Sunday, January 30, 2022

4 Epiphany and Annual Meeting, 2022-C: Forward in faith and ministry

Lectionary:Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30 

En el nombre del Dios que es trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

Mother Theresa of Calcutta once said, “Love has no meaning if it isn’t shared. Love has to be put into action.”* That’s exactly what we see happening in today’s Gospel reading from Luke, which picks up the story right where we left off last week.

Having read from the scroll of Isaiah, Jesus begins his sermon saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (4:21) At first, the congregation is very pleased. The people love reveling in the success of their hometown hero.

Jesus’ reputation in Capernaum has earned him great respect throughout the region. He’s a celebrity of sorts, and his hometown peeps are filled with pride. Luke says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (4:22)

God’s promises of mercy and salvation are about to come true - finally! - and their own son will see to it that they get the reward promised throughout the ages. They have an inside connection and they’re ready to reap the benefits. **

Sensing this, Jesus says, you probably want me to do here the things I did in Capernaum, but the truth is: God’s promised mercy and salvation will reach beyond the Jewish people to all people. Then he illustrates this truth using two stories from their tradition: the story of the prophet Elijah healing the widow at Zarapheth and the story of the prophet Elisha healing Namaan, the Syrian. Both the widow and Naaman were outsiders, Gentiles who received God’s mercy and healing, while faithful Jews suffered and died all around them.

Well, this was not what Jesus’ homeys wanted to hear and certainly not from him. Jesus acknowledged that he would have no honor in his hometown where they remember the scandal of his birth. When they asked, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they were subtly (and uncharitably) reminding everyone of the shameful reality that Jesus’ mother was pregnant before she was married, and that Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ real dad.

Why? Because Jesus smacked down their expectation that if God’s promises were to be fulfilled, they would be fulfilled for them – the Jewish people. They are God’s chosen, and they along with their ancestors have been faithful for generations. The prize belongs to them, and they aren’t about to let it be given to the unclean unbelievers who had done nothing to earn it.

If we pause here for a moment, we can see what their unbelief looks like. Salvation isn’t earned, it’s a free gift from a loving God, but the congregation in this synagogue in Nazareth overlook that inconvenient point because it doesn’t fit their expectations. Yet, the truth Jesus is speaking is in the very scroll he read from: the scroll of Isaiah, where God said: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (Isaiah 49:6)

That inconvenient truth didn’t sit well with some of Jesus’ listeners, and they reacted with a turbulent commotion (here translated as “enraged”). Some even tried to hurl Jesus off a cliff.

Isn’t it interesting that when Jesus is faced with this turbulent and potentially violent commotion, he simply passes through the midst of it and goes on his way? That gives us hope for our time. Despite the attempts by some people today to hurl the truth off the cliff, God simply continues undaunted on the path to redemption.

St. Paul makes clear that followers of the Way of Jesus don’t throw the truth or truth tellers off the proverbial cliff. If only. Just last week we celebrated a national holiday honoring another prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we threw off that proverbial cliff.

Jerusalem has a reputation for killing its prophets. Sadly, so do we.

So then, how do we tell the difference between a true and a false prophet, between the divine Truth of God and a “truth” of our own devising? We do as Jesus did. We go to our Scriptures and we remember to look at the whole story, the big picture of God’s message of redeeming, reconciling love.

As Episcopalians, we also go to our faith community knowing that God speaks through the community as well as the individual. Community discernment keeps us from getting lost or led astray by a “truth” of our own or someone else's devising.

St. Paul’s epistle reminds us that no amount of prophetic power or faith or knowledge is worth anything in the absence of love, which he so beautifully defines as kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love, he says, does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. (13:4-5)

Clearly, Paul didn’t spend any time on social media! We live in a time when we’ve normalized or at least become tolerant of saying just about anything, no matter how arrogant or rude, harsh, or even cruel. On social media and in person, yes – even in churches, tempers flare with amazing rapidity with little to no accountability for the harm done.

This is important because as followers of Christ we are all prophets, and the truth we proclaim is him. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. (Jn 14:6)

If we know the truth of our salvation in Jesus Christ then we must also be compelled to speak it, not in a Bible-thumping, brimstone kind of way. Episcopalians don’t go for that. Neither did Jesus.

Jesus spoke prophetically but he never forced or threatened anyone into believing. He also accepted the consequences of his prophetic ministry knowing that speaking the truth meant some people weren’t going to like him.

