Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sermon: Transfiguration of the Lord (3 Feb 2008)

Transfiguration: 3 February 2008
(Exodus 24:12-18/Psalm 99/2 Peter 1:16-21/Matthew 17:1-9)
Living the Story

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Books on preaching abound. They generally fall into two categories: collections of sermons and how-to books on preaching – Sermonating for Dummies or An Idiot’s Guide to Speaking for God, or some technical title which amounts to the same thing.

I like the best of the first type very much, the collections. I read those by “masters” of the art like William Willimon, Frederick Buechner, and Flemming Rutledge, men and women acknowledged by their peers as the finest preachers of their generation – though by what criteria I’m still a bit vague. These sermons seem to me a fitting and costly response to the offeratory,

Let us, by the mercies of God, present ourselves as a living sacrifice,
holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.
And let us not neglect to do good and to share what we have,
for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

There’s a Little Drummer Boy quality of humility about each of these preachers and its music is the back beat of their sermons: I wish I had better to offer, it beats out its rhythm, but this is what God has given me and I return it with full heart to his glory. I hope, if it wakes him, it doesn’t make him cry. Each knows the power of words about the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us for awhile, knows it and I think fears it a bit. Each feels inadequate to stand and proclaim, “The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” and yet each feels called, compelled to do so. Each could have been, maybe is, Moses hoping God will send Aaron or some other golden tongued orator to Pharaoh. But, no: I made your mouth, now go, tell Pharaoh to let my people go, God says. And so they do, week after week, page after page, word after word. I like these books very much.

The others, not so much. These are books by the experts, by the ones who know exactly how to preach and are only too happy to tell you how to do it too. “Preaching must be expository,” one writes, “a word by word explanation – emphasizing all Greek roots, mind you – of verse after verse of a text.” This is often “real time” preaching it seems: if Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half, it takes these preachers about a year and a half to preach through his letters to the Corinthians. “Oh, no,” others say. “Preaching should be topical. Pick a subject and survey the entire Bible to see what God has to say about it.” And so the congregation spends the next 6 months listening to in-depth research on a topic that may be of no interest except to the preacher. Some advocate lectionary preaching, some preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Pick a way and there is a champion of it and books about it. I read one – Read is too generous. I scanned it and put it back on the shelf. – that had broken down the mystery of preaching into discrete steps and had assigned them to particular days of the week. God forbid that God speaks on Wednesday when the day for listening to God is Monday. These books I don’t like so much.

Me? I’m no expert. I have no precise plan. I sit down with my Bible, a blank sheet of paper and a pen, and a prayer: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Strength and my Redeemer. And I wait, wait for a word from the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us for awhile. Sometimes I have a full heart and an empty cup of coffee. Sometimes it’s the other way round. And so I wait, listening for the whisper, for the still, small voice. Sometimes I think I hear it; sometimes I’m not so sure. I do what I can do and commit the offering to the Lord’s keeping.

As far as I can tell Jesus didn’t preach much, at least not what we think of as preaching, and that should be cautionary for those of us who do. I’m pretty sure he read no books on preaching and I’m absolutely sure he wrote none. He told stories: wonderful stories, beautiful stories, confusing stories, frustrating stories. And he was content to let the stories do their work as he moved on. And they’ve continued to do their work for two thousand years, for all those with ears to hear.

Stories are powerful because they create worlds and draw us into those worlds. And though the stories themselves don’t change, the worlds they create do and the roles we play in those worlds do. The Prodigal Son is what it is; the words haven’t changed. But I have changed every time I’ve entered the story and come out again on the other side. I’ve been the prodigal and his elder brother. I’ve been the slave who brings the robe and ring. I’m hoping someday to be the father. And these roles have revealed me and convicted me and changed me. That’s what stories do; they form us and change us.

For the past 300 years or so our most learned scholars and philosophers and scientists have told us that stories don’t matter so much anymore. They’ve encouraged us to step outside our stories, to find a place to stand beyond them – a place where we can see the world not as our stories tell us it is, but rather as it really is. The ancient wisdom knows better. There is no such place beyond our stories; we are storied people. All of us, all of our days, are formed by the stories we hear and tell and live. We cannot escape story even should we want to. We are not free to be free of story. All we can do is to choose the story we will hear and tell and live, the story that will shape us and form us. And that is a most important choice.

So, we find ourselves in a marketplace of stories, each clamoring for our attention, each vying to be the dominant story of our lives. As now, so too in the 1st century. Peter preached and wrote into a world of stories: the story of Greek wisdom and philosophy, the story of Roman power and domination, the story of Israel’s God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who had spoken through the Law and Prophets; the God whose people were still in exile. Peter preached and wrote a new story, really a new chapter of the Ancient Story, the climax of every story. The Creator God has not abandoned his fallen, sin-infected creation but has personally entered history – literally His Story – in the person of his Son, Jesus of Nazareth.

This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, we crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…Let all [the house of Israel] therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom we crucified (Acts 2:23-24, 36, ESV, adapted).

He has been made Lord and Christ – Ruler of all creation – so that he might restore creation, destroy sin and death, and reconcile all things to his God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever. Amen.

This is the story that Peter preaches and writes: a story of creation, fall, and restoration; a story of death, burial, and resurrection. To many, then and now, it seems madness; yet, Peter insists it is true. “If only you had been there,” he says, “you would have seen it, too.” Peter refuses to let this be just one more story among many. He will not be dismissed as a spinner of yarns. Too much is at stake. And so he writes:

16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased," 18we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:16-21, ESV).

There are many myths, many stories, cleverly devised and persuasive. This isn’t one of them. This is the truth. That’s Peter’s conviction and proclamation. He knows. He was there. He saw and heard. He’s not writing this story to the broader pagan community that has no reason to believe him. No, he’s writing to the church, to the church which knows his story, to the church which knows that his only lie was in once denying this story – a lie for which he bitterly repented, a lie for which the risen Lord graciously forgave him. This is Peter, for God’s sake, the apostle on whom Christ built the chruch; yes, and it is for God’s sake that he tells this story. And for ours. He writes because false prophets have arisen in the church itself, false teachers

who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep (2 Peter 2:1b-3, ESV).

