Sunday, January 15, 2012

Epiphany 2B, 2012: Make our eyes new

Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector. This is also the occasion of our Annual Meeting.

Letionary: 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo.

Throughout the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany we have been hearing about the revelation of God to humanity in the Incarnation of the Word, Jesus the Christ. And the language used about the saving grace of God is often language of light. For example, you’ll remember in our Collect on Christmas we prayed, O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true light … At the feast of the Epiphany, the light from the star of Bethlehem guided the magi to the child Jesus, confirming that God's grace and salvation are for the whole world.

Today we have moved theologically from a focus on God's revelation in Jesus, to God’s revelation of Jesus in us. In our Collect we prayed that WE might shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that HE might be known, worshipped, and obeyed… to the ends of the earth. You'll notice that we've also changed our liturgical color to green, the color of new life on the earth.

During this season of Epiphany, we reflect on God's call to us to be saints, believers through whom the light of Christ shines, remembering… that the purpose of this relationship is that ALL the world might be brought to know God, to love God. And because they love God, to be step with God's will.

In our Old Testament reading, we see how the call of God can move us from ‘what was’ to what God wants. It’s a story that shows us how God moves us from the path we think we should be on to the path God actually wants us to be on.

In this story, God is calling to young Samuel, but Samuel is so used to God calling Eli, that he thinks he’s hearing Eli calling him. Eli, who had been a faithful priest and prophet, had fallen into darkness. He lost his way and so had the people he was leading. And so his season as God’s prophet was over. Eli recognizes that God is calling Samuel, so he instructs Samuel to respond ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening’ the next time Samuel hears his name.

This is good advice for us too. If we are to discern God's invitation to us, we’re going to have to be quiet enough, for long enough, to listen. How can we possibly do God's will until we have given God a chance to let us know what it is? And this is not a bad phrase to repeat prayerfully to help us ourselves get into that quiet, listening place: Speak Lord, your servant is listening.

Now, when Samuel (who represents the new direction God is choosing to go) did hear and recognize God, he was called to a very difficult task – telling Eli that God was going to move now in a different way - and that Samuel would lead the way as God’s chosen prophet. Eli couldn’t be the leader on this new path.

And both Eli and Samuel, being faithful, accepted God's plan and trusted God's promise to love and care for them and their people, even though at the moment, God's will seemed hard, a bit frightening, and even a little bit hurtful. But that is the hard work of faith: remembering God's promise of steadfast love and compassion when our experience in the world feels otherwise.

Even the most faithful among us can fall into the trap of judging ourselves and others by the events of our lives. It sounds like this: ‘We are so blessed. God must be pleased with us.’ - or - ‘That awful thing happened because God is punishing them for their sin.’

Although this kind of thinking is common, it is unfaithful. It’s unfaithful because it forgets God's promise of unfailing faithfulness to us… of graciousness, kindness, and mercy. It forgets that God’s discipline is always coupled with God’s mercy. And it misunderstands God's judgment which is salvation for the whole world.

Tomorrow we celebrate an example of faithful understanding in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a modern day prophet, through whom the light of Christ shone and transformed the world.

He preached a gospel of freedom and peace. His message reflected the value and dignity of every human being, threatened the powerful in the world, and upset the status quo. It’s no surprise, I guess, that Dr. King was killed.

But was his assassination a punishment from God? It certainly was an awful thing that happened to him. Well, if we are to believe that bad things happen because God is punishing us, then we would also have to completely re-think the crucifixion of Jesus, wouldn't we?

Dr. King is an important, modern day prophet and saint. He was not perfect. At no time did he overcome his own sin or humanity. But the light of Christ shone through him brightly and inspired change anyway.

We all still benefit from Dr. King’s work. And we’re all still called to complete it. We aren’t done yet.

It's a long road from law to justice… says my favorite singer/songwriter Dar Williams.

Sometimes our laws and our habits develop in such a way as to be an impediment to God's justice. As St. Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians, All things are lawful…, but not all things are beneficial.

We often live habitually in the darkness instead of faithfully in the light. We often fail to notice when things have gotten out of step with God's will. When confronted by that, we often hear that very Episcopal cry: But, we've always done it this way!

Well…there are times we've always been wrong!

Other times we cry out: But I didn't mean any harm. We know… but the harm happened, so there comes a time we simply have to repent of it – or forgive it - and move on.

As a faith community, we do that by coming together in the presence of God at our Holy Eucharist, giving our praise and opening ourselves to listen and be transformed by God, who will make our eyes new, so that we, like Nathaniel (in today’s Gospel), can recognize the greater things God calls us to see.

Then God can make our loyalties new, so that we don't cling to law or habit, but to the will of the living God. Then our lives might reflect the light of Christ as we work to build the kingdom of God right now, right here where we’ve been planted.

That, after all, is our purpose as church.