Most of us have a hard time letting people dislike or hate us without trying to fix it - but we aren’t called to fix it, and we aren’t called to be liked. We’re called to be prophets of the truth of God in Christ, and we’re called to do that in love, trusting God to be with us, to guide us, and to speak through us.

If God is going to speak through us, however, we’re going to have to let go and give the Holy Spirit total freedom to transform us. We also need to participate in church, because it is the church’s role to equip us to be sent into the world to share the good news we know. We need to be willing to accept the consequences of our prophetic ministry knowing that the gospel of mercy, forgiveness, and inclusion isn’t good news to everyone, especially the earthly powers that be.

Thankfully, we don’t do any of this alone. We do it together as a community: a parish, which is part of a diocese, which is part of a worldwide communion. We do it in the company of the saints who went before us and proclaimed the same truth in their time.

Today, at our Annual Meeting, we will celebrate our parish community and the imperfect but beloved institution that carries us ever forward in faith and ministry. I want to share a story about how that looks right now at Emmanuel.

Last Sunday, Bishop Deon wore this chasuble when he celebrated Holy Eucharist with us. The chasuble was designed by one of our members to honor another member who had died of AIDS. The family of this man wrote to me and said, “32 years after his death from AIDS, a joyful and openly gay man was leading worship at Emmanuel's altar…. My, how the world has changed! Thanks be to God.”

Thanks be to God indeed. As Bishop Deon said last week, it isn’t that long ago that he couldn’t have been ordained a priest, much less a bishop. The same is true for me as a woman. But God, who is love, carries the Church forward in faith and ministry, passing through the midst of all the turbulent commotion it faces on any and every issue.

As a parish community, therefore, we can trust that God is always with us, guiding and leading us onto the path of redemption, where we find healing and life, enabling us to put God’s love into action in the world. Amen.

* Lucinda Vardey, editor, Mother Theresa Meditations from A Simple Path (Ballentine Books, NY, 1996), 57.
** New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, CD-Rom version, Vol. IX, 107.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

2nd Epiphany: Next steps for the next-born

Lectionary: Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11 

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

Our reading today from Isaiah has the prophet clarifying in no uncertain terms the identity and destiny of the people of God. Isaiah tells them how much God loves them and that God’s purpose for them will be fulfilled in and through them despite how impossible that seems in the difficult circumstances they are experiencing.

In this passage, love compels God to promise: ‘I will not keep silent or rest until you, my delight, my crown of beauty shine with the fiery glow of freedom. Your oneness with me will be so apparent that everyone will see it and you’ll have a new name, a new identity. You’ll become known as those in whom I delight.’

One of the blessings of our life together right now at the start of 2022, is that we too are being given a new identity which is grounded in our relationship with God, one another, and the neighbors among whom God has placed us. However we may have been known before, our new identity will be the result of what people see in us now. God’s promise as we proceed in this rebirth, is that we will become known as that church in whom God delights.

Isaiah talks about this relationship between God and God’s people in terms of a marriage – an intimate union where separate lives become one in identity and purpose. As it says in our marriage rite, this union is intended by God for the mutual joy of those bonded together. We know bonding with God brings us joy, but how lovely is it to consider that bonding with us brings God joy?

The gospel story picks up on this metaphor in the story of the wedding at Cana. Jesus is at an ordinary event: a village wedding, which becomes the setting for an extraordinary event: the first manifest sign of the intimate union of the human and the divine in Jesus and what that means for the world.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, notices that the wine has run out - something that would cause public shame for the host family. Mary was paying attention. She noticed what was happening around her and cared about how it would affect her neighbors. In order to protect their dignity (remembering here our own Baptismal vow to respect the dignity of every human being), Mary intervened risking her own moment of public humiliation as a woman.

Jesus’ response, as rude as it may sound to us now, was a typical response for an adult male of that time, firmly ensconced in his culture’s understanding of male-gender superiority: “Woman…” he says, addressing Mary as his inferior, not as his mother, “…what business is that of mine? My hour has not yet come.” Well, that’s what Jesus thought anyway, but apparently, his mother knew better.

Undaunted and unashamed, Mary tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Obeying his mother, Jesus tells the servants to fill the water jars with water, then bring a taste of it to the master of the feast, who was kind of like Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson at the party. To everyone’s surprise, the water had been turned into wine. But more than that, this wine was of the finest quality and it was in ridiculous abundance which is how the generous love of God works. Importantly, this new relationship of divine-human union demonstrates how the love of God is manifested in the world through human hands, first in Jesus, and now in us.