Even in the church there are competing stories – now as then.

As Peter tells it here, the true story is a story of transfiguration, of Jesus on the holy mountain in the presence of Moses and Elijah, of Jesus encompassed by the glory of the Divine Majesty, of Jesus shining with the uncreated light of his divinity, of Jesus endorsed by the very voice of God, itself: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mt 17:5b, ESV). If we are storied people – and we are; if we must live under some story – and we must; then Peter says, “Choose the story of transfiguration.” The purpose of a story like this is not just to inform its hearers, but to form them, to draw them in and make them participants in the story, and to change them in the process. What happened to Jesus on that mountain – what Peter and James and John actually heard and saw – is only part of the story. What will happen to you on that mountain is the other part of the story. By telling the story of the transfiguration Peter calls us to come apart from all lesser stories, to climb the holy mountain and there to spend time with the Law and Prophets, to delight in them until they become luminous, until the presence of God engulfs us with the uncreated light of his presence, until we see Jesus revealed in all his majestic glory, until we see Jesus and Jesus alone, until we hear the voice of God: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Peter calls us to live out of the story of Jesus’s transfiguration, because it will become the story of our transformation.

Can you imagine how the world would be transformed if it lived the story of transfiguration?

Come, you politicians. Come, you leaders of the nations. Come to the holy mountain and see Jesus in his glory. Come hear God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” How would these leaders govern once they had taken their place in the story, once they had truly seen Jesus, once they had begun to listen to the one in whom God is well pleased? Would they continue to build nuclear weapons or border fences? Would they continue to pursue economic policies that privilege the rich and dispossess the poor? Would they endorse the abortion of babies in the name of choice and the execution of criminals in the name of justice? How would the leaders govern once they had taken their place in the story of transfiguration?

Come, you generals. Come, you arms merchants. Come you agents of death in all its forms. Come hear God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” How would these soldiers and mercenaries wage war once they had taken their place in the story, once they had truly seen Jesus the Prince of Peace, once they had begun to listen to the one in whom God is well pleased? Would they shock and awe their enemies? Would they prosecute military campaigns that destroy hospitals and schools, churches and mosques – even as collateral damage? Would they waterboard and torture and humiliate their prisoners for the sake of expediency? How would the generals and commanders wage war once they had taken their place in the story of transfiguration?

Come, you artists. Come you writers and poets. Come you singers and actors. Come to the holy mountain to see Jesus in his glory. Come hear God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” How would these artists create, what would these artists create once they had taken their place in the story, once they had truly seen Jesus in all his beauty, once they had begun to listen to the Beloved? Saw 18? Rambo 47? Piss Christ? Music and videos that extol drugs and violence and degrade women? Pornography? An industry that uses up its young stars and then casts them aside, that benefits from the notoriety of their downward spirals? How would these artists create, what would they create once they had taken their place in the story of transfiguration?

Come, you businessmen and captains of industry. Come to the mountain.

Come, you scholars and teachers. Come to the mountain.

Come, you scientists and engineers. Come to the mountain.

Come, you preachers. Come to the mountain.

Come, all you with ears to hear and minds to think and hearts to love and hands to serve and stories to live. Come to the mountain. Come see Jesus transfigured before your eyes. Come see Jesus revealed in all his majestic glory. Come hear the voice of God say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Come and take your place in the story of transfiguration. Amen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sermon: 3 Epiphany (27 Jan 2008)

3 Epiphany: 27 January 2008
(Isaiah 9:1-4/Psalm 27:1, 4-9/1 Corinthians 1:10-18/Matthew 4:12-23)
Family Values and Mini-gods

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This sermon is for a resident of Smalltown, South Carolina, a woman whose name I don’t recall (if I ever heard it) and whose likelihood of ever hearing or reading it is essentially zero. Still, it’s for her. But, it’s for you, too, and for all who have ears to hear the Gospel.

I “met” this woman through National Public Radio. An interviewer was conducting a straw poll among the locals just before the recent South Carolina Republican Primary. I don’t recall her exact words during the interview, so I’ll have to paraphrase; still I think I can accurately capture the essence of the woman’s thoughts.

“I’m a Christian,” she said, “and it’s important to me to have a Christian president. So, Mike Huckabee’s my candidate. As a Christian, family values are important to him. He puts family first.”

You know how sometimes the subcontext of what someone says just shines clearly through the spoken word? When this woman said family values I knew just what she really meant. She wanted a candidate and president who would protect her image of family: a bread-winner husband, a stay-at-home wife and mother, 2.5 above average children, a two story brick mini-mansion in a gated community, an SUV or minivan in which to drive her children to their school whose day starts with prayer and whose rooms each contain a prominently displayed framed print of the 10 Commandments. I hope I’m not misreading her, or maybe I hope I am. Regardless, I’d truly like to know whatever gave this woman the notion that Jesus endorses her family values, that he cares one whit about protecting her image of family. What church has she attended all these years that has told her that the nuclear family is most important to Jesus? What gospel has she read in which Jesus says, “Put family first?” Because the church has another gospel. We’ve heard it once this morning, but I think we could stand to hear it again.

12Now when he [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:15 "The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—16 the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light,and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned."
17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people (Mt 4:12-23, ESV).