After this service of thanksgiving we will gather together for lunch and our Annual Meeting. We will lovingly remember ‘all that was’ and run forward in faith on the path God is choosing for us in 2012 – praying that we might shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, so that he might be known, worshipped, and obeyed… to the ends of the earth. Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Epiphany 2012-B: Giving ourselves to the Light

Sermon by The Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector

Lectionary: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

I was watching the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” again yesterday and was reminded that, in Italian, the phrase ‘to give birth’ translates literally as ‘to give to the light.’ The same is true in Spanish: ‘para dar a luz”… to give to the light. It’s a powerful phrase – in any language, really. To give birth is to give life. If there’s any time we know we are co-creators with God it’s when we participate in or witness the birth of a child.

In the process of giving birth, there is that moment when the baby passes from the dark, protective environment of the womb, into the light of the delivery room. The baby stretches out its little body in a startle response.

But then the baby takes its first breath in, and breathes back that breath in a cry, activating it’s whole little body as it tries to come to terms with all of the new sounds, smells, and stimulation it’s confronting. Once placed in its mother’s arms, the baby relaxes, soothed by the familiarity of her voice and her heartbeat, and the comfort of her loving embrace.

It’s a powerful experience, the birth of a new life.

Likewise, when we baptize a child of God, and we hear the priest proclaim to them “receive the light of Christ” as we light their baptismal candle from the Paschal candle, we remember the power of the light we are giving them. It isn’t just a candle – it’s the light of Christ. We give them the light of Christ. We give them to the Light.

Today is the feast of the Epiphany (transferred from last Friday). Epiphany marks the end of the season of Christmas. For Episcopalians, Epiphany is the day we take down our Christmas decorations and live into the exciting reality of what Christmas means for us and for the world.

I hope one day we can add to our list of “new traditions” at Redeemer, a celebration of Holy Eucharist on the day of Epiphany followed by a burning of the greens. It’s beautiful symbolism – and besides, who doesn’t love a good bonfire?! (And in case you’re wondering, there’s nothing that says we can’t have s’mores at our Epiphany bonfire.)

Think about it - to stand in the presence of the great light of an Epiphany fire, a tall pillar of light (as most bonfires are) is to make truly manifest the message of this day. It connects us to our forbears who followed the light throughout their exile, until they arrived at the promised land. And it points us toward our future – a future as uncertain for us as it was for our forbears; a future that requires us to go forward relying totally on the Light to guide us.

Standing in the presence of the great light of an Epiphany fire connects us to the experience of the wise men (or magi), who, as the gospel writer tells us, came to visit the newborn Messiah. Being star-gazers by profession, the magi saw a strange thing, an unusual light in the sky, and this new light was so compelling to them that they packed up their camels and traveled great a distance to find where it led.

Although the hymn tells us there were three wise men, we don’t actually know how many people followed that star to Jesus’ house. Scripture tells us they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh, but doesn’t tell us how many magi there were, or if they came alone or with their people.

It isn’t unusual - in our Scriptures, the numbers of men present was often reported because it was customary to tell a story that way. But that doesn’t mean that’s all who were there. In the story of the miracle of loaves and fishes, for example, the gospel writers report the number of men present but only Matthew mentions that an unspecified number of women and children were also present.

What matters in this gospel story, though, is that these Gentile people (however many there were), would have been outsiders, considered unclean and unwelcome by the people they were going to see. Yet, they were compelled to go anyway.

Matthew tells us that the wise men knew of the prophesy about this newborn king of the Jews, but they didn’t come seeking a Savior. They came ready to show respect for and shower gifts upon an unknown king whose light in the heavens meant he was worth seeing.

When they saw that the start had stopped, these visitors, like the shepherds who also saw a great light, were overwhelmed with joy. When Mary and Joseph welcomed them into their house, and the visitors saw the baby Jesus, they knelt before him and paid him homage – a gesture of servitude.

Then they gave freely from their opened treasure chests, expensive gifts – fit for a king. They gave to the Light.

Matthew ends the story telling us that these visiting Gentiles heard in a dream that they should not return to Herod, so they went home a different way. God guided even these non-believers in the way they should go – and remarkably, they listened… AND obeyed!

If only more believers would do the same.

As we celebrate our thanks on this Feast of the Epiphany, we might ask ourselves: what light compels us as much as the wise men were compelled? Does being in the presence of God bring us to our knees to pay homage? How many of us, in the presence of our Savior, will open our treasure chests and freely give gifts that reflect what we’ve been given? If we heard the voice of God in a dream, would we believe it? Would we obey it?

This feast day calls us to remember that the light of Christ continues to break into the darkness of the world and compels us to follow wherever it leads. It calls us to remember that that light now breaks into the world through us.

Though the path may be unfamiliar at times, we can trust the one who leads us, and so we can go on – together – a community of people who are followers of the light of Christ and bearers of that great Light. When outsiders show up, drawn by that same Light, we welcome them into our community and accept the gifts they bring.

Today, we give ourselves again to the light, with boldness and confidence borne of our faith, compelled by the light of Christ that calls us to love and serve in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.