Thursday, January 25, 2007

Epiphany 3C

Nehemiah 8:2-10; Psalm 113; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Luke 4:14-21

The Lord be with you….

….and also with you
, right?! I knew you’d say that. Those words are encoded, I think, in the DNA of every Episcopalian. They are part of who we are. The Lord be with you….and also with you. There are so many words we Episcopalians know on a cellular level. Our Father, who art in heaven….Lift up your hearts….we lift them to the Lord….the word of the Lord….thanks be to God.

In the same way hundreds, maybe thousands, of less liturgical but probably no less sacred words can feel as natural as breathing. They are part of who we are. I discovered some of my sacred words when we lived in New York, where no one knew how to spell y’all or had ever eaten grits or rotel, bless their hearts. And I’ve discovered lots of those words as a parent, words I don’t remember learning when I was younger – perhaps they seep into our cells through cups of milk or orange kool-aid. Words like mommy and daddy and why, words like where does it hurt and because I said so.

Despite what we say about sticks and stones, words are so very powerful. It’s amazing, don’t you think, that this jumble of shapes in black in white, this stream of sounds shaped by breath and lips, these words have such tremendous power in and over and through our lives. They create and convey such meaning. They are part of who we are, and in part they shape who we become. Words like, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…I take you to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward…Into your hands, Lord, we commend your servant and we commit his body to the ground…

Words are powerful whether they are spoken by prophets or politicians or poets or ordinary people. The words of national leaders can bring a country to war. The first words of a child can make parents’ hearts skip a beat. Words of anguish and desperation – I can’t do this anymore – can rip families apart. Words can crush egos and dreams – you’re not right for this job…you didn’t pass…we can’t give you a loan. Words can offer hope and healing – I’m sorry…I love you…let us pray. A single word can change everything, can reshape us and our world. Cancer. Deployment. Infertility. Promotion. Recovered. Yes.

In our readings this morning, two men, separated by four centuries, unrolled sheets of papyrus and, reading from them, proclaimed the word of the Lord. Ezra stood among the scattered stones and people of Jerusalem. Nothing was as it had been seventy long years before, before the Babylonians destroyed the city and the temple and carried most of the people into exile. In a strange land where strange gods were worshipped, many of the people of Israel struggled to remain faithful to the one God whom they had worshipped in a temple that no longer existed. When they finally returned….home? Jerusalem itself was unrecognizable, and the few who had been left behind were strangers.

But when Ezra opened the scroll of the law – the Torah – and began reading, the words washed over all who were gathered there, filling the cracks in their broken hearts, reviving their spirits, quenching their thirst to remember who and whose they were. Powerful words of a covenant that God had not forgotten. I am the Lord your God, they would have heard Ezra read from Genesis. Behold I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you again to this land, for I will not leave you until I have done everything I have promised. I am the Lord your God…. On that morning, the word of God changed everything, rebuilding from rubble a community of lived faith.

Jesus stood among the gathered people of his hometown, which probably looked exactly the same as it did twenty years before, when he was a young boy running through the streets, laughing with his friends, bringing home frogs in his pockets. As he drew in his breath to begin reading the words of the prophet Isaiah, some who were there doubtless could think back some of the very first words he said as a child, so many years ago...amma…abba…why…

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Jesus read, words everyone there would have known as well as they knew their own names, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

All eyes were on Jesus as he rolled up the scroll and drew in his breath to begin commenting on the words he had just read. Then, Luke tells us, he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” On that morning, the words of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah, like the town in which the words were read, and the people who gathered there…the town, the people, and the words were the same as always. On that morning, the Word of God changed everything. On that morning, Jesus began to say to them, “I am the Living Word, I am the one anointed by the Spirit to bring good news, to proclaim release, to recover sight, to free what has been bound. The words you hear have come to life in me, divinity mingled with DNA. Today and every day in me this scripture is fulfilled.”

And so it would be, Luke goes on to show throughout his account of the life and ministry of Jesus. That very day, and the next, and the next, and every day after that, Jesus spoke the good news of God’s love, proclaimed release to those enslaved by sin, restored sight and hearing and mobility and health, brought freedom to those bound by oppression, bound by the hate or fear of others. That very day, and the next, and the next, and every day after that, one person at a time, Jesus showed that the word of God is much more than a jumble of shapes in black and white or a stream of sounds shaped by breath and lips. The Word of God is Compassion. Inclusion. Welcome. Justice. Invitation. Healing. Wholeness. Restoration. Forgiveness. Grace. The Word of God is Love.