This is the word of the Lord. And in this word, our Lord blows to smithereens our normal concepts of family values. Did you notice how in this short passage Jesus treated three or four different families with ambivalence if not disregard? First he leaves Nazareth and moves his headquarters to Capernaum. Jesus leaves home, leaves behind his responsibilities as firstborn son to provide for his family. Is Joseph still around? We hear nothing of him and presume him dead by this time. What’s Mary to do now with Jesus also gone? Will the burden of her care – not to mention responsibility for her daughters – fall on James or Joses or Simon or Judas, Jesus’s brothers? Does this explain their disdain for him over the next few months and years? Then, having established himself in Capernaum, Jesus walks by the Sea of Galilee, notices a couple of fishermen plying their trade – Simon Peter and his brother Andrew – and says, “Leave it all to follow me.” And they do. Drop your profession and leave behind your families. We know Simon Peter was married. I wonder what Mrs. Simon Peter said when Mr. Simon Peter told her later that afternoon that he had quit his job and was going to travel about the countryside with a carpenter-rabbi fishing for men? If she was practical in the way that women usually are and men seldom are she had a thousand questions – basic ones like “What are we going to eat?” and “How will we live?” and “Have you totally lost your mind?” At best she had to hope that this was some kind of quickly passing midlife crisis. Did Jesus care about this turmoil? If so, it didn’t stop him from causing it. And still walking, just down the coast a bit, Jesus “happens” upon brothers James and John hard at work mending nets with their father, taking care of family business. “Leave Dad with the nets. You come follow me,” he says, and once again the fishermen leave. And there’s Dad left alone wondering what just happened, watching his family and his security walk away down the beach. It’s a parent’s nightmare: their beloved child getting involved in some strange cult, separating from family, and giving up all financial resources just to be held in thrall by some charismatic, religious fanatic. Three families shot with no indication that Jesus cares one bit for the challenge he’s just issued to good, Jewish family values. You want a modern day example? Talk to Shane Claiborne’s mother. Shane is an only child and an only male grandchild on both sides of his family. Needless to say the family had invested much preparation and hope in him, and they expected a payoff: good education, prestigious career, and a stable marriage with children to carry on the family name. Then Jesus walked by and called, “Come, follow me.” And Shane got up and left. Now he lives with the poor – as one of the poor – in one of the worst parts of Philadelphia, lists his occupation as “professional lover,” and has elected, thus far, a life of celibacy. Talk about upending family values in the name of Jesus. “I met Jesus and he ruined my life,” is the way Shane puts it in his book Irresistible Revolution. Whatever would the woman in South Carolina think?

Am I making a theological mountain out of a molehill? Well, you be the judge as you hear Jesus speak for himself.

34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father,and a daughter against her mother,and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:34-39, NRSV).

Or, on another ocassion.

18 Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ 20And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 21Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 22But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead’ (Mt 8:18-22, NRSV).

And this story, the most important of all.

46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ 48But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother’ (Mt 12:46-50, NRSV).

So, where is all this headed? The family values that the good woman in South Carolina so cherishes is nothing more than an idol – something that has replaced Jesus as the most important thing in her system of values. Oh, she would never say that. But, wait a minute – I guess she did, didn’t she?

“I’m a Christian,” she said, “and it’s important to me to have a Christian president. So, Mike Huckabee’s my candidate. As a Christian, family values are important to him. He puts family first.”

An idol is a mini-god, small enough to be carried around in purse or pocket and stroked throughout the days and years for comfort and security. It can be an idea as easily as a golden statue; nowadays in the West it generally is. But it offers only false comfort and false security. It is powerless to save. It is far too small a repository for human hopes and dreams and lives. Family values – at least as I understand the phrase in common political and fundamental evangelical use – is an idol, an especially powerful one. And idols can’t be rehabilitated and retained; they must be destroyed. This is essential for us to understand. Jesus didn’t come to endorse and bless the highest values and aspirations of our culture – even our nominally Christian culture in the United States. He came to destroy them and to rebuild them and us from the ground up.

This explains Jesus’s ambivalence toward the human family and especially his behavior in this last account of the visit of his mother and brothers. Jesus’s family came to him on the basis of special privilege as his family. Everyone in the room fully expected Jesus to suspend his parables, delay his healing, cease his exorcisms and respond immediately to his family; that’s what family values would dictate, then and now. But instead, Jesus drops a bombshell: human family is too small to be of first importance. It is a mini-god, an idol. True family is determined not by blood, but by the Spirit. True family is not isolated to homes and communities, but abounds fully throughout the Kingdom of God. “Who is family?” Jesus asks not quite rhetorically. “Family is all those gathered around me, all those who do the will of our Father in heaven.” There is one Father – the Lord God, the Almighty. There is one family – those who are in Christ Jesus. This is the true family. Faith, love, obedience: these are the true family values. Anything less is an idol. Jesus didn’t come to bless our families and endorse our values, but to deconstruct them and to reform them around himself. Our normal concept of family is just too small.

What does this mean for us and for our sister in South Carolina? It means that the undocumented Hispanic couple attending mass down the street and praying for protection from the INS is family. It means that the old black woman with the Bible worn out from years of use – the old black woman shivering in the cold because she can’t afford food, medicine and heat – is family. It means that the children in the projects at the church daycare – the ones who duck when cars squeal their tires for fear of being shot in a drive-by – are family. It means that the secret Muslim disciple and the underground Chinese pastor and the imprisoned North Korean Christian are all family. It means for us that the woman in South Carolina whose concept of family values is so small as to be idolatrous is also family. Jesus didn’t come to destroy family values, just our understanding of family values. Jesus didn’t come to make us love our family less, but more. Or, to paraphrase his words in the Sermon on the Mount, “Do not think I came to abolish the family. I came not to abolish it, but to fulfill it.” Jesus came to enlarge and enrich our family almost beyond comprehension. He said so to Peter, to one whose family he disrupted.

27 Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ 28Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. 30But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Mt 19:27-30, NRSV).

I’m always impressed during the political season at how many idols we truly have and at how little we truly recognize them. And I’m not exempt; I have as many as the next guy. For some “It’s the economy, Stupid.” For others, immigration or national security. For still others, a woman’s right to choose. And yes, for many, it’s family values. I wonder: in the Kingdom will all these first things be last and the things we generally put last – love and faith and obedience – be first? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to hear a candidate say, “My goal is to help you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself?” These are Jesus’s family values.

