January 20, 2011

Splash down

Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Isaiah 42Matthew 3:13-17

As a callow follower of Jesus
I am so grateful for the gospel writers
and the early congregations of Christians
who first prompted then received their words

I am so grateful to have
with you
a front row seat
to the baptism of Jesus

I am so honored to be given a spot
on the banks of the diminutive Jordan River
standing with my feet
in the warm Palestinian mud
surrounded by the company of all the faithful
of every time and place

watching the river waters
waiting for the big moment

Down he goes
into the murky water
flat on his back into the unknown
(although he is in the good care of John)

whose very title
is confirmed in this moment
John the B
John the Baptist
not Southern, or American, or independent
John the Baptizer

John lowers our friend
down into the water

and we all watch
as the Jordan closes in above him
around him
over him

like the muddled waters before God creates
like the Red Sea closing in on obstinate Pharaoh
like sundown, on a Friday night at Golgotha

covered him completely, these waters
like a tomb
my tomb

Only, before long
(mercifully, his absence is only temporary)
here he comes again!
The mushrooming ripples on the surface
announce his arrival
back on the scene

Up from the water

By simple straightforward appearance
from the river’s edge:
one more faithful first-century Jew

But by theological export
by the choirs of a million churches
by divine appointment

It may as well be a blue whale
surfacing from the deep

Blue whale:
the largest mammal ever to exist
108 feet, 180 metric tons

Our Lord:
slightly shorter
a little lighter
but arguably (blessedly)
the largest life ever to have lived

He surfaces from the deep like a leviathan
Only, not a monster — a friend
Still, the splash he makes is impressive
ripples of mercy running every which way

He’ll steadily and firmly set things right.
I’ve bathed him with my Spirit, my life.
He’ll set everything right among the nations.
Opening blind eyes
releasing prisoners from dungeons
emptying the dark prisons

I’m announcing the new salvation work.
Before he bursts on the scene, I’m telling you all about it.

This is God’s big splash!

And here we are
God’s funny people — "the holy catholic church"
like tourists on one of those hit-or-miss
whale-watching cruises
off the coast of Maine

$49.99 to get dressed up in a paper-thin poncho
and to stay mildly seasick for an hour
and to get stuck next to Mildred
from Montgomery, Alabama

Mildred: who while you wait to see the “big fish”
tells you all about her fascinating seven grandchildren
and her Schnoodle

But there we are
all on the same side of the boat
leaning out to catch the view
cell phone cameras ready
tweets and texts, all set

Gawking tourists in search of God

When suddenly
the tin-can intercom behind you crackles to life

“Ladies and gentleman
This is your captain, John B.
Take a look now,
just to the east,
something is about to surface.
Get those cameras ready!”


And from the railing of the ark
(Did I say ark? I meant boat)
there arises one of those collective ahs
like at the end of a really sweet fireworks show

But more than the spectacle of the splash down
the waves are what really catch our attention

This giant from God
coming up from the deep -- our deep, our death
with ripples that rock our boats-of-safety:

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst 
for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

And then that ship’s intercom
crackles to life again:

"This is my Son,
the Beloved,
with whom I am well pleased."

January 4, 2011


A funeral homily for a physician

Romans 8 / Mark 1:40-45

It would surely be the height of presumption, and theologically suspect, to conclude that any one particular profession is the most Christian of occupations.

On the face of it, the best candidate for a solidly Christian profession would be carpentry. By most historical reconstructions, Jesus was, among other things, a trained carpenter.  And surely at the bottom of the list would be preachers, since our Lord was consistently hardest on and most critical of preachers and other professional religious types like me.

But a case can made, I think, that the practice of healing, the art of medicine, the curing of disease—these are terribly Christian sorts of things to be about.  And this is particularly so when such practices are imbued with acts of personal sacrifice, with a living concern for another’s well-being, and with a thoroughgoing love of neighbor.  Love of neighbor, let us remember, being Jesus’ second commandment for all like R. H. who would follow in his way—in Jesus’ practice of God’s medicine in the world.

At bottom, what makes the practice of medicine a Christian act is likely not competency, but compassion.  (Although, one need not suggest these two are in conflict with one another.) But to be human with one’s patients is to care for them, as well as their bodies.  It is to offer, not merely advice or prescription, but counsel, concern, care. This is—if I may say it this way—a very Jesus sort-of-thing to do.

On Friday, the family and I were talking about the good counsel Dr. H. was given early on in his practice by a mentor in the profession. Essentially it was this: When there are no medicines to prescribe for one’s patient, there is always the gift of human touch. This wisdom, so important to your father, put one of you in the family in mind of Spencer Free’s lovely verse:

’Tis the human touch in this world that counts, 
The touch of your hand and mine, 
Which means far more to the fainting heart 
Than shelter and bread and wine. 
For shelter is gone when the night is o’er, 
And bread lasts only a day. 
But the touch of the hand 
And the sound of the voice 
Sing on in the soul always.

Free’s gentle words and our conversation on Friday put me in mind of Mark, chapter 1. The afflicted leper: broken in body from a dreaded skin disease, cut off from his community because of contagion.  He boldly prevails upon Jesus for healing.  “If you choose, you can make me well.”

At this moment, we all take a deep breath to see how it is God’s servant-son Jesus will respond. Mercifully, the gospel writer is unambiguous: Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to the leper, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

Note well the compassion.
Note well the deliberate choice.
Note well the touch.

All those late-night phone calls.
The untold miles across Lawrence County.
More exchanges of compassion, counsel, care than can be numbered.

And even when calamities could not be cured through a prescription pad, at least your father was human—Christian, in that sense.

I wonder: Could it be that the work of a compassionate doctor is a faithful echo of God’s redemptive work in the world? Could it be a pointer to this Jesus, who choses care and compassion and practices healing and such good touch?

Of course, even healers themselves need healing sometimes.

Dr. H's time as a physician, R’s time in life, has now come to an end. For now, in this world, that seems to be the nature of things. But remember that we gather within these walls, in this building, long dedicated to announcing the good news of God. We gather here not just to remember a life well lived, or a profession well inhabited, but to remember a God’s promises, well-transacted. Nothing — neither life nor death — will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The physician is now the patient.

And he is in the good care of a good God,
who is moved with compassion,
who reaches out to touch lives,
who says to those he loves,

“I do choose: Be made well.”

It is so for R.H.
May it be so for each of us as well.