Every Sunday morning, we gather together to open up the scriptures and read the words that have shaped us as individuals and as a community of faith. Sometimes the words sound familiar and sometimes they sound very strange. How do they sound today? If we’re also opening up newspapers or listening to words on television or looking at the seemingly infinite number of words on-line, all of which try to shape us as individuals and as communities, well then the Word of God must sound very strange indeed. How can the scriptures be fulfilled when today and every day we are bombarded with words like escalation, poverty, epidemic, genocide, hunger, hate crimes, abuse, abandonment, strained relations, sickness and schism?

Today, Jesus said, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. our hearing. Against all those words with which the world tries to tell us who we are, who we should be, Jesus asks that we listen to him, to the Word of God. The Word of God is Love, and because the Word was made flesh and bone and breath in Jesus Christ, we now have that Word – that Love – encoded in us, encoded far deeper than DNA. It is part of who we are as the Body of Christ, shaped by power of the Word of God, anointed by the Spirit in baptism to proclaim the good news in our flesh and bones and breath, with our hands and feet and eyes and ears and only as a last resort our lips (to paraphrase St. Francis, who said, “Proclaim the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”).

The scriptures are fulfilled in our hearing that the Word of God changes everything. What if we, as the gathered Body of Christ and as individual members of that Body, what if we really brought that word to life? What if we made our lives speak today and every day? What if we brought to life today the words from Isaiah? What if we brought to life today the words of our baptismal covenant, words we know on a cellular level? Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? I will with God’s help. Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent, and return to the Lord?....Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?....Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?....Will you strive for justice and peace among all persons, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will with God’s help.

Are we really hearing this? Then, sisters and brothers, today and tomorrow and the next day and every day after that, these scriptures are fulfilled. On this we have God’s Word. Amen.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Feast of the Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6, 9; Psalm 72:1-2, 10-17; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In every neighborhood there is a house that hangs their Christmas lights long before the rest of us have even thought about where ours might be stored. We drive past that first twinkling house, and as the tiny lights reflect off our car windows we wonder for a moment what day it is and then roll our eyes, realizing it’s not even….what, is it Labor Day, now, when lights start going up?!

The thing is, though, most of us love Christmas lights. I look forward, anyway, to those weeks when it seems that every night another home here, another yard there is draped in strands of light. And unlike streetlights or houselights that cast their glow throughout the year, these strands of light do far more than just provide illumination as we make our way in the dark. Whether we’re expecting party guests or Santa Claus or the Son of God, we know that the more Christmas lights we see, the closer we are to whatever it is we are waiting for.

A few nights before Christmas, we went out driving to see the lights. There was only one six-year old in the car, but you would have thought we were all children with our faces up against the windows, oooh-ing and aahh-ing our way through the neighborhood. Of course there was such a wonderful variety, perhaps reflecting something of the people who lived in each home. White lights neatly wrapped around fenceposts. Multi-colored icicle lights hanging from the eaves. Flashing lights chasing one another around the trunks of trees. Lights in the shape of reindeer and sleds and stars and crosses and angels and elves and candy canes. “Which kind do you like best,” we asked our son. “All of them,” he replied without hesitation.

Someone had told us that one house in that neighborhood had a particularly grand display. But we didn’t know our way around the streets by daylight, much less at night, and so at each intersection we would look both ways and then set off in the direction with the most lights. Finally, through a dark stretch of trees, we saw what we knew must be the house, surrounded by an entire galaxy of Christmas lights. Keeping our eyes on its brilliance, we followed the streets around until we finally found the house and were overwhelmed with the delight of it.

If the appearance of Christmas lights like stars in the sky heralds a long-anticipated event, the disappearance of those lights announces that the event has come and gone. Last night only two houses on our street still twinkled. Darkness had returned. It’s not dark, really – there are plenty of streetlights and front porch lights, but without the merry multi-colored glow it looked dark. The holidays are over, the parties are only pictures, the family has returned home, the sales have ended. School is starting up again. Life is starting up again. We take down our lights and store them away until next Labor Day….

How strange it is that darkness returns in time for us to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, a Feast of Lights, when the appearance of a star in the sky heralded the birth of a king, when wise men followed that star through an unfamiliar neighborhood until they found the house that shone with the Light of the World.

We’re all six years old again when we hear the story, so rich with color and light and wonder and majesty. In the time of King Herod, the narrator of the Christmas pageant would read from Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage….” They were wise men – kings, perhaps, but the word is magi in Greek (magoi), people who studied the stars and who understood much better than we do now how the movements of the earth and the heavens are linked, how a new king might illumine the lives of his people the way a new star shines in the night.