One last idea that’s implicit in all this. Men, your wife, if she is in Christ, is first and foremost your sister. And women, your husband is your brother. Your children? Also brothers and sisters in Christ; younger siblings, yes, who need nurture and instruction, but siblings nonetheless. We are responsible to our one Father for the care we show our brothers and sisters – even those in our human families. Whatever rights my wife might relinquish by virtue of the marriage bond she gains all the more through our common bond in Christ. Whatever rights she gains through marriage she lays aside at the foot of the cross. Jesus’s family values must reconstruct our marriages and our parenting. We dare not make idols of our husbands, our wives, our children. But also we dare not look upon them as just our wives or our husbands or our children. They are Christ’s and Christ is God’s and all are one family in the Spirit. These also are Jesus’s family values.

The bad news is idols, like false family values, abound. And not just out there; in here, too. The good news is Jesus is still in the business of smashing idols and rebuilding us from the ground up. Amen.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sermon: 2 Epiphany (20 January 2008)

2 Epiphany: 20 January 2008
(Isaiah 49:1-7/Psalm 40:1-11/1 Corinthians 1:1-9/John 1:29-42)
Experience Versus Hope

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Be warned: I plan to speak of politics – just briefly and on the way to theology. I won’t linger any longer than necessary. I won’t bash liberals or question conservatives. I won’t endorse a candidate or a party. But I will walk that tightrope between life in the kingdom of God and life in the kingdoms of this world because that’s where we all live – of one and in the other, but somehow affected by and affecting both.

This is an historic primary, particularly in the Democratic Party. Of the three leading candidates one is an affluent, white, male – no real surprise there. But the other two – that’s where it gets interesting: Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama. While there have been female and black presidential candidates before, Clinton’s and Obama’s poll numbers indicate truly viable candidacies with large constituencies and significant monetary support, and that is new. One of these candidates could well be the next President of the United States, marking an historic first for our nation.

Each candidate is intelligent and articulate. Each is motivated and capable. Each is concerned that our country is in serious trouble and is headed in the wrong direction on such issues as the economy, health care, immigration, foreign policy, and national security. So far, the candidates agree. They disagree, though, on how to resolve these issues and particularly on what trait or skill each brings to the table as of first importance. For Clinton, experience is the key; she touts her thirty-five plus years of political experience in the Arkansas governor’s mansion, in the White House, and in the Senate. Obama begs to differ; experience is not the answer, but part of the problem, he seems to contend. Experience produced the present situations and promotes the status quo. What does he offer instead? The Audacity of Hope, as the title of his autobiography proclaims. There’s this from a recent New Hampshire speech: “Hope is not blind optimism. Hope is not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside of us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that there is something greater inside of us.”[1]

So, these two leading candidates ask the Democratic voters to choose between experience and hope. A Woody Allen quote from Annie Hall comes to mind: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

So where do you stand on this experience versus hope debate? I’m not asking you to choose between Clinton and Obama. I’m asking whether your experience has caused you to be hopeful about the human condition, about human nature. If you haven’t really thought much about it or don’t know where you stand, maybe this short questionnaire will help. Based on your experience:

1. Do you expect fast food restaurants to fill your order quickly, correctly, courteously, and at the correct price, or are you surprised when all this happens at once?

2. Students, are you surprised when your classmates cheat on tests, gossip about their “friends,” and speak badly of teachers, or do you expect these kinds of things?

3. Do you expect salespeople and advertisers to tell the truth about their products, or do you expect hype and exaggeration?
4. Children, how surprised were you when adults bought huge blocks of Hannah Montana concert tickets and then scalped them for outrageous prices, or when a girl lied about her dead father to win tickets? If you were surprised this time, would you be surprised next time?

5. Do you trust the cigarette and drug companies? Do you trust our legal system?

6. Are you surprised and scandalized when our politicians are found being less than honest with the public, or do you expect to be misled – at least on occasion – by our elected officials?

7. The television character House says, “Everybody lies.” How accurate do you think this is?

8. When George Bush announced recently that he honestly felt there would be peace in the Middle East within the year – complete with a Palestinian homeland and a secure Israel – did you laugh?

9. Are you confident in the assurances of North Korea and Iran that they are pursuing nuclear energy solely for peaceful purposes, or do the nuclear ambitions of these countries worry you?

10. Do you believe our world – its economy, environment, security, equity, justice, peace – is progressively getting better?

11. Do you believe our world is safer now for the next generation than it has ever been?

12. Do you believe the next generation will be more peaceful, prosperous, and content than our present generation?

These questions span the spectrum from trivial to significant. So, what does your experience tell you? How hopeful are you about the human condition, about human nature? Of course, we could make this personal. Are you honest enough and brave enough to look deeply within yourself? If so, what does your experience of your own heart and soul tell you about the human condition? Does your experience of self make you hopeful?

The Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, Modernity – the 17th through the early 20th centuries: these were hopeful times and they made hopeful promises – that man could cast off the shackles of superstition, the bondage of tyrants, and the limitations of ignorance and rise to greatness through reason, democracy, and knowledge. We’ve now entered Post-Modernity and the rejection of these hopeful, unfulfilled promises. Our experience with two world wars, the holocaust, the atomic bomb: these served to dash those hopes.

The discussion of politics, the brief self-examination, and the small bit of history lead us now to theology. Where does our faith call us to stand in this experience versus hope debate? When it comes to the human condition – human nature – is our faith experience one of hope?

Well, if we want to discuss human nature we must return to the Garden and to man – male and female – created in the image of God; that’s human nature. If ever a story began in hope this is it: man as the image bearer of God in communion with all creation, with one another, and with the Creator. (In some inarticulated sense this is the hope that politicians hold out to us: creation put to rights – an environment free from global warming, pollution, shortages – peace, goodwill, and prosperity for all, and the right to worship – to commune with our Creator – or even not to worship, as we see fit.) But the story goes badly wrong, and that right quickly. Man sins – male and female – opening the door for Sin and Death to come rushing into God’s good creation. And that they did.

