Paul in the Corinthians: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”

I don’t want to give away what happens, but the family has told Bruno they have no need of him and it takes them a while to notice that his banishment is leading to a slow breakdown of the entire Madrigal family system, which is shown in the appearance of cracks in the house. Eventually the members of the family have to learn what Paul was trying to explain to the Corinthians: each individual’s gifts are important, even if they seem insignificant to you.

But even more importantly—and here is where the movie really delves into the lessons that Paul has for the Corinthians—individuals cannot just be reduced to whatever gift they have. The Spirit helps us understand that, as members of a body, or a family, all gifts are important and necessary, but we are not to let those gifts become all that we value about people. When let that happen, we end up using people rather than loving them.  Just as it is healthy to look on people and consider what unique things they bring to the table, we can’t let what they offer be all we like them for. The biggest gift is the person themselves. This is how love, the greatest gift, is put into action.

For that is precisely how God views us in Jesus. With love. In the grand scheme of things we misuse our gifts so much—probably more than we ever use them correctly. We reduce our own worth, not to mention others’, just to what we can offer in terms of our work or our skills and talents. And yet God loves us, God treasures us, God renews us each and every day with the promise of forgiveness and mercy. God looks on us through the cross of his Son Jesus and does not see random body parts strewn everywhere but as one big body that has been healed of its sin and knit together as one. No one is banished, no one is disregarded, no one is valued only in terms of what they can do or what their intellectual ability is  or how much they can produce. We are set together as Jesus body, taking his lead as he goes about in the world to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives, and the recovery of sight to the blind. And God knows that our greatest witness in those endeavors, our most impactful successes will be in our ability to function as one. The world will look on us and say, I would like to be a part of that body.

We cannot take this for granted, for we happen live in a time when our identity and self-worth are found less and less often in relation to other people but in expressing what is authentically inside ourselves. Many historians and philosophers are saying that in the past several decades we have moved from what is called an age of association to an age of authenticity. That is, for several centuries people by and large defined themselves and their identity in terms of how they fit into various communities and groups. They claimed membership in societies gladly and often as a matter of survival, whether those communities were religious or political or social in nature.

That has now given way to this current age of authenticity, as it is called, where individual focus on expressing their authentic true self and larger organizations or institutions are often seen as hindering that. In the age of authenticity, people are expected to find or create meaning on their own, as professor Dwight Zcheile from Luther Seminary explains. It’s partially why our political parties aren’t functioning like they used to, why no one joins bowling leagues anymore. In such an age or atmosphere, being a member of a body and finding ultimate purpose there, within that web of relationships, no matter how healthy that body may happen to be, is increasingly strange and even off-putting. Bodies are viewed with distrust. I can be my true self and find ultimate meaning, we are taught, on my own.

And against that, God says, you can only be your true self as you function in concert with others and learn to trust them, as we all allow ourselves to be formed by God’s Word together. I was moved hear, for example, that last Sunday, as John Oehler lay in hospice with his family around him in his final hours, they worshiped through our livestream. He, even as he was nearing the end of his life, began mouthing the words to the liturgy, still very much living as a member of this body.

Amid a culture of individualism, Jesus says, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. It is what is truly authentic. For this is the good news: no matter who we think we are, Jesus has stepped into this world to give us his own life and pull us together as one family and through great love and acts of faith be the body— the body that everyone will want to talk about.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Hail to the…Beloved Son!

a sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord [Year C]

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

What will be the Washington Football Team’s new name? I realize not everyone is invested in this, but there is a definite buzz in our area and among Washington football fans everywhere about the much-anticipated reveal of the organization’s new name and rebranding. The former Washington Redskins and its logo are clearly a thing of the past, albeit a long and storied past. Now everyone who follows football and who loves the team is interested in what the team will be next. What are they going to look like? What will they stand for?

In fact, the team organization released a well-produced video this week to add to the hype. Former coaches and players all chime in to drum up support and approval so that when it’s finally announced people will embrace it. And now they have a date for that announcement. It is, as the voice in the video says, “the date of our new identity, the date it will come to life.” It will be a challenge, for sure. With one name and one image they are trying to represent what they stand for  and bring everyone together. Washington Football Team fans anxiously await February 2 to learn what it is.

There is no promo video for it, no secret selection team and no focus groups giving feedback, but the same kind of anticipation likely pulses among the crowds being baptized by John and along the faithful in Israel, wherever they are. They await a big reveal—the big reveal of God’s anointed leader, the one who will represent what God stands for and manage to bring everyone together. And in the baptism of Jesus it is finally announced. This is God’s rebranding. Here, in these muddy waters where the masses are milling around in hope of a new future, the identity of the true God comes to life. The voice of an announcer even thunders from the skies: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Other gospel writers say that John baptized Jesus, but Luke is not clear on that point.

We don’t probably think about Jesus’ baptism this way. I’m really not sure how most of us think of Jesus’ baptism, especially when such a big deal is made about his birth nowadays. His baptism seems almost redundant, in a way, once we figure in what the angels said at his birth about how he brings peace on earth, and how Mary and Joseph watched him grow with this special relationship to God’s Word. Yet in the whole scope of the New Testament, his baptism is more important. If we are looking for a moment, if we need a date for when Jesus’ identity and mission is rolled out for the public, his baptism is it. All the earlier nativity stuff is just build-up, growing the hype—that’s just getting people rallied for the vision that’s coming. The baptism, which all four gospel writers talk about in some way, is the big announcement about how God will engage the whole universe.

