Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year B: Who and Whose We Are

Our lectionary, the appointed Scriptures used in worship, provides a nice frame for our life together. We know we can walk into almost any Episcopal (or even some Catholic and Protestant churches) and hear the same Scriptures. This dependable, consistent quality, connects us to one another across the church.

The lectionary also weaves Scripture together. Intentionally and unintentionally, our readings connect God’s Word across time and space. Sometimes these connections can feel inauthentic. Other times, the readings flow together so beautifully they are themselves an Epiphany: a revelation of God’s self to us. Today’s readings are, mostly, a great example of when the lectionary works. “The Calling of Samuel,” Psalm 139, and “the calling of Nathanial” reveal God’s knowledge of us. Today’s readings remind us who and whose we are: beloved children of God in need of and participants in God’s healing mercy.

We begin with Samuel. If you do not know his story, I commend to you the historical books of the Hebrew Scriptures. They tell the story of God’s activity amidst the faithful and broken people of God. Samuel is the son of Hannah. He is the result of Hannah’s desperate prayer and promise to God: weeping at the altar, she begs God for a son promising to set him apart for the Lord. She prays so fervently that Eli, the priest, believes she is drunk and admonishes her. She is not drunk; she is faithful. And God gives her a son, Samuel.

Samuel is the apprentice of Eli, the priest of Israel. Eli is a complicated man. While faithful to God, his household is corrupt; specifically, his sons are scoundrels (1 Samuel 1: 12). They abuse the people’s sacrifices and the people. While Eli confronts their behavior, he is unable to change them. God, though, is sovereign. God calls Samuel to bring Eli’s ministry to a close and begin a new era for Israel. And Eli recognizes God’s word and accepts Samuel’s priesthood. Samuel is a bearer of hope amidst a dull sighted priest and abused people. 

My hope is that we catch the significance of this story. Hannah’s desire for a son gives birth, literally and metaphorically, to God’s reconciling work in Israel. Eli, while dull in sight, recognizes God’s voice. And even while his leadership is flawed, his family corrupt, God is at work. Samuel’s ministry becomes a vehicle for God to act on behalf of Israel. This all happens over a span of many years. God’s activity is a mystery, only partially visible to us. God’s sight on each person reveals God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of corruption and failure. Hannah, Eli, and Samuel all recognize their dependence on God and desire for God’s mercy. God will do what God will do. And their intimate relationships with God, the revelation of their deep desires, God’s knowledge of their broken lives, makes them participants in God’s activity in the world.

“O Lord, you have searched me out and known me...” these are some of the most famous verses of our psalms. Psalm 139 is used to help us remember that we are beloved children of God. We do not read the whole psalm today, for good reason. The psalm takes a sharp turn towards punishment for those who do evil. If we read the whole psalm, we remember that God does, indeed, know all of our thoughts: even those that seek the destruction of our enemies. Psalm 139  describes our experience of knowing and being known by God. It is a reminder that we are not alone, even in our isolation. God is with us. God knows us, even the parts of us that seek judgement on our enemies, the parts we try to hide.

“Where did you get to know me…” Nathanial asks. Does Jesus speaks some truth about the core of who Nathanial is: how he knows himself or how he knows God? The exchange between Jesus and Nathanial in our Gospel today indicates that something has happened: Jesus knows Nathanial. Something happened beneath that fig tree that revealed Nathanial in an intimate way to Christ. Christ is not afraid of this knowledge. Instead, Jesus’ knowledge of Nathanial leads to a revelation of Christ, the living, incarnate Word of God. This intimate exchange between them makes Nathanial a witness to God’s activity in the world.

It is the knowing that weaves these three texts together. God knows Hannah, Eli, Nathanial. God knows the psalmist. This knowledge imbues trust in the people. Hannah offers her deepest desire. Eli accepts God’s judgement of his family. Nathanial follows Christ. Each one recognizes their dependence on God’s knowledge of them. 

Being known by God leads each one to become necessary participants in God’s healing work. Hannah devotes her son to God. Eli makes way for Samuel’s ministry to grow. Samuel becomes the prophet to bring healing to a broken Israel. The psalmist offers the worst part of themselves, trusting God will show them how to live. Nathanial becomes a witness to Christ. Each one bound to God by the offering of their whole selves and transformed by God’s mercy. Each one a bearer of God’s healing Word to the world.