The story of the wedding at Cana seems at first like a simple event. There’s a wedding, the wine runs out, Jesus is there, so he makes more miraculously - but it is so much more than that. This story marks the beginning of the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah of God. Jesus shows himself to be the “firstborn” – the first fruit of this real and intimate union of the divine and human.

It’s also the beginning of the revelation of how God in Christ does things and how that will transform the world. Stepping down from his lofty position of male privilege, Jesus humbly and publicly obeys his mother which not only bends cultural norms, but also reveals how we, the next-born of this real and intimate union of the divine and human, can transform the world.

Mary’s voice is echoed in something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”

There are people right now in our neighborhoods who “have no wine” - students, the working poor, the unhoused, to name just a few. This is why we too can’t keep silent; why we can’t rest.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day tomorrow, it’s important for us to say out loud, in here, that racism is real, it violates our Baptismal vows to seek and serve Christ in all persons and to respect the dignity of every human being, and it is a cancer in our culture. Therefore, I want to thank our intrepid members who do not keep silent or rest but hold a vigil every Friday night proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter.”

It’s also important to celebrate the Food Ministry at Emmanuel that gives generously, and with all the abundance we have, to anyone who is in need. It may be called a food ministry but it is so much more than that, because our ministers give out food, friendship, emergency assistance, and most of all – dignity, as they faithfully serve our neighbors who “have no wine.”

We have been chosen by God and gifted by the Holy Spirit for a purpose. We are a crown of beauty, a royal diadem in the hand of God, and our hour has come.

My prayer is that we allow the fullness of God’s love which dwells in us to radiate with the brightness of Christ’s glory as we serve in his holy name. I pray we recognize, nurture, and use our many gifts because so many of our sisters and brothers out there have no wine.

I know some may not feel ready. We live in a time of uncertainty both interiorly as we find our rhythms with new clergy leadership, and exteriorly as the COVID variants surge among us. But as Dr. King reminds us, faith “is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” In fact, we will never see the whole staircase - that’s God’s domain.

Our first steps will become clearer following our vestry retreat in which your elected servant-leaders, followed by the parish as a whole, will discern our spiritual gifts. Then we will prayerfully discern God’s purpose for gathering these particular people bearing these particular gifts at this particular time into the Emmanuel community – knowing it is, as St. Paul says, for the common good.

We know that by taking these steps for the welfare of those who “have no wine,” we will like Mary did, put ourselves at risk of public shame. Dr. King was no stranger to that either. Did you know that following his “I Have a Dream” speech, the FBI sent the president a 64-page memo which contained the following? 

 “In the light of King’s powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands heads and shoulders over all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negros. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”  Source: “Broken, The Troubled Past and Uncertain Future of the FBI” by Richard Gid Powers, (Free Press, NY, 2004), 251. 

The powers of the world look at the voices of love with suspicious, fearful eyes, knowing those voices can influence people to transform the world.

A few years ago during Lent I practiced a spiritual discipline of smiling – something I always need to do more of. I was surprised at how many people found that suspicious.

As the days of Lent went on, I was intentional not just about smiling, but about finding the person whose face was screwed up into a scowl, or who had the saddest or weariest expression, and smile at them.

I still was often met with suspicion, but every once in a while, someone smiled back at me and a connection was made. As fleeting as that moment may have been, there was an eternal connection made: human to human, wrapped up together in a moment of divine love.

What happened as a result of those connections is staircase stuff – God’s domain. Being true to the steps God was asking me to take was my domain.

We who are followers of Jesus are the next-born of the divine-human union begun in him, and we shine with the radiance of his glory so that the whole world may know the steadfast, caring, intimate love of God for all creation. I can testify that this radiance is a gift in abundance here at Emmanuel and our hour has come.

Our union with God compels us to make connections: human to human, wrapped up in divine love. It is our identity… our destiny. God bless us as we obey and take our next steps together. Amen.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Epiphany (transf) and Baptism, 2022: Followers and bearers of the Light

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

En el nombre del Dios, que es Trinidad en unidad. Amen. 