Sin came into the world through the one man, Adam, and death came through sin. Death spread to all men, because all men sin – some without knowledge of God’s Law as revealed to Moses, and some with that knowledge. So death exercises dominion over man, indeed over all creation (cf Rom 5:12-14).

Sin and death took an enormous toll. One generation into the story and we have murder. Within a few generations of that, man’s heart is so darkened, twisted, and curved inward that it contemplates only evil continually. God is grieved that he ever made man and set him free upon the face of the earth. When it comes to the human condition, is God hopeful? What does the experience of the story tell us?

So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them’ (Gen 6:6, NRSV).

The human experience was one of hopelessness before God; the human condition was beyond reclamation; human nature was beyond redemption. So, with apologies to those with the audacity to hope in the inherent goodness of human nature, God’s story tells us differently. Left to his own, man spirals quickly downward; he does not progress toward some grand utopia of his own making. There is no more accurate or depressing assessment of man on his own than that found in Romans 1:

for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen.

26For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

28And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters,
insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, 31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them (Rom 1:21-32, NRSV).

The refrain in this passage is “God gave them up.” This is not an expression of hope in the inherent goodness of man, but acknowledgment of the corrupting power of sin and death. There is a reason the Enlightenment promises failed and Modernity’s agenda failed to deliver: when left to solve his own problems, man almost invariably creates worse ones. And though we ignore them with claims of progress, choruses of self-esteem, and speeches filled with hope, sin and death will not be denied.

We don’t need more hope; we’ve had plenty of that through the years and look where it’s gotten us. We need more hopelessness. We need an accurate assessment of the human experience and a thorough examination of the depths of our sinfulness, the breadth of our corruption. We need to finally come face-to-face with ourselves and be disgusted with what we see. We need finally to abandon all hope. We need to reach the same point of helplessness that Paul did.

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death (Rom 7:18-24, NRSV)?

Only when true experience triumphs over false hope, only when we’ve recognized our helplessness in the face of the sin that dwells within us, only when we realize our wretchedness can we hear the gospel as good news.

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! 30This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ 32And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God’ (John 1:29-34, NRSV).

Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world – Jesus, the Son of God. And therein lies our only hope. Left to myself I cannot overcome the sin which lies close at hand, I cannot will myself to do that which I know I should do – even that which I want to do. No, a power stronger than my will lives within me, the power of sin and death. It wars against me and it overthrows me. The longer I deny my experience of failure and cling to some false hope of self-sufficiency the more enmeshed in sin I become, like some hapless soul thrashing around to free himself from quicksand and sinking all the more rapidly for his efforts. Only in hopelessness is there any hope. Only in surrender is there any victory. Only when with Paul we cry out with our last breath, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” can we hear the answer: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:25a, NRSV).

This Lamb of God to whom we cling as to our only hope, baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and breaks the power of sin and death that has enthralled us.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you (Rom 8:9-11, NRSV).

This Spirit of Christ within us empowers us to put to death the deeds of sin, if we abide in Christ, if we walk in the Spirit. We have not received a spirit of slavery, but a Spirit of adoption – adoption as the sons and daughters of God, adoption as joint heirs with Christ, adoption into the great hope which is now ours in Christ Jesus (cf Rom 8:14 ff) – the hope of glory.

My experience tells me that the human condition is hopeless, that we are enslaved by sin, terrified by death, in bondage to powers and principalities that offer false hope. My experience tells me that true hope lies not in ourselves, but in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, in Jesus Christ who baptizes us in the Spirit and makes of us a new creation. To him who is our hope be glory and honor and power and dominion now and forever. Amen.*

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/05/us/politics/05obama.html?_r=1&oref=slogin, accessed 1/14/08.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Sermon: Baptism of the Lord (13 January 2008)

Baptism of the Lord: 13 January 2008
(Isaiah 42:1-9/Psalm 29/Acts 10:34-43/Matthew 3:13-17)
Blood On The Carpet

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

How you spend your time tells a lot about what’s important to you. Of course there are certain constraints on each of us – school for children, and work, either inside or outside the home, for adults – constraints that make significant demands on our time. I’m not really thinking about these allocations of time, but about the time you have left after these responsibilities are discharged. So, if you routinely choose to work 80 or 90 hours each week when 40 would satisfy your family’s economic needs, then an outside observer might reasonably conclude you value money or professional advancement more than a relationship with your spouse and children. Or if you spend more time watching television or surfing the web than on your knees in prayer or immersed in Scripture or in service of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters, that same outside observer might think spiritual growth is less important to you than entertainment. Jesus said it about treasure – thinking about monetary goods – but I think it’s equally true of the treasure of your seconds and minutes and hours and days: Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Just suppose, for the sake of argument, that I’m right about this; I don’t know that I am, but give me the benefit of the doubt for a moment. If time is a measure of perceived importance, then what is important to the church? Think of how the church spends its time in preaching and teaching and feasting and fasting. What do these decisions, these priorities, tell us about what’s important to the church? In mainline churches with the lectionary, in liturgical churches with the Eucharist, and in evangelical churches with gospel preaching, the lion’s share of time is spent on the death and resurrection of Jesus: the seasons and themes of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter dominate even in those churches who would never explicitly speak of Lent and Holy Week. The cross overshadows everything and the empty tomb illuminates everything. Of course, I exaggerate – but not by too much. How many Christmas pageants have you seen link manger and cross, thus expounding the theology that Jesus was born to die? How many sermons have you heard remind us that Jesus died for our sins? If time is an indicator, then the death and resurrection of Jesus are of first importance to the church. And that’s exactly what Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians.

1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (1 Cor 15:1-5, ESV).

