Sunday, January 29, 2023

Epiphany 4-A, 2023: Happiness-making partners

 Note: Today is also our Annual Parish Meeting day. 

Lectionary: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; and Matthew 5:1-12 

Are you happy? That’s a loaded question, isn’t it? My mother used to ask me that after I’d screwed something up and the answer, of course, was, “No. I’m not happy.”

Being happy is a complicated thing, yet it is something we value so much it’s secured in our Declaration of Independence as an inalienable right. True happiness is an internal state of being not dependent on external circumstances, and it encompasses contentment, peace, satisfaction, completion, connection, joy, and bliss.

In today’s reading from the prophet Micah, the people have strayed from God, and they are not happy. It seems they have forgotten who God is and what God does, so God, who is also not happy, asks them to remember… remember how I brought you out of exile … remember how I redeemed you from slavery… remember that I sent you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to comfort and guide you… remember how I brought you safely across the Jordan into the promised land. Remember who I Am and what I do for you.

Hearing this, they do remember, and they want to reconnect because they know it is only by reconnecting with God that they will have happiness. You’re right, God, they say. How can we make this right?

This is where Micah reaches his prophetic pinnacle: God has already told you: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Such elegant simplicity and power in that statement.

Micah teaches us that God seeks an internal conversion from us, a shift in our attitudes toward God, ourselves, and the world. The question, then, isn’t what do we do, but what do we expect God will do?

This is what Jesus is teaching in today’s gospel. The context is this: Jesus has been going around Galilee teaching, healing people, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. He’s become a phenom. Huge crowds were following him everywhere he went, pressing in to get from him all kinds of physical and spiritual healing, and as the gospel writer said earlier, he cured them all. (4:24)

Our story picks up here. Another crowd is closing in, so Rabbi Jesus takes his disciples apart and sits down (as Rabbis do) to teach them.

This lesson, however, isn’t what it may seem at first. Theologian and Anglican Bishop NT Wright says, “If we think of Jesus simply sitting there telling people how to behave properly we will miss what was really going on… This is an announcement (Wright says), about something that’s starting to happen… It’s good news, not good advice.” (Matthew for Everyone, Part One (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 36.

What is the good news Jesus is announcing in the Beatitudes? That in him, in this moment and forever more, the kingdom of God is happening on earth as well as in heaven and everything is changed as a result. Then Jesus explains how this will work and it seems upside down and inside out – until we remember who God is and what God does.

Recently, a woman came to the church to ask for help with a car repair. Her request was outrageously high, and we couldn’t come close to giving her what she needed. Some of us were put off by her audaciousness and flabbergasted when she told us that our contribution wasn’t enough and demanded we do more.

This woman was simply asking for what she needed. Rather than blame her for our inability to meet her need, we should have thanked her for her courage in asking and for demanding that we do more because that made space for God to work. The woman was able to get her car repaired because our contribution, together with her portion, along with a gift from another church made it possible.

The transformation we experienced in that example is the same one Jesus is teaching his disciples: how to perceive and connect with those who are coming up the mountain to get what they need and how to make space for God to act in every circumstance. As Henri Nouwen once said, 
“Living a spiritual life requires a change of heart. Whether we are asking for money or giving money we are drawn together by God, who is about to do a new thing through our collaboration. To be converted means to experience a deep shift in how we see and think and act.”

In our world today there is war, unrelenting gun violence across our country, growing numbers of unhoused people struggling to survive winter, hunger, and the indignities heaped on them by so many. That is the way of the world.

The Good News is that the way of God is different. God’s way is a way of happiness-making, connecting us, and bringing us contentment, peace, satisfaction, completion, joy, and bliss no matter the external circumstances.

When we walk humbly with God, seeking justice and practicing kindness, the world will push back on us and those with the power to do so may try to harm or otherwise stop us from making God’s happiness happen.

It’s OK, God says, they do that to all my prophets. Stand firm. I will bless you, care for you, and protect you - and together we will not be stopped.

After our Holy Eucharist, we will gather for our Annual Parish Meeting and steep ourselves in God’s happiness as we celebrate our life as a church devoted to God’s way. Together we will remember who God is and what God has done for us, how God has redeemed us, cared for us, and brought us to this day. And we will give thanks that God continues to choose us to be happiness-making partners in the world. Amen.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Epiphany, 2023-A: Thrilling moments of connection

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. 

I like today’s Collect, except for the part where it says, “we who now know you by faith” as if those who were in Jesus’ physical presence didn’t need faith to know him. That just isn’t so. Even Jesus’ closest disciples didn’t really know him as the Christ, the manifestation of the fullness of God on the earth, while they were with him. It took time and dreams and experience for them to get to that understanding.

The same is true for us. Knowing God in Christ comes to us with exposure (bring the little ones to church), experience, and the still small voice that speaks in our bodies and dreams. Jesus is present for us in real and manifest ways every day. With experience, we begin to notice just how true that is.