Today is the transferred feast of the Epiphany, which marks the end of the season of Christmas. Some Episcopalians follow the celebration of Holy Eucharist on this day with a de-greening of the church and a burning of those greens. It’s beautiful symbolism – and besides, who doesn’t love a good bonfire?!

Picture it - standing in the presence of the great light of an Epiphany fire and feeling its warmth and power. It is a true manifestation of the message of this day, and it connects us to our forebears. First, there were the Israelites, who followed the pillar of light during their 40-year exile in the desert. Then the shepherds who followed the light of the star to Bethlehem to where the baby Jesus had just been born.

It also connects us to the experience of the magi, who, as Matthew tells us, traveled a great distance following the light of an unusual star in the heavens. These visitors were probably Zoroastrians, members of a religious group who studied the stars. They also interpreted dreams.

According to Zoroastrian belief, every person is connected to a star. The appearance of this unusual and magnificent star signified the birth of an unusual and magnificent person. It was so compelling to them that they packed up their camels, loaded up their treasure chests, and headed out to find the person connected to this amazing star. How far they traveled and how long it took is unclear, but it was anywhere
from 500 miles, which would take a few months, to thousands of miles taking a couple of years.

Matthew, who is Jewish, calls these visitors “magi.” This is significant. Magi is the source of our words “magic” and “magician.” They were thought of as sorcerers in their time and they would have been looked at with suspicion, even contempt, by faithful Jews. The Magi were foreigners, Gentiles, and sorcerers – outsiders in every way, yet they too were drawn to see the Messiah.

The hymn tells us there were three magi, but we don’t actually know how many people were in the magi’s caravan. Scripture tells us there were three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The traditional names of the three wise men: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, first turned up in a 5th-century Greek manuscript and later in a 6th century mosaic in an Italian church. If you used the chalking of the door liturgy I sent out,you might have noticed that the “code” includes the letters C, M, and B – which some say refer to Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, but actually refer to the Latin phrase, “Christus Mansionem Benedicat” which means “Christ Bless this House.”

When the magi caravan saw that the star had stopped, they, like the shepherds, were overwhelmed with joy. When Mary and Joseph welcomed the magi into their house, a breach of protocol on their part yet again, the visitors saw the baby Jesus and fell to their knees, paying homage to him and offering him gifts.

This is a powerful moment in the story as it is the moment the light of Christ caused a historical wall to come tumbling down – the wall between the Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders. In this moment, God established a divine unity where there had been centuries of human division.

The gifts the magi offered baby Jesus were those typically given to a king: gold – which is a symbol of earthly wealth and power; frankincense - a symbol of spiritual power, used in the anointing of kings and priests; and myrrh - an expensive plant extract used by royalty as a perfume or medicine. It is also used to prepare a body for burial.

Matthew ends the story by telling us that the magi went home a different way, having heard in a dream that they should not return to Herod. As I mentioned before, the magi were interpreters of dreams, but I often wonder, did they all have the same dream? We don’t know, Scripture doesn’t tell us; but we do know that nothing is impossible for God, who guided these “non-believers” and remarkably, they listened and obeyed, openly defying human political authority and putting themselves at risk of attack.

The world has always been difficult to navigate. For us, the COVID pandemic marches on with variants challenging our COVID fatigue to the limits. Fear continues to challenge our faith, as Rev. Sujanna said last week in her sermon. Though our path forward is uncertain at times, we know we can trust the Light who leads us, and so we are compelled to go on – together – as a community, a family of faith who are both followers of and bearers of the light of Christ.

Today, we have the joy and privilege of adding another member to the Christian community in the family of faith here at Emmanuel: Owen Francis Smith who will be baptized in a moment. Each time we baptize a child of God, the priest proclaims: “receive the light of Christ” as their baptismal candle is lit from the Paschal candle.

The godparents symbolically hold that light until Owen can hold it for himself. In the meantime, we all promise to help Owen learn how to be a follower and bearer of the light of Christ, and we pledge to help him understand the power and the warmth of the light he is being given.

The light of Christ is no small thing - for Owen or for us. The power of it continues to break into the darkness of the world enlightening it as its warmth divinely gathers and unifies those whom the world has divided until all are one body, one spirit, one family in God.

It’s also no small thing that we have been chosen by God to be followers and bearers of this light. As we baptize Owen, may we all recommit ourselves to the life of grace that is the gift of Baptism… a life that sees and shares joy and wonder in all God’s works. Amen.