Who can disagree with Paul? The troika of death, burial, and resurrection is of first importance, is the climax of Jesus’s redemptive act. But even as I say this, something in me tugs in another direction. If it’s all about the three days – Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday – then why live for thirty-three years? Why the incarnation? Why the thirty years of silence? Why the three years of ministry? Why the baptism? Why the temptation? Why the transfiguration? Why the teaching? Why the healing? Why the conflicts? Surely, Jesus wasn’t born just to die. Surely, Jesus was born to live. So, yes, the death, burial, and resurrection are of first importance, but in the sense of being first among equals, much as our President is first among equals when hosting a formal White House banquet for leaders of other nations. The redemptive act of Jesus – death, burial, and resurrection – is first among the equals gathered at the table of atonement: equals like the incarnation, the baptism, the temptation, and the transfiguration. Though one heads the table, all are essential in the atoning plan of God in Jesus Christ.

All this is to say that the baptism of the Lord, the event we celebrate this day, is not just some random or arbitrary and thus relatively unimportant event in the inevitable march toward the cross; it, too, ranks among equals as an essential act in God’s plan for atonement. It’s importance becomes clear only as we begin to understand the enormity of that plan.

Painting with broad strokes we can picture the atonement as God’s plan to redeem, transform, and reconcile to himself all of creation by dealing with the twin problems of sin and death. This all-encompassing plan is often reduced to caricature by well-meaning Christians who summarize the gospel as the good news that “Jesus died for you so that God would forgive your sins.” With no disrespect intended, Jesus didn’t need to die for that; at his own initiative God could merely have forgiven us, all of us, all our sins. The truth is, forgiveness is just one step in the plan – an essential one, yes, but just one. As a young boy, 11 or 12 I think, I visited an acquaintance out of state. As we sat in his bedroom, newly carpeted with white shag, he pulled something from behind his back and shoved it toward my face. I reacted instinctively by lifting my arm in front of my eyes. That’s when the brand new and very sharp knife my friend was proudly trying to show me stabbed my arm severing a vein. Blood flowed freely, deeply – and probably permanently – staining the white carpet crimson. I felt deeply guilty for ruining that beautiful carpet. And yet, at that moment, if my friend’s mother had entered the room and said, “Oh, John, don’t worry about the carpet; I forgive you.” I would have said, “Great. Thanks for that. Now, can we do something about this bleeding before I pass out?” I needed and wanted forgiveness, yes, and it could be granted with a simple word. But I also needed direct, hands-on intervention, to restore me to health. Forgive me, please, but then fix the problem that caused me to need forgiveness.

And there we stand, all of us as God’s fallen creatures – our blood all over his white carpet, so to speak – needing forgiveness, but also needing a hands-on God to intervene to stanch the bleeding and to heal our woundedness. Forgiveness without cure: that’s not really good news; that’s not really gospel. And so God embarks upon his plan of atonement to forgive and to heal. At the very heart of that plan is the life of Jesus.

In the life of Jesus, God becomes hands-on and intervenes directly, personally in the human realm of space and time to heal us – not just to forgive our sins, but to cure the underlying disease of Sin, itself. He accomplishes this through the twin mysteries of identification and incorporation (Scott McKnight, A Community Called Atonement): Jesus identifies completely with our human nature so that he might incorporate us completely into his divine nature. What is true for us becomes true for him. What is true for him becomes true for us. For us, anyway, this is a magnificent trade.

Let’s see how all this plays out in the baptism of the Lord. John has emerged from the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” ’ 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mt 3:1-6, NRSV).

In addition to the ordinary folk, Pharisees have come for dipping – Sadducees, too – but John is having none of it. Amend your lives, you brood of vipers. Show by your actions that you have repented. Then, then come to the water: not a real seeker-sensitive kind of guy, this Baptist.

Then one day it happens. Jesus comes to the Jordan: the one John has been waiting for, the one whose sandals John is not worthy to carry, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And this one, this Jesus, wades into the water and presents himself to John, presents himself for the baptism of repentance. Once again John is having none of it, but this time for vastly different reasons: “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, “and do you come to me” (Mt 3:14b, NRSV)? John recognizes in Jesus the Holy One, the sinless one who has no need of repentance and no need of baptism. Yet Jesus gently insists: “Let it be so for now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15, NRSV). Jesus isn’t focused on sin as he comes to the baptismal water; he is focused on righteousness. John is all about the blood on the carpet; Jesus is all about healing the wound. Of course he has no sin, but we do. And in this moment he identifies with us, is baptized on our behalf, to incorporate us into the righteousness of God. This is the essence of atonement. Jesus identifies completely with our human nature so that he might incorporate us completely into his divine nature. What is true for us becomes true for him. What is true for him becomes true for us. We need baptism, so he makes that true for himself. He is righteous, so he makes that true for us. Identification for incorporation. And what does our incorporation look like? It’s there in the rest of the gospel account.

And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:16-17, NRSV).

If you have been baptized into Christ, incorporated in him, then what was true for him in his baptism is true for you through yours. The Spirit of God has descended from heaven to light on you and remain with you. And a voice from heaven – no matter that you didn’t hear it with your ears of flesh – a voice from heaven, God’s own voice, said over you, “This is my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Don’t take my word for this. Here’s Paul.

[For] in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ (Gal 3:26-27, NRSV).

In his baptism Christ identified with us. In our baptism we are incorporated into him so that what is true of him is true of us: we are God’s beloved children in whom he is well pleased.

John, too, speaks about our incorporation into Christ Jesus and our status as God’s children. He calls it “abiding” in Jesus.

And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he is revealed we may have confidence and not be put to shame before him at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 2:28-3:3, NRSV).

This is atonement. This is identification for incorporation. This is more than just the forgiveness of sins through the death of Jesus; this is healing and transformation and reconciliation and participation in the divine nature through the life of Jesus.