Our forebears speak in the Old Testament of not being able to see the face of God and live. We have seen the face of God – Jesus – and we still see it, literally and mystically.

Once when I was on a spiritual retreat, I was prayer doodling - which is a familiar prayer discipline for those who joined us at our recent Christian formation gathering on this topic. The image of the yoni came to my mind. The yoni is an ancient symbol for the divine womb, the procreative energy of God. Incidentally, this symbol is on all of our bishop’s seals and many diocesan logos. Isn’t that a beautiful notion?

Anyway, I was prayer doodling the yoni symbol using watercolors, with no real intention for the image. When I hung the paper up to dry and stepped back a little, I saw a bearded face which I recognized in my heart as Jesus. I was startled by the revelation. My heart was thrilled, as the psalmist says, and I laughed like Sarah as I praised God for this manifestation.

The manifestation of God to us is almost always like that – a surprise that thrills the heart. This is what Matthew describes in his telling of the Epiphany story. Upon seeing the child, Jesus, the visiting magi were overwhelmed with joy. In response, they paid him homage and offered him expensive gifts. Their hearts were thrilled by the manifestation of God they saw in Jesus – and they were Gentiles who had no expectation of the coming of a Messiah to save them.

Following their own tradition, these magi noticed an unusual star at its rising, signifying that an important person, a king, had been born. This is a reference to the ancient Eastern understanding of a king who was often called the son of God due to their importance. Some even thought that kings were gods or at least demigods.

So, these magi (however many there were – and it wasn’t three of them) followed the star, stopping in Jerusalem to ask for directions. Hearing about this Herod called the chief priests of the temple and the scribes to ask where this child could be found and they told him Bethlehem, according to the prophecy – which also said this child would be the ruler of the people, the shepherd – another word for king.

This sent Herod into violent paranoia again, which apparently happened a lot with him. Herod lied to the magi, asking them to return to him once they found the child so he could pay homage too. They didn’t. God spoke to the magi in a dream and told them not to return to Herod, so they went home by another road.

This, I think, is the crux of the story of the Epiphany. As one commentator said: Epiphany is “a celebration of the breaking down of dividing walls––the end of hostilities between groups of people (Eph 2:14). Epiphany challenges us to reconsider all the people whom we see as outside the pale––outside the boundaries of God's love. It challenges us to abandon our tribalism (racially, nationally, denominationally, etc.) and to expand our tents to welcome even those whom we would prefer not to love. It is a burning issue, because loving those outside our tribe is difficult––but Christ makes it possible. That is the Epiphany message.” (Dick Donovan)

The magi were outside the pale in those days. They were thought of as sorcerers who worked magic usingdemonic power and they would have been treated with suspicion, even contempt, by faithful Jews. Yet God tapped them on their spiritual shoulders and using their own traditional and spiritual understanding, sent them to find the Christ-child.

When they found him, their hearts were thrilled and they, like the shepherds in the fields before them,were overwhelmed with joy… for such is the lavish love of God, who brings down every boundary that limits inclusion in God’s love.

I want to point out that the magi did not get converted. They didn’t become Jewish proselytes, or get baptized, or change their religion. And God had no problem meeting them where they were, utilizing their religious understanding to connect with them and lead them to love.

How did they know Jesus? Was their understanding of this child-king like that of the Jewish people of the time? Is ours?

It is in this way: we all know Jesus as the manifest love of God who was, and is, and always will be. The magi’s encounter with Jesus was an experience of the love of God which thrilled their hearts and caused them to rejoice. There were no strings attached to their inclusion in Love, just as there are none for us today.

Any barriers we humans put up crumble in the face of the love of God in Jesus, and sadly, we still put up barriers. If you need help identifying them, just watch the news for a few minutes – you can’t miss them.

The first recorded smashing of a boundary in our Christian narrative was the one between Jews and Gentiles as St. Paul points out in his letter to the Ephesians: “…the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” This was the start of a reconciliation cascade which is ongoing today.

Like Paul, we are also servants according to the gift of God's grace that was given us, and we are called to bring the good news of the boundless riches of Christ to anyone and everyone on the other side of one of our barriers. We are called to abandon our tribalism and expand our tents to welcome even those whom we have a habit or justification to exclude.

Each time the love of God is made manifest in our world, we are all in the presence of Jesus. Think of the many ways that happens: when a child smiles at us melting our hearts; when someone offers us an unexpected kindness; when a hymn or anthem lifts us to heaven; or when a sunset works us over like a work of art as Dar Williams says.

I’m willing to bet that we’ve all had moments that thrill our hearts and overwhelm us with joy. Honestly, one would be enough for a lifetime, but the love of God for us is so lavish that we get these thrilling moments of connection often, continually. 

All we need to do is learn to notice them and let them change us from glory to glory. Amen.