Have we ever felt this: God knows us and we know God? Perhaps we are like Hannah: kneeling before God, pouring out her soul. Perhaps it is how Eli feels hearing God’s witness of his corrupt family. Maybe it is the feeling Samuel had when he said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening…” Maybe we wonder how Christ knows us, like Nathanial we ask: “Where did you get to know me...”

One of the most faithful women I have ever known was blind and confined to a wheel chair. She often wondered what her ministry was, wondering how she was a witness to Christ. When we prayed together, she asked for God’s wisdom in her life. She depended on God to show her the way. And she prayed for us: her church, community, and nation. Her prayers were important and necessary. With her prayers, she drew all of us closer to God, inviting God’s will into her life and ours. Even when she could no longer leave her room, God knew her and she knew God. Her relationship with God invited God’s life into the world.

Martin Luther King Jr was a complicated man. He was a pastor, a husband and father, and a Civil rights leader. The FBI called him dangerous as he confronted those in power. He demanded equal rights for those who were oppressed, undervalued, and the most vulnerable. He is an inspiration to me. I believe MLK knew who and whose he was. He put his full trust in Christ’s love and grace. He was not perfect. And, his dependence on God is palpable. Again and again, he returned in prayer and worship to the One who made him. His relationship with Christ encouraged him to keep offering himself to God’s healing work. 

When I remember that God knows me, I’m a little uncomfortable. There are parts of myself I’d like to hide. And then I remember: God confronts the truth of my self with healing grace and mercy. A vulnerable, intimate relationship with God is transformative. 

We are known by God: all desires known, no secrets hid. We must acknowledge this dependence we have on God to fully know us and show us our way. This intimate relationship opens us to God’s activity in our lives and world. We are made ready to move closer to who God made us to be: active participants in God’s healing work in the world. 
I did not set out today to directly address the anxiety and division in our nation. Yet, this anxiety and division lays on my heart. I am saddened by the brokenness of humanity exposed by our violence. I am anxious for our safety. I am ready for divisions to cease and for our isolation to end. And I believe we have hope that violence and pandemic are not the end of our story. My hope is that we will seek God’s way instead of our own. The Scriptures, especially those today, even Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, compel us to seek God’s way first. We are, each one of us, beloved children of God. We must be vulnerable to God’s transformative mercy and grace, for us and our neighbors. If we seek God with our whole selves, we will be bearers of mercy and grace to the world. We must depend and seek God’s way more than our own. It is the only way to heal creation.

I’ll end with a prayer from Dr. King. The Lord be with you:
Thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.

Epiphany 2020: What is the strong reconciling work God calls us to do?

I wonder if you know the Persian story of the three Magi. It is not so different from ours and begins with Marco Polo. Marco Polo began traveling the seas between Europe and Asia in the 13th century. He spent time at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. There, Polo was shown a lamp that had burned continuously for 1200 years. Later, he passed through Persia and was shown the ornate burial sites of the Three Magi. And, as Marco Polo traveled through Persia, he was told the story of their visit to the Christ-child. His story contains as much detail as we can imagine about the Magi. I learned the story through a children’s book called “The Stone.”

The names of the Magi, in Polo’s story, are Jasper, Melchoir, and Balthasar. They live in a tower full of strange instruments, charts, and flasks of potions. From their tower, they study the star studded sky. 

You know how some of this story goes: they see a star; their studies tell them the star announces a baby; a baby that will become a peacemaker king who rules with justice and healing. The Magi travel through the desert to find this king bringing gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. 

Then, the legend says, something happened. They arrive at the place of the star. Each Magi enters the home alone and each witnesses a different king resembling his age: a young man, then middle-aged, and, finally, old like Balthasar. Yet, when they enter the home together, they find a young Christ child. They lay their gifts before him; and, the boy holds out a small sealed box, a gift for the Magi.

For some reason, and I’ve always wondered about this, they do not open the box. Instead, Jasper places it in his saddlebag. He, the youngest of the three, is anxious to open it while Balthasar encourages patience. Per usual, restlessness and nerves get the best of Jasper and he opens the box. Inside is a stone. 