It was quite customary for royal representatives to travel great distances to greet a new king, and what wise man wouldn’t expect to find the King of the Jews in Jerusalem? In the palace? Herod was not the proud father, however, and he sent them on to Bethlehem, nine miles and another world away. And there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they finally found the house bathed in light, they were overwhelmed with the delight of it, overwhelmed with joy.

It is a rich story, with royalty and adventure and intrigue – the villain is thwarted and the underdog is showered with extravagant gifts. It is a delightful story, told in many places tonight by six-year-olds covered in leftover drapery fabric, carrying boxes spray-painted gold and adorned with plastic jewels, singing Star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright. And we might be so delighted as to almost forget that it is a story in which there is also deep and terrifying darkness.

Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage. Did the wise men see the shadows set in King Herod’s eyes? Could they hear the fear in his voice, sense his sinister thoughts? Would they have acted differently if they had known that by taking another way home they would infuriate Herod, who was bent on destroying the tiny king, and that in his rage he would slaughter all of Bethlehem’s baby boys? There was never a darker night.

The story is a reflection of our lives, isn’t it, a mixture of light and darkness, of joy and fear, of delight and grief? The streets before Christmas told a similar story, if indeed the lights reflect something of the people who live in each home. Some shine boldly, brilliantly; some flash on and off and on and off; some offer a soft and steady glow; some give off no light at all. "They’re probably just not home," we told our son, moving on to the next house. But the truth is, sometimes people don’t hang lights. Writer Molly Wolf says, “Dark can be the midnight blue against which stars are shot silver. Or it can be just plain dark.”

Some people don’t celebrate Christmas (Santa or Jesus) – perhaps their path is within a different faith or no faith at all. Some people who know the baby to be Jesus the Christ are not able to feel delight or joy this year. Perhaps they are sad or angry or depressed or anxious or grieving. Some people are too weak or sick to hang lights. Some people are busy with more jobs than there are hours in the day. Some people simply cannot afford a penny more on their utility bills. Some people, perhaps resentful or bitter, do not feel they owe the world any light. Some people choose the dark, afraid of what the light might reveal.

The story is a reflection of our lives in that life is not always what even the wisest of us would expect. It’s not always full of light, even when we’re following a star. Color and majesty and wonder mingle with desert dust – we’re celebrating just two weeks after Christmas, but the story in Matthew suggests it took two years for the wise men to reach Bethlehem. The real journey was not for six-year-olds, to be sure. Comfortable homes were left behind. Nights were spent on the road. Noisy, smelly, ornery camels were noisy, smelly, and ornery. Shifty travelers and paranoid kings were confronted. Every expectation was changed about what a king was supposed to look like, where he was supposed to live, and how he would illumine the lives of his people.

The Epiphany journey – a journey of discovery, of revelation, of coming to understand, of changing expectations, of light and of dark – the Epiphany journey is the pattern of Christian living. Like the wise men we are beckoned by the light not just of a star but of the Christ Child – God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. And though there may be discomfort and darkness and risk and dust along the way, at the end of the journey (which is never the end of the story but, rather, the beginning of a new chapter) is overwhelming light and joy.

Herod was right to be afraid – as one preacher has said, Herod's love of power was no match for the power of love. The starlight that night illuminated far more than the humble home of a baby king – it revealed the brilliance of a new kingdom, the kingdom of God. Do you see it? Wise men kneeling before a child. Power paying homage to weakness. Rich giving gifts to poor. Gentile and Jew, men and women, old and young, heaven and earth binding themselves to one another in light and love and generosity.

One light led the wise men to that little house. But three lights would leave as they turned their camels back toward home – by another way, because once they understood where true light, true richness, true power resided, they could never take the same roads they had once traveled. The gift of illumination they had received far exceeded the gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Tonight marks the beginning of the season of light, when we, like the wise men, plunge back into the darkness with a gift of light, with a story about a newborn king, Love Come Down, the Light of the World that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. Molly Wolf writes, “We can be lights, by our witness of the love of God to this world, which sometimes seems nothing but night. We can be steady in that light-giving; and then, even if the darkness doesn’t go away, it’s softened and made somewhat less impenetrable and more hopeful near us, at least for a time. And we will have shown other people how it’s done, this light-giving.”

We’ll take down our Christmas lights tomorrow, and forget where they are stored by next week. Let us not forget, though, as we resume our journeys, how rich and wonderful and varied are the lights that are our lives. Arise. Shine. For our light has come, and the glory of God is shining on us and through us and all around us. Amen.