But the identification and incorporation – the atonement – cannot stop here. As Jesus identified with us to incorporate us, we must identify with our world to incorporate it in Jesus. We must be there in the midst of the world, sharing its life, shouldering its burden, bearing its pain, through our own lives proclaiming not just the forgiveness of its sins but the healing of its woundedness. We who have been reconciled with God through Christ must become ambassadors of reconciliation. We have been incorporated into Christ, in part, so that we might incorporate the world into Christ.

Go forth into the world empowered by your baptism, hearing the voice – sometimes as thunder and sometimes as whisper – “You are my child, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Go forth into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit who descended upon you at your baptism and who remains with you now, transforming you into the image of Christ. Go forth into the world abiding in Christ, doing what is right, purified as he is pure. That is life. That is atonement.


Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Sermon: Epiphany of the Lord (6 Jan 2008)

Epiphany of the Lord
(Is 60:1-6/Ps 72/Eph 3:1-12/Mt 2:1-12)
Yes, You Too

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Pious legend tells us that the Twelve Days of Christmas is an allegory, a song penned by persecuted Catholics in 16th century England to act as catechism, to summarize the faith. From the partridge in a pear tree – Jesus on the cross – to the twelve drummers drumming – the twelve articles of faith in the Apostles’ Creed – each gift from God, our true Love, emphasizes an important element of our faith. Well, I don’t know. The story sounds a bit contrived to me and the connection between maids a-milking and anything holy stretched a bit thin. But, if I have to choose between the religious version and the Muppets’ version, I’ll listen to the voice of the faithful every time, even if it is a bit strained. So, with apologies to the original, here’s my take on the twelfth verse on this the twelfth day of Christmas.

On the twelfth day of Christmas
my true Love gave to me
three wisemen bowing, John baptizing, water transforming,
and a feast called Epiphany.

The three events collectively celebrated as Epiphany – the arrival of the magi at Bethlehem, the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan, and the first public miracle of water turned to wine at Cana in Galilee – share no historical connection: neither place nor time links them. Thirty years and hundreds of miles separate the magi from the events at the Jordan and at Cana. John’s ministry would soon wind down – I must decrease and he must increase – as Jesus’ ministry began and grew. No, the connection isn’t historical; it’s thematic and theological. The theme is there in the name of the feast: Epiphany. It’s from the Greek – epi phainein – to shine upon or to show forth. An epiphany is an Aha! moment – you’ve all had those – when suddenly and unexpectedly the light breaks through to illuminate what had lain in deep darkness. There is revelation where there had been mystery. There is understanding where there had been confusion. It’s the moment at the end of Sixth Sense when “I see dead people,” takes on a whole new meaning and makes sense of the entire film.

Epiphany is a star that reveals to pagan astrologers the birth of a new king in Israel and puts them on a quest to worship the child. Epiphany is a dove lighting on the shoulder of a carpenter from Nazareth and a voice from heaven revealing this carpenter to be not just another of the rabble-come-for-dipping in the Jordan but the very Son of God. Epiphany is gallon upon gallon of wine – good wine, the best wine – in water jars of all places, revealing a new creation and a resurrection under way wherever this freshly baptized carpenter-turned-rabbi happens to show up. Epiphany leaves us scratching our heads and mumbling, “Hmm – go figure.”

So, how does the church celebrate Epiphany? Many simply don’t, and that’s a shame, a real loss, I think. Following liturgical custom, we began the morning with the rite of Blessing in Homes at Epiphany, with the greeting “Peace be to this house, and to all who dwell in it.” From house to house we remembered that Mary and Joseph made a home for Jesus and we blessed the homes of our members in his name: May God the Son, who sanctified a home at Nazareth, fill you with his love. Amen. And this, recalling the epiphany of the magi: May God Almighty, who led the Wise Men by the shining of a star to find the Christ, the Light from Light, lead you also in your pilgrimage, to find the Lord. Amen.

Another rite will follow the Prayers of the People this morning, the Consecration of Water, in which we ask God’s blessing upon the water we will use sacramentally throughout the new year. Among the prayers in this service are these, which tie us to Epiphany:

Most High God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ:
In the fullness of the times you called forth your servant John – The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight. – called him to stand in the waters of the Jordan and to baptize for repentance. Bless this water to us as a sign of repentance that it may lead us to amendment of life and to fruit worthy of repentance. Amen.

Most High God, Voice from Heaven:
In the baptism of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, you split the silence and spoke from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Bless this water to us as Jesus blessed the water of baptism by his righteous obedience, that it may assure us that we, too, are your beloved sons and daughters in whom you are well pleased. Amen.

And, each week as we celebrate the Eucharist we witness an Epiphany-like transformation as “ordinary” wine and water become for us the most precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, the cup of the New Covenant we share.

These are ways in which the Church celebrates Epiphany, and they are important – especially important for the creation of community through sign and symbol and story and sacrament. By them we are reminded that God dwells in our homes and that these homes should reflect that Presence, that each home is a domestic church. Through them we are reminded that God loves the stuff of creation – like water – and that he uses it to make himself known and to re-create a people and a world to be his own. Yes, these rites and rituals of the Church are vitally important. But, they are remembrances, celebrations of Epiphany only, and not epiphanies themselves. Epiphanies are not planned, not ritualized – they may occur through planning and ritual, but they cannot themselves be planned or ritualized. Epiphanies are unexpected, shocking manifestations of God’s presence and glory: a bush on flame but not consumed and a voice warning that the ground where you stand, the ground you always considered ordinary, is really holy; a cloud that suddenly erupts with the firey glory of God and stands sentinel while the great sea of troubles before you become a highway of deliverance; the death of everything you held dear – the end – which three days later is revealed as the precursor of a glorious resurrection you could never have imagined. These are epiphanies.

Epiphanies involve mystery and revelation – sudden, unexpected good news of God on the move. Paul writes to the Ephesians of such an epiphany.

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel (Eph 3:1-6, NRSV).