At some point during John the Baptist’s ministry when Herod Antipas was the ruler, this otherwise ordinary looking man comes down with all the other people who are waiting for a new beginning in their lives. And then this otherwise ordinary man has water poured over his head, just like the rest of them. Right up front this sounds a bit odd or potentially disappointing. In most superhero movies and in most ancient stories and legends, the designated leader usually has some kind of special quality or stands out in some way. Peter Parker gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Tony Stark is really intelligent and wealthy. Jesus of Nazareth is just one among the masses at this point. All he does is pray, which is what he does next, thinking about new beginnings and renewal and turning over a new page.

And then while he’s praying the heavens suddenly open up. I don’t know exactly what that looked like. Maybe it looked like the sun shining through the clouds, or like the crazy thunderstorm with lightning and wind that the psalmist witnesses in the psalm this morning, Psalm 29. It’s hard to say but I find we use this expression all the time (and people in Scripture used this expression occasionally) when something suddenly becomes very clear to us and we see a way where there seems to be no way. The heavens open up that day, saying God is making a way in this person. This otherwise ordinary man will be the way.

We also say, “the heavens opened up” when something really good becomes possible that we didn’t think was possible. Jesus is the good thing for earth that we didn’t think could happen. His mercy, his compassion, his forgiveness of sins—these are so unbelievably good for us and now they are happening. Now they are here.

Then a dove comes down, which is the Holy Spirit, and it flies around for a while. Doves are gentle. They are pretty fragile creatures. And so right after John describes the coming Messiah leader as this kind of fearsome figure with a winnowing fork in his hand who is going baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit we have this little white cooing dove coming down.

Speaking of football teams, the seminary I attended had a flag football team and a basketball team. At some point along the way—the specific time is not really clear—the teams decided they needed a name. The only real recognizable symbol at Southern Seminary was the gigantic stained glass dove window in the chapel. So the football team was going to be the Dove—singular, not doves—a lot like the Crimson Tide. If you’d have seen us play, you would have immediately thought Roll Tide. But just Dove didn’t sound tough enough, I suppose, so they became the Fighting Dove. No worries…I don’t think Washington is going to be the Fighting Dove.

The Descending Dove window at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary

But Jesus will be! Jesus is the Fighting Dove, the gentle, vulnerable, fragile Messiah who will fight for the redemption and freedom and forgiveness of all. He will not attack with anything other than compassion and a strong willingness to draw all people into God’s embrace. He will not employ any strategy other than service and self-sacrifice. He will not coerce anyone to follow God’s new way, nor will he con anyone into the joys of service.

So neither should the church. Our way is Jesus’ way. Through our own baptisms we are made members of his team, whether we agree with God’s logo and name or not. It’s a cross, and the name is suffering and compassion. We are one with this new identity of God who is determined to bring everyone together. Churches and individual disciples who engage the world through prayer, as Jesus does here at his beginning, are part of the heavens breaking open on a weary world. Congregations and individuals who showcase humility and seek to give glory to God rather than self are part of the wave of peace and justice that overcome the world in Jesus.

All of that begins— this whole movement of God’s new way begins right there that day when he steps into the water and is introduced as God’s Son, the Beloved, with whom God is well-pleased. The question is: will we accept him? Will we sign on?

It seems to me that new beginnings and fresh starts are pretty much what everyone wanted with this new calendar year. No matter who you talk to, the expectation was that 2022 would bring some new freedom and new vistas. Instead, we’re limping our way into a third year of pandemic. Just about everyone I talk to is weary and suffering in some way, if not from COVID, then from quarantine, and if not from quarantine, then from arguments about mandates for masks or vaccines, and if not from mandates, then about the economy. The whole world is on the struggle bus. So forget football teams, right?  We want a re-branding. We want all of this re-branded: dunk it in the water, God,  and pull out some fresh new future.

I think that’s partly why so many people latched on to Ted Lasso, the Apple TV hit, that tells the story of an unlikely coach with unconventional methods who ends up forming a community among his team and eve the townfolk and helping people grow. The show’s fans talked about how it was a new kind of show that featured kindness and vulnerability and forgiveness when there was so much harshness around.

a chosen leader with unconventional methods

And here’s the thing: Jesus’ baptism didn’t happen on some happy, sunnier earlier time in world history. We are told by Luke that it occurs just after John the Baptist is arrested for speaking out and thrown in prison. So it may not have even been John who baptized him. The  times were tough then. Battle lines were drawn. Everyone was on edge. Things were tense. Jesus could have shied away from doing this. He could have waited it out a little, let things cool down, crept back to Nazareth and played it safe. He could have held back, or he could have doubled down on John’s bombastic, confrontational style.

But he doesn’t do either. Jesus goes for it.  He steps into the water, sees this as the time for a new regime of love and justice and peace to take root, and lets himself be named.

Last week as people were coming up to Holy Communion I knelt down to place the cross of blessing on the head of one of our younger members. Like usual, I said, “Owen, child of God, may the Lord bless you and keep you.” I got ready to stand back up, but behind him was another small child I’d never seen before. Before I knew what was happening, Owen, who is only five, Pointed to the new kid and said to me, looking me in the eye, “His name is Louie.” Louie didn’t have to introduce himself. Owen did it for him. Owen wanted to make sure I called Louie by his name.

Friends, we’ve been named, as much as a tremble to say it sometimes. In our baptisms, we’ve been introduced as one of the new team that looks another tough year head-on and says, “It’s go time.”  With our Christlike words, our gentle gestures, our vulnerability on display and kindness in our brains we move forward. We have been equipped for this life of peace and mercy and we trust God will bring everyone together. With Jesus as our leader we walk into that opening in the heavens he made. Because of Jesus God is now with us and God is for us. Always and forever, in good times and in bad.

And so we say, even before February 2: Hail…hail to the Beloved Son. Hail to that Fighting Dove.

Amen.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.