Jasper is irate: what can they do with a stone?!? and he throws the stone into a well. As the stone reaches the bottom of the well, it explodes into flames of fire. This, this fire, is their gift: what can they possibly do with fire?!? Then the merchants begin to light their lamps from this fire, this gift from the boy.

I wish you could see this fire, the one in the book. The fire is a deep, orange-red. It is scary and inviting. The large, full flames reach in every direction. I’m not sure I would curl up in front of this fire; yet, it is inviting and warm. It is beautiful.

There’s a lot to wonder about in this story. We could wonder about the star. We could wonder about the wise men themselves or the gifts they bring. We might wonder what this story, the Persian legend and our Gospel, tell us about who and whose we are?
This week I learned that the Persians believe these Magi to be Zoroastrians. I don’t know much, if anything, about Zoroastrianism. What little I know fits in well with these Magi: religious practice that studies the universe to prepare for the world’s final judgment. In my research, I also learned that these particular Magi are believed to worship fire. 

Doesn’t that sound strange: to worship fire. Yet, we must remember that this is a strange story. There’s astrology and mysterious strangers traversing the desert to worship a baby.  What?!? Imagine listeners from the first century; Israelites rooted in the Torah. Their initial bias toward astrology would not welcome the wise men. Indeed, they might imagine them as evil as Herod. How do these wise men become the first to worship Christ in the Gospel of our Lord?: very strange indeed!

And I must confess to you that tonight feels strange. Today, we live in a moment in our country’s history unlike any I have ever witnessed. I am frustrated and frightened by the divisiveness of our politics. Meanwhile, we are living amidst a pandemic. Hospitals are rationing care and people are dying at dramatic rates. Oh how I wish we were gathered to burn greens or have an Epiphany pageant! My heart yearns to witness three children wearing robes and crowns too big, carrying boxes down the aisle, as we sing “We Three Kings of Orient are…” Instead, I preach to a screen hoping to connect with you as we share this feast. These are strange times indeed.

And so, the strangeness of the Gospel feels good, comforting, tonight. There is a gentle reminder here, in the story of these Magi, that we are not alone. Wise men traveled from foreign countries into scary deserts and visited evil kings. They also witnessed the revelation of God’s self to creation. The wise men invite us to share their story. We, too, can travel through dark places, crying for justice, healing and peace. 

Listen to Balthazar when he sees the fire leap from the well: 
“It is our gift,” he announces, “from the child…A gift that will bring justice and healing and peace into the world. Our belief in this must be as strong as the stone and burn in us like fire. Come! Come and share this. The gift is for everyone!” 
For years I have read Balthazar’s words from a Western Christian bias: the fire a metaphor for the Gospel. Now, I read these words differently. The stone and fire are not a metaphor; the Magi recognize them as the gift of God’s self. Like bread and wine given to us as Christ’s own self, here is fire and stone: signs of God’s strong reconciling work in creation that burns in the hearts of these men.

What is the strong reconciling work God calls us to do? What has Christ burned into our hearts for the sake of the Gospel? Is it to heal the divisions among us and bring peace to our community? Is it to demand justice for the vulnerable and oppressed among us? Is it to be vehicles of healing, wearing our masks and staying socially distanced to protect one another?

The call to follow Christ is a strange adventure. At times, there are gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh. Other times, we must take up our cross. The good news of the Gospel is that, if we follow, Jesus will lead us. He will give us another path home. It is not easy, often winding through dark places. And yet, the journey always leads to Christ. We do not have to follow our ways of division and fear; we do not have to depend on our systems of power and oppression. We can follow Christ down a different path: his way of peace, justice, and healing. It begins with a baby born in poverty, visited by wise men, and heralded by prophets. It includes a cross and death. And it leads to a garden with an empty tomb, the promise of new life for ALL of creation.

May our belief in Christ be as strong as the star that led the wise men. May it be a light for all people. May we follow Christ all the way home until we are face to face with his glory. Amen.

Christmas Eve: The Greatest Gift: The Mystery of the Divine

It was the week before Christmas and I was in the county jail. My friends, William and Mike, had invited me and a few colleagues to join them. William had a bag for each inmate with socks and snacks. Mike had his guitar. We were there to sing some songs and say some prayers. 