Mystery and revelation – epiphany. And what is this epiphany that Paul has experienced and now shares with the Church? That Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise, and all this through Jesus Christ. This is the mystery that God has kept hidden for generations but which now, in these last days, he has revealed in Christ through the Spirit. And let’s not abstract this or make it a matter of Church history only: Aren’t those Gentiles blessed to be included? We are those Gentiles. What Paul reveals here is our inclusion in the family of God once apparently reserved for Jews only.

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the “uncircumcision” by that which is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ (Eph 2:11-13, ESV).

For so long we’ve had a sense of inclusion, of privilege, that I fear we can’t grasp this as epiphany. We can celebrate it, we can remember it, we can ritualize it, but I suspect we cannot experience it as epiphany – as the sudden, unexpected good news of God on the move putting the world to rights through Christ Jesus and letting us in on that good news.

And that may be the ultimate essence of Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ, of the sudden, unexpected inclusion of outcasts – outcasts like you and me – in God’s promises and grace and kingdom. Psalm 72, a blessing on God’s righteous king, captures this inclusive nature of Epiphany. What will happen when God’s righteous is revealed in the person of the King? He will

defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor…For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight (Ps 72:4, 12-14, NRSV).

Jesus’ good news was Epiphany to those who heard him; it was an embodiment of this psalm. For Jesus came to the poor, the weak, the needy, the oppressed, the helpless and revealed the mystery that they, too, had a place in God’s kingdom, that they, too, were among the blessed.

5:3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5:5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.
5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.
5:11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of me. 5:12 Rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, for they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way (Mt 5:3-11, NET).

Jesus came to the tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes with the revelation of a mystery almost beyond belief – In fact it was beyond belief for the religious elite. – that yes, there is a place for you in God’s kingdom, a place among the blessed. Jesus touched the blind, the deaf, the lepers, the demon-possessed – all those excluded from the Temple by virtue of their infirmities – touched them with his hands, with his love, with his revelation that yes, they too had a place in God’s kingdom, that they, too, were among the blessed. And that, my brothers and sisters, the mystery, now revealed through Christ, of the sudden, unexpected inclusion of outcasts – outcasts like you and me – in God’s promises and grace and kingdom, that is Epiphany.

And Jesus is still revealing this great mystery, still bringing Epiphany, to a world in desperate need of it. Now the epiphanies come, when they do, through the Church, through the members of the body of Christ.

Alison Compton[1] works to create alphabets for a cluster of oral Bantu languages in Tanzania so that, for the first time in the history of a people, they might have the Word of God in written form in their own language. Her work might seem to be linguistics, but I think it is Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ in the person of this young woman, that yes, you too in Tanzania, have a place in God’s kingdom, a place among the blessed.

Dan Haseltine, lead singer of Jar of Clay, visited Africa in 2002 and was changed by the poverty and physical suffering he witnessed there. He returned from this epiphany of suffering with a new vision – a vision of an Africa where clean water, free from parasites and bacteria, and clean blood, free from HIV contamination are available to all. He founded the Blood:Water Mission “to build clean wells in Africa, to support medical facilities caring for the sick, to make a lasting impact in the fight against poverty, injustice and oppression in Africa through the linking of needs, talents and continents, of people and resources.” He is committed to building 1000 wells in 1000 African communities – with our help, of course – bringing living water to dying people in the name of Christ. His work might seem to be music, but I think it is Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ in the person of this young man, that yes, you too in Africa have a place in God’s kingdom, a place among the blessed.[2]

I know a group of men in south Georgia who meet regularly to play poker – not high stakes, just about $40 ante for the night – with all the money going to feed to hungry. God’s Grillers they call themselves because they haul a couple of industrial grills around town cooking hamburgers and hotdogs and turkeys and giving them away in the name of Christ. Their hobby might seem like poker, but I think it is Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ in the “sacraments” of hamburgers and hotdogs that yes, you struggling and hungry in southern Georgia have a place in God’s kingdom, a place among the blessed.

I know a small group of men and women and children in Knoxville, Tennessee who individually and collectively sponsor third world children and ministers, visit a shelter for abused women, play Bingo with nursing home residents, and deliver food for the organization FISH in some rough areas of their town, all in the name of Christ. That may seem ordinary to them, not much at all, but I think it is Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ in word and touch and time that yes, the abused and forgotten and hungry in Knoxville have a place in God’s kingdom, a place among the blessed.

As the Church it is our privilege to remember and celebrate Epiphany in our liturgies and rites: in the blessing of homes and in the consecration of water. As the Church it is our calling to bring Epiphany – the mystery, now revealed through Christ, of the sudden, unexpected inclusion of outcasts – outcasts like you and me – to the poor, the hungry, the forgotten, the rejected, the abused – to all those who need the good news of the love of God in Christ Jesus.


[1] Alison serves through Wycliffe Bible Translators. More information about her work is available at http://www.wysite.org/sites/alison_compton.
[2] This information was taken directly from the Blood:Water Mission website, http://www.bloodwatermission.com/. I first learned of the mission through the blog of Michael Spencer, http://internetmonk.com/.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

SFG Daily Lections: 1-7 January 2008

During 2008 our Spiritual Formation Group (SFG) will read through the New Testament together. We welcome those who have not yet established a disciplined reading of Scripture to join us. Please feel free to share your questions, comments, and insights with us by commenting on this post. Following are the readings for 1-7 January.

1 Jan Matthew 1:1-25
2 Jan Matthew 2:1-23
3 Jan Matthew 3:1-17
4 Jan Matthew 4:1-25
5 Jan Matthew 5:1-26
6 Jan Matthew 5:27-48
7 Jan Matthew 6:1-18

Let us pray.
Almighty God, open our hearts and minds
by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that as the Scriptures are read
and your Word is proclaimed,
we may hear with joy
what you have to say to us today,
and, having heard, we may fully obey
him who came and is to come,
even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.