Sunday, January 14, 2024

2 Epiphany, 2024: Bearers of the light of Christ today

Lectionary: 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 de Dios que es nuestra fuente, nuestra luz y nuestro sustento. Amén. In the name of God who is our source, our light, and our sustenance. Amen. 

Have you ever been in the kind of darkness where you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face? What did you think or experience in that moment? 

Darkness is scary, isn’t it? In darkness, we feel alone, vulnerable, and unsafe. We can’t see so we’re afraid to take a step even though we want desperately to escape. And the longer we’re in darkness, the harder it is to keep hope alive.

But the moment a light appears, we have a felt sense of relief and our hope is restored. We know we are not alone and that we will be saved.

In my former work with trauma victims, we would ask the question: When did you know you were safe? The answer almost always included when they knew they were not alone, that someone cared about them and would help them.

That someone for us is Jesus. In the language of the Epiphany season, Jesus is the light that enters every darkness in the world. We are never alone. We are loved and cared for by the one who created us, redeemed us, and values us beyond our ability to comprehend.

When we treat Jesus like an idea, however, like a thing outside of ourselves, we steal from ourselves the comfort and hope he gives us. Jesus is God who became human, thereby lifting all humanity into the divine life. All humanity. He did this in his life, death, and resurrection, and he did it once for all. So, the question for us isn’t the popular what would Jesus do… Jesus who is out there somewhere in some far-off celestial place, but what is Jesus doing… in me, in us, in this moment, in this place, in this circumstance?

The only way for us to know the answer to that question is to be in relationship with Jesus – the real Jesus who lives and moves in us, the church, and ourselves as individual members of it. It’s a relationship that happens over time and in community, each member offering an important perspective and experience that benefits the whole.

Growing in this life in Christ means practicing living the John the Baptist way – he must increase so I must decrease. We must actively diminish our thoughts, ways, judgments, and limited understanding to make way for God’s plan of love to take priority in our lives and guide our every decision.

God’s plan always was and always will be too wonderful for us and we cannot attain to it, as the psalmist says. We rarely see it coming and it is always beyond anything we can expect or imagine, as the story from Samuel and Eli demonstrates for us.

When the divine correction began for them, Eli and Samuel didn’t stop loving one another. They didn’t demonize or exile the other. They stayed faithful to their relationship with God and one another so that in God’s time, a new path was forged through their cooperative obedience. It turns out, Jesus was right about that great command, wasn’t he?

It turns out we really do need to love God with all our hearts, minds, strength, and souls, and our neighbors as ourselves. Everything else proceeds from that.

When I was in college, I participated in some psychological experiments in which we were placed in isolation tanks meant to remove all stimuli from our sensory experience. We were basically floating in salted water in a closed capsule. There was no sound, no light, and our bodies touched nothing being buoyed by the water. The experiment was to measure the changes in our brain waves the longer we stayed in the tanks.

Some couldn’t do it. The sensory deprivation created panic and they had to be released almost immediately. A handful of others lasted longer, but only a few of us stayed the whole time.

I loved the experience. I knew I was safe and being observed, so I was able to enter the dark emptiness and just be there in it. I could feel my body transition from mild anxiety – what is going to happen? – to relaxation, to complete surrender to the nothingness, needing nothing, seeking nothing, just being.\

Not only did this experience cure me of any fear of the dark, I also found truth there. I was not a practicing Christian at the time, but I experienced God in that tank. That experience was nothing like I was taught in Sunday school. It was a much bigger experience of love, of oneness, than I could ever have anticipated or imagined. (Note: Painting by Manuela Rivera Mulvey, my mother. She called it, "God")

I entered the experiment expecting to learn something about human biology, but I ended up learning something so much bigger than that. A light was lit in me, and it took years before I understood it. It was my Nathaniel moment.

In our gospel today, Nathaniel is brought by Philip to meet Jesus, whom he believes is the long-awaited Messiah. Nathaniel’s short conversation with Jesus is transforming for him in a way that will take years for him to fully understand. When Jesus explains that he saw Nathaniel under the fig tree, Nathaniel knows this is knowledge that is beyond human, and you can almost feel the startle in his body. This is for real!

Nathaniel’s response reveals his limited understanding, however, the one he got in Sunday school: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, …the King of Israel.” Nathaniel is taking this large, unitive experience and placing it in a box he can understand and manage: you are the honored teacher, the expected Messiah, the King like David who has come to save us from this terrible moment.

Jesus, probably sighing, says to all those gathered there, It’s so much more than that. Just wait. You’ll see greater things than these… you’ll see heaven and earth in a relationship it has never known before.

And that’s the crux of it all, isn’t it? In Jesus, heaven and earth became unified in the one who is fully divine and fully human. It had never happened before, and it never needs to happen again because it is an everlasting reality. It is our reality.

As St. Paul says, Jesus made us temples of the Holy Spirit. We are where heaven and earth, divine and human, are one. What we do, therefore, matters.

In response to some pretty dark behaviors that had found acceptance in Corinth, Paul narrows in on fornication in his epistle. His point is: what we do reflects who we are and our relationship with one another and with God. So, honor your body. Honor your neighbor’s body. By doing so, you honor God, who marvelously knit us all together in our mother’s wombs.

What I appreciate about Paul’s letter is that it reminds us to live in the truth we know - that the Holy Spirit of God dwells in us. Think about the reality of that - God dwells in us.

The light who came into the world on Christmas Day, who illumines us now through Word and Sacrament… the light that dispels the darkness of the world now radiates from us, and that light is Jesus Christ himself. As the current bearers of this light, we can, and we must enter any darkness, any nightmare of the world, and bring this truth to it.

Tomorrow, we celebrate one saint who did that well: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a prophet who radiated the light of Christ, and who, like other biblical prophets, was both imperfect and faithful. Dr. King’s message of the value and dignity of every human being threatened the status quo, so it killed him, 56 years ago now.

In our OT story, the abuses of Eli’s sons were widely known but the system that enabled them was deeply embedded in Jewish tradition and Eli’s privilege as a Judge within that system meant he could have - and should have - interceded, but he didn’t.

The systems enabling the desolations in our time are being revealed to us in undeniable ways. Many among us who can - and should - stop the abuses in our systems haven’t done so. The moment of our accountability and divine correction is upon us. How will we respond?

It is my prayer that we will hear and respond to God’s call to us to be partners with Christ in the reconciliation of the whole world to God. While that may seem too large, too wonderful a concept for us to comprehend or accomplish, it is, nevertheless, our divine purpose and we don’t do it alone. The Spirit of God who dwells in us works through us, the church, and us as individual members of it… and nothing shall be impossible with God. Amen.

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