The room was concrete blocks with no windows. The women (and later men) filed in one at a time and sat in rows. Mike asked for song requests and we sang a few carols. Then, it was my turn to speak. I looked out at the rows of women in orange jumpsuits and wondered: what did I possibly have to say to them and would they believe me?

When I was a child, I spent my summers with my grandparents. My maternal grandmother would work all day: cooking, cleaning, and entertaining me. At the end of the day, she would get me a glass bottle coke from the fridge (she got a gin and tonic). Then, we would settle in the living room to play cards and watch tv. If there was nothing good on the tv, we would watch an old movie. We watched all the old movies, especially musicals: South Pacific, The Sound of Music, and State Fair. Our two favorites were White Christmas and Meet Me in St. Louis. A bit odd to associate these two movies with the summer, still we loved them. This is how “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” became one of my favorite carols.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

let your heart be light

next year all our troubles will be out of sight

Have yourself a merry little Christmas

make the yuletide gay

next year all our troubles will be miles away

Once again as in olden days

Happy golden days of yore

Faithful friends who were dear to us

will be near to us once more

Someday soon we all will be together

if the fates allow

until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow

Have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Written in 1944 for the movie, it is not a light or happy song. Indeed, when Sinatra sang it in 1957, it was revised or “jollied up” as Sinatra put it. Sinatra’s version is a celebration of present happiness. Garland’s version, though, is hopeful. She anticipates a better future. 

Imagine Mary, a young woman, pregnant and unmarried. She sees the world around her: how her people are oppressed and hungry. She knows the promises given to her ancestors and to her. The angel comes to her, “Do not be afraid. God is act work in and through you.” Mary believes and she knows the nature and character of God. She knows how God works in the world. She unites her life, her child’s life, to God’s Word, and anticipates a better future.

Imagine the shepherds, keeping watch over the flocks. The economic need for sheep keeps them loosely connected to the community. They are, mostly, detached and isolated. What difference does a king or messiah make in their lives? The angel comes to them, “Do not be afraid. God is at work right now - FOR ALL THE PEOPLE. Go and see.” They believe. They go and find everything exactly as the angel said. Here is their God: the divine revealed in a poor, vulnerable child. They know the nature and character of God. They know how God works in the world. They unite themselves to God’s Word, glorifying and praising God, anticipating a better future.

Imagine women of every age gathered in a concrete room. They have little hope. Who cares for them? Standing before them is a young priest and her friend with a guitar. Do not be afraid, they hear. God is with you, at work in the world - for all people. This Christmas is not the end of your story, the priest says. There is more than enough mercy and grace for all of us. We know this because God sent God’s self to us. A small child is born. And this child will grow into a young man declaring forgiveness, healing, and new life for all of creation. We have hope: God’s future, written for each of us. And then, the women, Mike and I sing, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas; let your heart be light; next year all our troubles will be out of sight.” And one young woman asks for a prayer: help me to believe, she says.

Fast forward one year. About 10 of us are gathered for Holy Eucharist on Christmas Day. I’m in the middle of my homily. And the scene takes on a movie quality: a young couple quietly open the church door and slip in the back pew. One of them looks familiar but I can’t remember why. It’s only after church that she introduces herself: the young woman asking for a prayer, to believe. I came to see if it was true, she said. I came to see if God really is at work, if you were telling the truth. 

Imagine us at the end of a year that brought so many challenges. Cuddled up on Spring Street looking for the divine. We know the nature and character of God: mercy and grace for the whole world. We know how God works in the world: feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and lifting up the lowly. I don’t mean to minimize the suffering and sadness of this year. And, this is not the first time our world has faced incredible challenges. Still, God is at work in and through each one of us, right now. We have all we need: God’s infinite grace and mercy given to us for all the world to know. Tonight, we receive the greatest gift: the mystery of the divine revealed in a poor child, to shepherds in a field, and to us. Tonight we witness the mystery of the Incarnation: all the hope we need for a better future.

Merry Christmas! May your heart be light! Even while our troubles are in clear sight - because no matter the trouble God’s faithfulness is true. God will help us muddle through. Have yourself a merry little Christmas now! Peace be with you. Merry Christmas!

The Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year B: Who and Whose We Are

Our lectionary, the appointed Scriptures used in worship, provides a nice frame for our life together. We know we can walk into almost any E...